The Vine

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).

In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.

Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.

The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).

Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.

This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!

Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).

Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Vine

Doing Righteousness

Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother (1 John 3:9-10).

Righteousness and sin are always at odds. You cannot hold to one and court the other; you cannot be fully devoted to one while having affection for the other. John wants his fellow Christians to be very clear on this.

The context of 1 John 3:1-10 is the same as that of 1 John 2:18-29: John is greatly concerned about the “antichrists” who would lead Christians astray. John sets out boundary markers to both assure Christians of their standing before God while making sharp and stark distinctions between them and their opponents. The impetus in 1 John 2:18-27 involved doctrines and teachings: Christians could have assurance in their standing before God by holding firm to the message they heard from the beginning and remaining strong in the instruction provided through the Spirit. Those who confessed the truth of God in Christ as revealed to the Apostles by the Spirit from the beginning remained in God in Christ; those who denied Jesus as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God, were antichrists (1 John 2:18-24).

John does begin a slight shift in 1 John 2:29 that informs 1 John 3:1-10: doctrine is one means by which one can have either assurance or warning, but the practice of righteousness is another such marker. John fleshes this out in 1 John 3:1-10, particularly in 1 John 3:4-10. Those who sin do lawlessness, and Jesus became flesh in order to take away such sin, and in Him there was no sin (1 John 3:4-5). The contrast is set: those who are in Christ and begotten of God do not sin but do righteousness, and those who do not know God in Christ but are of the devil persist in sin and do not love their brethren (1 John 3:4-10).

John speaks in very black and white terms; unsurprisingly, many have taken his messages out of context, interpreting them in the most absolute terms, and have caused confusion, disharmony, and inserted contradiction into Scripture by so doing. One who has read all of 1 John until this point can see the tension and challenge inherent in John’s strong language: did John not say in 1 John 1:8 that those who say they (presently) have no sin deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them? Did he not speak of the need for confession of sin in 1 John 1:9? What of 1 John 2:1, where “if we sin” we have an advocate before the Father in Jesus Christ the righteous? How can John in one verse allow for the possibility of Christians sinning, or declaring that Christians presently struggle with sin, and yet a few verses later say that true Christians will not sin at all?

We can make sense of what John says first by considering those against whom he speaks and then by considering what he might mean by his language. Those whom John characterizes as “antichrists” are at least docetists if not incipient Gnostics. Docetists believed that Jesus was not actually human but only seemed to be human (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”). In their view, God would never humiliate Himself to the point of taking on flesh; to accept such a view would deny the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-20), and such is why John denounces this view with such force in 1 John 2:18-3:10. Perhaps their docetism was part of incipient Gnosticism, a view which would become popular in later centuries. The Gnostics were docetic and believed they had special, secret knowledge of the “story within the story” in the Bible. In either case, many times adherents of such views would either start out in Christianity and depart from it or would visit Christian assemblies, perhaps attempt to join with the Christians, and seem to be one of the Christians, but only in order to get a chance to speak privately with individual Christians in an attempt to lead them astray from the faith (cf. 1 John 2:19, 26). Such is why John emphasizes the need to hold to the message Christians heard from the beginning (1 John 2:24), but it also is why John must emphasize righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:10). Throughout the New Testament, one consistent condemnation of false teachers involves their attempt to satisfy desires of the flesh through the proclamation and substance of their messages (Philippians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 6:3-6, Titus 1:10-14, 2 Peter 2:1-20, Jude 1:3-16). Whereas Jesus in His life and death practiced and exhorted toward righteousness, and the Apostles sought to proclaim and practice righteousness, these antichrists would use their proclamations and practice to practice greed, sexual immorality, and a host of other sins, and justified themselves on account of the fact that the flesh was irrelevant, to be destroyed in death, and the spiritual realm was all that was important. Little wonder then why John emphasized the resurrection of life as the foundation of hope that leads to purity and holiness in 1 John 3:2-3: when you understand that God is about redemption and reconciliation, you will seek to be pure and holy even in the flesh so as to be like Him. In terms of the language used, some modern versions do well to flesh out what John means by “doeth sin”: “making a practice of sinning.” The difference is not between people who never sin versus sin a little or a lot; the contrast is between those who continually or repeatedly sin versus those who do not have such a practice. In so doing we can reconcile 1 John 3:9-10 with 1 John 1:8-9, 2:1: Christians are not to continue in unrepentant sin and must not make sin a habit, but when they stumble in their walk with Christ, they can confess that stumble and be forgiven so as to continue to pursue righteousness in Christ.

