Over the last seven issues we have been looking at the I AM statements of Christ as they are found in John’s Gospel. Each time we have looked at a new one, we learned not only something about Christ and his person and work, and about God and what he is doing, but also about ourselves and the call to eat the bread of life, walk in the light, follow the good shepherd, enter through the gate, look to the resurrection and the life, and follow the way, the truth, and the life. In each of those statements and commands, the love and grace of God was evident, and the glory of our Savior was center stage. Now we come to the last of these I AM statements, maybe the one most debated, and certainly the one most pointed and direct. It also has been the case that only two of these I AM statements emphasized the corporate, communal aspect of the faith, the good shepherd who has a flock, and now the true vine who has branches. As we turn to John 15, heed the call of the great I AM. Our theme is that the true vine calls the branches to abide in him.
John 15 begins with Jesus saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” From Isaiah 5 we know that the Jews would have been used to the figure of Israel being either a vineyard of a garden or branches on a vine. Jeremiah 2:21 echoes this as well. Vineyards were very common in Israel. It was from the fruit of vineyards that wine was made. Remember also, in context, Jesus, as he sat in the upper room, had just instituted the Lord’s Supper. They had just drunk the fruit of the vine. Now Jesus says, I am the true vine.
This is an allegory, as Jesus has used before. The danger with interpreting an allegory is to lose the forest for the trees, to focus too much on small details without seeing the larger picture. The allegory is about abiding in Christ.
In this allegory, the Father is the vinedresser/gardener. He is the one who is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the vineyard. We see him cutting off branches that are dead wood; they are not producing any fruit, likely having no leaves even. He is pruning the fruitful branches so that they will be more fruitful. If you are not familiar with horticulture, the care of plants, the idea of pruning might seem counterproductive. Take a tomato plant, for instance. An indeterminate tomato plant will grow probably six feet tall. The gardener has to ensure that there is a main stem all the way up. In the early process, main side shoots should be pruned off so that the plant can grow. As it grows, the plant’s branches should be pruned off so that enough light can reach all of the leaves—that is what produces flowers, which produce tomatoes. If a tomato plant is a jumble of leaves and tomatoes, the fruit will be small and will become susceptible to disease. Pruning ensures a fruitful harvest. So too in our allegory.
A branch that bears fruit is one that is abiding on the vine. The branch has no life of its own but depends completely upon the vine itself. The vine is what receives the water and nutrients from the soil. This combined with sunlight is what produces fruit. We will talk about that fruit in a moment.
If a branch does not abide in the vine, it withers and is cut off. We might ask, How could a branch not abide in the vine? To find this answer, switch the question around: How does a branch abide in the vine? John 15:3 mentions that the
word that was spoken has made them clean. Call that preaching. In verse 7 there is another mention of Jesus’ words, and there they are pictured as remaining in the branch. This means they believe. Attending church and sitting under faithful preaching does not keep one abiding in the vine. Rather, believing it, trusting not the preaching but the object of the preaching, the vine itself, keeps one abiding in the vine. This, as we will see, will produce fruits of obedience. John 15:10 says, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” To put it the other way, if you do not walk in God’s commands, you will not stay in the Father’s love. This might bring a question to mind about falling from grace, but we will answer that in a moment.
So, to summarize, if you abide in Christ, as a branch, if you abide in the vine, the source of your life and nutrition, you will bear fruit, namely, effective prayer, fruit bearing, and having your joy fulfilled (John 15:9– 11). If you do not abide in Christ, but give in to and live in sin, you will wither as a branch and be cut off and thrown into the burn pile. When Jesus says, I am the true vine, we look to him as our source for not only physical life, but especially here, spiritual life.
There is much taking place in these eleven verses that we can draw out. For now, let us look closer at five things. First, notice that there are two groups. There are fruitful branches and there are unfruitful branches. Both of these are those who have heard the word. In Jesus’ day, it was all of Israel. Today, it is all of those who grew up in the church or are members of the church visibly, primarily by baptism. Just as Paul told the church in Rome (Rom. 9) that not all Israel is of Israel, so too, not all of the church is truly of the church in a believing way. There are some in the church who do not have a true faith. Their faith is merely historical. When Jesus says that he is the true vine, the same word is used of him as the good shepherd. He is the good vine . . . he is the vine that, if you abide in it, will produce fruit for the glory of God. That, after all, is the purpose of our existence as branches on the vine: it is to be fruitful.
In Abbotsford, British Columbia, there are acres and acres of blueberries. When a young blueberry plant is put into the ground, it takes a couple of years to produce a good crop. Each year the plant grows, and then, three years down the road, the bush is fruitful. One farmer in Abbotsford accidentally planted his field with ornamental blueberries. Ornamental blueberry plants look nice, they produce berries, but you do not want to eat them. The problem was for that farmer, he didn’t know they were ornamental until three years down the road. They looked like regular, money- producing blueberry plants, but they did not produce the desired fruit. This is how the wicked grow in the church. They sit next to fruitful plants, but there is a lack of fruit evident. At some point, they will likely show that they are merely an ornamental branch that doesn’t produce the desired fruit.
Remember, at this point, Judas has left the Twelve. It is as if Jesus is saying, Don’t walk the road of Judas. He was one of them, but he did not abide in Christ. There are two groups addressed in the vine.
Second, notice the role of the Word in our text. John 15:3 says, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The word must refer to the gospel, and it has made them clean. Though likely not used in a technical sense, we can draw out that this means justification. They have been made clean or right before God, not because they have bore fruit but because they believed the Word, the gospel; they trusted the Savior. Then, in John 15:7, the abiding validity of the words likely refers to the commandments of Christ, but this doesn’t negate the gospel either. John 15:7 is more of an emphasis on sanctification, or growing in grace, which happens throughout one’s life; John 15:3 deals with justification, which God declares once in our lives. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to continue to hear the gospel. We feed on the gospel.
