A message on John 15:1-17 delivered at Large Group to the Fellowship in Christ at Stanford.
Hey everyone, my name is Xuan. I just want to say welcome. Newcomers, welcome. Old comers, welcome back. It’s good to see all your faces again.
To begin, I’d like to first read our Mission Statement, which is also posted on the FiCS web page:
In seeking to keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ as we run with perseverance, we focus on:
Pursuing a heart of continual prayer and faithful abiding in God’s Word
Building a community of disciples through teaching, fellowship, service and accountability in honest, transparent, and loving relationships in Christ
Proclaiming boldly and faithfully the gospel of the Lord Jesus to the campus and the ends of the earth
Now these all sound like really pretty words: “heart of continual prayer,” “faithful abiding,” “service and accountability,” “honest, transparent, and loving relationships,” “proclaiming boldly,” “ends of the earth.” They are indeed very pretty words. And perhaps we dismiss them as being too pretty. Oh they’ll never happen. They’re too idealistic. Why bother? Or perhaps we try really hard, only to grow disappointed that these lofty goals never seem to be met. When one part of our life goes up, another part seems to let us down. Or, perhaps we give in to fear: fear of judgment, of being vulnerable, of being mocked, and consequently feel paralyzed in living out our faith.
I’d like to offer an encouragement today from John 15:1-17. But before I get into the passage, I want to point out the context. Rule 1 of studying a passage in the Bible: understand the context. It’ll help you better understand the intent of the author, better understand the cases to which certain verses apply, and it guards us against false doctrine, which often rely on verses taken out of context.
Starting with chapter 13, Jesus and his disciples are eating in the upper room of a man’s house. These are the last hours with his disciples before his crucifixion on Passover. As Jesus talks about how he’s going back to his Father, he gives comfort to the disciples, and Chapter 15 is a part of that effort. So if you have your Bibles, please read along with me. I’ll be reading from the ESV.
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2Every 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. 3Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6If 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. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
John is a very loaded book, and I don’t think it would be that hard to go into every fine point and stretch out the message into a 3-hour long study. But I will just talk about three things:
The nature of our relationship with God.
The charge of our relationship with God.
The promises from our relationship with God.
Yes, it’s another relationship talk. But the relationship is important. You see, our relationship (as much as I feel like that word is overused), is at the core of our Christian lives.
As Christians, we’re not to just to know God intellectually; our knowledge of God must manifest itself through actions. Titus 1:16 talks about people who “claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” In James 2:17, he writes, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” On the flip side, action, service, “loving one another” as society defines it, which is just doing good things for people, if it is not rooted in faith, is dead as well. Romans 14:23 says, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
But Christianity isn’t even just about theology and practice. It is very easy to compartmentalize our lives. Sunday mornings: church. Come home and it’s homework time. Friday nights, we go to large group. Then we go out and play afterwards. I’m not saying there isn’t a time for everything, but there is a danger of compartmentalization. And so it can become with theology and works: let me learn about man’s innate depravity; let me learn about God’s sovereignty; and that’s our spiritual nourishment for the day. And when we serve, service becomes just a task that’s far removed from the thought of God, except perhaps we have the vague idea that it somehow glorifies Him.
So I wanted to focus on the relationship between God and us tonight, to motivate us to think about God not just as a sovereign master, but as an intimate caretaker of everyone who believes.
1. Vine and the branches
This is going to be the longest section, because it is the “root” so to speak of the other two points.
Jesus starts off with the metaphor of a vine and a branch. For those who are unfamiliar with viticulture, the vine is the trunky area, not the leafy area, of the plant, so the vine supports the branches. According to verse 5, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.
As a branch would draw its nutrients and its water from the vine, so we draw our sustenance from Christ. Verse 4 makes it abundantly clear how we are dependent on the vine: the branch cannot bear fruit by itself. It cannot bear fruit, unless it receives its nutrients and its water from the vine. We cannot bear fruit, unless we abide, or “remain” in Christ (as the NIV translates it).
