This morning, we continue in Jesus’ farewell discourse in the gospel of John. As chapter 15 opens, we come to one of the better-known texts on the essence of what it is to be a disciple of Christ. When Paul talks about the heart of our relationship with God, he uses the phrase “in Christ” to describe the reality that when a person becomes a Christian, the Holy Spirit spiritually and eternally unites the believer with Christ. Jesus’ metaphor about the vine and the branches we heard read a few moments ago is a graphic way of depicting what that union between Christ and the believer looks like.
This a foundational teaching on Christian discipleship and if believers are to live fruitful Christian lives, we must seek to understand and increasingly live out our identity as fruitful branches united to Christ, our vine. There is a real challenge for believers in living out our union with Christ and producing spiritual fruit. That is, we must allow our thinking to be dictated by a paradox taught in the Scripture as it relates to how to increasingly become fruitful or mature in our walk with Jesus. That’s a challenge because a paradox is when two seemingly contradictory truths are woven together. Keeping two seemingly contradictory things together in our minds is not easy. In fact, the Holy Spirit must empower us to do that.
This paradox comes into view every time we see the Christian life described in terms of our union with Christ. For instance, Paul in Galatians 2:20 says, “20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” You hear the union-with-Christ language there—crucified WITH CHRIST and Christ LIVING IN ME. I died with him and he lives in me. I have been crucified—from a spiritual perspective, it’s NOT me who lives but Christ lives in me. That’s clear enough—no paradox there. That is, until you get to the second half of the verse where Paul says, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” How does Paul fit that together with the first half of the verse? I thought you no longer live, Paul? Yet, you say, “the life I now live, I live by faith…”
The verse captures this paradox that shows itself whenever our union with Christ is discussed in Scripture. Living the Christian life involves (paradoxically) BOTH living as a Christian by faith and not living but instead having Christ live in us because we have been crucified with Christ. We see similar paradox as Paul relates his own life in Christ as an apostle in First Corinthians 15:10. He says, “10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain…”
There it is—it was God’s grace that was working in and through Paul. GOD is doing the work! But in the second half of the verse he says, “On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Ok, that’s confusing. What was it, Paul? Was it YOU working harder than all of them? Or, was it THE GRACE OF GOD working IN you? And Paul would answer that question, “Yes.” Its not either/or. Its both/and. But that’s confusing because we want it to be EITHER one or the other. How can it be both? It’s a paradox and its found all over the New Testament.
Jesus’ teaching of the vine and the branches does not unlock this paradox by removing the tension between God’s role and ours in living the Christian life. But Jesus here DOES throw some light on it through this metaphor. This vine/branch relationship helps us think more clearly about ourselves and how we relate to God in living as a follower of Jesus. Before we get into the text, there are a couple of important background truths that will help us better understand and appreciate this teaching.
First, we must remember that Jesus is using a metaphor here to describe our relationship to him and the Father. Jesus isn’t a literal vine and we are not literal branches—this is a metaphor. Metaphors are graphic images and Jesus uses this metaphor of the vine and branches to give us a picture of this relationship between him and the individual believer. With metaphors in the bible, we have to be careful not to press the image too far. If we try to interpret this teaching in a hyper-literal way, it will end up confusing us. Metaphors give us an image; an analogy and all analogies break down if you press them too far.
A second background truth is—this metaphor is drawn from the many references to the vine in the Old Testament. This vine/branches image is not one that Jesus just randomly chooses. This metaphor was a very familiar one to the Jews. These disciples knew that in the Old Testament, any vine or vineyard imagery almost always represents Israel as God’s vineyard. God had called Israel to be his vine and bear his fruit. That is—display has character to the surrounding nations. However, in nearly every case in the Old Testament, this image of Israel as God’s vine is used negatively to illustrate what a sick and fruitless vineyard God’s people were.
Isaiah 5:7 is one of many examples of this. He writes, “7For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” God appointed Israel as his vineyard but when he looked for the fruit of his justice and righteousness, his vine was bare. In his parables, Jesus also speaks of Israel as God’s vineyard and, like the prophets before him, he too uses this image to condemn Israel for the rotten and barren vineyard it was. Israel was a vineyard whose fruit was either non-existent or rotten.
