June 10, 2010 David Balzer

John 15:1-17: The Vine and the Branches

Most Saturdays when Lachlan plays sport at school I go running around Summer Hill and Canterbury while I’m waiting for the game to start.

And there’s quite a few backyards I run past that are beautifully set-up for outdoor entertaining. My guess owned by Greek or Italian families. They’ve got wall to wall concrete instead of grass – easy to hose down. They’ve got the huge brick outdoor oven. Solid enough to withstand an earthquake. Perfect for cooking the pizzas or roasting the lamb. They’ve got plenty of seating. Room for dancing. And they’ve got a huge trellis over the top of the whole thing.

And wrapped around the trellis is the mother of all … GRAPE VINES. Its trunk as thick as a tree, the branches out, trained over the course of years to cover the whole backyard.

In winter it loses all its leaves. And the sun can stream in. In summer the wide green leaves shade the partying family. It’s eco-friendly design before its time.

And while the vine leaves are good for shade, or for stuffing with rice, pine nuts and parsley. It’s the FRUIT that matters. It’s all about the GRAPES. The grapes are for EATING, or THROWING. The grapes are for making wine, or grappa. The grapes are for CELEBRATING.

And it takes A LOT OF WORK to make sure a grape vine produces fruit. There’s got to be enough water, enough fertiliser in the soil. Not too much concrete. branches need to be cut off. Good branches need to be PRUNED. Stray branches and tendrils heading in the wrong direction need to cut back.

If there’s too many leaves, and too many USELESS branches, then there’s no goodness left for the PRECIOUS GRAPES to develop. It’s all about the strength – the water and minerals making it from the trunk into the best branches, the ones that can bear the fruit.

But what about if there’s NO GRAPES? What a let down for the gardener. What frustration! It’s bad enough if it’s an orange tree or peach tree in ONE CORNER of your garden. But if it’s the centrepiece of the whole backyard. If the whole summer’s fun DEPENDS on it, it would be a HUGE disappointment to have no fruit – especially if you’ve lovingly spent the year preparing for it!

Israel – a vine with no grapes

And a vine with no grapes is what God says HIS PEOPLE ISRAEL HAVE BEEN LIKE.

Israel as a vine, or a vineyard, is found in lots of places in the Old Testament. Like Ps 80, talking to God.

8 You brought a VINE out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. 9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. 10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.

That’s talking about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and planting them in the Promised Land. Or like Isaiah 5.

7 The VINEYARD of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.

Then Isaiah talks about what God DID for his vineyard

My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.

But look at what the CROP was like.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it YIELDED ONLY BAD FRUIT.

And when Israel is described as a VINE by God’s prophets – that’s the point that’s always made. God was the farmer who lovingly planted it, and looked after it. But there’s NO FRUIT. Or BAD FRUIT.

Like Jeremiah 2:21. God’s speaking

21 I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into A CORRUPT, WILD VINE? 22 Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, THE STAIN OF YOUR GUILT is still before me,”  declares the Sovereign LORD.

God tends his vine, and waits to see it bear fruit. But it never does. It only produces SIN, and its guilt can’t be scrubbed off.

And so he’s forced to PRUNE it. Chop it back. He DISCIPLINES his people. To get their attention. He sends foreign armies who invade. They conquer the Jews, and take them off into exile. They knock down city walls, rip up farms, destroy houses.

All because they’re not living as God’s people SHOULD. Rebelling and ignoring God. Worshipping OTHER gods.

And he wants them to RETURN to him. And bear the fruit they’re created for.

The writer of Ps 80 cries out;

14 Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this VINE, 15 the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself. 16 YOUR VINE IS CUT DOWN, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish. 17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. 18 Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.

It’s a cycle repeated again and again through the Old Testament. God rescues his people, they turn away from him. He prunes them – disciplines them. Wanting them to bear the fruit they should. They return for a little while, then they wander away again. And so it goes.

God’s vine, Israel, just CAN’T PRODUCE THE FRUIT GOD WANTS.

And that’s how the Old Testament finishes. With God’s vine withered, sick and dying. A shadow of what they’d been when God planted them in the Promised Land. Gasping for LIFE.

Jesus – the TRUE vine

Until Jesus arrives, and says in v1 of Jn 15, “I am the TRUE vine, and my Father is the gardener.”

What the Jews could NEVER do – be God’s fruitful vine – Jesus does PERFECTLY. It’s Jesus who produces the fruit God requires. A life perfectly aligned with his Father. Doing, saying, thinking what the Father does and says and thinks. Always bearing the fruit that pleases the heavenly Gardener.

Branches must remain in the vine

And Jesus’ point here is that if the Jews want to be part of God’s chosen vine, if they want to produce fruit that pleases God. They can’t do it without being connected to the TRUE vine. TO HIM.

It’s the only way. Doesn’t come by trying harder. Or offering more sacrifices. Or studying the law for longer. Sticking to the rules more closely. Without Jesus it’ll never be GOOD enough to produce the fruit God requires.

