Pictures That Tell a Story
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Pictures That Tell a Story

Luke 6:39–45  (ID: 2112)

Jesus often used everyday images to communicate unchanging truths. In this message, Alistair Begg unpacks four of these word pictures from Luke 6: the blind leading the blind, the student and teacher, the speck of sawdust in our brother’s eye, and the good tree bringing forth good fruit. As they have done for centuries, Jesus’ stories encourage today’s biblical teachers and leaders to engage in self-reformation before seeking to reform others.

Series Containing This Sermon

Encore 2023

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25919

A Study in Luke, Volume 4

The Christian Manifesto Luke 6:20–49 Series ID: 14204

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let’s turn again to chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel and to the thirty-ninth verse. We’re close now to the end of a sermon which Jesus has been preaching, as it is recorded for us, from verse 20, which we noted earlier in the chapter. And from that point of the commencement of Jesus’ instruction, we have been under the searchlight of the Word of God. It hasn’t been a particularly easy responsibility to teach, nor has it been easy for any of us, I fear, to listen to. But I do believe—I think we’ve come to agree together—that God has been speaking very forcibly and very clearly to us, both as individuals and as a church family. And we need to pay attention to what we heard last time, that we would be those who have ears to hear, and that we would hear, and that God would be pleased to fashion in us the kind of soil in which his instruction is taking root.

Jesus in this sermon is describing, amongst other things, the characteristics of Christian discipleship, answering for us the question, what should a follower of Jesus look like, sound like, be like? How will a follower of Jesus treat those who are not like him or her? How will a follower of Jesus respond to those who, frankly, despise them and say unkind things about them?

And the instruction of Jesus is simply this: that we are to adopt an approach which is gracious and loving and forgiving. This, says Jesus in his opening statement, is the way of blessedness—“Blessed is this individual,” and “Blessed is the other,” and so on—reminding us that Christian discipleship is marked by a reversal of values. And in verses 20–26, the follower of Jesus is described as being one who prizes what the world thinks pitiable and suspects what the world thinks is desirable. So the follower of Jesus is going to be identified by the way in which he or she responds to where the mainstream of a culture is going. And when it endorses that which is counter to what Jesus teaches, then the follower of Jesus will suspect that kind of emphasis and will be prepared to be regarded as something of a loser, because he embraces that which the world thinks is pitiable.

So, mark one of Christian discipleship is a reversal, then, of values. Mark two, in verses 27–38, is this dimension of love, which is actually an exceptional kind of love. It’s not the kind of love that you find in the sports club; it’s not the kind of love you ultimately would find going amongst people in the ebb and flow of life, because, he says in verse 32, “If that’s the kind of love, what kind of credit is that to you?” If you simply have a love that’s like the love that is found in the local bar, then don’t make a fuss about it, because pagans are able to do that. If your friendship is simply the kind of friendship that is found on sports teams, if your hospitality is the kind of hospitality that simply invites your kind of people around because you like those kind of people, then he says, “I don’t want you to be boasting and talking about it, because it’s no different from what happens in the pagan world. Instead,” says Jesus, “if you’re going to be my disciple, then I want you to be merciful as your Father is merciful—and God shows his mercy by being kind to those who are ungrateful and who are wicked.” So, he says, “I want my followers not to be those who stand up, as it were, on the spires of their churches and fire down at the people below, saying, ‘You know, you really are a dreadful group of people, and this country and this society and this culture and this political process is going into the dumper, and it’s because of the likes of people like you.’” Jesus says, “I don’t want to hear that kind of censoriousness coming from you. I don’t want you to be guilty of judgmentalism and condemnation—the kind that seeks to exalt oneself by disparaging other people. Instead,” he says, “I want you to be the embodiment of forgiveness and the embodiment of kindness.”

Somebody wrote to me after the comment that I made about finding two ladies kissing one another on the mouth in the Cleveland Hopkins Airport. The anonymous letter said, “Did you think for a moment how you may have made people feel whose children have gone in this direction?” I confess, no, I did not in that moment think about it, but I’ve thought about it since. And it was never my intention to pain you or any other parent who finds themselves there. And to the extent that I did, I apologize. My point was simply this: that such a lifestyle is abhorrent to Scripture, is regarded as a perversion. And if we’re going to display Christian discipleship, then we have to stand against that which the world increasingly says is fine, but to do so—and that was what I tried to raise as my dilemma: “How in the wide world in this moment do I respond to this with kindness and with grace?” Which is, of course, my same question in responding to your anonymous letter, which, if you had given me your name, I could have at least endeavored to respond in kindness and in grace. But there’s still time.

