You Can’t Have Fruit Without a Fruit Tree

Pastor Jeff Struecker

Brandon Washington is a pastor who lives in Denver, Colorado. Brandon found himself in this impossible dilemma just a little while ago. He was talking about this on a podcast, and he said he owns a house in a subdivision in Colorado. This subdivision, must be a pretty nice house, because they have these rules about how you’re supposed to take care of your yard and how you’re supposed to take care of your house. 

One of the rules from the subdivision is that you’re supposed to trim the trees in the front yard. So Brandon has been in this house for seven years, and pretty soon the subdivision Nazis (those homeowner association crazies) come knocking on his door. They say, “Hey Brandon, you haven’t trimmed the tree in your front yard. What’s the deal? You are required by the covenant that you signed to trim that tree.”

So Brandon starts to call around. Now, the subdivision is big enough that they’ve contracted a service with a arborist, a tree service. Brandon calls the tree service, and he asks them to come look at the tree in his front yard. The tree service starts to look around, and then they come and knock on Brandon’s door. 

They say, “We can’t trim that tree in your front yard because it’s a pear tree.” Now, Brandon is a pastor and doesn’t know trees. So he says, “Wait a second. You’re telling me that you can’t trim the tree just because it’s a pear tree?” And the tree service guy says, “Basically, there’s an ordinance that says we can’t trim fruit trees, and what you have in your front yard is a pear tree. We’re not allowed to trim it, even though the subdivision says that tree has to be trimmed.”

Here’s where it gets crazy. Brandon has lived in this house for seven years. He says to the guy at the door, “That tree has never, ever had one pear on it one time, and you’re telling me that I have a pear tree in my front yard?” The subdivision service says, “Oh yeah. Didn’t you know this? You have a genetically modified pear tree. You see, people who live in super nice subdivisions that have these perfectly manicured yards don’t want to fool with fruit all over the ground. So, some genius crossed the genes of this pear tree so that it is the perfect pear tree; it just doesn’t produce any fruit.”

And now Brandon is in the middle of this dilemma. He’s got a tree that has to be trimmed according to the rules, but it’s a fruit tree that can’t be trimmed. And what’s worse, it’s a fruit tree that doesn’t produce fruit.

So in the podcast, Brandon asked this question, and I want to ask you this question. Because you’re smart folks, you already know the answer to it. What makes a fruit tree a fruit tree? Fruit.

Brandon is standing at his door, talking to this guy, saying, “Are you telling me that I have a fruit tree in my front yard that has been designed in such a way that it doesn’t bear fruit, and it’s still considered a fruit tree?” 

Here’s what I want you to understand from today’s entire sermon. We’re going to look in the book of Philemon. Here’s the general idea of what we’re going to learn. You can have a fruit tree without fruit, but you cannot have fruit without a fruit tree. If you’re Brandon standing at your door, you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t think this is a fruit tree. 

You can have a fruit tree without fruit, but 

you can’t have fruit without a fruit tree.

But today we’re not talking about pears. What we’re really talking about is gospel fruit. What does it look like in society when God’s people have gospel fruit in their lives? And what I’m going to do is, we’re going to try to reverse engineer societal change. Actually, what we’re going to try to do is just plot and plan global domination. It’s going to be awesome. Are you ready? 

The reason why we selected this book from the Bible, the book of Philemon, right now at this point in America’s history and around the world is because of the societal chaos that’s going on around us. Today, this passage is going to talk about the solution to societal chaos. We’re going to reverse engineer, how do you make a perfect society? 

Love for Jesus changes people

Here’s the first thing that you’re going to see from this book. Love for Jesus is the basis for societal change, because love for Jesus changes people. And when people are changed, then society starts to change. We’re going to pick up in this little tiny book. Here’s how the story picks up:

8-9  For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love.

“I Paul, an elderly man, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ, am going to make an appeal.” We’re going to talk about that appeal in just a second. Now Paul, this great missionary, great apostle, this former ISIS terrorist who persecuted Christians, who went through this radical change and became from Saul the persecutor to Paul the passionate follower of Jesus, is writing a letter to a friend of his, a guy by the name of Philemon. And he has this relationship with Philemon that’s been going on for quite a while.

There’s a third party who shows up in this letter today, a guy by the name of Onesimus? And Paul is really writing this letter to Philemon on the third party’s behalf, on Onesimus’ behalf. I want you to pay attention to how gracious Paul is being, how patient Paul is being with Philemon. He could be throwing some Bible verses at him. He could be beating this guy over the head with the Bible. He has the intellect to do that. (And by the way, because of his relationship with Philemon, he has the relationship to do that.) But instead, he’s making this appeal to Philemon, and he’s making this appeal based on love. Paul is basically going to use great boldness to make this request.

