A Spiritually Fruitful Life
Last week, we saw that Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure by emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit. His ministry to them would be so helpful that it was actually to their advantage that Jesus depart so he can come to them (16:7). He continues this same theme in this passage by using a metaphor of something familiar to them--read vs 1-6. Let's see if we can identify the parts:
Jesus is the VINE. God the Father is the VINEDRESSER. We (humans) are the BRANCHES.
What is the FRUIT? It refers to all that God wants to accomplish through our lives. Biblical fruit centers around relational closeness with God and character transformation (Gal. 5:22ff.), and influencing other people for Christ (Rom. 1:13). God want to bear "much" of this fruit in your life (vs 8), and he is able to do this regardless of your circumstances, deficiencies, etc. But unlike BRANCHES, which have no mind or will, we need to learn how God produces this fruit and then cooperate with him.
Get In The Vine
Notice that Jesus speaks of three different kinds of BRANCHES, which represent three different spiritual states: "in me & not bearing fruit" (vs 2a), "in me & bearing fruit" (vs 2b), and "not in me" (vs 6). We'll look at the first two in a minute, but the first order of business is to get in the Vine.
Jesus is the "true vine"--the only source of spiritual life. Branches laying on the ground cannot bear fruit because they have no vital connection to the vine. In the same way, if we want to be alive spiritually and have the opportunity to bear spiritual fruit, we need to establish an authentic union with Jesus Christ.
This union is a personal relationship. Many people think a relationship with God is like a relationship with the IRS: we discharge responsibilities, maybe receive some benefits--but it is impersonal and distant. But God is a Person, and he wants to establish a personal relationship with each of us. Because he is infinite, he can relate to each one of us on a deeply personal level. It isn't difficult to establish this relationship. Jesus has paid a great price so that we may know him as a free gift. All you have to do is receive Christ (Jn. 1:12).
"What if I decide I don't want to get into the Vine?" You have that freedom--God isn't going to make you. But that will be a significant choice because it will have some really negative consequences.
Read vs 5. What does Jesus mean when he says "apart from me you can do nothing?" Certainly we can do many things apart from Christ, but we cannot do anything of lasting positive spiritual significance, anything of value to God. Since we were made for a love-relationship with the true God, to miss this is to miss the whole point of life and to build everything on a faulty foundation (JUDAS). This is what Jesus means in another place when he says "What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"
Read vs 6. It's bad enough that we can waste this life by not coming to Christ. But Jesus also says this choice will result in facing the judgment of God in the next life (see Matt. 13:41-43). This seems pretty severe, but this is the way life is. Lots of our choices profoundly affect our future, sometimes even when we don't realize this at the time (MAGIC JOHNSON). In this case, God tells us in advance that this will be an eternally significant decision.
Get in the Vine! You have everything to gain and nothing to lose (PASCAL'S WAGER).
Understand The Vinedresser's Work
Once we are in the Vine, we come under the Vinedresser's care. God the Father begins to intervene in our lives in various ways to make us fruitful. Vs 2 speaks of two different spiritual states for the believer in Christ--unfruitful and fruitful--and two different ways the Father works with us.
Read vs 2a. What does it mean that he "takes away" the branch in Christ that is not bearing fruit? This sounds like being in Christ is conditional to producing results for God. But this is clearly contradictory to the rest of scripture which teaches that our union with Christ is received by faith apart from works (Eph. 2:8,9) and permanent (Eph. 1:13,14).
The best explanation is that the verb translated "takes away" (airo) should be translated differently. Airo, like most words, has a fairly wide range of meaning--from "take away" to "take" to "lift up" (Jn. 11:41). It is used over 100 times in the New Testament, and the majority of those times it is used to mean "take" or "take up." It seems to make more sense to translate it "lift up" in this case. Pruning is covered in vs 2b, and vinedressers do indeed lift up/tie up unfruitful branches out of the mud and shade so they get sunshine, etc.
Jesus is describing true Christians who, for different reasons, are not bearing fruit. When God sees this condition, he doesn't reject us. But he does take initiative to influence us toward a fruitful life. Maybe we're ignorant of how to grow spiritually, so he may bring us into contact with walking Christians who can guide us to the resources we need to grow. Maybe we're mired in an immoral habit or relationship, so he allows us to experience the consequences of our poor choices--or even engineers some consequences--to wake us up to our need to get back with him. Whatever he does, we can be sure it is motivated by his desire to see us have the true joy of being fruitful for him.
