Be Fruitful and Multiply

Photo Credit: Unsplash.jpg

Photo Credit: Unsplash.jpg

“And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.”-Mark 4:20

In Christianity, the first commandment to mankind comes in Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them and said unto them, ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth.’” Before any of the ‘thou shalt nots’, before ‘love your neighbor’, before even, ‘thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ we hear ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ At a glance, it would seem that the path that leads unto righteousness is wider and more pleasant than Christ would have us believe. To the inattentive, it may seem that the first will of God was for us to simply enjoy ourselves, but this is a command as well as a blessing, whose end is made clear in the Gospels. When asked what was God’s greatest commandment, Jesus responded, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy god with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” 1 At stake is not only our happiness, but the abundance of the glory and image of God, for before the command was issued, and before man was formed, God said, “Let us make man in our image.” 2 It is the nature of progressive revelation in the scriptures that the full understanding of God’s will and law does not come immediately with its first proclamation, but in the light of Christ’s exaltation of God, believers do well to read all of His other commands according to the same hermeneutic.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to pause and thank our Creator that His glory and our fullest flourishing are in utter harmony with each other. It did not have to be so, that we could please God by producing heirs for ourselves, or molding the Earth to our own good and prosperity. Thank the Lord that we may. We can bring forth children to cherish and tenderly love, and in so doing place upon this planet further masterpieces of celestial creativity. We love our neighbors, and are loved in return, and in so doing we honor the designs of the divine Craftsman who built us to thrive in such community. We take advantage of fertile soil, and cultivate crops for our sustenance, rejoicing in the potential bounty that God makes available in creation. As Christians, we must also cultivate a desire to bear fruit for God. As we engage our Lord in love, we should find ourselves increasingly desiring that His creation be as fruitful as He intended. We should strive to contribute ourselves to this fertility, that we might demonstrate the glorious blessings of obedience to the Father who brought us forth as His firstfruits from the dust of the Earth. To do so is to most fully embody the image of God, and by extension, most fully embody humanity.

Now allow me to correct a possible misunderstanding. I am aware that my language pairs God’s glory and human flourishing in a way that veers dangerously close to the heresy of the prosperity gospel, in which faith in God and speaking confidently of blessings to be received are sufficient to bring those blessings into existence, that suffering is evidence of an impure spirit. There are those who claim that if a believer speaks confidently that they will receive wealth, then God will necessarily fulfill that request. The same say that a Christian who fails to receive a blessing which he requests suffers from a deficit of faith. This is a damnable lie, in the fullest, most literal sense of that phrase, one which better men than I have spent their lives denouncing. For our purposes here, I will content myself with three observations which may help keep us from this false conclusion. The first is that Christ and the apostles obviously suffered for the sake of the gospel, along with countless martyrs throughout the entirety of church history. The second is the fact that the auxiliary command to subdue the Earth in our quest to be fruitful makes clear that there will be a degree of labor and work in the service of God, even before the fall. The third is the clear implication of passages like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 or the parable of the talents in Luke 19 that God endows His people in different ways and to varying degrees, so that no one man may expect to receive every conceivable blessing from God.

This last observation goes further than refuting heresy, for it reveals to us an important aspect of our command to multiply in light of the gospel, that the fruits and blessings which we receive are God given and of spiritual importance rather than only physical. God’s first command, to be fruitful and multiply is of a kind with Christ’s last command, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” 3 The command is to spread his teaching, to spread the knowledge of the Word of God. The world is fallen. The fruit of men’s loins carry a doom above their heads. If we have been born again, our first duty is not to simply multiply, when there is no guarantee that the children will serve God, but to be instruments of redemption for those who walk the Earth as dead men. This is not to say that the former ways are now obsolete or cannot glorify God, but the spread of the gospel must have the preeminence. In Mark 4, very early in his ministry, Jesus uses the parable of the sower to illustrate this process. Many seeds are scattered on infertile ground, and as such do not sprout, but those that are planted in fertile soil bring forth fruit, and fruit in abundance, “some thirtyfold, and some sixty, and some an hundred.” This abundant fruit refers, according to Christ himself, to those who hear the Word and receive it. It is therefore through hearing the proclamation and reception of the gospel that mankind is able to produce the truest fruit, either as sower or sown. The physical fruit of children and of a world of plenty are good fruits, but they point toward greater fruit, which in turn point further back to God’s glory. I find it no accident that Paul calls “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance” the “fruit of the Spirit.” 4 As true and as good and as glorifying to God as our physical fruitfulness can be, we are called by the love of Christ to still greater fruitfulness, still higher bounty, in having a spirit like our Father’s, for in all this, love for the Lord remains the greatest commandment. To love Him with an abashed, obedient love, to love what He loves as He loves, this is the greatest fruit which mankind can bear.