Jesus has already said he’s IN THE FATHER and the Father’s IN HIM. Being IN HIM is the only way to know the Father.

What’s more he’s said the disciples are to be IN him, like he’s IN the Father, and the Father is IN him. Talking about the Holy Spirit.

Here in ch 15 Jesus rolls this idea of being IN him, being closely connected to him, up with the picture of the VINE, and talks about BRANCHES being IN him, (v2). Then in v5, he makes it clearer.

5 “I am the VINE; you are the BRANCHES.

And, just like with a real grapevine, if the BRANCH isn’t connected to THE REST OF THE VINE, it can’t survive. V5.

If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; APART FROM ME YOU CAN DO NOTHING. 6 If anyone does NOT remain in me, he is like a branch that is THROWN AWAY AND WITHERS;

Spiritual life only comes when we’re connected to Jesus. And so Jesus makes the obvious plea. V4, REMAIN IN ME.

But at the same time, it’s not all about the disciples’ ability to stick it out. If that was the case, they’d be no better than Old Testament Israel. Pointlessly trying to summon up the ability to obey God from inside them. Constantly trying, never succeeding. And so, together with the COMMAND to remain in him, Jesus gives the PROMISE.

4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you.

He’ll keep hold of those who belong to him. He’ll cause life to flow through them, and they’ll never be cut off. That’s a great promise about it not depending all on us.

But what’s it mean, practically, to remain in Jesus? Some Christians talk about having a mystical, spiritual relationship. They talk about meditation, and constant prayer, and feelings of closeness. About picturing, in a very real way, Jesus walking and talking with you through every part of your day.

But most of us aren’t like that. Our Christian experience is much more down to earth. And so Jesus gives us some more concrete, more REAL, examples of what it means to REMAIN IN HIM.

And I’ll just say up front, None of it’s rocket science. There’s no special secret technique to a closer walk with Jesus. It’s pretty much what you’ve been taught since Sunday School.

Jesus’ words remain in you (7, 15)

The key to remaining in Jesus means causing HIS WORDS to remain in you. V7.

7 If you remain in me and MY WORDS remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.

The disciples had spent three years listening to Jesus. They had enough stories, and sermons – enough WORDS to last them a lifetime. And with the help of the Holy Spirit who helped them remember them all, that’s what they spent the rest of their life DOING.

Reciting, remembering, proclaiming, and eventually WRITING DOWN Jesus’ words. Causing Jesus’ words to REMAIN in people. Because there’s LIFE for people who believe Jesus’ WORDS.

And so we have Jesus’ words TODAY. Written down so we can read them, memorise them, recite them, meditate on them, even SING them.

And doing ALL THOSE THINGS is how you cause Jesus’ words to remain in you. It’s not easy, but it’s not that COMPLICATED EITHER. Just DO IT. It doesn’t take huge brain power, but you need to USE your brain. It doesn’t take strength, but it takes will-power. You don’t have to do it for HOURS every day. But it’s best to do it EVERY DAY.

John Chapman, the Sydney writer and preacher, is retired now. But I heard him say that as PART of his daily Bible reading, he reads A GOSPEL / EVERY DAY. Matthew one day, Mark the next, Luke the next – and so on.

That’s probably a bit much for MOST people to reasonably aim at. But it’s a great DESIRE.

Why not read a CHAPTER of a gospel every day. AS WELL as whatever else you read from the Bible? WORK HARD at causing Jesus’ words to remain in you. Get to know him. What he said and did. So you can remain in him.

But reading and knowing Jesus’ words is only PART of what it means for his words to REMAIN in you.

When the Old Testament talked about the law being IN YOUR HEART it meant knowing it. But it also meant KEEPING IT. Like Ps 37:30-31

30 The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. 31 THE LAW OF HIS GOD IS IN HIS HEART; HIS FEET DO NOT SLIP.

Or there’s Ps 119:11

11 I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.

Hiding God’s word in your heart means KEEPING it. But then he goes on.

14 I REJOICE in following your statutes as one REJOICES IN GREAT RICHES. 15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. 16 I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

Having God’s law in your heart doesn’t just mean KNOWING it, but OBEYING it. And even more, it means LOVING it.

Or here’s a good one. Ps 40:6-8

Burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. 7 Then I said, “Here I am, I have come– it is written about me in the scroll. 8 I DESIRE TO DO YOUR WILL, O MY GOD; YOUR LAW IS WITHIN MY HEART.”

Which is a fascinating verse when you think that offerings were PART of what God’s law said to DO. But what’s more important to God than SIMPLY DOING IT, is that it’s WRITTEN IN YOUR HEART. That doing what pleases him is your DESIRE, and your RE.

It’s possible to obey rules, without God’s law being written in your heart. God wants it to be YOUR DESIRE, your PRIORITY. And that’s MORE IMPORTANT than rule-keeping.

Obey Jesus’ commands (10, 14, 15, 17)

And it’s the same when Jesus comes along. It’s more than just KNOWING HIS WORDS. Jesus says his words are to REMAIN IN YOU. It means to love him, and to OBEY his commands. For that to be part of your re. Look at v10.

