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Condemnation of the Enemies of the Kingdom, Part 4: The Tree is Known by its Fruit

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Apr 5, 1998

Matthew 12:33-37

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 12.  Throughout this chapter, we see the character of the Lord Jesus Christ contrasted clearly with the character of his opponents. Though His opponents, the Pharisees, were reputed to be among the most religious, among the most pious men in Israel in their day, in fact, we see throughout this chapter that it is their hearts that are black even though they are accusing the Lord Jesus of being evil.

And so, Christ, in a series of exchanges, shows His character.  In the first 14 verses of the chapter we see an exchange on the Lord's day and the Pharisees set themselves up as the great protector of this ordinance.  And yet, Christ shows that it is in His heart truly to follow the Lord's command about the Lord's day, and it is the Pharisees who are merely giving lip service to that.  In verses 15 through 21, we see the Lord's character displayed in a beautiful prophecy from Isaiah, one of the servant's songs, which describes His character seven hundred years before He walked beside the shores of Tiberius.  Then, finally, in verses 22 through 32, we see the Lord Jesus address this issue of the unpardonable sin.  Particularly in the context of showing that the Pharisees rejection of Him was a reflection of a state of heart which was totally opposed and not open at all to receive this great revelation from God that had come in the life and in the ministry and in the works of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And, that bring us then to verse 33.  We'll begin reading here.  Hear God's holy word in Matthew 12: 33 and following:

Matthew 12:33-37

Our Father, these are solemn words, easier to understand than to let into our hearts and experience to transform the way we speak.  And, it is for this latter that we pray.  We desire, by the Spirit, not simply to understand in our heads this truth but we desire the truth revealed in this passage to be worked into our lives that our hearts, having been transformed by grace, might show forth the fruit of that transformation in speech which is pleasing to You.  We ask all these things in Jesus name. Amen

In the midst of addressing the Pharisee’s slander against Him, the Lord Jesus teaches us a vital lesson here.  He says to us that our thoughts, our attitudes, our words and our actions manifest what we are really like.  And, that is more than a little frightening.  When we realize that, that our thoughts, our attitudes, our words and our actions manifest to the world what we are like inside, it ought to move us to self-examination, to repentance and to Christ to seek His grace.  For there is nothing to show us that we have need of grace like the use of our mouths.  And so, even in this passage where Christ is rebuking the Pharisees, there are many messages and lessons for us as believers.  Understand this exchange between the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Pharisees have been consistently slandering Him.  They had been bringing against Him the harshest of accusations and against those accusations the Lord Jesus responds.  The people thought of the Pharisees as very religious men.  They would not be committing what would be seen in the eyes of the people to be openly immoral acts.  And so to show them, that is the people, the hearts of the Pharisees,  Jesus says, ‘I want you to look at their words.  I want you to look at how they have spoken about Me and about My ministry because their words reveal to you something about their hearts that their apparent piety is hiding.  They look godly but the way they speak about Me, in fact, reveals something about their hearts which is terribly awry.  In fact, they are utterly opposed to God and to His grace even though they minister in the name of the God of Israel.’  And so the Lord Jesus is using the speech, the slanderous speech of the Pharisees against Him, to alert the people of Israel around Him who are hearing His messages and seeing His miracles to the fact that they must listen to the Pharisees very warily.  For the Pharisees, though they look good, are in fact evil.  And, their speech is that which unveils a heart which they have been working very hard to hide from the people. 

I. Christians learn about the character of God through Jesus’ life.

Now, in that context, the Lord Jesus says to us some very important things about our own speech.  I want to turn your attention to that for just a few moments.  There are three or four things for us in this passage where the Lord Jesus exchanges with the Pharisees.  And, the first thing you'll see in verse 33.  In verse 33, you'll see the Lord Jesus respond to the Pharisees with a challenge and with a proverb.  And there, we learn about the character of God through Jesus' life because Jesus manifests His character by His speech and by His actions.  Look at these words: “Either make the tree good and it's fruit good or make the tree bad and it's fruit bad for the tree is known by it's fruit.”  Jesus defies the Pharisees here by attacking their logic.  They had been saying, “Well, He does good things but He is an essentially evil man.  He may be doing marvelous miracles but He does them by the power of Satan.  His deeds are good but He himself is essentially evil.”  And, the Lord Jesus responds to that and He says,  ‘I want you to consider that logic.  And, I want you to either make the tree good and it's fruit good or make the tree bad and it's fruit bad.’  What is Jesus saying there?  Look, either approve Me and My deeds or condemn Me and My deeds but don't say His deeds are good but He is from the evil one.  Don't play that game,  Pharisees.  Either say that what I am doing is wicked and manifests a wicked heart or confess with all these that I am doing the will of the One who sent Me.  But, don't say that I am a man that goes about doing good in the name of God but I’m essentially evil.  The Lord Jesus is challenging them to take stock of His actions and see what His actions tell them about His heart. 