Even though we must resist making John’s language absolute, we still must come to grips with the force of his words in terms of our lives as Christians. John is sharply and starkly re-stating Jesus’ principle regarding false teachers in Matthew 7:15-20: by their fruits you shall know them. If doctrines lead to righteousness, they likely are true (although even in this case we must be hesitant to speak in absolute terms, for many people do a lot of righteous things yet believe very different things about the nature of God in Christ). But if the people who promote a teaching persist in sin, or the doctrines themselves justify persistence in sin, then they are clearly false and of the Evil One. It is easy to always project this concern onto others; after all, we believe we teach the truth and are in the right, yet who would ever honestly claim to be a false teacher? We must first consider ourselves: do people know we are Christians by how we speak and act? Are we producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24)? We may intend to practice righteousness, and that intention may be well and good, but a big difference remains between intending to do righteousness yet persisting in sin and actually doing righteousness and thus avoiding sin. We might attempt to take solace in the idea that we have the true teachings, but John’s words should expose that assurance as a lie: it has never been enough to just know the truth, but it must be practiced. To not practice the truth you know is sin (James 4:17); you have no excuse. We know we are children of God when we do the things we know are true!

Many good-hearted, sincere, and conscientious Christians read 1 John 3:9-10 and are pricked in heart, concerned they may not be good enough to be the children of God. Such people most likely have the least to fear; a heart so tender to God’s message remains open to all He says and seeks to accomplish them. We must remember that John writes these things to assure Christians that they remain in Christ when they hold to the Gospel as proclaimed from the beginning and practice righteousness, not to upset their faith. Yet we must be doing righteousness; just knowing it is never enough. Let us demonstrate that we are born of God by practicing righteousness, assured that we will be known by God, Jesus, and those around us by the fruit expressed in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Doing Righteousness

The Good Soil

“…and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…and he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8, 23).

Finally, after speaking about the unbelievers, those who were not firmly grounded, and those who allow the cares of the world to choke out the faith, Jesus comes to the good soil in the Parable of the Sower.

Soil is good by virtue of the climactic conditions in which it exists along with the nutrients present within it. So it is with people and the message of the Gospel– the good soil are those people who have good and honest hearts, who hear the Word, understand it, believe it, and consequently bear fruit with patience (Matthew 13:23, Mark 4:20, Luke 8:15). All of these conditions must exist for the soil to be good.

The condition of the heart is critical. As we saw with the “road soil,” an unreceptive heart will not accept the message of the Gospel. A person must have a good and honest heart for the Gospel to do them any good. They must be willing to question themselves and the way they have conducted themselves. They must be willing to accept that they were wrong and acted wrongly and must change. They must be willing to accept truth as truth and to not justify error or rationalize their improper conduct in any way. In short, they must be willing to humble themselves so as to learn from Christ (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Gospel is preached, and those who are of the “good soil” hear it, understand it, and believe it (cf. Romans 10:9-17). Yet such was also the case for the “rocky soil” and the “thorny soil.” But the “good soil” has greater depth than the “rocky soil” and lacks the weeds of the “thorny soil.” Because conditions are more optimal, the seed bears fruit in the “good soil.” So it is that believers are to be known by their fruit– by how their faith operates in their lives (cf. James 2:14-20, 1 John 3:16-18). Most everyone wants to be the “good soil,” just like everyone is a good person, a good driver, and feels pretty well. Yet, as we have seen, this is not the case with everyone or even of most. Most will prove to be the road soil, the rocky soil, or the thorny soil. “Good soil” is not something we declare ourselves to be by our words; instead, we are manifest as good soil (or, for that matter, less than ideal soil) by how what we profess changes our lives, our attitudes, our thoughts, and our deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 6:1-11, 8:29, Galatians 5:17-24). And, as Luke adds, this requires patience (cf. Luke 8:15). As fruit and grain take time to grow and ripen, spiritual transformation demands time and effort (cf. Romans 12:2); patience with others is also manifest as fruit of spiritual maturity (Galatians 5:22-24). Growth may take time, but it must be something for which we consistently seek and toward which we endeavor.

Jesus ends His discussion of the “good soil” with what may seem to be a puzzling addendum– the harvest is not necessarily the same with every patch of the good soil. Some bear thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, and some even a hundredfold (Matthew 13:8, Mark 14:8)! Was not “good” soil really “good” soil?

