Fertilizing Fruit Trees
A sermon on Mark 12:13-44 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 5/14/00
Have you ever planted a fruit tree? It’s a lot of work, as I found out eleven years ago next month, when we planted one peach, two apple, and two pear trees in the lawn of our newly-purchased home. In preparation, we read instructions for planting: Dig considerably deeper than the initial depth of the roots; take up sod in a circle with a five-foot radius around the tree; plant the trees in full sunlight.
These instructions presented problems: Full sunlight would require putting the trees in the middle of the yard – the very place that my children would periodically transform into a soccer field or baseball diamond or running track. And Beth objected to taking up that much sod, saying "We don't want big holes in our lawn!"
While I began the project with the intention of digging to the specified depth, my only tools were a spade and fork. Our back yard is old flood plain, which contains many rocks, and becomes almost impermeable once you reach a certain depth. So I may have skimped a bit on the depth.
What happened? Two of those trees are only a fading memory, burned in the fire long ago (one after a severe "pruning" by some foraging deer). Two others have produced a total of three pieces of fruit in eleven years. One, the peach tree, has flourished -- if you drive by our house this week you will see it fully in bloom; in August it will be covered with peaches. This is the only tree we planted in full sunlight, and the only tree planted in our front yard, above the flood plain.
Trees need light and nutrients if they are going to bear fruit. You can’t plant them anywhere and expect them to thrive.
Brothers and sisters, we are like those trees. Jesus tells us:
"By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. (John 15:8 NASB)
Last week, we saw Jesus act out this statement. Recall that Jesus saw a fig tree in leaf, and went to see if it had any fruit. Not finding any, he cursed the tree – and the next morning, the tree was withered and dead.
Jesus directed this living parable at the religious authorities of his day – God rejected them for going through the motions of religion, but loving neither God nor man in their hearts. They performed all the rituals and outwardly obeyed the law, but inwardly they were full of hate, pride, and self-righteousness. So God rejects them – they are like the fig tree without fruit, and become like the withered, dry, dead fig tree after Jesus' curse.
But we saw that the fig tree has both a negative and a positive message for us. The negative message is a warning: Are we in danger of being like those religious leaders? Might we give the appearance of a close relationship to God, when in fact nothing is there? Might we go through the motions, but harbor anger, bitterness, and lack of forgiveness in our hearts?
The fig tree also provides positive lessons for those who would bear fruit. For the Bible likens our growing in Christlikeness to being fruitful: As Paul says in Galatians, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace." Being fruitful means taking on the character of God, being transformed into the likeness of Christ, so that when others see us and interact with us, they may see what God is like. We just sang, "In my life, Lord, be glorified;" that's what it means to glorify God.
In effect, in Mark 11 and 12 Jesus gives us instructions for planting and fertilizing the fruit trees of our lives. If we follow these, we will be beautiful and full of fruit, like my peach tree; if we don’t, we'll look more like my apple and pear trees, and be fit only for the fire.
Last week we looked at the passage through 12:12, highlighting these lessons for fruitbearers:
This morning we will see that the remainder of chapter 12 contains six more lessons for fruitbearers. We'll go through the text, noting the lessons, and then in conclusion see how they are all interrelated.
The Fruitbearer Submits to God
13 ¶ And they *sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him, in order to trap Him in a statement. 14 And they *came and *said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? 15 "Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?" But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at." 16 And they brought one. And He *said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" And they said to Him, "Caesar’s." 17 And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." And they were amazed at Him. (Mark 12:13-17 NASB)
The passage begins with the words "and they sent." Who did the sending? Recall that in 11:27 the chief priests, scribes, and elders ask Jesus by what authority he kicks people out of the temple. Jesus then speaks the parable of the vineyard specifically against them. They are angry and frustrated by all this; they want to force Jesus into doing something that will lead the Roman authorities to arrest Him. Alternately, they want Jesus to take a position displeasing to the crowds, so that his threat is lessened. But they've run out of ideas, so they, like tag-team wrestlers, tag the Pharisees and Herodians. These groups are all enemies, but they unite in the common purpose of doing away with Jesus.
What are the Pharisees and Herodians doing in verse 14? Do these phrases sound like anything you have said, perhaps to a parent? Perhaps even on this or an earlier Mothers Day? "Mom, I know you are the best in the world, and that you love me more than anything; May I borrow the car keys?" Sometimes, buttering up an authority with praise makes them more likely to grant your subsequent request.
But as most of you know Moms frequently aren’t fooled by these tactics, and Jesus surely is not fooled. Jesus sees the trap: If He says, "No, don't pay taxes to Caesar," the Pharisees will report His answer to the Roman authorities, who will then have grounds for arrest. On the other hand, the crowds hate the Roman system of taxation.
