Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
We have to be careful about how we use the Word of God. I’ve frequently heard Christians reference Jesus words from Matthew 7:16-18,
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
However, we must use caution when wielding these verses. The Holy Spirit explained to me while I was meditating on this concept of “judging by fruits” how we should and shouldn’t consider Christ’s words when looking at others.
First and foremost, we cannot judge a person’s holiness based on how blessed their lives are- this is probably the most errant usage of what Jesus said. I’ve actually heard people comment before, “You don’t pray enough,” when a fellow believer is hitting a streak of bad luck. Really? The person is having a rough time of it and you suggest they’re not praying enough? Anyway, we’re already taught by the Bible that such thinking is erroneous; for when Samuel went to anoint the second king of Israel, he looked at the outside and was rebuked by God for doing so. Check it out,
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:6-7).
When Samuel saw David’s brother, he was dazzled by him, even to the point of invoking the Lord’s name twice in one sentence. Eliab had it all together on the outside and most would agree he’d be a great fit for king. But God saw Eliab’s heart and made it clear that Eliab wouldn’t rule. Well, as it turns out, Eliab was actually kind of a jerk; because when David went to bring his brothers some cheese while they were on the battlefield his brother ripped into him,
When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came only to watch the battle” (1 Samuel 17:28).
God called it that this dude wasn’t fit for royalty, and him losing his cool at his cheese-bearing brother made a pretty good example of it. This tells us that a person’s place in life, their health, their finances, their positions, or even their ministries are not necessarily an indication of their relationship with God.
Or what of the prophets? Three of the longest books of the Bible are Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. These guys were messengers from God, sent to the people, and have been seen as great men of faith. However, of the three, only Isaiah had a successful ministry- and that was only during Hezekiah’s reign; after that nobody listened to him. Jeremiah is the best example though; he was miserable failure as far as his life and ministry were concerned. And yet even pastors will attest that Jeremiah had a very personal and open relationship with the Lord. Check out Jeremiah 20:7-9, which both show how close he and God were, and yet how terrible his ministry and life were:
O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived;
You overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
Everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
Proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
Insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention him
Or speak any more in his name,”
His word is in my heart like a fire,
A fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
Indeed, I cannot.
Jeremiah had a terrible time during his days as a prophet, and yet wouldn’t stop praying and talking with God; and even if he tried to stop, the Lord continued to work through him. Surely, if you saw Jeremiah on the outside, you might think, “This dude needs to pray more.” But the Bible makes it clear; Jeremiah had no problems when it came to his relationship with God. Actually, in terms of ministry, Jesus noted, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). And he calls to mind Ezekiel and Jeremiah by saying,
Blessed are you when men hate you,
When they exclude you and insult you
And reject your name as evil,
Because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets (Luke 6:22-23).
And even if we look in the New Testament, we’ll see this example. Paul, the “super apostle,” endured some terrible stuff. He catalogs,
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).
Paul went through hell on earth for the Gospel of Christ, and yet nobody would question his relationship with the Lord. So we can see that how blessed a person is most certainly isn’t the sort of “fruit” to be examined. Rather, we’re blessed because God likes to bless his children. For it is written, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord you God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:6).
Ok, then how are we supposed to read “By their fruits you will recognize them”? The Holy Spirit pointed out to me the most obvious answer: the fruits of the Spirit. The fruits that Jesus was talking about are the same fruits that Paul talks about. We read, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is not law” (Galatians 5:22-23). When you’re looking for fruit, that’s the sort of fruit you should be looking for. Jesus backs this up by teaching,
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:43-45).
A believer has been changed by the Holy Spirit, and their countenance and speech will reflect the Spirit’s presence. If you want to see how a person is doing in their relationship with Christ, look no further than their actions and discussion; for if God is their overriding joy, then the Spirit’s influence make itself known. John notes in his instructions for discerning believers from non-believers, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble” (1 John 2:9-10).
So it seems that indeed you can judge a person by their fruits- just make sure though that you’re looking for the right things and not getting stuck on how they appear outwardly; for the fruits are an outflow of what’s inside. If a person is all black and gross inside, don’t worry, it’ll manifest itself. And if a person has the light of life through Jesus in them, that too shall manifest itself through the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And praise God it does!