Introduction to Chapter 15 (and notes through verse 5)
I continue to be amazed by John’s gospel and how the depth of the theology within its pages keeps me humble. There are so many truths in each paragraph that a Christian could spend the rest of their lives reading and meditating upon the precepts found here and still not plumb the depths of their beauty.
This factor hits home when you consider stories like that of Corrie ten Boom who spent 11 months as a prisoner of the Nazi’s. In an interview with theological midget Pat Robertson, Corrie expressed God’s continual presence and strength during times of despair:
PAT ROBERTSON: She died there, and in that time God somehow kept you sweet and tender toward Him. How did you do it? How did you keep from being just terribly despairing? What kept you buoyed you up at this time?
CORRIE TEN BOOM: There are circumstances where you cannot do anything. It was only the Lord who has carried me through, and it’s good that I have experienced that. For I have always believed, now I know from experience, that Jesus’ light is stronger than the deepest darkness. And a child of God cannot go so deep; always deeper are the Everlasting Arms that carry you.
While Robertson, of course, asks what it was in Corrie that kept her sane and tender to the Lord, Corrie responds with good theology: it was not her but “only the Lord who carried me through.”
In the last year or so I was able to listen to the ‘Hiding Place’ again on audio book, and was struck by Corrie’s story. During her time in prison, someone had smuggled in a copy of the book of John’s gospel, and it became a very precious resource for her during those dark times. Amazing how much this gospel account has impacted millions of lives over the last 200 years!
I mention that brief story because in the chapters that follow there is a lot of talk about abiding in Christ, and what it means to do so. When I think about the story of Corrie ten Boom, I am inspired by our God’s faithfulness to those who abide in Him. No matter where we are, He is with us, and keeps us in His love.
John 15 is primarily a chapter dedicated to extolling to us the nature and virtues of our relationship with Jesus – especially the ongoing and intimate nature of that relationship. Jesus uses the word “abide” in this chapter seven times as part of a command to his disciples to stay in constant fellowship with Him once He leaves. This is only possible for those who are truly His disciples, as we shall see.
We have talked before about the nature of abiding. The Greek word for abide is “meno”, and as John MacArthur says, it “describes something that remains where it is, continues in a fixed state, or endures. In this context the word refers to maintaining an unbroken communion with Jesus Christ.”
15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
The first few verses in chapter 15 are startling, and ought to be counted as a warning, and also a great encouragement…depending on where you sit.
First, Jesus gives us a description of the Christian life – it’s an organic, gardening type of allegory (although it is hard to say precisely that it is “allegory” as some commentators have noted) – and He fills in the roles for us so we know who the characters are in this allegory. First, Jesus likens Himself unto a vine. Not simply a weed which grows up in your garden and gets trimmed or yanked out each spring, but a “true” vine which is the pride and joy of the garden.
The Father is the vinedresser. The duties of the vinedresser are to trim and prune the branches and keep the entire garden healthy and growing. Then, we see the purpose of the vinedresser described as one who takes branches away which do not bear fruit in order that they won’t keep the rest of the branches from growing. But also, we read that the vinedresser “prunes” those branches that do bear fruit.
I think that its important to understand the context of this similitude/allegory as far as it is possible to see what the minds of the disciples might have been thinking at the time of hearing Jesus’ words. In the OT there were many references to Israel being the vine planted by God (Ridderbos cites Ps. 80:9-12, 15; Hos. 11:1; Ex. 15; 19:10; Jer. 2:21). Now, Jesus seems to be saying that He is the true vine. In other words – that word “true” is setting himself in contrast to something in the past – the vine of Israel. He is the “true” Israel of God (which Paul likens unto the church in Gal. 6:16), the true Vine.
Jesus is identifying Himself as the true church, the true Son, the spiritual seed of Abraham – and this makes sense as we continue to read on and learn that the church is connected to Him as His branches. The bride (the church) and the bridegroom (Christ) are one flesh (so to speak). We are one body – the body of Christ. Without Him, we can do nothing.
The more one thinks on this, the more one wonders in amazement at the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth. This man who came to be not only the vine, but the “true” vine that would connect us to vibrant life everlasting.