Jesus is not concerned with the size of His following; as we have seen before, He does not seek crowds of followers. His concern, instead, is to teach the truth about God and government.
So Jesus asks for a coin, a denarius. Of course, there is no paper money at this time; this gold coin, with purchasing power equal to $40 or $50 today, has the head of the emperor on the front. Note that Jesus didn't have this much money in His possession -- he asks someone else to bring him the coin.
Noting that the emperor appears on the coin, Jesus says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." He says, in effect, "Submit to the authorities. Government does have some authority, and you are to submit in those areas. But all authority belong to God, whatever authority exists is derived from Him."
So here is our first principle from today's text: The fruitbearer submits to God, and to God-ordained authorities.
Now, what should we render to God? What is stamped with His image, and His inscription?
Consider these verses:
Genesis 1:27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
1 Corinthians 6:19b-20a You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.
Revelation 22:3-4 His slaves shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads.
Man is stamped with God's image; all those who will live eternally in His presence have been purchased or redeemed by the blood of Christ, and God's name is inscribed on their foreheads.
So what should we render to God? What things belong to God? Everything! We owe God our physical life, our spiritual life; all that we have accomplished, all that we have collected; all our past and all our future belongs to Him. So render to God the things that are God's -- that is, all that you are. The fruitbearer gives His all to God.
The Fruitbearer Believes in God's Power Over Death
18 ¶ And some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) *came to Him, and began questioning Him, saying, 19 "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that IF A MAN’S BROTHER DIES, and leaves behind a wife, AND LEAVES NO CHILD, HIS BROTHER SHOULD TAKE THE WIFE, AND RAISE UP OFFSPRING TO HIS BROTHER. 20 "There were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died, leaving no offspring. 21 "And the second one took her, and died, leaving behind no offspring; and the third likewise; 22 and so all seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman died also. 23 "In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife." 24 Jesus said to them, "Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures, or the power of God? 25 "For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 "But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB’? 27 "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken."
The Pharisees and Herodians fail in their task, so they continue the wrestling match by tagging the Sadducees, who are associated with the first group, the chief priests. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They honored as Scripture only the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and argued that there was no evidence of an afterlife in these books.
In this passage the Sadducees try to use a reductio ad absurdum argument, showing that the resurrection has ridiculous implications. In effect, they say, "If there was a resurrection, God would only allow one marriage in this life; otherwise, after the resurrection many men would be married to the same woman. But since God allows, even commands, second marriages, there must not be a resurrection."
Jesus responds with vigor: "You do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God." Let's try to flesh that out. Jesus says, "The Scriptures indicate that there is a resurrection. And if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you don’t see the power of God, for all authority is given to me, even the power over death."
So Jesus argues in favor of the resurrection from the Torah, the very part of Scripture the Sadducees say they honor and obey. Remember, Moses lived hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But at the burning bush, God declares, "I am the God of Abraham." Many observers point out that God uses present tense in this statement; He does not say, "I was the God of Abraham," but "I am." At the time He speaks to Moses, He remains the God of Abraham, so Abraham must still be alive.
But there is more here than a verb tense. As John Piper notes, the emphasis in Jesus' statement is not on the tense but on His being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God is the God of the living, not the dead. In other words, God is so powerful, that those that belong to Him cannot succumb to death. God has power and authority over death; if He is my God, I cannot die.
Do you see how freeing this is for us? So much of our life is dominated by the threat of death -- both physical death and the threat of missing out on life while we are here. God is the source of all power and all life -- and His people need never fear death.
So here is the lesson for us:
The fruitbearer believes in God's power over death, trusting the Scriptures.
The Fruitbearer Loves God with All His Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength
28 ¶ And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; 30 AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ 31 "The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these."
Did you catch who asked Jesus this question? One of the scribes, a member of the first group that questioned Jesus about His authority. Remember, these scribes were the object of Jesus' parable of the vineyard; Jesus pictured them as a dried up, dead fig tree. The other scribes have been silenced by Jesus' mastery of the situation, but this one speaks up.
But he is different; he does not come to trap Jesus. Seeing the excellent answer Jesus gives the Sadducees, this scribe genuinely wants to know Jesus' answer to his quesiton: What is the greatest commandment? We saw last week that the fruitbearer loves truth, and speaks truth; this scribe -- perhaps alone among his group -- wants to hear the truth.
Jesus answers, and in so doing he provides us with our foremost lesson for fruitbearing:
The fruitbearer loves God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Let's spend a little time unpacking this profound statement:
We are to love God. Not only do we adore God or His creation; not only do we wonder at His majesty and power and authority; not only can we enumerate His attributes; but we love God, cherishing Him above all else. As a wife would love a perfect husband, as a child would love a perfect father, so are we to love God, to delight in Him.
