“I Am the True Vine”
“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.
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.
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.
I Am the True Vine
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 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.” (John 15:1–2)
John 15 begins a new phase of Jesus’ farewell teaching, signaled by Jesus’ departure from the upper room with the disciples. In John 14, Jesus sought to comfort the disciples’ fears in light of his imminent departure. Now Jesus gives the corresponding teaching regarding the disciples’ duty and obligation during his absence. Jesus did this by means of the seventh and last “I am” statement in the Gospel of John: “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
The True Vine
The route from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, east of the city, would have afforded Jesus and the disciples the sight of the great temple atop Mount Zion. One of the temple’s notable features was the large decorative vine affixed above the entryway into the Holy Place. Over the years, wealthy Jews had brought gifts of gold and jewels to add tendrils, grapes, and leaves to this gigantic piece of art. According to Josephus, some of the grape clusters were the height of a man. We do not know for certain, but it is possible that this sight prompted Jesus’ use of the vine to make his last “I am” statement. Having led his disciples out toward the Mount of Olives, Jesus began teaching them again, saying, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
The vine was the symbol of Israel, which is why the temple was adorned with this image. Psalm 80 is one of many Old Testament passages employing this symbol: “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” (Ps. 80:8–9). The idea of the vineyard expresses God’s labor and care in planting his people in the Promised Land. The vine was the Lord’s people, from which he desired a rich harvest of fruit.
The problem was that Israel never produced the fruit that the Lord had desired. This is the point of most of the biblical references to Israel as a vine. Isaiah’s famous Song of the Vineyard makes this point: “For 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!” (Isa. 5:7). In Jeremiah 2:21, God complained, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?”
It was in comparison to Israel’s failure that Jesus declared himself the “true vine.” Israel became a false and wild vine through idolatry and wickedness. In contrast, how pleasing was the life of Jesus to God the Father! As Isaiah foretold, Jesus “grew up before him like a young plant” (Isa. 53:2), and out of his humble circumstances he brought delight to the Father through perfect obedience. Thus God praised Jesus at his baptism: “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ ” (Matt. 3:17). The fruit that God desired from Israel but did not find, he gained for himself by sending his own Son to be the true vine, from which his new and righteous people would live and bear good fruit.
When we consider the life of Jesus, we can see in how many ways “the true vine” is an apt emblem for our Lord. The vine grows from a modest beginning to display great beauty with its leaves and grapes. So also does Jesus overflow with a beautiful character and love. Just as the vine is the source of life for its branches, Jesus is the true vine, the source of true and everlasting life for those who believe. Jesus taught, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Just as the fruit of the vine brings joy and refreshment to the hearts of men (Ps. 104:15), Jesus came to give true joy and spiritual rest to heavy-laden hearts (Matt. 11:28). Moreover, the wine that comes from the vine was the emblem that Jesus used that evening for the blood he would shed to cleanse us from our sins. As the true vine, he provides his blood as the source of the new life for believers.
This passage is unique among the “I am” sayings of Jesus in that it forms the basis for an extended metaphor or parable. Jesus said that he is the true vine, the Father is the vinedresser, and the disciples are the branches. Believers are the tendrils or branches that are to bear good fruit from Jesus the true vine. Paul thus writes that Christians were saved “in order that [we] may bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4). Jesus here emphasized the good fruit that believers are to bear for the Lord, along with the Father’s loving activity in pruning the branches, and his own life as the source of believers’ fruitfulness.
The contrast with idolatrous Israel and the context of Jesus’ teaching in chapters 14–16 show that our fruit is to consist mainly in devotion to God and obedience to his commands. It was because of idolatry and injustice that God promised to remove Israel’s hedge, break down its wall, trample down the vineyard, and make it a waste (Isa. 5:5–6). In addition to praise (Heb. 13:15) and righteousness (Phil. 1:11; Heb. 12:11), the New Testament adds the fruit of good works (Col. 1:10) and the fruit of the Spirit in our inward character (Gal. 5:22–23). Not only does the Lord desire such fruit from us, but Jesus depicts how determined God is to gain it from our lives.
Fruitless Branches Taken Away
Anyone who knows about vineyards can tell you that they require a great deal of tending, lest they grow wild and become fruitless. Here, Jesus depicts the Father’s personal activity in tending his cherished vine. This description emphasizes the Father’s protective care, watchfulness over the daily condition of each branch, and faithfulness in not permitting any true branch to go to ruin. A. W. Pink comments, “He does not allot to others the task of caring for the vine and its branches, and this assures us of the widest, most tender and most faithful care of it.”
