This is a Bible study on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus teaches that he is the true vine and his disciples can only find life if they are “branches” connected to him as their source of life. To understand this post, you should stop and read John 15:1-16:4 before moving on.
What does the image of a vine and branches indicate about our relationship with Jesus? This is a difficult question to answer for people not accustomed to the nature of vineyards. But at the very least, it is clear that branches are fed their living nutrients from the vine to which they are attached. The vine is the source and carrier of life for each branch that is attached. If a branch is not connected to the vine (if it is broken off), then it cannot get the necessary living ingredients to produce fruit. If a branch is connected to the vine but for some reason is not receiving life (perhaps the branch is a lifeless, dead branch), then that branch cannot produce living fruit and must be cut off (pruned) from the living vine. Jesus recognized that this is a good analogy for the relationship he shares with his people (the Church). Every believer is a branch, and Jesus is the life-giving vine. If Christians want to experience life and produce living fruit, they must remain (abide) in Jesus the true vine. Any person who is superficially connected to Jesus but does not bear the fruit of the Spirit is not receiving life from Jesus the true vine. He is a dead branch that will be cut off from Jesus. Any person who is not connected to Jesus in any way is a branch that is not connected to the vine. That kind of person will die spiritually (he is already spiritually dead) unless he is grafted into Jesus the true and living vine.
Jesus speaks of his disciples remaining in him. Why is it important to “remain” in Jesus? To stay with the vine and branches analogy, it is important to remain in Jesus because it is only by being connected to him that we receive life and will bear spiritual fruit. If we cease to remain in Jesus, they we will (by definition) be cut off from the only source of life. To remain in Jesus is to live, to be cut off from Jesus is to die.
Some would interpret Jesus according to a mystical or “squishy” (as one of my friends was fond to say) perspective. How do you respond to the assertion that “remaining” in Jesus means having an interior experience of Jesus? I am uncomfortable with the interior or mystical expression of “remaining” in Jesus. Not that I think it is entirely wrongheaded. But I think it is necessarily misleading and such language could actually convince many true believers that they are not really connected to Jesus the true and living vine. Instead of the trifecta of Doctrine, Ethics, and Mystical-Supernatural-Inner Experience, I think it would be better to talk of Orthodoxy (right thinking or right doctrine), Orthopraxis (right behavior or right living), and Orthopathos (right feeling or right emotion). Framing the discussion with these terms helps to include those who believe in Jesus, serve him, and love him, but may not have the sense of a deep emotional or supernatural mystical connection with him. Orthopathos includes the notion that believers may have a mystical, supernatural spiritual experience of the inner peace of Christ, but it is dangerous to make this experience a requirement for being a true Christian—one that is truly experiencing the life-giving power of Jesus the vine.
Remaining implies action and perseverance. It is not something that just happens, like remaining in a boat while it lazily floats downstream. What do we need to do in order to “remain” in Jesus? Simply to be a balanced (I don’t mean mature) Christian, with some level of right thinking, right behavior, and right feeling. In other words, to remain in Jesus a person must continue to believe the doctrines necessary to confess Christ, continue to live in this world with conduct becoming of a Christian (including repentance of sin), and continue to have some heartfelt love for Jesus as the eternal Lord and Savior of men. Emotionalism is not required.
But someone might respond, “I’m not convinced by your argument to rationalize Jesus’ mystical words away. Mystical abiding seems to be what Jesus is exhorting us to do.” If this is so, then such mystical spirituality encouraged by Jesus would be safe. But is it? What are the dangers of a discipleship that talks about “remaining in” Jesus as a supernatural or mystical or interior experience? Why is it dangerous? Because the Bible does not describe having such experiences as normative and necessary for spiritual life to thrive. Teaching that it does may have the unintended effect of creating second-class Christians: those mystics who are closer to God, and the rest who have not had a mystical experience. What is worse, such teaching could devolve into a scenario where non-mystical believers could be tempted to think they are not true believers unless they have such an experience. This scenario has occurred throughout church history. It is called conversionism. Unless someone has an extraordinary experience that lead to deep repentance coupled with emotional displays of faith, then spiritual regeneration is doubted.
What’s the difference between seeing fruit-bearing as a test you have to pass and seeing it as an inevitable outcome of an interior life with Jesus? Why does this matter? I see the difference between these two options. Fruit-bearing as a test is a confusing of law and gospel (“glawpel”). Fruit-bearing as an inevitable outcome of spiritual life with Jesus is the proper relationship between law and gospel. Believers will obey the law and be fruitful in joyful response to the spiritual life they have in Jesus by grace alone. The first is a merit-oriented religion; the second is grace-oriented. But from an eschatological perspective, it is helpful to see fruit-bearing as a test. The entire Christian life must be lived to the glory of God and produce fruit worthy of God. If someone confesses Jesus as Lord but does not bear fruit of repentance and good works, then James says that such faith cannot save. Faith without works is dead. Paul does not disagree. Jesus himself warns the churches of Revelation that if they do not repent and bear fruit worthy of their confession, then he will come and remove their lampstand in judgment. The Bible is clear that we must persevere in faith to the end in order to be saved. Thankfully God will preserve his elect to the end, causing them to persevere in faith and good works.