And, then He points them to a proverb.  The proverb is this:  The tree is known by its fruit.  By that the Lord Jesus simply means that the way we evaluate a heart is in what it produces.  Jesus' heart is seen in what He produces - speech designed to bind up the broken hearted, to draw men and women to God.  Miracles designed to heal man in his fallenness and to restore him to the wholeness that God intended for him.  Those deeds are not superficial but they reflect something deeply true about the Lord Jesus Christ - that He is the son of God and He is the Savior of sinners.  Jesus' deeds reveal His true nature.  Now, here's the scary part, as do ours.  What do your deeds and words reveal about the deepest part of you?  What do our words and actions say about our hearts?  The actions of our lives tells us what we are and what we truly care about and even as Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for acting piously and yet speaking wickedly towards him, He is giving us something by which we can examine ourselves.  We must go back and look at that speech.  It is an indicator of what's going on in side of us. 

Jesus' life reveals His heart.  And, frankly it reveals to us God because when we see Jesus' actions what do they show us?  They show us a man who is humble, who is caring, who is compassionate, who is constant, who is loving,  who is considerate.  His deeds are consistent with who He is.  Even as we see Jesus reflect who He is by His actions, so also, we are called, by God's grace, to reflect the transformed hearts that we have been given as we have been redeemed - in our speech and in our actions toward one another.  And, that's a frightening thing.  I'm probably amongst another few of you who would agree that there are not many people who we would want to see us at all times and in all places.  There is a staff member who has a conversation with me from time to time about the words we say in our automobiles in traffic.   I can remember, as a child, coming home from trips with my father and my mother would say “What did you see?”  And I would say “Well, we saw one stupid dumb-dumb and we saw an idiot and we saw a blinking idiot,” and I would go down the list.  It's amazing what we reveal about ourselves in private.  Jesus' life reveals His character.

II. Christians learn about religious self-deception from the Pharisees.

So do our lives reveal our character.  There is a second thing we learn in this passage.  We see it in verses 33 and 34.  The Pharisees here reveal their hearts.  They want to look good but they can't help themselves and their slanderous words, they reveal their hearts.  And, we learn here that even those who are religious can deceive themselves.  Even those who are churchgoers, even those who are leaders in the community of believing people can deceive themselves about their own hearts.  Look at Jesus' words: “Either make the tree good and it's fruit good or make the tree bad and it's fruit bad for the tree is known by it's fruit.  You brood of vipers, (that's Jesus' verdict on the Pharisees), you brood of vipers.  How can you, being evil, speak what is good for the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”  

Jesus says ‘Look, on the same principle, if you look at My deeds and My deeds manifest that I am pure in heart, on that same principle the deeds of the Pharisees show that they have a heart problem.  They don't know God, they don't know God's grace, they've not been brought into His saving fellowship, they've not realized the meaning of the atoning sacrifices of the Old Testament.  They have not been brought into a saving relationship with God the father.  And, they show it in the way they speak about the son who is the great revelation of God the father.  They show that they are opposed to the grace of God and their slanderous speech is the key by which they reveal that heart.  They've worked so hard in all the areas of their lives to look good, but in this one area the truth about them breaks through.’ 

