I’d like to begin today by talking about the meaning of metaphor. Many have defined metaphors like this: truth powerfully presented through an untruth. For example: if a college student says, ‘That class was a breeze’ they do not intend to communicate that the class itself was a light wind, no. They intend to communicate the easy nature of the class, that the content was simple, or that the professor didn’t require much of them, making the class was easy. Another example: if I say neglecting true and sound doctrine is a ‘slippery slope’ I do not mean that you’ll literally slip and fall down a slope, no. I intend to communicate the grave and eternally disastrous hazard it is to neglect the sound teaching of the Bible.
So here as we begin John 15 this morning we greet these very things head on as we approach one of the most famous of Jesus’ metaphors, the vine and the branches. Just as He didn’t intend to teach that He is really a shepherd and we are really sheep back in John 10, here Jesus doesn’t intend to communicate that He is really a vine and that we are really shoots or branches living off that vine. Rather Jesus employs this metaphor to teach to us a deeper reality: the importance of bearing fruit in the Christian life not by any kind of human methods or achievement but by abiding in Him.
This big idea comes forth in this passage in three ways: first, the Son as True Vine – second, the Father as True Gardener – third, the Church as True Branches.
The Son as True Vine (v1a)
Jesus begins saying in v1a, “I am the true vine…” While it’s important to notice Jesus proclaiming Himself to be (here with another I AM statement) the true vine and not simply a vine, there is more in view than just mere metaphor. All throughout the Old Testament God referred to Israel as a vine. Psalm 80 says Israel was a “…vine brought out of Egypt” which took root, grew, and filled the land after God cleared the ground and planted them deeply. In Isaiah (5:1-7) and Jeremiah (2:21 and 5:10) Israel is called God’s choice vine, planted by God to bear healthy grapes but ended up bearing wild or sour grapes. Because of this God says that He will destroy the hedge around them allowing intruders to come in, He will stop keeping the ground allowing thorns and briers to grow thick throughout the vineyard, making it a desolation. But even after all this takes place God promises to restore this vine so that it’s fruit will be restored and fill the whole earth (Isaiah 27:1-6).
Is it then, any coincidence to see Jesus proclaiming Himself to be the True Vine? Of course not! By stating to be the “true vine” He’s saying He is True Israel, replacing and fulfilling disobedient Israel with His own perfect obedient life.Or we could say it like this, each time Israel is referred to by God as His vine their failure to produce good fruit and His judgment of them for that always follows. So, in contrast to their failure see Jesus claiming to be the One who will bring forth the good fruit Israel never did and thus prove to be God’s true vine.
It’s sad to say that much of the protestant world today believes in a kind of theology that teaches God has had two plans of redemption for His people – one for the Jews in the Old Testament and one for the Church in the New Testament. This view does not see Jesus or the Church as the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel but as something entirely new and different. Though this view is popular today it’s passages like this one before us that remind us such a belief is an unfortunate departure from what the Bible presents to us.This really shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus has claimed to be the fulfillment of all that’s come before already in John’s gospel. In chapter 1 He said He fulfilled the physical temple/tabernacle, in chapter 6-8 He said He was the fulfillment the Passover being the Bread of Life greater than the Manna from heaven, the Living Water greater than the water out of the rock, and the Light of the World greater and brighter than the pillar of fire. Now He says in chapter 15 that He has fulfilled Israel herself as the new and better vine.Jesus then isn’t just a vine Himself, or a vine in among other vines we can choose from. He is the true and final Vine, who brings with Him all the promised restoration to God’s vineyard foreshadowed and previewed in the Old Covenant.Which of course means that all those who believe in Him, or are grafted into Him, become part of the new Israel of God, the Church.
The Father as True Gardener (v1b-2)
As we’ve seen before in John’s gospel the close connection between Father and Son is present here again. As soon as Jesus states He is the true Vine He adds to this in v1b saying “…and My Father is the vinedresser.” As this intimate connection between Father and Son continues to unfold Jesus teaches that the Father is the owner or the Gardener of His vineyard. It is He who chose a fertile place, it is He who dug up the ground, He who cleared the stones, tilled the soil, and planted His choice vine. He built a tower within it to watch over it, and it is He who guards it and defends it from enemies. It’s His garden and will never belong to anyone else. But, in His ownership over it, what does He do? Answer: He does what a gardener does, He prunes. He doesn’t hire someone out for this, no, it’s His special and choice vineyard so He sees to it and tends it Himself. See v2, “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.” So there are two actions of the Father in view as Gardener and there are two kinds of branches, those that bear fruit and those that don’t. Branches who lack fruit are portrayed not as true followers of Christ but as those who may be in close in proximity to Jesus but don’t truly follow Jesus, like Judas, while those who bear fruit are portrayed here those who truly follow Jesus. The factor determining the Father’s actions between the two branches is seen in their fruit. Those who don’t bear fruit are taken away while those who do bear fruit aren’t left alone but are pruned so that they’ll bear more fruit.
