Our Need for Purpose

| John 15:1-8

The Point:  Jesus is the Vine who empowers us to live productive lives for God.

The True Vine:  John 15:1-8.

[1]  "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. [3]  Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.

[4]  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. [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. [7]  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. [8]  By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  [ESV]

I Am The True Vine [1-5].  John 15 begins a new phase of Jesus’ farewell teaching, signaled by Jesus’ departure from the upper room with the disciples. In John 14, Jesus sought to comfort the disciples’ fears in light of His imminent departure. Now Jesus gives the corresponding teaching regarding the disciples’ duty and obligation during His absence. Jesus did this by means of the seventh and last “I am” statement in the Gospel of John: I am the true vine [1]. The vine was the symbol of Israel, which is why the temple was adorned with this image. The vine was the Lord’s people, from which He desired a rich harvest of fruit. The problem was that Israel never produced the fruit that the Lord had desired. It was in comparison to Israel’s failure that Jesus declared Himself the true vine. Israel became a false and wild vine through idolatry and wickedness. In contrast, how pleasing was the life of Jesus to God the Father! Out of His humble circumstances Jesus brought delight to the Father through perfect obedience. The fruit that God desired from Israel but did not find, He gained for Himself by sending His own Son to be the true vine, from which His new and righteous people would live and bear good fruit. Just as the vine is the source of life for its branches, Jesus is the true vine, the source of true and everlasting life for those who believe. This passage is unique among the “I am” sayings of Jesus in that it forms the basis for an extended metaphor or parable. Jesus said that He is the true vine, the Father is the vinedresser, and the disciples are the branches. Believers are the branches that are to bear good fruit from Jesus the true vine. Jesus here emphasized the good fruit that believers are to bear for the Lord, along with the Father’s loving activity in pruning the branches, and His own life as the source of believers’ fruitfulness. The contrast with the idolatrous Israel and the context of Jesus’ teaching in chapters 14-16 show that our fruit is to consist mainly in devotion to God and obedience to His commands. It was because of idolatry and injustice that God promised to remove Israel’s hedge, break down its wall, trample down the vineyard, and make it a waste [Isa. 5:5-6]. In addition to praise [Heb. 13:15] and righteousness [Phil. 1:11; Heb. 12:11], the New Testament adds the fruit of good works [Col. 1:10] and the fruit of the Spirit in our inward character [Gal. 5:22-23]. Not only does the Lord desire such fruit from us, but Jesus depicts how determined God is to gain it from our lives. Anyone who knows about vineyards can tell you that they require a great deal of tending, lest they grow wild and become fruitless. Here, Jesus depicts the Father’s personal activity in tending His cherished vine. This description emphasizes the Father’s protective care, watchfulness over the daily condition of each branch, and faithfulness in not permitting any true branch to go to ruin. Jesus description requires us to distinguish between two kinds of branches: 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 [15:2]. There are branches in Christ, the true vine, that flow with life and bear fruit. But there are other branches connected to Jesus that do not bear fruit. What are these other branches in me that do not bear fruit? The answer is nominal Christians: that is, those who call themselves Christians, attend church with Christians, and engage in many actions that Christians do, but who nonetheless do not possess the life of Christ through true and saving faith. This teaching makes a vitally important point for us. According to Jesus here, and throughout the Gospels, the true mark of those who belong to Him and are saved is the bearing of good fruit. We are saved not by good fruit or any other work of our own, but by faith in Christ alone. The good fruit, however, is the only proof that our profession of faith is true and saving. Being present in the church, receiving the rite of baptism, having membership on the church rolls, and being part of a godly family are not proofs of salvation and new life. Moreover, it is possible for a person to affirm the basic truths of Christian belief, yet to possess none of Christ’s life. The true and only proof of salvation is fruit. This is the sole distinction between the two kinds of branches that Jesus mentions. Both are connected to Him in some sense. But one does not bear fruit, and it is taken away while the fruitful branch is tended. You will recognize them by their fruits, Jesus taught elsewhere [Matt. 7:20]. It follows that we should never encourage a person to have assurance of salvation through a bare profession of faith, until that faith has proved itself by bearing fruit. The best Christians are imperfect and flawed in many ways, but all true Christians bear some true fruit in the form of obedience to God’s commands, faithfulness to Christ before the world, and the cultivating of inward spiritual grace. Do you see any of the fruit of the Spirit [Gal. 5:22-23] in your life? If you are a Christian, the honest answer should be Yes. You should be able to identify an increasing righteousness, peace, and joy [Rom 14:17], with a growing love for God and His people. No doubt there is a mixed report in these areas, but a true Christian will be able to see some fruit of inward change, to go along with obedience to God’s Word, fidelity to Christ before the world, and good works. Christians who know the fruit of Christ in their lives should thus be assured that their profession of faith is real, since the life of the vine is bearing fruit in the branch. While Jesus mentions the fruitless branches that are removed, He emphasizes God’s pruning activity on the