Christian discipleship: marked by a reversal of societal values, marked by an exceptional kind of love, and marked, in the end of the chapter, to which we’ll come next time, by the kind of zealous and true obedience which Jesus demands. That leaves us, then, just one section of the sermon, to which we now come, in verses 39–45, in which Jesus says that Christian discipleship is going to be displayed in a life of integrity. And in order to drive this home, Jesus employs a series of pictures, each of which tells a story: “Every picture tells a story.”[1]

It’s really quite impossible to read this without understanding that it is, in some measure, an invitation to introspection, that Christ is calling for us to look inside of ourselves. As I pondered that this week, I could hear numerous schoolteachers saying to the class—and often, I think, probably directly to me—after a piece of work had been assigned, or after they said, “You can turn your papers over now,” you know, when you have to begin your test and so on, and you turn the paper over, and you immediately look around to see if everybody feels as bad as you feel about what the first question is, especially in essay questions, and you are immediately looking around and seeing if anyone has started or whatever is going on, and the teacher says, “Now, my suggestion is this: never mind looking around; just concentrate on yourself.” And that’s exactly what Jesus is saying here. The call of the sermon is that one should not be preoccupied primarily and initially with the spiritual condition of others but should instead be diligent in examining ourselves in light of the standard that Jesus sets.

Now, that is, if we’re honest, immediately a challenge, because most of us regard our prerogative to be immediately involved in the spiritual condition of others, not least of us who have been entrusted with opportunities and responsibilities in leadership. Jesus says, “No, I don’t want you to begin there; I want you to begin with yourself. I want you to make sure that the searchlight of my Word and my standards is very, very clearly seen to be gazing and looking beneath the surface of your own circumstances.”

Now, there are, then, five pictures, essentially, that take us through to the end of the chapter. The fifth we will leave until next time; we will make an attempt at the first four.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Picture number one is there in verse 39: “[And] he … told them this parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man?’” Now, think about that for just a moment. It has a sort of pathetic humor to it: a blind man being led by a blind guide. Such a picture has disaster written all over it. It’s not uncommon for some of us to see a blind man wanting to cross a very busy street, and in our sightedness we go in order to enable them to cross. But if you imagine a very large highway with traffic going both directions and a blind man trying to get across, and another blind man comes to the help of the blind man trying to get across, and the one blind man helps the other blind man try and avoid four lanes of traffic going in every direction, it has disaster written all over it. And that is just the point that Jesus is making.

You see, Jesus’ listeners were well aware of the rugged terrain, which was full of pits and potholes. The New Testament has quite a lot to say about falling into pits and being pulled out of pits. Why is that? Well, because presumably the roads in Palestine were fairly similar to the roads in Northeast Ohio. Sometimes you fell into a hole that was actually expressly dug for you by the authorities, and other times you fell into a hole that was being disregarded by the authorities, but you couldn’t go fifteen yards without the potential of falling into a pit. And so his listeners would understand that the answer to Jesus’ first question was clearly to be a no: “Can a blind man lead a blind man?” Answer: no. And the answer to his second question was clearly to be a yes: “Will they not both fall into a pit?” Yes.

Now, by means of this one metaphor, this mental picture, Jesus is pointing out the folly and the futility of a blind man acting as a guide, and also of the disastrous consequences of following a guide who is himself blind. Now, here’s the question: How does this tie in to the preceding portion of Jesus’ discourse, and how does it fit with all that follows? Well, I have thought a great deal about this this week, and my best attempt at it is to say this: that since the context is very much in relationship to an instruction that is taking place within the framework of the Pharisees, who themselves were all eyes, Jesus, then, in addressing this issue of blindness, is pointing out that these individuals, who regarded themselves as those who really had their eyes wide open, were in point of fact the very blind guides that he warns those who are listening to him against following.

