Monday, March 16, 2015

The True Vine and the Fruitful Branch (John 15:1-11)

One of the unique features that distinguish the Gospel According to John from the other Gospels is Jesus’ seven “I am” statements. In these vivid metaphors, Jesus reveals truth about who He is and what He had come into the world to do. Over the course of our study of John, we have considered six of them. Today we come to the seventh. Here in John 15:1, Jesus says, “I am the True Vine,” and again in verse 5, “I am the Vine.” In this statement and the accompanying metaphors of the vinedresser and the branches, He is revealing something about the nature of our relationship with Him and the effect of this relationship on us. He is the source of our spiritual life – a life that flows through the vine and into us, the branches that are connected to Him by saving faith and trust. This imagery vividly portrays the reality of what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

The Bible uses a lot of different kinds of figurative language, and it is helpful for us to distinguish them from one another. This passage deals with metaphors – a simple means of comparison where one thing is described in terms of another. It is not a parable – a story in which a single primary point is being made by a small number of elements in the story. Nor is it an allegory – a complex story in which every detail of the story is representative of something else. Therefore, we cannot press every detail of the metaphors used here for some theological meaning. The basic meanings are simple to understand. The complex issues are not here dealt with but are left for other, clearer and more in-depth teaching. Three main subjects are identified in the metaphor. Christ is the Vine. His Father is the vinedresser, or “farmer” more literally. Those who are genuine followers of Christ are the branches. The point of the metaphor is how all three of these are related to one another in a way that produces fruit – the vital effect and evidence of genuine spiritual life.

We need to notice here that Jesus says He is the Vine, as if to say that there is no other vine that can produce this sort of spiritual vitality. He is not one of many vines, He is the Vine. He also says in verse 1 that He is the True Vine. There are other things that portend to be vines but are not. But the one pseudo-vine that Jesus is making a distinction from here is the Nation of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was likened to a vine that had been planted and tended by God. Ironically, however, whenever that imagery is used to describe Israel, it is a negative context of a vine that has failed to bear good fruit and is in imminent peril of judgment. One example of this is in Isaiah 5 where we find the “Song of the Vineyard.” There the prophet sings of all that the Lord did to prepare this vineyard for Himself, with the expectation that it would produce “good grapes.” Instead, it only produced “worthless ones,” a phrase that would most literally be translated as “stink-fruit.” Whereas the nation of Israel proved to be spiritually impotent before the Lord, Jesus has come into the world to be the True Vine, by whom all who are vitally connected to Him will enjoy the fullness of spiritual livelihood and produce abundant good fruit for the glory of the Lord.

The distinction between the worthless vine of Israel and the Lord Jesus as the True Vine was necessary for people in that day to understand. If they trusted in their “Jewishness” and their Hebrew ancestry to grant them spiritual security before God, they would be ultimately disappointed. It was not enough to be “born” in the right biological lineage. They had to be “born again,” as branches in the True Vine, the Lord Jesus. This distinction would be scandalous to most who heard it in that day. But it is also necessary, scandalous, and relevant to our own day. Particularly here in the Southern United States, Christianity has been the cultural norm for centuries, and there are many who assume that they are Christians by default. But the image of the vine and the branches reminds us that spiritual vitality only comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not from our ancestors or our geographical setting. He is the True Vine. Are you a branch that is bearing fruit for Him? That is the question for us today – one that each individual must consider and answer before God for himself or herself. So, let us break down the metaphor here and consider what it means to be a fruitful branch that is vitally connected to the True Vine.

I. The branches are known by the fruit they bear (vv2-3, 6)

It has been said that in recent days, John 3:16 has been replaced as the most favorite and frequently quoted Bible verse, in exchange for Matthew 7:1 – “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” Yet that statement occurs in the very context of a long discourse about the necessity of making judgments. We are to judge between a wide and a narrow gate, a solid and a shaky foundation, and even between true and false prophets. Jesus says there in Matthew 7 that we will know them by their fruits. Good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit, and we are expected to be able to tell the difference between them. The point of His statement to “not judge,” is to not judge others without first judging ourselves, or by a different standard than we judge ourselves. We must not judge the other person for having a speck in his or her eye, while not doing anything about the log that is in our own eye. Before we go looking at what kind of fruit our neighbor is bearing, we must look at ourselves and the fruit that we are bearing. It is a similar point to what is being made here in John 15.

