Series: Face-to-face with John, by Rosie Moore.
I think it’s apt that we are finishing off our series in John’s gospel with Jesus’s seventh and final “I am” statement: “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5). Christ was addressing his disciples shortly before His final high priestly prayer, just a few days before He laid down his life for his friends. Let’s read it carefully together:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
A transplanted vine.
God used a vine as a symbol of his people in the Hebrew Scriptures. The metaphor is used to describe how God took his people out of Egypt and transplanted them in the fertile land of Canaan:
You transplanted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
and it took root and filled the land. (Ps 80:8-9).
That’s why there was a large golden vine on the front of the temple symbolizing that Israel was God’s vine. But, despite God’s tender love and care, we know that this vine was not always faithful and true. Look how Isaiah describes his unfaithful people as a fruitless vine:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isa 5:1-2)
The faithful, fruitful vine.
In contrast to fruitless, faithless Israel, Jesus calls himself the true vine. In John 15:5, Jesus is making it clear to his Jewish disciples that if they are to bear fruit for God’s kingdom, they must now be rooted in Him, not in Israel or their old traditions. Similarly, as a new covenant community, Christians must identify first and foremost with Christ Himself, not with Israel, our own culture or even the church. Christ alone is the true vine for believers.
Reading this passage, it struck me again how vital our relationship with Christ is. The verbs “remain” and “abide”, are repeated over and over again, for this is Christ’s formula for living in this world as a believer and as a community of believers.
Just as a baby in the womb is totally dependent on its mother, so too, there is a relationship of complete trust and unity between a believer and Christ. The branch is utterly unable to survive on its own. It depends entirely on the vine for its life, growth and fruitfulness.
Just as the lamb depends on the shepherd, and the hungry person craves bread, so too a believer must remain connected to Christ, as intimately as a branch is connected to a plant. Our Christian lives depend on our abiding in Christ, and He in us. As Jesus was preparing his followers for his departure, this was vital encouragement for them as they confronted the world with the gospel, laying down their lives in the process.
The Old Testament picture of Israel as the vine depicted God the Father as the vinedresser. The vinedresser plants, cultivates and protects the vine. God does this for his children in the new covenant too. He doesn’t just save us and then leave us. He continues to be our loving gardener.
We see from this chapter that if we are true followers of Christ, we have a relationship with the vine (the Son); with the vine dresser (the Father), and with the Counsellor (the Holy Spirit) (John 15:1-2; 4-5; 9-10; 26). God’s people are nourished, disciplined and helped by the triune God of the universe, who abides in us personally, as we abide in Him. Do we appreciate this immense privilege that belongs to each and every Christian?
Two kinds of pruning.
But notice the two kinds of pruning in Jesus’s metaphor:
First, there’s the pruning that involves separating the fruitless branches from the vine and burning them. These branches are cut off at the trunk by the vinedresser (God), because they are worthless and will cause infection for the rest of the vine if they remain.
These fruitless branches represent people who were never true believers, as they were never properly attached to the vine. They are people who appear to be part of the church, but because they don’t trust Jesus personally, they do not bear fruit for the kingdom. Often they try to block the efforts of believers and divide God’s people. We are warned that God Himself will cut them off from Christ’s life-giving vine. Judas was a fruitless branch. So were most of the Pharisees.
Secondly, there is the pruning that cuts back fruitful branches to promote further growth and productivity. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes.” God disciplines his true followers to strengthen our faith and character. While sometimes painful, this pruning is an act of great love by a Father towards his children (John 14:9).
Some Bibles translate this pruning as “cleansing”. The vinedresser cleans up the fruit-bearing branches so that they will bear more fruit. Jesus tells the 11 disciples that they are already clean. They’d heard and received much of his teaching already. They were already Christ’s followers, cleansed from sin and being sanctified day-by- day.
“God removes the dead wood from his church and disciplines the life of a believer so that it is directed into fruitful activity.” (Tenney)
The cleansing of the word.
So, how does the word of God cleanse us? Paul (Ephesians 5:26) helps us understand this when he writes: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.“
The word of God sanctifies us by showing us what sin is. God’s word convicts and inspires holiness in us. It promotes growth like a gardener’s pruning shears. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the word enables us to have victory over sin. Jesus is still washing his people through His word, the Bible.
Abide in Me, and I in you.
