Theme: Don’t Neglect God’s Means of Communication
1) Word to Heart
2) Heart to Mouth
Have you ever tried gardening? If you have, would you say that you have a “green thumb?” Gardening can be a tricky thing. We all understand the basic properties of a plant and what it needs to grow. But practicing it in various settings can be difficult. You need to have knowledge about the plant you’re trying to grow. You need to have knowledge about the climate you live in. And you need to be consistent. Plants require regular care.
In our modern age we don’t have to worry about gardening too much. Most people garden as a hobby, not out of necessity. For most people, especially in America, you can get whatever you want at the grocery store. It only takes a couple of minutes and you can have just about any edible fruit or vegetable, without any trouble. Even in Seattle, you can buy your groceries with the click of a button on your computer or mobile device; you don’t even need to get out of bed. Without a doubt, we could say that we’ve come a long way in our ability to grow plants and provide food. But it wasn’t always like this.
Not that long ago, almost everyone had to garden or farm to survive and provide for their family. In world history, every successful culture has needed a profitable agricultural system, and for a long time that meant that individual families had to grow plants on their own. This was certainly the way it was for the cultures in Biblical times. The Bible is filled with lessons about plant life and gardening. In fact, it was such a central theme to the people of Biblical times that the Holy Spirit employed many spiritual applications through plant life.
Think of how Jesus pictured Himself as the Vine of a plant and His disciples as branches that bear fruit through Him. Another well-known example is the parable of the Sower and the Seed, where the Gospel is presented as a seed that seeks to grow in the hearts of people. Paul followed this same theme by describing the ministry of God’s Word as planting and watering seed of which God brings forth the increase. Near the end of His ministry, as holy week began, Jesus taught a lesson on judgment and repentance through a barren fig tree that He cursed. In the Old Testament Isaiah prophesied about the prosperity of the coming Messiah by describing a thriving oasis in the midst of a parched desert. Even at the very beginning, God told Adam that the curse of difficulty in gardening would be upon him as a result of his sin. All of these examples, and more like them, contain spiritual applications to our lives. It is true that in and of itself, gardening is hard because of sin. That truth is absolute. But more important than the food we grow or eat, is the effect of sin in our hearts.
Our text for today speaks of another application taken from plant life; this time speaking about communication. God’s message is that what we put in our hearts affects what comes out of our mouths; just as the type of plant determines the type of fruit it bears. We focus our hearts and minds on this message today as it comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:33-37:
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. 36 But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
When we speak of the 2nd commandment, the immediate application is in the way we use God’s name. Following on the heels of the 1st commandment, God expects us to use His name with respect because He is the only God. The best way to start showing our loyalty to God is to use His name to praise and worship Him, not to use His name foolishly to curse or swear. This is the primary emphasis of the 2nd commandment.
But there is a secondary application too. As Luther pointed out in his explanation to the commandment, honoring God includes not only turning away from what is sinful, but pursuing what is God-pleasing. In this sense, we see how the commandment also points to the many ways we should properly use the voices God has given us, even if we aren’t specifically addressing Him. As Christians, everything we do or say reflects back to God. This makes us think about all of the other vulgar ways that sin can lead us to misuse our voices. In many ways, we may not be technically taking God’s name in vain, but any type of vulgar language ultimately points back to Him and still affects our relationship with Him. And when we use that type of language, even if it’s common or acceptable in the eyes of the world, it breaks our command to use our tongues to glorify God.
It’s probably this secondary aspect of the 2nd commandment that trips us up more. I don’t think that most of us blatantly take God’s name in vain or think lightly of it. But do we feel the same about the other ‘lesser’ words and expressions that are commonplace in society yet equally filled with sinful thoughts? Somehow, we often have a way of convincing ourselves that it’s not that bad to use vulgar language, especially since it’s so firmly entrenched in our culture.
The mediums we use to communicate also play a role in this. Do you consider a text or a personal conversation the same as a public speech? Would you feel comfortable using the same words that you do with friends and co-workers with your pastor or your parents? On the surface we look at these situations as different, and they are to some degree. But when it comes to our souls and our witness as Christians, there is no difference. The words and thoughts we put out on facebook or email carry the same weight as saying that very thing in Sunday worship or Bible class; and sometimes even more weight because they reach a much wider audience. And yet, we often don’t think they’re the same. Often we convince ourselves that if we can hide behind the anonymity of a computer or cell-phone, that its’ not the same as a face to face conversation. I think we often feel this way because it’s the way much of the world operates. The web is a breeding ground for hostile and inappropriate language. The accessibility of a cell network or the internet allows you to speak without immediate consequences. You can rip into someone or curse and swear at liberty without being judged or rebuked face to face. You can’t get away with the same thing in a public setting, or when you’re fellow Christians are around.