Why do I say that? Well, look at verse 7 of chapter 6. It says that “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking”—“looking,” a reference to sight—“looking for a reason to accuse Jesus,” and then, notice the phrase “so they watched him [very] closely.” So you have this picture of these guys going around with their eyes wide open. And Jesus says, “Now, listen, I want to just ask you a question: Can a blind man lead a blind man?” Despite the fact that these folks are walking around with their eyes wide open, they’re actually blind. Jesus has already stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth, and he has read from the portion of Isaiah which contains the phrase “[the] recovery of sight for the blind.”[2] And having given up on the scroll, he sat down, and he said, “Now is this scripture fulfilled in your hearing.”[3] And the Pharisees, who prized themselves in being able to see everything so clearly, were in point of fact blind guides.

People who speak falsehood, especially as it relates to God and to the Bible, should not be regarded as a benign presence in society. They should be regarded with gravity, and they should be avoided at all costs.

Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, in 15:14, Jesus is actually recorded as referring to the Pharisees as “blind guides.” And the reason that he speaks so clearly concerning it is because disaster attaches to following a blind guide. It is not that these individuals were purporting information that was simply benign; it was dreadfully dangerous. And people who speak falsehood, especially as it relates to God and to the Bible, should not be regarded as a benign presence in society, but they should be regarded with gravity, and they should be avoided at all costs.  

Every so often, people will come and say, “Well, you know, I go to a church where the Bible isn’t taught, but the gentleman is a very nice man.” He may be a very nice man, but he is a very dangerous man. If he is not teaching the Bible, if he is not propounding the truth of God’s Word, he is a blind guide, and you yourself will be blinded by him if you stay there, and you will both “fall into a pit.” Now, that kind of phraseology is regarded as dogmatic, assertive, proud, arrogant, and abusive. If it is true, none of the adjectives apply; if, of course, Christianity is not true, then none of the adjectives are relevant.

When Paul is addressing Timothy concerning the false teachers, the blind guides of his day, he says to Timothy, “Their teaching will spread like gangrene.”[4] That’s a graphic picture of a putrefying condition which makes a very fast advance through the body. So Jesus, in asking this question, in employing this first picture, is distinguishing between these blind teachers who thought they can see and warning his followers, lest they’re tempted to become like them.

The Teacher and the Pupil

That brings us to the second picture: the teacher and the pupil, or the teacher and the student. Now, in the days in which Jesus is addressing this matter, the pupil was virtually totally dependent upon his teacher for guidance and for instruction. In the absence of literature—much literature—they would walk with their teacher, they would eat with their teacher, they would often live with their teacher in order that in the walking and in the talking they may be clearly a student of that teacher. And in the same way that a son, no matter how advanced he may become in life, is always a son to his father, in the same way a student, no matter how he may excel or she may excel and go beyond the instruction and the academic qualifications of the initial teacher, that individual, you will find, if they’re worth their salt and honest at all, will always, when they’re acknowledging their academic accolades, pay testimony to their teacher. It may be a high school teacher, it may be a principal in an elementary school, but they will say, you know, “In accepting this PhD today, I want to acknowledge that I am still the student of Mrs. X,” or whatever it is. Because they recognize their dependence upon that instruction.

Now, Jesus makes that point. And in making the point, there is an inherent warning—namely, “Make sure that you don’t choose the wrong teacher. Because the student won’t get beyond the teacher. And if you choose these blind guides as your teacher, then you will end up in the pit. Therefore, it is imperative that you leave behind these teachers and that you come and follow he who is the Great Teacher,” namely, Jesus himself.

The warning, I think, is also matched by an implied exhortation. And it’s simply this: if his followers are going to be teachers—and they are—then they need to be on their guard against the blindness which marked the Pharisees. And what was the blindness that marked the Pharisees? It was the blindness of unbelief. But what contributed, it would seem, largest of all to their condition? The answer is that they were self-deceived, that they thought they could see when in point of fact they were blind, that they thought they understood who was in and who was out. And Jesus says, “No, that’s not the case at all.” Before judging others, Jesus is essentially saying, we better first judge ourselves, lest we too become blind leaders of the blind.

That’s the worst possible teacher to have: the teacher who is completely self-deceived, the individual who does not understand what they actually look like.

