Monday, September 27, 2021

John 15:1-17

John 15:1–17: I Am the True Vine

This passage is a speech from Jesus to his disciples, on the last night before his crucifixion. I’ll go through it chunk by chunk, and give my thoughts. This is one long speech from Jesus, but I’m not including the quotation marks, nor am I including the verse-by-verse links to Bible Gateway, but you can read the whole passage here.

There are two parts of this speech: Jesus comparing himself (and his disciples) to branches of a vine, and Jesus commanding us to love one another.

I Am the True Vine

In previous passages Jesus has talked about us having the power/ability to do great things; in this passage, he clarifies where that power comes from: Himself.

1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.

This is the heart of the metaphor Jesus is using: He is a vine, the Father is the vinedresser (i.e. the one who prunes and cultivates the vine), and we are branches coming off that vine. If we are growing, it’s because we’re growing in him. (Technically I guess I should say we are growing “off of” him or “out of” him, but if you read that the wrong way it makes it sound like we’re going farther from Christ, when the opposite is happening.)

But Jesus takes the metaphor a bit further, because he didn’t say “I am a vine,” he said, “I am the true vine.” Do you want to be holy? Have a relationship with God? Be one of His children? There’s only one way to do it: Jesus.

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.

Because of this well known passage, most Christians are familiar with this metaphor of pruning. You can’t just leave a vine alone, and expect it to do well; you have to prune it. Cut out dead branches and twigs, so that there’s more nutrients for the living, healthy ones1.

Jesus starts by mentioning that wholly unproductive branches are cut off completely: those who are in the Church, or otherwise claiming to be Christian when they are not, are “taken away.” I wouldn’t try to read too much into what Jesus means by “takes away,” this is just a metaphor of a vine; the point is that there are branches that bear fruit (Christians) and branches that don’t (non-Christians—regardless of what they claim), and the Father (the vinedresser) knows who is who.

But then he says that even branches that do bear fruit—even Christians—get “pruned.” Think of this like God coming into your life with a pair of scissors—or, I guess, pruning shears—and cutting out the bits that He doesn’t like. Sounds painful, right? And it is! All He is doing is taking out the sinful bits, but we like the sinful bits! I think it’s safe to say that any Christian who comes to belief in Jesus comes in with a willingness to devote their entire lives to God, except for this bit, and that bit, that we want to keep. “I’ll give everything to God, except… I’ll keep consuming pornography when nobody is looking, and we’ll just leave that alone.” Or, “I’ll give everything to God, except… I’ll keep my career first, and put Him (and everything else) second.” I doubt many of us are that explicit in our thoughts, but we have those things, whatever they are, that, if we really thought about, we don’t want to give up. So when the Father comes in with his shears and starts snipping, it is painful. In retrospect, we should be able to look back and be thankful that He removed those things, but that doesn’t mean we like it while He’s doing it!

That being said, although I don’t know much (or anything) about taking care of vines, I’m guessing that the vinedresser doesn’t come in and cut out everything all at once. It would be too much of a shock to the vine! I can say with assurance that the Father doesn’t come in and prune us all at once, it’s a lifelong activity. There may be sinful parts of my life that I’m not ready to deal with, so He’ll come and prune those parts later; there may be other sinful things that I’m not dealing with now, but I will at a later point in my life and He’ll have to deal with it then. I will never be sinlessly perfect until I’m home with God.

3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 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. 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.

Worried about all of this talk of “pruning?” Or worried about whether you’re a branch that produces fruit or one that doesn’t? These verses should provide some comfort. Yes, mixed into these verses is a lesson that we can’t produce fruit unless it comes from Jesus, and a repetition of the fact that wholly unproductive branches will be thrown away, but a Christian should read these verses and be comforted.

Jesus’ Words Comfort
Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. If you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian. The point of this vine metaphor is that Christians—through Jesus—will bear fruit. It doesn’t teach, and isn’t intended to teach, that we have to keep producing or we’ll be cut off. That kind of “it’s all up to me to please God” religion is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is teaching here.
Abide in me, and I in you. Jesus will always be with us; this is just pure comfort to the Christian.
As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. We tend to read this negatively, but we should read it positively: through Jesus’ power, we will bear fruit—it’s not up to us, it’s up to him.
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. Again, don’t focus on the “apart from me you can do nothing” part, focus on the “he it is that bears much fruit” part.

But let’s continue on…

7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

Once again, we have a verse that can be twisted into a “prosperity Gospel” kind of message: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Except, again, this verse doesn’t exist in isolation; it has to be read in the context of what Jesus is saying. In this case we have to look at the very next verse: if we abide in Jesus, and His words abide in us, and we ask whatever we wish, the question is what we will wish for, and verse 8 tells us that we will wish for the Father to be glorified, and that we’ll bear much fruit.

9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 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.

Once again, it’s easy to misread this as cause and effect, especially if we read verse 10 in isolation: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” On the face of it, if we read this in isolation, it seems like Jesus is saying, “I’ll keep loving you if you keep my commandments,” with an unstated, “otherwise, I won’t.” But isn’t Jesus the vine? Aren’t we keeping his commandments by His power? Yes! We’re not supposed to be relying on ourselves, we’re supposed to be relying on him. This is another case where it seems like a cause and effect on casual reading, but what Jesus is actually presenting is a package deal: If you’re a Christian, you will love Jesus, and Jesus will love you, and you’ll obey His commandments. If you’re not a Christian, none of those things will be true; if you are, all of them will be true.

