In the OT, the vine is a common symbol for Israel, the covenant people of God (Ps. 80:9-16; Is.5:1-7; Jer: 2:21). Against the well-known background of this symbol and image, Jesus now announces, “I am the Vine; your are the branches” in verse 5.
Whenever Israel is referred to under this figure, it is the highlighting of the vine’s failure to produce good fruit, along with the threat of God’s judgement on the nation of Israel. In contrast to this, Jesus claims that He is the true vine, the true ‘Israel’, the One that brings forth good fruit.
Jesus has already, in principle, superceded the temple, the Jewish feasts, Moses, various holy sites and here He supercedes Israel as the very focus of the people of God.
Jesus then discusses the vine and the branches; the branches are His disciples. The branches derive their life from the vine; the vine produces its fruit through the branches.
As in psalm 80, God plants and cultivates the vine; He is the gardener – the Father is the gardener or vinedresser. He trims or prunes every branch that does bear fruit. His purpose is loving – it is so that each branch will be even more fruitful, but the procedure may be painful (Heb. 12:4-11) – the Lord disciplines His own the way a father disciplines his children, for their own good that they may share in His holiness. The Father cuts off every branch in the vine that bears no fruit so that the fruit-bearing branches may have more room for growth.
The principle is clear: there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit. Fruitfulness is an infallible mark of true Christianity; the alternative is dead wood or even false or bitter fruit (Isa. 5:1-7) and the latter would be cut off and burned. There may be men and women with some degree of connection with Jesus or with the Church who nevertheless do not have the pulsating life of Christ within them (i.e. there is no real fruit in them) and they do not constitute the true branches of the true Vine.
Jesus makes it clear that the branch must remain or abide in HIm to produce fruit; no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the Vine (vs 4). What does ‘remain’ and ‘abide’ mean? It means continuous dependence on the Vine, constant reliance upon Him, persistent spiritual partaking of His life (implying communion with Him in His Word, communion with Him in prayer through the Holy Spirit) – this is the way to true spiritual fruitfulness. It promises a renewed heart or a right mind or the presence of the Spirit in the New Covenant such that we will obey what God says, God remains among and in HIs people by renewing them with HIs life, with His Spirit, making HIs presence known in them and among them (verses 9-11)’ His people remain in HIm by obeying His commands.
What about the ‘fruit’? Some attribute the fruit to converts, or love, or Christian character. What is clear is that this fruit is the consequence of prayer in Jesus’ name, and is to the Father’s glory (vv. 7,8,16). It suggests that the ‘fruit’ in the vine imagery represents everything that is the product of effective prayer in Jesus’ name, including obedience to Jesus’ commands (Word(v10), experience of Jesus’ joy (v11 and peace 14:27), love for one another (v12) and witness to the world (vv16,27). This fruit, in other words, is nothing less than the outcome of persevering dependence on the Vine, driven by faith, embracing all of the believer’s life and the outcome of his witness. Christians must remember that the fruit that issues out of their obedient faith-union with Christ lies at the heart of how Jesus brings glory to His Father. Failure to honour the Son is failure to honour God (v23). Fruitlessness not only threatens fire (v6), it also robs God of the glory that rightly belongs to HIm.
Contrast this with what God expected of Israel in the OT and the good ‘fruit’ becomes clear. God looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. Israel in the OT was to portray to the world God’s love and character as HIs people; she was to reach the world with the ‘gospel’ through her righteousness, justice, love, and message as God’s unique people of a holy covenant. Unfortunately, Israel became like the nations around her; worse still, she even became worse than some of these nations and God’s judgement had to fall on her again and again.
Jesus appears as the new Israel and God looks for the good fruit from the church, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the bride of Christ. In one sense, the church, incorporated in Christ, constitutes the new Israel, which includes all of God’s people from the OT and NT, who are united with Christ through faith and repentance.
Take note: it is organic growth, internal growth, driven by the pulsating life of the Vine in the branch, that produces fruit. The Christian or Christian organisation that expends externally by merely concentrating on outward conduct and witness but is not impelled by life within, brings forth bad fruit or dead fruit. The important thing for us to realise is that whatever prominence we may achieve – in our church or in the larger Christian world -God’s goal for us is to be fruitful in Him. Unless we are living in union with our Lord Jessu and seeing HIs fruit produced in our lives, all else is meaningless and the so-called fruit is rotten fruit or just artificial fruit with no life in it.
John 15:1-17: Deeper reflections and application
Often, we look at this passage and focus on how the principles apply to us as individual believers. But if we pause, we will realise that just as the Vine is the Lord Jesus, the branches and their fruitfulness refer to the church, the body of Christ, the people of the New Covenant.
