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Sermon: John 15:1-17: Abide in Christ

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 80

“To the choirmaster: according to Lilies. A Testimony. Of Asaph, a Psalm. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved! O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved! 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. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your face! But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself! Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name! Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80, ESV)

New Testament Reading: John 15:1-17

“I am the true vine, and 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. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:1–17, ESV)

Introduction

The message being communicated to us in this most beautiful passage is that Christ came, not only to pay for sins so that we might be forgiven by God and experience eternal life in the future, but also to fill us with abundant and fruitful life in the here and now.

The tendency among some Christians, I think, is to reduce, or minimize, or constrain the work of Christ on the cross so that in our minds it pertains only to the future. We think of the cross of Christ and the work that was accomplished there and we think, he earned something for me that I will enjoy in the future. Or, Jesus died so that I can go to heaven somedayHe died, we think to ourselves, so that I will not be condemned in the final judgment. These things are indeed true, but John 15 compels us to see that there is so much more to be said about the life that is available in Christ.

Consider again Jesus’ words to his disciples in 14:19: “Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” Clearly Jesus is referring to his death and resurrection. The promise is that because Jesus lives (because he has risen from the grave) those who believe in him will also live. But when will Christ’s followers come to experience this resurrection life? That is the question.

Brothers and sisters, life in Christ it is not something reserved exclusively for the future, but it is here and now. If you are in Christ, you have been made alive through the word and by the Spirit. If you are in Christ, you have been born again. The resurrection life of Christ is something that pulsates through the Christian in this life, and will enliven to the uttermost in the age to come. That seems to be the heart of the matter here in John chapter 15.

Jesus uses the imagery of a vineyard to illustrate this principle.There are three things that I would like to focus upon in this metaphor. First of all, we should take note of the variety of persons represented; secondly, we should consider the command that is given; and thirdly, we should consider the result of obedience.

A Variety Of Persons Represented

Notice, first of all, the variety persons represented in this metaphor.

Jesus is here represented by the vine. God the Father is represented by the vinedresser, or gardner. And then there are two types of branches, representing two types of people – those who are truly united Christ, who remain in him, and bear fruit, and those who do not. Let us then consider these figures, one at a time.

First of all, we hear Jesus say, “I am the true vine” – a vine represents Jesus in this metaphor. 

It is right for us to think of a grapevine. They were common in the region where Jesus ministered, and they are common in our region too. Jesus is here represented by a vine – that is to say,  the large, stable, life giving part of the grape plant out of which the branches which produce the fruit naturally grow.

The image, at it’s most fundamental and basic level, communicates this simple principle: Jesus Christ is the source of life. Life – that is to say, spiritual, or eternal, or resurrection life – is found in him. He is the source of it. He is the one in whom life is found. He is the vine. That is the most basic truth to be grasped here. Do you want life? Look to Jesus for it.

But notice that Jesus calls himself “the true vine”He is not only vine, nor is he simply the vine, but he is the true vine. The implication is that there is also some sort of false vine.

I suppose we could say that a false vine is anyone or anything which people look to as a source of life other than the risen Christ. Man-made religion would be an example of this – religion which sets it’s hope upon the obedience of man, rather in the obedience of Christ for us. I suppose that materialism would also be an example of a false vine – hope in money and possessions. Moralism should also be mentioned – that is the belief that man is basically good and capable of laying ahold of life through the performance of good deeds.  The truth of the matter is that every person who has ever lived has tapped into a vine of some kind, looking to some person or thing as the source of life for them. To speak in a most general way, they have either tapped into some created thing (most likely themselves), or into the Creator (through the Christ whom he has sent, the only mediator between God and man). They are either in the true vine, who is the Christ. Or they are in some false vine, who’s end is death. Jesus is true in that he alone has life to give, whereas all other vines are false, meaning that they lead, not to life, but to death. I think this certainly a part of what is meant by the word true.

But I think there is a deeper meaning here – one that would have been much more obvious to the disciples of Christ who heard this at first. They were Jews who were well aquatinted with the Old Testament scriptures and with the history of their people. We tend to be lacking in this regard, and so we miss the connection that they would have easily grasped.

Vineyard imagery is used very often in the Old Testament to describe God’s covenant people.

Psalm 80, which I read not long ago, is an example of this. The Psalmist cries out to God, saying, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved! 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.” (Psalm 80:7–9, ESV) This is obviously a reference to the Exodus and to the birth and establishment of the nation of Israel in the promised land. Israel is pictured as a vine planted by the hand by God.

We could read many other passages in the Old Testament and see this demonstrated. I think of Isaiah chapters 5 and 27. I think also of Jeremiah 2:21and 12:10 and following. I think of Ezekiel 15:1–8; 17:1–21; 19:10–14, and also Hosea 10:1–2. Israel is God’s vineyard.