Now, I need you to understand this Bible word boldness, because this is the word that you would use if you were writing a letter to talk about facing some really scary situation or about to take a really big risk and you’re not sure how this thing is going to turn out. Paul is saying, “I’m going to take a really big risk with you, Philemon, and I need you to hear what I’m about to ask you. But I’m asking this from you out of love. I’m not abusing my relationship with you.”

If there’s a guy who knows what it’s like to face scary situations, it’s the dude who’s writing this letter. He has been beaten, been in prison, been stoned, shipwrecked and left for dead. He has been quite literally fed to the lions and he’s faced all of those things with the power and the strength of Jesus Christ. And now he’s going to, based on this relationship with Christ and his relationship with Philemon, make a bold request of Philemon.

And he’s doing it on the basis of love. If you grew up in the west, you remember that little children’s rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage.” Well, I want to think about today’s sermon like this: First comes love. Then comes the fruit of love. See, sometimes I think we can get the logic backwards, and we can start to expect fruit from somebody without first expecting the love that produces that fruit. 

In other words, we can expect their head to think differently or their hands to act differently when their heart really hasn’t been changed. Even church people can get into this dilemma of expecting or wanting to see the fruit of love without actually having the love change the heart in the first place. And Paul is saying, “Philemon, I know you, Brother, and you know me, and I love you. So I’m about to make a request of you, and I want you to just honor the request because of what’s already happened inside your heart.”

It’s like expecting (we would understand this here in Georgia and Alabama) pears from a pine tree, to expect the fruit of love before love has actually taken root in the heart. We live in a land with an ocean of pine trees. And if you could ever find pears hanging from a pine tree, you would be a jillionaire. I don’t even know how much money that is, but you would have a jillion dollars if we could make pears come from pine trees. 

Pears don’t come from pine trees. Pears come from pear trees. And the fruit of the gospel, the fruit of love comes from a heart that has been changed from a pine tree to a pear tree, a heart that has been changed to love Jesus and want to honor Jesus.

Jesus turns slaves into sons

So Paul is making this bold request. Here’s where the story gets really, really good in the book of Philemon. This is where it starts to challenge everything we know about society. You see, when you start to have love in your heart for Jesus, Jesus does a miracle, quite literally, in a human being’s soul and his or her heart. He turns a slave into a son.

Paul is about to describe a slave by the name of Onesimus. -Philemon’s slave who has run away. And Paul is going to make a bold request of him starting in verse nine. Let’s pick up where we left off in verse nine and keep reading.

9-11  I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I became his father while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me.

Now, I want to just give you the whole storyline. I want you to follow along with what’s been happening up to this point in the book of Philemon. Paul was a free man who had been set free by Jesus Christ. And somehow, some way (we don’t have the details), Paul met Philemon while Philemon was a slave. Except, Philemon was a slave to his own sin. And then Paul introduced Philemon to Jesus and Jesus turned this slave, Philemon, into a man free from his sin, now Philemon is a free man. But Philemon owns a slave by the name of Onesimus. And for whatever reason, life is so miserable for Onesimus that he can’t stand it anymore. So he runs away from his slave master, Philemon. Somehow, he bounces into Paul.

Now this runaway slave meets Paul, and Paul introduces Onesimus to Jesus. All of a sudden, Onesimus becomes a free man. Are you following me? It gets even better. Now Onesimus is free, and Philemon is free. Then Paul is arrested for telling people about Jesus, and all of a sudden the story has come full circle. Now the guy who was once free, helping slaves to become free is now imprisoned. And the people who were once slaves are now free. And Paul is writing this letter to Philemon on behalf of his son in the faith, a guy by the name of Onesimus.

He uses the word useful to describe Onesimus. If you were reading this in the original language, it would immediately be clear to you. The word useful is the word onesimus. Onesimus’ name means useful. And Paul is saying, “This guy used to be useful to you, Philemon. Then he ran away, and you didn’t have anybody. Then I met Onesimus, Onesimus met Jesus, and Onesimus became a different man. Now I’m about to send him back to you, Philemon. And the guy who was once useful, but then left is now about to return to you. When he returns to you, he’s going to be useful both to you and to Jesus, because he’s not returning to you as a slave. I’m sending him back to you as a brother.” 

What just changed here, if you think through it at the societal level, is a radical shift in this man’s position in society and position before God. This slave has just become a son of God.

When God reaches down inside of your soul, when he changes you, when he does this miracle of new birth inside of you, he changes the position that you have with him. You are no longer his enemy, no longer an outsider. You’re not just some servant in his house. He elevates you to the position of (Ladies) a daughter of the King and have an inheritance of the King of Kings waiting for you in heaven. Guys, you are now a son of the King with all the rights and all of the authority that goes with sonship. Onesimus’ relationship with Jesus describes your relationship with Jesus. He goes from slave to son. You go from slave to daughter when Jesus Christ meets you and radically changes you.

