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Abiding in Christ, the True Vine

October 19, 2014 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to John

Passage: John 15:1–15:6

Sermon from John 15:1-6 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, October 19, 2014

Jesus is still preparing his disciples for his departure out of the world. And today we get a picture of the union he shares with his disciples. Even when he’s not physically present with them anymore, there’s a union he shares with them that’s like a vine supplying fruit-bearing life to its branches. Verse 1...

1I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2Every 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. 3Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

We basically have one command in this passage—you can see it plainly in verse 4: Jesus says, “Abide in me.” That’s your main charge this morning, Abide in Jesus. It isn’t first, “Go home and produce fruit that glorifies God.” It’s simply, Abide in Jesus. And we’ll look at what that means in a few minutes.

Three Truths: The True Vine, Vinedresser, & the Word

But before we get there, I want you to get the three precious truths in verses 1-3. When I’m with my son in a busy parking lot, and I say, “Hold my hand.” My son grabs my hand, and he walks with me. But the reason he grabs my hand is that he knows me. There are precious truths he has experienced in our relationship that motivate him to grab my hand—truths like, “He’s my daddy;” “Daddy loves me;” “Daddy protects me;” “Daddy’s words are good for me;” “Daddy knows the dangerous consequences if I choose not to hold his hand;” “Daddy will discipline me if I rebel.” These truths lead my son to grab my hand firmly as we weave in and out of the cars in the busy parking lot.

What Jesus does in verses 1-3 is give us three precious truths that, when we experience them—when those truths open our eyes to Jesus, they strengthen our grip on Jesus; they serve our abiding in him. So, let’s look at them closely.

1. Jesus Is the True Vine (Not Faithless Israel)

Truth number 1: Jesus is the true vine. We’ve seen this sort of language before in John’s Gospel: Jesus is the true light (1:9); Jesus is the true bread (6:37). Now we’ve got Jesus saying, “I’m the true vine.” Every time this has happened, we’ve seen that Jesus isn’t grabbing analogies out of thin air. He’s actually telling us who he is in light of God’s revelation in the Old Testament.

Faithless Israel, the Fruit of Rebellion, & God's Judgment

And sure enough, there are multiple places in the Old Testament where God symbolically calls Israel his vine (Ps 80:8-14; Isa 3:14; 5:1-7; 27:1-6; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1-8; 19:10-14; Hos 10:1; 14:4-7). It’s just that nearly every time God does call Israel his vine, the picture isn’t pretty. One of the things my brother enjoys doing with his family is going to the vineyard and picking the various berries. And the pictures they’ve sent us have these lush, gorgeous vines in the background, full of good fruit. That’s not the picture you get when you read of Israel as God’s vine in the Old Testament.

For example, in Isa 5:1-7, God plants a vineyard; and this vineyard is the house of Israel. But all Israel produces is good-for-nothing, wild grapes. No matter how much care God shows them, Israel keeps producing bad fruit—all kinds of unrighteousness (5:7), greed (5:8-10), self-absorbed lifestyles (5:11-12), arrogant attitudes, cynicism (5:18-19), perversion (5:20-21), all kinds of injustice (5:22-23), and idolatry (27:9).

Their lives were full of bad fruit; and what made the fruit so bad was that it wasn’t bringing God the glory he deserves among the nations. To where God says, “Enough. I will not be mocked among the nations like this.” And so he destroys his vineyard. He breaks down their walls; he lets the thorns and briers choke it out; he cuts off the rain clouds; he lets in the wild boars—these foreign armies—ravage the vine. The consequences of bad fruit is judgment from God. We find a similar picture in Ps 80:9-13. God plants Israel as a vine; Israel rebels; God destroys the vine.

What this creates in the Old Testament’s storyline—which is our storyline—is a huge tension, because all of God’s promises are bound up with the elect nation of Israel. As Paul says, “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises…the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ,” God’s promised deliverer (Rom 9:4-5). If the vine of Israel is cut off, there’s not only no hope for Israel, there’s no hope for anybody. We’re all doomed for judgment because of our sin, because of our bad fruit…

Expectations for a True Vine that Brings God Glory

Unless there’s another vine that would achieve what Israel never could achieve, unless there was another vine that would bring God glory among the nations with all the fruit it produced, unless there was another vine God would never cut down again. There are two places in the Old Testament where this becomes the expectation.