However, the Jews would have also known that the Old Testament teaches that sometime in the future, God would have a new and fruitful vineyard that bore much fruit. Isaiah 27:6 tells us, “6 In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” That Old Testament, forward-looking understanding of the vineyard is the backdrop of Jesus’ teaching here. This is why Jesus in verse one says, “I am the true vine…”
Jesus is drawing an implicit contrast between himself as the true and fruitful vine, and Israel—the barren and worthless vine. Israel was a fruitless vine that God ultimately condemns for its fruitless idolatries. Jesus however is the vastly superior vine to which the nation of Israel pointed. This TRUE vine, Jesus, through his branches, his New Covenant people will, without fail—no possibility of failure–“fill the whole world with fruit.” When we see this teaching through that Old Testament lens, it helps us understand better what Jesus means by it.
With that as background, let’s look at this teaching and find three keys that open the door to faithful discipleship—or three keys to walking faithfully with Christ. The first key and the main teaching of Jesus here is: For the believer, all our spiritual life and fruit come from/belong to Jesus. This gets at what we were saying earlier about what is Christ’s role and what is our role in living the Christian life. It’s important that we become as clear as we can on this truth for several reasons. First, because this keeps us from believing the lie that the ultimate secret to being a faithful Christian is trying harder—exerting more personal willpower or effort to live the way we are supposed to. This metaphor openly exposes that lie. Branches don’t produce fruit by straining, but only through their connection to the life-giving, fruit generating vine.
Verses four and five are clear as Jesus describes himself as the vine and his followers as the branches on which is fruit is found. Jesus says, “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.” THE ONLY WAY the branch can bear fruit is if it abides in the vine. Without Jesus the Vine, the branch is a withered up, fruitless appendage. We know this from our own experience. If you sever a branch from a plant, it will eventually die because the life is not in the branch, it’s in the vine or the plant which imparts its life to its branches. The branch only transmits or carries within it the life and fruit it receives from the vine—it has no independence from the vine.
Likewise, we have no spiritual life or fruit in ourselves—it is only the life of Christ through the Spirit that gives us life and produces his fruit in us. Jesus concludes this section of this teaching by giving an example of what he means here in verse 11. “11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” This is very similar to what he said last time in 14:27 but there he’s not speaking of his joy being in us but his peace being in us. He says, “27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” This is not some vague, alien sense of peace he leaves us—it’s the very peace of Christ—it’s HIS peace. This peace we inherit from him is the exact same peace he experienced when he was on earth. Likewise, here in 15:11, he does not intend for us to have joy in some general sense. He says that he wants us to abide in him so that HIS joy would be OUR joy. That we would enjoy with his joy. John Piper paraphrases it this way. “I have instructed you about abiding in me so that you would enjoy all that I enjoy with the very joy with which I enjoy it.”
It would be unreasonable for us to cut off a branch and expect it to bear fruit. That’s a picture of futility. But it’s just as ridiculous and futile for us to expect to bear fruit simply by exerting more of our own effort, or by trying a new discipleship plan or performing other religious works. The only way to grow spiritually—to bear fruit—the very fruit of Jesus–is to abide in the vine, Jesus. The reason abiding in Jesus is necessary in order to bear fruit FOR Jesus, is because the fruit he intends that we bear is the very fruit OF Jesus.
Our spiritual fruit includes the ways in which Jesus shows his character through us, but it also includes the “fruit” of those people we have led to Jesus or positively influenced for Jesus. Our fruit is what Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, produces in us and through us as we abide in Christ. It’s no coincidence that love, joy and peace—all of which Jesus mentions here in this section of John, are the first three of the fruit of the Holy Spirit according to Paul in Galatians chapter five. And Jesus teaches us that, as we abide in him—remain in him, trust in him, draw our strength and satisfaction from him– HIS peace and HIS joy and HIS love are produced in us by the Holy Spirit as he reproduces them in and through us. In the second half of verse nine, Jesus tells us to “abide in my love.” Just as with his peace and his joy, he’s telling believers to love with HIS love.
This is why Leon Morris says, “…fruitfulness is impossible apart from Christ, but…is inevitable if we preserve vital contact with him.” There can be no wider gap than the one between something that’s impossible and something that’s inevitable and the reason that fruit is inevitable if we abide in Christ is because it’s HIS fruit manifest in us by the Holy Spirit.