Ridderbos summarizes this way, “The main thing, however, is that Jesus, by calling himself the true vine and, in immediate association therewith, his Father the planter and keeper of the vineyard, applies to himself this redemptive-historical description of the people of God. He thus becomes the one who represents or embodies the people.”
The Intimate/Immanent Work of the Father and our Culture
Before I get too far into each of the activities of the Father as vinedresser/gardener, let me just comment also about the nature of the Father in this allegory. The Father, as vinedresser, is intimately involved in the growth of His church. The vine and its branches represent the church of the Lord Jesus Christ – and it is Jesus who is the center of the church. The church is joined to Him as a bride and bridegroom are joined together in marriage.
The vinedresser does not sit back and let the church go for hundreds of years, the vinedresser does not take only a passing interest in the vine, rather the vinedresser is deeply concerned that the vine and its branches bear fruit. He is involved in the sanctification process. The Father’s hands are not off the wheel. He is not so aloof on His mighty throne that He has disengaged from the world and its issues – nor has He abandoned His church!
We are told in our post-Christian culture that the myth of God is something we have intellectually grown out of by now (or we ought to have grown out of they say), and in His place we have a sort of neo-rationalism, which I hate to call intellectualism because it pales in comparison to the intellect of yesteryear (due to its embrace of absurdity and contradiction in almost every avenue of life). I also hesitate to call this post-Christian age one of scientific revolution or enlightenment because today’s scientists have so desecrated the scientific method that even the validity of “sense-perception” is thrown out the window for pseudo-science, which, in the end, is just another kind of twisted man-centered faith – it is faith in man and his abilities over all else.
No, culture is neo-rationalism based on man’s abilities and man’s preferences and moving outward from there. It’s an odd time to live in. Men are really confused about the purpose of life. The most successful people in the world’s eyes cheat, steal (think Bernie Madoff), lie (think just about every politician) and commit suicide (think Hollywood elite) on a regular basis.
It is almost harder now to make an overall judgment about the culture because the culture is so fragmented (partly because of how people are educated – or informed – and the internet age). But I think that its safe to say that we life in a time which can best be described by the author of the book of Judges:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25, ESV)
We act as though we aren’t being watched – with no fear of God before our eyes. As if God has no influence or existence or say or involvement (pick your view).
But that’s not how Jesus describes the Father here in verses one and two. He says that God is actively involved in our lives. His hands are on the vine and He is pruning and clearing out the dead branches. Not only is the Father close to us, but as J.C. Ryle states, we are meant to learn first, from the these verses, that the union between Christ and believers is very close.” All of our vitality as believers flows from Christ, and without Him we are spiritually dead. Speaking of believers in this context, Ryle says, “They are what they are, and feel what they feel, and do what they do because they draw out of Jesus as continual supply of grace, help, and ability.
What are the implications of this? Many. But let’s first examine what is meant in verse two by “pruning” and “taking away.”
He “Takes Away”
In verse six Jesus repeats this warning in more vivid terminology, but the long and the short of it is that the Father, as vinedresser, takes away some of the branches that are not truly abiding in Christ, the branch. These branches that are taken away are false disciples. They are the tares amongst the wheat. They are the ones who profess Christ but have never been born again. They are the ones who use Christ as a self-help guru who fixes them up each Sunday morning – they glean whatever they can from the church’s teaching and employ these ideas along with whatever worldly wisdom they accrue in a sort of modern day self-help syncretism that runs rampant in our culture.
We’ll get more into this when we come to verse six, but needless to say, if you think that you can hide in the church and live a life of “pretending”, know that God sees all things and knows all things. His eyes pierce your mind and heart and He will clear you away from the vine once and for all come judgment day.
If you find yourself now identifying with this false branch, I urge you to stop trusting in your façade and bow before God in repentance. He will revitalize your life and renew your mind and heart. He is the only one who can truly satisfy all of your hearts desires – trust that He wants to give you abundant life – do it now!
It is not in our sinful nature to receive pruning from God and say “thank you God, I really needed that!” Pruning hurts. It is painful. But it is also good for us. I liken pruning unto God’s disciplining us out of love.
The author of Hebrews talks about this:
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:3-17, ESV)
In this extended passage, I wanted us to notice that when we are pruned we have reason to rejoice. First, because God wants us to bear fruit. The end goal is that we will walk more righteously and uprightly before Him and produce the fruit of a life that is completely conformed to the will of our Lord.
