Summer is here, and many of us have planted gardens. Why do we plant a garden? For the yield of produce, the production of fruit. Why does a farmer plant his crops? There is a commercial that I often see for corn seeds. The commercial is designed to tempt the farmer with the slogan, "Strong roots, strong stalks, strong yields!" The goal of the whole farming enterprise is the yield, the produce, the fruit. And if gardens did not produce fruits and vegetables, how many of us would go through all the trouble? The goal of the garden is the fruit. And so it is with God.
Did you know that God is a farmer? God has planted people. We are his garden, and he wants to produce fruit for his own pleasure. You and I were created by God for a purpose—to produce fruit for God. But what kind of fruit is God looking for? He is looking for obedience, righteousness, worship, and glory from his creation. But if we are God's garden, and if we are created to produce fruit for him, we arrive at a fundamental question: How can we be sure that God is pleased with our fruit?
Each and every religion has a different way of answering that question. What will it take for us to be acceptable to God? Do we need to follow a strict set of rules and regulations? Do we need to perform certain sacrifices and rituals? What do we do with the nagging feeling that we do not measure up?
Our passage this morning, John 15, gives us the answer to these questions. In this passage, we learn how we can be pleasing to God, and how to produce the fruit that he wants.
Jesus is the only true vine.
In verse 1, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser." This metaphor may seem strange to some of us. For a long time, I thought Jesus was just using a vine as an illustration. I imagined Jesus walking through a vineyard, and thinking to himself, "I can probably use a vine to illustrate what I want to teach my disciples." To be sure, the vine is an illustration. But he is not just using the vine to illustrate his teaching. He is doing more than that. Jesus has carefully chosen the vine image to say something controversial and outrageous. Did you notice the scandal of verse 1? Jesus did not say, "I am like a vine." He is not just comparing himself to a vine. He is the vine. Similarly, he doesn't say, "I am a vine," as though there were many vines, and he is just one of them. No, Jesus says, "I am the vine," the one and only vine.
But that is not all. Instead of simply saying, "I am the vine," he says, "I am the true vine." But what does that mean? How can a vine be true? The word true is the whole point. We then ask the question: If Jesus is the true vine, who or what is the untrue vine?
Those who heard Jesus that day probably knew exactly what he meant. He was talking about the people of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, the grapevine was a prominent symbol for the people of Israel. In fact, right in their temple, the very center of their national life, there was a massive vine, made of solid gold, over 90 feet high. It was a symbol of the nation and its prosperity.
The vine was a favorite metaphor to describe the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Time and again, the people of Israel are likened to a vine. Take, for example, Psalm 80:8-11:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River.
Here, God's people are described as a massive vine, planted by the Lord. God brought them out of Egypt, and planted them in their own land. And the whole purpose for their redemption was that they would bear fruit for his pleasure. But if you are familiar with the story of the Old Testament, you will know that even though Israel was planted well by the Lord, she didn't produce the fruit that God wanted. The Lord says to the people of Israel, in Jeremiah 2:21, "I planted you, a choice vine, entirely of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?" By in large, the Lord didn't find the fruit he was looking for from Israel, his beloved vine. The vine of Israel proved false.
So, Jesus' claim, "I am the true vine," was scandalous and unexpected. He is saying that he was the faithful and true Israel. Where the people of Israel failed to produce the fruit that God was looking for, Jesus succeeded. Where the people of Israel fell short of God's righteous requirements, Jesus succeeded. Though Israel bungled its mission to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, Jesus will get the job done.
Now, some of you, if you have your theological antennae up, might be wondering, Wait a minute. If Jesus is true Israel, are you saying that God has abandoned the Jewish people? And if so, what about his faithfulness to his promises in the Old Testament? It is unavoidable that Jesus is using the Old Testament symbol of Israel, the vine, to describe himself. But this does not mean God has abandoned Israel. On the contrary, he has sent Jesus to meet their deepest need. Jesus is their substitute. He will be a sacrifice for their sin. He will bring them to God. Jesus is the most compelling proof of God's love for Israel.
After all, the Old Testament is a 2,000-year-long reminder that Israel was not able to please God on their own. So Jesus says, "I am the true vine," and in that one earth-shattering sentence, Jesus announces that he is the new and faithful planting of the Lord. He represents the new people for God's pleasure.
We are the branches.
Not only that. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. In verse 5 Jesus tells his disciples, "I am the vine, and you are the branches." Jesus makes it clear that there are two different kinds of branches: fruitful branches and unfruitful branches.
