By Doug Beacham
Throughout the Bible the metaphor of “fruit” is used to describe the attitudes and actions that are pleasing to God. In the poetic books, Psalm 1:3 describes the godly person who brings forth “fruit in its season.” A similar thought is expressed in Psalm 92:13-14, which says that the righteous “shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing.” Proverbs 12:14 refers to the power of words as “the fruit” of our mouths.
The prophets used the same agricultural image. Isaiah 3:10 refers to the righteous eating “the fruit of their doings.” Jeremiah 6:19 refers to judgment upon the “fruit of their thoughts.”
The New Testament begins with John the Baptist using the same imagery in reference to judgment upon those who do not bring forth “good fruit” (Matthew 3:10). Jesus continued the rich metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:17-19) with this closing admonition: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In John 15:2-16, as part of His closing comments to the disciples before His arrest and death, Jesus referenced “fruit” eight times and closed with the command that we “should go and bear fruit,” and that our fruit “should remain” (John 15:16).
The apostles used this same rich imagery of “fruit” 20 times from Romans to Revelation. Perhaps the most well-known use of this is found in Galatians 5:22-23. Reflecting on this passage about the fruit of the Spirit, I decided to read these verses again in light of the entire brief letter to a group of churches in central modern Turkey.
A reading of Acts 13-18 gives a broad context to Paul’s visits to these churches in the Galatian region (see Acts 16:6; 18:23). When read in that light, the fruit of the Spirit offers insights for us as leaders in the Body of Christ.
First, we need to remember the singular nature of the “fruit of the Spirit.” There are not nine Christ-like qualities from which we can pick and choose. This stands in contrast to the “works of the flesh” just a few verses earlier in Galatians 5:19. The “works” (plural) of the flesh are “evident,” as Paul named 17 as examples. He made it clear that those who “practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
Paul understood that a life lived in the Holy Spirit and a life lived by the dictates of our fallen carnal nature cannot coexist. The Spirit and the flesh are contrary to one another and they war against one another. A life of compromise is actually a life lived in the “works of the flesh.” The cost is steep and potentially eternal: loss of inheritance in the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:21).
The plural dimension of the “works” of the flesh means that we can live outwardly moral lives, avoiding “adultery, fornication, and lewdness,” and still be controlled in our passions by “hatred, contentions, jealousies, outburst of wrath, envy.”
But life in the Spirit brings about a wholeness, or to use another term, a holiness of life whereby we are consciously striving to allow (1) the Word, (2) the Spirit, and (3) community to manifest congruity between our actions and our inner self. Thus, these nine fruit work together to order our lives in such a way that “against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:23).
This is not an invitation to antinomianism but rather to a recognition that the power of love, fulfilling the Torah of God, is not bound in its outreach to others. It means that right judgment does not become judgmentalism towards others. It actually enables us to engage our sinful world, and one another, in a fashion that holds “truth and love” together in the Spirit of Christ.
Second, the fruit of the Spirit are manifested through our own personalities and temperament. This involves transformation and renewal as “new creatures in Christ.” But it also preserves and engages the uniqueness of every person.
We are not redeemed to become a collection of robots, unified in someone’s manipulative view of “common witness,” devoid of personality. Rather, the full range of God’s creative purpose is set forth, even in these “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7), to put us on display as trophies of His grace.
This is readily evident when we consider Galatians 5:22-23 in light of the first two chapters of Galatians. Paul, who “walked in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) with his powerful revelation of law and grace, did not interpret the “kindness, longsuffering, meekness” and the other characteristics of the Spirit’s fruit to mean timidity, cowering before people, avoiding conflict, or accommodating to some culturally defined code of civil discourse.
Notice that in the promotion and defense of the gospel, Paul was not accommodating! He was not interested in pleasing men. In Galatians 2 Paul publicly rebuked the apostle Peter for failing to live according to grace when dealing with Judaizers and Gentiles (2:11-21).
Paul’s righteous indignation was rooted in his understanding that certain acts deny the reality of justification by faith, and the unity meant to arise from it. It was not personal animosity against Peter; it was genuine concern that Peter’s actions, regardless of Peter’s motives, were dividing the Body of Christ.
As I’ve reflected on these matters, I have found myself thinking of the fruit of the Spirit in light of our need to live and speak clearly and openly in our world. There are many outside and inside the Christian community who warn us about being “mean-spirited.” I agree, and continue to say that. However, what we must not do is to allow such phrases to intimidate or silence our witness. I suspect that some of Peter’s friends thought that Paul was “mean-spirited” when he openly rebuked the pillar of the church!
I’ll concede this is a thin line. Some of us might be tempted to use Galatians 1 and 2 as an excuse for unrestrained anger. Others might drift into compliant attitudes, using Galatians 5:22-23 as an excuse to fearfully retreat into silence or even compromise.
But for us as leaders, Paul offers us a way to stand strong and courageous in defending the gospel. He offers us a way to speak truthfully, even if someone is offended and even if they call us “mean-spirited.”
Paul reminds us to live by “walking in the Spirit,” conscious that we “have crucified the flesh,” and manifesting hearts and minds transformed by the character of Jesus Christ (Galatians 5:22-25). My beloved brothers and sisters, let us heed the words of Paul: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:25, 26).
This article was published in the September 2015 issue of Encourage.