Now this abiding isn’t just our abiding in Jesus, but he also abides in us. Does that mean that Jesus somehow feeds off of us? No! Jesus abides in us by dwelling in us. So on the one hand, we live on Jesus, and on the other, Jesus lives in us. This is the only way we can bear fruit. Apart from him, we can do absolutely nothing.
I’m willing to bet that most of you have heard this stuff before. But I want you to notice that in this passage is the mention of a third person: the Father, who in verse 1, is called the “vinedresser” (or “gardener” in the NIV). The vinedresser takes care of the vine. So even though we learn that we are connected to the vine and the vine nourishes us, we also learn that our Father, the vinedresser, is doing things as well.
What is the Father doing? He is pruning the branches. In case you don’t know what pruning is or why people do it, here’s what Wikipedia says (because we all know Wikipedia is the source of all answers):
Pruning is a horticultural practice involving the selective removal of parts of a plant, such as branches, buds, or roots. Reasons to prune plants include deadwood removal, shaping (by controlling or directing growth), improving or maintaining health, reducing risk from falling branches, preparing nursery specimens for transplanting, and both harvesting and increasing the yield or quality of flowers and fruits.
“Selective removal… to increase the yield or quality of flowers and fruits.” What the Father is doing with the branches that do bear fruit is trimming the parts that are not in conformity with His will, so that the rest of the branch, the rest of our lives, can be even more fruitful.
And the purpose is this: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Bearing this in mind, it makes a lot of sense that the Father is the vinedresser, or the gardener. A vinedresser cultivates his vines so that he can enjoy its fruits. In a similar way, the Father takes care of the branches that bear fruit for His pleasure.
Now before we move on, it’s very important for us to be clear and know what “fruit” is referring to. All this time, I’ve been using the term abstractly. Now, we should define it. Since the second verse of chapter 15 is the first occurrence of the word “fruit” in the book of John, we need to look at other references.
And this leads into the second rule of studying the Bible: let Scripture interpret Scripture. So, seeing how the context is Jesus’s ministry on earth, let’s take a look at another Gospel account. If you have your Bibles, please turn to Matthew chapter 7:15. Matthew writes:
15“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ 24“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Jesus is talking about a tree and its fruit, which is very similar to our metaphor in John 15. Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Here, he’s talking about discerning the bad fruit borne by the false prophets. Jesus elaborates, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” So “fruit” seems to be associated with doing God’s will. He says, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Remember that Jesus is still talking about the same false prophets as earlier, the wolves in sheep’s clothing. He calls them evildoers because they were not doing the will of God, even though on the surface, they looked like they were doing “service.” And if you want one more piece of evidence, look at verse 24. Jesus begins with “Therefore.” It connects with the train of thought before it: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man…”
Puts them into practice. He’s still talking about the fruit in verse 17, except this time he’s talking about the good fruit, in contrast with the bad fruit.
So fruit is obedience. And “every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he [the Father] takes away.” Kind of scary, isn’t it? But if you read the bearing fruit as a conditional statement, then of course it’s scary. None of us obeys the law, and we would always be living under the fear that perhaps our next action will condemn us to hell.
But we have hope in at verse 3: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The Greek for “clean” can also be translated as “prune.” Jesus says, “You are already pruned.” God has already chosen you to be part of His kingdom. You don’t have to worry about being cut off, because God has already proven His desire to keep you, through pruning you. “You are already clean!”
So the conclusion of all this is that our relationship with God isn’t just one in which the Father is the vinedresser, Jesus is the vine, and we’re the branches. It’s one in which the Father is the vinedresser that loves and that shows His love by choosing to prune us; Jesus is the vine that nourishes us; and we’re the branches that are already pruned, and we’re ready to bear greater fruit.
2. The charge of our relationship
Now we could just stop at this and say, “Well, now let’s go and bear fruit. Let’s go and try to obey his commandments.” But we’re not done yet.