fruitful branches. Jesus said, Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit [2]. It might seem surprising that God prunes the fruitful branches, since pruning sounds painful, until we realize that the purpose of pruning is to gain the maximum amount of fruit from the vine. Grapevines require aggressive pruning. After each year’s harvest, the fruitful branches are cut back significantly. The idea in pruning is to remove whatever inhibits growth, and Jesus applies this principle to the Father’s pruning of our spiritual lives. He strips away things that are spiritually detrimental, even if they are otherwise good things. He takes the knife to our bad habits and assails our prayerlessness by giving us things to pray about. The Father applies the pruning knife to our priorities and values, and strips away relationships that would hinder our faith. It is important to note that this is not punishment, but vinedressing. The writer of Hebrews said: He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness [Heb. 12:10]. This pruning might take place by means of God’s providential arrangement of our circumstances: we might suffer loss, face a temptation, or experience a reproof. The purpose of all these is to make us fruitful through an increased faith. Peter wrote that his readers had been grieved by various trials, the purpose of which was that the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ [1 Peter 1:6-7]. James reminds us how much better off Christians are because of the trials we have endured: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness [James 1:2-3]. This tells us that when we endure trials in life – when we find biblical parenting to be overwhelming, when loving our spouse is difficult, when integrity in the workplace is hard, and when we experience the more severe trials involved with sickness, grief, joblessness, or persecution – we should lift our faces to the Lord and ask Him to do His work in our life, that we might bear the fruit that He desires. We rightly think of God’s pruning in terms of outward trials, but it seems that Jesus refers also to the ministry of God’s Word. He continued, Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you [3]. The word for clean is the noun form of the same word He used in verse 2 for prunes. The basic idea of the word is “cleansing,” but with the idea of pruning, it means the removal of unwanted materials. It is primarily the Word of God, Jesus said, that produces this cleansing. Therefore, when He speaks of the Father’s pruning, He refers to the Scriptures as the agent of our spiritual change and growth. His meaning is similar to that of Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. God intends for His Word to penetrate our hearts, unmask our true thoughts and desires, and cut away all that hinders our growth. This means that we must come to God’s Word not merely to learn spiritual facts but to bring our hearts under the pruning knife of our loving Father, the vinedresser. We should seek in God’s Word to see the glory of the Lord in the face of His Son, Jesus, so that God’s grace would teach us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ [Titus 2:12-13]. So far, Jesus has used the symbolism of the vine to describe Himself and the vinedresser to depict God’s pruning activity for our growth in holiness. He concludes the metaphor by referring to His disciples as the branches, and He provides a single key principle for our fruitfulness: Abide in me, and I in you [4]. This saying was likely meant as a command: believers are commanded to abide in Christ in order to bear our fruit. What does it mean, then, to abide in Christ? To abide is to dwell in, with close communion and fellowship. Abiding in Christ means that we draw near to Christ spiritually and hold fast to His teaching. Jesus earlier taught, If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free [John 8:31-32]. Abiding in Christ’s Word involves more than a bare adherence to Christian doctrine and the discipline of Bible reading; it also involves a yearning trust in its promises and a serious application of its lessons to our lives. Abiding in Christ likewise involves a fervent communion with the Lord in prayer. It includes a devoted participation in the worship and work of Christ’s church, joining together with other members of the body of Christ for communion with and service to the Lord. Jesus makes two vital statements connecting our fruitfulness to our abiding in Christ. The first is that by abiding in Him we will bear fruit, for the same reason that a living branch bears the fruit of the vine. When we abide in Christ, He abides in us and His Spirit works in us with power. This means that the Christian life is not a calling to self-improvement. Our calling is to abide in Christ, following Him through His Word, prayer, worship, and service, and He will bear His fruit in us. The solution to many of our problems is thus simply to walk with Christ over many years. He will lead us, change us, and transform us by the power of His Spirit. This does not mean that Christians are not to strive against sin and labor for holiness. What it means is that the way that we seek our own holiness and fight sin is by trusting Christ, drawing from His strength, and living in loving, personal obedience to Him. Whoever abides in me and I in him, Jesus said, he it is that bears much fruit [5]. A vital corollary to this principle is that apart from abiding in Christ, we can bear no fruit: As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me . … Apart from me you can do nothing [4-5]. By this Jesus did not mean that we literally do nothing apart from Christ, we can do many things! The problem is that apart from Jesus, all that we accomplish is nothing. Only by the means that God has ordained – chief among them God’s Word and prayer – and through a conscious dependence on Christ do we accomplish anything of real spiritual value. However glorious it might be to our own eyes and to the world, all that we do apart from Christ, and all that the church accomplishes by worldly means, is really chaff and dead branches, fit only in the end to be gathered up and burned [cf. 1 Cor. 3:13-15].