The vitality of a branch, and its relationship to the Vine is determined by the fruit that it bears. Now, what kind of fruit are we talking about here? The text here does not define the fruit. We have to look to other passages for help here. In other passages, fruit is used to describe different aspects of the Christian life. In Romans 1:13, Paul uses the word “fruit” to refer to evangelistic converts. In Galatians 5, he uses the word “fruit” to describe the way that the Holy Spirit manifests Himself in the life of the believer, with qualities like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” In many other passages, we read of “the fruit of righteousness,” and find “fruit” otherwise used to describe good deeds and those things which further God’s work in the world. The general sense in all of these contexts is that the “fruit” is evidence that God’s Spirit indwells a person and is making His presence known through these qualities and works. So, rather than choosing one of these examples of fruit to explain what Jesus means here in John 15, it seems better to consider all of them together. We can say something like this: the fruit that is borne by a Christian in right relationship with Jesus is a combination of Christlike characteristics, produced by the indwelling Holy Spirit, as a means to accomplishing God’s purposes in and through the believer.

There is one who will judge all fruit and all branches and all those who portend to be branches. Jesus said that His Father is the Vinedresser. He is examining the vine and seeing where fruit is being borne and where it is absent. And Jesus says here that every branch that does not bear fruit, He takes away. In verse 6, the fate of that one is made more clear. He is thrown away as a branch, and dries up, and these false branches are gathered together and cast into a fire to be burned. Some have concluded that this means that it is possible for one who is a Christian to somehow be severed from Christ and lose his or her salvation. However, we know that this is not what is being taught here. First, we must remember that in a metaphor like this, simple comparisons are being made to convey simple truths, and complex details cannot be pressed upon the metaphor. Second, if that is what is meant here, then it would plainly contradict what is clearly taught in other passages that are more straightforward and detailed. The entirety of Scripture testifies that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that no genuine believer can ever lose the salvation that has been given to him or her by the grace of the Lord Jesus.

If you have ever tended to vines, whether they are grapevines or wild vines that run like weeds through the woods, you can envision this situation. In our back yard, we have a lot of vines – all of them wild and invasive. When we are doing yard work, we try to trim the vines and cut them back and get them cut at the root. But sometimes it is hard to tell which branches are connected to which vines. But the Vinedresser, God the Father, is able to tell which branches are vitally connected to the vine and which ones are not. He can tell by examining the fruit. If there is no fruit, then there is no life going into the branch from the vine. Therefore, that branch is cut away from its entanglement in the vine and discarded to be burned. The image points us to a person who is not a genuine Christian, though by outward appearances, they may look like a Christian. They gather with Christians, they use Christian language, they are involved in Christian activity. It appears as if they are connected to the vine. But there is no fruit! If we could trace their branch down to where it connects to a vine, we would find that it is not connected to the True Vine of Christ. It might lay across the vine, wrap around and entangle it, but the life-giving sap of the True Vine does not run through that branch. Friends, the perilous reality for that fruitless branch is that it is spiritually lost and in danger of eternal hell.

On the other hand, the branch that is connected to the True Vine of Christ will bear fruit. Every person who is a genuinely born again Christian is vitally connected to the Vine, and the life of Christ pulses through that individual bearing spiritual fruit in his or her life. Not all of the branches bear the same quantity of fruit, but wherever the sap of the Vine runs into a branch, some good fruit will be borne. It may be small in size or number, but there will be fruit because the life-giving sap of the Vine is able to produce it in every branch that is vitally connected to Him. Now, in verse 8, Jesus says that what glorifies the Father is when the branches bear much fruit. So, the Vinedresser, the Sovereign Almighty God, prunes the fruit-bearing branches (v2) so that they will bear even more fruit for Him. Now, the word used here for “pruning” in the original Greek text of verse 2 is an unusual word. It could be translated literally as “trimmed clean.” And there is a little play on words here with verse 3, where Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the Word which I have spoken to you.” Those two words are very similar, varying by only a few letters and nearly identical in sound. So, what Jesus is saying is that His Word is how God prunes us so that we bear more fruit for Him.