When Jesus spoke about his death, his first disciples were mostly concerned about themselves. If Jesus went away, what would become of them?
These words “Abide in me”, were spoken in the context of a scary future. As their Master who said, “I am the truth”, Christ didn’t lie to his followers or give them false assurance of an easy life. He didn’t give them tips on how to edit their words so as not to offend their culture or jeopardize the preaching of the gospel.
To the contrary, Jesus told them that because they were His, they didn’t belong to the world. It was inevitable that they would be hated by the world because of His name. Some would listen to their message, but many would respond with great hatred towards God and his anointed Son. He warned them that they would be hated, rejected, marginalized, thrown out of the most cherished places in their culture (like the synagogue), and even killed.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you…‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.”
In just a few hours, Jesus would be arrested and led away from his frightened disciples. Soon they too would be persecuted, just as their Master was.
We will never understand how important Christ’s promises are, unless we hear his warnings to his followers too. You can read them for yourself in John 15:18-16:1-4. If we view Jesus’s claim about the vine and the branches as a kind of platitude, we will miss the tremendous comfort of his promises.
What are these promises? Just think for a moment of the three assurances Jesus gives to his disciples, and all future believers:
- “I am the vine; you are the branches…
- Remain in me, and I will remain in you…
- As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”
Christ offers believers firm assurance in a hard and hostile world. He focuses on the mutual relationship between Himself and his followers: Christians don’t only abide in their Master. He abides in us too.
It makes me think of the mutual love relationship that Solomon describes between God and His Bride: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Songs of Solomon 6:3)
It’s not just about us abiding in Jesus, but also about Him indwelling us by his Holy Spirit. There’s nothing static or one-sided about this relationship. In no way is the responsibility for abiding only upon us as believers. Isn’t it a huge relief that it’s not all up to us to keep abiding?
What a beautiful picture of the continued mutual relationship that we have with Jesus, even though He isn’t physically with us. But, there’s also an element of personal responsibility and effort on our part. Abiding is something we must choose to do. Abiding is an act of the will on our part. We can abide or go astray (John 16:1).
We must actively abide with Christ if we want to be fruitful in our faith. And fruitfulness is not an optional extra. Fruitfulness is the proof that we are His disciples.
Bearing much fruit.
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8)
Jesus has appointed each one of us to bear fruit—fruit that will last (John 15:16). Not just an odd grape here and there, but “much fruit”! God’s work in us and our connection to Him will be demonstrated by fruit, perhaps by much fruit.
But it’s easy to talk about bearing fruit in a vague way, isn’t it? What exactly did Christ mean when he spoke about bearing fruit? Obviously he was preparing his disciples for a life of evangelism and preaching the gospel to the world. But is fruit limited to gospel preaching and soul winning?
There is so much talk in our culture about fulfilling your purpose and ‘doing the work’. But being driven, shamed or guilt-tripped into building a legacy of good works is not from Christ. It leads only to condemnation and burnout.
In my women’s Bible studies, I often hear sincere, godly Christians ask, “How do I know the good works God wants me to do? What if I get to the end of my life, and discover that I’ve missed my God-given purpose?” We all dread living a fruitless and barren life, don’t we? Perhaps that’s why Rick Warren’s “Purpose driven life” was such a hit.
But this kind of ‘fruit pursuit’ can be a cause of great stress and disappointment. It can be especially daunting to think of producing “much fruit”, when you’re surrounded by so much death, suffering, poverty and need, as we’ve seen in 2021.
But Jesus said very simply, yet profoundly, “He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit.”
This is such a liberating assurance to believers who long to fulfill Christ’s commission to bear fruit that will last. Jesus says that good fruit is inevitable… on condition that we abide in Him and He in us. The Holy Spirit will produce the fruit in us.
And so, we don’t have to stress out wondering where to find the good works that God has planned for us! The quality and quantity of our fruit, as well as the exact type of fruit, will differ from person to person. But there will always be good fruit produced, and reproduced, in a disciple who is abiding in Christ. We do not have to pursue good fruit like it’s a holy grail.
In chapter 15, Jesus gives us a kaleidoscope of what Christian fruit looks like. They’re not spectacular fruits, but very practical and accessible, wherever we are, whatever our personality type. We could call them ‘low lying fruit’! Let’s do a simple inventory of good fruit from Christ’s own words in John 15:
Are you BELIEVING and trusting Jesus as God’s Son, the true vine, who has cleansed you from all your sin and unrighteousness (John 15:1; 3)? Then your faith is good fruit that gives glory to your Father in heaven.
