John 15:1-8, RBF 02/02/2020
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, we just read your reason for existence. Did you see it there in verse 8? “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Perhaps you’re familiar with the first line of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
I think that’s a helpful answer. Human beings exist to bring God glory, and to enjoy him. John Piper, following the influence of both Jonathan Edwards and C.S Lewis, changes one word in that statement. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.”
Do these ideas line up with what Jesus says in John 15:1-8? Yes. Jesus is saying in these verses is that fruit-bearing is vital. Bearing fruit is a signal, an evidence, a proof that we are genuinely Jesus’ followers. It is the means by which we bring glory to God, and bringing glory to God isn’t just what some theologians claim is the reason for our existence, it is the reason God himself gives for creating his people (see Isaiah 43:7). But bearing fruit, becoming productive branches on the vine, is not something you or I can simply decide to do. It is dependent upon our vital connection with Christ. Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing” (v5).
So we exist to glorify God, this happens as we bear fruit, and bearing fruit is impossible on our own. We must abide in Christ (v4), taking nourishment from his life-giving sap, having the power of his Divine Life pulsating through us. Perhaps the simplest way to summarize the text is this: All true disciples are connected to Christ, and that connection always bears fruit. Let me say that again: all true disciples are connected to Christ, and that connection always bears fruit.
That summary is foundational to everything else we’re going to discuss this morning. But this text is far richer than once sentence can exhaust, so let’s dig deeper.
So we have begun with a summary of the text and its main point. What I want to do now is spend the majority of our time thinking about the metaphor Jesus uses, grasping some of the background and context that would have colored what the disciples heard when Jesus spoke these words to them the night before his crucifixion. What we aren’t going to do is thoroughly exhaust some of the harder to understand and controversial parts of this passage. Next week’s sermon is going to deal more with those issues.
The True Vine
Right away in verse 1 we encounter the last of Jesus’ famous I am statements. I’m sure you remember as we’ve moved through John’s Gospel, Jesus saying I am the Bread of Life (6:35), I am the light of the world (8:12), I am the door (10:7), I am the Good Shepherd (10:11), I am the resurrection and the life (11:25), I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6). In John 8:58 Jesus simply lets those two words stand on their own: before Abraham was, I am. Every one of these statements are claiming Divinity for Jesus on the one hand (only YHWH is the true I am) and revealing him to be our Savior on the other hand. This isn’t surprising, because Jesus’ very name in Hebrew, Yeshua, means YHWH is Salvation. Now he says, I am the true vine.
What should we take from this metaphor of Jesus being the vine? Well, it seems obvious from both the nature of the metaphor and the explanation which follows that part of what Jesus is pointing to is the deep connection between himself and his people. There is a genuine sharing of his life with all who trust in him.
It’s also possible that Jesus speaks these words with the disciples as they pass through Jerusalem on their way to the garden of Gethsemane (see 14:31, though 18:1 may suggest an alternate timeline). So it could have the immediate relevance of, see those vines with their branches? In this relationship, I am the vine, you are the branches. So we could have a very vivid instance of Jesus illustrating a truth from their common life.
But most likely the main reference Jesus is making, and assuming the disciples to make when they hear him speaking, is to another vine. The vine with which he contrasts himself when he says, I am the true vine. What is the untrue vine or the false vine? The nation of Israel. There are a number of places in the Old Testament that refer to the people of Israel as a vine or a vineyard, but I want to direct your attention to Isaiah 5:1-7, as I think it’s fairly representative.
God planted a vine, he planted a vineyard. And like any good gardner, he expects grapes, right? Yet what grows are not the nice juicy wine grapes he desires, but a type of wild grapes. Other translations render that phrase worthless grapes or bitter grapes. The point is that they are not producing the fruit for which they are planted. God called the people of Israel to himself, formed them from Abraham and his descendants, rescued them from Egypt, gave them the Torah, established the Davidic kingdom, the list goes on of his abundant provision for them-his cultivation of this vine. And yet they bore season after season of bad fruit, rotten fruit. How does God respond to this desertion of their office as his vine, their faithless production? We read the answer in Ezekiel 15:1-8.
God condemns the people for their desertion, their faithlessness. Cultivation is replaced by turning his face away, heaping them into the flames.
The fascinating thing here is that the Jews still see themselves as God’s vine in Jesus’ day. Coins minted in the inter-testamental period display vines. Herod’s magnificent temple had an enormous vine carved on it, which was overlaid with gold. But what fruit were they producing? Enter Jesus.
