A Tree is Known by Its Fruit
Topic: Sanctification Passage: Matthew 12:33–37
There’s an idiom we sometimes use to describe something shocking. Perhaps a narrow path suddenly opens to overlook a vast, beautiful landscape. Or perhaps, turning a corner, you discover a great piece of towering architecture. Or maybe it’s something you hear like when I was about to run from dad’s shop back to the house and a storm cloud thundered so loudly, I froze.
The idiom we sometimes use is “it stopped me dead in my tracks.” We find ourselves so overwhelmed by the occasion that we can’t help but stop and reflect. I felt that way the first time I came across the passage we’re covering today. I feel that way still every time I come to this passage in Matthew. Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.”
Consider the plethora of words you speak every day. Consider the words you write or text or email every day. Consider the conversations or debates you engage. What’s the big deal about our words? According to Jesus, our words indicate the state of our heart; and if that’s true, it’s enough to stop us all dead in our tracks. When we stand before our Lord Jesus, what is it that our words reveal about us and our deepest treasures? Listen to the way Jesus puts it, starting in verse 33…
33 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
What’s going on when Jesus says these things? If you glance back to verse 22, Jesus healed a demon-oppressed man. According to verse 28, Jesus is God’s long-awaited Messiah. He pours out the blessings of the Holy Spirit. He drives away evil. He brings the kingdom of God. But some Pharisees refuse to admit this. As Trey mentioned last Sunday, they have bias against Jesus. Even when all the evidence points to Jesus being God’s promised Savior, they suppress that truth. Even worse, they attribute evil to Jesus. They claim he performs these miracles by the power of Satan.
With their words, they turn people away from Jesus. So, Jesus addresses this problem in several steps. He first shows how nonsensical their argument is: if Satan casts out Satan, his kingdom can’t stand. Then he warns them about opposing the Spirit—those who do so are without forgiveness either in this age or in the age to come. But why is that? What’s at the bottom of this response from the Pharisees? Verses 33-37 help flesh that out. There’s no forgiveness because their words reveal the true condition of their heart before God—they have a nature opposed to Jesus.
Jesus’ Proverb about Trees
Let’s look at this more carefully in three parts: a proverb about trees, a connection to the heart, and a warning about words. Look first at Jesus’ proverb about trees. Verse 33, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.”
Our neighbors have a pear tree. Several of its branches hang over our fence; and towards fall, that tree begins to drop numerous pears into our yard. Sadly, they’re all bad. Since we’ve lived here, never once has that tree produced good fruit. Why? Because the tree itself is bad. Had someone grafted it with a good pear tree early on, perhaps there would’ve been more success. But the nature of that pear tree means it bears bad fruit.
In an agrarian society of Jesus’ day, everyone would agree with Jesus’ proverb. They experienced this in farming. Good trees make good fruit. Bad trees make bad fruit. And the way you identify a good or bad tree is by looking at the fruit.
Jesus taught the same back in 7:17. Only there it was in the context of discerning false teachers. He said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them (i.e., these false teachers) by their fruits.”
Jesus makes a similar point here, but he’s applying it directly to his encounter with the Pharisees. He’s giving them a picture to consider in light of his own ministry and their observations about it. If you determine the nature of a tree by its fruit, then look at the good fruit of Jesus and recognize that his tree is good. But don’t look at the good fruit of Jesus’ life and call him a bad tree. That’s not being honest with the evidence. A more honest assessment would connect the good fruit of Jesus’ ministry to his good nature. It would also connect the bad fruit of the Pharisees to their bad nature.
Jesus’ Connection to the Heart
Jesus makes this explicit in verses 34 and 35. That’s where we find Jesus’ connection to the heart. He doesn’t keep this proverb in the abstract. He explains what he intended to illustrate with the trees and their fruit all along. Verse 34, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”
What’s the connection? In the same way a tree produces fruit, the heart produces words. The Bible will often refer to our inner-most person as “the heart.” When used this way, some have described the heart as “the causal core of our personhood” or “the control center for life.”[i] Our thoughts, words, actions, reactions, all stem from the heart.[ii] Depending on its moral and spiritual condition, the heart determines whether we live in ways that please God or in ways that displease God.
