May 27, 2017: Verse of the day

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15:5 Christ Himself is the vine; believers are vine branches. It is not a question of the branch living its life for the Vine, but simply of letting the life of the Vine flow out through the branches. Sometimes we pray, “Lord, help me to live my life for You.” It would be better to pray, “Lord Jesus, live out Your life through me.” Without Christ, we can do nothing. A vine branch has one great purpose—to bear fruit. It is useless for making furniture or for building homes. It does not even make good firewood. But it is good for fruit-bearing—as long as it abides in the vine.[1]


5. I am the vine, you are the branches. First 15:1 is repeated: Jesus is the vine. Next, the thought already clearly implied in 15:2–4, is expressly stated, namely, “You are the branches.” A word is used for branch which literally means vine-branch or vine-twig (κλῆμα).

He who abides in me, with me abiding in him (literally, “He who abides in me, and I in him,” but this is hardly good English), he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Note: more fruit (verse 2), much fruit (verses 5 and 8). The vitality of the vine, Jesus Christ, is stressed. This vine enables those who remain in him to produce fruit not only but much fruit. For the character of this fruit see on 15:1, 2.

On the other hand, those who are out of relation to Christ can do literally nothing, nothing whatever (οὐ … οὐδέν). That holds not only for the drunkard, the thief, the murderer, the immoral person, but also for the poet, the scientist, and the philosopher who has not embraced Christ with a living faith. He can render no work that is acceptable before God. Then why is it that some—even among those who like to pass as Christians and who seek the place of leadership in the church—are ever engaged in ascribing the highest possible honors to such “outsiders,” as if one could better afford to do without Paul than without Plato?

The passage certainly teaches the inability of man to do that which is good in the sight of God. It is entirely in line with Rom. 14:23, just as the preceding clause (“He who abides in me.… he it is that bears much fruit”) is entirely in line with Phil. 4:13.—Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of every description stands condemned here![2]


“I Am the True Vine”

John 15:1–5

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

There have been many guesses about what may have occasioned Christ’s parable of the vine and its branches, which extends over the first half of John 15, but it is impossible to be certain of the cause. Since the preceding chapter concludes with the words, “Come now; let us leave,” it would seem that the Lord and his disciples left the upper room at this point and began that quiet walk across the city of Jerusalem down into the Kidron Valley that brought them to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. If that is the case, they may have passed the great golden vine that decorated the door to the Holy Place of the temple or else the vines that grew close to the great walls of the city and stretched along it. This is not certain, however, for the party may have lingered in the upper room even after Christ’s statement. Some, who have felt this way for other reasons, have suggested that the vine on the temple may have been visible through a window of the room or that a real vine may have been nearby.

As I say, we do not know the occasion for this parable. We only know that vines were visible everywhere in Judea and that the image of the vine had already been widely used in reference to Israel. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. He then went on to teach about the nature of the church and its fruitfulness, which was to be the result, not of any human achievement, but of its spiritual union with himself. “In me … in me … in me!” That is the theme of this parable and of the great “I am” saying with which it is launched.

The True Vine

The first point of this parable is the “I am” saying itself, and the obvious emphasis is upon the word “true.” “I am the true vine,” says Jesus. This does not mean that he is true as opposed to that which is false but, rather, that he is the one, perfect, essential and enduring vine before which all other vines are but shadows. The word is used in precisely this sense elsewhere where Jesus is declared to be the “true light” (1:9), the “true bread” (6:32), and the “true tabernacle” (Heb. 8:2).

But there is an even more immediate reference, which almost certainly would not have escaped the disciples. The vine is the preeminent symbol of Israel. Thus, over and over again in the Old Testament Israel is portrayed as God’s choice vine or God’s vineyard. Isaiah had written, “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 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. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. … The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Isa. 5:1–2, 7). In a similar vein, Jeremiah recorded, “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?” (Jer. 2:21). Ezekiel 15 compares Israel to a vine also, as does Ezekiel 19, “Your mother was like a vine … : it was fruitful and full of branches” (v. 10). Hosea wrote, “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself” (10:1). One of the best-known passages is from the Psalms: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches” (Ps. 80:8–10).