Again, Jesus commands his disciples to love. Why do you suppose Jesus repeats the command to love that he made just a little while ago (Jn 13:34-35)? Jesus repeats his “new” command because it explains what he means by remaining in him as branches to a vine. To remain in Jesus is to love him, and to love him is to obey him. And what does Christ ask of his disciples? That we obey his new commandment, which is to love one another as he first loved us. By repeating the “new” commandment here, Jesus effectively connects the concept of remaining in him to obeying him by loving one another. To remain is to obey, and to obey is to love.
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit in the believer’s life (Gal 5:22). Joy is another aspect of fruit (Jn 15:10-11). “Jesus’ joy has come through his reliance on God and his obedience to his Father’s will.” Why do trusting and obeying the Father lead to joy? The only way to truly and ultimately experience joy is to be pleasing to God. If God disapproves of you, then you cannot have real joy. Jesus testifies with the rest of Scripture that the way to joy is by trusting and obeying God the Father through the Son of God. How do we honor the Son? By believing that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name. By trusting in him alone for forgiveness of sins and his giving of eternal life which is in him. By obeying his good word. All of these things we have been created for—to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. He created us for joy, and he knows how we can be joyful. It is only through him.
How is all this related to the Christian discipline of prayer. Remaining in Jesus also leads to answered prayer, because it leads us to pray in harmony with his word and will (Jn 15:7, 16). How is this different from a guarantee that if we use the formula “in Jesus’ name,” we’ll get whatever we ask for? First, it is ridiculous to believe that if we append the words “in Jesus’ name” to the end of our prayers then we will surely get whatever we want. Such a notion is nothing more than pagan magical manipulation of the gods. The living God will have none of it! Besides, such a formula is eminently verifiable. All you have to do is pray specifically, attach the “magic words” and keep a record of whether God answers the prayer affirmatively. Church history bears out the experience of prayer, that there is no formula for getting whatever you want. Any child can tell you this is true. When I was a kid I prayed “in Jesus’ name” for a new bike over and over again, but to no avail. It didn’t take me too long to discover that God was not interested in satisfying my every desire. Pray is an offering up to God of things agreeable to his will. He is a compassionate and merciful God, abounding in grace and steadfast love. He, like a loving earthly father, delights in giving good gifts to his children. When we ask God for things that are unselfish and meant to further his kingdom in the world or in our hearts, then God is pleased to answer such prayers (in his own timing and according to his sovereign plan of course).
This all sounds great for believers, but Jesus includes a warning. The world, who hated him, will hate his followers as well. Therefore we are not to trust the praise of the world. How can the mistrust of the world expressed in John 15:18-25 be a helpful part of our outlook? How can it help us relate to the world and to Christians in other countries? This is a very profound question disguised as a simple one. The age-old debate of the relationship of Christ to culture must inform this question. But without getting into the deeper issue, I hope Christians can agree that the world has the capacity of great hostility toward Jesus and his followers (even if that hostility is expressed in different levels in various times and places). Jesus did not trust the world because he knew what was in men, that their hearts were dark and loved the darkness. He did not need the approval of men because he had approval from God his Father. It is helpful for Christians to take the same attitude as Jesus (when is this not helpful?). When Christians have a healthy mistrust of the world (as Jesus did), they can be on guard against the schemes of the world to persecute or mistreat Christians. Believers who mistrust the world will not readily put their hope in the things of this world. They will hope in God before hoping in the world. Such a healthy mistrust can help us relate to the world by keeping us in the world by not of the world. We can live in the world with our neighbors, yet live as a witness to the heavenly reality and the judgment to come on this world, calling our neighbors out of the darkness and into the marvelous light of Christ by the gospel. We can relate to Christians in other countries by learning through observation, prayer, and material support how foreign believers suffer in their cultures at the hands of the world. There is no guarantee that American Christians are forever immune to the sufferings other Christians around the world suffer for the sake of their witness to Christ. We can learn from their faithful example how to live in that kind of environment, how to be more merciful as we seek to give them aid (physically and spiritually), and we can listen to their assessment of our Christians lives in our own culture.
What are the potential problems in viewing the world so negatively? But viewing the world so negatively can move us in the direction of seeing Christ against culture. It is not right to withdraw from the world because that is not our calling as believers. We are citizens of heaven, but we are a colony of heaven on earth. Until God calls us home in death or when the end of the age comes, we are in some way to lead missionary lives. Missionaries use the good in culture to the gospel’s advantage. The world is not all bad because God created it and is in the process of redeeming it, transforming it slowly by building his kingdom. For sure, the kingdom will not come in its fullness gradually. It will arrive cataclysmically on the last day. But God does build his kingdom in the world gradually. Therefore we should not view negatively those aspects that seem to be either remnants or building blocks for his kingdom.
Let’s bring this home now by cashing it out. How is Christ asking you to remain in him over the coming weeks? This is a timely question since I and my family are currently at a cross-roads in our life and ministry. As of today I am unemployed and seeking a pastoral call to ministry. Until that call comes (and it could be a long time, and God could have different plans in store for us), I am seeking full-time employment in my former career field. This is not where we envisioned we would be. But God is good, and he does have a perfect plan for us. I don’t know what it is, but Christ is asking me to remain in him over the coming weeks by continuing to trust in him, to believe that he has a good plan for us, that whatever happens is for my sanctification, and that I should find my joy in him. I need to pray a lot and seek the joy that can only be found in the true vine if I want to bear lasting spiritual fruit.