Now, that’s a very sobering statement. Says [Lenski], “Nothing is worse than … men [who] think that they see when they are in reality blind, and when in their delusion they make bold to act as leaders and guides for others.”[5] In other words, that’s the worst possible teacher to have: the teacher who is completely self-deceived, the individual who does not understand what they actually look like.  

Every so often, in a humorous way, we’ve had the dreadful experience of being in a party or something where there’s a group of people walking around, and they’re all doing that small talk and everything, you come up and talk to somebody, and they’ve got some dreadful smudge or something on their face, or they’ve got a piece hanging from somewhere that shouldn’t be hanging there, or one of their glasses is out, or whatever it is. And you don’t really know the person, and you want to say, you know, whatever it is, you can’t bring yourself to do it, and yet you should, because they’re going around going, “Hey! And how are you?” And everywhere they go, you know that everybody can see what they can’t see. And eventually they go to the restroom, and they must just burst into tears, ’cause they realize they’ve looked it like this for ages now, but they’re completely self-deceived. They think they look great; they look funny!

The Twig and the Plank

Without self-examination and without self-reparation, our actions will be the product of presumption rather than the product of love.

Now, it is this notion that Jesus then employs in his third picture, which is the picture, if you like, of the twig and the plank. Now, don’t let’s miss the wood for the trees here. Let’s try and say these things as clearly as we can: In order to avoid being a blind teacher, we must first place our lives under the divine searchlight—that’s what he’s saying. Before we start in on other people, let’s make sure that we are undergoing the X-ray; before we start running around with a mobile CAT scan for everybody, let’s make sure that we ourselves have been through the tube. Because a knowledge of oneself and a preparedness to take oneself in hand is, says Jesus, a prerequisite for the individual who is going to become something of a reformer. Indeed, without self-examination and without self-reparation, our actions will be the product of presumption rather than the product of love.  

You understand what I mean by that? That if I am unprepared to face the dreadfulness of my own heart—if I am unprepared to acknowledge with Murray M’Cheyne, who died at the age of twenty-nine as a Presbyterian minister in Dundee, that the seeds of every sin known to men dwell in my own heart,[6] that I am inflammable, that in a moment I could erupt like a volcano, I could explode, I could be a disaster in an instant—unless I truly understand that and believe that, then when I go to deal with others, the temptation will be that I go to take the high ground of presumption rather than I come along the low ground of genuine love. And there’s all the difference in the world—and we know it, we feel it, it’s palpable—when somebody comes along like this, and somebody comes along like this.

And Jesus is saying, “If you’re going to be kind to the ungrateful and the [un]merciful, you’re going to have to be able to come along like this, and if you’re going to learn to come along like this, then you’re going to have to put yourself under the CAT scan of my Word, and you’re going to have to realize that you’ve got things hanging off you and bits in your face and all kinds of nonsense which actually are known to other people, and you yourself are blind to them. Now,” he says, “I want you to fix this up before you start on anybody else.”

The real church discipline is the discipline that starts with our own hearts. Church discipline starts with me.

See what an amazing, purifying thing discipline is within the body of Christ? People, when they think about church discipline, tend to think immediately about communion tables and disfranchising and disfellowshipping people, but the real church discipline is the discipline that starts with our own hearts . Church discipline starts with me. “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”[7] It’s not really my wife that needs fixed; it’s me. It’s not really my kids that are the problem; it’s me. But everything in me militates against that. And I would far rather come and tell some other people about some of their dreadful conditions than face my own.

Now, let me trivialize it: You go to the zoo, and you see there’s chimpanzees and those monkeys and baboons—weird creatures, I think, that God has given to us as a joke, quite frankly. I do not believe for one single, solitary second that there is any progression between them and us. And there is no need for that. God gave us monkeys, baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, to show us how blooming stupid we actually look a lot of the time. And if we did not have a soul and we did not have the same kind of brain, that’s basically what we would look like. But it’s not what we came from to this. He says, “I give you these guys so you can see.” Now, what do they do? Pick each other! What is it with these things picking each other? Always doing this—parting each other’s hair, doing this, picking things. And you’re standing watching this, you go, “Why does that thing think it has a right to do that to his brother, or whoever it is that’s in there with him, to his sister? I mean, if that thing could see what it looks like, it would cut that picking out! It would go get a shower; it would go and never come back.” ’Cause it’s got stuff coming from everywhere; but doesn’t matter, it’s like, “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah dah-dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah-dah,” picking it up, looking at it, showing it to the person: “Do you see that? Look at that.” They do that stuff, don’t they? Now, were we doing that seven billion years ago? No, we’re doing it this week! Just doing it differently, doing it with different stuff—rooting around in each other’s business to pick it up and show it to each other.

