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individuals, as well as to the Jewish nation and the Church at large. Thus, the Baptist addressed his warning, in very similar language, to every individual: "Now also the axe is laid unto," or, even now the axe lieth at, “the root of the trees: therefore, every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." It is in this, at once more general and more particular way, then, as including ourselves, that we are chiefly called on to consider the parable.
"A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.” The "certain man," or rather, the certain one, or certain person, represents God. "My Father is the husbandman," said Jesus, on a similar occasion. His vineyard is the visible Church. The fig tree represents every individual in that Church-every person who bears the Christian name, and enjoys any outward Christian privileges. We are all in this vineyard. We are not like the fig tree by the wayside. We are not in a heathen land, but in a Christian. We were born of professedly, and, it may be, truly Christian parents; we have been baptized; we were instructed in religion from our youth; and we have the written Word of God, a Christian ministry, and public ordinances. We are, as the Psalmist expresses it, "planted in the house of the Lord," that we may "flourish in the courts of our God, and bring forth fruit." So many and so great are our advantages, that the Lord may also most justly ask, with regard to us, "What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?” The parable goes on to say that the owner of the fig tree came and sought fruit thereon, and found none." Such an examination and such an expectation, in those circumstances, are quite natural. So, spiritually, the Lord is not indifferent to the state of the visible Church, but takes a lively interest in its prosperity. He is represented as observing carefully what effects the means of grace are producing. He is well entitled to expect fruit; and if there be none, he cannot but be displeased. And, be it observed, there must be actual fruit: the leaves of ordinary profession are not enough, the blossom of higher promise is not enough, for there must be fruit. Some trees in the garden of the Lord bear fruit, but on this tree he found none. No believer bears so much fruit as he ought, but this tree is descriptive of the totally barren professor of the merely nominal Christian.
In order to perceive who they are that may be thus described, let us consider what is meant by the fruit which
true Christians must bear. Here we must observe that some bear fruit of a certain description, but not good fruit, not such as God approves. Some of that fruit is obviously bad; and the rest of it is really bad, though it looks well. "Their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter." Some actions are good only as useful to others in their consequences, and not good in their principles and motives. Some are well compared to "wild grapes," and to certain species of fruits which are always sour, unless the trees which bear them be ingrafted on a different stock, to improve their quality. "They that are in the flesh cannot please God;" human nature, in its unregenerated state, cannot bring forth good fruit. "A good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit: for of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble-bush gather they grapes. A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, bringeth forth that which is good: and an evil man, out of the evil treasure of his heart, bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh." In short, in order to bear good fruit, a man must be pardoned and accepted through faith in the righteousness of Christ, and regenerated through the influences of the Holy Spirit. And then, the fruits which the Lord expects to find in believers are just all the graces of the divine life. In writing to the Galatians, the apostle gives us this enumeration of these fruits, as contrasted with the works of the flesh: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." Let us examine ourselves by such a list as this, that we may know whether we be fruitful or not. Paul also prays for the Philippians, that they may be "filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God:" and he says to the faithful at Rome, "Being made free from sin, and become servants to God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." This, then, is the fruit which every true Christian bears; but on the tree typical of the barren professor, the Lord found
"Then said he to the dresser of his vineyard"-perhaps, Jesus Christ may be considered as the chief vine-dresser,
and every minister as a labourer in the vineyard under him— "Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none." One year after fruit inight reasonably be expected to appear, might be thought by a gardener but a short time to wait; but three years would be, in many cases, at least, a sufficient trial. There are some who think that our Lord, in fixing on this period, referred to the duration of his own public ministry to the Jews, which had now lasted about three years, but had been altogether unsuccessful with the generality of them. This may have been so: he is surely to be considered, however, as also speaking thus to denote, more generally, the long-suffering of God. And has he not waited as long as this for many of you? nay, has he not waited several times three years for some of you? Is he not, then, well entitled to speak of your barrenness with indignation? You could not object to the justice of the sentence," Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?" or, why should the ground be also useless? A barren tree
is not only useless, but hurtful, in a garden. It occupies space which might be employed to some good purpose; it draws away the strength of the ground for some distance all around; and it overshadows and injures other trees and plants, so that nothing can thrive in its vicinity. In like manner, those who are not Christians indeed, are not only useless, but hurtful to religion in the visible Church. They occupy stations in vain which might be usefully held by others; they discourage the pious; and they injure others, by their example at least, if not by their more direct endeavours. And, as the larger and more luxuriant the barren tree is, the more harm it does in the garden; so, the more conspicuous, in respect of rank, property, power, or unsanctified talents, any unconverted man is, the greater injury does he, in general, occasion to the cause of Christ in society. On all such cumberers, the sentence of divine justice is, Cut them down-afflict them by judgments, take them off by death, and consign them to destruction.