We talked a bit about abiding in Jesus as the branches abide in a vine. It would be a mistake though to overlook the obvious link between the word “love” and the word “abide” in vv. 9-10: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 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.” This is the charge to us as disciples of Christ, to follow his command. Verse 12 explains what this command is: to love one another as He has loved us.
I think it’s easy to construe these two verses to mean that we need to work to maintain God’s love for us. No. That’s not what the rest of Scripture says. John wrote in chapter 6, verse 44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Even in the passage we’re looking at, in verse 16 we see Jesus saying, “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.”
In light of that, we can understand vv. 9-10 to mean, “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, then the Father has already drawn you, and you will abide in my love because of the will of the Father. You have nothing to fear, because you will abide in my love.” There is certainty in our abiding in the love of the Father.
It’s no coincidence that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your soul, mind, and strength, and that the next one is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is part of our God’s character, and He distributes it generously to His people.
He tells us to remain in His love. To stay in it. To drink it up. “Abide in my love.” Our Father is the gentle caretaker of the vine and its branches, who gives water and nutrients to us through Jesus. He wants us to remain in Him because He loves us: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” Now that is mind-boggling. God the Father, loving another person of God, namely, God the Son, who is perfect in every way. There is nothing more worthy of that love. And now, He’s loving us in the same way? He loves us? Who are worthy of NOTHING?! Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” And he proved this love to us by laying down his life at the cross.
In light of this, our charge now is to reciprocate this very same love, this sacrificial love, and manifest it to those around us (v. 12). So when we go and bear fruit, when we obey His commands, remember the height and depth and width and length of the love in which we abide. John wrote in 1 John 5:3: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” When we understand the love that God has for us, his commands are not burdensome.
When you go out and evangelize; when you serve the church, whether it’s worship team, teaching, even the most apparently insignificant manual labor, I hope that you will remember that you’re doing everything through him and drawing on his love.
Whether you grew up in a church and are familiar with doctrine; whether you spent last 10 years doing missions; whether you recently came to faith; whether you itch to talk about heavy theology; or whether you’re just curious about Christianity; I hope you realize that Christianity isn’t just a religion of rituals, where people drag their feet to worship. At the root of Christianity is the love God has for His people, which motivates everything from worship sets to bible studies, from humanitarian work to washing dishes.
3. The promises of the relationship
Finally, I want to briefly talk about the promise of the relationship.
Recall verses 9 and 10, in which Jesus says, “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.” I spoke earlier that what Jesus means is that if we keep his commandments, it is a sign that the Father has chosen to glorify Himself through us, and then it becomes a certainty that you will abide in his love. What a joyful promise! Verse 11 all of a sudden makes a lot of sense: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.” We don’t have to worry that we can’t perfectly keep his commandments. There are parts of us that still need pruning. But God promises that “our joy may be full.” We have this joy because we know that God is at work in us.
And that’s not all! Jesus promises, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” in verses 7 and 16. Don’t whine because he didn’t give you the million dollars you wanted. But be joyous, because if indeed His words abide in us, and we abide in him, God is more than willing to give you what you need to produce more fruit and glorify Him! It’s like getting blank check from God! “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Do you believe God’s promises?
Our mission statement might sound too pretty now, but I hope that as you trust more in the work of God, that you will see that it’s not too ideal. We might be disappointed that our hard work doesn’t have much to show for it, but God promises that we as Christians will bear fruit. Don’t despair. And if God promises to give us whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, then what do we have to fear from people?
So as we start a new year, let us abide in Christ and let him abide in us. When we serve, let our motivation not merely stop at “Let us obey his commands.” Let our motivation be the love that God has poured on us 2000 years ago, and is still pouring on us today. And as we better know him and appreciate him, we have the promise of God, that he will fill us with joy; He will be generous to us, so that we may bear much fruit, and that He may be glorified.