Abiding in Christ [6-8].  Jesus’ parable about the vine and the branches consists of three parts, spelling out the conditions of the disciples’ spiritual fruitfulness in His absence. The first two parts depicted God’s provision on our behalf. First, Jesus would Himself be the true vine, securing by His obedience eternal life to give to those who come to Him in faith. Second, the Father would be the vinedresser, tending to our spiritual growth primarily by pruning the fruitful branches. Both of these are divine actions, accomplished for our benefit by God’s grace. The third element of the parable presents believers’ responsibility. In order to bear fruit as living branches, Christians are commanded to abide in Christ. The Christian who abides in Christ is one who believes, trusts, relies on, and rests within Christ’s love for His own. To be a Christian is to know the love of God in Christ, who died on the cross for our sins. To abide in Christ is then to rely on that love, so that in all things we draw near to Him, look to Him in faith, and confidently expect His saving grace to be at work in our lives. Jesus sets before the disciples four great results that ensue from our abiding in Him. The first is that abiding in Christ delivers us from the judgment of God. Jesus expressed this truth in negative terms, speaking of false professors who do not abide in Him [6]. Throughout the New Testament, fire is used to depict the torments awaiting those who stand under God’s judgment for sin. Jesus speaks here of God’s judgment not on sinners generally but on professing believers who did not possess His saving life and bear good fruit. The Old Testament background for Jesus’ teaching on the burning of the fruitless branches is Ezekiel 15:1-6. The prophet pointed out that the wood of the vine is good for nothing unless it bears fruit. Since the vine was a symbol of Israel, this was a warning of God’s judgment, which soon fell on fruitless Jerusalem through the siege of Nebuchadnezzar and the city’s destruction. Christians should look on the fall of Jerusalem and realize how useless to God is fruitless religion. A profession of faith in Christ is of no interest to God unless it goes on to bear the fruit of a godly life, and such an empty profession of faith renders us fit only for the fires of God’s judgment. Saving faith is always a faith that goes on to bear the fruit of good works, along with a changed life. According to Jesus, then, false professors of faith will sooner or later be taken away by God [2], and they will ultimately be subjected to God’s fire, all because they never truly embraced Jesus as Savior and therefore died without their sins being forgiven. In contrast, to abide in Christ is to be delivered from God’s judgment, since the branches that abide in Him bear fruit through their possession of saving life. How urgent it is that every professing believer actually abide in Christ – relying on His love, living in close fellowship with Jesus, and bearing the good fruit of obedience to the commands of the Bible – which is the only kind of faith that actually saves us from the just wrath of God on our sins. The second result is that abiding in Christ leads to power in prayer: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, Jesus taught, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you [7]. This promise is essentially the same as the one made in John 14:13-14. The difference here is the nuance of Christ’s words abiding in us. Jesus earlier said that if we ask in His name, He will answer our prayers; now He insists that we must pray with His Word abiding in us. In God’s Word we find that Jesus tells us not to expect comfortable circumstances or the absence of trials and temptations. What we should seek is faith to trust Christ, strength to obey God’s will, grace to transform our lives, and compassion to care for