Jesus description requires us to distinguish between two kinds of branches: “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” (John 15:2). There are branches in Christ, the true vine, that flow with life and bear fruit. But there are other branches connected to Jesus that do not bear fruit. What are these other branches “in me” that do not bear fruit?
John 15:2, which depicts the removal of fruitless branches from the vine, is a favorite verse of Arminians, who cite this verse as proof that true believers who are savingly joined to Christ may yet fall away and be lost. It must be agreed that these fruitless branches are lost: verse 6 says that they “are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Arminians teach that this verse describes true believers who lose their salvation by ceasing to bear fruit.
The first problem with this interpretation is the Bible’s clear teaching of the eternal security of genuine believers in Christ. For instance, in Jesus’ teaching on himself as the Good Shepherd, he said of his true sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). This is in keeping with Jesus’ teaching in John 6:39 that “this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” These, and many other clear Bible passages, directly refute the Arminian doctrine.
The second problem with the Arminian view is seen in the functioning of this very parable, which presumes that branches containing the life of the vine will certainly go on to bear good fruit: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5). The problem with dead branches is that they do not possess the sap of the vine. Vinedressers remove these dead branches to preserve the vine’s strength for the fruitful branches. Thus, Jesus said, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” (15:2).
So what kind of branches are connected to Christ without possessing his saving life? The answer is nominal Christians: that is, those who call themselves Christians, attend church with Christians, and engage in many actions that Christians do, but who nonetheless do not possess the life of Christ through true and saving faith.
This teaching makes a vitally important point for us. According to Jesus here, and throughout the Gospels, the true mark of those who belong to him and are saved is the bearing of good fruit. We are saved not by good fruit or any other work of our own, but by faith in Christ alone. The good fruit, however, is the only proof that our profession of faith is true and saving. Being present in the church, receiving the rite of baptism, having membership on the church rolls, and being part of a godly family are not proofs of salvation and new life. Moreover, it is possible for a person to affirm the basic truths of Christian belief, yet to possess none of Christ’s life. The true and only proof of salvation is fruit. This is the sole distinction between the two kinds of branches that Jesus mentions. Both are connected to him in some sense. But one does not bear fruit, and it is taken away while the fruitful branch is tended. “You will recognize them by their fruits,” Jesus taught elsewhere (Matt. 7:20), and so will God.
It follows that we should never encourage a person to have assurance of salvation through a bare profession of faith, until that faith has proved itself by bearing fruit. The best Christians are imperfect and flawed in many ways, but all true Christians bear some true fruit in the form of obedience to God’s commands, faithfulness to Christ before the world, and the cultivating of inward spiritual grace.
I once met with a woman, a longtime church member and the wife of an elder, who was nonetheless worldly in her speech and conduct. I asked her how she was doing and she answered, as was her custom, “I am ornery.” I pointed out that orneriness is not among the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5:22–23. “Read me the list,” she asked, “and see if I possess any of those qualities.” I therefore read, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). “Which of these do you see in yourself?” I asked. She had to reply, “I see none of them in myself.” I pointed out that this indicated the possibility that she was not truly joined to Jesus Christ and began discussing her need to trust in Christ’s blood for forgiveness and new life. Taking offense at my reply, the woman demanded that we change the subject.
Do you see any of the fruit of the Spirit in your life? If you are a Christian, the honest answer should be Yes. You should be able to identify an increasing righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom. 14:17), with a growing love for God and his people. No doubt there is a mixed report in these areas, but a true Christian will be able to see some fruit of inward change, to go along with obedience to God’s Word, fidelity to Christ before the world, and good works. Christians who know the fruit of Christ in their lives should thus be assured that their profession of faith is real, since the life of the vine is bearing fruit in the branch.
The question may be raised as to how God “takes away” the fruitless branches. Charles Spurgeon suggests that in some cases the Lord might allow a false professor to become rich so as to no longer feel his need for religion. In other cases, a dead branch might fall into open sin that leads to pride and rejection of Christ. Others will be drawn by the world into unbelief and will “discover” that Christianity is not true after all, particularly after such activities as golfing on Sundays and travel have slowly turned their heart to the world. Though Christians may plead with God over such persons, Spurgeon delivers the Father’s answer: “Take them away …: if they had through saving faith been made to bear the fruit of the Spirit, they should have been saved; but as there was not fruit, take them away.” God does this for the good of the vine and for the life of the true branches, so that each will bear more and better fruit.