Are you praying? Then your answered PRAYERS are good fruit (John 15:7; 16b).
Do you have JOY that transcends your circumstances and is contagious to others? Then your JOY is good fruit (John 15:11).
Are you laying down your own wants and convenience to love other Christians in ordinary ways, like hospitality, helping, encouraging, giving, listening, visiting, caring, feeding? Then your LOVE is good fruit (John 15:12-13.)
Are you deeply ASSURED that Christ loves you? Do you remind others of His love for them too? Then you are producing good fruit (John 15:9-10).
Are you reading the Bible and obeying what Christ shows you? Then your OBEDIENCE is good fruit (John 15:14; 10).
Are you representing the gospel accurately with your words and deeds, with whoever you happen to meet? Then your TESTIMONY is good fruit (John 15:27).
According to Jesus, good fruit is made up of the ordinary, natural stuff of life. It can never be coerced, contrived or manufactured.
The fruit that will last.
Being fruitful glorifies our heavenly Father! (John 15:8) When a vine is heavy with juicy grapes, God is glorified, because He sent the rain and He provided the sap and He nurtured each tiny plant, pruning it to be even more productive. What a great advert for the Lord of the harvest when disciples of Christ are bearing fruit—the character and deeds of Christ. It glorifies the Lord because He made it all happen!
Lasting fruit is the fruit of Christian character which Paul spells out for us in Galatians 5: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things, there is no law.”
The fruit of good relationships will last into eternity, long after our bodies have died and our so-called legacies are just a distant memory.
The Apostle Peter also lists the fruit of faith: Goodness, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. Peter says that if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, “they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of the Lord Jesus” (2 Peter 1:5-8). These traits are what make our ordinary days fruitful and productive in God’s sight.
Yes, it’s true that we’ve been called to be effective and productive. We are saved so that we can look more like Christ, grow in Christian character, make disciples, and serve others in love. We have been chosen and appointed by Christ to bear good fruit (John 15:16).
But there is nothing stressful or guilt-inducing about bearing the fruit of the vine. Kingdom fruit is not another heavy load to bear. Our productivity isn’t patterned on what our culture defines as ‘doing the work’—those endless acts to atone for our guilt and be seen as righteous in man’s eyes. We are already clean! Just as Christ’s first disciples were already clean when they heard and received the gospel of grace (John 15:3).
Without the sap of Christ’s love in our veins, we cannot possibly translate our good intentions into actions. If we do not bear fruit in our lives, it is because we have forgotten what Christ has done for us and are not depending on the power of the Holy Spirit.
If we are wearing ourselves out with our efforts, it’s time to listen to the Counsellor’s voice and pray for guidance and wisdom from the Spirit of truth (John 15:26; 16:13.) Jesus will show us the good works He has prepared for us to do (Phil 2:10). There are simple things that we can do right now, where we are, by His powerful Spirit.
The only way to live a truly good and fruitful life is to stay close to Jesus, like a branch attached firmly to the vine. “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Without me you can do nothing.
As we go into the holiday season, may we remember Christ’s final words to his disciples. “Without me, you can do nothing!” Nothing, nothing at all, without His Spirit.
Abiding in Christ is much more than hanging from a tree like a sloth! It’s much more than believing in certain facts about Jesus. It is drawing joy and love from the deep well of a consistent relationship with our Master and our friend (John 15:14). “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Can you believe that Christ actually calls us “friends?” Friendship is the nature of our abiding relationship with Him.
Prayer, Scripture and gathering with God’s people are some of the wonderful channels of grace that the Lord Jesus has provided to us, so that we may keep abiding in Him, and He in us. May we never neglect these precious gifts.
If our lives are attached to Christ, we will be able to walk through every adversity without sliding into despair. We will be able to manage prosperity, pleasure, good deeds and Christmas celebrations with a cheerful spirit, without making them our idols. We will be empowered to live a good and fruitful life wherever God has placed us. But apart from Him, our best efforts will be fruitless.
“All our sap and safety is from Christ. The bud of a good desire, the blossom of a good resolution, and the fruit of a good action, all come from him” (Trapp).