Fruitfulness: A Biblical Theology of Productivity

by Sep 27, 20170 comments

The primary word that the Bible uses to define productivity is fruitfulness. That is, the Bible often describes a productive person as someone who bears fruit.

We use these words in the same way, although we don’t necessarily notice the connection. Think, though, of what we call the fruit that we buy at the grocery store: produce.

But when we see how the ideas of fruitfulness and bearing fruit appear throughout the entire story of the Bible, we gain a better understanding of the biblical theology of productivity.

Fruitfulness in the Garden of Eden

At the beginning of the Bible, God both forms and fills his creation. Then, God commands that his people carry forward his work of creation through cultivating and keeping God’s creation.

This will mean that God’s people should raise up more image bearers (through fruitful multiplication) who have plenty to eat (through fruitful cultivation):

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful [perû] and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit [perî]. You shall have them for food.” (Gen. 1:28–29)

God’s people are to be fruitful by multiplying, and they are to eat the fruit that God provided them. These ideas are even closer than they might seem at first, since the Hebrew word that we translate as “offspring” (Gen. 3:15; 4:25; 9:9; 12:7; 13:15, 16; 15:3, 5, 13, 18; 16:10; 17:7–10, 12, 19, etc.) is actually the word for “seed” (zera’)—the same word used to describe the seeds for fruit-bearing trees (Gen. 1:11–12, 29).

But at the fall, God multiplies pain in childbearing for the woman (Gen. 3:16), and he curses the ground so that it will not bear fruit apart from the man’s pain, sweat, and toil (Gen. 3:17–19). By grace, God permits his people to continue being fruitful in reproduction and in cultivating food, but the curse of sin will hinder their fruitfulness in both areas.

Fruitfulness as Old Covenant Blessing

It is no small matter, then, when God puts both kinds of fruitfulness at the center of his covenant blessings to his people. If God’s people obey him, God will bless them with fruitfulness in reproduction (Gen. 17:6, 20; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4; Ex. 1:7; Lev. 26:9; Ps. 105:24; 128:3; Eze. 36:11) and fruitfulness in the land of Canaan (Lev. 19:25; 25:19; 26:4; Num. 13:20, 27; Deut. 7:13; 28:4, 11; 30:9).

Perhaps the best single verse to illustrate this principle is Deuteronomy 7:13: “He [the LORD your God] will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground…” Sometimes, God mingles these themes of fruitfulness in multiplying God’s people and their crops, so that God describes his people as a garden (Num. 24:5–6), a vine (Ps. 80:8–16), and a vineyard (Isa. 5:1–7).

Fruitlessness as Old Covenant Curse

But on the other hand, God also threatens fruitlessness as the covenant curse for Israel’s disobedience: “Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock” (Deut. 28:18; cf. Lev. 26:20; Deut. 28:33, 42).

If they rebel against their God, Israel will suffer as their enemies eat the fruit of the land that Israel planted (Deut. 28:51). Worse yet, the Israelites themselves will be forced to eat the fruit of their own wombs because of their starvation (Deut. 28:53).

Ultimately, Israel does disobey, and all these curses take place just as God spoke. Just as God spoke of his people as a vine who would bear fruit in the land where he planted them, so he also described his rebellious people as a useless vine, good only to be burned as fuel for the fire (Eze. 15).

God’s fruitful people become fruitless as judgment for their sin. The hopeful promises of the old covenant fall apart—not because God is unfaithful to his people, but because God’s people are unfaithful to him.

Fruitfulness in the Gospels

In the New Testament, this language of fruitfulness expands beyond merely biological reproduction to spiritual reproduction. Right from the beginning, John the Baptist insists that true fruitfulness is more than biological descent from Abraham:

[7] But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? [8] Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. [9] And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. [10] Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt. 3:7–10)

This is the message of Ezekiel 15 all over again—God desires a spiritually productive, fruitful people. If they do not obey him, then they are worthless trees, good only to be thrown into the fire.

Jesus himself carries this message forward. First, Jesus explains that all people will be known by the quality of their fruit (Matt. 7:17–19; 12:33). Second, he speaks about the preaching of the gospel as the seed-sowing that will bear fruit in his kingdom (Matt. 13:8, 23, 26). Third, Jesus sends his disciples into evangelistic ministry, urging them to gather fruit unto eternal life (John 4:26).

Fourth, Jesus even acts out the Old Testament drama of the fruitlessness of Israel when he curses the fruitless fig tree, causing it to wither away in judgment for its fruitlessness (Matt. 21:19). Then, Jesus calls himself the true vine, through whom his people will bear much fruit (John 15:1–11).

The old covenant could not bear fruit, but the new covenant in Jesus will bear much fruit.

Fruitfulness in the New Testament

The rest of the New Testament carries forward this theme of spiritual fruit through Jesus in three important ways. First, Paul tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23). In this life, Jesus produces lasting, spiritual fruit in us through the Holy Spirit.

Second, Paul tells us that Christ’s resurrection is the “firstfruits”—the beginning of the harvest of God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 15:20). Then, when Christ comes again, we will be the fruit that Christ comes to harvest (1 Cor. 15:23), for we are perishable seeds who will be raised up in imperishability (1 Cor. 15:35–49). The harvest of the resurrection will be our transition from the fruit that we begin to bear in this life to the fruit that we will enjoy in the life to come.

Third, we will enjoy the fruit of the next life forever:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:1–2)

Fruit in this age, our harvest at the resurrection, and then twelve kind of fruit (that is, the full measure of fruit) in the age to come. God is working fruitfully and productively to raise up the fruit that he desires through the finished work of Jesus Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

A Biblical Theology of Productivity

To talk about productivity, we must start with this biblical theology of productivity defined as fruitfulness in Jesus Christ. No number of productivity tips, tricks, strategies, or hacks will accomplish anything of true, lasting value apart from the redemptive work of Jesus.

This does not mean that the only truly productive work is spiritual work, for God’s commandments to be fruitful in reproduction and in cultivation of creation remain in force. To whomever God grants it, we must still marry, bear children, and work. Furthermore, we should seek to be as productive and fruitful as possible in these areas, for our fruitfulness is pleasing to God.

And yet, this biblical theology reminds us that there is more at stake than our marriages, our children, and our work, because God’s harvest transcends those categories. So, we cannot make an idol out of those spheres of our lives. Additionally, this principle reminds us that those who are single, childless, or disabled from working are no less worthy of dignity, value, and worth, for whoever abides in Jesus bears much fruit (John 15:5).

What kind of productivity should we seek, then? In a word, the fruit that Jesus demands is love.

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