Jesus says, “Now listen, there’s a place for dealing with the twigs, but let me tell you what the process is: first the two-by-four, then the twig. Don’t get it out of sync. Because if you do, you’re a Pharisee, you’re a blind guide, and you’ll never be better than your teacher.”

Now, the words are pretty clear, actually. The word that is translated here “[a] speck of sawdust” is the word karphos, which won’t really mean very much to most of us. But if you go take a Greek lexicon and look it up, you will find that karphos is descriptive of anything that is small and dry in terms of foliage. It’s used in classical Greek, usually in the plural, to describe twigs or shrubbery or bits and pieces, the kind of things that you finally rake up after you’ve been working in the garden. It is the word that is used in Genesis 8:11 in the Septuagint version, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. And when you go to verse 11 of chapter 8, you have the description of the dove coming back to the ark after Noah has sent it out, and it is carrying in its beak a piece of olive leaf, branch, twig, whatever it is—it’s the exact same word; it’s a karphos.

The word that is used here and is translated “plank” is the word dokos, which is the load-bearing beam in a house or in a structure. And if you have done any construction work at all, you will know that that load-bearing beam is a piece of work, and it needs to be, because all of the other bits and pieces join into that load-bearing beam, and it carries so much. And so it is a massive piece; there probably is not a larger piece of metal, if it is cast metal, or wood in your home than in the places where you find those beams.

And so, here’s the picture—and it’s a humorous picture. People say, “Well, Jesus wasn’t humorous at all.” We never have a record of him laughing. But he uses humor here to make his point. He says, “Can you imagine walking around with a huge load-bearing beam sticking out of the front of your head? And you’re oblivious to the fact that it’s there. And you keep going up to people with this thing sticking out of your head, saying, ‘Excuse me, I think you have a … there’s a little twig there in the corner of your eye.’ The person says, ‘Could you just back up ever so slightly, please?’ And the guy goes, ‘Why? Why?’ They say, ‘Well, the thing.’ ‘What thing?’ ‘Well, the…’ ‘No, no, I don’t have a thing; I want to talk to you about the thing in the corner of your eye.’”

Now, that’s the point that he’s making: “Why is it that you’re going around looking at the twig in your brother’s eye, and you actually have decided not to pay any attention to the plank in your own eye?” In other words, “Why is it,” he says, “that you think you can take to yourself the privilege of dealing with everybody else’s spiritual condition while frankly refusing to deal with your own—that you think that, somehow or another, you’ve been given the prerogative to call people up, to invite them to coffee, to send them little notes, to admonish them ‘in the Lord’ because of their twig, when in point of fact you are ‘a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction’?[8] And if you would only take a minute,” he says, “and look in your shaving mirror, or look when you do your eyebrows, you got a huge thing sticking in your face. How is it,” he says—verse 42—“that you can go around and say these things to your brothers and sisters—‘Excuse me, I wonder if you would let me take the speck out of your eye’—when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?” So Jesus says, “You know what? This is hypocrisy.”

Now, what is it that people say about churches and why they don’t like going to churches? What’s the number one thing? That’s right: “There’s so many hypocrites there,” they say. “I don’t want to go there, they’re hypocrites.” True! That’s what Jesus is saying. He said, “I want to talk to you about the characteristics of Christian discipleship, and I want you to understand that if you don’t fall in a pit as a result of listening to and following blind guides, or you yourself become a teacher that manages to live with a self-delusion, you will be a walking hypocrite.”