This is both a warning to those who do not bear fruit and an encouragement for those who do bear fruit. We’ll expand on both of these as John 15 continues, but do not miss the warning of fruitlessness present here. Those who go to church with many other Christians, hang around many other Christians, and do many Christian things may not truly be Christians if their lives bear no fruit. It’s one thing to profess to know the gospel, it’s quite another thing altogether to possess the Christ of the gospel! Now, it’s true that all Christians have many sins, yes, but their lives all have something in common – they show forth the fruit of God’s Spirit and that is evidence of them being truly saved or truly grafted into the vine. This fruit found in the lives of believers is absent in unbelievers.
Like I said, v6 expands on these things more so for now notice the main thing here: the necessity of pruning for growth. It is true that a branch will grow without pruning but that growth would be unhealthy growth in unhealthy directions ending with unhealthy results. With pruning, however, the maximum fruitfulness is prepared for and ensured. Think of how a gardener works with a vineyard through several stages of pruning. They remove the top of the vine so that growth won’t occur to quickly. They thin out each individual branch, from top to bottom, so that the grapes will be a better quality from having more room to grow. Then lastly in winter or fall the whole vine is pruned way back to grow stronger for the spring harvest. To the untrained eye this process looks somewhat cruel and unusual, but sure enough, as spring comes, it proves to be the preparation needed for future growth.
The lesson of this metaphor is that the same is true for the Christian life. Fruitfulness is the call. Fruitfulness is the way God is glorified (v8), fruitfulness gives us abundant joy (v11), and fruitfulness is the foundation of our love to one another (v12-17). But here, as we begin looking at all of this see the first thing evident in the metaphor: believers must be pruned in order to grow. Who prunes us? The Father. How does the Father prune us? It’s not explicit here, but we know. The Father prunes through the furnace of affliction. Psalm 119 describes it in three ways. First in 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.” Second in 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Third in 119:75, “I know, O Lord, that Your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.” Lesson? As with a physical vine, some may interpret the Father’s pruning of us as cruel and unusual, but see His love in the end result – that we would keep His word, that we would learn His statutes and faithfulness, and that we would bear more fruit. In pruning the Father does His painful but preparatory work in us so that we’ll come, as one hymn puts it, “…out of our sickness and into His health, out of our wanting and into His wealth, and out of our sin and into Himself.”
This dramatically changes how we must view anything and everything difficult in our lives. God’s in charge of His vineyard, He’s in charge of us, He knows each of us, and He knows what we need to be more fit for lasting growth and fruitfulness in the Christian life. He knows that if He were leave us on our own any growth that would occur wouldn’t be growth in godliness but growth toward ungodliness. He knows our natural trajectory toward fruitlessness, so He prunes, removes, strips away all the things in us that would hinder our growth in godly living. In this knowledge we ought to find ourselves not only willing to endure suffering for His sake, but thanking Him for bringing us into such hard seasons, because in them He is pruning us to mature us in Him. Many who have suffered much in this life before will tell you, “Do not seek to get out from under this present trial or hardship, let it have it’s effect in you.” We come to Christ dark, He makes us light. We come to Christ barren, He makes us ripe. We come to Christ ugly, He makes us beautiful. If we’ve truly become part of the True Vine we will find ourselves being pruned by the Great Vinedresser.
Which leads to v3-5 where we see…
The Church as True Branches (v3-5)
Jesus now applies v1-2 directly to the disciples in v3. “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.”