We go back to the source of Jesus’ story: farming. Farmers know that one can grow the same crop in different soils and get different yields based upon the soil quality and conditions. “Good soil” in one place may yield, say, 200 bushels an acre, while “good soil” somewhere else might yield 300 bushels an acre. They are both good, but based upon conditions, one may get more from some than others.

So it is spiritually. The “good soil” is that which is open and receptive to the Gospel, working to bear fruit for God. Yet God has not made us all the same. We are different, and different people not only have different abilities but also different levels of ability. In our egalitarian society it might not be politically correct to say as much, yet it is affirmed by the Gospel (Romans 12:3-8). Consider the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30: three people are entrusted with different amounts of money. The five talent man who made five more talents is rewarded equally as the two talent man who made two more talents. It is not important for us to try to compete with one another and try to boast about how many gifts or talents we may have; instead, we must ascertain what God has given us so that we can serve Him and one another in accordance and in proportion to what we have received (1 Peter 4:10-11, etc.). One bearing a hundredfold and one bearing thirtyfold are both “good soil,” and one is not inherently better than the other. “Good soil” that could bear a hundredfold but gets a big head or does not work up to his potential is worse off than “good soil” actually bearing thirtyfold. Likewise, “good soil” that bears sixtyfold does better than “good soil” that could bear thirtyfold but does nothing because they are not equipped to bear a hundredfold. The emphasis is on the fruit borne, not a spirit of competition.

Few people who understand the Parable of the Sower would define themselves as road soil, rocky soil, or thorny soil. We all aspire to be the “good soil.” That is a good and noble aspiration, but it is meaningless if we do not prove to be the “good soil” by our works. Let us strive, then, to have that open and honest heart, seeking after and trusting in God our Creator and Savior, and devoting our lives to bearing fruit for His cause, be it thirtyfold, sixtyfold, or a hundredfold. Does the Lord know that we are His by our works? Let us serve Him and prove to be good soil!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Good Soil

Fig Tree Religion

And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, [Jesus] hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs.
And he answered and said unto it, “No man eat fruit from thee henceforward for ever.”
And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).

The long-awaited time had come. Jesus of Nazareth, believed by many to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, had entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. Mark 11:1-11). He will soon strike at the heart of the religious power structure in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple of its moneychangers and merchants (Mark 11:15-19). And what do we find in the middle of these great events? Jesus’ rebuke of a fig tree.

It seems rather anticlimactic. Why does Mark interrupt the grand story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem by telling us about this fig tree?

It may help to understand a bit about the situation. Even in Jerusalem, late March or early April is a bit early for figs to be ready. Most of the trees would not even have their leaves yet. But this fig tree did have its leaves– and when a fig tree has its leaves, it is indicating that it has its fruit hidden underneath. This particular fig tree, however, was false– perhaps it was a different subspecies, or perhaps it was a young tree– for it exposed leaves but had no fruit within it. Highly disappointed, Jesus curses the tree because it made a presentation without its substance.

That may be the clue to understanding the importance of this interaction. Mark very well may have us to understand that there is more to this story than just a fig tree.

The fig tree may represent the Jews and the Judaism of the day. Fig trees are good, and figs are good. Fruitless fig trees that have no leaves are understandable, but what cannot be tolerated is the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. Thus it is with Israel in Jesus’ day, especially the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. It was a good thing to be a Jew and to be a part of the covenant with God. It would be understandable if a Jew were learning his faith or recognized in humility how much further he had to go. But to have the outward appearance of religion without its substance– its fruit– was intolerable. And that was precisely what Jesus saw in the Judaism of His day!

Soon after these events He would excoriate the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs– pretty on the exterior, but full of dead men’s bones inside (cf. Matthew 23:27). They worry about keeping dishes clean, but inwardly are defiled (Matthew 23:25-26). On the exterior their religiosity is beyond a doubt; inwardly they remain unconverted and sinful. There is little hope for such people; they are, like the fig tree, cursed, never to provide fruit for mankind again.

We would do well to learn the lesson of the fig tree and avoid “fig tree religion.” We know from experience and statistics that the vast majority of the people around us in America believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Most people would claim to be Christians. A lot of those people attempt to maintain the exterior of goodness and piety– they seek to look like the “good people” of society, and yet inwardly they may remain unconverted and sinful. Such a faith cannot save (Matthew 7:21-23)!

It is one thing to be as a fig tree without fruit and without leaves– had this fig tree been as such, Jesus would have likely just passed it by. Therefore, it is one thing for people in our society to be sinners and recognize that they are sinners. Such is actually the first step in coming to a real knowledge of the truth (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). Jesus, after all, came to save sinners (cf. Matthew 9:11-13).