What he’s describing here, if you think about it at the societal level, will radically change everything. You know that almost every social group in the world places the people in the group versus the people outside of the group on some kind of human value. We use some arbitrary standard to make these people more valuable than those people. 

In fact, the Bible scholars argued about this. Is Onesimus a house servant? Is that what he means by the word slave? Is he kind of treated like property? Is that the kind of slave that he’s referring to? Or is it the kind of slavery that we saw in the United States before the Civil War, where they were treated worse than animals? Chattel slavery literally considered these human beings of less value than the cattle that were in the fields or the horses that were in the stable.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what their value in society was before Onesimus met Jesus, because he just went from slave to son when he met Jesus, and that shatters all social boundaries. When you take that kind of elevation, there is no other social boundary left that separates people. Today we’re talking about this, we’re studying this as a church, because in the United States right now, we’re going through some massive social challenges. 

But I just need you to know, it’s not just the United States. You see, if you’re living in China right now, there is almost one billion people in China (billion with a B) who live as subordinate to the Politburo, to the provincial governors. And those provincial governors make all of the decisions, and a billion people work like factory slaves because of their position in society.

It’s not just China. If you live in Australia, there is broad discrimination based on your age. And when you get older, you’re viewed as less important in society. That’s why in 2004 Australia passed this Age Discrimination Act and said, “We’re not going to treat people like they’re less valuable just because they’re older.” It’s not just China. It’s not just Australia. It’s not just the racial tensions in the United States. 

In India, it’s gender. Women are considered inferior to men. And that’s why you have these sexual crimes, the gang rape culture of India. You are considered less valuable as a woman in India, less valuable because of the family that you were born into in China, less valuable because of the color of your skin in the West, less valuable because of your age in Australia.

What the Bible is describing here is, “No, no, no. I just leveled the playing field.” What God is saying is,”They are all my sons and daughters. It doesn’t matter what gender. It doesn’t matter color of skin.  It doesn’t matter what age or social standing. They are now my sons and my daughters because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection.” 

I want to say this clearly. 2 Cities Church is not trying to be a woke church. We are not trying to support some Black Lives Matter movement. What we’re trying to create is gospel community where every human being is equal at the cross, equally sons and daughters of the King of Kings. That supersedes every kind of social movement out there. That is more important than every other form of societal boundary or social change that’s happening out there. That and that alone truly does turn a slave into a son or daughter. We’re reverse engineering a radical change to society. 

Jesus’s kingdom has no social boundaries

Here’s the third step, if you’re following the logic from the book of Philemon. Jesus’ kingdom, because it now transcends all societal boundaries, there’s no limit. Jesus’ kingdom has no social boundaries. And you see that based on one word that Paul uses next in the book of Philemon. Here it is:

12-14 I am sending him back to you—I am sending my very own heart. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place.  But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.

Paul is no longer obligating Philemon to anything. Paul is now asking him, “Would you accept Onesimus back into your household? And when you accept him back into your household, I don’t want you to treat him like a slave. I don’t want you to treat them like a runaway. I want you to treat him like he’s your own brother. That’s the kind of relationship that I need you to have with this runaway slave, Philemon.” What Paul is doing, this bold request that he’s making today is, he’s asking Philemon to behave what Philemon claims to believe.

Ultimately, all of us get up every day and we’re confronted with this challenge. Am I really going to behave what I say I believe? Sometimes I wake up, I look at myself, and I think, “Jeff, can you really honestly say that you believe it if you don’t actually behave it? Because if you believe it, you would behave it.” And Paul is asking Philemon, “Hey Philemon, you said that you believe that Jesus changed you. I’m telling you that Jesus changed your servant or your slave by the name of Onesimus. But now I’m going to call you out on this, Man. Do you believe it or not? When he comes home, we’ll see really clearly whether you believe it or not. We’ll see by the way that you treat this brother. Are you going to go back to treating him like a servant, or are you going to treat him like he is your brother, because you are both sons of the King?”

I long like you long to see change in our society. Wherever you live, there’s no perfect society on planet earth. So you probably long to see change in your society, as well. But I long to see the right kind of change, the lasting change that goes along with hearts and souls that are transformed by Jesus. See, I think there are two kinds of mistakes that we Christians can make as we’re reading through the book of Philemon. There are two ditches that we have to avoid. And sometimes we’re so careful to avoid one ditch that we go all the way across the street and we fall into the opposite ditch.