Fruitful Branches Pruned
While Jesus mentions the fruitless branches that are removed, he emphasizes God’s pruning activity on the fruitful branches. Jesus said, “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). It might seem surprising that God prunes the fruitful branches, since pruning sounds painful, until we realize that the purpose of pruning is to gain the maximum amount of fruit from the vine.
Grapevines require aggressive pruning. After each year’s harvest, the fruitful branches are cut back significantly. The idea in pruning is to remove whatever inhibits growth, and Jesus applies this principle to the Father’s pruning of our spiritual lives. He strips away things that are spiritually detrimental, even if they are otherwise good things. He takes the knife to our bad habits and assails our prayerlessness by giving us things to pray about. The Father applies the pruning knife to our priorities and values, and strips away relationships that would hinder our faith. It is important to note that this is not punishment, but vinedressing. The writer of Hebrews said: “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10).
This pruning might take place by means of God’s providential arrangement of our circumstances: we might suffer loss, face a temptation, or experience a reproof. The purpose of all these is to make us fruitful through an increased faith. Peter wrote that his readers had “been grieved by various trials,” the purpose of which was “that the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7). James reminds us how much better off Christians are because of the trials we have endured: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). In his years of dark suffering in Pharaoh’s prison, Joseph was having his character prepared for his reign over Egypt. More recently, the severe afflictions suffered by Christians in China under the Communists have borne fruit in a remarkable explosion of spiritual power and gospel success. It is true that the Father’s pruning involves afflictions known only to Christians, the like of which the world knows nothing. But neither does the world know the joy of the harvest in the fruit of eternal life.
This tells us that when we endure trials in life—when we find biblical parenting to be overwhelming, when loving our spouse is difficult, when integrity in the workplace is hard, and when we experience the more severe trials involved with sickness, grief, joblessness, or persecution—we should lift our faces to the Lord and ask him to do his work in our life, that we might bear the fruit that he desires. Mark Johnston comments that while “the process may be painful …, it will always be worthwhile as it leads to a better and more profitable life in Christ.” Thus, the saintly and much-afflicted Elizabeth Prentiss wrote to a friend who was suffering under grief: “My dear friend, don’t let this tragedy of sorrow fail to do everything for you.”5 David similarly sang, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (Ps. 119:67).
Cleansed by the Word
We rightly think of God’s pruning in terms of outward trials, but it seems that Jesus refers also to the ministry of God’s Word. He continued, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). The word for clean is the noun form of the same word he used in verse 2 for prunes. The basic idea of the word (verb, kathairo; noun, katharos) is “cleansing,” but with the idea of pruning, it means the removal of unwanted materials. It is primarily the Word of God, Jesus said, that produces this cleansing. Therefore, when he speaks of the Father’s pruning, he refers to the Scriptures as the agent of our spiritual change and growth. His meaning is similar to that of Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God intends for his Word to penetrate our hearts, unmask our true thoughts and desires, and cut away all that hinders our growth. It was with this in mind that Paul said that the Bible is not only “breathed out by God” but also “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
This means that we must come to God’s Word not merely to learn spiritual facts but to bring our hearts under the pruning knife of our loving Father, the vinedresser. The saying is true that “soft preaching creates hard hearts, but hard preaching creates soft hearts.” Therefore, we should not seek only comforting and uplifting messages when we attend to preaching in the church or when we read our Bibles. Rather, we should seek the truth that will cut away our sin and the challenging teaching on holiness that will stimulate spiritual growth. Most significantly, we should seek in God’s Word to see the glory of the Lord in the face of his Son, Jesus, so that God’s grace would teach us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12–13).
The One Principle of Fruitfulness
So far, Jesus has used the symbolism of the vine to describe himself and the vinedresser to depict God’s pruning activity for our growth in holiness. He concludes the metaphor by referring to his disciples as the branches, and he provides a single key principle for our fruitfulness: “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4). This saying was likely meant as a command: believers are commanded to abide in Christ in order to bear our fruit.
What does it mean, then, to abide in Christ? To abide is to dwell in, with close communion and fellowship. The basic idea, Gordon Keddie writes, is “the active cultivation by every professing Christian of a living spiritual relationship to Christ.” As Paul put it, “For to me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). He explained, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Abiding in Christ means that we draw near to Christ spiritually and hold fast to his teaching. Jesus earlier taught, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). Abiding in Christ’s Word involves more than a bare adherence to Christian doctrine and the discipline of Bible reading; it also involves a yearning trust in its promises and a serious application of its lessons to our lives. Abiding in Christ likewise involves a fervent communion with the Lord in prayer. It includes a devoted participation in the worship and work of Christ’s church, joining together with other members of the body of Christ for communion with and service to the Lord.