The vine was well known, then, as a symbol of Israel. Indeed, a bunch of grapes from the vine is a symbol seen in Israel even today. But the truly extraordinary thing about the use of this image in the Old Testament is that it is always brought forward as a symbol of Israel’s degeneration, rather than her fruitfulness. The point of Isaiah’s reference is that the vine has run wild, producing sour grapes. “What could have been done more to my vineyard, than I have not done in it?” God asks. Yet it brought forth “wild grapes” (v. 4). Jeremiah terms Israel a “degenerate” and “strange” vine. Hosea calls her “empty,” that is, run to leaves. The eightieth psalm is set in the context of a plea for God’s renewed favor after the vine has been burned and the hedges broken down.

So here is a vine planted by God to be fruitful but which is not fruitful. And here also, by contrast, is the Lord Jesus Christ who is the true vine. He came from dry ground, but still he grew up before the Lord as “a tender plant” (Isa. 53:2). He was despised of men, but he was perfect and beloved of the Father who, indeed, declared him to be his “beloved Son” in whom he was “well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Jesus is the One who, by his very nature as the true vine, brings forth fruit unto the Father.

The Gardener

There are two things that the Father is said to do in his care of the vine. First, he is said to “cut off” every branch that does not bear fruit. Generally this has been understood to be a purging away of dead branches in precisely the same sense that branches are said to be “thrown into the fire” and “burned” in verse 6, but I am convinced that most translators have missed the true meaning of the term “cut off” in this instance. Undoubtedly, their translation has been made to conform to what they know or believe is coming in verse 6, but the translation is not the best or even the most general meaning of the Greek word airo which lies behind it. The word airo has four basic meanings, which are, proceeding from the most fundamental to the most figurative: (1) to lift up or pick up, (2) to lift up figuratively, as in lifting up one’s eyes or voice, (3) to lift up with the added thought of lifting up in order to carry away, and (4) to remove. In translating this word by the verb “cut off” the majority of translators have obviously chosen the fourth of these meanings, for the reason suggested above. But the verse makes better sense and the sequence of verbs is better if the first and primary meaning of the word is taken. In that case the sentence would read, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he lifts up,” that is, to keep it from trailing on the ground.

This translation makes better sense of the passage in every way, and in addition it is much better theology. First, the emphasis of this opening section of the parable is, quite rightly, upon the care of the vine by the Father. It would be strange, granting this emphasis, if the first thing mentioned is the carrying away of unproductive branches. But it is not at all strange to emphasize that the gardener first lifts the branches up so that they may be better exposed to the sun and so the fruit will develop properly.

Second, this lifting up is precisely what is first done with vines, as any one who has watched them being cared for knows. Grapes are not like squash or pumpkins that develop quite well while lying on the ground. They must hang free. Consequently, any branch that trails on the ground is unproductive. It would be a strange gardener who immediately cuts off such a branch without even giving it a chance to develop properly. But it would be wise and customary for him to stretch the vine on an arbor or use some other means of raising it to the air and sun. This is, of course, precisely what vineyards look like, for the vines are always strung from pole to pole on wires.

Third, to translate the word airo by “lifts up” gives a proper sequence to the Father’s care of the vineyard, indicated by the verb that follows. Thus, he first of all lifts the vines up. Then he cuts off the unproductive elements, carefully cleansing the vine of insects, moss, or parasites that otherwise would hinder the growth of the plant. This last item would have been the ancient equivalent of using insecticides, as is done today.

For these reasons the translation “lifts up” should be preferred. And if this is the case, then the first thing the Father is said to do is to lift the Christian closer to himself. To translate that into spiritual terms, it means that the Father first creates a sense of true devotion in the Christian.

Pruning

The second thing the Father is said to do in his care of the vine is to purge it or prune it. In Greek this word is katharizo, which means to cleanse, make clean, or purify. It has given us our English word catharsis. Normally this word would indicate the act of cleansing the vine of anything harmful to it—insects, moss, and so on. But since it is being used of a vine and its branches, it is hard to escape the feeling that pruning is probably also in view. At all events, here the Father is said to be doing a work of removal, removing everything that would prove detrimental to the most fruitful harvest.