But two things should be noticed about the vineyard imagery contained in these Old Testament texts.

First of all, in most of these passages, God, or the prophet through whom the Lord spoke, is mourning the condition of God’s vineyard. God planted it. He tilled the soil. He built a wall around the vineyard, and yet it produced wild grapes (see Isaiah 5). I think also of Ezekiel 15 where the prophet asks the question, what good is dry and dead grape wood except to be thrown into the fire as kindling? You can build a house out of cedar! But who would even bother making a peg out of the dead and dry wood of the grapevine? The implication here is that Israel was more dead than alive. She was planted to bear fruit, but she had wandered far from God and had become fruitless. Judgment was, therefore, on the way.

Secondly, in many of the passages containing vineyard imagery there is a promise given that a day will come where God will cause his vineyard to produce fruit and fill the earth. Isaiah 27 is an example of this. “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. In that day, ‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it! I, the Lord, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone punish it, I keep it night and day…” (Isaiah 27:1–3, ESV) Psalm 80 also contains a promise for the future. After the Psalmist laments Israel’s current condition in verses 12-13, saying, “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it”, he then pleads with God, saying in verse 14, “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.” Now isn’t that interesting? The Psalmist is praying that God would have regard for the vine which he has planted, and then he makes reference to the son – “the son whom you made strong for yourself.” He continues in verse 16 “They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your face! But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!”

Here is the thing that I am trying to demonstrate to you: When Jesus said, “I am the true vine” his Jewish disciples, without a doubt, understood him to be making reference to these Old Testament passages.

Jesus is the true vine – he always has been.

If God’s people were alive under the Old Covenant it was because they were united to Christ vitally and truly by faith.  They were believing upon the promise of the Messiah. They were looking forward to, as the Psalmist was, “the son whom [God] made strong… the man of [God’s] right hand… the son of man”, who is Jesus the Christ.

But under the Old Covenant there were dead branches, were there not? At certain times there were so many dead branches that it provoked the prophets to speak and write as they did, lamenting the state of God’s vineyard. And why were these branches dead and dry and barren? Though they were of Israel according to the flesh, they were not of Israel according to the Spirit. They were God’s people externally, but not inwardly.

Jesus Christ is the true vine. He is true in that he is the fulfillment to these Old Testament prophesies concerning the restoration of the vineyard of God. And he is true in that he has been the source of life for God’s people from the moment that sin entered the world. He alone – yesterday, today, and forever – has life in himself. All who have ever been made alive in the Spirit, from Adam’s day forward, were made alive in Christ, through faith in him, who is the true vine. The New Testament makes this so abundantly clear.

Listen to how our Confession talks about the work of Christ on the cross benefiting, not only those who lived during and after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also those who lived before Christ. In Chapter 8, entitled “Christ the Mediator”, picking up in paragraph 6, we read,

“Although the price of redemption was not actually paid by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefit thereof were communicated to the elect in all ages, successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, being the same yesterday, and to-day and for ever.”

Isn’t that beautifully stated?

Christ is the true vine in that there is no other besides him who can give life. And he is the true vine in that he is the true Israel of God. When Israel was called out of Egypt and planted in the promised land, it was indeed a whole nation that was planted there. But above all else, it was the Christ who was planted. It was the seed of the woman promised from long ago who was preserved. All who lived within Israel believing upon the promise of the Christ were alive in him. Those of Israel not believing upon the Christ were likened to dead wood in the vineyard of God.

For those who would like to further explore my interpretation of the word true, I would encourage you to go to John 6 and to read from verse 22 onward. It is there that we find one of the “I am” sayings of Christ – “I am the bread of life”, he says. By the way, this is  the last of the “I am” sayings of Christ here in 15:1 – “I am the true vine.” But in 6:32 you will notice that Jesus calls himself the “true bread from heaven”. He compares himself to the mana that came to the people of Israel through Moses. That was real bread that came to Israel, but Jesus is the true bread. The mana nourished Israel physically, but it is Jesus the Christ who is the bread from heaven who gives true life – eternal life –  yesterday, today, and forever.

He is the true vine because he is the possessor of true lifeAnd he is the true vine because he alone is the giver of true life by virtue of his life, death, resurrection, and assertion to the right hand of the Father.

You’re thinking to yourself, my goodness, he has spent an awful lot of time on the first five words of this passage! I think it is necessary. The rest of the passage becomes more clear as we understand the vineyard imagery against it’s Old Testament backdrop.

The second figure that we encounter in this metaphor is the Father, and Christ tells us that he is the vinedresser. 