Which one are you? Are you a fruitful branch? Do you produce what is pleasing to God? Or are you an unfruitful branch? How can you be sure of which one you are? This passage tells us there is only one difference between the two. Fruitful branches abide in the vine. Verses 5 and 6 explain this clearly:
Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If 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.
So the secret of the fruitful branches is that they abide in Jesus. What does it mean to abide? Abide basically means "to remain," "to stay put," "to linger in one place," or "to dwell." The most important thing for a branch to do is to stay connected to the vine. Only a branch that receives life-giving sap from the vine will live and bear fruit.
And so it is with us. Most people live their lives as if they are independent vines. They think that they can please God in their own strength and effort. But we are not autonomous vines. We are only branches. And, as mere branches, the most important thing that we can do is to stick with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, "Whoever abides in me, he it is who bears much fruit." And the converse is also true. Jesus says, "Apart from me, you can do nothing."
But what does that really mean, "Apart from me, you can do nothing"? In reality, we can do a lot apart from the vine. We can have a career. We can raise families. We can preach a sermon. We can make billions of dollars. We can climb Everest. We can put a man on the moon. We can do all of these things in our own capacity. And they can even go very well. So why does Jesus say, "Apart from me, you can do nothing"? There is one thing we can't do on our own, apart from Christ. We can't produce fruit if we are disconnected from the vine. Branches can't do that. We can't produce the obedience and righteousness that pleases God if we are not connected to Christ.
If we are continually operating independently of Jesus Christ, we might look pretty good, we might feel successful and self-sufficient, and we might get good results, but we will never produce the fruit that God is looking for. How many of us go through life trying to do things entirely in our own strength, never pausing to depend upon God's power? The truth is we are completely incapable of pleasing God until we are utterly dependent on Jesus Christ.
Abiding in the vine is the difference between a worthless branch and a fruitful one. And what is the fate of each of these branches? In verse 2, we see that every branch that does not bear fruit is taken away. And verse 6 tells us more—the branches that do not abide are gathered together and burned. The hard fact is that a person in whom there is no vital fruit, a person who lives independently of Jesus Christ, is ultimately only fodder for the fires of hell.
Branches need to be pruned.
But what about the fruitful branches? This passage doesn't tell us what their eternal reward will be. But John's Gospel makes it clear that the reward is eternal life. And in John's Gospel, eternal life is something that starts in this life, at the moment we believe in Jesus Christ. Although the eternal destiny of fruitful branches is not mentioned in this passage, Jesus tells us the fruitful branches will be pruned. Fruitful branches are refined and improved by the Father's sharp knife. Why are they cut? So that everything that is old and dead, getting in the way of bearing fruit, will be taken away.
In preparation for this message, I called a local vineyard to ask them about pruning. I spoke with a member of the staff, and he told me that if you want the vine to produce well, you need to prune it. And the pruning is done in the winter, when fruit is nowhere to be seen. But as a result, the vine is prepared to yield a beautiful and bountiful harvest. He shared the following poem, by a vine keeper named David Clod:
He will tend his vineyard in winter,
tracing gloved-hands along the dull legs of grapevines.
In search of brittle dead wood,
revealing a pale green circle of life
that promises renewal in the spring.
Likewise, fruitful branches are pruned by the Father. Although not much is said in this passage about what the pruning looks like, it seems clear that this is a painful process, and it purifies the branches. Did you know that even fruitful branches endure hardship? Actually, we can say that they especially endure hardship. God brings his branches through painful circumstances. We instinctively assume that hardship is God's way of punishing us or rejecting us. But Jesus tells us that the painful pruning process is not punishment. Instead, it is a tender gift of loving care.
So how do we know when God is pruning us? The answer: When we become more reliant on the Vine for our life and strength. The great irony is that sometimes it is the fruitful branches that feel the most frail. In the winter of drastic pruning, we may not feel that we are fruitful at all. But if we draw more deeply from the life-giving Vine in times of great need, we can be assured that the Master Gardener is pruning us. We can be assured that the Vine will produce a greater harvest of fruit.
So how do you respond in times of difficulty and disappointment? Do you draw closer to the Vine in humble dependence and prayer? Or do you pull away from him in bitter pride? Let us draw near to Christ in difficult times, and not pull away from him. For when we draw near to him, our pain becomes pruning and it yields a harvest of righteousness.