In spiritual terms this obviously refers to God’s work in removing that which is spiritually detrimental from a given Christian’s life. It means to have our bad habits stripped away. It means to have our priorities reordered, our values changed. At times it may mean the removal of friends who are hindering rather than advancing our spiritual growth.

The order of these two activities of the Father are most important, because the reverse only produces hypocrisy. What happens when we go about lopping off so-called unspiritual practices without first being drawn closer to God in true devotion is that we imagine ourselves to be quite saintly, when actually we are not. We begin to look down on others who have not made the same denials. We consider them to be worldly and ourselves spiritual. Moreover, having eliminated these elements ourselves without first having our lives filled with Christ, we discover that we have a vacuum within and that it is easy for something else not at all Christian to fill it. We are like the man in Christ’s story who threw one demon out of his house but then suffered greater loss when that demon and seven of his friends returned to repossess him.

What should happen is that we first of all draw near to God and become productive. After that, as the harmful things begin to be cut away, we hardly feel their going. It is a case of maturing, similar to a girl’s giving up dolls. No one ever asks a girl to give up playing with dolls. When she is young she plays with them. But as she grows older she becomes interested in a young man, and after this the dolls are just “kid’s stuff.” The girl does not “give up” dolls. The dolls give her up, because she has grown into a higher sphere of experience. In the same way, as we grow close to the Lord Jesus Christ the dead wood and parasites fall away.

There is one more point connected with the matter of cleansing. It concerns the means by which we are cleansed—the Word of God. Unless we see that the Word must cleanse us, our ideas of purity are man-made and not of God’s origin at all. What is more, they are ineffective. David asked the question, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” He answered, “By living according to your word” (Ps. 119:9). Similarly, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). Nothing will keep sin from us but a careful attention to and application of God’s Word. Nothing else will cleanse us.

Remain in Me

The third point in Christ’s parable of the vine and the branches is the secret of fruitfulness, which is abiding in Christ. Here Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (vv. 4–5).

The key sentence in these two verses can mean one of three things. It can be a simple declarative, with the sense, “You must remain in me, and I must remain in you.” It can be a promise: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Or it can be a command meaning, “ Remain in me and, thus, see to it that I for my part also remain in you.” Probably, as Leon Morris points out, it is the third of these that should be preferred. “Jesus means that the disciples should live such lives that He will continue to abide in them. The two ‘abidings’ cannot be separated, and ‘abiding’ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness. No branch bears fruit in isolation. It must have vital connection with the vine. So to abide in Christ is the necessary prerequisite of fruitfulness for the Christian.”

I am not a horticulturist, but I am told by those who know such things that a vine needs to be cultivated at least three years before being allowed to produce fruit at all. That is, it must be trimmed and allowed to grow, then be trimmed and allowed to grow again, and so on for a considerable length of time. Only after this does it become useful for bearing fruit. Similarly, there are times in our lives when we seem to go on for considerable periods, undergoing rather radical treatment at the hands of the Father and seeing little fruit come from it. In such times we doubt if there will ever be fruit. But that is only because we cannot see as God sees. We do not have his perspective. Do not get discouraged if that has happened to you. Instead, remember that Jesus promises fruit in due time if we truly remain in him in a close way. We can give our witness, live the Christian life, and, in a sense, refuse to be concerned about the outcome; for, ultimately, God is the One responsible for the vineyard.

You Can Do Nothing

The last sentence of this section introduces a warning, lest in our budding enthusiasm for bearing fruit for God we forget that it cannot be done without him. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” says Jesus.