Isaiah 27:2-6 is one place. It speaks of a day when the Lord—after eradicating evil (Isa 25:1-27:1)—would make Israel into a pleasant vineyard (27:2). God would be the keeper of that vineyard, and every moment he would water that vineyard with his own life (27:3). He would have no more wrath against that vineyard, because the sins of the people would be atoned for (27:9). The only wrath that would be left in him would be wrath to destroy the enemies surrounding the vineyard (27:4). It would be a day when Israel would blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit that brings glory to God—in fact, instead of the bad fruit of idolatry, there’d be the good fruit of idol-smashing (27:9).

So that’s one place in the Old Testament where there’s an expectation for another vine to shoot forth in Israel, after the old one was cut down. The other place is Ps 80:17-18, in the prayers and longings of Asaph. And one thing to remember about the prayers in the Psalms is that all of them are crying out for resolution, for God to act, for God to judge, for God to save and bring his purposes to pass. And our New Testament tells us that Jesus is the resolution; he is the answer to the prayers of the Psalms.

Well, in Ps 80:17-18, Asaph sees the vine of Israel destroyed, and he knows God’s promises are bound up with the vine. And so he prays, “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine [i.e., Israel], the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself [son = Israel; cf. Exod 4:22]. They have burned [the vine] with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your face! But [and get this] let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man [son of man = Israel immediately and Jesus ultimately; cf. Ps 8:4; Heb 2:6-8] whom you have made strong for yourself!”

So, here’s how it goes. Faithless Israel proves to be a bad vine and God judges them. But then he promises a new vine to come from Israel. And when this vine comes, God’s wrath would turn away from the people connected to that vine; God’s life would run through that vine into his people, so that they produce good fruit; and—then based on Psalm 80—all this would happen by God acting in “the son of man.”

Jesus Is True Israel

When Jesus says to his disciples, “I’m the true vine,” he’s saying all those Old Testament promises and prayers for Israel find their culmination in him. He’s the one in whom all God’s promises to Israel are Yes and Amen (2 Cor 1:20).

He is the ultimate Son of Man (John 1:51; 3:13, 14; 5:27; 6:27; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23; 13:31). And as the Son of Man, he stands as the true Israel—not the faithless one. Everything Israel was supposed to be for the world and wasn’t, Jesus is. And when God flexes his right arm through Jesus, he doesn’t just look down from heaven on the vine, he comes down from heaven to be the vine. Unlike faithless Israel, Jesus bears good fruit in obedience to his Father. He comes to die in our place and avert God’s wrath on the cross. He then rises from the dead to give us access to God’s life. And now he produces good fruit in us by the Spirit, so that one day his vine will fill the world with his Father’s glory.

Being the true vine is another way for Jesus to say, “I’m the true life-source for God’s new people.” “You want to have God’s life, then you get connected to me.” All the Old Testament promises of forgiveness of sins and life with God and the good fruit of idol-smashing true worship and inheriting the earth as God’s vine-like kingdom spreads from sea to sea—all of it is yours when you’re united to Jesus.

That’s truth number 1 of why you should abide in Jesus: he is the true vine, the true Israel, your only access to God and to all God’s life-giving promises.

2. The Father Is a Just & Merciful Vinedresser

Truth number 2: the Father is a just and merciful vinedresser. Verse 1, “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.” So two actions: the Father takes away fruitless branches, and the Father prunes the fruitful branches. He is just in that he judges those who do not bear fruit; and he is merciful in that he prunes those who do bear fruit. Let’s look at those more carefully.

The Father Is Just to Remove Fruitless Branches

He is just in that he takes away fruitless branches. Part of the Father’s work is judgment, the eternal condemnation of fruitless people. And we know this “taking away” is eternal judgment because of verse 6: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered into the fire, and burned.”

