My wife Karen enjoys gardening. Over the years, she has planted all kinds of fruits and vegetables. As an observer, I can tell you there is a science and an art to what she does. She must cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, and nurture the crops. Yet, no matter how well Karen does, she can lose a crop to spring rains that rot the seed, slugs or bugs that eat new shoots, and birds that devour everything. She may even lose a crop because of a sudden burst of extreme heat. On account of all of these variables, Karen never knows whether her garden will be fruitful or not.
Do you ever feel this way in your daily life? You work hard at your job, yet there’s no guarantee that you will succeed. You may get demoted or even lose your job. You work hard at being a godly spouse, yet your marriage is mediocre or filled with grief. You work hard at raising godly children, yet your children are lukewarm or even rebellious. You work hard at your ministry, yet you may feel discouraged. You work hard with your finances, yet, your portfolio may still plummet or the American dollar may become worthless. You work hard to stay physically fit, yet there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to keep the weight off or avoid cancer or Parkinson’s. These scenarios can all be incredibly discouraging. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guarantee of success in your life? Wouldn’t it be great to know that there’s at least one area that you can count on?
In John 15:1-11, Jesus states that if you abide in Him you’ll experience spiritual success. It’s guaranteed! So the only pursuit in your life that is guaranteed, the only area that you can truly count on is your relationship with Jesus Christ. Fortunately, there’s no greater measure of success than to succeed where it matters most. In these eleven verses, Jesus teaches His disciples the spiritual art of fruit bearing, which is the purpose of our earthly existence and the definition of spiritual success. The key to fruit bearing is found in the theme of abiding in Jesus. In this context, “abide” means to stay, remain, or continue with Jesus.
Jesus is in the final evening of His life. He has been sharing with His disciples what matters most to Him. Jesus and His disciples are walking by torch light toward the garden of Gethsemane (cf. 14:31). Jesus most likely leads His disciples into a vineyard outside the city walls. There, Jesus pauses and says, “I am the true vine” (15:1a). Notice He doesn’t say, “I am a true vine.” He says, “I am the true vine.” Jesus is saying there is only one true vine. You can’t choose your vintage. It’s not a wine tasting to see which variety you prefer. Jesus often used a grapevine to describe the nation of Israel. The Old Testament writers also used the term “vine” to describe Israel. But it was used to denote her sinfulness, not her fruitfulness. They were sour grapes. Here, Jesus uses the figure of the vine to remind Israel of her past failures and to indicate that He is the one faithful Israelite—the “true vine.” In contrast to Israel, Jesus is saying: I will be the one true source of rich and deep blessing.
In keeping with the viticulture (i.e., grape growing) metaphor, Jesus rightly assumes that no vine will produce good fruit unless someone competent cares for it. So Jesus states, “My Father is the vinedresser” (15:1b). The original disciples, and you and I, have the world’s greatest vinedresser—God the Father. He’s the one who cares for vines that are connected to Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus is never portrayed as independent from His Father; rather, the Father and Son are always cooperating with one another in every activity (cf. 5:19-23). If this is true of Jesus, the Son of God, how much more so should this be true of you and me? In the various areas of your life, are you dependent upon God the Father and God the Son? Who is in control of your family relationships, your ministry, your work, your health, and your finances? Who bears the overall responsibility for their success or failure?
In 15:2a Jesus says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit [i.e., have love for other believers], He takes away.” Jesus’ disciples are branches connected to the “true vine” and cared for by the master “vinedresser.” The phrase “in Me” is used sixteen times in John’s gospel. In each case it refers to a life of fellowship or a unity of purpose. In John’s gospel a person “in Me [Christ]” is always a Christian. This also finds support in the fact that the branches of a vine share the life of the vine. Jesus is speaking of a Christian who is in fellowship with Him who is not yet producing fruit. This may refer to a new convert or an immature or struggling believer. In any case, Jesus says that God “takes away” or “cuts off” (NIV) every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. The Greek word translated “takes away” (airo) can also be translated “lifts up.” Since the focus here is fruit bearing, the rendering “lifts up” is preferred.
It is important to understand that Jesus is teaching His disciples in the spring when vinedressers did what He describes in this verse. Even today, if you go to any vineyard, you’ll find grapes tied to poles or posts called trellises. If the vinedresser doesn’t do this the grapes may be stepped on and smashed into grape juice! A good vinedresser will prop the vines up so that they can receive the maximum amount of sunlight possible. The vinedresser does not “cut away” (contrary to the NIV) a vine because it has no fruit but gently lifts it up to sun so it has an opportunity to bear fruit in the future. In the same way, God’s first step is not judgment but encouragement. God encourages new believers. He answers prayers. He performs miracles. He brings someone or something into their lives to lift them up.