This statement may be applied in two ways. On the one hand, it may be applied to Christians; and if that is done, we have the following: (1) great work to be done, (2) the possibility of attempting to do it, but without Christ, and (3) the inevitable failure that must result from such effort. Spurgeon, who preached a marvelous sermon on just these words, observed, “Without Jesus you can talk any quantity; but without him you can do nothing. The most eloquent discourse without him will be all a bottle of smoke. You shall lay your plans, and arrange your machinery, and start your schemes; but without the Lord you will do nothing. Immeasurable cloudland of proposals and not a spot of solid doing large enough for a dove’s foot to rest on—such shall be the end of all!” It is good that it is so, for if it were not so, I am afraid that we would try to do it all without him. Nothing is what shall come of our efforts, if it is not Christ working.

On the other hand, there is also encouragement in this verse when we realize that it may be applied to those who are yet Christ’s enemies. “Without Christ we can do nothing.” That is humbling. But if that is true for those who are united to Christ by faith, in whom he nevertheless dwells, how much truer it is of those who are not at all united to him. They may try to do something against the gospel. They may try to destroy Christ’s work. But all their efforts will come to nothing, for only the hand of man (and not that of God) is in them.[3]


The Vine

I am the true vine … I am the vine (1a, 5a)

Spoken just hours before His death, this is the last of the seven “I AM” statements in John’s gospel, all of which affirm Christ’s deity (6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; cf. 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5–6). As God in human flesh, Jesus rightly pointed to Himself as the source of spiritual life, vitality, growth, and productivity.

The imagery is ancient, as the Old Testament portrays Israel as God’s vine. In Psalm 80:8 the psalmist wrote, “You removed a vine from Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said to Israel, “I planted you a choice vine, a completely faithful seed” (Jer. 2:21). Israel was the channel through which God’s covenant blessings flowed to the world.

But Israel proved to be a fruitless, unfaithful vine. The Old Testament laments Israel’s failure to produce good fruit and warns of God’s impending judgment. In Jeremiah 2:21 God demanded of the nation, “How then have you turned yourself before Me into the degenerate shoots of a foreign vine?” In Hosea He lamented, “Israel is a luxuriant vine; he produces fruit for himself. The more his fruit, the more altars he made; the richer his land, the better he made the sacred pillars” (Hos. 10:1; cf. Isa. 27:2–6; Jer. 12:10–13; Ezek. 15:1–8; 19:10–14).

Nowhere in the Old Testament is Israel’s faithless rejection of God’s gracious, tender care more poignantly depicted than in Isaiah 5:1–7:

Let me sing now for my well-beloved a song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it and also hewed out a wine vat in it; then He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced only worthless ones. “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones? So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed; I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground. I will lay it waste; it will not be pruned or hoed, but briars and thorns will come up. I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.” For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel and the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.

In Matthew 21:33–43 Jesus told a similar parable, illustrating Israel’s rejection of God’s messengers, which would culminate in their murder of Him:

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone; this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing the fruit of it.”

Israel’s apostasy made it an empty vine, and for a long time disqualified as the channel for God’s blessings. Those blessings now come only from union with Jesus Christ, the true vine. “Theologically, John’s point is that Jesus displaces Israel as the focus of God’s plan of salvation, with the implication that faith in Jesus becomes the decisive characteristic for membership among God’s people” (Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 448).

Alēthinos (true) refers to what is real as distinct from a type (cf. Heb. 8:2; 9:24), perfect as distinct from the imperfect, or genuine rather than what is counterfeit (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 John 5:20; Rev. 3:7, 14; 6:10; 19:11). Jesus is the true vine in the same sense that He is the true light (John 1:9), the final and complete revelation of spiritual truth, and the true bread out of heaven (John 6:32), the final and only source of spiritual sustenance.

The Vinedresser

My Father is the vinedresser. (1b)

That Jesus designates the Father as the vinedresser while assigning Himself the role of the vine is in no way a denial of His deity and full equality with the Father. During His incarnation, without diminishing His deity one iota, Jesus willingly assumed a subordinate role to the Father (see the discussion of 14:28 in chapter 12 of this volume). Moreover, the point of the analogy is not to define the relationship of the Father to the Son, but to emphasize the Father’s care for the vine and the branches.