As such, the principles illustrated in verses 1-17 apply collectively to the body of Christ, the church of God, founded upon the gospel that comes about from the Son’s fulfilment of His mission to recreate a new society and humanity, when He obeyed the Father to the point of death at the Cross.
Nations and communities are now largely ignorant of the true meaning of the Christian faith and the dynamic, life-changing power of the risen Lord Jesus to transform both individual lives and society. Many in this generation, especially the young, have seldom been to a church and never opened a Bible; to them, Christianity is irrelevant.
The church, in seeking to reach them, unfortunately comes out with short-term measures, which may prove counterproductive and even worsen the difficulties, already at hand. The church may think that the problems lie in the area of communication and methodology; in fact, the problems are in the idolatry of the human heart and our stubborn resistance to the authority of God our creator. So the church concentrates on prevailing methodologies; large ‘exciting’ events will dominate our evangelistic presentation and programme with minimal serious gospel proclamation; celebrities become the focus of these events; preaching becomes salesmanship and marketing takes central stage and substance is sacrificed to image.
The Bible is more concerned with the transforming power of the gospel and this takes place in the context of the Vine and the branches. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit initiates UNION with Christ and those who believe are placed IN Christ but this union continues and progresses as the branches in the Vine (Christ) continue to grow and to bear fruit (Christ IN us). Transformation in the lives of Christians takes place as the Word of God does this work, restoring the image of God in the believer. The onlooking world becomes increasing curious, and even hungry, for the quality of spiritual reality it is witnessing in the lives of transformed believers. Verbal proclamation of the gospel is necessary but the quality of life in believers opens the door of opportunity for the good news.
One contemporary danger facing the church is that the nurture of godliness in character is relegated down the list of church priorities, in favour of ‘skilling’ a workforce of individuals equipped with the latest techniques of communicating the ‘gospel’ and the knowhow of ‘building’ discipleship. We need to pay heed to what Jesus said in John 15: “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” (v 4)….”for apart from me you can do nothing” (v 5(b)). In reality, we can do a lot of things without Jesus, but they are all ‘nothing’ that lasts eternally and they are valued as nothing valuable in the eyes of God. The Apostle Paul told young pastor Timothy that the Scripture (the Word of God) is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17) – Paul knew that there is no other way for the man of God to be ‘thoroughly equipped for every good work’. Hence, the Lord Jesus speaks of abiding in His Word as well as abiding in Him.The evangelisation of any generation is directly proportional, in its effect and penetration, to the Christlikeness of its messengers. The messenger of the gospel must reflect the truth of the gospel in his or her life. The contact point, with the watching world, is not, in the first instance, the pulpit; it is in the school, the working place and office, the community -wherever Christians are on view as salt and light, so that Christ’s truth and love have opportunity to make a connection. This is where the inner life brought about by the gospel is demonstrated, or denied, because what we shout so loudly are not heard – they are looking at our walk, not listening to our talk. And the inner life, the organic growth, takes place when the branch abides in the vine, drawing life from its nutrients, and fruitfulness invariably occurs. The fruit of Christlikeness and the love of God are seen in the branches when there is fruitfulness. The Lord Jesus points to abiding in HIs love and loving one another as manifestation of this organic growth and inner life, characterised by a renewed heart and a renewed mind.
Messengers and servants of the gospel cannot be impressive, self-made, public performers, because lives of that sort deny the content of the message of the gospel. The cross is central in the message of the gospel. The cross speaks of servanthood (the washing of the feet), sacrificial love and death to self seen in Jesus crucified (the grain of wheat must die), death leading to life, suffering leading to glory of God. The authentic Christian lifestyle does not consist in superior knowledge, well-developed oratorical skills or extraordinary manifestations of supernatural power, but in the self-sacrificing love that gives itself up in the service of others and keeps persevering in the way of the cross to the very end of the journey. We are only servants; it is only God who makes things grow – hence the need to abide in Him, for only Christ gives life and growth to the branches through the Spirit. God has given HIs Spirit to His believing people to grant understanding and develop a mature, Christ like mind as the foundation for a sacrificial Christlike life.
