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Faithful, but Not Fruitful

Are you faithful...but not fruitful? Over ten years ago the Spirit and I prepared a sermon entitled, "Faithful, but Not Fruitful". I had been asked to speak at Bethel Church in Agoura Hills, California, and this was the first message the Lord illumined me to deliver. The Lord is now reanimating this message for this time, with new edits and additions. Let's see what He does with it. Open your Bible to Luke 1.

Faithful, but Not Fruitful
Luke 1:5-7


Zechariah was an Old Covenant priest, representing the people of Israel to God by ministering in the temple (v5). He and his wife Elizabeth were faithful to God, "observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly" (v6 NIV). In spite of this noble resume, they were reproductively barren, they had no child (v7). In today's western societies having no children is not a big deal, but to Old Covenant Israel it was a gargantuan issue on multiple levels with multiple implications.
    In the Old Covenant system, the fruit of the womb (children) was explicitly stated to be a reward from God (Deu 28:4,11, Ps 127:3-5). No fruit of the womb (no children) indicated some kind of spiritual deficiency (Deu 28:18, 2Sam 6:23). In that era, couples who were childless were considered disgraced or disfavored by God.


Interpretation & Application
    It is possible for us, too, to be spiritually faithful and spiritually unfruitful at the same time. It is possible to run in a hamster wheel for God and not get rewarding results! Being faithful, but not fruitful, is one of the most depressing, confusing, even devastating, paradoxes in the Christian life. How can I be so faithful, yet not fruitful?, many Christians wonder.
    Jesus did not command us to only be faithful, He equally commanded us to be fruitful, so if we are not fruitful there is something we are not understanding, processing, or functionalizing in our spiritual life. In John 15:10 He said "obey my commands" (i.e., be faithful). In John 15:8 He said "bear much fruit" (i.e., be fruitful). The very first command given to the very first humans was, "Be fruitful" (Gen 1:28). God commands us to spiritually produce something, to spiritually accomplish something, to create harvests, to bear much fruit.
    Colossians 1:10 (NIV): a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work...

Faithfulness Plus Prayer Bring Visitation


The wonderful news is, God loves and cherishes faithfulness (Pr 20:6, Lk 16:10). But faithfulness still needs something more to evolve towards fruitfulness. That something is prayer. Not the impatient, stuck-in-traffic, a little here a little there popcorn prayer that many Christians pray, but an earnest, industrious, private prayer life that knows how to wrestle with the Angel of the Lord and obligate Him to His nature saying, "I will not let you go until you bless me."

And He responds to that kind of prayer life with a visitation.


Zechariah's Prayer Life, Prayer Army, & Visitation
    In verse 13 the angel says, "Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayer has been heard." In verse 10 we read there was a prayer meeting outside the temple when Zechariah went in to do his duties.
    Do not miss the cause-n-effect relationship Luke is insinuating here. It is Zechariah's prayer life and Zechariah's prayer army that invoked this visitation. Also, this tells us about the limits of faithfulness. Faithfulness is necessary, but it is not enough. Faithfulness must produce an industrious prayer life so the prayer life can produce a visitation so the visitation can produce a blueprint on how to be fruitful.


Interpretation & Application
    God schedules visitations for Christians who are faithful and faithfully praying. You may not realize it, but your divine visitation was and is and will be invoked by faithfulness plus prayer, your own prayer life and those praying with you. You may have long forgotten what you prayed and why, but God did not.
    The story of Cornelius shows us the same template, faithfulness plus prayer bring visitation (Ac 10). Before Cornelius was visited by an angel, by Peter, and by Pentecost, he was faithful to what he knew of God and he prayed faithfully. The first thing the angel said to him was, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up before God" (v4). After the angel's visit came Peter, and after Peter came Pentecost to him and his entire social circle. God schedules visitations for those who are faithful and faithfully praying.

The Visitation Troubles


God's visitation to Zechariah via the angel troubled and scared him. Notice Luke says the visitation troubled him first, then scared him second. Why would he be troubled first?

Who Angels Did & Did Not Visit in the Old Testament
    Zechariah was troubled because the visitation was different than the Old Testament pattern. In the Old Testament, angels did not appear to men who were priests and priests only (Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet), they appeared to the patriarchs, prophets, and warriors, and occasionally to a righteous person not in any category (Lot, Joseph the husband of Mary, the shepherds at the birth of Jesus, etc.). If you do an exhaustive study of every angel visitation from Genesis to the beginning of the New Covenant, you will discover this intriguing and important truth. There is a reason angels did not appear to men who were priests and priests only, but we cannot rabbit-trail down that reason today.
    Zechariah, as a priest responsible for teaching the Old Testament (Mal 2:7,8), would know this about angels. He, being a priest and priest only, would know angels were not supposed to visit him, he would know angel visits were patriarchal, prophetic, and militaristic. Zechariah would know this. The visit broke the Old Testament pattern, and therefore, Zechariah knew something very unusual and very serious was happening.


Interpretation & Application
    When God visits us in response to faithfulness and prayer, He may do so in a way that troubles us, like Zechariah. His visitation may be through a person you would not pick--like Paul, an ex-legalist ex-murderer of Christians, or John, a recluse who eats bugs, or someone from a different race you look down on, or someone from the opposite gender you think should just stay quiet and make babies. His visitation may be through a strange situation (like ditch-digging in a valley, 2Ki 3), an unexpected phenomenon (like a burning bush), a rival denomination, or something that doesn't fit your personality. The angel visit to Zechariah tells us the Lord does not seek our permission or opinion in how He visits our life. He will never violate His nature revealed in Scripture, but He will certainly violate our predictable protocols and comfort zones and denominational idols and incorrect interpretations of Scripture. Consequently, some Christians feel troubled, like Zechariah, when God visits them in an unfamiliar way. The unusual visitation is to evolve us towards fruitfulness and rewarding results.

