Jesus is speaking alone with his eleven followers (Judas Iscariot has left the building). In chapter 14, he declared that if they love him, then they will keep his commands. The test of a follower appears to reside in listening and obeying – love in action. In chapter 15, Jesus fleshes this out some more to talk about how disciples are made, shaped and grown.
Read John 15:1-17
What it says over and over again:
Jesus is like a vine and we are like branches. Branches detached from the vine are only good for firewood. Branches connected will live, bear fruit, be cared for and will love the vine. We need to be and stay connected to Jesus.
Questions that arise:
What fruit does Jesus have in mind? What does the gardener’s pruning involve? How do you know if you are connected to Jesus or not? How real is Jesus offer to give us anything we ask? Is Jesus being clear or unclear? Is it possible to sum up Jesus’ teaching here so that we know for sure what he is saying? How can we take these words and live it? That is, how can I adopt these words beyond theory? How do they affect me?
- 1-4 Jesus is the vine and the Father is the gardener
- 5-10 Jesus is the vine and you are the branches
- 11-17 Listen to why I have told you this
Notice that the NIV places the structure change at verse 9 probably picking up on the theme of love that runs through verses 9-15. But the information in verses 9 and 10 continues the theme of remaining in Jesus who remains in the Father. We could stick with the NIV structure; however, doing so seems to camouflage the impact of verse 11.
‘I am the true vine…’ Jesus has not just invented a metaphor out of the blue. The image of the vine and the vineyard has strong Old Testament influences. The story of the vine is a story of the blessing and cursing of God. The following is only a sample of ‘vine’ passages from the bible…
Genesis 49:22 is the beginning of the blessings to Joseph. He is described as a vine and a fruitful one. It turns out that he is fruitful because of the hand of the Almighty, the Shepherd and Rock of Israel (24-26).
Searching through the bible for uses of the word ‘vine’ make it clear that having a healthy vineyard is a sign of God’s blessing. There are too many vineyard references to mention all of them. Going into the promised land, for example, promised the people healthy vineyards that produced good fruit. From Genesis to Joshua, the attention of the vine is quite literal – there will be good living in the promised land.
Psalm 80 describes the people of Israel as a vine that has been transplanted from Egypt, and cared for. The vine is now being used as a metaphore for the people of God. God is the gardener who will tear down the vine if it is not bearing fruit.
Psalm 105:33 describes the destruction of the vines as one sign of judgement.
Isaiah 3:14 again describes Israel as a vineyard whom the elders and leaders have ruined – they have not taken care of the vineyard.
Isaiah 5 contains, most applicably, a song about a vineyard. The whole chapter is worth reading as this is perhaps the height of the allusion that Jesus describes in John 15. Isaiah sees a whole vineyard which contains bad vines. Jesus sees just one vine – the true vine – a good and healthy vine which produces good branches and good fruit.
Ezekiel too uses the image of the vine to describe God and his people: Ezekiel 15 teaches us that even the precious vine will be thrown into the fire when it is detached – the people of God will receive God’s judgement for being a useless, dead vine. And Ezekiel 17 is a useful passage but not a good one to get bogged down in. It describes Israel again as a vine which has been taken away and yet a new seed will be planted which will produce a great tree – one that many people will come and take shelter in.
The story of the vine and the vineyard is one of blessing for the people of God who listen and love the LORD and a mark of judgement when they do not.
Zechariah 8:12 is one of many passages which promise again that the people of Israel will enjoy fruitful vines again when God restores his people.
The vineyard and the vine, therefore, are bound up with the promises of God to bless the people of God. Although Israel was described as the vineyard, they were unable to bear good fruit and so were torn down. When Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine,’ he is saying that he stands in the place of Israel to be what they failed to be. The rest of John 15 invites us to choose to join with Jesus or to stand alone. The invitation is clear and the consequences of refusing it is not hard to see either.
‘…my Father is the gardener.’ Insert this phrase into the discussion about the vine and you see that the Father of Jesus is the one who has been planting and transplanting and pruning and cutting throughout the Old Testament. The Father of Jesus, therefore, is the God of the Old Testament.
‘He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit…’ Verses 2-4 give a reminder of how important it is for vines to bear fruit. The gardener will ensure it bears fruit by pruning what is not working and to mould or encourage the plant in the right direction. In verse 2, the object of the pruning is really Jesus since he is the vine and the Father is the gardener who prunes the vine. Before we move on to verse 3, we can pause to realise that Jesus is involved deeply in the whole process of bearing fruit – even when it hurts.
‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.’ This line doesn’t quite fit the analogy of the vine. It fits more the scene in chapter 13 when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Our passage this week speaks of the words of Jesus in connection with being clean (v3) and of how Jesus is to remain in us (v7). Salvation from being cast aside by the Father’s wrath is by listening to Jesus and continuing to listen to him.
‘Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ We see that the disciples are now brought into the metaphor and the part they play is the branches of the vine. But no branch on its own is useful for anything. The vine is subject to the gardener and the branch must depend and be subject to the vine.
