“Everybody knows what that means, right? To bear fruit is to reproduce!”
At least, that is the proclamation of some enthusiastic folks who feel a need to count “conversions”, to display them like scalps on a belt, and to put-down anyone who sports fewer “trophies”. This is another of many places where the “tune” would be mightily modulated by a serious look at the New Testament.
Yes, there are four possible places (Romans 1:13, Phil.1:22 – where it could just mean “useful”, and maybe Jn.4:36 and Col.1:6), where karpos, the most common word translated “fruit” might be referring to conversions (although probably not the “four-step” variety), out of 66 appearances of the noun form and 8 of the verb! Not quite an overwhelming percentage!
At least 35 – probably 38 – of the references are simply agricultural images, many of them in parables. Two refer to physical birth, and at least 18 to the expected behavior of followers of Jesus.
These harmonize well with the variety seen in classical usage. According to Liddell/Scott, in Homer, karpos referred exclusively to agricultural produce – “the fruit of the earth.” Herodotus and Plato both spoke of wine as “the fruit of the vine”, and later writers used the word of any produce or crops. Xenophon used it of returns or profits on one’s work or investment. When describing the actions of persons, it signified reward, or the fulfillment of an oracle or prophecy. Bauer adds “result, outcome, advantage, gain, or product.”
Turning to the best authority of all, we should ask again, “What did Jesus say?”
He talked a lot about fruit (43 x) and harvests (20 x). Harvest, therizo, therismos, is a similar word, but generally confined to agricultural or seasonal ideas. Therizo is the only one used of “end times”.
All the synoptic gospels include the parables of the Sower (Mt.13:3-9 and 19-23, Mk.4:3-9 and 14-20, Luke 8:5-9 and 10-15) and the vineyard (Mt.21:34-43, Mk.12:1-12, Lk.20:9-16). The focus in the former, according to Jesus’ own explanation, concerns varied responses to the message of the Kingdom, while the latter explores the stewardship of its resources and the treatment of the King’s representatives.
Likewise, in pointing out that the value of a tree is judged by the quality of its produce (Mt.7:16-20, Lk.6:43-44), Jesus seems to assume that an observer can readily discern the quality of the fruit, and that no further elaboration is required.
He gives the most detailed teaching in Jn.15:1-17. Here, Jesus represents himself as the vine, the source of life and growth (1,4), and his followers as its branches (2-6). The Father himself does the pruning (katharizo, also rendered “cleansing”, which we will save for another post). If you have ever worked with grapevines, you know how technical this job is. One must recognize which buds are the fruiting ones, and take care not to remove too many, but also ensure that branches do not compete with one another for sunlight and room to grow! A good harvest requires an expert vintner.
Here, it is Jesus’ word (v.3) that governs the pruning. I think this is probably the reason for the slight digression (vv.9-15) in which he stresses the absolute necessity (5,7,10) of not only “remaining” (W.S.#58) tightly connected to him, but also of “following instructions” (10,12,14,17) (W.S.#55).
It is especially essential (see intro to PNT) here to distinguish between singular and plural forms of “you”. Most of this is a group assignment! (Branches, after all, are mostly attached to the vine by their attachment to other branches!) In the PNT text, plurals are identified by either “you all” or an italicized “you”. Huge errors occur when plurals are read as singular address.
There are also two grammatical constructions in this passage, both very easily identified, that are critical to understanding the message.
A clause indicating purpose is introduced by the particle, hina, “in order that” a desired result may occur. These are seen in
v.2, pruning is done in order that a branch may produce more fruit;
v.8, God’s purpose is “that you may bear much fruit, and become my disciples;”
v.11, “I have said these things in order that my joy may be in/among you all”;
v.16, “I chose (W.S.#56) you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, in order that whatever you all ask the Father in my name (W.S.#24), he may give you.”
v.17, “I am giving you these instructions so that you all may keep on loving each other.”
Other clauses are conditional, (regardless of modern rhetoric to the contrary). They are introduced by ei, or ean, both forms of “IF”, or, if negative, “unless”. They occur in:
v.4, “unless [if you don’t (ean me)] you all remain in [on] me”, you cannot bear fruit.
v.6 “unless someone remains in me, he is thrown out like a branch and is dried up”
v.7, “IF you all remain in me, and my messages remain in/among you, you all shall ask …”
v.10, “IF you all follow my instructions, you will remain in my love …”
v.14, “You all are my friends, IF you continue to do as I am instructing you.”
Additional conditional statements continue throughout the rest of the discourse.
It remained for faithful followers to elaborate on precise definitions of the “fruit” that was to be borne. Paul wrote to the Romans (6:21,22), contrasting the “fruit” [results] of their lives before and after commitment to Jesus and his Kingdom, and to the Galatians (5:19-23) and Ephesians (5:8-10) in the same vein. Characteristics of the new life mentioned in these include (Rom.) a life devoted to God [holiness], (Gal.) love, joy [rejoicing], peace, generosity of mind, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, (Eph.) goodness, justice, truth, and finding out what is pleasing to the Lord!
Changed lives had already been urged by John the Baptist (Mt.3:8 and Lk.3:8) when he demanded “fruit worthy of repentance” (W.S.#6) of his hearers.
Remember that “justice” is the lexical meaning of the word traditionally translated “righteousness” (W.S. #3), which endows its “fruit” (Phil.1:11, Heb.12:11, Jas.3:18) with a decidedly different “flavor”!
Twice (Phil.4:17 and Rom.15:28), the sharing of material gifts among brethren are termed “fruit.”
The letter to the Hebrews closes with a description of the appropriate offering [“sacrifice”] of praise to God as “the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (W.S. #24).
Paul’s admonition to the Colossian church (1:10) is a succinct summary: “behave in a manner worthy of the Lord, in order to please him fully, bearing fruit in every good deed, and continually growing in your acquaintance with God!”
Quite a contrast to “scalp-collecting”, bearing this sort of fruit is a worthy goal for us all!