This is why Jesus says in verse eight, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” The acid test of the genuineness of a disciple is the presence of spiritual fruit because– the only way a person can bear much fruit is if Jesus, by the Spirit is living and producing HIS fruit through them. The Father is glorified when we bear much fruit because much fruit in a disciple is a sure-fire indicator that his Son is showing HIS love, peace and joy through that disciple and that glorifies him.
This is not to say that all believers abide in Christ with the same consistency or passion, but all genuine believers abide in Christ at some level and produce fruit at some level. Another reason disciples must abide in Christ and therefore bear fruit goes back to what we said about the Old Testament prophecies about the vineyard. If Jesus had disciples who never bore any fruit, that would call into question his credentials as the true, fruit-bearing vine.
All this begs the question—how are we to think of a person who claims to a follower of Christ—a branch, but who genuinely produces no discernible fruit—their lives, their passions, their priorities look just like any unsaved but outwardly nice and moral person? John tells us in his second epistle in verse nine. “9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” As we’ll see later—abiding in Jesus’ words or teaching is the same as abiding in him. Believers who claim to be in Christ, but don’t bear any of his fruit are not believers.
That may sound confusing to us but one of the repeated themes of John’s gospel is that there are people he calls “believers” who are not believers. John 2:23 says, “23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” John goes on to say however that, Jesus did not entrust himself to these because he knew the heart of all men—that these were phony “believers.” The same thing is true of how John uses the word, disciples. In John 6:66, John says, “66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” These were self-professed disciples that stopped following Jesus which means they weren’t genuine disciples. Judas is the great example of this kind of disciple. It’s impossible for Christ to produce his fruit in these phony disciples because he is not IN them and he can’t produce his fruit in someone in who he does not reside by the Holy Spirit. Its these false disciples that are taken away for judgment in verse two. “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.”
His purpose is to teach: “there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit.” He’s certainly NOT saying that God will remove genuine believers who are not fruitful because this text teaches that all genuine believers are fruitful to some degree.
We must allow the warnings like this one in verse two to jolt us into repenting of any lukewarmness toward Christ. This is the purpose for these kinds of warnings in the New Testament—to cause us to examine ourselves. For a complete absence of fruit, God will eventually cut you off as a person who, in reality, is a deceived unbeliever and throw you into the fire of his judgment. On the other extreme are the people whose fruit bearing is hindered because they are not lukewarm but are spiritual perfectionists. These believers can have much fruit in their lives, but their perfectionism keeps them from seeing it. They live with a continual and paralyzing sense of guilt and inadequacy for their many failures.
I was reminded of this several years ago one Thanksgiving morning. I was listening to a radio program—a cooking show. A younger woman who had never made a Thanksgiving dinner called in. It was very clear she was high strung and putting considerable pressure on herself to turn out an absolutely perfect meal. The host could hear this expectation and wisely told her, “Don’t let perfection spoil excellence.” That is—it won’t be perfect—it never is, but if perfection is what you expect, you may sadly be disappointed over what in truth may be an excellent meal.
There are some in the church who need to hear that word. When they read this text with its warnings and strong language, they haul out their spiritual electron microscopes and immediately do an intense fruit inspection of themselves And because they’re perfectionists, they fail to see the fruit in their lives. They see themselves as fruitless when mature believers who know them well would say they have a very fruitful life in Christ.
Notice that God the Father works diligently in believers to increase our fruitfulness. Verse two again says, “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.” In verse one, Jesus calls his Father “the vinedresser.” So, again– we see the entire Trinity involved in Christian maturity. The believer must abide in Jesus to have his fruit—the Father increases fruitfulness by pruning and the fruit that is produced by abiding in Christ is empowered by the Spirit. Verse five says the end of this pruning and abiding is that we bear “much fruit.”
What is meant by pruning? How does the Father do this? This is what Hebrews chapter 12 is talking about, but there the author uses the word “discipline” to describe this process of increasing our fruitfulness. He says in verse seven. “7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” Verse 10 continues, “10 For they [our fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit [same word] of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Pruning is our loving Father’s way of bringing correction into our lives to cause us to leave our sin and come more fully to him.
It may come in 1000 forms. It may be a word of correction or rebuke from someone—in or out of the church. It may be an enslaving addiction we need help getting out from under. It may be a time of financial hardship for our poor stewardship of his money. It may be loss of a job if we are being a less than strong witness for Christ. Not every bad thing that happens to us is disciplinary—some come to test our faith and help us glorify God in other ways. But some of the hardships we experience ARE disciplinary—they’re God pruning us to put off the old man and put on the new—to repent of our sin and produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness as we are trained by his discipline.