This should not surprise us, especially in light of what we saw from the Old Testament. The pattern in the Old Testament is that bad fruit deserves judgment; it has severe consequences. And the reason for those severe consequences is that God will not be mocked. He is on an unstoppable mission to flood the earth with his glory and destroy anything that raises its hand against his glory. He alone is worthy to be praised, and if people’s lives don’t reflect his all-satisfying worth—if they don’t acknowledge his holiness and his beauty and his sovereignty—then he is just to condemn them.

That should sit on you as a very sobering reality. No fruit means eternal fire. Now I know some people use verse 2 to say that genuine believers can be cut off from Christ and lose their salvation. I mean, after all, verse 2 says, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away.”

But that interpretation makes nonsense of the rest of the passage, which says very plainly that when a branch abides in Jesus, it will most certainly bear fruit (15:4-5). And it diminishes the glory of Christ, as if to say there are people linked to his life that don’t actually bear good fruit (17:10). And it ignores texts like John 6:39 where Jesus says, “I should lose nothing of all that he’s given me, but raise it up on the last day” (cf. 10:29; 17:12, 19).

And most significantly it overlooks a crucial theme running throughout John’s Gospel: there are disciples loosely affiliated with Jesus but without any real connection to Jesus and his life (2:23-25). And one by one we see them falling away as Jesus keeps speaking his words (6:66, 70-71; 8:30, 31, 37), the most recent example being Judas Iscariot (13:27-30). In some sense, he was in Jesus without actually being connected to Jesus’ fruit-bearing life. Judas bore bad fruit, and God cut him off (13:27).

So I don’t buy it when people say verse 2 undermines a believer’s assurance of final salvation. But that doesn’t make the reality of eternal judgment for a fruitless life any less sobering. It confronts us all with the question, “Am I just loosely affiliated with Jesus, going through the motions of Christianity, without actually being in him?” Good deeds that look Christian on the outside mean nothing, if there’s no vital connection to Jesus. Merely agreeing with Jesus or merely having ideas about Jesus in us means nothing if Jesus himself isn’t in us. Having Jesus in us is the fruit of the new birth—the new transformation inside—when the sap of his life feeds our needy soul.

The Father’s just work of judgment confronts us and it places our assurance in the proper place: it’s not in anything we perform or think or feel; our assurance is in Christ alone. If you abide in Christ, there is no condemnation left for you. He absorbed it in his body on the tree. And he rose from the dead to live in you by the Spirit, and produce all kinds of God-glorifying fruit in you. Abiding in Jesus keeps you from living the kind of life that would send you to hell. You have assurance insofar as you’re united to Jesus. And the Father’s work of judgment reminds us of this.

The Father Is Merciful to Prune Fruitful Branches

But the Father is also merciful in that he prunes the fruitful branches: “every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes that it may bear more fruit.” This is truly an act of mercy, because on the one hand, nobody deserves to be in the vine to begin with. That anybody is in the vine is by sheer mercy. But it’s also merciful that the Father is so willing to work in us to produce the very fruits he expects from us.

And the way he works in us is by pruning. Now some explain this pruning in terms of the various trials and sufferings God brings into our lives to test us and refine us and conform us to Christ’s image. The trials are the tool God uses to prune us and make us bear more fruit. And I want to say Amen to that truth, which is taught all over the place in our Bibles, like in Rom 5:3-5 and Heb 12:1-12 and Jas 1:2-4. Not a single trial in your life is in vain. The Father uses it to prune you.

But alongside this tool of trials is also the tool of God’s word, which is what I think Jesus has in mind here. The tool the Father uses to prune us in this passage the specific tool is his word. You can’t see it as clearly in your English translations, but there’s a play on words here in Greek between verses 2 and 3. The Greek word behind “he prunes” in verse 2 is very similar to the Greek word behind “you are clean” in verse 3.

So the idea of pruning and cleansing you should see as conveying similar ideas; and verse 3 links that cleansing work to Jesus’ word. Then later in verse 7, Jesus will talk about his words abiding in us. And then throughout John’s Gospel, it has been the Father’s word delivered through Jesus setting apart the disciples for Jesus, uniting them to the vine and pruning them where they need it (6:66, 68; 8:30, 31, 37). And so I think the tool the Father uses to prune us, so that we bear more fruit, is his word given through Jesus.