Jesus says, I am the true vine. The nation failed at every point, becoming inward focus instead of being a light to the nations, turning after other gods instead of being faithful to YHWH alone, abusing and oppressing the poor rather than taking care of them, all these and more. But in each and every point, Jesus fulfilled what Israel was meant to do. Just as we’ve seen in John’s gospel that Jesus is the true temple, the true sabbath, and in the months to come we’ll see him as the true Passover lamb-here we find he is the true vine, the true Israel, the one through whom God’s spiritual life and blessings are poured out into the world. Are you looking for spiritual life? Then look to Jesus.
Does this mean there is no future for Israel in God’s plan? No. We don’t have time to turn there, but Romans 11 speaks of the irrevocable gifts and calling of God. God has a future for Israel, but that future is not ultimately dependant upon a mere bloodline or heritage, it is dependant upon being engrafted to Christ. Christ is the vine.
The next character, if you will, in the metaphor is the vinedresser, who Jesus tells us is God the Father. And while the obvious focus in the text is on Jesus as the vine and his relationship with the branches, the Father’s role is not passive.
What is he doing? In verse 2 we note two different types of cutting. The first is pretty scary, isn’t it? Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away. He cuts it off. He cleans it out. What happens to those branches? If you’re out trimming your apple tree, or maybe in the summertime you grow tomatoes and are cutting away sucker branches, do you make a pile of branches and then glue them back on, like they were in branch time out or something? I would assume your actions are more in line with verse 6, If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. That’s a sobering sequence. Perhaps you’re wondering how to tell if you’re in line for this sort of chopping off. How could someone in Christ be cut away? Are these real believers who’ve backslidden to the point of losing their salvation? This is one of those thorny topics we’ll take up next week, but let’s address it briefly here.
Remember who just left in John 13:30? Judas. Judas, one of the 12, the treasurer, the one reclined next to Jesus at the last supper. Here is someone who by all appearances was a genuine follower. He looks like he is in Christ. And yet he departs. He does not abide. He has no fruit, and the vinedresser removes him from the vine. This wasn’t a case of someone losing salvation. It was someone who was never saved finally letting the true colors of his heart show. You have to think John had Judas on his mind when he penned 1 John 2:19, They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain, that they all are not of us. So false believers are a reality. But God is never fooled. Are you playing games with God this morning? The Father knows. God is not mocked. Repent and submit to him.
Maybe you hear that and think phew, glad I’m not in line for that slicing stuff! One commentator puts it aptly, “It is important to note that, whether the branch is productive or not, the vine grower wields a sharp knife.” Note again v2, every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. I like to grow cherry tomatoes. I’m a horrible gardner, but one thing I did learn fairly early on with tomatoes is that they need regular, sometimes brutal, pruning. If there’s fruit that won’t ripen, it’s probably because there is foliage in the way. If you get blossoms that never set fruit, it’s usually because there are a bundle of suckers that need cut. Your life is the same way. We have sins that entangle us, weights that drag us down. There are things in our life that distract us-they aren’t necessarily sinful in and of themselves, but they divert energy and attention from the business that we’re on.
Texts like Hebrews 12:1-2 encourage us to lay these things aside. But we are slow to obey those exhortations, aren’t we? We don’t want to put down the distraction. It’s pleasurable, it’s enjoyable, it takes the pain away. How does God respond when his children cling to sin or indulge in distractions? He pulls out the pruning knife.
One of his main methods for doing this: using trials to grab our attention. Don’t mis-hear this. I’m not saying God sends us hard times to punish us. Far from it. I’m saying that God, in his Fatherly kindness, will use difficult times in our lives to grab our attention. Not because he’s mad, but because he’s kind. And then, once the pain of a loved one’s death, or an illness, or a broken relationship, or lost job, or financial catastrophe lays us low, he uses the instrument of the word to prune us. Verse 3, Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.
The word translated as “clean” in verse 3 can also mean pruned. The New Living Translation says pruned and purified. God uses Jesus’ word, the Bible, to correct us, to shape us, to conform us to Christ. Charles Spurgeon described the Word as God’s knife and trials as the handle on the knife. We are far less receptive to correction when everything in life is working out okay. It usually takes a realization of our weakness, our sinfulness, our smallness, or our mortality to wake us up. The Father is not cutting away out of anger. He’s using his knife as a master vinedresser who knows what cuts will lead to the greatest fruitfulness in your life.
