Jesus was a master of metaphor and illustration. Camels fitting through the eye of a needle! A woman turning her house upside down because of a lost coin!
He also spoke of trees and fruit. If you’ve been around the church, you’ve probably heard the saying, “no good tree bears bad fruit.”
So, what does this phrase mean?
Jesus the Preacher
While we hear much from Jesus in the Gospels, we must concede that Jesus preached far more sermons than the Gospel writers recorded. He likely talked with his disciples, preached to the crowds, or taught in the synagogues most every day of his adult ministry.
“Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
The phrase “no good tree bears bad fruit” shows up twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 7:18 and Luke 6:43. (The ESV translates the phrase in Matthew as “a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit.”) This is one of several similarities between Jesus’s sermons in Matthew 5:2–7:27 and Luke 6:20–49. Matthew’s account has been called the “Sermon on the Mount,” and many have assumed that Luke’s version is an excerpt from the same sermon.
But a closer look calls this assumption into question. Not all of Jesus’s sermon in Luke appears in Matthew. (The “woe” pronouncements in Luke 6:24–26 are a prime example.) Also, where the sermons overlap in content they differ in important specifics. (In Luke’s Beatitudes, Jesus blesses the “poor” and the “hungry,” while in Matthew Jesus blesses the “poor in spirit” and those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”)
The most straightforward conclusion is that these are different sermons. Anyone who has spent time around a preacher knows that favorite phrases and illustrations show up in different settings for different purposes.
In Matthew 7, Jesus uses the tree/fruit illustration to help his disciples spot false prophets.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15–20)
Consider the larger passage. In Matt 7:13–14 Jesus speaks about the wide and narrow gates leading (respectively) to destruction and life. In Matt 7:21–23 Jesus warns that not everyone who calls him “Lord” and claims to have worked in his name will enter the kingdom of heaven. Some he will throw out as “workers of lawlessness.” Jesus is teaching about the way to life—who’s in and who’s out?
Jesus wants his disciples to identify those who do not bear good fruit, especially when they claim to follow him. And what fruit did Jesus have in mind? “Judge not” (Matt 7:1). “Take the log out of your own eye” (Matt 7:5). Ask the Father for good things (Matt 7:7–11). Treat others the same way you want them to treat you (Matt 7:12). In summary, build a solid house by hearing and obeying Jesus (Matt 7:24–27).
Let’s take a look at the tree/fruit illustration in Luke.
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43–45)
The word “for” at the beginning of verse 43 points to the previous section, where Jesus commands his disciples not to be hypocrites, but to remove the log from their own eyes before taking a speck out of a brother’s eye (Luke 6:41–42). This caution flows from Jesus’s warning not to judge others (Luke 6:37–38).
Significantly, there is no mention of false prophets in this section of the sermon. Instead, Jesus speaks of fruit as the overflow of the heart.
Coming on the heels of the exhortation to “take the log out of your own eye,” the implication is clear. Jesus’s disciples must examine their own hearts. When they see bad fruit, it is the result of lingering evil in their hearts.
Back to our original question. What does the phrase “no good tree bears bad fruit” mean? I hope by now the answer is clear. It depends!
Words and phrases have little to no meaning when lifted from their context. This is true for our own words; how much more is it true of Holy Scripture!?