Furthermore, we are not only to love God, but to love Him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Thus, we are to love him with our will, what we decide and choose; we are to love Him with what we feel; we are to love Him with what we think, and to focus our thoughts and intellectual activity on Him; we are to love Him with what we do in the strength He provides.
Note also that He does not say, "Love the Lord your God with some of your heart, soul, mind, and strength;" nor does he say, "Love the Lord your God with most of your heart, soul, mind, and strength." What does He say? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." So everything you decide, everything you feel, everything you think, everything you do, should be willed/felt/thought/done out of love for God.
And once we love God, we are in a position where we can love our neighbor. Note that loving our neighbor is not primary, where modern secular moralists would like to put it; loving our neighbor is secondary, but nevertheless vitally important. If we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, if we are bearing the fruit of Christlikeness, then we will love our neighbor, for God is love, and God loves our neighbor.
Who can live up to this? Love God with everything, every moment of every day! And love our neighbors -- even those who are mean and nasty and cause us pain and heartache. My friends, no one can live up to this. But through dependence on the power of God, through turning our focus to God, through our asking the Spirit to bear fruit in our lives, through the joyful disciplines of Bible study and prayer, through help of other Christians, by God’s grace we can grow in this love.
Paul prays for the Philippians, "May your love abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight . . . to the glory and praise of God." For the last six months I have been praying that phrase regularly for myself and for this church. Would you join me in those prayers -- for yourself, for me, and for your brothers and sisters in the body of Christ?
Let's continue reading:
32 And the scribe said to Him, "Right, Teacher, You have truly stated that HE IS ONE; AND THERE IS NO ONE ELSE BESIDES HIM; 33 AND TO LOVE HIM WITH ALL THE HEART AND WITH ALL THE UNDERSTANDING AND WITH ALL THE STRENGTH, AND TO LOVE ONE’S NEIGHBOR AS HIMSELF, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 And when Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And after that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.
The scribe acknowledges that Jesus' parable of the fig tree is true: the outward form of religion, going through the motions of the sacrificial system, is not the key. Loving God is the key.
So Jesus states that he is "not far" from kingdom of God. Surely He intends to encourage this scribe, who exhibits an interest in the truth and an understanding of the importance of love for God, setting him apart from the other scribes. But note that Jesus does not say this fellow is in the kingdom. He is not far away, but he is not in the kingdom.
Most of you have heard the saying "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." Our goal should not be to come near to the kingdom of God, but to be in it. How can we ensure that? Jesus tells the scribe the answer in the next section:
The Fruitbearer Must Acknowledge Jesus as God and Lord
35 ¶ And Jesus answering began to say, as He taught in the temple, "How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 "David himself said in the Holy Spirit, ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I PUT THINE ENEMIES BENEATH THY FEET."‘ 37 "David himself calls Him ‘Lord’; and so in what sense is He his son?" And the great crowd enjoyed listening to Him.
Note that Mark begins this section, "And Jesus answering . . ." Jesus continues to speak to the scribe, explaining what he lacks, what he must understand and believe prior to entering the kingdom of God.
Jesus then quotes from Psalm 110 -- a Psalm that all parties acknowledge as a prophecy about the Messiah. David himself is the author of this Psalm, which begins, "The Lord said to my Lord . . ." To us, that sounds very strange. In the Hebrew version of the Psalm, however, the first "Lord" actually is the name of God, "Yahweh" or "Jehovah," not the word "Lord." Recall that the Israelites came to revere the name of God so highly that they thought they should never pronounce it. Instead, when coming to the name of God during a public reading, they would substitute the word "Lord" for the name of God. In most English versions of the Bible, you can tell the difference; if the word "LORD" appears in all capital letters, the Hebrew word is the name of God.
So David begins this Psalm, "Yahweh says to my Lord". David refers to the Messiah as his Lord. And yet the Messiah is said to be the Son of David. Jesus asks, "How can this be? How can the Messiah be both David's son and David's Lord?"
There is only one answer: Jesus is both the son of David and the Son of God. Jesus is God. And the scribe needs to acknowledge this if he is to enter the kingdom of God.
So when the greatest commandment states, "Love the Lord your God," we are to love Jesus as well, for Jesus is the Lord our God.
So the lesson for us: Fruitbearers must acknowledge Jesus as God and Lord.
Fruitbearers Seek Praise and Honor from God Alone
38 And in His teaching He was saying: "Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, 39 and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets, 40 who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation."
In these few verses Mark gives a very brief summary of the lengthy condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees found in Matthew 23. What is their problem? Should people give respectful greetings to their leaders? Should leaders be given places of honor? Is there something wrong with their praying in public?
The problem here is not the external actions, but the heart. The scribes thought they deserved special words of praise; they thought they were better than others, and thus deserved their seats of honor; they sought people's praise, and so offered lengthy, beautiful prayers that were insincere, and not addressed to God at all.
