Can a leopard change his spots?
Jeremiah 10:1-25; 13:15-27
Can people change? Really change?
Aristotle thought so. Here’s how:
“it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man.”
If you want to change, then perform righteous acts and you will become righteous. It’s ancient wisdom. But it’s very modern too. Pick up any magazine and it will instruct you in the 5 steps to a flatter stomach, a de-cluttered house, a cholesterol free diet and a whole new you. Do and you will be. Aristotle lives today!
This is exactly why Martin Luther called Aristotle “a damned, conceited, rascally heathen”. In fact Luther said, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.” Luther said this because Aristotle’s philosophy is the opposite of the Bible’s. Aristotle says, Do and then you’ll be. The Bible says No. The problem is our being. And no amount of doing can change that!
Can a leopard change its spots? No! The leopard by itself can only be a leopard. It can be an aggressive leopard or a tame leopard but it can’t stop being a leopard. And the Bible applies this truth to humanity. In Jeremiah chapter 13, we read the prediction of imminent doom which was facing the people of God. Judgement is coming, the Babylonians will sack Jerusalem, the people will be carried away into exile. They cannot escape:
Judah shall be carried away captive all of it, it shall be wholly carried away captive. Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north… And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare. Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil. (Jeremiah 13:19-23)
Judgement is coming upon the people for their sins. But the LORD is adamant that they cannot avert it and they cannot change themselves to deserve salvation.
At this point, the Aristotles of this world are fuming. Surely we just need to apply ourselves, to learn best practice, to try harder and never give up? No, responds the Bible, our doing does not have the power to affect our being, any more than a leopard can change its spots.
In Matthew chapter 7 Jesus would say something very similar, but using a horticultural illustration instead:
Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. (Matthew 7:16-18)
Just as a tree brings forth fruit, so our being brings forth our doing. Our behaviour can no more change our being, than an orange tree can become an apple tree by stapling on Granny Smiths.
If we are to be saved, our very being needs to change. But we cannot effect such change ourselves. Instead, Jeremiah directs our gaze to the One who is truly righteous.
“Behold, the days come”, saith the LORD, “that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”. (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
There is One who is truly good and who brings forth judgement and justice from His own righteous being. Notice too that He is called “a righteous Branch.” It’s a suggestive botanical reference, especially given Jesus’ quotation above. King Jesus will not merely be the righteous Branch for Himself. He will become THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. The Branch shares His life with us such that His righteousness becomes our righteousness.
We cannot become righteous through righteous deeds. But we can be grafted into the righteous Branch – Jesus. If we come to Him we have a change of being. Instantly, we are righteous in Him.
And out of our new natures comes a new kind of righteous doing. This is the glory of the “new covenant” which Jeremiah speaks of:
I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
People can change. Really change. But not through our own efforts. It takes “Christ our righteousness” to surround us and the Spirit of Christ within us. But, organically, from our new beings springs forth new behaviour.
Aristotle was wrong. Righteous acts do not make righteous people. But those made righteous in Christ will start to do righteous acts.