That's another frightening thing, friends.  We can work very hard to look good on the outside but ultimately, if we have not been transformed by God's grace on the inside, there is going to be some area where the truth about us breaks through.  It may be that only our wife and our children and our closest friends see it because we may work very hard to mask it from everyone else but there will always be areas of our lives where the truth about us breaks through.  And the Lord Jesus says, since the Pharisees are corrupt in their hearts and their thinking, their feeling, their willing, since they are depraved and corrupted in those things, their speech is what gives the line to that problem.  You might not be able to see a depraved heart, but you can certainly hear one when you are in the presence of one who is speaking blasphemously and slanderously.  Their vile and destructive use of their tongues is what gives them away. 

Matthew Henry says that Christ is discoursing here on ‘tongue sins,’ and he shows that wicked words are the products of corruption reigning in our hearts.  The heart is the root but the language is the fruit.  And so, Christ is giving us a key, and evidence, an indicator by which to look at our own hearts. 

Even those apparently committed to the cause of God and religion can be self-deceived and Christ wants us not to be self-deceived.  He wants us to know ourselves as we really are.  And so He gives us speech as something by which we can test ourselves.  It is not speech ultimately that makes us righteous.  Speech simply reflects the state of our heart. 

But, by looking at our speech we can learn a lot about what is going on inside; because, the heart's overflow appears in our speech.  What does your use of your tongue tell you about yourself?  Matthew Henry says,   “Where grace is the reigning principle in the heart, the language will be the language of Canaan.”  Is your language the language of Canaan?  Does the language of heaven fill your conversation or does your conversation show something else? 

“Men's language discovers what country they're from,” Matthew Henry once said.  And, that's true.  We hear someone speaking French and we make the brilliant deduction that they may well be from France.  And we hear someone speaking German and we think they very likely may be from Germany.  And yet, our language reveals our ultimate spiritual residence as well.  And language which is slanderous and blasphemous may well reveal that we are of our father, Satan.  And so it is a matter by which we can test ourselves.  Even the pagan philosopher, Seneca, said that speech is the index of the mind.  It tells us something about ourselves. 

And we must not forget that even though speech seems so ephemeral - it seems like something that you can throw out and it evaporates immediately - many of us, many have learned by very sad experience that a word spoken can never be taken back.  “For though a word,” Burkitt says, “is physically transient, it is morally permanent.”  We can say a word that can lodge into another person's heart and never ever leave.  It can never ever be dislodged.  And so that word can be physically transient, we say it and it disappears and yet it is lodged in someone else's heart, experience and reality and it can never be taken away.  And so we must be careful of our words. 

III. We are what we do, think, and say

Jesus goes on to say in verse 35 that our hearts are storehouses of good and evil and we learn there that we are what we think and do and say.  And that, too, is a frightening lesson.  We are what we think and do and say.  Look at those words, “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.”  A person's heart is a reservoir.  It's a storehouse, it's a thesaurus and what a man bring out of that storehouse depends on what is in the storehouse. 

You can't bring out of a treasure chest something that's not in it.  And so when we bring forth goodness, it's a sign that God's grace is at work and when we bring forth evil it is either a sign that we are contradicting the nature which Christ intended us to have or it is a sign that we are devoid of that spiritual goodness which the Holy Spirit desires to work.  A man's graces and comforts and experience and good knowledge and good affections and resolutions - those are good treasures from the heart.  When we can say with the psalmist things like “we desire to know Your word and study Your word” - that's a sign of a spiritual work in our hearts.  But when our hearts are set on evil things, when our tongues are constantly tearing down and destroying, uttering slander and flippant statements about God, it is an index of where our hearts are. 

Our nature determines our behavior and speech.  And our behavior and speech is an indication of our true nature.  Since our actions are inextricably connected to our natures, we must not fail to examine our actions; not because our actions are the ultimate issue, but because they are key indications of what is going on in our hearts.  We ought to have a longing to be right with God in those areas, in the areas of our actions, of our speech.

And we ought to long to do what is good but that can only happen by God's grace.  The area of speech teaches us that, doesn't it?  There's nothing so hard to control as the tongue.  Even when we think we're using it for good, we can use it to tear down.  Even the people of God, even the people of God and so it is a sign that we must depend upon the work of the spirit in our lives if we ever expect to see mastery in this area.  “Unless the heart be transformed, the life will never be thoroughly reformed,” said Matthew Henry.  Unless our hearts are changed we will never get a handle on those outward actions and expressions of the heart whether they be in deeds or in words. 