When we consider these negative effects of digital communication, it’s pretty amazing how direct the words of Jesus from our text strike to the heart of the matter. At a time long before social media, Jesus addressed the very core of the problem – the sinful human heart. That’s where the picture of a plant comes in. Jesus applies it in this context to communication; think of Jesus here as teaching a principle based on the 2nd commandment. The heart, or properties of a plant, determine the fruit it bears. In the same way, the status of the human heart determines the words that come out of the mouth. And to help us out, Jesus teaches that God has a plan for our communication; both when He speaks to us and when we speak to Him or to others.
We start with the blessing of the Word given to us because that’s where our relationship with God starts. Without faith it is impossible to please God and without the Word of God we would have no promise of faith, because faith comes from hearing the Word of God, specifically the words of what Christ our Savior has done for us. Jesus gets to this point when He makes mention of the treasure in the man’s heart. We know that He can’t be speaking about the state of our hearts before faith, or by nature, because the natural human heart is an utterly wicked thing. It is the source of all types of sinful language, both directed at God and directed at others. Jesus said that is was the human heart that produced all manners of sins, including “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, other sexual sins, stealing, lying, and cursing (Matthew 15:19 GWN).” Paul spoke of his own heart when he said, “I know that in me, that is in my flesh, nothing good dwells (Romans 7:18).” David pleaded with the Lord to “Create in me a pure heart…” because by nature what David had was not so pure.
The treasure in the believer’s heart is not his own feelings or attitude, it’s the gift of faith in Jesus. If you follow the context of Matthew after chapter 12, Jesus continues with this thought. In the very next chapter, in a single verse, Jesus taught this parable: the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matthew 13:44). A few verses after that, in a different parable, Jesus said this: "Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old (Matthew 13:52)."
Think of a scribe simply as someone who uses the Bible. In Jesus’ time, there was a specific person called to do that. Bibles weren’t as commonplace as they are today. But each us are now scribes, or Bible users, on our own. You all have the ability to gather from the treasure of God’s inspired Word on your own. And from that treasure God’s kingdom is established in your heart. A kingdom built on forgiveness of your sins in Jesus Christ. When you have that treasure, and it is vibrant in your heart, if will positively affect how you use your voice. You will be led to glorify and praise God’s name in response to such a blessing of life and forgiveness. And you will turn from the many ways you can misuse your tongue. The treasure of the gospel, as Jesus says, brings forth good things in our lives.
But to have this treasure, God must first communicate to you through His Word. The best explanation of how this communication works comes from Romans 10, as the Holy Spirit explained it through Paul: The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:8-10).
Faith in Jesus first enters your heart and is then transferred to what you confess with your mouth. Therefore, the picture that Jesus gives holds up. What gives you nutrients as living members of God’s kingdom is also what motivates the words you say. Likewise, if you are breaking the 2nd commandment by cursing, swearing, or any other way to misuse your voice, the problem begins in your heart and that’s where you should look first to fix it.
We see a tragic reminder of this in the example of the Pharisees. In our text, Jesus calls them a bunch of vipers; which isn’t a loose description when we consider how sin was first introduced into the world through the serpent in the Garden. The reason Jesus said this was to get the Pharisees to look at their hearts. They claimed to speak for God and to speak the truth, but they did this without considering their faith. They believed they were in the right because of their physical lineage as Jews, not at all considering that they too were sinners in need of a Savior. It may seem here that Jesus was just unduly critical with the Pharisees and their lack of truth and faith. But in these words Jesus pointed right to the solution. He wasn’t being overly critical or harsh, He was trying to help the Pharisees see their weakness and turn to God in repentance. Jesus, of course, does the same for us in His Word, especially as we consider the 2nd commandment. It may seem unfair at times for the pastor or fellow Christians to rebuke vulgar language or cursing. You may be tempted to think, “what right do they have to judge?” Or you may jump to saying, “Everybody’s doing it, stop being so holier than thou!’
Indeed, the Pharisees reacted to Jesus in a similar way. They chose to accumulate evil treasure in their hearts; treasure from Satan and the world, not treasure from the gospel. And their words and actions were motivated by this treasure. When we react in hostility to the message of God’s word, even if comes through God’s servants, what treasure are we being led by? Consider that, because the treasure that’s in your heart will also be what produces the words you speak. As Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Jesus freely offers you the treasure contained in His Word; a treasure that grants you forgiveness and eternal life, and a treasure that can guide your thoughts and words today, so that you can lead your life for God’s glory and for the benefit of your fellow people. And this treasure is a central theme in God’s Word, exactly parallel with all the many expressions of growth, life, and fruit.
It’s pretty amazing how you have open access to all varieties of fruits and vegetables. You don’t need to be an expert farmer or gardener anymore today. In the same way, you don’t have to work on your own to have the good treasure from God that will produce spiritual fruits in your life. It is freely offered to you in the Word, freely won for you by Jesus, and you have easy access to that Word every day. May your use of God’s Word be as frequent and natural as a plant that bears its regular fruit. And may the spiritual fruit that you produce be ever as healthy and wholesome because it comes from the abundant treasure of God’s Word in your heart. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.