Geōrgos (vinedresser) refers to one who tills the soil; hence a farmer (2 Tim. 2:6; James 5:7), or a vine-grower (Matt. 21:33, 34, 35, 38, 40, 41; Mark 12:1, 2, 7, 9). It is in the latter sense that Jesus used it here. Apart from planting, fertilizing, and watering the vine, the vinedresser had two primary responsibilities in caring for it. First, he removed the branches that did not bear fruit. Second, he pruned the ones that did bear fruit, thus enabling them to bear more fruit. It is with those two types of branches that the rest of Christ’s analogy is primarily concerned.

The Vine Branches

Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 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. 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. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. 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. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (15:2–11)

As noted above, the two types of branches represent the two types of disciples outwardly professing attachment to Jesus: the genuine branches that abide in Him, and the false branches that do not.

the blessings of abiding branches

every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 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.… If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. 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. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (15:2b–5, 7–11)

Three distinguishing marks of the true branches stand out in this analogy. First, they bear fruit (vv. 2, 4, 5, 8). That characteristic most clearly sets them apart from the false branches (cf. vv. 2, 8). Second, they also abide (remain; continue) in Christ’s love (v. 9). Finally, they operate in full cooperation with the source of life, keeping His commandments by following the perfect example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who always obeyed the Father (v. 10). As Jesus had earlier told those who professed faith in Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). Obedience proves that a person’s love for Christ is genuine (John 14:15, 21, 23), a point John makes clear in his first epistle: believers confess their sins (1:9), unbelievers deny them (1:8, 10); believers obey God’s commandments (2:3), unbelievers do not (2:4); believers demonstrate love for others (2:10), unbelievers do not (2:9, 11); believers live in patterns of righteous (3:6), unbelievers do not (3:9).

But that does not mean that those who love Christ will always obey perfectly; there are times when we lapse into disobedience and fail to abide fully in Christ. Paul admonished the Corinthians,

I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? (1 Cor. 3:1–3)

Jesus rebuked the Ephesian church for its diminished devotion to Him: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4). John, after making the absolute statement “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,” immediately added “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2). Therefore the Lord’s exhortation to abide in Him is appropriate not only for unbelievers, but also to remind and warn believers who are not abiding in Him in the fullest sense.

Because He wants them to be spiritually productive, the Father takes every branch that bears fruit and prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. Pruning

was … an essential part of first-century viticultural practice, as it is today. The first pruning occurred in spring when vines were in flowering stage. This involved four operations: (1) the removal of the growing tips of vigorous shoots so that they would not grow too rapidly; (2) cutting off one or two feet from the end of growing shoots to prevent entire shoots being snapped off by the wind; (3) the removal of some flower or grape clusters so that those left could produce more and better-quality fruit; and (4) the removal of suckers that arose from below the ground or from the trunk and main branches so that the strength of the vine was not tapped by the suckers. (Colin Kruse, The Gospel According to John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 315)

The Father prunes the true branches by removing anything that would sap their spiritual energy and hinder them from fruitful results. His pruning involves cutting away anything that limits righteousness, including the discipline that comes from trials, suffering, and persecution. The knowledge that the Father uses the pain that Christians endure for their ultimate good should eliminate all fear, self-pity, and complaining. The classic text in Hebrews reminds those undergoing God’s painful, pruning chastening,

It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Heb. 12:7–11; cf. 1 Cor. 11:32)

In the Father’s infinite wisdom and absolute, sovereign control of all of life’s circumstances, He “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; cf. 5:3–5; Gen. 50:20; Deut. 8:16; 2 Cor. 4:16–18; James 1:2–4).

But suffering is merely the handle of the Father’s knife; the blade is the Word of God. You are already clean, Jesus told the eleven true disciples, because of the word which I have spoken to you. Because they had embraced the gospel through Christ’s teaching, the eleven had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:3–8; Titus 3:4–7). That same gospel is found today in the Scriptures, the “word of Christ” (Col. 3:16). The Word is instrumental in believers’ initial cleansing at salvation (cf. Rom. 1:16), and it also continually purges, prunes, and cleanses them.

God uses His Word as the pruning knife, because it “is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), but He uses affliction to prepare His people for the Word’s pruning. The psalmist affirmed the connection between affliction and the Word’s work in his life when he wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.… It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:67, 71). Psalm 94:12 also makes that connection: “Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O Lord, and whom You teach out of Your law.”