Here are the two ditches that I want us to be really careful about as a church. One is a King without a kingdom. And having a king (we would call Jesus our King) without a kingdom, basically says, “I go to church on Sunday. I pray, but I live Monday through Saturday like he doesn’t exist. I live Monday through Saturday like he has no influence in my life.” This carnal Christianity is really trying to live out your faith on your own. 

That’s not where some of you are, but maybe you struggle with, “How do I live out my faith tomorrow? I’m here, and I’m reading it. I’m listening. I’m reading it in the Bible, but how do I live it out at school? How do I live it out when my marriage gets bad at home? How do I live it out when my boss is an absolute jerk at work? How do I live my faith out? How do I live as the kind of person who has a king who really does have a kingdom?”

That’s one mistake that Christians can sometimes make. But sometimes we run all the way across the road, and we fall into the other ditch. That is a kingdom without a king. I’m not trying to promote a political party, so please listen carefully to what I’m going to say next. Here’s where Christians today can make this mistake. You start to put your hope in government to do what only the King of the universe can do. You start to believe that a certain political party is going to make things better. The problem with this logic is, they are not the King. Only the King can rule the kingdom. 

I’m not opposed to having political persuasions. I have no problems with you being involved.  In fact, I strongly encourage you to be involved in the political system. But I’m begging you, Christian. Don’t put your hope in a human leader to fix the problems at societal level. Those problems are soul-level problems, and only the King of the soul can fix the soul of society. Paul is making a bold request that if you follow it all the way to its conclusion, it would radically change every society on planet earth. 

Only King Jesus can build a perfect society

And here’s the fourth and the final thing that I need you to hear from Philemon. Only the King can build a perfect kingdom. Only King Jesus can build a perfect society. And Paul is going to show Philemon a little glimpse of what a perfect society would look like. Here’s where we pick up in the book of Philemon, starting in verse 15. Paul  is sending this runaway slave back to his slave master, and he says this: 

15-16  For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently,  no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Do you see that brother word there? Paul is saying, “Philemon is my brother, and Onesimus is my brother. And because these two are my brothers, that means Onesimus is Philemon’s brother and Philemon, you are Onesimus’ brother. Now you two are brothers.” And that just radically changed society because brotherhood denotes equality. And when you get him back, I don’t want you to treat him like a slave anymore, Philemon. I want you to treat this brother of yours like family. I want you to treat him differently.” 

This changes society, because this changes the soul of society. When individuals are changed, when enough individuals are changed, an entire society starts to look different.

Paul realizes that of the Roman society that broadly used slaves for all of the wealthy, powerful elite people in society. And maybe that’s the kind of person that Philemon was when Onesimus ran away from him. See, the problem with some of us today is, we have this problem of theonomy. (I’m going to use a theological word, just bear with me for a second.) Theonomy is the idea of building a human society based on the laws of God, specifically the laws of the Old Testament, the laws of Moses. 

The problem with that is that there is no society that is ruled like today like it was in the Old Testament. What all Christians want (I want this just as much as you do) is a society that really functions at the societal level like Jesus described it in the Sermon on the Mount when he took the Law of Moses and really elevated it to a new level. 

“You heard it said, ‘Don’t murder,’ but I’m going to tell you, don’t even hate your brother. You heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ but I’m telling you, don’t even lust after that woman or after that guy.” Most of us Christians would say, “I want to live in a society where it functions like the Sermon on the Mount.” And the problem is, that society only exists when Jesus is the King of every heart in that society. And until that day happens, you and I are not going to live in that kind of society. Does it mean that we stop trying? Does it mean that we get discouraged, throw our hands up in disgust and run away and only hang out with other Christians?

It doesn’t mean that we don’t try to influence our friends and neighbors. It just means we’re not going to live in a perfect society until the King makes his kingdom perfect. You and I can’t do that. Only the King can do that. The very name 2 Cities Church says, “I live in a society that is wicked and sinful. God has given me a responsibility to stay involved, stay engaged, engage my neighbors and meet them right where they are.”

But even while we’re engaged in our society (that’s one city), we belong to the Kingdom of God. That’s the other city that the name of this church refers to. And Paul is saying, “Philemon, you’re a son of the King, but you’re still living here in this society on earth. And I need you to start to behave it. I need you to start to act like it. I need you to treat this man who was once your slave, Onesimus, like he is your brother. I need you to do something for me, Philemon. I need you to start to live out the fruit of the gospel.”

Paul in this letter is asking Christians to show fruit. He’s saying, “We would never expect pears from a pine tree.” It would be insane to expect pears from a pine tree. We first need to turn the pine tree into a pear tree. And then we start to expect pears from a pear tree. That’s why you can have a fruit tree without fruit, but you cannot have fruit without a fruit tree.