Do you worry, because all of that is true except that it feels like you’re not producing fruit2? That’s a good thing! It means your heart is in the right place! Ask for help—remember, if you’re asking to produce fruit, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”—and, although you’ll never be sinlessly perfect in this life, you’ll get better and better (with the occasional downward trend) until you see Him face to face.

11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

This verse is part of the reason I keep trying to get the Christian to focus on the positive. Jesus didn’t talk to his disciples (and us) about the whole vine thing because he wanted them to obsess about how much fruit they were producing, and be consumed with fears of being pruned. He told us this that His joy would be in us, and that our joy would be full. Come away from this passage feeling joyful that you are a branch growing in Jesus’ power and strength, with the knowledge that He will do great things through you.

We don’t have a religion that forces us to obey rules in order to please our God—and leaving us constantly wondering if we’re doing a good enough job—we have a religion in which God has already done all of the work for us, and we can obey the rules because we want to please Him, instead of just obeying out of fear of His wrath. To be clear, He is wrathful against all of the sin I’ve committed (and will commit)—but all of that wrath was poured out on Jesus on the cross, instead of on me.

We have this kind of win-win situation in which I can obey God, and He is pleased with me whenever I am obedient to Him, and yet when I fail out of sin, He has already paid for that sin. Do I deserve to stand face to face with Him and hear, “well done good and faithful servant?” No! But I will, through His Grace.

Love One Another

So with all of this talk about obeying Jesus’ commandments, is that a cut and dried conversation? Frankly, no. Some things are obvious: we shouldn’t worship other gods, or murder, or commit adultery. Some things are really fuzzy: in 1 Corinthians 8, for example, Paul talks to the church in Corinth about food sacrificed to idols, and doesn’t give a clear cut answer; the core of it is that the Corinthians were to follow their consciences, and if they felt it was sinful they should avoid it—and if they didn’t feel it was sinful, and were clear in their consciences about that, they might still have to avoid it, for the sake of the Christians with the “weak conscience” who would have their faith impacted! Far from cut and dried, easy to follow rules!

But one thing is clear, and has always been clear. There’s no change from Old Testament sacrificial system to New Testament faith in Jesus; there’s no difference based on cultural background; there’s no difference if we’re male or female, slave or free. We are to love one another, and that’s a universal, clear-cut truth for all Christians in all situations.

12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

In fact, we’re to go even farther than loving one another, we’re to love one another as Christ loved/loves us. There is no limit to the amount of love Christ has for me; He definitely didn’t limit Himself to only saving me from some of my sins! He suffered a fate worse than death—literally, he didn’t just die, He had God’s wrath poured out on Him—for my sake. So… how am I to love those around me?

13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

I think it’s pretty obvious what Jesus is talking about here. The very next day, he is going to lay down his life for us. For me. I’ll never be called upon to do that, but whatever I can do, to love my friends and brethren, I should be willing to follow Christ’s example and do.

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.

This almost seems like Jesus is being unnecessarily good to us! He didn’t just save us from our sins, and make us right with God, he did it so that we could be friends with Him! Again I come back to the fact that this whole passage should fill the Christian with joy!

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.

A verse that we sometimes wrestle with, or dislike. Some of us don’t like the concept of “predestination,” because it takes everything out of our control. But I’ll stick with my topic of joy: Jesus chose me, appointed me to go and bear fruit, and then promised that when I’m doing so, God will help me, instead of just leaving me on my own.

17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

The main takeaway from this part of the passage should come back to this: we should love one another.

This isn’t a wishy-washy kind of love. There are those who will say, “I don’t like all that talk about Hell and sin, I think we should just love each other, like Jesus said!” But that’s not what Jesus said; he didn’t say we are to just love one another, isolated from everything else; nobody talked more about sin or Hell than Jesus did! In fact, throughout this passage Jesus has been talking about obedience and producing fruit. However, love still underpins the Gospel, at its heart.

  • We are sinful, but the reason God saved us from that sin—the reason Jesus is going to be crucified the day after giving this speech—is because God loves us. (John 3:16)
  • Following God’s example, all that we do in obedience to Him should be done out of love for Him; see verse 9, for example
  • Taking that point even further, we should serve one another out of love for one another

The idea that we should “just love one another and forget everything else” is unbiblical, and so is any notion of Christianity that isn’t rooted in love.

Jesus’ Purpose

Its interesting that there are two little subsections here—one in which Jesus gives the metaphor of branches on a vine, and one in which he talks about loving one another—but for both he ends on a very positive note:

Verse Passage
11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

It gets very easy, as a Christian, to get down on myself and focus on the negative, because I don’t produce fruit the way I should, or obey God the way I should. Jesus promises in this section of John’s Gospel that He will provide anything I need in order to obey God, and yet I don’t take advantage of that promise—not nearly as often as I should, at any rate.

But on Jesus’ last night before his crucifixion, he didn’t berate his disciples (and me) about how poorly we obey Him. Instead, he intended that we feel His joy, and that, based on that joy, we go out and love one another.

  1. It should be noted that I know nothing about growing and maintaining vines, or any other plants for that matter. ↩︎

  2. Note that I’m saying that you feel everything is true except that you’re worried about how much (or how little) fruit you’re producing. That is, you love Jesus, you’re glad that He loves you, but you’re worried about your fruit. On the other hand, if you’re stuck in the quid pro quo style of religion—I’ll produce fruit so that God has to accept me!—you’re not on the right track. ↩︎

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