The Lord’s words emphasize two important truths regarding spiritual conduct: 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. First, since all true believers, those who abide in Christ and He in them, will bear spiritual fruit, there is no such thing as a fruitless Christian. John the Baptist challenged his hearers to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8), and warned that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 10). Contrasting true and false teachers, Jesus said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:17–20). In Luke 6:43 He added, “There is no good tree which produces bad fruit, nor, on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit.”

Second, believers cannot bear fruit on their own, because as He plainly stated, 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 (cf. Hos. 14:8). There may be times when believers have lapses, when they fail to be faithful to their life in Christ. But true branches, through whom the life of the vine flows, cannot ultimately fail to produce fruit (cf. Pss. 1:1–3; 92:12–14; Prov. 11:30; 12:12; Jer. 17:7–8; Matt. 13:23; Rom. 7:4; Gal. 5:22–23; Eph. 5:9; Phil 1:11; Col. 1:10; James 3:17).

A popular misconception equates fruit with outward success. By that common standard, external religion, superficial righteousness, having a large church, a popular ministry, or a successful program are considered fruitful. But the Bible nowhere equates fruit with superficial, external behavior or results, which deceivers and hypocrites, as well as non-Christian cults and religions can duplicate. Instead, Scripture defines fruit in terms of spiritual qualities. “The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul reminded the Galatians, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). Those Christlike traits mark those through whom His life flows.

Praise offered to God is also fruit. The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers, “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15; cf. Isa. 57:19; Hos. 14:2).

The Bible also identifies sacrificial love in meeting the needs of others as fruit. Referring to the monetary gift he was collecting for the needy believers at Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain” (Rom. 15:28). Acknowledging the Philippians’ financial support of his ministry, Paul told them, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account” (Phil. 4:17 nkjv). Supporting others who are in need is a tangible expression of love, which is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

Fruit may also be defined as holy, righteous, God-honoring behavior in general. Such conduct is “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8); the fruit produced by the good soil (Matt. 13:23) of a transformed life; the “fruit of the Light [that] consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Eph. 5:9); the “fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11); the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11). Paul prayed that the Colossians would be continually “bearing fruit in every good work” (Col. 1:10), because Christians were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Finally, the Bible defines fruit as converts to the gospel—not the artificial fruit of superficial “believers,” but genuine disciples who abide in the true vine. Referring to the Samaritans who were coming out to Him from the village of Sychar, many of whom would believe savingly in Him (John 4:39, 41), Jesus said, “Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (v. 36). He declared of His sacrificial death, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Paul expressed his desire to the Christians in Rome to win converts in the imperial capital: “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that often I have planned to come to you (and have been prevented so far) so that I may obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:13). At the close of his letter, Paul greeted “Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ” (16:5 nkjv). In 1 Corinthians 16:15 the apostle referred to “the household of Stephanas,” as “the first fruits of Achaia,” while in Colossians 1:6 he rejoiced that “in all the world also it [the gospel; v. 5] is constantly bearing fruit and increasing.” John wrote of the 144,000 evangelists, who will be redeemed during the tribulation, “These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4).

Another blessing comes in Jesus’ promise If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. That sweeping, all-encompassing promise presupposes that three conditions are met. First, the prayer Jesus promises to answer must be offered in His name; that is, consistent with His person and will, and so that He might display His glory in answering it (cf. the exposition of 14:13–14 in chapter 9 of this volume).

Second, the promise is only to those who abide in (have a permanent union with) Jesus Christ. God does not obligate Himself to answer the prayers of unbelievers, though He may choose to do so if it suits His sovereign purposes.

The final condition is that Christ’s words abide in the person making the request. Words translates the plural form of the noun rhēma, and refers to the individual utterances of Christ. The promise of answered prayer comes only to those whose lives are controlled by the specific commands of God’s Word (cf. Ps. 37:4). On the other hand, both Psalm 66:18 and James 4:3 warn that those controlled by sinful, selfish desires will not have their prayers answered.

