READ : John 15:1-5
David Bast considers one of the most beautiful images Christ offers to describe his relationship with his followers.
Lord Melbourne, a nineteenth century English statesman not noted for personal piety, once remarked after hearing an evangelical sermon, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.” His attitude, I think, is typical of worldly people, people who look at God the way we look at an elephant in a zoo: an interesting thing in its place maybe, but you wouldn’t want to take it home to live with you.
By contrast, vital Christianity of the New Testament kind means that every area of life will be lived under the control of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is an absolute sovereign. He rules over all of life, not just the religious segment, and all of a life, not just the Sunday morning part. John 15:16 proclaims the sovereignty of Christ in no uncertain terms: “You did not choose me,” declares Jesus, “but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
The Duty of Bearing Fruit
As we have just heard in that verse from John 15, Jesus defines the primary purpose of his disciples’ lives as bearing fruit. That’s the central point of his teaching in the 15th chapter of John. It’s the message also of the wonderful image Jesus draws in the opening verses of this chapter—the image of the vine and the branches.
I am the true vine, Jesus says, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. . . . Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
It isn’t really difficult to interpret what Jesus means by this figurative language, because he states his point plainly in verse 5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me is the one who bears much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Just as the branches of a grapevine are intended to fulfill the purpose of the whole vine by actually growing the clusters of grapes, so Christians are made for the purpose of fruit-bearing. In fact, this is the only purpose of either Christians or grapevines. It’s the only thing either one is good for! “Is wood taken from [the vine]” asks the prophet Ezekiel, “to make anything? Do men make a peg from it to hang any vessel on?” (Ezekiel 15:3). No, he concludes. If a vine isn’t producing, it’s not as though you can use the wood to make fine furniture! A fruitless vine is fit only for destruction. Jesus draws the identical conclusion with respect to fruitless Christians: “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit [the Father] takes away . . . and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (vv. 2, 6).
The Nature of the Fruit We Must Bear
Alright, then, let’s agree. If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to be fruitful. But now an obvious question: What sort of fruit exactly does Jesus want from us? In plain language, what does it mean to bear fruit? Some interpret this to mean “soul-winning,” to use the old expression. But I really don’t think that Jesus is speaking primarily about personal evangelism in this passage. The New Testament never speaks of winning converts as growing or producing fruit. But it does describe the development of the graces of the Christian life that way (see Matthew 3:8, Ephesians 5:9, Philippians 1:11). All the beautiful and desirable qualities of character that constitute Christ-likeness: things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—are called by Paul “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
And the chief fruit of the Spirit, the one that Jesus is especially concerned with here in John 15 is love. Again and again in his Upper Room Discourse Jesus returns to this theme, and rings the changes on his disciples’ need to love. “Remain in my love” he says (v. 9); “If you obey my commandments you will remain in my love” (v. 10); “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v.12); “This is my command: Love one another” (v.17). When he speaks to his disciples of the necessity of bearing fruit, Jesus is particularly enjoining upon us the duty of love.
The Reasons for Bearing Fruit
If you need more reasons for making it your goal to become a fruit-bearing Christian, here are four, not necessarily in order of importance (but not necessarily not in order of importance either):
1). Our loving others glorifies God. “By this my Father is glorified,” says Jesus, “that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Fruit-bearing Christians bring more glory to God than anything else on earth. God is magnified, his greatness and goodness are enhanced, his love and power are most clearly displayed when he turns weak and sorry sinners into splendid, Christ-like saints. This is the whole purpose of redemption—not so much that we may be exalted, but that God’s work in us may multiply his glory (Ephesians 1:5-6).
2). Our loving others confirms our discipleship: By this my Father is glorified, Jesus says, “that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (v. 8b). Fruit-bearing is the proof that faith is real; love is the test that shows our discipleship is genuine. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
3). Our loving others fills us with joy. “These things I have spoken to you . . . that your joy may be full” (v. 11). Does it surprise you to think that doing our duty can at the same time bring us the fulness of joy? Yet this is what the Lord wants for us. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. His commandments are not grievous; on the contrary, his law is good, and good for us. God made us, after all. He knows that we can only be truly happy when we are genuinely good. Being made in God’s image means that we will never know full and lasting joy until and unless we are following his will and bearing his fruit.
4). Our loving others makes us Jesus’ friends. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (v. 14). Imagine the indescribable privilege of the Lord Jesus Christ personally calling you his friend. Not his servant or his slave, not his helper even or his associate, but his friend. And that is exactly what we are, if we do what he commands. In other words, if we bear fruit.
The Means of Bearing Fruit
Finally let’s ask ourselves how we can obey Jesus and offer what he wants. By what means are we able to bear this fruit of love and all the other graces of the Holy Spirit? It’s not easy to love in the way Christ loved, and the fruits of sanctification don’t come either quickly or naturally to us. So how can we increase in grace? How can we grow the behaviors that flower into the likeness and fruitfulness of Jesus himself? Well, Jesus points out two means here in this passage by which we may produce more and more fruit in our lives.
The first one is by pruning (v. 2). Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and our heavenly Father, says Jesus, is the gardener who not only cuts away the dead and fruitless branches, but prunes those which are bearing fruit so that they can bear even more. When we begin to grow in holiness and take our first feeble steps of advancing toward Christlikeness in our lives and in our behavior, God doesn’t stop us, pat us on the back, and say, “Well done! Now you can quit and go back to living for yourself.” No, instead he wields his sharp knife on us – of disappointment or setback, or perhaps of sorrow, sickness or loss — in order to make us draw even closer to Christ and therefore to grow even more fruit. Here is one of the most basic and painful principles of the Christian life: suffering is one of the chief means by which we grow. It doesn’t happen automatically, for how much we grow and even whether we grow at all depends on how we react to the suffering that God allows to come upon us. But trouble and pain are the Father’s pruning knife. The one thing we can always be certain of is that the knife is wielded by a skillful and loving hand.
Here’s the second means of growth in fruit bearing. It is by abiding in Christ that we can accomplish this (vv. 4-5). Every genuine Christian is “in Christ,” to use the New Testament expression, that is, each believer is united personally to Christ by the link of faith. But to abide or remain in Christ means to cultivate that relationship with him so that it goes deeper and deeper. Andrew Murray, the 20th century South African devotional writer, explains what abiding in Christ means in his classic little book The True Vine.
We have to trust and obey, to detach ourselves from all else, to reach out after Him and cling to Him, to sink ourselves into Him. As we do this, through the grace he gives, a character is formed, and a heart prepared for the fuller experience. . . .
If we want Christ in us we must concentrate on abiding in him. And the more we abide, the more fruit we will grow.