What about those of us who are already bearing fruit? Why mess with success? Even fruitful branches have lots of extraneous growth that looks impressive, but uses life that should go to bearing more and bigger fruit (SUCKERS ON MY TOMATO PLANTS). God wants the greatest harvest possible, so he "prunes" us so that we may bear more fruit. This pruning process is a necessary part of spiritual growth, so we need to recognize it as such.
Some of God's pruning concerns moral issues. As we grow in Christ, he keeps showing us attitudes that obstruct a full harvest of fruit. The sad thing is that we usually can't see these by ourselves. So he has to open our eyes to things like pride, or autonomy, or complacency, or self-protectiveness. This can be quite painful, but if you know God's motivation is loving, you can really benefit from it (Heb. 12:11).
Some of God's pruning concerns issues that are not moral, but extraneous. He may sovereignly remove cherished RELATIONSHIPS or CAREER OPPORTUNITIES because he knows they are a distraction to your growth. He may convict you that the amount of time you devote to HOBBIES or TALENTS is excessive, and call on you to decrease it so you can make more time for fruit-bearing. How do you respond to this kind of pruning?
Abide In Christ
Now we come to our part in bearing spiritual fruit. Read vs 4,5. Clearly, the key to a fruitful life is abiding in Christ. "Abide" means to remain. Your "abode" is where you reside. Our part is to hang in there with Christ. What does this look like?
FIrst of all, it involves an attitude of dependence on him. Jesus contrasts abiding in him to a self-sufficient attitude. Notice his insistence on our helplessness to produce fruit apart from him ("the branch cannot bear fruit of itself . . . apart from me you can do nothing"). You don't hear the vines grunting--they stay dependent on the vine and it produces fruit through them. Maturing Christians understand that the secret to fruitfulness is not religious self-effort, but rather consistently depending on Christ to live his life out through them.
This sounds a little nebulous--almost like Eastern passivity ("OM"). Jesus goes on in vs 7-16 to explain definite, practical ways to abide in him.
Read vs 7. Here are a couple of keys. Abiding him evidently involves having his words abide in us. I like to call this living in the environment of God's Word--as opposed to sporadic religious exposure. As we get into God's Word on a regular basis, we learn his perspective on all of life and it begins to change our values and priorities. The more at home we are in God's Word, the more fruitful we will be.
"Ask whatever you wish . . . " doesn't mean turn God into Alladin. It means regularly communicating with him on a personal level, acknowledging your need for him in each situation, and asking him for the resources we need to do his will.
NOTE: Getting into the Word and praying with other Christians is a key help. Many times we have trouble doing these alone, but being with other Christians stimulates us to think about God and talk to him (see Col. 3:16).
Read vs 9. Here is another key--"abide in my love." When we focus on how we view ourselves, or on how we perceive others view us, or on what we don't have that we want, our spiritual lives become self-absorbed and unfruitful. But when we choose instead to reflect on God's love and acceptance, and cultivate gratitude to him for this, this unleashes the Holy Spirit to cause growth in our lives.
Read vs 10. This sounds threatening at first--like God won't love us unless we obey him all the time. For some of us, this dredges up painful memories of abusive parents or authority figures whose commands were self-centered and rejected/punished us unless we complied. Jesus' point here is very different. The issue is not God's acceptance, but rather our ongoing experience of his love. Relational closeness to God involves trusting that his will is for our good (vs 11)--and trusting God involves being willing to actually follow his leadership in our lives. How do you respond when God prunes you--with mistrustful resistance, or with trusting cooperation? There is a connection between your response and your relational closeness with God and consequent fruitfulness.
Read vs 12,13. It turns out that Jesus' main commandment is loving others. As we saw in Jn. 13, he is talking about cultivating a lifestyle of self-giving love. True spirituality is not primarily a matter of religious disciplines, or even character development--it is primarily about giving myself away in love to others as a servant of Christ. Yes, love is a result of abiding in Christ (Gal. 5:22)--but it is also a means of abiding in him. Many of us have experienced this truth that when we choose to think about and serve others rather than staying self-focused, this is what unleashes the Holy Spirit to begin to transform our lives!
Read vs 16. Jesus chose these men to be his apostles, which involved being sent out to evangelize others and start churches. The "fruit that remains" is the people they led to him. Abiding in Christ involves reaching out in love to lost people and telling them how they can come to Christ.
As we develop a lifestyle built around this kind of authentic love-trust relationship with Jesus, his fruit will gradually emerge and we will know increasing joy!