That puts some perspective on your Bible reading, does it not? That puts some perspective on the sort of attitude we bring to God’s word. When we come to God’s word, we are coming to be pruned, to be cut, laid bare by the Father’s knife, so that more fruit might come. We want his word to cut off our idols, to lop off all our remaining pride, we want his sword to penetrate our motives and expose our foolish passions.

And that hurts, because where there is pruning there is dying. Dying to self to see more of Christ living through you. And I see the Father’s word cutting on some you. It cut on me last week while Ben was preaching. That word from Matt 25 of being mindful of Jesus’ coming—that wasn’t just a word for inactive people, that was a word for those of us who are plenty active without being mindful of Jesus’ coming. The Father’s word pruned me, so that I would treasure Jesus’ coming more.

And I know the word is cutting on others of you. You’ve shared with me how difficult it is to follow God’s word when it means you’re severed from something you want so badly, but for Jesus’ sake deny it. You need to know those pruning words come to you from a merciful Father to help you experience more of the vine’s life. The pruning may hurt now, but trust the merciful Vinedresser. His cuts are wise and his grace will heal the wounds, so that you bear more fruit. Trust him; he wants to see you blossom with his Son’s beauty and the world to taste the fruit of knowing Jesus through your life.

So why bother with any other vine, right? When you abide in Jesus, not only do you have access to God’s life and promises, but he will care for you with his word and help you bear the God-glorifying fruit you need in all your circumstances. That’s truth number 2, the Father is a just and merciful vinedresser.

3. Jesus’ Word Binds His Disciples to Himself

Truth number 3: Jesus’ word binds his disciples to himself. The words of verse 3 must have been so precious to the remaining eleven disciples, because everybody else checked out, and they’re being tempted with whether they should check out too. And now they’re hearing words about the Father judging and burning fruitless branches. How are they going to remain in Jesus when the air of desertion is so thick?

Then Jesus says, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” Already, already, you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. He’s talking about what he told them in 13:10-12. Remember that? Jesus washes the disciples’ feet to point them to his cleansing work on the cross, where he will wash away their sins. And he says, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you [disciples] are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

And now Jesus is reminding them: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” It’s like he’s saying, “I already declared you completely clean by virtue of my love for you and what I will accomplish on the cross for you. You don’t need to fear being cut off and thrown into the fire. My word bound you to myself, my life is flowing through you, and you will bear fruit for my Father’s glory. My cross and resurrection will seal it.” Even my election planned it. Look at 15:16. He’s chosen them for fruit, not destruction.

If you believe in Jesus this morning, the same is true for you. He has chosen you for fruit. He has cleansed you to bear fruit. He has bound you to himself to carry his life in you. Folks, if you have heard the word of the gospel—the good news that Jesus’ death cleanses you from all your sins. If you have heard that word and believed it and delight in it—if you treasure that word such that you have no hope without that word—then you are in the vine. The word of Jesus is sufficient to bind you to the vine. There’s nothing lacking in Jesus’ word, because there’s nothing lacking in Jesus’ work backing up that word. Everything you need to be in the vine, Jesus has finished it.

Jesus’ word reveals everything you need to be grafted in. If you haven’t believed in Jesus’ word, then believe it, and the Father will be more than happy to join you to Jesus, that his life might flow through you. That’s truth number 3: Jesus’ word binds his disciples to himself.

Abiding in Jesus

Now with those three truths in mind—a true vine, a just and merciful vinedresser, a binding word—doesn’t it make every sense in the world that we would obey the command, “Abide in me”? Why would we choose to do anything else? In Jesus we find everything for life and joy and hope and salvation. In Jesus we find safety from the wrath of God. In Jesus the Father nurtures and cares for his people. In Jesus, we find a cleansing word that’s better than all other words.

And when Jesus is all these things for us, what else can “abide” mean than to live in constant dependence on him. That’s how branches in a vine live. They’re not off by their lonesome self, trying to squeeze out some fruit. They live in constant dependence on the vine. They receive all that’s in the main stock. They’re constantly drawing from the vine. Same for you and me.