Secondly, let’s not forget that when we are pruned it reveals a beautiful truth: we are adopted! We have been added into the family of God – Paul describes this as being “grafted in” in Romans 11 using similar horticultural imagery. This is a blessing and privilege of the highest degree and when we are downcast we need to speak this truth to our souls.
Thirdly, God prunes us because He loves us. We just read that, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” So when we are pruned/disciplined, we need to bask in the love of God. We need to thank Him for His mighty hands upon us and trust in His infinite wisdom. He is fashioning you into something beautiful for His kingdom – don’t forget that truth. Cling to that truth and praise God through the pain knowing that at the end of your life you will be made ready for heaven.
This vibrant truth is captured in John Piper’s most recent poetic publication ‘The Calvinist’ which describes a man whose life is difficult but yet founded upon the truth of God’s sovereignty. These are the final graphs of the poem:See him now asleep. Watch the helpless reap, But no credit take, Just as when awake. See him nearing death. Listen to his breath, Through the ebbing pain: Final whisper: “Gain!”
God prunes all those He loves, and it is a strangely beautiful thing to know His sovereign hand is upon you making you all that He wants you to be for your joy and His pleasure and glory.
15:3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.
One of the effects of the word of God is that it cleanses us mind and soul. I recently preached on Hebrews 10:1-18 and one of the main evidences that the author of that book points to for the inefficacy of the OT sacrifices is the lack of conscience cleansing. Whereas the Holy Spirit, when He comes to abide in you, will certainly cleanse you from your sin, and give you a fresh start.
I love the story that R.C. Sproul tells about his daughter accepting Christ by virtue of an alter call. He was attending a conference or sorts (I think in Cincinnati) and did not realize that his young daughter had made the trip there (possibly with Vesta, his wife) and was listening to another minister give an invitation after a message. His daughter responded by coming forward and confessing Christ as her savior. Dr. Sproul was really concerned that his daughter didn’t know what she was doing, and that she might be making a false confession that might make things more complicated and difficult later on once she understood the Bible more. But when he got to talk with her afterwards, He asked her about the experience and why she did it and he immediately knew that her faith was genuine – one of the reasons why is due to the way she described how she felt. She said “I feel clean daddy.” That is what the Holy Spirit does my friends, He washes us by the power of regeneration – and that is primarily done through the preaching of His word.
Now when Jesus is saying that because of His word the disciples are “clean”, we ought to realize who is speaking – the Word of God incarnate! The statement amounts to a claim to deity, but also serves to remind us of the efficacy of His word. Jesus’ words have the power to cleanse us of our most vile sins. One of the most beautiful passages that describes this is found in Paul’s letter to Titus:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)
Lastly, the power of Christ’s word is evident here. His word is the dividing line of all truth – He is truth, He is the Word incarnate! So when He speaks He automatically will parse people into groups: either they aren’t going to believe or they are. Either they will run from the light or they will run into the light.
Ridderbos says, “the special care that the Father bestows on the vine as planter and vinedresser and his making it the ‘true’ fine does not consist of an assortment of secondary actions that support the mission of his Son, but in this mission itself, in the dividing and purifying power of Jesus’ word of authority, which is the word of God himself (and is therefore introduced into the metaphor as God’s own action). What makes Jesus the true vine is that, as the one sent by God, he gathers a community, a fellowship of life, in which his word exerts a redeeming, life-creating, continually purifying, and dividing effect.”
Which leads Ridderbos to state:
…’you are already clean,’ which does not mean they have already attained a degree of spiritual or moral perfection, but that he has so deeply bound them to himself by his word that in virtue of that fellowship they are able and ready to do his word and to bear fruit.
15:4-5 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
I think the main thrust of this passage is that in our own human power there is not the ability to maintain a vibrant spiritual life. Jesus is the source of our spiritual life. Without Him, it doesn’t matter how many lies you’ve told yourself, you’re still going to wither away and die.
Therefore, if you think you can do the Christian life alone, you’re mistaken. If you think you believing in Christ was a one time fire insurance policy, you’re likely going to be very disappointed. If you feel like church is merely an add on to your own personal relationship, and not vital for continuing in the faith, then you’re going to deteriorate under the weight of your own bacteria infested spiritual life.
