Jesus is the true vine. Abide in Him and bear fruit.
Series: The Gospel of John
If you were around back in December I preached a sermon where I told you about a gardening mishap I had. I had inadvertently trimmed a vine all the way back to its main trunk. I literally cut all the leaf-bearing branches off of it. I thought I had killed it, but I underestimated how hardy plants can be, and the simple truth that there’s life in the vine. And much to my surprise and delight, that life-giving vine put forth new branches, and I can happily report today that far from killing it, what likely happened was that my accidental act of pruning made it stronger.
Well, today we come to a portion of the Gospel of John that talks about this very thing. It’s a famous metaphor of Jesus about how he is the true vine, and we are the branches. And he says here today that if we abide in him, just like a branch abides in the trunk, and if his words abide in us, we will bear much fruit.
Fruit! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Who doesn’t want to bear fruit? Who doesn’t want to be a blessing to others because we have been supremely blessed in Jesus? Who doesn’t want to be a source of good in the world, passing on life and refreshment and joy and delight to others? Well, today we learn how. In fact, it’s not going too far to say that today, if we pay attention, if we’ll do what this text says, we’ll learn one of the best secrets of the Christian life.
Our big idea is simple: Jesus is the true vine. Abide in Him and bear fruit. The message today is divided into 2 parts. In the first part, we’ll spend about the next 10 minutes or so unpacking this big idea. We’ll talk about where all this vine imagery comes from, we’ll talk about what it means to abide in Jesus, and what it means to bear fruit. And then, in part 2, we’ll go on to talk about three features, three accompaniments of fruit-bearing that we see in the text. We’ll learn that we abide in pruning, in asking, and in loving. Pruning, asking, loving. One of those God does toward us; one of them we do toward God; and one of them we do toward others. Pruning, asking, loving. And then we’ll conclude by talking about the greater love that no one has than this: that they would lay down their life for their friends, and how Jesus did that for us on the cross. Ready? Let’s go! First, let’s unpack the big idea.
PART ONE: EXPLAIN THE BIG IDEA: JESUS IS THE TRUE VINE
We’re still in the Last Supper discourse we’ve been in for a few weeks. This is the night that Jesus was betrayed by one of His disciples. And the whole thing is really about his last words to His inner circle, kind of like all the most important things he really wants them to know and remember. And so let’s begin with verse 1: 15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. John 15:1 This is the last of the 7 “I Am” statements in the gospel.
So what’s going on here? This is not the first place in the Bible that vine and vineyard imagery shows up. In fact, it shows up in a few key places in the Old Testament. But there’s something surprising here, because when it shows up in the OT, it says that it’s Israel that’s the vine. Israel! For example, Psalm 80 says, You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (Psalm 80:8-9). And then it says Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. (Psalm 80:14-15). Israel’s the vine, planted by the Lord to be fruitful.
But all these OT passages say that the problem was that Israel wasn’t fruitful. She didn’t bear fruit. So when Jesus says he’s the vine, here’s what he’s saying: He’s saying, “I am the true Israel. I’m the Israel of One.” You see, Israel, God’s collective “son,” was supposed to be a fruitful vine that blessed the whole world. But they didn’t do it. They failed. They sinned. They broke covenant and were driven into exile as a result. So when Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” he’s saying “I am the true Israel. I’m God’s one-and-only Son. And what Israel failed to do, I’ve come to do: to bear fruit. To keep covenant. And to bless the nations.” Jesus’s claim to be the true vine in John 15 is a startling claim that means that all the hopes and dreams of God’s people come to fruition in him. He’s the true vine.
And notice it says his Father is the vinedresser – it means he’s the gardener; he’s the one who does the pruning and does whatever it takes to make sure this vine bears fruit. And then, to continue the metaphor, we – Jesus’s disciples – all those whom the father has chosen, all who come to him through faith – are the branches. The branches! That means, we are intimately, vitally, and durably connected to Jesus. It’s not like Jesus is over there, and we’re over here. No, were intimately connected – we’re eternally united to him by the Spirit. As Andrew Murray, the nineteenth century pastor writes: “He opened his arms, to press you into his bosom; He opened His heart, to welcome you there; He opened up all His divine fullness of life and love, and offered to take you up into its fellowship, to make you wholly one with Himself.” (This is from Murray’s little book Abide in Christ, and I’m going to be quoting from it a lot today.) So, we’re intimately connected. We’re also vitally connected – that means that all our life flows from him. Murray again: The vine does not live for itself, keeps nothing for itself, but exists only for the branches. And we’re durably connected. That means that, under normal circumstances, we keep on being connected to him. Have you ever heard of a part-time branch? Does a branch ever say “Well I’ll stay connected to this vine for a little while, but now I’m going to go off here on my own for a little while and do my own thing.” No, it’s absurd. Just as branches are durably connected to the vine, we’re durably connected to Jesus. It keeps going. Now, it does say we have to abide in him, because apparently that’s something that could not happen, and I’ll come back to that in a minute, but let’s talk about fruit first.