Friends, we can never be fruitful when we think highly of ourselves and our abilities. Most of us here this morning were just brought to our knees when considering the greatest commandment, as we see how far short we fall of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We need to stay there, humbled, amazed that God would ever consider calling us to himself, acknowledging that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that makes us attractive to God -- other than what He Himself accomplishes in us.
My former pastor Gary Vanderet puts it this way in a recent sermon:
A genuine, humble admission of the evil of our flesh is the beginning of fruitfulness. Many of us struggle because we have too high an opinion of ourselves. But we will never cry for deliverance unless we come to terms with our wretchedness. The power of the Holy Spirit is discovered on the road to self-despair. Our only hope is constant watchfulness and dependence.
Jesus speaks to religious authorities here for a reason. The problem of pride and self-righteousness is a particularly serious problem for preachers. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
Self is the greatest enemy of the preacher, more so than in the case of any other man in society. And the only way to deal with self is to be so taken up with, and so enraptured by, the glory of what you are doing, that you forget yourself altogether.
We are all unworthy. We all fail miserably to love Lord our God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength. That’s our starting place. Whatever impact our lives have on others is in spite of us, not because of us.
The lesson for fruitbearing: don’t seek praise or commendation from men. Instead, fruitbearers seek praise and honor from God alone.
The Fruitbearer Gives Sacrificially
Mark ends this section by contrasting the scribes devouring widows’ houses with the charity of a poor widow herself:
41 ¶ And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the multitude were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. 43 And calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, "Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; 44 for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on."
Picture the scene: the treasury is a large container with an opening at the top. Most people walk by, perhaps letting their golden denarius shine in the sun for all to see prior to dropping it in. Clink! Look at the color and size of the coin, count the number of clinks, and you know how much the person gave. The rich people are making as obvious as possible the extent of their giving. They are seeking praise from men, just like the scribes.
Then this poor widow approaches. She carries only dull, copper coins. There is nothing to be proud of, but still people can notice what she puts in. Perhaps some onlookers are smirking: "Why does she bother? God hardly needs those few pennies!" But she ignores them; her transaction is between God and herself.
Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler from chapter 10? (see sermon) He ran up to Jesus, asking, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus tells him, "Go, sell all you possess, and give to the poor and you will have riches in heaven." He won't do it, as he owns much.
What does this woman do? She gives all that she has! This poor widow fulfills the command Jesus gave to the rich young ruler.
How much did she give? The two coins she deposited amounted to 1/64 of a denarius, or about 80 cents in today's money. This would be enough to buy sufficient food to provide calories and protein for a day. That's all she had: money enough to buy today's food. There were no reserves, no savings, nothing hidden away. But she gave it all away, to honor God.
What is Jesus' reaction? Does He reprimand her, saying "You should have planned better!" Does He reach into the treasury and give it back to her, saying, "Meet your own true needs and only then give the surplus to God."
No. This widow loves God with all her heart, soul, mind, strength. So she gives her all to God. Far from reprimanding her, Jesus tells us to go and do likewise. The principle is clear: The fruitbearer gives sacrificially.
So what do you need to do in order to bear fruit?
Are you near to the kingdom of God, but not in it? You will never bear fruit out there. The first and necessary step is to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, acknowledging your own sinfulness, your own inability to love God with all your heart, your inability to accomplish anything apart from God. Then receive Him -- and you can bear fruit! As we saw, the fruitbearer acknowledges Jesus as Lord.
Do you truly believe? Then you are commanded to bear fruit! What do you need to do to care for the tree, to fertilize it, and so bear fruit?
One lesson is over and above all the others:
Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength. In doing this, you submit your will to God's, acknowledging His authority over you; you give Him your mind and heart, focusing on God's power over death as taught in the Scriptures, and rejoicing in that truth; and then with all your strength you seek God's commendation in all you do, giving sacrificially and joyfully.
All the lessons for fruitbearing come together in this way.
What will you be? A tree that looks healthy for a season, but never bears fruit, and is cursed, dried up, and thrown in the fire? Or will you be that beautiful, fruitful peach tree, fragrant, lovely, weighed down with luscious fruit, to the glory and praise of God?
May your love abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 5/14/00. Charles Spurgeon's sermon on Mark 12:30 was quite helpful. The quote from Gary Vanderet is from his sermon on Romans 7:14-25, preached March 19, 2000, entitled "Why Do I Do What I Don’t Want to Do?" Eventually this will be posted to http://www.pbcc.org, but at the moment it is available only as catalog # 1204 of the PBCC printed sermon series. The Martyn Lloyd-Jones quote is from Preaching and Preachers; see this link. One of John Piper's meditations in his superb book, A Godward Life, Book 2 helped open my eyes to Jesus' emphasis on God as the source of life in verses 26 and 27.
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