10 If you OBEY MY COMMANDS, you will REMAIN IN MY LOVE, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.

Or down in v14.

14 You are my FRIENDS if you DO WHAT I COMMAND.

And the major command Jesus mentions here is to LOVE ONE ANOTHER. V12.

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

That’s humble, other-person centred, sacrificial, hard-nosed LOVE. And just in case you didn’t get it the first time, down in v17, Jesus commands it again.

17 This is my command: Love each other.

Let’s sum up the logic of what Jesus is saying.

  1. Remain in him, and he’ll remain in you.
  2. The way to remain in Jesus is for HIS WORDS to remain in you. For them to be your passion, and your re.
  3. The way to know if Jesus’ words are remaining in you is if you’re OBEYING THEM.
  4. The way to know if you’re OBEYING them is if you’re showing humble, servant-hearted love for those around you.

And the key to being ABLE to love God’s word is remaining in Jesus. Because Jesus is the TRUE vine, if we’re a branch that’s connected to him. We actually CAN bear fruit. In a way Old Testament Israel NEVER could.

God had PROMISED it to Jeremiah centuries before Jesus came. Jer 31:31.

31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD,”when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel .. (33).”I WILL PUT MY LAW IN THEIR MINDS AND WRITE IT ON THEIR HEARTS.I will be their God,and they will be my people.

And Jesus brings it all about for those who are joined to HIM. God writes his law in our HEARTS. In Jesus’ strength, we’re actually ABLE to please God, through the Spirit, because our re’s been changed. We’ve been forgiven.

Which is why Jesus is the TRUE vine. By staying connected to Jesus, we CAN BEAR FRUIT that pleases God (second half of v4).

No BRANCH can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the VINE. Neither can YOU bear fruit unless you REMAIN IN ME.

Bear fruit

But what’s it MEAN to bear fruit? It’s easy to imagine fruit while we’re talking about vines and grapes. But what’s Jesus getting at when he’s talking about fruit his DISCIPLES should be producing.

The MAJOR part of bearing fruit is OBEDIENCE. We’ve already talked about that.

Whatever else fruit is, v8 gives us two hints.

8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

The fruit Jesus is thinking of serves TWO PURPOSES. It brings glory to God. And it identifies you as a disciple of Jesus.

People who live like Jesus show themselves to be his disciples – his followers. And they cause God to be glorified. As they OBEY Jesus.

Are your WORDS doing those two things? Your actions? How you treat people? Who you hang out with, and what you do? What your priorities are? How you spend your money? Or your free time?

Are all those things showing the FRUIT that shows you’re a follower of Jesus? Are they causing God to be glorified?

But there’s also ANOTHER aspect to the fruit that a living branch produces. There in v11.

11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that YOUR JOY MAY BE COMPLETE.

JOY is fruit a Christian shows. And what is it Jesus has told the disciples that causes them to be joyful? Look at the verse before. “IF YOU OBEY MY COMMANDS, YOU WILL REMAIN IN MY LOVE” I’ve told you this so you’ll have JOY.

What causes joy for the Christian? Obeying Jesus’ commands! Now, isn’t that back to front with what the world says!?

–         “I don’t want to become a Christian, I want to keep having FUN.

–         Fun means doing what I want, not what someone else says

–         And what did the Atheist advertising signs say on the London buses? “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

But Jesus says “Ultimate joy, complete joy, comes in obeying ME. In living the way you were designed”.

Get ready for pruning

And even when things don’t go the way we’d LIKE, we can still be JOYFUL, because we know our Father’s in control. He LOVES us, and he works EVERYTHING for our good.

That’s what the PRUNING metaphor is about in v2. Pruning is God’s discipline on his children to grow them in maturity. Make them more godly. To produce more fruit.

If you WANT to bear more fruit, then be READY for pruning. Don’t be SURPRISED when tough times come. It’s the heavenly gardener taking his secateurs to you. Trimming you into shape. Listen to how Heb 12 puts it. V5

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.

A bit further down in v10.

God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PEACE for those who have been trained by it.

That’s FRUIT!

If you’re SERIOUS about being a fruitful Christian, then EXPECT pruning.

Beware of not bearing fruit (6)

Let me make one final point. Beware of NOT bearing fruit. If you DON’T bear fruit, you show you’re not connected to the vine. You show you’re not a Christian.

You may LOOK like a branch. You may HANG AROUND with branches. But if you’re not bearing the FRUIT of being connected to Jesus, then listen to what Jesus says the heavenly gardener will DO. V2. He CUTS OFF every branch that bears no fruit.

And down in v6.

6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.

I PRAY that will be none of you. But experience tells me that in every group of Christians there are some who WON’T bear fruit. Who won’t cling to Jesus. Who WON’T cause his words to remain in them. And God’s just punishment for them is JUDGMENT.

Let’s keep meeting together. Keep encouraging each other to keep going. To keep persevering.

Cling to Jesus. The TRUE VINE. Because True life. Complete joy. Is only found in him. And nowhere else.

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