The real danger comes from providing the pretense of righteousness and/or religiosity without any substantive fruit. These are the “righteous” of Matthew 9:11-13, those who certainly think they are healthy and sound and profitable but really are not. They are self-deceived, and self-deception is the hardest kind of deception to overcome (Galatians 6:3, James 1:22-25, 1 John 1:8). As long as they remain in that condition, nothing can be done for them or with them (cf. Revelation 3:14-22)!

But what of ourselves? Who are we? Are we fig trees without leaves and without fruit? Then let us grow in knowledge and faith to maturity, showing fruit for the Lord (Hebrews 5:14, 2 Peter 3:18). Do we have leaves and fruit, believing in God and obeying Him? Well and good; let us abound all the more (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). Or are we the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, having the pretense of religion but not the substantive fruit thereof? We must always be on guard against this danger, considering ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4). If we find ourselves in this condition, we must immediately repent, and work to show the fruit that is in keeping with that repentance (1 John 2:3-6)!

Therefore we can see that the story of the fig tree is quite appropriate in its context. Jesus is about to encounter the superficial piety of the Judaism entrenched in Jerusalem, and it will be cursed. Let us not fall into the same trap, and let us both show leaves and bear fruit for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fig Tree Religion

The Beam and the Mote

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye,’ when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

For those who do not think that Jesus has a sense of humor, we provide exhibit A: beams and motes, or, as in other versions, logs and specks. A man with a log/beam in his eye, trying to take a speck/mote out of the eye of his brother. That is a very funny picture indeed!

But why does Jesus present this image? It is not just to get a quick laugh– it is a very pointed example. We all can see how ridiculous it is for a man with a big stick of wood in his eye to try to take a small speck out of his brother’s eye– but are we willing to see how ridiculous we often look on the basis of the meaning of this picture?

The context is a guide to meaning. The declaration to “judge not” is made in Luke 6:37-38, and the image of the blind leading the blind and how they will fall into a pit follows (Luke 6:39). After the image, Jesus speaks of how trees are known for their fruit, the good and the bad, and how good people bring forth good and evil people bring forth evil (Luke 6:43-45).

Beams and motes, therefore, have to do with judgment and goodness or evil. We are all a lot better at discovering the sins and deficiencies of others than we are of our own. That does not mean that we do not have deficiencies– far from it (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8)! It is just a lot more difficult to come to grips with that uncomfortable truth. It is always easier to see ourselves as better than we really are– either by conveniently “forgetting” how they look, like the “natural man” of James 1:22-25, or focusing on their intentions and aspirations and not their actual conduct. That is why people walk around with beams in their eyes– and they are generally blissfully attempting to forget about it.

The mote in our brother’s eye represents his sin or deficiency in a given situation. There is a difficulty there– Jesus does not deny this. The mote needs to be removed (Galatians 6:1)!

This can be done in one of two ways. Most people keep the beam in their own eye and attempt to remove the mote in their brother’s eye. You can imagine how well that goes! The brother tends to be offended and the one with the beam does not understand why they are so unwilling to come to grips with their sin! The whole time the brother just sees the big old beam in the eye– the unrepentant hypocrisy– and they are easily turned off or turned away.

But Jesus intends for people to follow a different path. We all have those beams, and we all, when appropriate, need to help our brethren with their motes. But we need to first take the beam out of our own eye– recognize our deficiencies, prove our own work, remain humble servants of the Lord– and then we can look more carefully to help our brother with his difficulties. When he realizes that we do not feel that we are better than him, that we are fellow servants of God trying to obtain the Kingdom, and are willing to admit when we are wrong, our attempt to assist him will go much better.

The action itself– removing the mote– is not different. The difference is within us– we either are willing to recognize our failings or we are not. When we refuse to recognize our failures, we deceive ourselves, and it is easier for us to treat other people contemptuously. That is precisely why we must recognize our failures, even though it is very uncomfortable– it forces us into humility, perceiving that we are really no better than anyone else, and that will allow us to show compassion and mercy to others– which is exactly the point!

It is a silly picture– someone with a log in their eye trying to take the speck out of his brother’s eye. And yet how many of us try to do the same by pointing out the failures of others while attempting to cover up or hide our own? Let us not look foolish– instead, let us recognize our failings, maintain humility, and help others in love and with compassion– and show good fruit!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Beam and the Mote

The Incorruptible Seed

Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth. For,
“All flesh is as grass, And all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: But the word of the Lord abideth for ever.”
And this is the word of good tidings which was preached unto you (1 Peter 1:23-25).