We are to think here of the owner of the vineyard. The Father has planted his vineyard, and it is the Father who cares for his vineyard.  This too should be considered against the backdrop of the Old Testament texts already mentioned.

God loves his vineyard, Israel. And notice again the concern of the Father. It is that his vineyard – his people – would bear much fruit. He planted them, protects them, and prunes them so that they might be fruitful! This is what I was emphasizing earlier. Our tendency is to think about the Christian life as if it is all about the future. No! God desire is to make us fruitful… now. And so he prunes his people. The dead wood he takes away. That which has life in it he prunes, so that it might produce more fruit.

It is here that we must turn our attention to the third and fourth figures in the metaphor. The branches represent people, and clearly there are two kinds.

There are branches that bear fruit. These have life in them, indicating that there exists a real and vital connection to the vine which gives life. Clearly,in this metaphor, these fruit-bearing branches represent true followers of Christ. These are those who have faith in Christ, and the fruit which they produce is evidence to the fact that they are indeed in Christ.

Look at verse 8: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” When Christians bear fruit, God is glorified. And when Christian bear fruit, they prove to be Christ’s disciples. Notice that the fruit does not make us into disciples of Christ, but rather it is a proof of an authentic and vital union with Christ.

And what does the Father do with these fruit-bearing branches? He prunes them!

I know nothing about pruning grapevines except that there is a right way and wrong way to do it. It takes skill. I doubt that you prune a grapevine with a gas powered hedge clipper. Skill and precision are needed! But I do get the general principle – it is through the process of removing unnecessary things – leafs and twigs and branches – that greater health is produced within the branch, and within the vine, leading to a greater yield of fruit.

Bothers and sisters, this is what the Father does with his people – he prunes them. He, over time, removes those ungodly or unnecessary things which sap the life from us and limit our fruitfulness. This is sanctification. It is the process whereby the Father makes us more holy and fruitful in the Son and by the Spirit. We should rejoice in it, though it may be unpleasant for a time. This is what the Father does with those who are his – he cleans them. If you are in Christ, you are already clean (as were the disciples to whom he originally spoke these words (see verse 3)). But he cleans, or prunes those who belong to him more and more throughout the Christian life.

But what does the Father do with those branches which do not produce fruit. The text tells us that he “takes them away” (verse 2).

This verse here has been the source of much debate throughout the ages.

There are some who insist that these fruitless branches represent those who were truly united to Christ by faith, and yet, because of their fruitlessness, lost their salvation, having been removed from the vine and cast into the fire.

What are we to think of this?

First of all, this view contradicts many other clear statements in scripture concerning the preservation of the saints. John 10:27-29 is an example of this, where Jesus is heard saying, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 17 could also be sited, along with many other scriptures.

Secondly, this view turns the gospel of grace into no gospel at all. Salvation, all of a sudden, depends upon you, and your good works! This turns the gospel on it’s head, turning it from good news to bad.

Thirdly, this view abuses the vulnerability of metaphorical language. It seizes upon the looseness of the metaphor and crams unbiblical teaching in to the gaps. It presses the metaphor too far.

Jesus is not teaching that someone can be really and truly united to Christ by faith and then severed. Rather he is building upon the Old Testament imagery and is warning that, though some may appear to be apart of the people of God externally, their fruitlessness is a sign that no true and vital union to the life giving Savior exists. This passage warns against merely external religion. It warns against slackness in the Christian life. To be in Christ will lead to fruitfulness. If there is a lack of fruit, then we should certainly pause and examine our hearts.

This passage also warns against apostasy. Brothers and sisters, there are plenty of New Testament texts which describe to us people who have some degree of connection with Jesus, or some degree of connection with the Christian church, who, to borrow language from D.A. Carson, “by failing to display the grace of perseverance finally testify that the transforming life of Christ has never pulsated within them.” (Carson, PNTC, 515)

Most specifically, I think this reference to the fruitless branch that is taken away is a warning to the non-believing Jews. Certainly they considered themselves (and still do) to be a part of the vineyard of God on the basis of their ethnicity. But there is a warning here that to reject Jesus as the true vine is to be severed from God’s vineyard, who is the true Israel of God.

This is most certainly not a symbol of one who belongs to Christ truly and then looses his or her salvation. Consider that the same John who wrote this Gospel dealt with the question of those who appeared to fall away from Christ in a most direct way, saying, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19, ESV)

Branches that bear some fruit are pruned so that they bear more. Branches that bear no fruit – they are dead, lacking a vital union with Christ, not having the life of Christ pulsate through them – these are cut off and throne into the fire. Without a doubt this symbolizes judgement.  It is a sobering thought indeed.