Jesus now mentions another type of branch, one that “bears fruit” (15:2b). Jesus explains that God “prunes” this fruit-bearing branch “so that it may bear more fruit.” It is important to recognize that there are two different types of pruning: the spring pruning, which takes place here, is for cleaning purposes. The fall pruning that takes place after the grapes have been harvested will be discussed in 15:6. They are not synonymous. The word for “pruning” used here is kathairo, from which we get the English word “catharsis.” It means to cleanse. As it relates to viticulture, it describes cleansing the branch of insects, diseases, and parasites. This would have been the ancient equivalent of using insecticides, as is done today. This pruning also includes cleaning or pinching off little “sucker shoots” from the branch—sprigs that draw away resources from the production of big, juicy grapes. Left to itself, the branch will favor more leafy growth over more fruit, so the vinedresser has to prune or clean away unnecessary shoots and extraneous growth to promote even greater fruitfulness.
What does this pruning represent in the life of a believer? I believe the bugs, diseases, and unwanted sprigs represent things like bad habits, wrong thinking, unimportant activities, and lesser priorities—anything that distracts us from being completely fruitful, anything that hinders us from loving others to the fullest, the way Christ loved us. As we abide in the Vine, the Vinedresser removes these things from our lives to promote more fruit. Maybe you’re too busy. In fact, maybe your busyness is veiled selfishness. Maybe you’re packing your schedule with socially acceptable things that make you look good, all the while avoiding the harder work of loving others who are difficult to love, like your spouse or your children, or fellow believers in your church family. Maybe your busyness must be pruned. Maybe you’ve got a secret. Maybe you’ve been nursing a secret sin. Maybe it involves substance abuse, or compulsive spending, or pornography on the internet. Maybe it needs to be removed from your life. Maybe it’s a selfish drive for control in your marriage. Perhaps it’s neglect of leadership or running from conflict. Maybe it’s excessive time spent on things that count for nothing. Maybe it’s laziness or a bad attitude. The Vinedresser may want to prune any number of things from your life.
In 15:3, Jesus reminds His disciples, “You are already clean [katharos, cf. 15:2] because of the word which I have spoken to you.” Jesus is reiterating to His disciples that “the word” He spoke to them in chapters 13-14 cleansed them for fruit bearing. The disciples are spiritual clean, and they are ready to produce fruit. Jesus is optimistically calling them to a task. If you get a new job, you don’t sit down and say, “Ah, I’m so glad that I have a job.” That’s when the work really begins. In the same way you have been made clean to bear fruit.
Jesus continues His emphasis on fruit bearing and shares how to abide in 15:4-5: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” In 15:4-10, the word “abide” (meno) is used ten times in seven verses. Jesus’ first use of the verb “abide” (15:4) is an imperative. He doesn’t assume that His disciples are abiding, so He commands them to abide. The act of abiding is not true of every believer; it’s also not true of every believer all the time. We can earn a living, raise a family, and practice generosity without abiding. It’s possible to pastor a church or serve without abiding. We must recognize that there’s a difference between work and fruit. It’s possible to perform a lot of work for Christ that isn’t necessarily fruitful. It’s also possible to do many things without Christ. It’s possible to do many things for Christ. However, anything of lasting value can only be done through Christ, by abiding in Him. This is why Jesus says we’re not called upon to produce fruit, but simply to bear it. Bearing fruit is a natural outcome of being in Christ and letting Him live His life through us. Notice the progression from “fruit” (15:2) to “more fruit” (15:2) to “much fruit” (15:5).That’s what God wants from us. A detached branch in the physical or spiritual realm can’t live on its own.
Maybe your life is filled with stress. You’re a teenager living in a dysfunctional home and you can’t seem to find a safe haven. Or you may be a mother up to her eyeballs in children. You need a break, but you can’t seem to find one. Perhaps you’re performance driven and all you want to do is work and perform. Maybe you’re independent and it’s hard for you to rely on anyone. Regardless, if you want fruit that will last for all of eternity, you must abide in Christ. What’s the primary reason unbelievers don’t come to Christ for salvation? They don’t recognize their need. What’s the primary reason believers don’t come to Christ for sanctification? Exactly the same reason—we don’t recognize our need. When we read our Bibles without bothering to ask for God’s enlightenment, we don’t recognize our need. When we make plans and decisions without genuinely waiting to hear from God, we don’t recognize our need. Pray that the Lord will help you to abide in Jesus.
In 15:6, Jesus mentions the consequences of not abiding: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” In order to understand what Jesus is getting at here, you have to remember that this entire passage is filled with figures of speech. Jesus has been speaking metaphorically (e.g., vine, branches, fruit), so it’s not necessary to interpret terms like “thrown away,” “fire,” or “burned” as referring to hell. A branch that doesn’t remain attached to the vine withers, and out of necessity, is thrown away.
