Comforting and disturbing. That's how one could sum up John 15.1-11. Comforting and disturbing! Those words certainly describe my preparation this week, and if I were a betting man I'd bet that you can identify with one or both of those words as you read this passage. I was chatting to one member of our church family this week, who on hearing that I would be preaching on John 15 tonight, told me that it was one of her favourite passages in all of scripture. She is comforted and encouraged by the profound truths that it expresses. But I know of others, who find the references to some of its imagery troubling and disturbing. For them this passage raises a lot of questions about fruitfulness and assurance and the nature of prayer. So, we need help, there's a lot to cover. So before we go any further, let's pray.
Let me just remind you of where we're up to. It's the night before Jesus went to the cross and Jesus is talking to his disciples, preparing them for his departure. He's laying down foundational discipleship principles and teaching which, whilst they might not grasp straight away, they're certainly going to grasp once they've been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Over the last three weeks we've listened in to the conversation during the famous last supper and now, as we see right at the end of the last chapter, Jesus and his disciples are on the move and they'll end up in the Garden of Gethsemane just outside Jerusalem when Jesus will be betrayed. And while they are on the move Jesus introduces a fruity, missional metaphor – that's my first heading…
1. A Fruity Missional Metaphor!
Verse 1: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser."
Verse 5: "I am the vine; you are the branches."
Now this picture may be a bit lost on us today, but to Jesus disciples, to John's readers, the vineyard metaphor was a powerful symbol with a lot of history. You see God had used this imagery before, to illustrate his special care and purpose for the nation of Israel. Remember: God had taken Israel to the Promised Land and planted them there, giving them a mission to the world. By their example and through their actions they were to know God and to make him known to others. As we heard in our old testament reading [Isaiah 17.2-6] Israel was supposed to be a vine that would… "blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit." But she failed. Time and time again, she failed. And produced bad fruit. Enter Jesus into human history who claims to be the 'true vine'. In other words, he is saying he is the one who is going to do what Israel could not do. He is going to create a new community based on him, empowered by him, in relation to him and it will glorify him. And to complete the metaphor he reminds us that God the Father is the vine dresser (in other words he is the one that is in control of the production of good fruit) and that his disciples are the branches (in other words the ones on whom the fruit grows and is made visible!). It is a lovely vision that Jesus is casting here. He is saying to his disciples, and to all who would respond to the call, including us, he's saying 'Stick with me, be part of this new missional community that is replacing Israel. I am the true vine. You are one of the new people of God.' Last week we were reminded that, especially in the gospel accounts, we shouldn't automatically apply to us the things that Jesus said directly to his disciples. That's because Jesus was instructing his disciples for a unique period in human history. But, as he continues, by talking about this beginning of a new community, Jesus is making provision for the lessons of this metaphor to be valid for all who will, throughout history, form part of that community. So we need to pay attention to the purpose - our purpose - as those who make up this new community. Which is my second point:
2. The Disciples' Purpose: Bear Fruit
God the Vinedresser's aim for his branches is to bear fruit. We see this in verse 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."
Versse 8: "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples."
Then just skip on to verse 16 too: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide..."
Friends most of the time in the Bible, when God talks about fruit, he is talking about evidence. And so you could say that our purpose is to demonstrate, through evidence, God's work in this world. Now most of us, unless we're horticultural wizards, would be unable to differentiate between say an apple tree and a pear tree simply by looking at the leaves and the bark of the tree. Is that fair? But any old fool can differentiate between them in season can't they? We know the tree by its fruit! I know if I'm next to an apple tree because I can pick an apple. I know if I'm next to a pear tree because I can see the pear! And that's why, in part, our mission is so important. It is through the fruit of the branches that an unbelieving world looks on and gets to know the vine, that it gets to know Jesus and what he has done to the world to save it. So what does this fruit look like in reality? What is our fruit? In short – it is anything that brings God glory…verse 8 again:
"By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit."
Now, some people like to think of fruit and the amount of it, in terms of the number of people that come to Jesus through their evangelism. Each life another piece of fruit. That's right!
