Jesus and the disciples had finished their meal. Much had been taught and much had been discussed. Now it was time to move, it was time for the Pharisees to make their move too. The group of 12 men left the upper room in the city, descended into the Kiron Valley, crossed over the stream and entered the olive grove on the side of the Mount of Olives.
Chapter 15 seems to be an account of the discussion that took place as they walked in the darkness towards the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. The discourse seems simpler and more direct than the more complicated discussion in the upper room.
- The true Vine
Jesus used a simple and familiar picture to help the disciples understand their relationship to himself and the responsibilities and benefits this would bring. The entire chapter has 4 repeating words that give a good clue to the content of Jesus’ teaching: remain, fruit, love and command which appear 11, 9, 9 and 5 times respectively.
Jesus begins the discussion with these words: ‘I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.’ The role of the gardener is to promote fruitfulness and the method is by pruning. Apparently vines are pruned both in the spring and in the autumn. The spring pruning was to encourage non-fruit bearing branches to mature and produce fruit the following year. The autumn pruning was to remove woody branches and unproductive growth. Jesus seemed to refer to both pruning processes when he said that the gardener cuts branches that bear no fruit (perhaps autumn pruning) and prunes branches that do bear fruit, to promote greater fruitfulness (perhaps the spring pruning). Pruning and cutting don’t sound like pleasant experiences! But they are necessary for the good health of the vine. Jesus was preparing the disciples for difficult days ahead, but they could be sure of two things, they were part of the vine that is Jesus and they would be in the hands of a master gardener, the father.
Jesus described himself as the vine and the disciples as the branches. Since the purpose of the vine is to produce fruit, the branches must remain in the vine if they are to do what they were made to do. The branches cannot be fruitful if they try to produce fruit on their own – they must remain in the vine and the vine must remain in them. This is a two way relationship. Jesus reminded the disciples that ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’ The interesting thing is that Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to choose very ordinary disciples. They had not attended the best institutions of learning, because they had northern accents they were most likely considered a bit uncultured by the Jerusalem elite, they seemed slow to learn and they could be argumentative. They really could do nothing much of value on their own! But when they were in the vine and the vine was in them, they could do amazing things!
What is the consequence of not remaining in the vine? ‘If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown into the fire and burned.’ Is this suggesting that believers who don’t remain in Jesus will no longer be safe on judgement day? Or to put this in another way, does Jesus’ statement mean that we can lose our forgiveness and salvation? Many people like to debate this question and as often as not those who say you can lose your salvation claim this on the basis of a believer living a sinful life. If you’re sinful them you’ll lose your salvation they say. The problem with this view is that all Christians at some point sin – John himself said in his letter that ‘if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and this truth is not in us.’ When we believe, we are spiritually re-born, one cannot be unborn, but we can live lives that are not pleasing to God. The result is that we have no fellowship with God – we’ve not remained in the vine and the outcome of this is that there is no fruit.
Jesus doesn’t elaborate much on what the fruit is in his metaphor of the vine and branches but there are some things we can say. He identified fruitfulness in the disciples as being related to 1. asking and receiving, 2. giving glory to the Father and 3. Objective Evidence of being followers of Jesus. If we remain in the vine we will be in tune and in synchrony with Jesus. That means that when we pray we will pray for things that are entirely consistent with his plans and purposes. If we are remaining in the vine we will naturally want the same things as Jesus and he will be pleased to give them. Remaining in the vine will also give God glory. There is a sense in which the world will never really like Christians, the world system is fundamentally in opposition to Jesus, but if we remain in the vine our fruitfulness will enhance the reputation of God the Father. One of the worst things we can do is to live our Christian faith outside of the vine and become religious nuts rather than fruitful believers – such a way of living gets God a bad name. There is a great tendency to replace faith in Christ will all sorts of other Christianised things like church membership, church procedures and creeds – these are all fine enough but if they replace life in the vine (and they often do) we will not be fruitful. Let’s not put membership of a church group above remaining in the vine! I’ve noticed that when this happens, conformity with the denomination really does become much more valued than likeness to Jesus. Finally, bearing much fruit would identify the disciples as followers of Jesus. Fruitful disciples are easily recognised as followers of Jesus. In all of this we have not been given a definition of what the fruit actually is. I think it’s not unreasonable for us to augment what Jesus had to say by taking the Apostle Paul’s words on the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). I read an article by an atheist (Brandon Withrow) who was responding to the charge that atheists have no basis for morality. This defender of atheism was bemoaning the fact that atheists come under a lot of criticism because there is no basis for morality in what they believe. He contended that atheists were just like religious people, some good and some bad, but in any event atheists do good because ‘people are, in general good.’ Of course he’s partly correct and partly wrong – some religious people really are bad as are some atheists. The real problem atheists have though is that they cannot actually define good – their view is that the universe and all that is in it ‘just is’ – there is neither good nor bad, there is no purpose and no design. In their thinking there is no such thing as good or bad – and tragically having thrown out our God-given moral compass our society heads towards a very unpleasant place. Richard Dawkins asserts that ‘The only reason you behave morally is that you fear a great spy camera in the sky, watching your every move and reading your every thought.’ Is this correct or is there another motivation for the believer to live a good life? Read on.