a lost world. In John 15, Jesus has stressed the vital importance that we abide in Him, relying on His love and obeying His commands. Surely abiding in Him, then, is something for which we should pray, with confidence that Jesus has promised to bless prayers that are offered according to His Word. According to Jesus’ promise, whenever we pray for the priorities He has taught in Scripture, we should pray with an absolute certainty of divine answers. When we pray Jesus’ own words back to our Lord, when His teaching forms the substance of our pleas, we can be assured that they will be heard with favor in heaven. The “secret” to power in prayer, then, is to live closely enough to Christ that our own desires, expressed in prayer, have been molded by His Word. The third result of abiding in Christ is that we glorify the Father. Jesus added, By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples [8]. This is an important statement, first, because it reminds us that we “prove” our discipleship by bearing fruit to the Lord. Jesus adds that the same fruit that grants us assurance of salvation also brings glory to the Father. This indicates that if we are not abiding in Christ and bearing the fruit of changed lives, then we are denying God glory that ought to be His. It is easy for us to speak of praising God and to sing hallelujahs, but the way that God especially desires to be glorified in us is by our transformed lives. That our lives might contribute to the glory of the one, true, and eternal God ought to fill our hearts with wonder and amazement. Moreover, that we might give something back to the God who has given His own Son for our salvation ought to spur us with great zeal for the glory of the Father. Fourth, Jesus states that abiding in Christ fills us with joy: These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full [11]. The world insists that turning from sin to follow Christ is bound to take all the pleasure out of life. Jesus insists that exactly the opposite is in fact true. The way to possess true and abiding joy is to abide in Him. Abiding in Him, as a living branch in the true vine, we experience His life flowing into us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, so that our deep experience of blessing matures into the rich wine of spiritual joy as we abide in Him.”  [Phillips, pp. 281-300]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In this passage, what is the relationship between the Father, Jesus, and the disciples? What is the role of each?

2.         What does the vinedresser do to the fruit-bearing branches? What does the Father use as His pruning tools? What is the connection between the pruning of verse 2 and the word of verse 3? Why does the Father prune His fruit-bearing branches? What is the ultimate goal of this pruning [8]? 

3.         How would you describe a person who is a fruitless branch? What makes a branch fruitless [6]? What does the vinedresser do to the fruitless branches? Why?

4.         Compare 15:7-8 to 14:13-14. What do they teach us about prayer? How must we pray? Why does prayer glorify God?

5.         Note the progression in the believer’s life: bear fruit [2], more fruit [2], much fruit [5,8]. What must happen for the progression to occur in your life? What is the fruit we are to bear [Rom. 6:22; Eph. 5:9; Phil. 1:11; Heb. 12:11; James 3:18; Gal. 5:22-23]?

6.         What does it mean to abide in Christ? Why is abiding so important for our Christian life? How do we abide in Christ? What consequences flow out of abiding? What does this passage teach us about where our focus should be in our spiritual lives?

References:

The Gospel according to John, D. A. Carson, Eerdmans.

John, Andreas Kostenberger, BENT, Baker.

The Gospel according to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

John, vol. 2, Richard Phillips, REC, P & R Publishing.