Finally, let’s think for a few moments about the branches themselves. Who are the branches? Verse 5, Jesus says, I am the vine; you are the branches. All true disciples of Jesus are branches connected to him, to the vine. Have you trusted in Jesus as your Savior? Do you look to him alone for life, for salvation from sins, for connection to the Father? Then you are a branch.
What does it mean for a branch to abide? The opinions on this are incredibly varied, and working through some of those ideas will be the bulk of what we tackle next week. This passage is so powerful, but I think it’s often led to some well-intentioned but unhelpful teaching.
The basic meaning of the word translated abide, meno, simply means to remain or to stay. In that sense to abide in Christ is simply to keep with him. Judas left, he didn’t abide, he went out into the night of sin and spiritual darkness. But you, follower of Jesus, stay with him! Don’t leave! The world promises so many benefits for the one who leaves. Abandon Jesus’ sexual ethic and enjoy true happiness. Abandon Jesus’ statements on wealth and money, spend to make yourself happy! Abandon Jesus’ teaching that you are sinful and in need of him to save you, you’re good enough on your own. The temptations are without count. What is one of the main ways we know someone is a Christian? They stay.
But is that the only evidence there is? No. I’m sure you’ve heard the old line that showing up for church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car. And that’s true. There is the staying aspect, the being visibly connected to Jesus, his people, his teaching. But there is also an internal dynamic that results in real life change.
Verse 3: Already you are clean, because of the word that I have spoken to you. We said earlier that the word clean could also mean “pruned.” Why don’t most English Bibles translate it that way? Probably because they notice the connection with an identical phrase in John 13:10 where Jesus tells the disciples, you are clean. There they are clean (except for Judas) because Christ himself has cleansed them. I argued in that passage that Jesus was talking about salvation, and I think he is making the same point here. He has just told the disciples that some branches get burned for not being fruitful, but he is assuring them that God is already at work pruning them, and that he is doing so through Jesus’ word. Which is to say, they aren’t the ones who get cut off. God is the one who is responsible for our salvation, calling us to Christ and giving us the gift of faith, and he does this work through his word (see 1 Peter 1:23). To be a fruit-bearing branch is synonymous with being saved by Jesus. There is no conception in Jesus’ mind, in this passage or anywhere else in Scripture, of a genuine believer who does not bear fruit of some sort. Do we all grow at the same rate, does our fruit all look the same? No. But fruit will be visible on every branch connected to Christ.
If bearing fruit, then, is a vital part of what it means to be a Christian, then the vinedresser’s actions start to make more sense, right? Yes, he introduces pain by pruning, but why does he do so? V2, that [we] may bear more fruit. God delights in his children being fruitful. I think there is a danger here in trying to narrow fruit down to one thing. Some say this means converts, some say it’s a holy character of life, others say it’s the fruit of the Spirit. I think if Jesus wanted it to specifically refer to any one of those in particular, he would have spelled it out. It seems to me that abiding itself is fruit, that the fruit of the Spirit obviously come from connection to Christ, that the greater works than these which Jesus promised the disciples (14:12) come only through abiding in him, all of the Christian life, in short, is to be one of dependent upon and fruitfulness due to, Jesus Christ. DA Carson puts it this way, “This fruit is nothing less than the outcome of persevering dependence on the vine, driven by faith, embracing all of the believer’s life and the product of witness.”
So, in conclusion. What is Jesus driving at, ultimately? He wants his disciples to be consciously connected to him. There is a genuine, objective, union with Christ for all who trust in him. But to be consciously aware of that fact enables us to take the hard things in life and count them as joy, because the Father is pruning us. It helps guide our thoughts and priorities, because the fruit of godliness will become more important to us than the world’s measures of success. And it enables us to turn to the Father in believing prayer.
We have no ability to pound out the Christian life on our own. But we don’t have to. Abide in me, and I in you, Jesus says in verse 4. Christ in present with us in the person of The Holy Spirit. The Spirit illumines for us the words of Christ so that verse 7 can be the reality of our lives. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. The clear implication is that by abiding in Christ, being indwelt by his Spirit, by being saturated in his word, we will be so conformed to him that more and more we will be asking for the very things he is eager to give.
Our summary of the text was this: All true disciples are connected to Christ, and that connection always bears fruit. And this reality brings glory to the Father. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.