- Love as motivation
Having described their relationship with Jesus as being part of a vine, Jesus now tells the disciples ‘as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.’ The motivation for remaining in Jesus and producing fruit is not fear of punishment but love. We instinctively think we can foster this love by creating the right atmosphere, if the church building looks right, if the speaker says the right words, if the songs are nice and the musicians are good then love will flow! Not quite. In fact Jesus said to the disciples, ‘My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.’ Love is actually something that can be fostered by discipline and obedience, we are commanded to love one another, whatever the circumstances! If we remain in the vine however then love will be a natural outcome. Remaining in the vine is the challenge and I do wonder how we can do this if we are sporadic in church attendance and if we rarely give thought to Christian things during the week. How can we remain if we spend so much of our tie engaging with the philosophy and thinking of this world’s system? Jesus said ‘remain in my love.’ This is achieved by obeying the command to love in particular and obeying Jesus’ commands in general: ‘If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.’ This is not an easy path, it takes discipline and effort to keep commands, but remember we are not alone, the Holy Spirit is our advocate and is alongside his to help and energise us.
Isn’t all this talk of obedience and discipline and commands all a bit cold and calculating? Doesn’t it sound as though it sucks all the joy out of our existence? Far from it, Jesus said all this so that his ‘joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’
The ultimate expression of love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus was about to give up his life and for most of the disciples this would be their experience too. Jesus emphasised that the disciples were his friends rather than servants, because they would now be party to the master’s business. Jesus had specifically chosen and appointed this group of men to go and bear lasting fruit.
As the disciples walked with Jesus towards the garden of Gethsemane, no doubt Jesus’ thoughts turned from the master’s business to the immediate task in hand. If love is the driving principle in the vine, then hate is the driving principle in the world.
The disciples were about to be confronted with the full expression of the Jews’ hate of Jesus. They too would experience this too as they are so intimately involved with Jesus. Jesus taught that if we are fully aligned with him then the world will hate us, but if we belong to the world it would love us. Persecution of Jesus rapidly extends to persecution of his followers. Just as we are in Jesus and he is in us, and just as Jesus in in the Father and the Father is in him, so the world will react with hate to Father, Son and Christian.
The storyline of the bible is the struggle by Satan to emulate God and to control this world. There can be little doubt that after the fall of Adam and Eve, Satan took control of this world. Jesus mission is two fold: to rescue mankind from the fall and to re-establish a right rule on earth (as it is in heaven). Satan is opposed to this and to anyone who is part of this effort.
In many ways we’ve been blessed in this country with a largely Christian tradition. This is quickly disappearing and for all the ‘tolerance’ that we hear preached by the new non-Christian establishment there is an underlying hatred of true Christianity and the bible. Many people today are caught up in this thinking, a few generations of teaching evolution and undermining the bible are now bearing fruit and the result is greatly concerning. Please note however that people bear moral responsibility for their opposition to Jesus and the bible. Jesus has visited this world and now as he said ‘they have no excuse for sin.’
In view of the impending hate towards the disciples was there to be any comfort from Jesus? Yes indeed. The advocate will come alongside the disciples. The Spirit will testify about Jesus to the world and the disciples will too. I think we can take this for us too. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will work in the lives of those around us, and let’s also be ready to play our part too.