Relationship and Responsibility

Those of you who know me know that I love to grow things, especially fruits and vegetables. I suppose this is a family thing that my parents passed on to me, and all of my siblings. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my mother in the vegetable garden on our farm, or helping my Dad with some of the crop work. My Dad (and his parents before him) kept a large fruit orchard. I am so sad that my Dad died before he could pass on his knowledge and expertise to me. He was an expert at grafting fruit trees, and we always had an abundant harvest of apples and grapes.

So, many years after he passed, I decided I wanted to grow some grapes. My mother and I selected the variety and planted them. As with most fruits, they just grew the first year and did not produce fruit. In the early spring of the second year, I realized I needed to prune the grapes and had no idea what I was doing. I was in trouble. So I did what many of us do when confronted with life’s problems: I asked my mother if she knew how to prune grapes.

Well, apparently she had paid attention to my father’s lessons and was willing to come and watch and offer advice while I learned to prune. I learned that I needed to look at the shape of each vine and decide which branches were going to be the main branches and cut away all the other branches so that the plant would concentrate its growing energy on a just a few branches that would bear fruit rather than a whole lot of branches. And, as odd as it sounds, she said I was to cut those branches selected as the main fruit bearing branches to only two living buds on each.

Well, I balked at that, because by then there wasn’t much left of my grape vines. She replied: “Your father always said that if the plant looked like it was going to die, then you had pruned enough.” Well apparently that is accurate, because I have followed these instructions for the last 20 years, and my grapes thrive and always produce.

Our Scripture passage today talks about pruning grapes too, doesn’t it? But Jesus is really talking about relationships and responsibilities. The vine is a metaphor for relationship: Jesus’ relationship to His Father, and our relationship to Jesus. The vine image describes Jesus’ connection with the Father as well as our connection to Jesus. It helps us to understand the intimate relationship between Father, Son, and believers. Our responsibility is to abide in the vine so that we can bear much fruit.

In studying this passage Jesus says He is the Vine and we are the branches. We often overlook the third character in this metaphor, the vinedresser, or God. This metaphor is not complete without all three characters. Just as with my grapes, the one who prunes the vines is an integral part of the fruit production process. And the Divine Vinedresser plays a similar and important role in our lives as well. So our cast of characters is the Vinedresser who is God, the Vine who is Jesus, and the branches that are us.

Jesus begins by saying  He is the true vine. So does that mean there are “fake” vines, like “fake” news? Well, yes! The words actually mean “the original, the one and only, the original against which all other vines are copies.” Jesus has said that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” and no one comes to the Father but through Him. (John 14:6) He is the original, one, and only. When we attempt to attach to any vine, or any belief system or person or being other than Jesus, we are attaching to a false vine. When we become Christians we attach to Jesus, the true vine.

Jesus goes on to say that His Father is the vinedresser and that He goes about the business of pruning. First He prunes out the branches that do not bear fruit, and then He also prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they will bear bigger and better fruit. See, the metaphor works just like those grapes in my yard.

What are we to make of the branches that bear no fruit? Note that Jesus first says that these branches are “in Him.” We are left with a couple of options here, either these are believers who are not really in relationship with Him (“fake” believers), or are believers who lose their salvation, or they are true believers who have become completely dead in their walk with Jesus. Is Jesus teaching that a believer can lose their salvation? I don’t understand it that way. To quote John Piper on this passage: “Jesus labors to teach the opposite especially in this Gospel (of John) – namely, that God has chosen a people for himself, that he gives them to the Son, and the Son keeps them infallibly forever.” I agree with Piper’s understanding that true salvation, once gained, cannot be lost. Because Jesus refers to these branches as being “in Him” I understand them to be believers that have grown cold in their love for Jesus and so are quite dead in that relationship and consequently produce no fruit and do not abide in the vine, yet they remain saved. So God the vinedresser cuts those branches out and throws them into the fire. He sets them aside. The remaining branches are distinguished by the fact that they abide in the vine and bear fruit. They are in a vital relationship with Jesus, the vine.

So a believer who is cold in his relationship with Jesus, not abiding in the vine, will find that he or she is disconnected from the life of Jesus, and completely unable to bear fruit. It is as if all their work has been burned up in a fire.

But the word “take away” in Greek can also mean to “lift up” or raise to a higher level. Grapes often send out new growth along the ground in the dirt. So picture the vinedresser picking the unfruitful branch out of the mud and dirt, washing it off, and training it to grow upward. This means that when we get to a place in our Christian lives where we are unfruitful and barren, the Lord will reach into our lives, disturbing our status-quo, and He will lift us up in an effort to challenge us and shock us to growth. He comes after us with a bucket of water, a soft cloth to clean us up, and twist ties to fasten us back to the arbor.

Conversely, the believer who is abiding in the vine is also pruned. Note that neither the productive nor the unproductive branch escapes pruning. This was a revelation to me. I think we assume that if we are on track and productive in ministry, that we will escape pruning. Did you know that is not biblical? It says so right in this passage. God is going to prune all of us because that is what will make us produce better fruit.

