15:1-17, Isaiah 5:1-7
I am the Vine
These Sunday mornings we are reflecting upon the great "I am" claims of Jesus recorded in John's Gospel. Today we come to chapter 15.
1. A Great Picture - Jesus and the Believer: John 15:1-8
2. A Glorious Partnership - Jesus and the Church: John 15:9-17
3. A Grim Prediction - The Believer and the World: John 15:18-27
This morning we are going to concentrate on this great picture of the Vine and the Branches in the first few verses. Read John 15:1
I wonder what it was that prompted Jesus to use this illustration to describe his relationship with his friends. It may have been that as they ate that Last Supper together, above them along the beams of the upper room, open to the sky hung a vine with its clusters of grapes. Most homes in Israel have an upper room where the family meet in the evenings, to eat and relax.
So often hanging above them are the profuse leaves of a vine winding itself around the rafters. Providing shade as well as nourishment.
Or perhaps it was the image of the enormous gilded carving of a vine on the Temple Gate in Jerusalem - towering 105 feet high. Dwarfing Jesus and the disciples every time they entered the Temple. It was a symbol of deep significance, a national symbol of the Jews.
How appropriate then that Jesus should draw upon this image to describe the new relationship possible for everyone who believes in Him.
Jesus enriches this analogy of the Vine and the Branches to explain how God the Father makes our lives fruitful. So lets consider the four parts of this analogy - the Vine, the Branches, the Gardener and the Fruit.
1. The Vine 15:1-5
There are three different vines found in Scripture. Past, future and present.
1.1 The Past Vine was the Nation of Israel
In an act of wonderful grace God transplanted Israel into Canaan, and gave the nation every possible benefit. In Isaiah 5:4, the Lord exclaims in exasperation, "What more could have been done to my vineyard, that I have done in it?" If ever a nation had everything it needed to succeed, it was Israel. But the vine produced wild grapes. Instead of practising justice, it practised oppression as it does today, instead of righteousness, it produced unrighteousness. Only this week Israel was censured by the UN for refusing to sign the Nuclear weapons treaty. God had to deal with the nation Israel and chasten it, but it was no use. When God's Son came to the vineyard, they said "This is the heir" and they killed Him. And so ceased to be the vineyard of the Lord. Read Isaiah 5:5. The past vine was the nation of Israel.
1.2 The Future Vine is the Earth
In Revelation 14:14-20, the world opposed to God is likened to another vineyard. A vineyard that depends on its own resources and not God for sustenance and satisfaction. A vineyard, like Israel that will be cut down and destroyed when Jesus Christ returns. We are told in Revelation how "The angel will swing his sickle on the earth, gather its grapes and throw them into the great winepress of God's wrath." The past vine was Israel, the future vine will be the earth.
1.3 The Present Vine is the Lord Jesus Christ
He is the "True" vine. 'True' here means the original of which all other vines are a copy. This would have been a dramatic and provocative claim for Jews to hear. No longer were they fulfilling the chosen role God intended. Therefore they lost the designation of the Vine. Jesus would fulfil that role perfectly. The symbolism is similar to that of Christ the Head and the church as His Body. Both speak of our relationship to Christ, our dependence on Christ. A living union that we may bear fruit. A loving union that we may enjoy Him. A lasting union so that we need not be afraid. Unambiguously Jesus is the Vine. Lets now turn our attention to the Branches.
2. The Branches 15:1-5
Of themselves, branches are weak and useless. The branch cannot produce its own life. It must draw its life from the vine. Many of the images of Christ and the believer given in the Scripture emphasise this important concept of union and communion. What is the difference between the two kinds of branches? The one is good for bearing fruit, the other is fit only for burning.
The one bears fruit because it draws its life and energy from the vine. The other does not bear fruit because it does not draw its life from the vine. How can we tell the difference? Do you remember the severe storm in the autumn of 1987. Before the storm how could you tell the difference between a well rooted healthy tree and a shallow rooted diseased tree?