Beware: we cannot do anything apart from Christ. All good things flow from the Lord God who reigns on high. This is a reason why our root is now in heaven – so that His blessings can flow from God’s throne to our lives. The chief amongst those blessings is fellowship with God through His Son.
I also think that there is a lot that can be said for “abiding” – and we will look more at this in the time to follow as we study the rest of this chapter. But one of the things that I have noticed about my own life, and the lives of many others living in our advanced western culture today, is that abiding is something that isn’t natural to us. We are so “crazy busy” (as Kevin DeYoung’s book states) that we have lost the art of what it means to abide. We are so wrapped up in the things of this world – be it parenting (taxi cab drivers for our kids), technology (our phones!) and the internet (social media) or just wasted time watching TV – that we don’t have time to abide…or so we think.
The truth is much different. We fritter away our time doing things that really don’t move the needle too much. Now I’m not advocating against technology or even TV after a long day, but all of this has its place, and its place for the Christian is behind time with the Lord. “Constant prayer” is not the same as taking time to quieting be unplugged with God. Not that these things can happen all the time, but it needs to happen more than it does in my life, and I’m sure in yours as well. Jesus isn’t asking us to abide, He’s assuming we will – in fact He’s commanding us to do so. It’s a prerequisite.
The Warning of this Truth
The next thing that we notice from this passage is that there is a warning, but also some very comforting truth as a result. The warning is, of course, that if you are not abiding in Christ there is cause to examine yourself and check to see if you are truly in the faith. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. 7 But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. (2 Corinthians 13:5-7, ESV)
Those who love the Lord will surely know they are His. And if you fail to abide in Him, if you hate spending time in prayer and in the word or with His children, then there is good reason to check yourself – are you in the faith? Do you love what He loves? Or do you love the world more than you love Him…
The Endurance of the Root
Now, the inverse of this rather difficult truth is that if you are abiding in Christ – in the root – then you can have no possible reason for despair! I love what Ryle says on this occasion, “Believers has no cause to despair of their own salvation, and to think they will never reach heaven. Let them consider that they are not left to themselves and their own strength. Their root is Christ, and all that there is in the root is for the benefit of the branches. Because He lives, they shall live also.” Contrast that with those who are not in Christ, and you have absolute and total peril. You have condemnation that is certain waiting for them at the end of their hollow lives. “Worldly people have no cause to wonder at the continuance and perseverance of believers. Weak as they are in themselves, their Root is in heaven, and never dies” Ryle says.
How great is the hope of the one whose trust is in the Root of Jesse! How firm is the foundation upon which we stand. Our hope is eternal, and our root is strong.
The Reason for this Structure
Everything that God does has a reason. There is a method behind all that the great Designer of the universe puts into motion.
We don’t have to wonder what that reason is for abiding in Christ – for He tells us: to bear much fruit. When you think about fruit, what comes to mind? Derek Stone calls fruit “God’s candy”! So that naturally comes to mind for me. Fruit is symbolic of all that is sweet and good from the land. It is the candy of all growing things. Who doesn’t like fruit!?
And we know from studying the Bible that there is spiritual fruit as well. Paul describes this in Galatians 5:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:22-26, ESV)
Now this fruit only comes through the power of the Holy Spirit – Christ’s indwelling presence among His chosen people, His branches. Therefore it is submission to the Spirit, and constant abiding in Christ that produces this fruit.
Interesting that the end result of this is glory to God. Like all things that God creates, He calls the fruit of the Spirit “good” – you remember how God looked out over creation in Genesis 1 and said “it is good”? He is similarly pleased with His new creations in Christ – with you.
‘For apart from me you can do nothing’ that is, nothing that corresponds to the new life that he bestows and the new commandment that he gives. For without this reciprocal remaining in him and him in them they will fall back on themselves, either in total unfruitfulness or lapsing into the wild growth that is no longer shaped by his word, into activism or idealism that is neither derived from nor directed to him.
You are a new creation in Christ, and He is tilling the land of your soul so that you will bear much fruit in this new land. He is the Vine, and you are the branches. Praise God for His diligent sovereign work of tilling the soil of our souls in order to produce the fruit of the Spirit within us.