What Jesus is saying here is that he knows the Pharisees have a heart that’s evil; and anyone can discern that by the words they speak: “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” In the same way you discern a bad tree by its bad fruit, the Pharisees are evil in heart because their words are evil. Jesus traces the fruit to the root.
That’s why he calls them a “brood of vipers.” A brood has to do with offspring. Vipers are related to serpents (Matt 23:33), which is significant in a context where the Pharisees just accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan. Satan was known as a crafty Serpent who spreads lies about God. Jesus is saying that by the way these Pharisees are talking, he can tell what family they belong to. They resemble their father, that ancient Serpent called Satan. The fruit of their words reveal the nature of their heart. They do not have a heart that treasures good, but a heart that treasures evil.
Think about it for a minute. Think about where we’ve been in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus offers forgiveness to the paralytic and then heals him to prove his power to do so. The Pharisees say, “This man is blaspheming.” Jesus displays mercy by eating with sinners and calling them to himself. The Pharisees scoff at him eating with such people. Jesus shows compassion to the people, casting out demons. The Pharisees say, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” Jesus provides for the hungry and heals the broken on the Sabbath—he fulfills the law by doing good. The Pharisees despise this and conspire against Jesus, how they might destroy him.
When you step back and judge the trees by their fruit, what can we say about Jesus’ heart? Truly, he is the one who is gentle and lowly in heart. Look at his life—he is the one who’s truly good and compassionate and full of mercy. Listen to his teaching—he’s the one who’s heart is set on the truth of God’s word.
What can we say about the Pharisees? They oppose all that’s good. They’re not concerned about mercy. They’re not concerned with doing good. Consistently, their words are pushing people away from Jesus instead of drawing people to Jesus. That outward fruit demonstrates that they are evil in heart, evil at the root.
Jesus’ Warning about Words
Which then leads to Jesus’ warning about words. In verse 36 Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
What does Jesus mean by “every careless word,” as the ESV has it. We hear “careless” and think Jesus means words spoken casually, without giving them much attention. But context shows the Pharisees know exactly what they’re saying. R. T. France describes them as words “purporting to be a defense of God’s truth but all the time working against his saving purpose.” Perhaps we’re better served by the NET’s “every worthless word,” or the NIV’s “every empty word.” They are words that show contempt for the truth revealed in Jesus, words that refuse to acknowledge Jesus’ lordship.
The other thing that’s important to consider is Jesus’ use of justification—“by your words you will be justified.” Whoa! I thought that it’s by faith that one is justified—at least that’s the way Paul puts it in Romans 3:28. Normally, when we talk about justification, we mean God’s legal declaration the moment we trust in Jesus.
But here Jesus says, “by your words you will be justified,” and he pushes that justification to future judgment. Is Jesus’ use of justification contrary to Paul? No. They fit together in that one justification is the public display of the other. Sometimes “to justify” refers to being “shown to be righteous,” or “proven to be righteous.”[iii] In this case, the good works or words, like we’re seeing here, are the “inevitable external badge of…internal justifying faith,” to use the words of Greg Beale.[iv]
Theologians like John Owen, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards—they would distinguish declared justification from manifested justification. Declared justification is when God declares a sinner righteous in the moment he trusts in Jesus. Manifested justification speaks to God giving proof that a person is righteous in Christ by their works. Their works become the necessary evidence of internal, justifying faith.[v]
James does something similar, but he sets the manifested justification within a person’s lifetime. You get this in James 2—it occurs when Abraham’s faith works or when Rahab’s faith works. But usually, the Bible pushes manifested justification to future judgment, like Jesus does here.[vi] What is Jesus saying, then?
He’s saying that at final judgment, our words will demonstrate whether we truly belonged to Jesus or not. Our words will evidence whether we had justifying faith or not. To use words from the Reformed tradition, we’re justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.[vii] Justifying faith produces good works and good words. Put it this way: those you know what it means to be justified by faith—they don’t speak about Jesus the way these Pharisees speak about him.