Jesus makes two vital statements connecting our fruitfulness to our abiding in Christ. The first is that by abiding in him we will bear fruit, for the same reason that a living branch bears the fruit of the vine. When we abide in Christ, he abides in us and his Spirit works in us with power. This means that the Christian life is not a calling to self-improvement. Our calling is to abide in Christ, following him through his Word, prayer, worship, and service, and he will bear his fruit in us. The solution to many of our problems is thus simply to walk with Christ over many years. He will lead us, change us, and transform us by the power of his Spirit. This does not mean that Christians are not to strive against sin and labor for holiness. What it means is that the way that we seek our own holiness and fight sin is by trusting Christ, drawing from his strength, and living in loving, personal obedience to him. “Whoever abides in me and I in him,” Jesus said, “he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
A vital corollary to this principle is that apart from abiding in Christ, we can bear no fruit: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.… Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5). By this Jesus did not mean that we literally do nothing: apart from Christ, we can do many things! We can recruit large numbers, raise huge sums of money, erect glorious buildings, and secure worldly power. On a personal level, we can accomplish many things for ourselves and for others apart from Christ. The problem is that apart from Jesus, all that we accomplish is nothing. Only by the means that God has ordained—chief among them God’s Word and prayer—and through a conscious dependence on Christ do we accomplish anything of real spiritual value. However glorious it might be to our own eyes and to the world, all that we do apart from Christ, and all that the church accomplishes by worldly means, is really chaff and dead branches, fit only in the end to be gathered up and burned (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13–15).
In the upper room, Jesus told the disciples of all that he would do to provide for them in his absence. Now, as they walked to the Mount of Olives, Jesus stressed the disciples’ duty. As Jesus is the true vine, God seeks and demands true spiritual fruit from his disciples. If we will abide in Christ, his life will accomplish wonders of spiritual power in and through us, and the Father will tend us with his pruning knife to bring forth our fruit.
Does this sound intimidating? Do you doubt that someone like you, with all your weakness and sin, could really bear fruit for the Lord? The good news is the promise essential to this teaching. If you will but abide in Jesus, he will bear great fruit through you. If you doubt yourself, do not doubt our Savior and Lord. In one of his earlier parables, Jesus spoke of those to whom his Word came so that they believed and were saved. Jesus admitted that some of these bore more fruit than others, saying of the believer, “He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matt. 13:23). There is a difference between a very fruitful Christian and a less fruitful Christian, but both have this in common: they bear much fruit, some a hundredfold and some thirtyfold. If you will abide in Christ and live with him and for him, out of your life, your witness, and your prayers you will make a godly difference in a great many lives and in you God will grow much spiritual fruit, to his own glory. Jesus said as a simple statement of fact: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
4. Abide in me. He again exhorts them to be earnest and careful in keeping the grace which they had received, for the carelessness of the flesh can never be sufficiently aroused. And, indeed, Christ has no other object in view than to keep us as a hen keepeth her chickens under her wings, (Matth. 23:37,) lest our indifference should carry us away, and make us fly to our destruction. In order to prove that he did not begin the work of our salvation for the purpose of leaving it imperfect in the middle of the course, he promises that his Spirit will always be efficacious in us, if we do not prevent him. Abide in me, says he; for I am ready to abide in you. And again, He who abideth in me beareth much fruit. By these words he declares that all who have a living root in him are fruit-bearing branches.
4 The central focus of Jesus’ teaching in this opening paragraph is found here: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Since a verb must be supplied in the Greek text for the second clause, the NIV adds, “will remain.” Moffatt has, “as I remain in you.” Morris, 670, favors taking the second clause as a continuation of the command in the first clause and translates, “and see that I abide in you.” A more satisfactory approach is to allow the ambiguous relationship between the clauses to remain and to see in the sentence as a whole the dual condition that we as believers are to bring into being. Jesus is setting before us the prospect of the mutual indwelling of Jesus and those who will abide in him. So central is this mutual indwelling to what it means to be a Christian that Temple, 2:258, can say, “Whatever leads to this is good; whatever hinders this is bad; whatever does not bear on this is futile.”
The verb “remain” occurs ten times in the first eleven verses of ch. 15. For a branch to bear fruit it must share the life of the vine. Likewise, for believers to bear fruit they must remain in Christ. All spiritual power for living out the Christian life comes from God. There is only one way for a believer to receive this power, namely, to remain in unbroken fellowship with the source of power. Paul pictures the relationship in terms of a spiritual death and resurrection: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).