Here is the cartoon that accompanies this essay.
Slow down to ponder
Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess His name.” In reading this verse, we should slow down long enough to ask ourselves, what does the author of Hebrews mean by the expression “the fruit of lips”?
A common metaphor
The term ‘fruit’ (Greek: karpos) literally describes the produce of trees (e.g., Mark 11:14), vines (e.g., Mark 12:2), and even crops (e.g., Mark 4:29). It can also refer to children (the ‘fruit’ of the womb, e.g., Luke 1:42; or the ‘fruit’ of the loins, Acts 2:30).
The metaphorical and meaning occurs fairly often in Scripture, with the meaning of result, outcome, or product. Perhaps the most well-known of these are the nine spiritual attributes which Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). John the Baptizer tells those seeking his baptism, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8, 10; parallel: Luke 3:8-9), referring to their thoughts, words, and deeds.
Jesus challenges us to develop the ability to identify false teachers based on the ‘fruit’ of their lives (Matthew 7:16-20; parallel: Luke 6:43-44). The Parable of the Sower and the Soils uses the term to describe the result of God’s Word reproducing itself in a person’s life (Mark 4:7-8; parallels: Matthew 13:8; Luke 8:8). Jesus promises that if his disciples will remain in him, they will bear much fruit (John 15:4-5; John 15:8; John 15:16). (Perhaps Jesus here intentionally creates the ambiguity between the fruit of love and the fruit of evangelistic growth, since both of them are genuine possibilities.)
God expects ‘fruit’ only from individuals, but also from nations, as the Parable of the Tenants demonstrates (Mark 12:2; parallels: Matthew 21:34; Luke 20:10). Apparently, this is also the meaning of the cursed fig tree (see Mark 11:14 and parallels) and of the Samaritan harvest (John 4:36).
Besides the fruit of the Spirit, Paul speaks of the contribution he is collecting as fruit (Romans 15:28), and uses many other expressions, such as the fruit you reap (either good or bad – Romans 6:21-22; compare Romans 7:4-5), the fruit of the light (Ephesians 5:9), and the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11). Paul says that the Gospel is “bearing fruit and growing” all over the world (Colossians 1:6), resulting in the Colossians Christians “bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10).
James refers to wisdom from above being full of good fruit and peacemakers who sow in peace and produce the fruit of righteousness (James 3:17-18).
The context of Hebrews
The author of Hebrews is addressing Jewish Christians being tempted by persecution to abandon Christ and return to Judaism (Hebrews 10:32-39). Their anti-Christian Jewish persecutors are forcing them to make a choice between on the one hand continuing to have access to the Jewish Temple and priesthood, with its ongoing sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1-4), and on the other hand following him “outside the city” (Hebrews 13:11-13) and receiving the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:10).
As an alternative to the Jewish sacrifices of the old covenant, the author of Hebrews urges his readers to make a continual spiritual offering to God: “a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:15-16).
The writer of Hebrews is calling on us to focus on the words that we use. Are these words, coming from lips that have confessed Christ’s lordship and so belong to him, yielding the “produce” that He expects and deserves?
A series of contrasts
Encountering the metaphor of ‘fruit’ brings to mind at least three possible contrasts that help us to examine the quality of the fruit we offer to God from our lips. Is our fruit green or ripe? Is it sweet or rotten? And is it seasonal or continual?
– Green or ripe?
As we turn our lives over to Christ, we experience disappointment and frustration as we discover the tenacity with which sin clings to our internal and external conversations. The fruit of our lips too often remains green. We are childishly incapable of controlling what we say, bringing our lips into submission to the Lord they have already confessed.
We must plead guilty when confronted by the command of Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The fruit of our lips remains green until this verse becomes the rule rather than the exception in our lives.
– Sweet or rotten?
Little is more revolting than biting into an apple, expecting its sweetness to satisfy your craving, but finding instead only rottenness. A similar disappointment seizes by the throat people who seek us out, expecting to be encouraged and inspired, but hearing instead words that are filthy, cold, complaining, or self-justifying. If only we could develop the habit of tasting the words before we release them!
– Seasonal or continual?
The metaphor of fruit suggests the idea of seasons: first we plant the seeds of our words in our thoughts; then we allow those thoughts to grow as we contemplate how to express them; finally we send them out, finally ready to be harvested. If the writer of Hebrews urges us to “continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise.” We offer him the fruit of our lips, not just occasionally – being weekday sinners and Sunday saints – but constantly, yielding our weekdays to His service as well. This suggests the need for the three seasons also to be continual: constantly thinking out what to say and how to say it but also listening intently to others who can plant good word-seeds in our hearts.
Want to dive deeper?
Hebrews 13:15 occurs in the context of the priesthood of the new covenant. The authors says, “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10). We follow our high priest outside the camp, and we participate with him in the priestly service of others. Not only has he offered his own blood for the redemption of the people, but he also invites us to join him in offering other sacrifices, including the fruit of our lips. As his lips produced his teaching – an infinite blessing to the world – so he challenges us to participate in the priestly work of blessing others with our words.
The Sacrifice of Praise (anonymous sermon). London and Glasgow: 1858. pp. 3-22.
Prayer from the hymnal The Sacrifice of Praise: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs Designed for Public Worship and Private Devotion, with Notes on the Origin of Hymns. New York: Charles Scribner, 1869. p. xviii.
Sharla Fritz – Bless These Lips: 40 Days of Spiritual Renewal. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia, 2012.
From the publisher: Examines things we say that get in the way of our relationships with God and with others. Each chapter draws on lip product analogies and uses humor, anecdotes, and observations to introduce Scripture passages that address common behaviors and attitudes. And each day’s reading includes Bible study questions and suggestions for personal reflection. Can be used as an eight-week study for small groups or for individuals.