Note: A forum poster wrote, “We do ourselves a disfavor when we equate fruit with producing more Christians. That’s God business, we just plant and water.” So I took up my concordance in hand to see if the NT agrees with that. This little study is the, ahem, fruit of my analysis.
Continuing note: This study was done several years ago, about five, on the now-defunct GA list.
A good concordance, if properly used, will give us the various occurrences and usages of fruit in the NT. I dusted off my Greek concordance, looked up the word karpos, and went at it.
Aside from its literal meaning, the word lends itself to a figurative usage, as “result, outcome, product” and even “advantage, gain, profit,” according to Gingrich and Danker’s lexicon. In Acts 2:30, it refers to one’s offspring. One must examine the context to determine if that result is exterior to onself or an inner quality produced. We might even find both in one place.
This usage comes, as might be expected, from the OT. Proverbs 11:20 says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, And he who is wise wins souls.” Hebrew poetry uses parallel thought in repeated lines, rather than rhyme or meter as we do. Thus, this verse equates “fruit of the righteous” with the winning of souls, however that is to be understood in that context. Even in the OT, then, fruit is seldom considered as a merely internal affair, but has its outcome in the impact (influence, etc.) caused upon the lives of others. Such considerations should be taken into account when reading the NT references.
In Philippians 1:22, Paul seeks “fruit of labor,” or “fruitful labor”/1 (NASB), that is exterior to himself. The context of this passage is the preaching of the gospel (vv. 12-20). Then Paul speaks one of his greatest themes, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” We could paraphrase this verse thus, “For to me, to live is to preach Christ …” “Since he had been discussing preaching and since we know this was the driving force of his life, we presume here that he had preaching (evangelistic and hortatory) in mind” (A. L. Ash, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon [College Press, 1994]: 45). Though we do not wish to restrict the meaning of v. 21 too much, it is very clear that Paul’s context here is the preaching of the gospel. P. E. Harrell reminds us that the term labor (ergon) “is a semi-technical word for missionary activity (cf. 2:25; 30; 3:2; Rom. 15:18; 2 Cor. 10:11)” (The Letter of Paul to the Philippians [Sweet, 1969]: 73). So it appears Paul is saying, what I’d rather do is already go to be with Christ, but there is work to do, and that means results from my work of preaching./2
In James 3:17, the wisdom from above has a wonderful list of characteristics. Among them, it is “full of mercy and good fruits.” Mercy is clearly the compassionate good that one shows to others. James links our actions to others with the “good fruits” they will produce for God. One might paraphrase the phrase (karpon agathon) as “positively productive,” or “positive results,” and considering mercy (joined to fruits by the conjunction “and”) has its focus on others, it is not beyond possibility that the fruits envisioned also are born in the lives of others. In this picture, mercy and fruits are not as synonymous as some commentators would make them, with the latter being merely good works. In order words, being full of mercy produces good results, another sign of heavenly wisdom at work in one’s life.
That this is a real possibility can be seen from v. 18, “And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Here, the NASB has interpreted the verse, which might better be translated as by Moffitt: “and the peacemakers who sow in peace reap righteousness.”
Romans 1:13 is another passage of interest in this regard. “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles.” Once again, the greater context of his comments is the preaching of the gospel. The Romans Christians’ faith is “being proclaimed throught the whole world” (v. 8). Paul serves God “in the preaching of the gospel of His Son” (v. 9). His desire to impart to them some spiritual gift is, evidently, so that both they and he might be strengthened (NASB margin) in their efforts to preach the gospel (v. 11-12) — Paul writes this letter to establish between them the nature of the gospel as he hopes they will support him in his efforts to preach beyond Rome (Rom. 15:22-24). The fruit he desires will come as a result of his readiness to preach the gospel in Rome (vv. 14-17).
While inner spiritual fruit cannot be excluded here, neither can we restrict it only to one’s spiritual development, in such a context where Paul is looking for results from his preaching. We may see here his prospect of “[n]ew converts as well as spiritual growth by those already converted” (W. W. Wessel, “Romans” ). This conclusion is especially pertinent by his qualifer, “even as among the rest of the Gentiles.” Paul’s incursion into the Gentile world had a single purpose, to preach the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. In Rome and beyond the capital, Paul’s constant interest was to reach new souls for Christ.
M. Lard is direct: “The fruit which Paul had among the other nations consisted in the children of God whom he had begotten by the gospel. Christians were the fruit of his labor. The phrase en humin here, I take it, is not to be construed strictly, as referring exclusively to the disciples, but freely, as to the Romans as a nation. The meaning is, I desire to have some fruit among you Romans as a nation, as I have among the other nations” (Commentary on Paul’s Letter to Romans [1875; reprint, Gospel Light]: 37). Also, in the same vein are E. F. Harrison’s comments: “… the fruit he envisions is the reaching of the unsaved” (“Romans,” EBC [Zondervan, 1976]: 17).
This encourages us, therefore, to return and examine Jesus’ words in John 15:8, 16. “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. … You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.” Jesus here speaks especially to the Twelve, and we would do well to keep this in mind. At the same time, there are principles for the whole church to observe.
First, the choosing belongs to Jesus. Jesus chose the Twelve after an entire night in prayer before his decision (Lk. 6:12-16).
Also, Jesus appointed them to go. Immediately after choosing them, Matthew relates that “[t]hese twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: …” (Matt. 10:5). If fruit-bearing were only an internal development of spiritual qualities, there would be no need for the going. But Mark gives Jesus’ reason for choosing the twelve. “And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out the demons” (Mk. 3:14-15).
In this case, “bear fruit” in John 16 is parallel to preaching in passages such as Matthew 10, or to “making disciples … baptizing them” in Matthew 28:19-20. For the latter is even a more concrete result of preaching than the phrase “bearing fruit” to which some have objected.
How does all this fit together, planting and watering, and fruit-bearing?
In a word, we indeed must recognize that, as we plant and water, God gives the increase. But the great expectation and promise is that an increase will come. We preach in full assurance that some people will hear and obey. Otherwise, Jesus instructions to make disciples and baptize them would step over the line of “producing results.” The sending, the commandment for his people, is indeed to bear fruit, phrase which means in some contexts, to convert people to Christ. It is the mission, it is the commandment, it is the reason for which we exist as a people. When we do not bear fruit, we have frustrated the plan of God for us and may expect, along with the barren fig tree, the curse of the Lord.
1/ D. B. Wallace identifies this phrase as an attributed genitive, where the head noun “fruit” stands as an adjective. Here, emphasis is laid upon the head noun (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Zondervan, 1996]: 89-90), describing the results of his labor as being fruitful. Paul fully expected fruits to result from his labors. Some today would chide Paul for his “emphasis” on results!
2/ The broken syntax of this verse makes brother H. Littrell’s translation especially interesting: “If I live in the flesh, this brings more fruit from my labor” (English Study Bible: New Testament Translation and Notes [by the author, 1994]).