Now, it is well worth inquiry why this sentence is not, in every case, immediately executed. Many ungodly persons presume on the divine forbearance, so as to encourage themselves to persevere in sin. "Because sentence against evil work is not executed speedily, therefore their heart is fully set in them to do evil." But to what is this forbearance owing? It is not owing to any indifference on the part of God to the honour of his law and government.
Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." The true reason, in connexion with God's long-suffering, is the power of intercessory prayer. "And he," that is, the dresser of the vineyard, "answering, said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also." We shall probably get at the full meaning of this by considering it as referring first to the intercession of Christ, and then to the intercession of every faithful labourer employed by him in his vineyard. Each of these is important in its own place. The intercession of Christ has a value of its own, and altogether different from that of the intercession of mere men; for, his intercession is meritorious, and him the Father heareth always, and that for his own sake. It is, no doubt, owing primarily to his intercession, that the present frame of things is maintained, notwithstanding man's apostasy, and more particularly, that those for whom the Lord has a purpose of mercy are spared till the set time to favour them is come. In connexion with this, though in a very inferior sense, comes the intercession of Christ's people, and especially of Christ's ministers-an intercession not of meritorious, but of earnest prayer-an intercession which, when it is heard, is heard not for their sakes, but for his sake. We repeatedly read of the lives of the Israelites being spared, for the time, in consequence of the intercession of Moses. At the time of the trespass in the affair of the golden calf,* "The Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people: now, therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them." But when "Moses besought the Lord his God" in behalf of the people," the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do" unto them. Hence the words of the Psalmist,† "Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them." In this, Moses appears to have acted both as an individual believer for himself, and as a type of Christ. Fine instances of earnest and successful intercessory prayer are also found in the history of Joshua, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Daniel. In like manner, the prayers of ministers and others are, doubtless, of much efficacy still, through the great Intercessor, in stay
Josh. vii. 7; Jer. xxxii. 16; Dan. ix. 5; James v. 18.
ing the stroke which would cut off the ungodly, and in prevailing for their being spared a little longer in the land of the living and the place of hope.
“Let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it." This comparison, drawn from the well-known procedure of the husbandman, or gardener, teaches us that our prayers for the sparing of the ungodly ought to be accompanied with actual endeavours for their conversion. And so they are. Other means are employed for the benefit of sinners; and the same means as formerly, but more earnestly. Endeavours are made to awaken them to flee from wrath by the threatenings of the law, and to encourage them to come to God by the promises of the gospel. And is not this exactly what is now doing with you, whom, though unfruitful, God has hitherto graciously spared? Is he not giving you line upon line, and precept upon precept? Is he not continuing and multiplying means to make an impression on you?
"And if it bear fruit, well." The word "well" is here very properly supplied, to complete the sense, according to the idiom of our language, though there is no word corresponding to it in the original.* Literally, it will be satisfactory to the owner; and the tree itself will be allowed to remain. Figuratively, too, it will be well, if the person so spared begin to bear the fruits of righteousness. The labourers, or ministers, will rejoice; the angels in heaven will rejoice; Jesus Christ, seeing the travail of his soul, will be satisfied; and his most gracious Father will be pleased, and will say, "It is meet that we should make merry and be glad." It will be well, too, for the sinner, if he improve and turn to the Lord. Such a figurative tree, instead of being nigh unto cursing, will receive blessing from the Lord. It shall flourish and bring forth fruit below, and in due time, be transplanted to paradise, where it shall flourish and bring forth fruit for ever.
* Kay μέν ἐποίηση καρπον· εἰ δε μήγε, &c. This sort of an ellipsis, requiring a whole clause to be supplied, as the sense may demand, is quite according to the use of pure classical writers. Thus, in Thucydides, near the beginning of his third book, Ην μεν συμβη ἡ πειρα· εἰ δε μη, If the attempt succeed (well), but if not, &c.-In Aristophanes, Plutus, 144,
-Καν μεν ἀποφηνω
- ei de
In Xenophon, this figure occurs frequently; as in Cyropæd., lib. iv., Ka. νυν εἰ μεν Κυρος βουλεται· εἰ δε μη, &c. And in Polybius, 'Ear μεν ἕκοντες ποιωσιν· εἰ δὲ μη, &c.