If you’ve ever trimmed crepe myrtles, you know about those little shoots of growth called “sucker roots” that spring out of the base of the tree. These shoots do nothing but take nourishment away from the maturing healthy branches of the tree. In time, they will weaken the tree, so they need to be cut off. Over the course of our entire lives, the Vinedresser is always laying the blade of the Word against us, cutting away the sucker roots of our lives – those besetting sins and holdouts of rebellion within us, so that we are able to bear even more fruit. This is a tribute to the faithfulness and patience of God, who never gives up on His own, but continues to work within us to produce the fruit that He desires through us for His own glory.

Pruning sounds like a painful process, doesn’t it? In fact it is. Whenever we read the Word of God and are indicted by it as it confronts our sinful attitudes and actions, it is not comfortable or pleasant. But through this painful process, God is shaping us to reflect the beauty of Christ, that the good fruit that the Vine is able to produce in its branches becomes more abundant. So, as the Bible says, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, and whenever it does, we should give thanks to God for it.

So we see here a very simple principle: branches are known by the fruit they bear. Where there is no fruit, there is no branch in vital connection with the True Vine of Christ. But where that vital connection exists between the branch and the Vine, there will be fruit, and increasingly so as the Father prunes us by the Word of God.

II. The key to bearing fruit is abiding in the Vine (vv4-5, 7, 9-10).

Since bearing fruit is such an important feature of the Christian life, we may wonder, “What must I do to produce this fruit?” That’s the typical American way – do something to fix it! It is human nature really. It goes back to Adam and Eve. When they sinned against the Lord, immediately they began to work with their hands to produce a covering for their shame. But it was not sufficient. Nor are our efforts to work from our own human ability and ingenuity to produce any lasting spiritual fruit in our lives. Go ahead and try it. See if you can muster your effort to make yourself more loving or more patient. You cannot. The key to bearing fruit is not found in our doing, but in our abiding. Jesus said in verse 4, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”

To abide in Christ is to rest in the security and sufficiency of our personal relationship with Him. In verses 9-10, Jesus equates “abiding in Him” with “abiding in His love.”
It is to rest knowing that we do not have to earn His love, because He has already lavished it upon us. It is to know with confidence that our relationship with Him is not based on what we have done for Him but what He has done for us in loving us, living for us, dying for us, rising for us, saving and indwelling us. It is knowing that He has a hold on our lives and He will never let us go. When our lives are anchored in these truths and in the intimacy of a personal relationship with Jesus, there will be a marked difference between the way we live and the way everyone else in the world lives. There will be fruit manifested as the life of the Vine flows through the branches.

Now, in verse 4, Jesus said to abide in Him, and He in you. How does He abide in us? Obviously, this is a reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. At the moment we are born again by faith in Jesus, God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us. He takes up permanent residence in our lives. This is an unchanging reality. What does change however is how much we yield control of our lives to Him. This is what the Bible calls being “Spirit-filled,” or we could call it “Spirit-controlled.” As we yield control of our lives to Him, He brings to bear the fruit of His presence and power within us – that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control that Galatians 5 calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” Now, what we often fail to realize is how closely connected being “Spirit-filled” is to being richly fed on the Word of God. Of course it is possible to be full of Bible knowledge and not even be born-again, much less Spirit-filled. But, I submit that it is impossible to be Spirit-filled unless we are saturated in the Holy Scriptures. Notice in verse 7 that Jesus equates Himself abiding in us with His words abiding in us. The same thing can be seen in comparing Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians 5, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. In an almost exactly parallel passage in Colossians 3, the command is to let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you. So, we can conclude that as we feed on the Word of God, and meditate upon it in the context of abiding in the love of Christ, we are granting the Spirit of God more and more control over our lives.

The really wondrous and fascinating thing about all of this is how it all flows together to bring fruit to bear in our lives. We abide in the intimate personal relationship we have in the love of Christ, and we imbibe deeply of the Word of God and meditate upon it in the context of that relationship, and the Spirit of God takes control of our lives to produce the fruit of His presence and power, even empowering us to live in loving obedience to the commands of Christ. Notice in verse 10: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” The idea here is not that we earn His love by keeping His commandments, but the keeping of His commandments is the evidence that we abide in His love. Our obedience is not rendered in a fearful, begrudging spirit of slavery, but in the overflow of love that flows from the security of resting in His love. We do not obey in order to be loved, but because we are loved. And in love for Him, we feed on His Word, and the Spirit empowers us to live in obedience to that Word. And the transformed character and transformed conduct of our lives are fruit that is being produced in us, the branches as a result of abiding in the Vine.