Others, might well go to Galatians 5 and say that those who exhibit the spiritual fruits shown there: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – they're being fruitful. And that's right too. And certainly in the context of Jesus teaching here to his disciples, both these kinds of fruit seem uppermost in Jesus' mind. But as Christian pastor and teacher Don Carson argues, both interpretations on their own are incomplete. In his excellent commentary on John 14-17, which we are recommending as a great guide to this series, he makes the following point:
'… fruit is everything done in conformity to the will of Jesus Christ, not least praying and loving. Jesus does not become more specific than that; he does not need to. Loving one another because of Jesus is Christian fruit; praying in Jesus' name, 'according to his will', as I John 5 puts it, is Christian fruit. Everything in our lives that brings glory to the Father (15:8) is Christian fruit.'[DA Carson, Jesus and his Friends, An exposition of John 14-17 p.128]
So our purpose is to bear fruit, our purpose is to live lives that bring God glory in everything. But, if that's the case, why does the vinedresser take a fruitful branch and cut it? Verse 2: "...every branch that does bear fruit he prunes..." Well apparently, the usual practice in viticulture (which is the care of vines – I had to research this by the way, my fingers are about as far from green as it's possible to get!) … apparently the usual practice is for branches to be cut back or pruned each year in order to cleanse them. A vine produces certain shoots called 'sucker shoots' and they do exactly what their name suggests – they suck away the life-giving sap on its way from the vine to the branch. Left unchecked the branch begins to lose its vitality, the sucker shoots don't get enough sap to be fruitful and only produce leaves and eventually the branch becomes malnourished and dies.
And so in order for the branch to live and produce fruit they need to be pruned. Now these shoots tend to grow right where the branch joins the stem and because they are in a tight cluster all sorts of debris collects there. So the pruning process is also a cleansing process. But you know what? I've never seen one branch pruning another branch! The job of pruning, shaping and otherwise trimming those vines must be the job of someone besides the branches themselves. That responsibility is left to God. And the Father's work in our lives is to find a branch that is beginning to bear fruit, beginning to show the likeness of Christ, and then to cut it back – in order to ensure its continued fruitfulness. And he does this through all sorts of ways. He allows pain, sorrow, persecution, suffering and all sorts of trials to come upon us in order to make us more fruitful. Of course, when you are in the midst of a particular trial (and I know some of you here tonight will be in the midst of some quite demanding trials), the good of that pruning process is hard to see. So, if that is you tonight, take heart because that trial or difficulty is designed so that you can bear more fruit. But pruning isn't just about physical pain and difficulties and trials. It's also about the Lord doing his ongoing work of cutting sin out of us through convicting us of what is sinful in our lives and moving us towards change and repentance. If you are you feeling particularly weary and unproductive right now…if you're feeling weak and drained…why not ask God to show you the sucker shoots that are sapping the abundant life and strength he intended you to have! And then allow Him to prune you! Ask him now: 'Lord why am I feeling like this? Why do I feel far from you?' He may direct you to a habit, a practice, some thoughts, an attitude or a behaviour. Are you willing to let him prune you? Are you willing to let him convict you? It's not usually an easy process. We try to cling to anything that tells us we're in control – a job, social standing or status, money. We try to justify sinful thoughts, words and deeds. 'They deserved it – I didn't lose control that much!' But friends, if God is prompting you right now over something and you are unwilling to address it, it is a pretty good indicator that you're not depending on Jesus, the true vine, as your source of life.
Back to the original disciples. They were facing the most massive trial. Judas has already been tested and found wanting – but Jesus knows that the 11 he's left with are the remainers. They've stuck with him. Unlike Judas they have responded correctly. So what does he tell them in order for that right response to be maintained in them? My third point:
3. The Vital Instruction: Abide in Jesus
Verse 4: "Abide in me..."
Verse 9: "Abide in my love."
We need to take note - 10 times in 6 verses - the word abide is used here. It means to 'remain' or 'stay' in Jesus. Abide, abide, abide, stay, stay, stay, remain, remain, remain in Jesus. Friends this is the heart of this passage! If we think that the only point of this passage is to be fruitful, then we miss what Jesus is really saying here. In fact, at no point does Jesus command the disciples to bear fruit. Instead, what they are promised is that any disciple who abides in Jesus will bear fruit. Now, of course, we need to tread carefully here. I'm not saying that we need to adopt a 'let go and let God' approach. But what we see here is that our primary responsibility is to abide in Jesus. As the branch receives and appreciates and lives in the strength that the vine provides …and then produces fruit in response to that, …so we need to receive and appreciate and live in the love that the vine of Jesus provides…because in doing so our love for him is kindled and we are motivated to strive to please him through our fruit. Maybe some examples will help. Too often we can assume that the production of fruit is our own responsibility. And so we strive to produce fruit by either listening to others or ourselves give mere exhortations. Don't be angry. Be pure – 'I'll stop looking at that woman I'm not married to in that way that I shouldn't'. Be generous. Tell others the gospel – 'I'll drag my neighbour along to the next invitation service if it's the last thing I'll do!' Read more. Pray more. Give more…and so we strive and strive to produce more fruit, only to fail… and so we pick ourselves up and promise to do better next time and we try again…only to continue in this frustrating cycle of failure. Oh friends, listen to Jesus:
Verse 4: "... the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me."
Verse 5: "...apart from me you can do nothing."