God has always found the imagery of plant life fruitful for comparison with spiritual things. Many of Jesus’ parables feature agricultural images. Since most people are at least somewhat familiar with plants, the value of this imagery is quite understandable.

When Isaiah wanted to encourage the Jewish exiles of the sixth century he turned to the frailty of grass and flowering plants (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8). They grow for a season and look beautiful and impressive for that season– but it does not take long for them to die when exposed to hot winds or freezing cold.

Isaiah compares people and their ideology to those plants. Sure, for the time being, the Babylonians who had conquered the Jews seemed impressive. Babylon was a large city with a great empire. The people boasted of their gods. The Jews were an oddity, believing firmly in their one God even though He had not saved them from Babylon’s hand. It would be very easy for the Jews to “fall in line” and believe just as the rest of the people believed.

But Isaiah knew that the day of the Babylonians would be short. The time of all flesh is short– humans live for a short period of time, in the grand scheme of things, and pass away. Another generation then arises, and it too shall soon pass. The ideologies of men tend to live a bit longer than an individual generation, but they also pass. The one constant, Isaiah notes, is the word of the LORD.

Peter writes to encourage his fellow Christians six hundred years after the height of Babylonian power. Rome is the new Babylon. Their empire was even more impressive than the Babylonian empire. Their military might was unequaled. The Emperor was hailed as a god, and even if the traditional gods of the Greeks and Romans were doubted, pretty much everyone else fell down before the Power of Rome. The Christians were very much the odd ones since they claimed that it was really Jesus who was Lord, not Caesar, even though Jesus was crucified in the days of Tiberius. As before, it would be very easy to “fall in line” and accede to Roman power.

Yet Peter wants to remind the Christians of the same lesson that Isaiah did: the word of the LORD, now enshrined in the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom, endures forever.

We now live almost two thousand years after Peter wrote those words. Even in the days of Peter, Babylon was a ruin. Its glories would only be re-discovered in the nineteenth century by archaeologists looking to better understand the “word of the LORD” found in the Old Testament of those very Jews whom the Babylonians mocked. Within three hundred years of Peter’s letter, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Emperors who used to claim divinity for themselves now called Jesus of Nazareth Lord, at least in name. Today the Roman Empire is as distant of a memory as the Babylonian Empire, and their ideologies have been relegated to the interest of historians. And yet the word of the LORD, the Gospel of the Kingdom, is still preached throughout the world.

As assuredly as Babylon and the Babylonians rose and fell, and Rome and the Romans rose and fell, so too will America and Americans. The ideologies of modern society will have their day in the sun and then they too will pass away!

We would do well to heed the warning of Isaiah, Peter, and also John (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). It is very easy to trust in what contemporary society calls “common sense” and “the way things are,” just as it was easy to trust in those things 2600 and 2000 years ago. But, as John says, the world and its lusts are passing away. Only the word of the LORD will remain.

If we believe in Jesus Christ and seek to imitate Him and keep His commandments (1 John 2:3-6), we will demonstrate that we have been born again of that incorruptible or imperishable seed. Our minds, hearts, and actions will be conformed to how God would have us think, feel, and act, as was manifest in His Son (John 1:18, Romans 8:29). That way of living will not change with the winds of culture. If it is truly based in the imperishable seed, it will always endure.

But we must watch out for the corruptible or perishable seed of the world. It is easy for the “weeds” to take root and dominate in life (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). It is easy to allow worldly mindsets, attitudes, and actions to take over, either boldly in denying that which is divine, or more subtly by attempting to appear pious and holy. But its end will not be the fruit of the Spirit or anything conforming to Christ, but instead will at some point show its true worldliness (cf. 1 John 4:5-6). It will have to be cast away, either by this generation or a future one, for it cannot last!

Jesus says that we will be known by our fruits (Matthew 7:16-20). You do not get the imperishable plant from the perishable seed, nor do you get the perishable plant from the imperishable seed. If we think, feel, and act according to the ways of the world, we will pass away along with the world. But if we think, feel, and act according to the enduring, living, and abiding word of God, manifesting the Gospel of Christ in word and deed, we will obtain eternity (John 3:16). Let us cling to the incorruptible seed and reflect Christ to the perishing world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Incorruptible Seed

Soils

“Hear then ye the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side. And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straightway with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth. And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. And he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:18-23).

The Parable of the Sower is one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Its meaning resonates for us today.