And of course our concern should not only be to look good but to actually to have been transformed.  We don't want to be hypocrites - looking spiritual on the outside - while our hearts are devoid of fellowship with God and true love for one another.  We want to be transformed and only the Holy Spirit can do that.  One is only transformed when one believes on the Lord Jesus Christ - accepting His claims, receiving Him as He is offered in the gospel as the only Savior of our souls and being transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  That is how we experience transformation, and a sanctified tongue is a mark of true spiritual work in us.  Jay Baxter Sidlow once said with His tongue firmly planted in his cheek, “One of the first things that happens when a man is really filled with the Holy Spirit is not that he speaks in tongues but that he learns to hold the one that he already has.”  And that is so true.  Our tongues represent, very evidently, the work of the spirit in our hearts.

This is so important not only for adults but for students.  I observe that students are capable of the most vicious language towards one another.  How does your language about your classmates, your friends in private when your not around them, how does your language about them reflect on your heart?  How does your language towards your parents when they're not around reflect on the state of your heart?  Don't waste this opportunity to see where you are before the Lord.  Look at your language, even those things that you keep from saying out loud but you really wish you could say them with all your heart.  Those things that you bite down on and you want to say when your parents tell you something that you don't want to do or they tell you to do something that you don't want to do.  What does that say about the state of your heart?  Don't miss these things as opportunities to look at the state of your heart. 

IV. Our hearts will be manifest in the final judgment by our own words.

There is one last thing that I would point your attention to in verses 36 and 37.  Here Jesus says very solemnly that our words will either condemn or acquit us.  Here in this passage, Jesus tells us that our hearts will be made manifest in the judgment by the instrument of our words.

It is by our words that our wickedness or our holiness will be made manifest.  “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment; for by your words, you will be justified and by your words, you will be condemned.”  Since we are responsible for what we are and for what we think and for what we feel and for what we say and do, Jesus reminds us that we will give an accounting at the last day.  Indeed, Jesus stresses that even careless words, idle words, words that we didn't even deliberate on before we threw them out, even those words will have to be answered for in the final judgment. 

J. C. Ryle says, “There are few of our Lord's sayings which are so heart-searching as this.” There is nothing, perhaps, to which man pays less attention than words.  And yet, the Lord Jesus says that they will be an indicator on the last day. 

We should remember that God takes note of every word we say.  And that impertinent and empty and foolish talk is displeasing to God and that shortly we will give an account for our words.  That's an awesome thing, isn't it?  To live in the light of the fact that our talk will be judged at the last day.  The general and constant tone of our speech will be evidence either for or against us in that last day.  This reminds us that we need the grace of God.  There's nothing like the tongue to remind you that it is impossible for a man to walk perfectly before God.  There is nothing like the tongue that shows you that you need the grace of the gospel in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And so we have an opportunity to do business with the Lord today.  Christian, as you come to the Lord's table, you can confess your tongue sins to the Lord  and you can ask Him, by His grace, to strengthen you so that your speech will be edifying and not destructive, so that it will reflect a transformed heart and not the residue of sin.

And, if you're not a believer, there is no amount of resolution, there is no amount of effort, there is no amount of stuffing that can keep the reality of your heart from condemning you because it will not ultimately be simply the words by which you are condemned but that which the word reflects - your nature.  Only the grace of God in Christ can change a nature.  We can't change ourselves.  Only the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit can do that.  And so, your only hope is to turn to Christ.  J.C. Ryle says, “If there were no other text in the Bible, this passage ought to convince us that we are all guilty before God and we need a righteousness better than our own, even the righteousness of Christ.”  

As we come to the table today, let us remember that we don't come in our own righteousness, we come in the righteousness of Christ.  Thank God.  None of us would be here at this table if this table were about the worthiness of our righteousness.  None of us would be here.  But because this table is about the worthiness of Christ and His grace, we can come and be strengthened.  May He give us triumph over our tongues and actions by continually changing and renovating our natures, conforming us to the image of Christ.  And, if you do not know Him, may you find the only One who can master the wicked heart and transform it into a heart fit for heaven.  Let's look to Him in prayer: 

Our Father, we ask that You would bless the word to our spiritual nourishment and Your glory and help us to feed upon the sacrament, by faith,  through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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