The whole point of being Jesus’s branches, according to this passage, is that we would bear fruit. 5 I 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. … 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. … 16 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. John 15:5, 8, 16
What does it mean to bear fruit? The fruit metaphor is used a few different ways throughout the Bible. In John’s Gospel it probably refers to seeing others come to Christ (John 4:35-36; 12:21-24). But fruit also refers to Christian character – I’m thinking of the fruit of the Spirit here. We bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control by staying intimately connected to Jesus (Gal 5:22-23). And fruit also just speaks of being a general blessing doesn’t it? Fruit is delicious. It refreshes. It feeds. And so bearing fruit also refers to being a blessing to others. (Zech 8:12-13). Being agents of good in an evil world. Agents of refreshment to a weary world. How about you, if you’re a Christian, are you bearing fruit for Jesus? Do you see yourself growing in Christian character, in blessing others with the gospel, in seeing others come to the true vine? Probably all of us here are going to say “Well I am, but man, I’d really like to see more.” Well, there’s good news, so would Jesus, and this passage tells us how.
To do this, to truly bear fruit, Jesus says we need to abide in him. Verse 5 again: Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. …The word abide shows up another 10 times in this short passage. Jesus also says to “abide in my love” (v. 9-10) and to have his words abide in us (v. 7). Now what does abide mean? Well, it means to remain. To stay put. As Andrew Murray puts it in “Abide in Christ,” Jesus is saying, “Come to me to stay with me.”
And as I’ve been reflecting on how to get across the idea of abiding, I’ve come up with this little formula: surrender + faith + time = abiding. The first part of abiding is surrender. Laying down our agendas, our way of doing things. Murray says: The entire surrender of all self-will, the complete denial to the flesh of its every desire and pleasure, the perfect separation from the world in all its ways of thinking and acting, the losing and hating of one’s life, the giving up of self and its interests for the sake of others–this is the disposition which marks him who has taken up Christ’s Cross, who seeks to say, “I am crucified with Christ; I abide in Christ, the Crucified One.”
Do you want to abide in Christ? First, surrender your agenda to him. Next, faith. A. W. Tozer said that “faith is the gaze of the soul on a saving God.” Having surrendered our ways to him, we come to Jesus in simple faith, gazing on his infinite goodness, beauty, and holiness. We trust that “each day (to quote Murray again) he will do for the sinner just as much as He did the first day when he came to him.” And then, beyond it simply takes time. Intentionally taking time to commune with Jesus. No tree bears fruit over night.
Do you want to abide in Jesus? Surrender your ways and your will to him. Look to him in faith and trust that he is at work. And just spend time with him. Turn to him in the quiet moments of your day, instead of to your phone or some other distraction. And to be clear, “abiding” isn’t some super-mystical experience that comes apart from God’s word. No, notice it says “if you abide in me and my words abide in you. You want to grow in abiding in Jesus? Spend time in His word.
Now, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the other side of this, the danger of not abiding. Jesus is pretty clear: 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. You know the scary thing about cut off branches? They don’t look dead at first. Last fall I cut down these bushes around my house, but I never got around to tying up the branches and putting them out for the trash until this spring. So these branches sat in my yard for 5, 6 months – in the cold and wet and ice, completely cut off from the source of life. Much to my surprise, when I went to tie them up back in April, they didn’t look dead at all. They were still green and spry [PICTURE]. Can you see that? Still green, still sappy. But for all intents and purposes, completely dead. Let’s be honest, some people who call themselves followers of Christ are in danger of being cut off from the vine. You have a reputation for being alive but you’re dead or dying inside. Maybe you’ve stopped spending time with Jesus. Maybe you’re continuing in unrepentant sin. [DOP?]. Or maybe you’re just saturating yourself with the trends and products of our dismal culture instead of letting yourself actually be influenced by God’s word. And you can tell because if you’re honest you’ve stopped bearing any kind of fruit. Jesus’s words should be a warning! But there’s good news. If you’re able to hear the sound of my voice there’s still time to repent and come back to the vine. Abide in Jesus and let his words abide in you. Bear the fruit you were meant to bear. Be the agent of blessing you were meant to be.
