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John 15 is a very deep passage of scripture. An entire sermon series could be preached on this passage, answering questions that I am not going to touch on today, including:
- If we are bearing fruit, why do we have to be pruned? Sounds painful to me.
- What does it mean to be pruned?
- How does the pruning process help us bear more fruit?
- Who are the useless branches that are cut out?
- What does it mean to be thrown in the fire and burned?
- What is the nature of the fruit?
- How is the promise of answered prayer related to the rest of this passage?
My goal today must be to stick to the big picture of this passage. To do so, I need to begin by informing you that the Old Testament often pictures the nation of Israel as the vine in the vineyard of God. For example:
- Isaiah 5 speaks of ‘the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel’ (Isa 5:1-7).
- Jeremiah proclaims on behalf of God: “I planted you a choice vine” (Jer 2:21)
- Ezekiel (Eze 15:1-8) and Hosea (Hos 10:1) both use the same imagery.
- Psalm 80:8 testifies: ‘You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine; you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land.”
As time went on, the Jewish people adopted the vine as a symbol of their nation. We in the US have the bald eagle . . . the Jews had the vine. They even put a vine on some of their 1st century coinage.
But the most interesting place they displayed the vine has much to do with today’s ‘I am’ saying. It was at the Holy Temple located in the heart of Jerusalem.
According to Gary Burge, “At the entrance of the Holy Place, steps led up to a linen curtain. Solid gold chains of grapevine hung alongside the curtain from the door beam. Above the curtain beneath the roof line grew a gigantic grapevine of pure gold representing Israel. Wealthy citizens could bring gifts to add to the vine (gold tendrils, grapes or leaves) and these would be added by metal workers to the ever growing vine. Josephus (a contemporary Jewish historian of Jesus) claims that some of the grape clusters were ‘the height of a man.’ 1
Now it is important to note that the last verse of chapter 14 has Jesus saying to His disciples, ‘Come, let us be going.’
‘Let’s be going’ from where? Well they had been in what is known as the Upper Room where Jesus had a couple of His disciples prepare the Passover meal for them and where they all then observed the first sacrament of communion.
And where were they headed from the Upper Room? Chapter 18, verse 1 says, ‘After saying these things, Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley with his disciples and entered a grove of olive trees. Judas, the betrayer, knew this place, because Jesus had often gone there with his disciples.’ So they are headed from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus will be arrested.
What lies directly between those two locations? And the answer is: The Holy Temple. The place where Jesus loved to teach. We have three chapters of teaching here; 15, 16, and 17 before His arrest in the garden in 18. So it’s not hard to imagine Him pointing to the gold vine that adorned the temple and saying, ‘I am the true vine.’
What is the big picture of this declaration? It is as if Jesus was saying, “Up to now you have thought that you are a branch in the vine of God simply because you belong to the nation of Israel; however, the fact that you are a Jew will not save you. The only thing that can save you is to have an intimate living fellowship with me, for I am the true vine of God and you must be branches joined to me.”
In this regard, Jesus is offering His followers something that no other religion in the world offers its adherents: what we might call an interior or mystical aspect to one’s faith.
In all the religions of the world, (including the Jewish faith and Christianity) there is an exterior aspect to the faith based upon two things: (1) what I believe to be true about the God I worship and (2) how my belief affects my behavior.
Only in the Christian faith is there this mystical aspect that we cannot fully explain or even understand . . . Christ lives in/with us. Jesus had just promised His disciples that the Spirit would come and be ‘in them’ (John 14:17). And Paul declares this in his letter to the Galatians: ‘My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, BUT CHRIST LIVES IN ME’ (2:20).
Gary Burge once again:
The picture of attachment to Jesus as a branch is attached to a vine is an apt description of the interior spiritual life Jesus has described since chapter 14. Here, however, the key word is ‘remaining’ or ‘abiding’ which is used throughout the discourse (6 times). The growing disciple in whom the Father and the Son live through the Spirit is one whose life is utterly dependent on Christ. Discipleship is not just a matter of acknowledging who Jesus is; (exterior aspect), it is having Jesus spiritually connected to our inner lives. 2
Another way of saying this is what we have already noted several times in this series. Jesus offers us not religion, but He offers you and I the chance to develop a relationship. And not just a casual ‘Hey, nice to see ya again today,’ ‘See you next Sunday’ kind of relationship; but a deep, familiar, intimate, profound, meaningful kind of relationship one has with a spouse or very best friend. A talk to and listen carefully, kind of relationship in which one is sometimes challenged to grow, get over it and get on with it, and when needed, we are befriended, comforted, and supported.