When the believer ignores what God has already revealed in His Word and seeks a path of self-independence and the ways of the world, correction and discipline must take place. We see how pruning and trimming by the Father, the gardener, becomes essential in such contexts; it is done in love to ensure that the fruit will evolve and remain. The church is to be disciplining itself, which is a responsibility shared by the whole congregation; we must follow Christ’s pattern in exposing and dealing with all that runs contrary to our humbling experience of total dependence on His grace. The branch must depend wholly on the Vine to be fruitful and alive; cutting off the vital union with the Vine would only spell degeneration and death. Holiness and sanctification is often understood as overcoming habitual temptations and experiencing deliverance from certain sins; of course, this is an essential part of the development of increasing godliness. However, this cannot stand alone as the major factor. Just as the sins we commit are symptoms of the disease of our broken relationship with God, so the restoring power of the gospel achieves far more than an alleviation of the symptoms – it is the cure. While perfect spiritual health awaits the heavenly fulfilment, the transforming power of the gospel is potentially far greater than anything any of us has yet experienced – the fruit the branch will produce is defined as the cross-shaped spirituality characterised by serving sacrificial love to build others up, and energised by the Holy Spirit. Obedience to the gospel will change behaviour; our obedience to God is an expression of our love for HIm – the paradigm is the obedience of Christ to HIs Father because of His love for the Father.
Transformation of life takes time, being often resisted and impeded. But God is far more committed to bringing every one of His redeemed people home to glory, and by HIs Word and through His Spirit He has all the resources needed to accomplish His purposes. We are to abide in Christ, abide in His Word, abide in His love, praying always and depending fully on His Spirit, not just as individual believers, but as a church to ensure true fruitfulness in Christ.We see how the principles in John 15:1-17 apply to churchlife and the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel. It all focuses on Christ, the Vine. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.
Elaboration on “ABIDE’ in John 15 in its meaning and extent
“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” (v 4).
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (v 7).
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (v 9)
“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” (v 10).
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (v 12).
At this juncture, it is very clear that as believers, we can only bear spiritual fruit if we abide or remain in Christ – it speaks of a relationship and fellowship that involves continual dependence on Him, and a total reliance on His provision of ‘spiritual food’ and ‘spiritual life’. We cannot bear spiritual fruit on our own. Here an inkling of the ministry and provision of the Holy Spirit in this relationship is indicated but the details will be seen in chapter 16.
We need to recognise that the Lord Jesus, in this chapter, also pointed to abiding in His Word, in obedience to Him, and abiding in HIs love and loving one another, as an elaboration or extension of what abiding in Him would also involve. It implies that to bear good spiritual food, abiding in Him must also include abiding in His Word, His commands and His love. If we do not see this clearly and apply it faithfully, we cannot expect to be truly fruitful in God’s eyes.
Abiding in His Word and commands: Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God- God Himself has confirmed this through the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s witness to Scripture is like His witness to Jesus (John 15:26; 1 John 5:7-8). The Holy Spirit shines in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God not only in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6) but also in the teaching of Holy Scripture. Hence God authenticates Holy Scripture (Bible) to us as His Word by means of the searching light and transforming power whereby Scripture evidences itself to be divine. Transformation to be like Christ, an evidence of the good spiritual fruit, cannot take place without receiving the teaching of Scripture by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives: in other words, do not expect to bear spiritual fruit without ‘soaking’ ourselves in Scripture -this is what abiding in His Word and commands implies. Do not kid ourselves into thinking that as long as we attend to all the ‘activities’ in church and be faithful in ‘attendance’ without assimilating the Word of God into our lives that we will automatically bear fruit.
Abiding in His love, in obedience and loving others: People generally dislike law and the idea that Christians should be led only by love and not by law is widespread. This is false and unwholesome. Law needs love as its drive, and love needs law as its eyes, for love is blind. To want to love someone, we need to observe the limits set by God’s law – only then can we really do others good and love them wholesomely. In other words, commandment-keeping is the only true way to love the Father and the Son (remember the model in Jesus’ life that His love for the Father is displayed by His obedience to the Father, even to the point of death on the cross).
It is also the only true way to love one’s neighbour. When Apostle Paul wrote that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8), he explained that by showing that love to neighbour embraces the specific prohibitions of adultery, murder, stealing, and envy. He did not say that love to neighbour cancels these prohibitions. True godly love also involves correcting one another gently in love; our reluctance to correct one another based on God’s law means we do not really love. The Christian’s most loving service to his neighbour is to uphold God’s law as our true guide to true life.
Hence, abiding in love, keeping God’s commands and loving one another is part and parcel of abiding in Christ. To know and apply God’s law and to keep His commands must also mean understanding and assimilating the Word of God in Scripture and applying it consistently in our lives. We cannot afford to just accept certain parts of Scripture and ignore the rest; this is tantamount to rejecting the authority and teaching of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as individuals and as a church.