The Visitation Brings a Blueprint for Fruitfulness


The visitation to Zechariah promised him fruitfulness and gave him a blueprint to focus on (v13-17). The angel calmed his anxiety by assuring him that his fruitfulness would bring him and others much happiness (v14). The angel builds him up by telling him his fruitfulness would bring a certain significance to his life (v15-17). The angel challenges him by implying he would need to grow and adapt to new things (v17), specifically, that he, a priest, would be raising a prophet. Those are two very different ministry personalities.

The visitation, then, came with a blueprint, a rough outline as to how Zechariah was going to go from faithful to fruitful.


Interpretation & Application
    In our visitation God will promise us fruitfulness, too, and give us a blueprint to focus on, too. He will calm our anxiety by assuring us that our coming fruitfulness will bring joy and fulfillment. He will build us up by affirming that our fruitfulness will bring a certain significance to our life. He will challenge us to grow and adapt because our coming fruitfulness is beyond our current experience and maturity. New things will have to be learned: new attitudes, new behaviors, new choices, new skills, new relationships, new environments, new resources, new models.

Our visitation will also come with a blueprint, a rough outline as to how we will go from faithful to fruitful.

The Visitation Addresses God-Image & Self-Image


Zechariah's unfruitfulness breadcrums back to his view of God and his view of himself. We can see in his question to the angel (v18) that he had a small God-image, which produces the derivative of a small self-image. He limited the I AM to his own am-nots, can-nots, and have-nots.

Interpretation & Application
    Divine visitations always address our deepest God-opinion and self-opinion. The tricky thing about faithfulness is that we can hide behind it. As necessary and valuable as it is, faithfulness does not fully reveal our true spiritual level. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we can memorize and practice Biblical commands blamelessly. However, it is the lingering barrenness, the lack of much fruit, that turns the floodlight on and reveals our true spiritual level.
    If God is small to us, and we see ourselves as insects, we will forever live in mundane, ritual Christianity: ten minute daily devotionals, faithfully attending church, giving money, doing good to others, keeping appetites on a leash, yada yada yada. These are all necessary and valuable in their place, but they can be done on autopilot and hide our true spiritual level. The visitation, and the blueprint that comes with it, forces us to confront our pitiful view of Yahweh Elohim and our pitiful view of ourselves so we can learn anointed productivity. Want to see an exceptional God-image and self-image? See Isaiah in Isaiah 6:8.

The Visitation Teaches the Tongue
v19-22, v64,67


After reassuring Zechariah that his coming fruitfulness was good news, the angel removes his ability to speak. God did this for two special reasons.

(1) Disciplinary Silence
    First, it was disciplinary (v20). God suspended his speaking ability until he learned to use his mouth for praise and thanksgiving, instead of stabbing himself over and over with self-absorbed, self-defeating rhetoric. Zechariah learned the lesson well, because after John was born, "his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God" (v64). The last words he spoke before the silence were faithless negative narcissism (v18). The first words he spoke after the silence were God-praising and faith-filled (v64).


(2) Educational Silence
    Second, the silence was a crash course on prophecy. Zechariah was not a prophet, so he did not have firsthand knowledge and experience in prophetic mechanisms. However, as John's father and mentor, he did need to understand a key mechanism of prophetic ministry: silence before proclamation.
    Prophets experience seasons of God-ordained silence before delivering their messages (Eze 3:24-27, Lk 1:80, 3:2,3). This means extended times of solitude while the revelatory dew is descending and saturating the prophet. During these times of retreat the prophet is under orders to stay silent until he, the messages, and the target environment are ripe.
    As a priest and priest only, Zechariah could never fully understand and appreciate this prophetic mechanism. Therefore, God gave him a taste of what John would experience, and therefore, be able to validate that in him. Otherwise, Zechariah might misunderstand his son's desert solitude (Lk 1:80, 3:2) as an emotional disturbance or demonic disturbance. But because of this educational crash course on prophecy, Zechariah could understand exactly what John was doing alone in the desert: silence before proclamation. At the end of Zechariah's silence, he, a priest, prophesied the message that was settling on him for months (v67-79).


Interpretation & Application
    God will silence the negative narcissism in our speech. He will correct and discipline us in ways only He can do. He will train us to verbalize faith-filled worship and thanksgiving at all times. He will teach us the value of silence (Ecc 3:7, Pr 10:19). He will teach us how to wait silently on Him (Lam 3:26). He will teach us how to silently conceal knowledge and protect privacy when appropriate (Am 5:13). He will even teach us to be silent before persecutors and difficult people (Mt 27:14).

Finally Fruitful


After many years of faithfulness and industrious prayer, after a period of sharp adjustment, Zechariah and Elizabeth finally produce fruit...John is born. The difficulty and disgrace quickly evaporate holding the beautiful, Spirit-filled baby boy.
    We, too, will become fruitful as we follow the same trajectory as John's parents. As we remain stubbornly faithful, pray industriously and diligently, recognize and embrace God's diverse visitations, grow in our God-image and self-image, and learn how to be silent and how to speak, we, too, will produce glorious and rewarding fruit over and over and over and over.

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