The sower is the preacher of the Gospel of Christ– the message of His life, death, resurrection, and Kingdom (cf. Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5). The seed is that message. The focus of the parable, however, is on the different types of soils.

The “road soil” is quite hard, and the Word finds no room to take ground within it. Such are the unbelievers who choose to stay that way. They do not understand– or do not want to understand– Jesus’ message of humility, service, and turning from sin. The Evil One keeps them in his grip (cf. John 8:44-47).

So go the unbelievers. The next three types of soil feature believers and their fruit.

The “rocky soil” are those who hear the Word, believe and obey it, and start well. The Word is not deeply founded, however, and whenever difficulty arises– persecution for the Name, economic distress, physical suffering, or some other calamity– they turn away from their faith. It may take days, months, or even years for this difficulty to come, but when it does, the shallowness of that believer’s faith is made evident. Their faith is tested– and it fails.

The “thorny soil” also hear the Word and believe it and obey it. They recognize that Jesus is the Christ and know that they should devote themselves to spiritual things. But they have busy lives. They may be devoting themselves to some idol– money, fame, recreation, or some other pleasure. They may be so devoted to the needs of their physical family, friends, and the like that they do not make the time for spiritual matters. Since the Kingdom is not made a priority, their faith weakens and dies. Misplaced and misguided priorities lead to the end of their faith.

The “good soil” are those who hear the Word, believe it, obey it, and make spiritual things their first priority. Difficulties and temptations come, and their faith is tried, but they persevere and grow (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:3-9). They have plenty of obligations in the world, but they realize that their obedience to Christ is first and foremost and can be accomplished within their other obligations (cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9). According to their gifts and service, they produce fruit: some thirtyfold, others sixtyfold, some one hundredfold. As humble servants, they praise God for all that He accomplishes, and participate joyfully in their specific role (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Those producing a hundredfold do not look down upon the those with sixtyfold or thirtyfold, and the latter are not jealous of the former.

Let the one who has ears hear. We can see these responses to the Word in action in our own lives and the lives of those around us. We may seem to be “good” soil but turn out to be “rocky” soil. The thorns of the world are always around us. On the other hand, possibly “rocky” soil may turn and become “good” soil. In the end, let us be the good soil, producing for the Lord, with God giving the increase (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-7)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Soils

Fertilizer

And he spake this parable; “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit thereon, and found none.
And he said unto the vinedresser, ‘Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why doth it also cumber the ground?’
And he answering saith unto him, ‘Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit thenceforth, well; but if not, thou shalt cut it down'” (Luke 13:6-9).

Agriculture provided plenty of fodder for Jesus when it came to His parables.  Jesus perceived that there were many parallels between how plants develop and grow and how His Kingdom would develop and grow, and people readily understood matters of agriculture.  Here we have one such parable– one that you may not hear about as often as the others.

We expect fruit trees to produce fruit.  Yet we ought not expect excellent fruit to come immediately after such a tree is planted; according to the Law, the Israelites were to consider the fruit of a tree during its first three years as “uncircumcised,” the fourth year devoted to the LORD, and afterward the fruit could be eaten (Leviticus 19:23-25).

The master, therefore, comes to see the fig tree after its three years, and it has not produced any fruit.  Without fruit, the tree has no value, and ought to be cut down in his eyes.

Yet notice what the vinedresser tells him.  He confesses that the tree has not been productive, yet before any permanent decision is made, he makes a request to have one more year to “dung” it– provide fertilizer– and then see if the plant will produce its fruit.  If so, well and good.  If not, it can be cut down.

Parables generally have application to Christ’s Kingdom, and this one is no exception.  There is much to be gained here!

When people come to belief in Christ, it takes time for the proper fruit to be manifest (Galatians 5:22-24, Hebrews 5:14).  It takes time to grow in the faith.  Therefore, we should not expect mature “fruit” from immature “trees.”

Yet fruit is still expected.  What happens when there is no “fruit”– no indication that there is any growth in a young believer?  Should they be immediately cast out?

Absolutely not– we must apply the “spiritual dung,” that is, proper encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25).  Sometimes growth does not take place because the proper nutrients are not present, and when nutrients are provided, the growth will come.

This is why it is so important for believers to encourage one another, building up the Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28).  Yet it is not limited to believers.  Do we know people who are struggling to get through life, and who do not seem to be getting very far?  Consider how to encourage them.  Are there people in despair?  Seek to encourage them.

Encouragement is the fertilizer of life.  Use it bountifully among others, and see how much fruit can be borne!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Fertilizer