I remember when Matt and Sarah moved to another city and left our church. I felt so frustrated because I love this family. They had so much leadership potential and I hadn’t walked them through it fully. I began to realise that I was trusting myself to build the church.
Trees are among the most common images in the Bible. I’m not surprised because agriculture is the landscape of the Bible. So, when Jesus told stories about trees, people had a day to day understanding of what he meant.
Our culture has changed. We have cities, technology, urban sprawls instead of agriculture. Yet I look out my window and still see trees. I have a basic understanding of them. Apples come from apple trees. Even more, good apples come from healthy apple trees. (Is this a pass mark for Agriculture 101?)
Jesus and Fruit
Jesus used trees and in particular fruit as an image when he was teaching. The main point he made was that good trees have good fruit whereas bad trees have bad fruit. To judge the health of a tree, look at its fruit. It’s obvious really.
Jesus applied the image to the Pharisees. He said:
‘Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.’ (Matt. 12:33-35)
Jesus isn’t having a bad day. He is making the point that he is bringing justice, healing and mercy. Jesus doesn’t view the Pharisees as nicely. He considers them ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matt. 23:27) – looking good outside but dead inside.
The Pharisees weren’t interested in people. They were only interested in changing people’s behaviour at the end of the day.
Maybe it’s just me, but when it comes to discipleship, it can be tempting to aim for behaviour modification.
Behaviour modification is fairly easy. Jesus talks about seeing fruit in people’s lives and even judging it. When you see a fellow follower of Jesus consistently struggling with a particular sin, you should be able to lovingly call them on it. But simply trying to change people’s behaviour isn’t good discipleship because it only ever deals with fruit. Jesus wants you to disciple trees. He wants outer transformation that reflects inner transformation.
Jesus Wants You to Disciple Trees
The heart of discipleship is belief. To use Jesus’ image, we are all trees. It’s easy to see our behaviour (the fruit) but what we do is always connected to what we believe (our roots). Discipleship is about growing our roots into Jesus.
Fruit doesn’t just magically appear. It comes from what we believe about God. Specifically who God is; what God has done; and who God has made us. Our fruit (i.e. what we do) reveals our faith. It shows our belief, and sometimes our unbelief, in God.
Remember my story with Matt and Sarah? The fruit was frustration. But it stemmed from the belief that God wasn’t big enough to build the church. I needed to do it. My view of God was small whereas my view of myself was big.
I recognised my failing belief and repented. Sarah shared they came to church tired and needing spiritual refreshment. They found it in our small community. My big plans weren’t what they needed.
Important Principles in Discipling Trees
1. Be Gentle, Kind and Loving
Discipleship makes us feel vulnerable as we open up to people. This can be hard enough when we’re letting them see our lives for the purpose of changing our behaviour. But it’s scary for people to invite a person to walk with their belief and unbelief in God. Be gentle, be a safe person.
2. Discipleship and Confession Relate
You think of wrong behaviours when you hear the word confession, right? So often that’s how we’ve used the word. But if you look at my example, the thing I really needed to confess was my wrong belief about God. Yes, I had frustrations but at the heart of it was my belief that God wasn’t big enough for the situation, that he needed me to build the church, that I was a saviour.
3. Discipleship Leads to Jesus
Deep down I didn’t really believe God wasn’t big enough, but it was what my actions said. Discipleship took place, not by confessing my frustration, but by confessing my wrong beliefs about God and turning to Jesus. Repentance isn’t swapping frustration for happiness. Repentance is swapping the wrong god for the right God. I was trusting me. The truth is, Jesus is better at building the church than me. He’s a better Saviour. Discipleship took place as I turned and trusted Jesus.
4. Discipleship Takes Time
Jesus called the Disciples on a multi-year journey with him. He didn’t try to disciple them in one quick sitting. If Jesus couldn’t, can we? Instead he was patient with them when they repeatedly failed to understand the message. He gave them an identity. They were part of his family, serving the gospel as his missionaries. Jesus empowered them instead of giving up on them. He is our model.