Between a healthy branch and a dead branch? Not that easy, especially in winter. How could you tell the difference after the storm? It was obvious. But when the cold cruel winds of difficulty, suffering or injustice blow they distinguish the fruitful from the unfruitful, the living from the dead.
When opposition or suffering comes does it draw you toward Jesus or tear you away? I visited Tear Fund's HQ recently. Amongst other things I learnt that around the world 500 Christians a martyred every day for their faith. In those circumstances people think twice about whether to go to church.
It can be very costly identifying with Jesus and his people. I recently received a phone call from Zahi a friend who is a clergyman from Nazareth. He was moved from Lod because his life had been threatened by people opposed to the good work he was doing setting up a church kindergarten and school. His wife Mona and the children were also threatened. Their church was set on fire several times and as their home was above it they had to move out. William Temple put it like this,
"The world would not hate angels for being angelic, but it does hate people for being Christian. It grudges them their new character; it is tormented by their peace; it is infuriated by their joy."
Dietrich Bonhoffer said, "Suffering is the badge of the true Christian. The disciple is not above His master."
When opposition is directed at you because you are a Christian it puts a whole new connotation on the hymn, "Stand up, stand up for Jesus" doesn't it. The evidence that we are part of the vine is simply this, that we remain. Remain part of the vine no matter what the elements throw at us. How do you respond to adversity? That's the test of what kind of branch we are. Do you desire to stick with Him? Do you long to be faithful to Jesus? Are you frightened at being separated from Him? That is evidence that He is holding onto you. That I cling to Him is a sign that He is holding on to me.
J.C. Ryle the 19th Century Bishop of Liverpool once said to "cling to Christ", means to "stick fast to Christ" Like superglue. Like Herman of Loraine, also known as Brother Lawrence, we must "practice the presence of Christ"
The word "abide" or "remain" occurs 11x in this passage. How can you tell you are remaining in Jesus? Is there a special feeling? No.
How you respond to adversity 15:18, is one evidence as we have just seen.
Fruit bearing 15:2, is another, we shall look at in a moment.
Discipline is another sign 15:2. Not a sign of God's displeasure but his love. But there are other evidences. Answered prayer 15:7
A deepening love for God and for other believers 15:9
A joy that nothing can destroy 15:11.
Do you know where the best grapes grow on a vine? The best grapes are produced furthest out from the vine. It is when we are out on a limb, without any other security or prop other than that we remain in Jesus, that is when we bear much fruit. If you feel stretched, maybe its a sign that Jesus is at work fruit bearing.
It may be natural for healthy branches of a vine to bear fruit, but it is something that must be cultivated. It may be natural but it is not automatic. Fruitfulness that flows from remaining in Christ requires cultivation.
That is why we need the careful oversight of the vine dresser.
3. The Vinedresser John 15:1-2
Read John 15:1-2. The vinedresser is in charge of caring for the vines, and Jesus says this is the work of His Father. What is significant in this analogy is that Jesus is not concerned that they bear fruit, but that they bear more fruit 15:2; much fruit 15:5, lasting fruit 15:16. What is the key then to more fruit bearing? There are two. Two things are necessary. Pruning and Training.
Jesus does not explain specifically what this pruning is, but viticulture can tell us a great deal about what was probably going on in Jesus mind.
Pruning has several purposes. The vinedresser prunes away dead wood that can bread disease and insects; and he cuts away living tissue so that the life of the vine will not be dissipated. He will even cut away whole bunches of grapes so that the rest of the crop will be of higher quality. Pruning is for:
Pruning ensures the equal distribution of fruit bearing wood over the entire vine.
Pruning also eliminates later work of having to thin clusters of poor quality grapes. The purpose of pruning is not to maximise the amount of fruit but to ensure all the nutrition in the vine goes into producing excellent quality grapes.