Now we move finally to the third reality of abiding and bearing fruit …

III. There are spectacular promises for the fruit-bearing branches who abide in the Vine (vv7-8, 11)

Specifically four promises here are given to those branches who abide in the Vine and bear fruit for Him. I will review them quickly here as we conclude.

First, there is the promise of effectual prayer in verse 7. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” This is the second great prayer promise in a very short span of context, but again the notion here is not some kind of cosmic bribery whereby God promises to give you what you want if you behave yourself. The idea here is that abiding and fruitful branch lives in such harmony with the Vine and is so filled with His Spirit and His Word, that our desires are transformed to the place where we actually want, and ask for, the very things that God delights to give to us.

Then there is the promise of God’s glory in verse 8. “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit.” It is really amazing how the God of infinite glory chooses to use us to bring glory to Himself! If you are a Christian, your life is not some mundane form of meaningless existence. Your life is being used to make the glory of God visible in the world. As people see how He is transforming your character and your conduct, they are seeing the Person and power of God at work in your life and they are impacted by the profound display of the glory of His grace. Jesus said in Matthew 5, “Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in Heaven.” As you abide in the Vine, others come to glorify the God who is working in and through you.

Then we have the promise of the assurance of our salvation. Notice in the latter part of verse 8, that as you bear much fruit, Jesus said you “so prove to be My disciples.” We rightly stress the importance of being assured of our salvation, but we often point to the wrong means of assurance. All too often when someone doubts whether or not they are saved, we take them back in time and say, “Do you remember a time when you prayed a prayer and asked the Lord to save you?” Some people do, some people don’t. But in neither case is the recollection of a prayer that was prayed at some point in the past real assurance of salvation. We are not saved by our past profession of faith, but by our present possession of saving faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We ought to be able to look at our lives and see that there is fruit – evidence of a changed life. We may not be what we want to be, and we are surely not yet what God ultimately wants us to be, but we ought to be able to see evidence that we are not what we used to be. If you are able to see the manifestation of the fruit of righteousness in your life, even if it is slow forming and perhaps still in the bud, then you can have confidence that the life of the Vine is flowing in and through you. But if that fruit is altogether absent, then you are right to question your salvation. You should examine whether or not you have that personal relationship with Jesus that is here likened to a branch vitally rooted in the Vine of Jesus Christ.

The final promise here is the fullness of the joy of Jesus in your life. In verse 11, Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” Having already promised that His followers could know His peace and His love, He now promises that His joy is available to us. His joy is an unspeakable joy that comes from unhindered fellowship with God the Father. He promises that you too can have this kind of joy. It is not a promise of uninterrupted happiness, as if you will no longer be subject to the frailties of human life or the hardships of this fallen world. It is rather a promise of something far better – the joy of knowing that come what may, God is with you and nothing can separate you from Him. Life will not always be pleasant, fun, exciting, or happy for you as a Christian. But even when it is not, because the joy of Christ is within you, there is a fullness of joy that you can know that is completely foreign to the rest of the world. I personally believe that the demonstration of this unshakable joy in the midst of unspeakable difficulties is one of the most powerfully persuasive testimonies that a Christian has in the world. When everything that can be is shaken in our lives, we can say, “Nevertheless, it is well with my soul, because my life is hidden with Christ in God. I am a branch, He is my Vine, and nothing can separate me from Him.” This is something that the world has no way of comprehending. And it is only possible as we abide in Christ.

So, here we have seen these truths, these realities, of Christ as the True Vine, and we Christians as the branches that are vitally connected to Him, bearing fruit for Him as His life flows in and through us. Do you have that personal relationship with Him? Are you a branch in the Vine? You say, “How do I know?” Simple – is there any fruit? Is there any evidence of a change in your character or conduct since that moment when you turned to Jesus and asked Him to save you? If there is not, or if you never have done that, then today, we would pray that you might turn from sin and self-effort and know the joy that comes from simply abiding in the finished work of Christ, who has died to save you from your sins, and who ever lives to produce the fruit of righteousness in your life, that the Father may be glorified through you.

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