Now, what is the hypocrisy? I think the hypocrisy is in a fake concern. Because … let me try and think of an illustration that I don’t have before me. Well, let’s do a dumb one that no one will get offended about. Let’s do diets, okay? (Okay, a few people’ll get offended; that’s all right.) You have just come home early. Nobody’s around. You beetle into the house, you grab the Planters peanuts. You start eating them a handful at a time. You open the freezer thing, you find the vanilla ice cream. You start on that. You find a chocolate bar that somebody brought from England. You eat that. (This is not biographical at all.) You eat that. And after you are swollen like a beached whale, somebody very close to you comes home and eats a quarter of a Snickers bar. And you say, “Hey, hey, hey, I thought we had a deal!” First, quit eating the Planters, the ice cream, and the chocolate bars from England before you start talking about pieces of candy an eighth of an inch deep. Why would you be so concerned about that when you’re so unconcerned about this?

You see, what makes it so condemning is this: the hypocrisy is all the more unpleasant because it is an apparent act of kindness. You see? And that’s what gives us this little feeling of superiority, because we think we’re being ever so kind: “The only reason I’m pointing this out to you is because, you know, I care for your soul.” And sometimes when you hear that, you want to go, “Blow it out your ear,” don’t you? Well, I do. I’m sorry, I do. Indeed, of all the things that have been pointed out to me, if I had to take every one of them seriously, I’d be in a mental institution today. And I’m not saying that they were all without justification. But I’d rather have somebody, as happens to me, come up without any sense of disguise and nail me than come up with an apparent act of kindness that is a means of inflating our own ego and saying, you know, “I really just want to deal with this, because such and such.” And the spirit of censoriousness is such that I seek to exalt myself by disparaging other people.

That’s the hypocrisy: I feel that I can deal with sin vicariously by finding it in my brother and sister and condemning it there without dealing with it here, so that that gives me the weird sensation of experiencing a sense of self-righteousness without facing the pain of penitence; so that if I can find your flaw, and deal with you, and tell you that “I only want to do so because I have a great concern for you and I love you and I’m very kindly disposed to you,” and thereby prevent myself from dealing with the issue, I’m just a total hypocrite.

Now, Jesus is not turning over Matthew 18, he’s not turning over the notion of exhorting and encouraging one another, he’s not turning over the whole of his instruction about “Go, show yoursel[f] to the [person],”[9] “Go deal with your brother before you come to communion,”[10] and so on; he’s not overturning that at all. He said, “Let’s get this in sequence here,” says, “Before you go on a crusade as a reformer, make sure you’re reformed. Before you go on a crusade as a teacher, make sure you’re taught. Before you go on a crusade as an ophthalmologist, make sure you take that huge, big thing out of the front of your face, because you’re gonna have great difficulty in actually seeing into the eyes of the people that you think you’re going to go fix.” In other words, deal with yourself first.

“Learn,” says Jesus, “to be as critical of yourself as you often are of others, and be as generous to others as you always are with yourself.” That’s a challenge. See, I want to be generous with myself and critical of you. Maybe you feel the same way. He says, “No. Let’s be as critical of ourselves as we always are with other people, and let’s be as generous to other people as we want to be generous with ourselves.”

In other words, rigid self-examination should precede and will often preclude the kind of judgment that he condemned in verse 37. And you will notice, there in verse 42, he uses the word then. “And then,” he says: “You hypocrite … take the plank out of your eye, and then”—and we might add, in parenthesis, “and only then” or “not until then”—“[will you] see clearly [enough] to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Only when self-reformation has taken place will it be possible for us to see clearly enough to help others.

You will notice, incidentally, that there is a problem there, that there is a speck there. He’s not saying that it isn’t there; he’s just saying, “Don’t go there and try and take it out until you’ve first dealt with this.” And I think we will often find that we will have so much time dealing with the this that there won’t be a lot of time for the then, and we’ll spend so much time dealing with the this that there won’t be a then to go there and deal with that, and that God will have other ways of dealing with that in them, because for the other person sitting over there, what they regard as a twig is really a plank, and so on. You understand how it works? See, because what I think is a twig is really a plank. I want to treat it as a twig; Jesus says it’s a plank. I want to treat yours as a plank; Jesus says it’s a twig. He says, “You want to deal with the plank, deal here; you want to deal with the twig, deal there—but not until you dealt with the plank here.”

A Tree and Its Fruit

Those who are unreformed in character can no more reform others than thorns and briars can produce figs and grapes.