A vine left to itself, produces what are called "sucker shoots". These naturally grow where a branch joins the stem. If allowed to grow, they dissipate the life of the vine through these little branches so that the vine produces little or no fruit but many many leaves instead. Every vinedresser knows how vital it is to prune away these little sucker shoots to ensure plentiful fruit. Since the shoots grow right where the branch joins the stem, creating a tight cluster where dirt, leaves and other debris collect, the pruning is basically a cleansing process. The wise viticulturalist cleans away unnecessary growth that will sap the strength at the base of the vine. Pruning then achieves equal distribution, achieves quality, purity and long life. The goal of pruning is long term quality fruit, and therefore early crops from a wild vine are sacrificed through severe pruning of unnecessary or distracting growth. God is more concerned with quality than quantity. There are obvious parallels between pruning and discipline.
John Stott has said, "We need not doubt though that pain, sorrow, sickness, suffering, loss, bereavement, disappointment and frustrated ambition are all part of the pruning activity of God the gardener."
Your heavenly Father is never nearer to you that when he is pruning you. The vinedresser does not prune by remote control or from a great distance. He prunes personally with his hands. Sometimes the Father cuts away the dead wood that would cause trouble in the future. But often he cuts through the living tissue that is robbing you of your spiritual vigour. Sacrificing the good for the best. Pruning hurts but it helps. We may not enjoy it, but we need it. How does the Father prune us? Sometimes He simply uses the Word to convict and cleanse us. The word for prune literally means to cleanse. Sometimes He must chasten us. If we are going off in the wrong direction he must cut through and bring us back. At the time it hurts when He removes something precious, but He knows what He is doing.
There is another technique necessary for fruitfulness.
3.2 Training John 15:10-11
Read John 15:10-11. As you may know, a vine is not like any other tree.
A vine is not like an apple tree or orange tree which is allowed to grow free.
A vine is tied down with stakes or staples and trained to grow along poles or wires in a particular shape to maximise fruit growth. It has to be trained. The purpose is to develop a single strong shoot producing a solid framework. In the same way, we are not free to grow the way we would like.
The greatest judgment God could bring to believers would be to let us alone, let him have our own way, grow our own way. Because God loves us he prunes us, he disciplines and trains us so that we will be more like Him.
Do you see the commands of God's word as negative, restricting, cramping your style? Or do you see them as positive and necessary in order that you bear much fruit? Remaining in Jesus means being trained to grow up with Jesus. To remain in Jesus means to be vitally, organically related to Him.
How do you remain in Jesus? Simple. Let His word remain in you. How? Read it and obey it. Let His word indwell you richly says Paul to the Colossians. Do you long for God to speak to you? To reveal Himself to you?
Then read His word. God has spoken. God continues to speak through His Word. It is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword. You don't need to wait around listening for God to speak to you.
He already has. The question is are you reading to find out what He has already said. Are you obeying Him in what He has said about His priorities, His will for your life? Spend time with Him, receive from Him, in prayer, with your Bible open, under the hands of the Vine Dresser. The Vine, the Branches and the Vine Dresser, and lastly the fruit.
4. The Fruit John 15:10-11
Read verses again. All the pruning and training has one purpose in mind. That we bear fruit, more fruit, lasting fruit. We must remember that the branches do not eat the fruit, others do. We are not producing fruit to please ourselves but to serve others.
Do you long to see God work at Christ Church? Then get on with the work of serving. Somehow we've got this silly idea that if God is at work we won't have to. Or that we only have to wait around long enough and pray hard enough for God to work. That's the wrong way round. The reverse is true.
Do you know what is the greatest sign of God at work? The sign that God is at work is Christians at work, feeding others by our Christ-like words and actions. Proverbs 10:21 says "The lips of the righteous feed many" God is at work through Christians at work, living out the Gospel, making disciples, caring for the sick, for the orphans and widows, working for peace, fighting oppression, pursuing justice, achieving reconciliation.
If you want God to work a miracle in your life, if you want to see God at work in our church, then get on with it. But don't be surprised if some pruning is necessary. Use the gifts and talents he has given you, because one day he will want a return on his investment. What a picture, what an encouragement to Christian service: The Vine and the Branches, in the skillful hands of the Vine Dresser, bearing fruit for a hungry world, bringing life to a dying world, bring glory to the King of the Universe.
Let us pray.