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No doubt John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, had many things to say in his day. However, Matthew recorded only a few things which were most relevant to future generations. John’s main theme was given in Matthew 3:2,
2 Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
In conjunction with this, John said in Matthew 3:8, 9,
8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.
God is impressed by fruit, not genealogy. Those who bear fruit are the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). Paul says that faith in particular is the fruit that impresses God. It is almost as if God is surprised when anyone actually believes what He says and acts upon it with confidence!
Jesus later preached the same message, as Matthew 4:17 says,
17 From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Like John, Jesus looked for “fruit in keeping with repentance.” Fruit is the evidence of genuine repentance, and at the top of the fruit list is faith. But “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). A dead tree bears no fruit. If faith does not change one’s life for the better, it has no value to God. Here is where the law enters the picture, though we must view the law through New Covenant eyes, be lawful, and avoid legalism.
Commands or Promises?
Under the Old Covenant, the law was viewed as a series of commandments intended to alter men’s behavior. Behavior modification is good, because it points to the works that one would do when reflecting the nature and character of God. The law is a revelation of God’s nature, because it was given by God Himself and is our standard of righteousness. The problem was that without a change in human nature, men found it impossible to attain the righteousness of God, no matter how many commandments were given.
The New Covenant, on the other hand, sees the law as a series of promises. “You will not steal” is no longer an Old Covenant command but a New Covenant promise. Hence, we who are the children of the New Covenant, hear the Ten Promises rather than the Ten Commandments. Every law, then, becomes a promise of God, telling us of what He intends to do within our hearts to change our nature by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is truly the only way that we may bear fruit that is fully acceptable to God. It is not that the law was cast aside, but that the Holy Spirit is writing the law upon our hearts, according to the promise of God in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it.” The same law that was written on tablets of stone is now being written on the tablets of the heart. The same law that Moses broke in Exodus 32:19 was written again in Exodus 34:1. Moses returned with those tablets having a change of nature, and his face glowed with God’s presence.
The first tablets, written by the finger of God, were marvelous, but they did not change Moses’ heart. The second set of tablets, however, changed everything. So Moses portrayed mankind under both covenants—showing us the effects of the same law under different covenants.
Nature and Behavior
True repentance is a change of nature, not merely a change of behavior. Yet if one’s behavior remains unchanged, it is evident that a man’s nature is unchanged as well.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:16-18,
16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.
In other words, the nature of the tree determines the quality of its fruit. If a fig tree bears evil fruit, it cannot claim to be a fruit-bearing tree, for its fruit is inedible. So we see that at the end of Jesus’ ministry as the divine Fruit Inspector, He cursed the fig tree for its lack of fruit (Matthew 21:19). This was an act of spiritual warfare against Judah itself, which was represented by that fig tree.
In the laws of war, it was unlawful to cut down a fruit-bearing tree (Deuteronomy 20:19). Jesus did not violate the law by cursing the fig tree, because the tree bore no fruit—nor would it ever again bear fruit, Jesus said. It would only come back to life at the end of the age and bear more leaves (Matthew 24:32). But fig leaves have been a problem since Adam (Genesis 3:7). While leaves are a sign of life, they are no substitute for fruit.
Such trees are fit only to be chopped down and used for fuel. John the Baptist recognized this, when he said in Matthew 3:10,
10 The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Jesus confirmed this, saying in Matthew 7:19,
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Warnings Against Lawlessness
Immediately after this, Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-23,
21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (anomia).
Jesus was speaking of Christians, not unbelievers. These lawless ones had prophesied in the name of Jesus. They had cast out demons in the name of Jesus. They had even performed miracles in the name of Jesus. Yet Jesus said, “I never knew you.”
How is this possible? They seemed to have great faith, but yet they were not classed as fruit-bearing trees. Is not prophecy, deliverance, and miracles the fruit that God finds acceptable? Apparently not.
The only explanation Jesus gives is that these believers practiced “lawlessness.” The Greek word is anomia, the negative of nomos, “law.” In other words, these miracle workers despised the law and treated it as if the New Covenant had put away the law instead of writing the law on their hearts. I know of such teachings firsthand, for I was raised to believe that Jesus had put away the law by His death on the cross. Only after I was grown did I discover this grave error, and much later I discovered by revelation the difference between the commands and promises of God.
Anomia is defined as a condition where there is no law or a mindset of contempt or violation of law.
It is a condition where men believe that they may violate whatever law they may find disagreeable to them. Invariably, such a belief is evidence that they do not truly understand the purpose of law, nor do they understand that God’s law is an expression of His nature. They do not realize that the baptism of fire of which John prophesied in Matthew 3:11, 12 is the work of the “fiery law” of Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV. It is the all-consuming fire of God’s very nature (Deuteronomy 4:24). When He writes the law in our hearts, it is written by fire, branding us with His nature.
Neither did the Apostle Paul put away the law, for he wrote in Romans 3:31,
31 Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the law.
Just because we are no longer being condemned by the law to be sold as slaves to sin does not mean that the law was put away. If I redeem a slave, I have not put away the law, nor has the slave suddenly received the right to be lawless. John says, “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), again using the word anomia. Hence, any time we see the word “sin,” we may substitute its equivalent, “lawlessness.” Paul warned of lawlessness (anomia) in Romans 6:14, 15, 16,
14 For sin [which is lawlessness] shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Shall we sin [be lawless] because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin [lawlessness] resulting in death, or of obedience, resulting in righteousness?
To be “under law” was a Hebrew expression describing one who had been sold into bondage on account of some sin (as in Exodus 22:3). We were all sold into bondage to sin on account of Adam’s sin, and we were redeemed by Christ, who paid the debt for our sin. Having been freed from such bondage and put under grace, why would anyone want to break the law further? Why would anyone want to be sold again to the same old taskmaster?
Serving the Law of God
Those who are lawless show that their nature has remained unchanged, even after professing Christ, and even after prophesying or performing miracles. Jesus said to them, “I never knew you.” In other words, the law—My nature—was never written on your hearts, for you rejected the revelation of the law and the work of the Holy Spirit.
So Paul writes in Romans 6:19,
19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness [anomia], resulting in further lawlessness [anomia], so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
The law said that a slave who has been redeemed (or purchased) must serve his new master (Leviticus 25:53). The slave is not set free to do as he pleases; he simply changes masters. So also, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, has bought us with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20), and we are thus obligated to serve Him as “slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.”
We are no longer obligated to serve the law of sin, which commands us to be lawless. We are obligated to serve the law of God, which commands us to be righteous. Romans 7:25 says,
25 … So then, on the one hand I myself with my [spiritual] mind am serving the law of God, but on the other [carnal mind] with my flesh the law of sin.
Let us follow Paul’s example of faith and obedience to the law of God, knowing that sin has no further dominion over us. We are no longer obligated to obey the laws and commands of sin, as we formerly did through our carnal minds. The mind of the new creation man within serves the law of God. And as our nature is changed little by little by the work of the Holy Spirit, we come more and more into agreement with the nature of Christ.