Posted by Tim on 28th May 2012
Jesus introduces this highly symbolic teaching in John chapter 15 by comparing himself to a vine. Not a vineyard, notice. That was an Old Testament image used of Israel, frequently with reference to Israel’s faithlessness (Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15, Hos 10:1, Luke 20:9-18). He clearly places himself within Israel’s religious tradition, but emphasises his distinctiveness as the true vine, the genuine one, faithful to God’s original plans for Israel.
Each individual believer is a branch. Vine does not refer to the plant, but to the woody ‘trunk’ of a cultivated vine, which remains every year while the fruiting branches are pruned off. The vine is independent of the branches, and continues without them if necessary, but not the other way around. The purpose of each branch is to bear fruit.
We are given four different types of fruit: no fruit, fruit, more fruit and much fruit. The goal of each branch is to bear much fruit and so glorify God (v8), who tends the whole plant with this purpose in mind. The branch doesn’t produce its own fruit (“apart from me you can do nothing”) but it bears fruit which the vine produces. God prunes the branches. A grape plant will of itself produce long, trailing branches which have vigorous growth but small grapes. A skilled horticulturalist will prune back the growing shoots to prevent them producing shoots and leaves, and bear fruit instead. The purpose of pruning is to produce more fruit. The more mature the branch, the more vigorous its growth, so the harder it needs to be pruned. Even though it may be painful and frustrating, the result is an improvement in the quality and quantity of fruit.
So what is this fruit that Jesus expects us to bear? He calls it “fruit that remains” (v16), so it is clearly something that is of lasting value, even into eternity. There are three specific types of fruit that we find in scripture. The first is character development. This is often known as fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). It is something that the Holy Spirit grows in us as we cannot of ourselves develop these characteristics. The second is numerical growth. In John 4:35-6 Jesus says that the fields are white for harvest, in a clear analogy of reaping lives for eternal salvation. The final type of fruit is a transformed life (Luke 3:8-14). John the Baptiser links repentance to generosity to the poor, integrity in business and self-restraint in the use of power.
So how does a branch bear fruit? The unhelpful Biblical expression abide/remain/stay is somewhat opaque. Some have suggested that it means going to church, but experience shows that just going to church doesn’t necessarily produce good fruit. There has to be more to it than that. Jesus gives us some clues. The first this is to let his words remain in us (v7). This means that we should not merely be dipping into the Bible, but devouring it in lengthy and regular times of study, meditation and memorisation. He then tells us that we should remain in his love (v9). The intimacy and commitment of our relationship with Jesus should directly reflect his relationship with the Father. And finally he tells us to keep his commandments (v10). There is a reciprocal relationship between the love, which feeds our obedience, and our obedience, which lives out our love. In John 14:15 Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
The branch’s primary responsibility is to maximise the point of contact with the vine. Only then can it receive the life-giving sap that produces the fruit. This should be reflected in our utter dependency on Jesus, bearing fruit by the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we invest time in our relationship with him. We may find it hard to find the time to do this, but without doing this, our works are futile and nothing with think we have achieved will last. Our motivation is what Jesus tells us in verse 8: “In this is my Father glorified: that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”