Read together: Galatians 5:22-26
The Bible has a lot to say about trees and fruit. We might remember that mankind’s possibility of blessedness without sin was ruined due to a fruit tree, or at least the fruit was the efficient cause; we might remember Abraham sitting beneath the Oak at Mamre when the three visitors on their way to Sodom stopped by; we might remember the promise of peace to “dwell under one’s own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4). Lastly, we should recall that our Lord’s Cross is named a “tree” numerous times by the Apostles (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24). Yet, when we read the Law of God, precious little is spoken about trees, except...in Leviticus (everything comes back to Leviticus).
“When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised. Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you. It shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord. And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the Lord your God” (19:23-25).
Whenever we encounter a text like this, one which makes us wonder how this could possibly teach us about Christ, His salvation, or His Church, we should remember the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians and in 1 Timothy. In talking about how, as an apostle he is entitled to certain things such as material support, he says:
“Whoever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? Do I say these things are a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does he say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?” (1 Cor. 9:7-11)
In 1 Timothy, he says much the same thing to his young protege:
“Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘the laborer is worthy of his wages’” (5:17-18).
All of this to get to how Paul utilizes the Old Testament to teach about the people of God, as we see in 1 Corinthians 10: [read the relevant verses].
So, when we read about fruit trees in Leviticus, “is it trees God is concerned about? Or does he say it altogether for our sakes?” Here, of course, we must be careful, as Paul interpreted by means of the Holy Spirit; I cannot confidently say so for myself. We can make some observations about the passage, though, that might help us as we think about the “fruits of the Spirit.”
Notice that the fruit is called “uncircumcised,” which should strike us as an odd designation. Let’s remember, though, the role of circumcision in Israelite religion: it was a sign that you were in covenant with God and so could partake of His saving benefits. In Exodus 12:48, we are instructed that if a foreigner wants to partake of God’s Passover, he must first be circumcised: no one without the mark of the covenant can come near. Throughout the “Historical Books” of the Old Testament, “uncircumcised” is an insult meaning “not part of the people of God,” and therefore living in shame. Lips and hearts that are not tuned into God, or unworthy of His Presence, are called “uncircumcised” (Ex. 6:30, Lev. 26:41, etc.). “Uncircumcised fruits,” then, are ones that cannot be offered to God during the Festival of Firstfruits (Ex. 34:26, etc.). In Galatians, where we find the “fruits of the Spirit,” Paul is concerned throughout most of the letter to show that the circumcision laws have, in Christ, been done away with -- their purpose of separating God’s people from those outside of the covenant with a visible mark has been fulfilled. Now the substance of that shadow, living in the Spirit of holiness as opposed to the flesh, has been revealed. We no longer have to wait to offer these fruits (love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) to God: the period of being “outside,” of being “uncircumcised,” is past, but rather “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
This “faith working through love,” Paul says, is manifested in how we “serve one another. For all the law [including Lev. 19:23-25!] is fulfilled in one word, in this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (vv. 13-15). This metaphor of eating, then, takes us into the section on the fruits. Paul here lays out a banquet before us, encouraging us to choose our foods wisely. In this, he’s bringing to our mind the choice of Adam and Eve: eat all the foods God has permitted and so attain to His likeness the proper way, or short-circuit the process and eat from the forbidden tree and so lose everything. Live in the flesh, that is, cut off from God; or live in the Spirit, and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). Flesh or fruit: let’s see what’s on the menu.
“For the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like...but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:19-21, 22-23).
I repeat saying the fruits because they are beautiful and worth hearing over and over, until they become our prayer to God. With this bevy of goods laid out before us, it is worth noting that, when it comes to holiness, God wants us to be spiritual vegetarians, or rather, fruit-i-tarians. We are not to feast on our brothers and sisters by engaging in the works of the flesh, but rather we are to feast with them in the Spirit: it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that our communion meal with Christ is the fruit of grain and the fruit of the vine.
It is common, when talking about these fruits, to do an examen of conscience and ask, “Do I exhibit these fruits?” “Are these fruits evident in my life?” While it is an understandable thing to ask, it misses the point. These aren’t the fruits of us -- they are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We don’t produce them as if we were the tree, we feast upon them. They give us life, so that we might live in a way consonant with them. “You are what you eat” seems apropos here. The point is that Paul is talking about what happens to us, especially in our dealings with one another, when we are in communion with God through the Spirit. The Spirit generously gives us His fruits, and we can enjoy them together. The more we partake of them, and we see them brought forth in fulness in Christ’s life (which we share in through faith and baptism, as we talked about previously), the more we will be empowered, filled, to have “faith working through love.”
While we are seeking to feast on God, we must also deal with our former meal choices: the “works of the flesh.” Again, here it should be noted, we do not of our own power cease from these things. Anyone who has tried has met with failure and, sometimes, despair. We start to think that Luthers’ famous dictum of simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinner, is off-balance: we’re rotten through and through. But, notice what Paul says in verse 24: “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” How is this possible? Is this some sort of radical ascesis that denies the world for the sake of heaven?
“[D]o you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?...knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin...Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him...likewise, you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being fully alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:3, 6-7, 9, 11-14).
We are free from the “works of the flesh” because we have been, through baptism, crucified with Christ. Paul says that we are “fully alive from the dead,” which has some striking biblical overtones. In Ezekiel 37, the Prophet is given a vision of a valley full of dry bones. The Lord God promises, though, “Surely I will cause spirit to enter into you, and you shall live” (v. 5). The interpretation of the prophecy is given as well. The “dry bones” are Israel, cast out from their land and cut off from God’s promises which would lead to salvation for the whole world. Therefore, God says, “Behold, o My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, o My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it” (vv. 12-14). When God raises our Lord Jesus from the dead by the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 1:4), He fulfilled this prophecy, but in a striking way: God was not just concerned with Israel, but with all of humanity. He has given us His Spirit now, in hope of the further resurrection in which we will bear the Image of the Son (1 Cor. 15:49, cf. Rom. 8:29-30). In the meantime, He’s given us more than a piece of property on the Mediterranean Sea: “we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). What are these things? Paul enjoins Timothy to “command those who are rich in this present age not to be arrogant, nor to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17), for “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9), rich, that is, not in material things, but in “good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for ourselves a good foundation for the time to come, that we may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19). That is, partaking of the Spirit, sharing in His fruits, and so becoming like Christ. Amen.