Jim Bishop wrote The Day Christ Died, the story form of the 24-hour period that took Jesus from the evening of the supper with his disciples to the next evening when he was laid in the garden tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. In his little book, Bishop imagines that about midnight Jesus and the disciples left the upper room and began to make their way out toward the Garden of Gethsemane, and that along the way somewhere they passed by a grape vine. He imagines that Jesus stops with his disciples, points that out to them, and says, "I am the true vine. My father is the husbandman. You are the branches."
It is interesting to try to imagine the occasion, the exact timing and the location, for those words. Were they brought on because of a vine Jesus saw? Were they brought on because of Old Testament background? Were they brought on because of the connection of the vine with Israel? We don't know all about that. But we do know something more important: the reason for these words being spoken, the motive that Jesus has in mind in talking about the vine and the branches and the precious fruit.
Sometimes this paragraph is taken more as a form of scolding than anything else. But notice very carefully that Jesus stated straight out his own motivation behind this statement. In verse 11, he said, "These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full." There is something about this concept of the vine and the branches and their fruitfulness which has everything to do with full and complete joy in the Christian life. We, of course, need to discover what that connection is. What could it be?
Well, the first thing that stands out here is the picture of Jesus, the true vine. It turns out that this is not merely a passing illustration that Jesus snatched out of the air. This is, in fact, a picture upon which the hope of Israel and the hope of all mankind hinged. The Old Testament taught that when God brought Israel up out of Egypt, he brought them into a promised land to plant them so they could become a fruitful vine, according to Exodus 15:17. In Isaiah 5 God comes to that vineyard which he has dug and planted and protected and provided for. He comes looking for fruit, and he finds nothing but wild grapes - no good fruit at all. And the prophets, because of that, began to try to help the people look forward to the time when God would plant the true vine.
Notice as an illustration of this some statements from the 80th Psalm. In Psalm 80:8 the Psalmist said of Israel, "You brought a vine out of Egypt. You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it. It took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches, it sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the river. Why then have you broken down its walls so that all who pass along pluck its fruit?" Israel had fallen short and it had been taken captive into Babylon. The people were left wondering what kind of vine is it that God has in mind and what will he do. And so a few verses later in the 80th Psalm at verse 17 it says, "But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself. Then we shall not turn back from you. Give us life and we will call upon your name." Notice that the idea of the true vine is implied in that statement. The life giving vine - the time when the relationship with God and man will be made real and healthy again and when fruit that will honor and glorify God can be produced will come along.
Those statements are at the background of what Jesus is saying here. It is said that on the temple gate which existed at the time of Jesus' ministry there was an elaborate metal working of gold and silver fashioned into the shape of the branch of a vine and a large cluster of golden grapes the size of a man. Jesus may have been saying to these disciples, "The true vine is not that. It is instead - me." If you hear it said of someone today, "That person is the real deal," then you know that there is some genuineness there and there is something in that individual which will bless people. And Jesus is saying, "I am the vine who is the real deal. There is no life apart from me."
Consider in this passage the key word that Jesus used. Do you notice the one word that occurs over and over in this paragraph - John 15? It is "abide." Remain in me. The term means to take up your abode there and make yourself at home in the Lord. Becoming a Christian has to do with leaving something and taking up your abode in Christ. When a person through faith is baptized into Christ, he is transferred into a new home. And Christian living is about abiding in Christ and making yourself at home in the Lord so that finally you can be brought home to live in his presence in eternity.
Jesus tells us in this passage that the fruit in our lives that we are searching for is not merely produced with some program that we invent. It doesn't just come by our determined efforts. It is not manufactured by our learning and by our talent and skill. As important as it may be for us to do our best in God's service, those things are not the source of the true fruit we are looking for. Those things, instead, are our service, our efforts. Jesus says here that I am the true vine. The fruit that you are looking for can only come in your relationship with me and your abiding in me. Notice the ways the Lord says this. In verse 4 he says, "As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." In verse 5 he adds, "Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." We need to be reminded of that. Fruitful living comes from abiding in the Lord.