Grapevines, in contrast to other types of wood, don’t have many uses. Their total value is that they can produce grapes. Vines don’t yield timber from which people can make other things (Ezek 15). They are good for either bearing or burning, but not for building. Similarly, a Christian who loses contact with Christ becomes useless and fruitless. If I offered you a chewed up piece of gum that had been sitting out for several days or weeks, would you chew it? No! If you touched it at all, you would throw it into the nearest wastebasket! It would be dry, hard, and flavorless, not to mention, gross. Jesus is saying the very same thing about believers who don’t abide in Him. Your purpose in life is to bear fruit. It’s not to earn a decent living. It’s not to be a happy. It’s to abide in Christ and bear fruit. As far as God is concerned, there’s no reason for you to live, except to bear fruit. If you’re not fruitful, you are useless to Him. He might as well just take you to heaven right now. But instead of doing that, He brings divine discipline upon useless believers. Fire is a common symbol in the Bible for God’s temporal judgment on His people. God lights a match under us and begins to burn us with fiery trials. His purpose is to draw us back to the vine. He may use depression, loneliness, and financial trouble. We think we’re just unlucky, when in truth, God is the one burning us. God will not let the fire go out until we reattach ourselves to the vine. God takes His relationship with us very seriously, so when we stop abiding or pursuing intimacy with Him, He will do whatever it takes to get our attention, and it could get hot. When I was growing up and I misbehaved, my Dad used to tell me, “I’m going to heat up your backside.” Although it did feel like fire, the point that my father was trying to make was he was going to discipline me.
In addition to temporal judgment, Jesus will judge believers in eternity. John 15:6 and 1 Cor 3:15 both use “fire” in connection with the judgment of believers. Believers who do not abide in Christ or build well on the foundation of Christ will suffer loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ. Thus, it matters in this life and the life to come whether or not you abide in Christ.
In 15:7-11, we’ll discover four benefits of abiding in Jesus.
- Perfect prayer (15:7).Jesus says, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jesus is not offering a blank check for answered prayer. It is conditioned upon abiding in Him. The verb “ask” is an imperative. Jesus is not encouraging us to pray, He is commanding us to pray. The one who abides in Christ and His words will naturally pray the kind of prayer that is in line with God’s will. The context suggests that the prayers should pertain to fruit bearing and glorifying the Father. If you abide, then you can ask! It’s not the other way around. God gives His answers to those Christians who are abiding!
54% of Christian students surveyed confessed to “neglecting important areas of their life” due to spending too much time on social media sites. Not long ago, young people were glued to their computer screens, checking e-mails and online games. Now e-mail is the new snail-mail, and few teenagers bother with it. It’s all about cell phones, texting, tweeting, and instant messaging. Studies show that the average teenager sends and receives over 2,270 text messages a month. What if we had a relationship like that with our Bibles? If we stayed in touch with God’s Word as frequently and tenaciously as we text and touch base with our friends, we’d have a much healthier spiritual life and a stronger grasp of the Bible. The best texting is studying the biblical text. Today, will you recommit yourself to studying God’s Word and ensuring that you are abiding in Christ? Will you make Jesus the priority that He yearns to be? If so, you may see Him provide you some of the answers and assistance that you’ve been longing for.
- Proven discipleship (15:8).Jesus says, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” The phrase translated “so prove to be” is only one word—“become” (ginomai). In producing fruit we’re becoming Christ’s disciples to an even greater degree (8:31-32). To glorify God is to show Him off and make Him look good. The “fruit” in this context refers to our love for our brothers and sisters. This is seen in the phrase “by this” in 13:35 and 15:8. We prove to be Jesus’ disciples when we love each other.
Bearing fruit by loving believers is something that you can do the rest of your life. I have always thought golf and tennis are great sports. What I love about both of these sports is that you can play them all of your life. I’ve also observed that many times older folks can spank the younger generation in these sports. I’ve seen seventy-five year old obese men beat younger men at tennis. I know men in their eighties who are still golfing up a storm. It’s not necessarily about raw skill and athletic ability; it’s experience that counts. God wants you to take your spiritual experience in Christ and depend upon Him for everything. He wants your best years to be future. How will you show love to the body of Christ?
- Unlimited love (15:9-10).Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also 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.” Jesus has provided us a visual aid of what it means to abide—He loved the original disciples, and He loves you and me today. Here we come to the best definition of what it means to abide in the Bible—obey Jesus’ commands! There’s no abiding apart from obedience (cf. 14:15, 21, 23).
- Full joy (15:11). Jesus concludes with these amazing words,“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” Happiness is the result of happenings; joy is the result of Jesus. Joy is an inner contentment despite one’s outer circumstances. Joy isn’t primarily an emotion, it is a conviction. It is the inner contentment of the soul that is actively responding to Jesus Christ. G.K. Chesterton called this “the gigantic secret of the Christian.” It’s important to see that joy is from Jesus, not something we have to try to drum up ourselves. Someone says, “I can’t find joy.” Jesus says: My joy is available to you, and it will make your joy full. So don’t go looking for joy; look for Jesus. Joy is found in obeying Him and bearing much fruit. If you’ve got “Jesus joy,” notify your face. You may be thinking today: There’s a difference between happiness and joy, so I don’t have to walk around with a happy face. I can just be my miserable self. No, no, no! Jesus joy ought to affect your face and body. Regardless of your circumstances, you can have joy. If Jesus could have joy as He endured the cross (Heb 12:2), you too can have joy in the midst of every circumstance in your life.
Today, Jesus wants you to recommit yourself to abide in Him. He desires a moment by moment relationship with you. Will you submit yourself to Him? Will you say, “Jesus, I’m inadequate, incompetent, inferior, and insufficient for every task. I can’t. You can. Please help!” When you call out to Jesus like this, He shows up in your life in a mighty way.