A second key to discipleship is: For the believer, central to abiding in Christ is the ministry of the word, prayer and obedience. Jesus mentions the “word” a couple of times. In verse three he tells the disciples, “3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” The word “clean” is from the same Greek word as the word “prune” but the Father prunes and Jesus says that he has cleansed these disciples through his word. This probably means that, by virtue of the correcting influence of the continuous inspired teaching of Jesus, these disciples—except Judas—were clean—ready to bear fruit when the Spirit came.
Notice however the strong connection between the word of God and prayer in verse seven. “7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” We get the meaning of this later in verse 16 where Jesus goes into greater depth. “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.”
When you put those two verses together, Jesus is saying, “I chose you to bear fruit and that implies abiding in me and my words—as my words abide in you, whatever you ask, will be my words. If my words are abiding in you, then out of that Christ-directed, Christ-saturated heart will flow Christ-directed, Christ-saturated prayers consistent with my name and my Father will answers all of those prayers.”
If we have his mind, his heart, his agenda, and his kingdom priorities, then we will increasingly pray according to those priorities. As we pray that way, God answers and the answers to those prayers are part of the fruit of our lives. Another point we mustn’t miss here is that the purpose of prayer is that we bear fruit. We pray so that we can see God’s will done and thereby produce kingdom fruit and thereby glorify God.
Verses 9-10 bring in the importance of obedience. “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.” We are to abide in this remarkable love Christ has for us–the same kind of love the Father has for the Son. Then Jesus says something curious. He tells us that keeping his commandments is a condition for abiding in his love—just as Jesus met that condition of obedience and abides in his Father’s love.
The question is–how can God’s love—which is from his grace and mercy alone and is totally undeserved– be conditioned upon our obedience or anything else we could do? It’s similar to what we saw two weeks ago. One scholar puts it this way, “continued enjoyment of that love turns, at least in part, on our response to it.” You may remember in John 14:21 that Jesus says, “21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
We said that in this way our relationship with God is like our relationship with any other person. If, as a child you have loving parents but you persist in disobeying them, though they love you, you will not much experience their affection for you—you will not abide in their love because you cannot continue to enjoy their love when you keep grieving them by your disobedience. This is just the way all relationships work.
Closely related to this is the third key to discipleship. That is: For the believer, abiding in Christ brings great joy. These verses can come off as being very heavy—the warnings and conditions can feel a bit intimidating to us. But if we get that from this text, we’ve missed it badly because Jesus concludes this section of the teaching in verse 11with this glorious promise, “11These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Notice the relationship between obedience and joy. Jesus has just commanded us to obey so that we can experience his love. Here he tells us that as we obey and experience God’s love, we will know joy and not just any joy—we will share in his joy that he receives from obeying the Father.
The main take-home message here is simply–we cannot live a fruitful Christian life on our own. We are called to abide—remain in Jesus and as that happens—he produces his fruit in us through the Spirit. So, are we abiding? Are we living in his word, praying kingdom prayers—enjoying with his joy, loving with his love and living with his peace? We are the branches, totally dependent on the vine we are connected to by the Spirit.
When we aren’t abiding, but either ignoring God for some reason or trying to serve God in our own strength, from our own initiative and with only our energy, we produce NOTHING—no matter how busy we may be—NOTHING! If we were able to produce fruit without abiding then we, not God would get the glory and that can never happen.
Finally, perhaps God has spoken to you, clearly revealing to you that you do not have a genuine love for Jesus. You have never enjoyed with his joy or loved with his love. If that is you, then place your trust in Christ. Confess that you’re not united to the vine and you deserve to be cut away and burned. As you look in faith to Christ for your salvation, he will save you—the Spirit will connect you to the vine and you can spend the rest of your life knowing his peace, enjoying with his joy and loving with his love.
May God give us the grace to abide in Jesus so that this might increasingly describe our life in Christ for his glory and our joy.
 Morris, Leon. 1988. Expository Reflections on the Gospel of John. Baker book House…p. 519
 Carson, D.A. Pillar Series, The Gospel of John, electronic version—him commentary on verse 2.
 Carson, D.A. Pillar Series…
 Carson, D.A. John…