So this brings us to the end of part 1 of this sermon. We’ve worked through the big idea: Jesus is the true vine. Abide in him and bear fruit. We’ve talked about how Jesus is the true vine, his Father is the vinedresser, what it means to bear fruit, and what it means to abide. But this passage gives us three features, three accompaniments of abiding we need to talk about in part 2. One of them God does toward us; one of them we do toward God; and one of them we do toward others.
First, pruning. 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.. Now, if you’re not much of a gardener, let me explain what pruning is. The idea is that branches kind of just generally grow the way they want to grow. Some of them just keep growing and growing. But that kind of growth doesn’t lead to fruit bearing, because the plant keeps putting all its energy into just getting bigger instead of bearing fruit. So a skilled gardener will prune a plant. He’ll cut the branches back so that the energy gets channeled where it needs to go to bear fruit. Instead of going out here, it goes here, into the fruit. And Jesus says that’s what the Father does to us. He cuts us back so we can bear fruit. Now, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if a branch were sentient, like if it had a mind and feelings, it probably wouldn’t feel all that great about being pruned. “Hey, I LIKE growing. What’s wrong with growing out and out and out? Isn’t bigger better? Isn’t this LIFE?” Pruning looks like death! Literally living stuff is getting cut off. But it’s all for a purpose: that the branch would bear fruit.
[probably cut but fun to tell] I still remember the best apple I ever had in my life. It was over in Afghanistan when I lived there in the 2000s. You see over there, you have fruit when it’s in season, but that’s it. Apricots, cherries, plums, pomegranates, melons, grapes, peaches, and apples. Man. But only for a couple of weeks each, usually. Not like over here. Anyway, this one time, it was late September, and we got some apples from a tree that was growing in our friend’s yard. And this one apple, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. This apple was huge, it was juicy, it was golden, the color of cornsilk, perfect. The very echo of Eve’s bane. In this apple, perfect tartness and sweetness kissed each other in a dying paroxysm of nectarous passion. I mean, Plato himself would have said that the ideal apple that exists in the world of the forms was but a dim and dusty reflection of this one. No, I’m getting carried away a little bit, but it was a good apple. So good, I didn’t want another one. Like, ever. The point is, after I ate this apple, and couldn’t stop talking about how good it was, the person whose tree it was said, “You want to know something, last year this same tree produced only a little bit of fruit of poor quality.” The Father lovingly prunes the branches so that we bear more fruit.
So with us, the Father gently and lovingly prunes us so that we’d bear more fruit. Another word for this in the Bible is “discipline” – the discipline of the Lord. So for example the book of Hebrews says “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” … 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:6, 11). The Father’s pruning, his discipline, isn’t pleasant, it’s painful. But it comes from his gentle hand of love, and it has a good result.
Here are some examples of what pruning might look like in your life. Perhaps a good friend lovingly takes you aside and says “Hey brother, hey sister, I notice that you seem to have a real problem with anger, or selfishness, or gossip and I think it’s ruining your relationships.” And then the next thing you know you hear of a good book or read a blog post on that very topic, and you feel the conviction of the Lord. Or a physical limitation can be the Father’s pruning, the father’s discipline. You know you’ve been running around not spending time with the Lord and now something happens that slows you way down. It just might be the Father’s pruning. Or maybe something or someone you cherished has been taken away. Something you were abiding in instead of abiding in Christ. That’s pruning too.
What do we do when the Father prunes? It’s simple: We accept it. We welcome it. Not because it’s pleasant but because it produces a harvest of righteousness for those who will submit to it. Submit to the Father’s pruning.
Next, asking. This part’s a little more fun to contemplate. Jesus says If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. John 15:7. And then further down in verse 16: 16 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, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. What a promise! How can this be? Well, here’s how it works. Even on the human level, have you ever been so close with someone, a spouse or a close friend, that you know exactly what the other person is thinking, or can finish each other’s sentences? You’re so close to the person that your wills become one. You want the same thing. That’s what this is saying. It’s saying that as you abide in Jesus, as you grow in love and intimacy toward him and his words increasingly abide in you, you’ll just naturally want the things that Jesus wants, and so that’s what you’ll ask for. His will becomes your will, so that when you pray, you’re just naturally asking for something Jesus already wants to do. Abiding in Christ teaches the believer in prayer only to seek the glory of God. (Murray)
We see a great example of this in the Old Testament, in the life of David. Now, David was a man after God’s own heart. He knew the secret of abiding, according to the Old Testament way of doing things. In his case, he used to spend time in the presence of the LORD by sitting and praying before the ark of the covenant, “gazing upon the beauty of the Lord and seeking him in his temple.” And so David’s will became more and more aligned with God’s will.
