Most everybody is familiar, at least on a superficial level, with the first verses of John 15.
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. …
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. … 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Unless we are actually involved in grape-growing and wine-making, however, we can’t appreciate the beauty and power of the vine/branches image as did the men who were gathered in that upper room with Jesus on the night before His crucifixion.
Vines and grapes were a source of livelihood for many in first-century Palestine. Some of those men had no doubt owned a small vineyard, or at least worked in one.
Any good vine-keeper would know that a vine alone is next to worthless. The vine does not produce fruit. The branches produce the fruit. That’s precisely what Jesus said in verse 5.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
The most astonishing part of that image is that His disciples (including you and me) are the branches through which His purposes are realized in this world.
Think of that. In His infinite and inscrutable wisdom, God has limited His influence in the world to what His Spirit is able to accomplish through you and me.
By means of the vine/branches image, Jesus made it clear that the ongoing relationship between Himself and His disciples would be close, personal, intimate, life-giving, and life-sustaining.
The same relationship prevails between Jesus and His disciples in our contemporary culture as well. He is still the vine. We are still the branches. Without us, He cannot influence this society. Without us, He cannot produce spiritual fruit. And without Him… we are nothing!
When we look at the vine/branches imagery a bit more closely, however, we find that it… just like everyday life in the church and in the Kingdom… is more complicated than we might wish it to be. Not only are we (the branches) connected to Jesus (the vine) in ways that sustain us and assure our fruitfulness. There are at least two other important truths which Jesus “unpacks” from the vine/branches image.
First, on the vine are some appendages that look like branches, but they’re not really. We know they are not genuine branches because of one undeniable characteristic… they bear no fruit.
In verse 8 of John 15, Jesus said…
8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Now whatever else Jesus may have had in mind when He said that branches draw nourishment from the vine in order to produce fruit, I think He meant this much, at least: Anything which brings glory to God alone is “spiritual fruit.”
Churches, sadly, are full of people whose lives simply do not bring glory to God. They are so full of themselves and consumed with their own interests and their own agendas that any glory which their lives produce goes only to themselves.
A second supplementary truth which Jesus draws out of the vine/branches imagery is an uncomfortable reality—an “inconvenient truth” if ever there was one. Yes, there are branches which bear no fruit. But even the branches that do bear fruit need to be cut back, to be pruned, in order for them to be most productive.
Pruning is not pleasant, but it is altogether necessary. Grape growers know it. The more they cut back their fruit-bearing branches after the growing season, the more fruit those same branches bear the following year.
There is far more to be said about the vine/branches image that Jesus used in John 15, but I want to bring this post to a close by noting just one of the implications or consequences of that truth which Jesus, Himself, pointed out in the second half of John 15. It is this.
The intimate relationship which Jesus wants us to experience with Him can be summarized in one word: friendship. This is how Jesus said it, in verses 13-15 of John 15.
13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
I’m told that, in the Ancient Near East, monarchs or potentates would designate, from among the people who made up their court, a select group of confidants who would be known as the “friends of the king/emperor.” These privileged people had access to the monarch at all times. He spoke with them before he talked with his generals or other advisors. He confided to them the deepest yearnings of his heart. And because of this confidence, they stood in a relationship of unique intimacy to him. Others the king called servants; these he called friends.
On the night before He was crucified, Jesus Christ—the One who would soon ascend the throne of Heaven, the One who will one day be acknowledged by all of creation as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—shared with us the deepest purposes of His heart and called us into the intimate circle of His friends.
In the Upper Room, Jesus established a pattern which gives purpose and significance to every service of Christian worship. He taught spiritual truth from a true pastor’s heart, and He infused the simple elements of bread and wine with the power to nourish our spirits even as they remind us of the immeasurable price that was paid to purchase our salvation.
In His Upper Room Discourse, Jesus assured His disciples that He would not leave them to wander as orphans, but that, through the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit, He would continue to relate to them as personally, as intimately, and as vitally as a vine relates to its branches. And then, He called them (and us) His friends.
I love it when I’m walking down the street and out of nowhere I hear somebody call out, “Hi, Father Eric.” Perhaps one of my former students will see me and call out, “Hi, Mr. Kouns.” I love it even more when my wife greets me, as I walk through the doorway, “Hi, honey.” Or when my grandson comes running across the driveway, throws his arms around my neck and fairly shouts in my ear, “Poppy!”
But there’s something I am looking forward to that will mean even more than these special greetings. I am looking forward to the day when I stand in the presence of the one Who loved me and gave Himself for me, and He extends his hands to welcome me, those hands with the ugly nail scars in the wrists, and says to me, “Welcome… friend.”