Jesus says it like this in verses 4-5, “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.” Abiding in Jesus means you live in constant dependence on all that he is—not in constant dependence on all that you are, or all that you think you can be, but in constant dependence on Jesus.

Listen, the vine is Christ, and all there is in the vine for the benefit of the branches. That’s the way J. C. Ryle put it (Ryle, John, 108). That means in any and every situation, you have immediate access to all God’s heavenly blessings in Christ. If you’re united to Jesus by faith, everything he is, is yours to draw from moment by moment.

Some Examples

In Christ, you have access to all the wisdom you need to lead your household well. You know, when you have one of those days where your wife wants you to lead her, but you’re afraid you don’t really know how, and so you hold back. Or maybe you give it shot, and you say things badly and now there’s all this ice in the air. Both of you can draw from Jesus for wisdom, humility, and more grace. And he will grant it—that might mean his word prunes you first instead of your spouse, but he will grant it.

In Christ, you have access to all the grace you need to endure trial and suffering—whether it’s an infection in your foot, the loss of a loved one, or persecution. In Christ we can draw confidence that no trial comes to us apart from a loving Father’s hand. The fact that we’re in the vine should remind us of the cross. And the cross stands as the emblem of God’s love, and because of it we can lean upon Jesus’ power to endure suffering. Hebrews 12 says that Jesus endured hostility from sinners, in order that we might not grow weary and lose heart. Being in the vine should also remind us of Jesus’ resurrection life in the midst of suffering. The vine’s life isn’t coming from the grave; it’s coming from heaven where Jesus is. And that gives us hope for a new day of glory without suffering.

In Christ, you have access to all the strength you need to overcome your sinful anger at your dad. I have specific people in mind. When you’re reminded of your dad’s sin against you and others you love, draw from the vine’s justice. Not a single sin will be overlooked, whether in the cross of Christ or in the lake of fire. And that frees us from trying to take matters into our own hands. Then also draw from his grace, the same grace God showed you even though you angered him with your sins. That frees you to pray for your enemies and serve them even in the face of great disappointment.

In Christ, you have access to all the patience you need to shepherd your children in the midst of chaos. You know those days, when you got home later than you thought; everybody’s hungry; the meat isn’t thawed; there’s a diaper that needs changing; and you think you just heard splash of sorts coming from the direction of the refrigerator—followed by an “Uh oh!” I think some dads may have experienced something like this about 5:00 last Saturday evening, when our wives were at the retreat, right? But in those moments, you abide. You cast yourself on Jesus. You pick up the poopy kid and pray Col 1:10 on your way to the fridge: “Lord, strengthen me with all power, according to your glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.”

In Christ, you have access to all the boldness you need to speak of Christ to others. I’ve shared stories up here before of me sharing the gospel with others. You need to know that doesn’t come naturally. What naturally comes is fear or doubt or even Jonah-like rebellion. And in those moments I have to abide; I have to start drawing from the Vine if my Father is going to receive glory. I have to abide every Sunday I speak. I get nervous speaking in front of people—it’s just a great opportunity to talk about Jesus. But every Sunday, John 15:5 is my prayer: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him will bear much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing. Alright, Jesus, I am nothing. You are everything. Glorify the Father through me.” Go.

In Christ, you have access to all the forgiveness you need to put to rest any fears of God’s wrath. Before you sin, when you sin, and after you sin—you can draw from the root of forgiveness in Christ and freely confess you sins to the Lord and to those you’ve sinned against. In Christ, you have access to all the acceptance you need before God that dispels the fear of man. When you’re tempted to shrivel up in front of a superior at the office, draw from the identity given you in Jesus—you are seated with him in the heavenly places. In Christ, you have access to all his joy, so that you can enjoy things the way Christ himself does. John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

I could go on, but I hope these few examples help you see what it means to abide in Jesus, to live in constant dependence on him. Jesus lacks in nothing we need. Everything we need to glorify God in any moment is found in Jesus, the true vine. More than that, his Father works for our good too. He will prune you as you remain in the vine, and make you more and more to bear good fruit. And what he already began by uniting you to the vine, he will also finish. So, abide in Jesus, live in constant dependence on him, and your life will bring God much glory.