So what does it mean to abide in Christ?
First, connection; abiding in Jesus first of all means having a life-giving connection to Him. A branch is connected to the vine, and a vine to the branch. How do we become connected? You know the answer: John 3:16. If there is no connection, there is no life. Corrie ten Boom said: “Connected with Him in His love, I am more than conqueror; without Him, I am nothing.”
Second, dependence; abiding also implies dependence. We are completely dependent upon Jesus for producing fruit. Jesus said, ‘Apart from Me, you can do nothing.’ If there is no dependence, there is no fruit. And so after we are connected, we begin the process of depending by engaging in the classic Christian disciples: worship, prayer, meditation, study, and ministry.
Third, continuance; abiding also involves continuance. In fact, the word means to ‘remain,’ or ‘stay,’ or ‘continue.’ And the verb ‘abide’ is in the present tense; implying continuous action. This simply means we keep on depending, we keep on trusting, we keep on praying, we keep on doing the things that bring us closer to Him.
As an example, suppose a person has a weakness; a tendency to commit a certain sin. And that person falls prey to temptation; he or she makes a mess of things. Now imagine he has a friend of a strong and loving nature, who rescues him from his degraded situation. His best shot at keeping himself on the right path is in remaining in contact with his friend. If he loses that contact; chances are that his weakness will overcome him; the old temptation will rear its ugly head again; and he will fall. His salvation lies in continual contact with his friend.
Isn’t that what abiding in Christ means? If you think about it . . . the secret of the life of Jesus was His contact with God; again and again He withdrew into a solitary place to meet Him. The same dynamic is true for us . . . we must keep in contact with Jesus.
When we abide, remain, keep contact with Jesus, we don’t have to worry being fruitless branches that are cut off for we WILL bear fruit.
But we are so busy. Where in the world are we going to find time to abide?
Pastor and author, Max Lucado, writes,
My list of things to be done was for the most part undone. My responsibilities were just as burdensome as ever; call to be made, letters to be written, checkbooks to be balanced. But a funny thing happened on the way to the rat race that made slip into neutral. Just as I got my sleeves rolled, just when the old engine was staring to purr, just as I was getting up a good head of steam, my infant daughter, Jenna, needed to be held. She had a stomachache. Mom was in the bath, so it fell to daddy to pick her up. She’s three weeks old today. At first, I started to do things with one hand and hold her with the other. You’re smiling. You’ve tried that too? Just as I realized that it was impossible, I also realized it was not at all what I was really wanting to do. I sat down and held her tight little tummy against my chest. She began to relax. A big sigh escaped her lungs. Her whimpers became gurgles. She slid down my chest until her little ear was right over my heart. That’s when her arms went limp and she fell asleep. Good-bye, schedule. See you later, routine. Come back tomorrow, deadlines. Hello, contentment. 3
But wait a minute Max, some of us have schedules and deadlines; what about us?
In a fine devotional book, Jesus Calling, Enjoy Peace in His Presence, my wife, Gail highly recommends, the author, Sarah Young, writes in Jesus’ voice:
I am calling you to live a life of constant communion with Me. Basic training includes learning to live above your circumstances, even while interacting on that cluttered plane of your life. You yearn for a simplified lifestyle so that your communication with Me can be uninterrupted. But I challenge you to relinquish the fantasy of an uncluttered world. Accept each day just as it comes, and find Me in the midst of it all.
Talk with Me about every aspect of your day, including your feelings. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to control or fix everything that is around you; it is to keep communing with Me. A successful day is one in which you have stayed in touch with Me, even if many things remain undone at the end of the day. Do not let your to-do list (written or mental) become an idol directing your life. Instead, ask My Spirit to guide you moment by moment. He will keep you close to Me. 4
Nothing is complete without Jesus; everything exists because of Him, and everything is missing something without Him; and not just missing something, but the central thing; the thing that supplies true meaning and purpose to all things.
1 Burge, Gary. The NIV Application Commentary: John. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 2000] Page 416.
2 Ibid. Page 418.
3 Gray, Alice, compiled by. Stories for the Heart. [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, © 1997] Page 219.
4 Young Sarah. Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, © 2004]. Page 96.