Those justified by faith know who Jesus is—gentle and lowly in heart. We know what he did for us—how God made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. In Jesus Christ, we find forgiveness and fellowship with God. We find every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, including a new nature, a new heart with new treasure; and from that good treasure, we no longer push people away from Jesus with our words. We draw people to Jesus with our words. We want everyone to know Jesus. We want our words to help people see him and trust him. Those who push people away from Jesus with their words, their words will show them to be outside of Christ and condemned at the judgment.
When all this started, the Pharisees put Jesus in the dock and accused him of doing evil. But Jesus reveals here that he’s not the one in the dock. The Pharisees are. The more they speak, the more they prove themselves evil. Being good or evil hinges on whether you embrace Jesus for who he is. Jesus is the real judge here. He exposes their true nature. He sets the terms. He is God’s goodness and truth embodied.
A Few Takeaways
So, what does all this mean for us? First, we must accept that our words reflect our nature. We live in a culture that often rejects this teaching. In 2009, Serena Williams lost to Kim Clijsters in the women’s semi-final match of the US Open. But during the game, Serena cursed a line judge, saying, “I’m…going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat…” Serena later apologized, but in doing so said, “I just felt really bad…because it’s like, that’s not who I am.”
In 2013, Dexter Manley played defensive end for Washington. He used a slur against Troy Aikman, intending to be funny. Later he too would apologize, but in doing so said, “It was wrong and insensitive. Anyone that knows me knows that’s not who I am in my heart or mind.” Baker Mayfield, when he played college ball at Oklahoma, there was a game against Kansas in 2017 where he kept jawing at the other players, cursing the coaches, and using vulgar body language. Baker would also apologize later, but in doing so said, “That’s not who I am.”
I mention these examples not to snub our noses at these athletes. After all, were news teams recording every moment of our days, I’m sure there’d be plenty of which we are ashamed. I mention them only to illustrate a common assumption that people tend to make when it comes to our words. We tend to assume that our words don’t reflect who we really are. So, we say things like, “I know I said that, but that’s not who I am,” or “I know I said that, but I just spoke out of character,” or “I know I said that, but emotions just got the best of me,” or “I know I said that, but he/she made me…”
No. Jesus challenges these assumptions. He traces the fruit to the root. Word problems reveal a heart problem. Words disclose our nature, what we treasure in the core of our being. If your nature treasures Jesus, then your words will be good and draw people to Jesus. If your nature opposes Jesus, then your words will be empty and turn people away from Jesus. What do your words say about you?
Doesn’t James 4:1-2 get at the same idea? He asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” Words come from the heart. If we’re going to walk out repentance and seek true change in our lives, we must go with Jesus here. We must agree that Jesus has a better handle on the human condition than what pop psychology tells us today. From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. What do your words say about you?
In line with this same thinking, though, we must also affirm that good things will come from a new nature. Yes, Jesus exposes the Pharisees as evil because their words are evil. But Jesus can also speak of those who speak good things from a good treasure, from a new heart. “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good.”
Without a new nature, we lack the moral ability to honor Christ with our words. But with a new nature, the Lord grants the moral ability to honor Christ with our words. The message of Christianity is not that we just become good rule-followers, that we’ve just learned how to behave. No! The message of Christianity is that Jesus changes our nature. When you are united to Jesus by faith, he gives you a new heart that treasures him and all the goodness of God.
Sometimes the Bible calls it circumcising the heart.[viii] At other times, God refers to the heart undergoing radical spiritual cleansing and rebirth—like in Ezekiel 36:25-26 or John 3.[ix] Another example is God commanding “light” to shine into our hearts, giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ—2 Corinthians 4:6.
We can also see this inward change by the way Paul addresses the Christians in Rome: “Thanks be to God,* that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17-18). A person truly changes when God gives the heart a new moral disposition that loves God and treasures God and seeks to honor him. Returning to Jesus’ teaching, once the root of the tree is good, then the fruit will be good too.