Well, this all worked out to great effect when David’s life was in danger. You see, there was a time when David’s son Absolom rebelled against him, and forced him to flee Jerusalem for his life. You can read all about it in 2 Sam 15-17. And so David is on the run, and it’s the lowest point of his life. Now, David had this trusted counselor whose name was Ahithopel. And David knew that no one gave better advice than Ahithopel. In fact, the Bible says that “in those days the advice Ahithopel gave was like that of one who inquires of God.” (2 Sam 16:23). But Ahithopel, sadly, had joined the conspiracy against David. What does this all have to do with abiding in the vine and asking whatever you wish? Here’s what: When David hears that Ahithopel has joined the other side, he immediately prays one of the shortest yet most effective prayers ever recorded in Scripture: “O LORD,” he prays, “please turn the counsel of Ahithopel into foolishness” (2 Sam 15:31). That’s it! “Turn the counsel of Ahithopel into foolishness.” He prays a short, simple prayer that immediately goes to the heart of the matter. Well, spoiler alert, God hears David’s prayer and for once, Ahithopel gives really bad advice to the other side. And it turns the tide, and leads to the rebellion’s downfall.
That’s what abiding in the vine can do. We’re so in sync with Jesus’s heart and what he wants – we’re so saturated with His word, and the principles and promises it contains – that when we pray, we naturally pray things that He already wants. And our prayers are answered.
So maybe you’re a mom and one of your kids is acting up in a new way they haven’t before. And instead of getting exasperated and frustrated, you take it to the Lord. You surrender your will to him, you trust in him as you look to his word, and you spend time with him abiding in prayer. And maybe, just maybe, an idea comes to mind, a new way to pray for your little boy or little girl, and you pray it, and – wow. Wouldn’t you know it, something starts to change. Or maybe there’s a friend or coworker whom you’ve been sharing Christ with unsuccessfully for years. The more you share, the harder their heart seems to be. And maybe, just maybe, you bring it to the Lord in a new way. You surrender your will to his, you trust him to speak through his word, and you take time to pray on it. And maybe, just maybe, a new idea comes into your head, something new to try, and you pray into it and… wow. Next thing you know, the whole relationship has changed and you start to see fruit. That’s what we’re talking about. Abide in the vine. Submit to the father’s pruning. Come to Jesus in asking.
Finally, loving. We do this toward one another. I’ll be brief. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12. As Pastor Matt pointed out the other week, this is not some general command to the whole world, but a special command to his disciples. The thing about fruit is, it’s real. It’s tangible. You can’t enjoy an imaginary piece of fruit. You can’t say “This is a great apple tree except it doesn’t actually give any apples ever.” The point is, I think, that what Jesus is getting at here is that the first and most obvious place to bear fruit is in the community of faith. Not sure where to start in terms of fruit? How about right here where you are? [Citygroups restarting this week – great time to join or get re-connected] How about, say, laying down your preferences and schedule and joining a serving team (connect card)? Or taking some extra time to love that difficult person in your Citygroup well?
And Jesus says these things to us so that his joy may be in us, and that your joy may be full. It’s the joy of the tree to bear fruit, and it’s the joy of the Christian to bear fruit in loving and serving others. [quote? murray?]
And this all brings it back to Jesus, who the writer of Hebrews says that “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” And what does our text here today say? Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No 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. John 15:13-15. What an astonishing thing. Jesus Christ loved us so much that he laid down his life for us. He went to the cross, taking all our sin upon his shoulders, bearing the penalty that our sins deserved, scorning the shame, so that we who trust in him could receive eternal life in him, and live now not just as God’s servants – but as God’s friends. Bearing fruit and being agents of blessing in the world.
END WITH MURRAY PRAYER
O Jesus, our crucified Redeemer, teach us not only to believe on Thee, but to abide in Thee, to take Thy Cross not only as the ground of our pardon, but also as the law of our life. O teach us to love it not only because on it Thou didst bear our curse, but because on it we enter into the closest fellowship with Thyself, and are crucified with Thee. And teach us, that as we yield ourselves wholly to be possessed of the Spirit in which Thou didst bear the Cross, we shall be made partakers of the power and the blessing to which the Cross alone gives access.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.