Sometimes that is the real work that is needed. There may be times when the fruit is growing and maturing and developing to be ready to be harvested. We can't give up during those times. We have to abide in Christ and realize that he is the life-giving, fruit-producing vine. That gives us joy to know that's who our Lord is.
The second part of this picture that attaches to our joy is the picture of the Father, the gardener. Some of you sitting here are gardeners. And I take it from your enthusiasm for that task that you know something of the joy of working your garden and seeing the flowers come up and blossom, and then to pass along the benefits. You take joy in seeing that happen. This is a congregation where in the summer about every time we meet there will be some announcement made about vegetables that are available in room 110. It is because of the care of the gardener and his joy in his work.
In this passage, though, the God of Heaven is pictured as the husbandman, the vine dresser, the farmer, the gardener. And, the idea is that he is involved in tending the vine, that he is involved in its production of fruit. I am told that on the branches of the grapevine there are the little nubs that come out and there is the possibility of fruit to be borne there. But the branch has to have full sunlight. And so the husbandman or the gardener has to come along and lift up those branches so that they can get the light and the energy they need in order to bear the fruit. Now image God being involved providentially in that way in our lives.
And our passage says that he deals with the vine in the same way some of you deal with your tomato plants. You do not want the entire energy of that plant to be invested in just producing foliage. And so you will come along and you will pay attention to those branches and the one that will not bear any fruit, you take away. You prune the plant. And then on the other hand, that branch that has the bloom on it and you can see is going to bear that tasty tomato, you will prune or cleanse so that it can bear even more fruit. Jesus says that God is that way. He may cleanse us by his word. Notice verse 3 says "already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you". Our lives, as we look into the word together today, may be cleaned up, they may be pruned. There may be ways where we see we need to stop doing some things or where we need to repent and start doing some things. And in those cases, we are being made ready to bear more fruit by our heavenly Father.
The Hebrew writer in Hebrews 12, verses 5 and following, deals with another way in which the Father may work on his garden. He speaks of God's chastening us or disciplining us. He may do that by what he allows us to go through in order for us to understand more clearly our need to abide in Christ and to draw out spiritual strength and energy from him. So either through the teaching of his word or through the disciplining experiences of life, God works on us to get us ready to bear fruit. Why does he do that? Well, the purpose of fruit bearing. May I say the purpose of the Lord's church in this world is to glorify our Father, the gardener. We do not exists merely to serve ourselves nor to suit ourselves. The reason he works in his garden is for us to glorify him. That is, to reflect accurately the glory of which God is worthy. Our hunger and our desire is that people might recognize the place that the God of Heaven already has and that people might honor him for that reason.
Consider this theme of the glory of God again from scripture. It is not something Jesus snatched out of the air. In Isaiah 61 there is a beautiful statement that Jesus used even at the beginning of his public ministry. At verse 3 it says that the spirit of the Lord that was on him to bring good news that caused him to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, that its purpose was "to grant to those who mourn in Zion to give them a beautiful headdress (a garland made out of flowers) instead of ashes (the ashes of mourning and deep regret and repentance), the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit, that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord that he may be glorified." When people can have the transformation that takes them from the spirit of mourning and faintness and heaviness to them being mighty oaks of righteousness, then the God who worked that transformation is glorified and honored in the process.
Look at the way the Apostle Paul says it in I Timothy 1, referring to his own experience. He said, beginning in verse 16, "But I received mercy for this reason, that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the king of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever." God is glorified when the chief of sinners is taken and made into a faithful minister of Christ.
And then notice Philippians 1:9-11. Our purpose in glorifying God is obvious here. Paul says, "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent. And so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God." When our spirits are transformed, when we go from being the chief of sinners to the greatest of servants, when the fruit of righteousness is born in our lives, then the gardener who worked that garden is praised and honored.