Unfortunately, the telos of our fruitfulness must be proclaimed, with frequency and regularity, for we fail to recognize the primacy of God’s glory in our purpose as His image, and our natural instincts are not enough to make us labor even on for our own good. I could almost write the word procrastination and leave it at that; certainly I feel the tremendous lethargy of it within myself. We are all aware of the impulse, repressed by some better than others, to be and merely be, without taking any action to our own prosperity, let alone of God’s creation. We are overcome with weariness in labor, and long to rest far more than to produce good. We put off what is good for us in favor of momentary ease. In his book, Unapologetic, English author Frances Spufford gives a glimpse of this tendency, “You’re lying in the bath and you notice that you’re thirty-nine and the way you’re living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted; yet you got here by choice, by a long series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid the things you say you wanted most.” Even if we want what God wants, even if we want the fruitfulness and bounty which He encourages, we lack the will to achieve it. To quote C.S. Lewis, “We are half-hearted creatures…We are far too easily pleased.” Spufford names this tendency something rather rude, but it has an older name: sin. It is sin which makes us sweat for our bread, and toil to win souls from it to Christ. It is sin which makes labor an agony and places us into subjugation.

However, sin is not insurmountable for the believer. If hearing and receiving the word is to be planted and sprout in good soil, according to Jesus’ parable, then the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, so closely associated with water both at creation’s dawn 5 and in baptism 6 can be thought of like a nourishing rain which animates us to grow and to actually produce the fruits of the spirit which we could not otherwise. The mechanism by which this is accomplished is through good works which God prepares for us.

Paul grasps this very well. In his epistle to the Ephesians, he states, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” 7 These good works are intimately bound up with our purpose before God. The main thrust of Paul’s thinking is to emphasize salvation as a divine gift rather than a work, but he nonetheless recognizes the value of works as a service to God. In his letter to the Philippians, he commends them for their service to him, “Not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account.” 8 He understands full well that by ministering unto him they are fulfilling God’s purpose for them. They are bringing the world closer to what God intends it to be. They are bearing fruit. The desire to bear fruit for God is evident in Paul’s own motivations as well. “Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I was purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles.” 9 Throughout his ministry, Paul is longing for both himself and his listeners to not only receive the gospel, but to make it fruitful, to carry it to all nations as Christ commanded, teaching them to obey Christ’s commands, as we are all commanded. Love God. Love neighbor. Bear fruit.

But, remember, the the fruits of God are ultimately His gifts to us. God made the way for us to receive the fruits of the Spirit, by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who removed from us the penalty of our unfruitfulness. Just as He promised to multiply Abraham’s seed upon the Earth 10 along with Isaac’s 11 and Jacob’s 12 seeds after him, God will empower His people to do His work. God will bless with spiritual fruit those who faithfully serve Him and seek Him, and even our sufferings shall serve as manure with which to bring forth Godly fruit. From Paul once again, “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience, hope:” 13 Let us therefore give thanks for a God who desires for us to be more bountiful than we could possibly hope, whose fullness impels us to glorify Him, who glories in the fruit of the spirit He has planted in us, who shall continue onward into eternity as we bear ever more fruit, first thirtyfold, then sixty, then an hundred. Amen.

Notes:

  1. Matthew 22:37
  2. Genesis 1:26
  3. Matthew 28:19-20
  4. Galatians 5:22-23, emphasis mine
  5. Genesis 1:2
  6. Matthew 3:16 and 1 John 5:8 among others. A full exploration is a task for another day.
  7. Ephesians 2:10
  8. Philippians 4:17
  9. Romans 1:13
  10. Genesis 22:17
  11. Genesis 26:4
  12. Genesis 35:11
  13. Romans 5:3-4