More can be said, but we must move on for the sake of time. In summery, there are four figures in this metaphor. The vine represents Christ, the Father is the vinedresser. The branches that bear fruit are true disciples of Christ whom the Father prunes in order to make them more fruitful, whereas the fruitless branches represent those who, though they may appear to be a part of the covenant community, lack any vital union to the savior. They are dead wood – fruitless branches – who are cut off and throne into the fire.

Christ’s Command

Notice, secondly, the command of Christ in this passage.

There is one command that appears time and again in this passage. Jesus commands his followers to do one thing if they hope to be fruitful – abde, abide, and abide.

Verse 4: “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.” (John 15:4, ESV)

Verse 9: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9, ESV)

The word abide means to remain. Here again the emphasis is upon remaining in Christ. Just as a branch must remain in the vine if it is to live, so too must the Christian perpetually remain in Christ if she is to live. We do not come to Christ for salvation and then go on alone. No, we are to walk with him in an ongoing communion bond, on the basis of the covenant that he has made with.

Our relationship to Jesus is like a marriage, in other words. He is the groom, we the bride, according to the scripture. Too often do we view our relationship with Jesus as if it were a court date. It is not a court date, it is marriage. There is a covenantal communion bond that exists between us and Christ. If we are to enjoy the life that is found in him – if we are to bear fruit – then we must remain in him.

But how do we abide in Christ, exactly?

I often find that what Christians want is a checklist. Tell me what I must do to abide in Christ! But the first thing we must develop, is not a check list, but an attitude – an attitude which permeates every aspect of our life and being, which says, Lord, I need you! It is an attitude of dependence that we need – an attitude of humility, and of weakness – which drives to look to Christ always and in every circumstance for the strength that comes from him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Paul tells us to “walk by the Spirit” he is communicating a similar concept, isn’t he?

But notice that once we have adopted this mindset there are also some things for us to do.

First of all, to abide in Christ means that we are to keep his word.

Notice in verse 3 that Jesus says to his disciples, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” It is by the word that we are made clean initially, and it is by the word that Christ prunes us progressively through the ministry of the Spirit of  Truth, who is the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit who makes holy.

Christ has appointed preachers and teachers to read the word to the church, and to explain it so that we all might live by it. You need the preaching of Christ’s word if you are to abide in him. We live in a unique time in history where we, as the people of God, have access to God’s written word. We ought to read the word often. But notice the emphasis in this passage upon obedience. Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, it possible to be in church every Lord’s day, and to read your Bibles morning and night, and to not abide in Christ. We are to encounter God’s word, it is true – but we must be sure to obey it! It is better to read the Bible a little and to live by what it says than to read it a lot and to fail to practice it. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22, ESV)

Notice, secondly, the emphasis upon prayer in this passage.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7, ESV) Here the Christian is invited to pray and make requests before God. It is through prayer that we enjoy ongoing communion with our Savior. And what a gift that it is!

Notice, thirdly, the love we are to have for one another.

“This is my commandment”, Jesus says, “that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12–13, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, there is no abiding in Christ apart from Christ’s church, who is called the body of Christ, his bride, his temple, and his flock. My heart fears for those who claim to love Christ and yet hate his church. How can we claim to love Christ and yet hate the bride for whom he died?

This entire passage is peppered with references to the corporate nature of the Christian life. He is saying it all to his disciples, we are not one, but many. God’s vineyard consists of many branches gathered together in the one vine. And Christ concludes this entire section saying, “These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:17, ESV) It will not do to say, well the church is dysfunctional today. Brothers and sisters, the church has always been dysfunctional. Read your new Testament. Perhaps you have misunderstood the gospel if it is messiness of other peoples lives which keeps you away from Christ’s church.

So how do we abide? Above all else we are to cultivate an attitude of dependence upon Christ so that we rely upon him for all things. After this we must recognize the way in which the Holy Spirit uses the word and prayer within the context of the church to transform lives.

The Result of Obedience

Notice, thirdly, the result of obedience to Christ’s command.

The result is fruitfulness.

Many have sought to pinpoint what exactly this bearing of fruit represents. Is it that people will come to Christ through us when we are fruitful? Is it that our lives will become more holy? Or we will be more loving and joyful people as we abide in Christ?

Honestly, I’m not sure why we feel the need to reduce fruitfulness to one of these things or the other. Is not the idea that as we abide in Christ, who is the true vine, we will, as branches, inevitably produce fruit which Christlike?

Lord, make us fruitful, we pray. May we abide in you. And as we abide, may your word and Spirit bring life to us – more and more life – abundant life, so that our life produces more and fruit until the day we die, to the glory of your name. Amen.

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that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

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