Jesus the true vine, our Father the gardener, and the third part of this picture that is key to our joy is disciples as branches on the vine. Now these words may have originally been spoken directly to the apostles. I think verse 16 of this chapter may suggest that. But the principle is the same for all of us who draw our lives from Jesus Christ. We are branches in the vine.
Notice carefully what kinds of branches are mentioned in this passage. There are those who bear fruit and whose lives are cleansed so they can bear more fruit. And there are those who bear no fruit who are then pruned from the vine so that they do not take all of the energy of the vine. Those who are taken away in this way, it says, "wither up." Of course you would, apart from the source of life. And then they are bundled up for the judgement that is mentioned in this passage. That causes us to recognize that even though Jesus is the vine and our Father is the gardener, still the branches must bear some responsibility for their own function. Strictly speaking, the vine bears no fruit itself. The branches bear the fruit. You and I have a task here, then. Our abiding in the vine is partly our responsibility.
And if you look at the passage, there are three things especially that are called for on our part here. In the first place, it is very clear that the Lord wanted us to take his commandments seriously and to abide in them. He mentions our abiding in him and him in us in verse 5, and then in verse 7 he mentions our abiding in Him and his words abiding in us. In verse 10 he mentions keeping his commandments, thus walking in his love. The idea is that we have such a dependence on the vine that we hunger for his will to be done in our lives. We gladly submit, and eagerly seek to have his word to be the guide of our lives. No fruit bearing is going to occur when the Lord's word is ignored or when it is taken lightly. Submitting to his will and his word is moving in the direction of allowing the Father to bless us with fruitfulness.
Secondly, prayer is going to be a key to this process. The end of verse 7 says, "if you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it will be done for you." Jesus taught in Matthew 9 and then in John 4 that we ought to lift up our eyes and see the harvest and then we ought to pray urgently and fervently for laborers to be sent unto the harvest so that fruit can be born. For us to try to win people or to reach people with our own plans and efforts without leaning hard on the Lord in prayer is self-defeating and it dishonors the gardener.
And then third, loving one another is a key to bearing fruit. He requires, not just keeping the commandments and praying to God, but loving each other warmly and from the heart. Notice verse 10 says, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love." And verse 9 says, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love." That statement is sandwiched by two great statements that talk about what kind of love. In chapter 13, verses 34 and 35, Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another." And then chapter 15, verses 12 and following, "This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this that someone lays down his life for his friends." What kind of love is this? It is self-giving love. It is sacrificial love. It is love that seeks the best for somebody else. That's then our task in abiding in Jesus and bearing fruit.
How many of you have seen the old movie "Mister Holland's Opus?" It is the story of a fellow who works as a music teacher in a high school. The years go by, and all of his great dreams and his hopes and what he thinks he is going to do in his life pass by as he is works with high school students. He intends to write a great opus, a great musical piece, but the demands of life don't allow him to finish it. In his later middle age his job comes to be in danger and he gets so discouraged. He finally loses his job. He is up at the school house cleaning out his office that he has had for more than 30 years, and his wife has arranged a surprise assembly for him. All of his former students have been invited back, and they are the band on the stage. One of his ex-students, who by that time is the governor of the state, walks in to conduct that band. The governor says to all of the group, "Mr. Holland has given his life teaching us in this school. He is neither rich nor famous. I have the feeling he believes he has been a failure, but he would be wrong." Then she says to him, "Mr. Holland, we are the notes and music of your life." She makes the point that they are the fruit of his journey through this world, and it is a scene of great joy.
That is what this passage is talking about. For joy to come into our lives we are going to have to set out to bear fruit to our Father's glory. That needs to be the reason we look into his word, the subject of our prayers, and the aim of our love for each other. Maybe this morning you would like to take up your home in Christ and abide there. If you need to become a Christian today, won't you think about it and act on it right now while we stand and sing together?