Picture four, a tree and its fruit, and with this we wrap it up: Thorns and briars do not produce figs and grapes. The identity of a tree is determined by its fruit. It will be the actions of a disciple that show what he or she is like at heart. Those who are unreformed in character can no more reform others than thorns and briars can produce figs and grapes.  If you want to know whether this is a good tree, you take time to look at its fruit. If you want to know if it’s a bad tree, do the same. And in the Matthean passage, Jesus says, “By their fruit[s] you [shall know] them.”[11] Here he ends it, “Out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”[12]

Now, the context again is teachers, is it not? If we allow that there is a syntax to all of this—blind guides, students, teachers, specks, tree, fruit—what is the fruit, then? Let me suggest to you three things, and I’m just going to give you a word or two on each.

How should we think, then, of the fruit? Well, think of it, first of all, in terms of the character of the teacher. What is the fruit? How are we going to see the fruit? Well, it’s gonna be conveyed in his character, in her character. When Jesus teaches about the vine and the branches, he says that fruitfulness equals Christlikeness. So each tree is recognized by its own fruit. What is the fruit of the Spirit? “Love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, goodness, self-control.”[13] So he says, “Okay, here’s a teacher. Let me tell you how to assess him: not by his eloquence, not by his apparent giftedness, not by her abilities, not by her rhetoric, not by her great radio program, not by the fact that she’s a great woman’s speaker, whatever it is.” He says, “Don’t use that as the test. No, no, do it in relationship to the fruit. What will the fruit be? It will be expressed in character.” And when, instead of kindness and self-control, we’re dealing with enmity, we’re dealing with impurity, we’re dealing with jealousy, we’re dealing with self-indulgence, then we are justified in suspecting that the teacher is an imposter. And if you doubt that, just read in Matthew 7, where Jesus is actually talking about false prophets.

So, fruit number one, the character of the teacher. Number two, the content of the teaching—the content of the teaching. If a person’s heart is revealed by his words as a tree is known by its fruit, then we have a responsibility to judge the teacher by the teaching. Both! Paul says to Timothy, “Watch your life”—that is, your character—“and [your] doctrine closely”:[14] “life,” character; “doctrine,” teaching. ’Kay, who are the blind guides? Those whose character is out to lunch and those whose content is not true to the instruction of the Bible.

When John addresses the churches in Asia who had been invaded by falsehood, he said, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.”[15] Not everybody who shows up with a Bible has the best interests of the people at heart. Not everybody who’s on TV and names the name of Christ is a true prophet. False prophets abound, he says. That’s why it is imperative that you as a congregation, that we as individuals, learn the Bible. And one of the main reasons that you have to learn the Bible so much is to make sure that I don’t go wrong, so that you will become such students of the Book you say, “Hey, hey, hey! Wait a minute! Fruit! You’re saying ‘pear tree,’ you look like an apple tree. I don’t see this.” Is it any wonder that James says, “Let not many of you become teachers, for he who teaches will be judged with greater strictness?”[16] “Dear friends,” he says, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”[17] John was concerned that his readers would apply the tests not only of behavior but also of belief, because sound doctrine and holy living are the marks of the true prophet.

Fruit: the character of the teacher. Fruit: the content of the teaching. Fruit: the impact on the taught—the impact on the taught. That, I think, is the significance of this interaction between the student and the teacher, and becoming fully trained and becoming like his teacher. There is no question about that, you know. Unless there is a complete disengagement between the teacher’s role in a classroom or in a university or from a pulpit, by and large, all things being equal, a congregation will take on the emphasis of the primary teacher of the Bible—which, again, makes it a sobering responsibility.

When people, then, are fed on error, the impact will be like the spread of gangrene. And when truth is banished and error is embraced, you will find, according to the Pastoral Epistles, amongst the congregation ungodliness and bitter division. Now, we understand that it is possible in any congregation for ungodliness to erupt and for division to exist in the best of places. However, those will be aberrations; they will not be the hallmark of that congregation. But when you go amongst a people and you find that it is marked by ungodliness, a lack of application of the Bible to the existence of life and to the relationships with one another, and the sense of cliquishness and divisions and animosity and strife and manifold chaos, he says, “You’re gonna be able to see this as the very fruit of the instruction. And,” he says, “there’s going to be a direct correlation between the character of the teacher, the content of the teaching, and the impact that it makes upon the people.”