Hebrews 12:11 teaches the same message: "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." You cannot please God without Jesus. Have you considered the implications? A Muslim cannot please God, no matter how devoted he may be. Until he is connected to the vine, he cannot produce the fruit of true righteousness that God is looking for. A Jew cannot please God, no matter how strictly he follows the Law. He can only please God when he is connected to the Vine, the Lord Jesus Christ. The 'moral' American—who goes to church every Sunday, who doesn't cheat on his taxes, and who provides for his family—cannot please God apart from Jesus Christ. You and I are not able to please God, except when we have clung to the Vine in humble dependence.
Branches bear fruit by abiding.
That is what Jesus means when he says, in verse 4, "Neither can you bear fruit by yourself, unless you abide in me." Do you want to produce the fruit that God is looking for? Are you eager to be pleasing to God? There is only one way to be pleasing to God: Abide in Jesus. That is the central message of this passage. It all comes down to whether or not we abide in Jesus.
Many times, this passage is preached this way: You need to check your life for fruit. If you don't have enough fruit in your life, you are going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Do you want to be thrown into hell? If you want to avoid going to hell, you better roll up your sleeves and start working so that you begin to produce fruit.
But that is a tragic misdirection of this passage. That kind of preaching misses the whole point. Jesus makes it clear that we can't produce any fruit by ourselves. We can't produce any fruit by just trying harder. We can't simply 'get our fruit on!' If we want to bear fruit, we have only one option: Abide in Christ. That is the only thing we can do. "Abide in me" is the only command in these verses. But it is also an invitation: "Abide in me, and I in you."
This, then, leaves us with a major question: If abiding in Christ is all we can do, how do we do it? What do we mean by abiding? One possible translation of abide is to "set up camp," to "take up residence," "to stay put." So abiding is about deciding where you belong and where you will stay.
So first of all, there is beginning to abide. The whole Book of John is written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ. And that by believing, we might have life in his name. So the starting place for abiding is believing God's Word, embracing the message that Jesus is God's righteous Vine, admitting there is no pleasing God apart from Christ.
Perhaps, you have never confessed that you are nothing apart from Christ. Perhaps you have never embraced Jesus as the only source of life and fruit. Bind yourself to the Vine this morning. Apart from Jesus, you can do nothing. He is the only way, the only truth, the only life.
But most of us here have already begun to abide. We have already come to Jesus in faith, believing that he is God's provision of life for us. And yet, how often, and how desperately, do we seek strength and life and help from the Vine? In the day to day, there is a continual need to abide. There is an experience of abiding that we may often forget.
The truth is, it is nonsense to begin the Christian life by putting all your trust in Jesus Christ and then to try to live the Christian life on your own. Even after we become Christians, we can still do nothing apart from him. We all are invited to drink deeply of Christ, to draw more of the vitality that is pulsating through the Vine. We are invited to depend more fully on him, to remain firmly fixed on him. We are invited to strengthen our connection with him, to call upon Christ in greater dependence and humility.
And in addition to prayerful dependence, there is also the importance of God's Word. We find this in verses 3 and 7. First, we see that God's Word makes the branches clean. Jesus says to his disciples in verse 3: "Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you." And interestingly, the word used for 'clean' (katharoi) is close to the word for pruning (kathairei). So one of the major ways that we are pruned (or cleaned) is by the word of God. God's Word, applied by God's Spirit, activated by humble faith and dependence, sends the life-giving power of Jesus Christ coursing through us.
We find a similar idea in verse 7: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." As we abide in him, there is an abiding that he does in us. And his abiding in us takes place by and large through his word.
So there is no question that apart from Christ, we can do nothing. But when we abide in Christ, through humble dependence and faith in the gospel, God's life-giving power will produce his fruits in our lives. And as we abide in Jesus, God actually finds in us what he is looking for—good fruit. Jesus says this: "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples (15:8). What does the fruit do? It gives glory to the Father. God is pleased when he sees the fruit of Christ's disciples. Mission Accomplished! When we abide in Christ, by faith, we bring pleasure to God with our fruit.
As Christians, because of our connection to the Vine, we are finally fulfilling the purpose for which we were created—to produce fruit that is pleasing and glorifying to God. So how is it that we can be pleasing to God? Only by abiding in the true Vine. Only by taking up residence in the Lord Jesus Christ,
Are you abiding in him? "Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is, that bears much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing."
Neal Patel serves as the Pastor of Equipping and Evangelism for the Galena Bible Church in Galena, Illinois.