Third, we have to pause a moment and answer the Arminian claim that this passage teaches that we can fall from grace. The Arminians say that God can at one time love us and at another time he cannot. The covenant can also be emphasized this way, but that is dangerous as well. This passage doesn’t teach that you can fall from grace. Those who are cut off of the vine never did produce fruit. They weren’t a fruitful branch that got sick or old. They were like an ornamental blueberry plant. It seemed like it was the real McCoy, but it wasn’t. They are a counterfeit. William Hendriksen says, “This allegory plainly teaches that the branches which are taken away and burned represent people who never once bore fruit, not even when they were ‘in Christ.’ Hence, they never were true believers; and for them the in-the-vine relationship, though close, was merely outward.” John 10:28 says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” There is no contradiction between John 10:28 and John 15:2 or John 15:6.
Fourth, John 15:9 says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” When did the Father love the Son? In eternity past. When did the Son love the elect? From before the foundations of the world. First John 1 tells us that we love God because God first loved us. The love of Jesus to his bride comes before the bride’s love for Christ. The perfect love of God comes before us, goes along with us, and follows up after us. The electing love of God, that God chose, from before the foundations of the world (Eph. 1) a particular people to call unto himself in eternal fellowship is clearly taught here.
Fifth, notice the communal aspect of life in the vineyard. The branches are all connected to the same vine, which is Christ. In that way, it might be better to think of this as merely a backyard garden with only one vine that climbs a large trellis to get sunlight. If this vine is growing in the church, which it is, and if the cutting off of particular unfruitful and spiritually dead branches makes the other branches more fruitful, what else could this be but church discipline? To fail to exercise church discipline is sinful. The consequences are horrible. Not only will the dead branch which is not cut off make the fruitful branch less fruitful, but also the unfruitful branch might be falsely led to think that everything is okay. They might think that they are just a little weaker than others. To be sure, there might be more fruitful and less fruitful branches, but the branches that are cut off do not bear fruit.
Good branches bear fruit, and they despise the disease which seeks to get them cut off from the vine. When someone hears God’s law read and thinks, I don’t care, I will continue in my sin, that person must be fearful. The wicked must know that unless they turn in utter trust to Christ, unless they give up their life of sin, unless they repent before God and man, they will be cut off of the vine. That must be the most soul-troubling thought. The Lord Jesus Christ uses means, and those means are the consistory. Please, please, please, when a fellow Christian confronts you about sin, even your pastor in the preaching, heed the call to repentance and trust the Lord to forgive you.
As we work through the teachings, let us also see what practically flows out of them. First, let us ask, What are the results of abiding in Christ? There are three mentioned in our text, each of which could be an article on its own. They are effectual prayer (John 15:7), bearing much fruit (John 15:8), and having joy informed by love (John 15: 9–11). These three results are pretty straightforward, but let’s look for a moment at this first one, effectual prayer.
Does verse 7 teach that we can ask God for whatever we want and he will give it to us? It says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” What if we go home and pray for something contrary to his will? Will God provide that? No. What this means is that abiding in Christ informs our prayers to pray through Christ, in his name, and with the understanding that not my will but your will be done.
Second, don’t mix up being made clean (v. 3) with bearing fruit (v. 5). Bearing fruit is a result of being made clean. We cannot attempt to bear fruit if we have not been made clean. A dead branch cannot bear fruit; it must be made alive. How do we view those outside the church? As those, who by faith, must be ingrafted onto the vine of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. With that said, the purpose of the branches is to bear fruit. To bear fruit takes work. If God doesn’t prune around you, how will you be productive? Ask yourself, How does God prune around you? He teaches you trust, humility, faith, and love, but he does so through trial, pain, brokenness, and sickness. Thank God for those things which strengthen faith.
Third, think back again to the relationship between the vine and the branches. How much do the branches depend upon the vine? Completely. John 15:4 says you cannot bear fruit unless you remain united to the vine. Verse 5 says apart from Christ you can do nothing. Do you know what that blueberry farmer in Abbotsford did after he realized he had accidently ordered, planted, and cared for ornamental blueberry plants? He pulled them all up and planted new ones. They would not have produced any good fruit and therefore were unusable to him. Don’t be dead wood in the church. Ask yourself, How are you serving those in the church? In Bible study, on a committee, do you volunteer, do you offer help, do you give faithfully, do you encourage the members, do you build up the church and pray for her? If you are not living as an active member, don’t leave, but change what you do: repent and get involved. Give of yourself to the body of Christ.
Fourth, note the interplay between election and the call to abide. An emphasis on election which makes man passive and lazy is an ungodly attitude. An emphasis on the will of man who seems to put God to his debt because of his faith is also living with an ungodly attitude. In our text, we see our Savior, the great I AM, balance this out. You are called to respond to the call of faith because God has chosen. “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.” Why is this point being made now? Because if that glorious truth doesn’t move you to gratitude and thanksgiving, faith and repentance, saying no to sin and yes to Christ, what else would?
Christ is the true vine . . . abide in him. As you seek to do so, know also that there is a sovereign and gracious gardener who helps you grow, who provides opportunity to bear fruit, and who ultimately will care for you into eternity. In the text, Jesus is about to go to the cross, he knows what the future holds for the disciples, and it will be a difficult road to walk, and so he tells them to abide in him. The same is true for us. Our danger and difficulty is often our ease of life. Heed the call and bear much fruit.
Rev. Steve Swets is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.