Every schoolteacher knows this. It’s one of the reasons, I think, that—this is almost a political statement—but it’s one of the reasons that teachers don’t want the result-oriented remuneration system. Why not, if you’re any good? I mean, every salesman worth his salt wants results-based remuneration. What, you just want to stand up and talk, and you don’t care what happens? You want to just stand up and share your wisdom and let the children run around and do what they like? Or do you want to actually take seriously the fact that “No pupil is above their teacher, but when they are fully trained, they will become like their teacher”[18] and face up to the responsibility that if they stink, it’s probably because you stink. And we’re not talking about making them geniuses; we’re talking about advancing the ball. Come on, you’re a teacher! Let me tell you how we’ll know your fruit: we meet your class.

Now, do you see what this means in relationship to these things? In the most direct, unequivocal, unavoidable terms, listen carefully, loved ones, and with this we close: if people come amongst Parkside Church, and in the daily interchange of conversation—in the gathering to talk, in meals, in coffee, in attending events together, and so on—they pick up the flavor of judgementalism, they pick up a spirit of divisiveness, they pick up all that is negative and untoward, then they may actually simply be picking up the emphasis of the teacher. But if they come amongst us, and they find that there is a commitment to righteousness and to peace and to joy in the Holy Spirit, then they will know that it is the fruit of the instruction.

Fruit takes time to grow. That’s why it’s useful to stay around for a while.

Fruit takes time to grow. That’s why it’s useful to stay around for a while.  That’s why, to the best of my knowledge, I’m not leaving anywhere or going anywhere soon. I mean, the elders may have other plans, but as far as I understand it, as of this morning it’s not my plan. For those of you who think that I’m moving my family one person at a time to California so I can go and join them, that is not the case. And one of the reasons I don’t want to go anywhere is because of you—because of your patience, because of your forbearance, because of your love, because of your willingness to say, “Aw, don’t worry about that. He’s not really like that all the time. That was a bad one; he’ll come around.” Because if you knew what I was really like, you’d never listen to me preach. And if I knew what you were really like, I wouldn’t preach to you. But over the long haul, then we’re able to say, “You know, the character, the conduct, the message, the motives, the influence are not perfect in any one of us, but they’re trending, at least, in the right direction,” you know? That there’s a genuine, honest, open spirit of contrition before the Bible, of honesty before the Scriptures, of saying, teacher and students alike, “We are not what we are yet to become, but we are different from what we were.” You can never lead souls heavenward unless climbing yourself; you need not be very high up, but you must be climbing. And that we are all together learners from the one true Teacher, the one who knows the answers, Jesus, the one who says, “Why do you [actually] call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do [the things] I [tell you]?”[19] Which brings us to picture number five, which allows us to anticipate next week.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, you who search us and know our hearts, you who “know when we sit down and when we stand up,”[20] we thank you for the immensity of your love. Thank you that when we’re ungrateful, you remain kind; when we’re wicked, you remain true to your word, as we’ll see this evening. Thank you for giving us one another. Help us to do what the Bible says, and thereby to make the gospel of Jesus attractive to those who are wondering about him.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us, today and forevermore.[21] Amen.

[1] Rod Stewart, “Every Picture Tells a Story” (1971).

[2] Luke 4:18 (NIV 1984).

[3] Luke 4:21 (paraphrased).

[4] 2 Timothy 2:17 (NIV 1984).

[5] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel: 1–11 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1946), 375.

[6] Robert Murray M’Cheyne, quoted in Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 153.

[7] “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” Traditional Spiritual.

[8] Kris Kristofferson, “The Pilgrim” (1971).

[9] Luke 17:14 (NIV 1984).

[10] Matthew 5:23–24 (paraphrased).

[11] Matthew 7:16 (NIV 1984).

[12] Luke 6:45 (NIV 1984).

[13] Galatians 5:22 (paraphrased).

[14] 1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV 1984).

[15] 1 John 2:26 (NIV 1984).

[16] James 3:1 (paraphrased).

[17] 1 John 4:1 (NIV 1984).

[18] Luke 6:40 (paraphrased).

[19] Luke 6:46 (NIV 1984).

[20] Psalm 139:1–2 (paraphrased).

[21] 2 Corinthians 13:14 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.