John 15

July 22, 2001

THE SECRETS OF CARRYING OUT
THE CHRISTIAN MISSION

Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

In John 15 we have the seventh and final “I am” saying of Jesus. John has used seven “I am” sayings to give structure to his telling of Jesus’ story. So in John 15:1 we read the last of them,”I am the true vine.” This is a statement about our relation to Jesus. A vine is a utilitarian plant. It exists to bear fruit. When you think about a vine, it is all branches. So when Jesus says in verse 5, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he is not saying I am the stem or the root and you are the branches. He is giving us a picture of the relationship between himself and us.

We cannot think of a vine separate from branches. A vine is all branches. I thought of a little ditty,

I’m just a little grapevine
A-growin’ in the field
And all I want of living
Is sun and rain and yield.

Corny, but the goal of the grapevine is to bear fruit to the glory of the Father, as verse 8 puts it.

The Old Testament used the grapevine image to describe Israel. When she was not fruitful, God burned her. We read in Jeremiah 2, “I had planted you like a choice vine, of sound and reliable stock. How then did you become a corrupt, wild vine?” And Jeremiah goes on to point out that since the vine is wild and the grapes are sour, God will destroy the vineyard. We see that happen when Assyria and Babylon conquer Israel.

Then Jesus comes along and he calls himself “the true vine”. So Jesus takes this image for Israel and applies it to himself. Jesus is the true Israel, the one who fully obeys the Father, as Israel did not.

When Jesus establishes his new community he means for us to bear fruit for God. Israel had become fruitless; but the followers of Jesus, you and I, are to bear fruit. What is this fruit? If you would look at commentaries on John, you would find a variety of answers. Most commentators say, “My view of what it means to bear fruit is the right one.” We evangelize so there are new converts, that’s fruit. We obey or love, that’s fruit. We have a Christian character, that’s fruit. Now whenever there are a large number of answers to a question posed by a Bible passage, we need to study the immediate context carefully. We are to bear fruit, Jesus says in John 15. The fruit is the consequence of prayer made in Jesus’ name to the Father’s glory. That’s a summary of what verses 7, 8 and 16 say.

It looks to me, then, on the basis of the immediate context, the fruit is what happens when we pray in Jesus’ name. The fruit embraces everything going on in the life of a Christian that we are praying about, including our witness to Jesus.

We have a number of plants in our garden in which a desirable rose or fruit branch is grafted onto a hardy stem or trunk of some other variety. But unless we prune carefully, a wild rose branch, or a different kind of fruit can grow from the stem or trunk. That can happen in our lives. We are all sinners saved by grace, but we are being changed. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3, we are being changed from one degree of glory to another to be like Jesus. But there are times when out of the old stock something wild appears. We need to get that bad growth pruned off.

Now what is the secret of bearing fruit? How do we do that? Or, to ask the question in a slightly different way, what is the secret of carrying out our mission as Christians here on earth? I think the passage suggests five secrets. What does Jesus say here that will help us carry out our task as Christians to bear much fruit? There are five things I noticed in reading through John 15.

1. Pruning. We need to be pruned. Verses 1-3. God does the pruning. There are some things in us that self-discipline will deal with, but there are other things that only God can do in us. He often uses other people and hard circumstances to do the pruning. Samuel Rutherford was a 17th century Scottish Presbyterian who, over his lifetime wrote letters of encouragement to hundreds of people. A line from one of the letters has been helpful to me over the years: “I see that grace groweth best in the wintertime.” The writer to the Hebrews recognized this point where he wrote in Hebrews 12:11, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace....” And that’s the fruit.

In the winter we prune our roses back, cutting out the dead branches, and trimming the spindly branches. We also tackle the fruit trees, cutting off those branches which grow vertically into the air, for they will never grow fruit. For several weeks after this pruning work we’ll have branches for the trash truck to haul away. We have one apple tree that was suppose to be self-pollinating, and we also have several other apple trees in our yard which might pollinate it; but this one tree, in 5 years, has never born fruit. This year we’re going to cut the whole thing down and burn it in our fireplace next winter. It is this process that God does in our lives.

There are two different words John uses in verse 2. He cuts off, airei, branches that bear no fruit. He prunes, or cleans out, kathairei, the branches which bear fruit, “so that they will be even more fruitful.” The process is similar. The Father is called the gardener in verse 1. He is lopping branches off healthy trees, but in non-healthy trees, he is smiting them root and branch.

One of the secrets of carrying out our mission is, we need to be pruned.

2. The second secret is, we are to “remain in” Jesus. Verses 4-8. Our relationship to Jesus is fundamental to bearing fruit. Verse 4, “No branch can bear fruit by itself.” In the spring when our roses first begin to bloom, we’ll cut some, put them in water in a vase and look on how lovely they are, for about four days. Then we have to throw them out. Cut off from the plant, these branches can’t continue to grow. Some Christians think they continue to grow even when they aren’t paying attention to Jesus, but fruit bearing is not a human possibility. Verse 5 points out, “If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” And then Jesus adds, “apart from me you can do nothing.” It’s like being on a life-support system.