Do you confess that Jesus is Lord? Have you looked at God’s revelation in the Scriptures—have you seen Jesus’ humility in the incarnation, have you seen Jesus’ power to give life, have you seen Jesus’ blood atoning for sins, have you seen his resurrection from the dead and his present reign over all—and confessed, “He is Lord!” Beloved, that’s good fruit. You need to celebrate God’s kindness to you in that. Don’t miss it! Why do you not hate Jesus with your words but praise him? Grace! By the grace of regeneration, God made you a new creation. Rejoice!
At the same time, learn to walk in that new nature by honoring Jesus with our words and draw others to him. What was the problem with the Pharisees? They looked at God’s revelation in Jesus and turned people away from Jesus with their words. For nearly all of you, God has opened your eyes to see his revelation in Jesus. You have read his word. You have experienced the power of his transforming grace. You know his mighty deeds in the cross and in the resurrection and in the Holy Spirit changing you. From week to week, you witness Jesus working to build up this church in love.
The question now is, having seen all these things, are you using your words to honor Jesus and draw others to him? You see, on the one hand, Christians have a new nature, a new treasure; and from that treasure they can speak good things. On the other hand, we still battle the old sinful flesh; and if we’re not proactive in fighting that fleshly nature, our words will not commend Jesus to people. They will push people away from Jesus. They will not represent Jesus very faithfully to others.
This is why Paul had to instruct the church in Ephesians 4:28, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” It’s why James 3:8-10 tells the church, “[The tongue] is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
The battle against the flesh rages on. The point to make here, though, isn’t, “Just get your act together!” That’s not how we overcome worthless words. If you want a mouth full of words that honor Jesus, then you need to start at the root. You need to start at the heart. What are you treasuring in your heart? The word behind “treasure” in verse 35 refers to “a place where something is kept for safekeeping, a repository for transcendent things.”[x] In Matthew 6:21 Jesus said, “where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” What’s filling your heart lately?
When your children hear you speak, can they tell you treasure Jesus? If someone were to read your social media page, would they conclude that Jesus is your highest treasure and joy? What about your patterns of speech at work? Can others tell that you have a love for Christ that surpasses all other loves? Speaking for myself, there are times when my own complaints or sharp, cynical remarks do not display a heart full of Christ. I’ve been stopped dead in my tracks. We must make it our habit to put into the storehouse good things about who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus and what he’s doing for us now in Jesus?
What good counsel Paul gives us in Philippians 4:8. Gary read it earlier: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Store up good treasure in the heart, and from that good treasure honor Jesus with your words. Pray for the Spirit to help you so treasure Jesus, that you’ll want others to know him and encounter him in the words you speak.
Little treasuring in the heart will mean little honoring of Jesus with our words. But the more you treasure Christ within, the more you will honor him with your words. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
[i] Paul Tripp, Getting to the Heart of Parenting Leader’s Guide (Philadelphia: Paul Tripp Ministries, n.d.), 3; Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart (Wapwallopen: Shepherd Press, 1995), 3.
[ii] Prov 4:23; 20:5; cf. Gen 6:5; Lev 19:17; Num 32:7; Ps 14:1; Ezek 14:1-5; Jer 17:6; Matt 15:18-19; Rom 2:5; Eph 4:18; Heb 3:12.
[iii] E.g., Matt 11:19; Rom 3:4; 1 Tim 3:16.
[iv] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 524.
[v] Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 140. John Owen made a similar distinction. He argued that a person’s “evangelical righteousness”—his good works—flows from his “legal righteousness”—his right standing with God by faith alone. John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 169.
[vi] E.g., see Matt 12:37; Rom 2:13; 3:20; cf. 1 Cor 4:3-5; Rev 20:11-15.
[vii] E.g., see “Of Justification” in the WCF 11.2.
[viii] Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; Rom 2:28-29.
[ix] Cf. John 3:1-8; Acts 15:9.