His word, or His teaching, about who He is and what He’s doing has already made His disciples clean. That is, because they’ve believed in His Word and believe in Him they’ve been grafted into Him, into the True Vine. Now they must abide in His Word, trusting that His Word will continue to winnow away at them for their good. And by abiding they’ll prove themselves to be true branches by the fruit they bear.
v4-5 extends this further, “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.I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…” Yes they’ve been grafted into Him, but now they must continue with Him by abiding in Him, living in union with Him, recognizing that branches only have life insofar as they are attached to the vine and recognizing that fruitfulness only comes from being so attached.This is the call to continual and close walk with Jesus in this life. Believing in His Word made them clean, now they must continue in His Word. If they do abide a rich promise is held out to them, Christ will abide in them. And so too you and I. Belief in Him and His Word united us to Him, to the Vine, so now we must continue in His Word, in prayer, and in obedience every second of every day. Abiding in Christ doesn’t look like coming before Christ once a week at as we gather here. It doesn’t look like self-improvement, it doesn’t look like wearing the right clothes or saying the right things, it looks like personally walking with Christ daily. How do we do that? By hearing His voice in His Word, having His ear in prayer, and belonging to His body.
Don’t push the metaphor farther than it needs to be, Jesus isn’t teaching salvation by works, that we either are saved by works or can lose our salvation by the lack of works. No, we aren’t saved by our works, but we are saved unto works. So as fruit is proof being truly attached to the vine, so too works is proof of being truly attached to Christ. This is what the disciples need to do, and this is what we must do.
v5 ends by saying, “…for apart from Me you can do nothing.” If we try to abide in anything else, the result won’t be good fruit. True, the result won’t be nothing, the result will be rotten fruit that stinks of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Some of you don’t believe this and because of that are running after everything but Christ. Hear me, the end of your pursuits may give you much in worldly or material possessions, it may bring you fame and fortune, but be sure of this: the end of worldly pursuits will give you nothing. Apart from Christ you’ll gain nothing of any real or lasting value, and you’ll experience a very full but very empty life. But through Him, through abiding in Him; the ripe fruit of the Spirit, the ripe fruit of joy in holiness, the ripe fruit of godliness born of gratitude to God will ever expand within you and will ever smell of heaven.
Perhaps think of it like this. In H.B. Charles Jr.’s book It Happens After Prayerhe discusses how prayer works and how Christians ought to think about it and to do so he gives an illustration about a father and son. “A father and son were riding their bikes together one day. As they rode down the trail, the father eyed a large branch that had fallen in the path ahead. Instead of riding around it, the father decided to use this as an opportunity to teach his son an important lesson. They pulled over, and the father instructed his son to move the branch out of the way. The boy pushed and pulled, but was unable to move the branch. “I can’t do it,” he said, exhausted. “Sure you can, son,” replied the father. “Be sure to use all your strength.” The boy tried harder. But he could not move the branch. Near tears, he said again, “I can’t do it.” “Did you use all your strength?” The father asked. “Yes,” the boy answered. “No you didn’t,” the father replied. “You didn’t ask me to help you.”
Lesson? Jesus did not come, bear our sin and shame on the cross, rise again, and ascend to rule to communicate to us that we can do the Christian life on our own! He did these things to display that God’s “…love is shown in Christ the Son, the Servant-King, who left behind His glorious throne, to pay the ransom for His own! He did these things to display that all praise is due to Him, who humbly came, to bear our sorrow, sin, and shame, who lived to die – who died to rise, the all-sufficient sacrifice!”
So answer this: who are you relying on today? Are you finding all the strength you need by abiding in Christ? Or are you lacking the strength you need by relying on yourself? If you’re abiding, the call is to keep abiding! If you’re not abiding the call is to stop relying on other things than Christ and start abiding in Christ. Eventually we all abide in the wrong things to varying degrees and in those moments aren’t you thankful that we have a Father who, though painful, prunes us to prepare us for future fruitfulness? Aren’t you thankful that we have a Father who removes those things out of our lives to make us more willing and eager to abide in Christ?
Some of you may truly be thinking, “Goodness no, I could never bear any real or great fruit for Christ in this world!” To that I say this, ‘Doubt yourself all you like, but don’t doubt Christ.’Take Him at His Word. If you abide in Him, He will bear His fruit. And you’ll find, slowly and surely, that many people around you will be thankful for His work in them through you. As the vine makes glad the heart of man as we partake of its fruit, so too, Christ makes glad the heart and refreshes the soul of man as we abide in Him.
So Church, abide in Christ. Hear His voice in His Word, have His ear in prayer, belong to His body and learn to fly in the fellowship of God’s people……and watch. Fruit, big – great – godly fruit, will begin bursting forth from your branch, to the great glory of God.