The warning in verses 1-4 are that the Father is actively clearing out the branches that do not bear fruit and the only way to bear fruit is to be attached to the vine and prepared for pruning by the Father. The gardener is only mentioned once but his reference makes the focus of this section.
‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’ If verses 1-4 are about the gardener, these verses are about the branches. The attention in this section is on the branches and on how they can remain in the vine. Let’s list in bullet point what Jesus says in this section…
- attached branches will bear fruit – these are healthy branches (v5)
- unattached branches can do as much as a dead person can – nothing (v5)
- dead branches are not left alone but are picked up and destroyed (v6)
- Jesus remains in us by his word being in us (v7)
- The prayers of a true disciple are heard and answered (v7)
- The Father is glorified when we remain in Jesus and ask with his word in us (v8)
- A disciple is known by these ingredients: listening to Jesus, and asking to bear good fruit (v8)
- Jesus has loved us equal to the Father loving Jesus (v9)!
- Remaining in Jesus is by keeping his commands (v10)
- Thus, when we keep Jesus commands and listen to his words, we can ask and receive to the glory of the Father! (v10,7,8)
- Jesus has shown us how this works by the way he remains in the Father and the Father in him (v10)
- Remaining in Jesus and Jesus in us is about love (v10)
When the whole of the above is analysed we see that Jesus is describing a tight relationship between you and Jesus which can be seen between Jesus and the Father. What does Jesus want? For us to listen to him and follow.
When we pray with the expectation to receive, it is with the premise that we have Jesus words and command of love in our heart and mind. Rather than sounding like a loop-hole, it is the description of something running smoothly. Put the right ingredients into a cake and you can expect the goods. Why expect to get a good cake if you have made no effort to understand what makes a good cake? Perhaps a car is a better illustration…only the right fuel and oil, placed in the right spots will make a car move smoothly. Have no respect for a car and you can’t expect to win the Piston Cup! A father will grant his son anything he asks for when the son has come with wisdom and love! These are exactly the ingredients that Jesus asks us to have in prayer: wisdom (knowing Jesus) and love (following Jesus).
‘…so that…your joy may be complete.’ Amazing! Outcome number one of remaining in the vine is so that we avoid the disaster of judgement. But the other outcome is more brilliant: our joy! Following Jesus is like hearing the end of a brilliant story, it makes sense and makes us glow. This joy is not the same as being continually happy, like a stupid clown. It is more like contentment. This is why words like joy, peace, rest and love are used by Jesus to describe the kingdom of God instead of words like anxiety, doubt, worry and war (of course Jesus does warn that our lives will not be all rosie because of him and that will be his topic next week – but there is a joy that can only come with the gospel so that life’s worries do not overcome us).
What I am saying is this: sticking with Jesus is not anti-human and weird. It is quite the opposite. Sticking with Jesus is the most human thing that a human can do.
‘My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.’ The only law that the Christian is to follow is the law of love. And the example of love is what Jesus has shown for us.
- Let’s again list what is contained in verses 11-17:
- Being a disciple of Jesus results in joy (v11)
- If you want joy, listen to Jesus’ words (v11)
- Jesus’ joy is in us also (v11)
- We are commanded by Jesus to love (v12)
- This is extreme love: to regard another persons’ life as more precious than yours (v13)
- Those who listen to Jesus’ command to love are friends of Jesus (v14)
- As friends of Jesus, we are treated to know everything Jesus knows about the Father (v15)
- We don’t make friends with Jesus, he makes friends with us (v16)
- We are chosen in order to bear fruit (v16)
- We bear fruit that will last (forever) (v16)
- The fruit that we bear is what we ask the Father to give (v16)
- What Jesus commands us to do is to love (v17)
Having listed the promises and instructions, we might notice that the fruit we are to bear is the fruit of love.
Like a branch only has life when it is connected to the tree, our life only exists when we are connected to Jesus. This connection is by listening to his words, to follow his example of love and to ask the Father to give us hearts that will love. Jesus saves us from hell and he gives us the full joy of true life.
- Seek Jesus. Life or death; heaven or hell; friend of Jesus or enemy with God – which would you choose and which have you chosen? There is no in-between option.
- Follow Jesus. Remaining in Jesus is by listening to him, learning from him and requesting God to help us be more like him. Failing to do this makes it difficult to identify a person as a true disciple.
- Pursue love. Jesus has given us a direct command here. We may well often ask ‘what does it mean to be a Christian’ but here is one clear path: we are to love. When we find it hard to love, the passage directs us to pray and ask God for it. What others need more than anything else in this world is to have their joy made complete and being grafted into the Jesus-vine. If our prayers for others are simply for good HSC results or healing from sickness, then we leave them as dead wood in the forest waiting to be burned. We who know the love of Jesus need to capture the same urgency that Jesus had for us and we must bring people to Jesus.
Father God, we ask in the name of Jesus that you will give us great love for the lost. For our neighbours, our families, our work colleagues, and all who you put in our path – give us hearts that will speak to them on your behalf. You have chosen all who will be your friends, please introduce us to them. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.