How does God prune us? He says in verse 3 that: Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. The word “clean” can also be translated as “prune”, so that it is by His Word, the Bible, and by the Holy Spirit that we are pruned. You know: when we read the Bible and it strikes a chord in our spirit and we feel prompted to make a change because of what we read. That is pruning when we make those changes. But there is also the kind of pruning that may hurt even more. God often allows circumstances in our lives so that we will be changed. Perhaps it is physical illness, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, or loss of possessions. God allows all of these kinds of things in order to prune us as well so that we will bear more and bigger fruit. James 1:2 tells us we are to: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, Why? Because it produces fruit in our lives. Hebrews 12:11 11 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. Once again, we see fruit as the result of God’s discipline in our lives. We are reminded earlier in Hebrews 12 that God reserves discipline for his children, so one of the evidences of our kinship with God is that he challenges us to grow through this discipline. I often think about my mother’s words: “Your father always said that if the plant looked like it was going to die, then you had pruned enough.” I think sometimes when I am going through hard times that I will surely die. It feels like every living thing has been pruned off of me, yet, I know that the vine does grow luxuriantly when it has been properly pruned, even though it gives the appearance for a brief while of being dead. God cuts away the good in order to produce the best. I trust the Divine Vinedresser to prune me as I need to be pruned so that I too will grow luxuriantly.

What does it mean to “abide”? Jesus abided in the Father and we abide in Jesus. Abiding is natural to the branch and the vine, but it has to be cultivated in the Christian life.  It is not automatic. Abiding in Christ requires effort on our part. It requires worship, meditation on the Bible, prayer, sacrifice, and service. How will you know you are abiding? By fruit production. But interestingly, the branch does not labor to produce fruit. The branch cannot produce its own life, it has to draw life from the vine. Likewise, it cannot produce its own fruit without the life that the vine provides. Warren Weirsbe says: “The sooner we as believers discover we are but branches, the better we will relate to the Lord.” Recognizing the true nature of our relationship helps us to cease striving to produce fruit that is not ours to produce. Jesus does it through us. Fruit bearing is not a test. A branch does not have to demonstrate productivity. Fruit-bearing is a by-product of abiding. Connection means the life of Jesus is flowing through us like sap through the vine. Fruitfulness is the inevitable outcome of a healthy, internal spiritual life with Jesus.

A responsibility of abiding is obedience. Jesus says: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. We often think of abiding as simply being connected to Jesus and thereby producing fruit. But unless during our times of connection with Jesus through His Word and His Spirit, we allow Jesus to change us from disobedient to obedient people, we are going to have a hard time letting him produce fruit through us. Keeping Jesus’ commandments is the way that we improve that connection with Him, how we abide with Him on intimate terms. When we ignore what He asks us to do, we don’t have the kind of connection that will produce abundant and succulent fruit. Instead, it will be knobby, bad, or sparse fruit.

One of the benefits of abiding in the vine is that Jesus promises: ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. Now, on the surface this seems like an outrageous promise. This is not like a coupon for you to get whatever you want. Jesus prefaces this statement with: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you. That makes it a conditional promise. We can ask and receive whatever we wish only when we are abiding in Jesus and His Word. Why does that make a difference? Because when we are abiding in Jesus and His Word, it changes the desires of our heart to be in line with what Jesus wants, with what is best. Without the changes brought in us by abiding, we would ask for selfish or crazy things that God simply could not grant.

Finally, Jesus tells them why He has spoken these things to them. This passage is the last of Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements. He has just finished the Last Supper in the upper room, and is heading through the city to the Garden of Gethsemane. He has told his disciples what is going to happen, although they still seemed to have an incomplete understanding of what He was telling them.  He has only a few more minutes with them to give his final instructions and encouragement before His arrest. What does a leader say to His followers at a time like this? Jesus chose to share this metaphor of the Vine and the Branches as a reminder that in the coming days they would need to continue their relationship with Him, but in a different way of connecting. An intimate connection of the Spirit. And His words were words of encouragement and showing them the way to make it through the difficulties and disappointments that were to come. As though he were saying: “Come on guys, stick with me, connect with me, don’t fall away, and let Me continue to work through you.” And finally why? That His joy might be in them and that their joy would be complete. Clearly, one of the by-products of abiding, is the joy of Jesus in our hearts. The joy of Jesus is a complete, full joy, one that does not disappoint even when the going gets rough. Jesus knew that His disciples would need that in the days to come, just as we need it now.

So we see that this passage talks about relationships. The Vine, the Branches and the vinedresser show us a picture of what Jesus’ relationship with God was like, and what our relationship of abiding in the Jesus, the vine, is to be like. Further, we see that with the relationship of abiding in the vine comes the responsibility to allow Jesus to bear fruit through us as we are obedient to Him. May be continue to connect, abide, nurture and flourish in this relationship and let God produce His fruit in our lives.