Now how do we remain in Jesus? There is a booklet I have admired ever since I discovered it 45 years ago. It’s still in print. Robert Munger’s, My Heart, Christ’s Home. Intervarsity Press publishes it. It’s based on a sermon that Munger preached one year at First Church Berkeley when he was pastor there. And he preached it each year and friends encouraged him to put it into print. It’s about a man who becomes a Christian and Christ comes into the house of his life and begins to clean the rooms out, including the little back closet where he kept some of his worst habits. But he is busy, this new Christian, and one day he is rushing out of the house and turning, he looks into a room and notices Jesus sitting there. “What,” he says, “are you waiting for me?” Jesus replies, “And I have been ever since you first trusted in me.” We remain in Jesus as we regularly meet with him.

Jesus keeps after us. But we need to notice that he is sitting in a room of our house waiting for us to meet with him in our devotions. The second secret of carrying out our mission is, we need to remain in Jesus by our devotional life.

3. Thirdly, there is the connection of obedience and love that verses 9-17 are about. Here again we meet that argument of Jesus’which appears to be circular. Verse 10, obey my commands and you will remain in my love. Verse 12, Here is my main command, love each other. When verse 14 adds, “You are my friends if you do what I command,” this does not mean that obedience makes us Jesus’ friends, but rather obedience characterizes Jesus’ friends.

Now notice the way Jesus says this in verse 14, “You are my friends if....” Neither God nor Jesus is ever referred to in Scripture as the friend of anyone. But there are two people in the Old Testament who are called friends of God. I was talking to someone this past week about David and I said, God called David his friend. But I was wrong about that. It is only Abraham and Moses who are called friends of God in the Old Testament. You find it in Isaiah 41:8 and Exodus 33:11. Of all the great heroes of the Old Testament, only these two are called the friends of God. And here Jesus says that every Christian who responds in love to obey his commands is God’s friend. That’s amazing that we are put on the level of the great heroes of the Old Testament because of our relation to God’s Son.

So how can we obey Jesus well enough to love him? Well, what sort of love are we supposed to show? I was talking to a young boy recently who said, “I love my dog.” Is this the way we love Jesus? What Jesus says here in verse 13 is, we are to love the way Jesus loved. Jesus was willing to lay down his life for his friends. But even though we are friends of Jesus, he is still the Lord. That’s the thing we can’t allow to get lost in some emotional fuzzies. Jesus is the Lord. What we do should call attention to him, not to us. But he’s the sort of Lord we may both obey, as with all earthly lords, yet also love.

The third secret of carrying out our mission is, we need to obey and to love Jesus.

4. A fourth secret of carrying on our mission is to pray in Jesus name. Jesus says this specifically in verses 7 and 16. Verse 7 underlines the fact that it is when we remain in Jesus, then we can ask with expectation for whatever we will and it will be given us. Verse 17 adds that when we were chosen to bear fruit that will last, “then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my (that is, Jesus’) name.” So to unpack that, we may pray with confidence of receiving when we are praying for what will result in bearing fruit for God’s glory. If we are vines, we need to be concerned about bearing fruit.

That means that when we pray there is one question we have to ask ourselves, will praying for this, whatever it is, bear fruit for God? We don’t always know the answer to that question in specifics, but it is still the right question to ask.

When I first read the book, The Prayer of Jabez, which is based on a short passage in 1 Chronicles 4, I was struck by the sense of piety in this man Jabez. As I read I felt I was discovering something about God and how God honors people who trust him. But then as I read reviews of the book and saw that some people expected that God would bless their lives if they merely prayed regularly that prayer of Jabez, I said, that’s cultic. That’s not Christian. The prayers God answers are those which bear fruit for God and bring glory to his name. That’s the fourth secret of carrying out our mission.

5. The fifth and last secret for carrying out our mission in life is what verses 18-27 are about, we are not to belong to the world. The world is the foe of Christians. We were chosen out of the world, verse 19 says. Before I became a Christian I didn’t know I wasn’t one. That was a result of the attitude of the world affecting me. The world is filled with all sorts of shallow ideas about God and the world contains wrong moral boundaries. In the world, according to verse 22, we are exposed to evil and sin. The direct result of the fall, in fact, the very thing Satan said to Eve was that if she disobeyed God by eating that fruit, she would know experientially something God did not want us to know experientially, that is, evil. And by disobedience, that’s exactly what happened. That attitude of wanting to know evil experientially is what the Bible means by the world.

In Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, Iago, the villain, says at one point of Cassio who is an honorable lieutenant to Othello, “He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”

Of course. That is exactly the effect of the world on people that by God’s standard they are ugly. The effect of the world is to make people like it. So when Gothic is in, people want Gothic, with all its characteristics. In fact, so far as the world is concerned, the same things are always in no matter how different the age is from that of, say, your parents. Those same things are: the value you put on sex; the value you put on other people, particularly people who are different from you; the value you put on what you want, particularly being different; and the value you put on God. The world’s take on these values never changes. The world is not very creative. It simply has an extensive wardrobe so it dresses things up to look different from what they really are.

When Jesus says in verse 19, “that is why the world hates you,” the reason is because Christ didn’t buy into this. If we are going to carry out our mission as Christians, we are asked to be someone really different, the way Jesus was different. That’s Jesus’ line in verse 20. We need to remain in him and let him shape us. He will do in us what we can’t really do on our own. The other option is to be like people in the world. But the fifth secret of carrying out our mission is to not belong to the world.

Now Jesus has other things to teach us and, the Lord willing, we’ll come to them next week.