Do you see that? It's a bit like being in a hot shower. We don't make the shower hot by standing under it, but the fruit of getting warm and clean in a hot shower is conditional on us being under it. By issuing this command to 'Abide in him' Jesus is reminding his disciples that fruitfulness is conditional on us being in him. To abide in Jesus is to remain under the shower of his love, talking to him, listening to him, in relationship with him - but the moment we choose to step away from that shower, we begin to get cold. When we remove ourselves from him completely – we shiver and we lose the effect that remaining under the shower was designed to give. And this is why there is a warning here too folks. What happens to the branches that don't abide in Jesus?
Verse 2: "Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away..."
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."
Now, if you were one of those who is more disturbed than comforted by this passage, it was probably because of these two verses. So let me remind you again. The point of this metaphor is not to teach that a genuine believer in Jesus can lose his or her salvation. The point of this metaphor is to do with our vitality as faithful disciples. Because Jesus is saying that is possible to be a Christian and step out of that shower, to not abide in him in that case we are like the branch that withers and dies. We are of no use, because there is no fruit and we can't bring him glory. A fruitless Christian is no use.
One year the peaches were especially abundant. The fruit was big and juicy, and it was one of the best crops in memory. While harvesting the crop, a picker noticed a branch that had fallen from a tree. Its fruit was rotten and shrivelled. Because the branch was detached from the tree, it was no longer producing the good fruit that it should. The same is true of the Christian who ceases to abide in Christ – he ceases to produce good fruit. But the question might still be nagging at the back of your mind: can a genuine Christian fall away? Well I'd direct you back a few pages to Jesus words in John 10.28:
"I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand."
So that's teaching that a genuine believer in Jesus cannot fall away. But the question then backs up to: 'Am I a genuine believer in Jesus?' And John 15 comes in there and says, 'Genuine believers in Jesus stay in relationship with him and they bear fruit.' Is that what you're doing right now? Are you in relationship with Jesus and bearing fruit? If you are, allow Jesus words to comfort and encourage you to keep doing what you're doing. If you're not, then allow Jesus words to disturb and challenge you tonight. Will you change? You see the challenge running throughout these verses for us all is our genuineness. Genuine disciples abide in Jesus recognising that only through him can good fruit be produced. Which is all well and good, but you may be sat there thinking 'all this metaphorical language – vines, fruit, showers – that's one thing in theory – but what I really want to know is 'how do I abide in Jesus - what does that look like in reality?'
And so to my last point:
4. The Disciples' Reality: The Word and Prayer
Have a look at verse 7: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."
According to Jesus the best way to remain in him, the best way to stay in the shower, is through his words and through prayer. There's no big secret. There's no massive reveal. Abide in the word. Abide through prayer. And although the 'word of God made flesh' is no longer physically present with us – Jesus has seen fit to leave us with a written version of his word. That is why Christians value the Bible so much. The words in this book aren't just inspired or an accurate commentary (though they are both those things) but they are also God's very word preserved for us. To stay connected to the true vine, is to spend time with Him, talking to Him, listening to Him, becoming familiar with the sound of His voice through his word. Anywhere, anyhow you do that is abiding in him – alone or together, reading or listening, singing or talking, out loud or in your head!
There's no other way, no short-cut here. When we abide in His presence, reading the Word often, drawing steadily from His unfailing wisdom then wonderful things happen, because the reality of the gospel is brought to bear on every aspect of our lives. Morning-noon-night, home-work-play, on our own or in relationship. When we remain in his word we are reminded of the gospel, we are reminded of all God has done for us in Jesus and how little we deserve that. We are reminded of his grace. We are reminded of his love. We are reminded of our future hope. That's what happens when we abide in the word, which, in turn results in at least 3 things:
1. Firstly, our prayers become more aligned with his will.
That's why Jesus says 'ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you' because he knows that our prayers will be aligned with Gods will.
2. Secondly, abiding in his word draws out from us willing obedience:
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." Jesus loved the Father so much that he willing obeyed his commands – that's the model Jesus is demonstrating here. When we love and abide in Jesus we will willingly keep his commandments.
3. And thirdly, that willing obedience results in joy.
Verse11: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."
That's' a great incentive isn't it? Deep contentment that transcends our circumstances.
How do we abide in Christ? Through his word and in prayer – which results in joyful obedience.
You know it's possible to do many things without abiding in Jesus. Sadly, it's possible to lead a church without abiding in Jesus! It's even possible to write a sermon on abiding in Jesus, without abiding in him – I've been challenged by that very thought myself this week! Friends it's possible to run a business as a Christian, to be a teacher, to be a wife or husband, to counsel others, to serve in ministry – all without abiding in Christ. But any good we do and any success we enjoy is unlikely to have an eternal impact. God wants his genuine disciples to produce fruit – he's shown us how. When we abide and obey and we stick close to Jesus, his strength flows through us, and the Lord takes us and enables us to produce fruit that we could never imagine! Friends, our mission, our purpose is bear fruit. We achieve that by abiding in Jesus through listening to his words and talking to him regularly and allowing him to shape our words and actions.