The true branches also have the privilege of living lives that glorify God. My Father is glorified by this, Jesus told the disciples, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. The greatest theme in the universe is the glory of God, and to live a life that brings God glory is the believer’s highest privilege and duty. Only those who are in union with Christ can glorify God. Paul wrote, “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Rom. 15:18; cf. 1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:29).

Jesus further promised that those who abide in Him will experience His love. Just as the Father has loved Me, He said, I have also loved you; abide in My love. The way to do that is to keep His commandments, just as He kept His Father’s commandments and abides in His love. Righteous obedience is the key to experiencing God’s blessing.

The crowning blessing, to which all the rest contribute, is full and complete joy. The Lord promised to impart to believers His joy—the joy that He shares in intimate fellowship with the Father. These things I have spoken to you, Jesus said to the eleven, so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. The Lord promised that His own joy will permeate and control the lives of those who walk in communion with Him. Just a short time later, Jesus reiterated this promise in His High Priestly Prayer to the Father: “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13). Such joy comes only to the obedient, as David learned to his sorrow. After his terrible sin with Bathsheba, he cried out, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Ps. 51:12). But the obedient receive “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

the burning of non-abiding branches

Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; … 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. (2a, 6)

A very different fate awaits the branches that do not bear fruit. Because they are detrimental to the health of the vine, the vinedresser would cut off the dry, lifeless, withered branches. In the Lord’s analogy, the vinedresser (the Father) takes the unregenerate false branches away from their superficial attachment to the vine, and they are thrown away.

The reference here is not, as some imagine, to true Christians losing their salvation, nor are these fruitless but genuine Christians (an impossibility, as we have seen). That these branches bear no fruit marks them as unbelieving, false disciples since, as noted previously, all true Christians bear fruit. Further, Jesus promised that He will not cast out any true disciples: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).

The phrase in Me in this case cannot have the Pauline connotation of believers’ union with Christ; it merely describes those who outwardly attach themselves to Him (cf. Matt. 13:20–22; Rom. 9:6–8; 11:16–24; 1 John 2:19). Such people will always be present with the true church. The New Testament describes them as tares among the wheat (Matt. 13:25–30); bad fish that are thrown away (Matt. 13:48); goats condemned to eternal punishment (Matt. 25:33, 41); those left standing outside when the head of the house shuts the door (Luke 13:25–27); foolish virgins shut out of the wedding feast (Matt. 25:1–12); useless slaves who bury their master’s talent in the ground (Matt. 25:24–30); apostates who eventually leave the fellowship of believers (1 John 2:19), manifest an evil, unbelieving heart by abandoning the living God (Heb. 3:12), continue to sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth (Heb. 10:26), and fall away from the truth to everlasting destruction (Heb. 10:39). Although they imagine that they are on their way to heaven, they are actually on the broad path leading to hell (Matt. 7:13–14).

Right in their presence was the quintessential example of a false branch—Judas Iscariot. Outwardly, he was indistinguishable from the other eleven apostles—so much so that when Jesus announced earlier that night, “Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me” (John 13:21), the other “disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking” (v. 22). They finally had to ask Him to point out His betrayer (vv. 23–26). But Judas had never been saved. In John 6:70–71 Jesus said to the apostles, “ ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’ Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”

The ultimate fate that awaits the false branches is to be cast … into the fire and … burned. In Matthew 13:49–50 Jesus warned that “at the end of the age the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt. 3:10–12; 7:19; 25:41; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 3:17). Their anguished protest, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” (Matt. 7:22) will evoke the chilling reply from the Lord, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (v. 23).

The choice that faces every person is clear. To abide in Christ as a genuine disciple will produce righteous behavior and result in eternal joy and blessing. But those whose profession of faith is false, like Judas, will be fruitless and ultimately cast into eternal torment in hell. The Lord’s sobering pronouncement concerning Judas, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24), applies to all pseudodisciples. In the words of Peter,

If, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them (2 Peter 2:20–21).[4]


[1] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1550). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[2] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 2, p. 300). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 1159–1164). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 143–153). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

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