Bearing fruit in Christ to the Father’s glory
- Psalm 80
- John 15:1-8
Every farmer understands that his existence hangs on the fruit of the crop he plants. Farmers are not known for what they plant, but for what they harvest. A cotton farmer is not someone who plants cotton seed; he is someone who harvest the white cotton after he planted the seed and watered it. The question is always, “What was the yield?’, not, “How much did you sow?”
The church of the Lord in both the Old and the New Testament is described as a vine. Isaiah 5 describes it this way:
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isaiah 5:1–2, NIV)
Psalm 80 which we read earlier also refers to the Lord’s church as is vine:
You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. (Psalm 80:8–9, NIV)
In these passages the question is that fruit was expected from the vine. That was the purpose why God, the Farmer, planted the vine. The fruit was to produce something that would put the glory of God on display through the actions of God’s people.
The vine, Jesus Christ and the cross
We have been hearing the Word of God preached from John for quite some weeks. We understand that John 13 introduced the private ministry of Jesus to his disciples. Everything described in John 13 to 17 happened in the night before Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tried, charged and nailed to the cross. The setting for our chapter is between the Upper Room where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples; Him teaching them to love and care for one another in the face of hatred against Christ and his Kingdom in this world; Him introducing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; Judas walking out into the darkness of the night; Jesus declaring that He will do exactly as the Father commanded; and Him leading them out to Gethsemane where Judas betrayed Him and He was arrested.
The reason why this is so important to keep in mind is because everything Jesus said, taught and did was said in the shadow of the cross. What He accomplished on the cross by dying for sinners, taking their punishment on sin upon Him and becoming their atonement and justification, would make possible all that He commanded them to do.
Had He not died on the cross, his teaching to love one another would not be possible and would remain at best a hollow lesson in morality. Had He not died on the cross, the wine and the bread of the Supper would be meaningless. Had He not died on the cross, Peter’s denial of Him would have remained an unforgivable sin that would have kept him hiding in the shadows, guilt-ridden for all eternity.
Precisely because He was willingly on his way to the cross to fulfill the command of His Father, He could continue to teach his disciples that they would the the cornerstones of the New Testament church of the Father, bought in his blood to bear much fruit that will reach the ends of the world, until the last of the number of the elect of the Lord has heard of the Good News. They would indeed be seen as the household of God, as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19-20:
… built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:20, NIV)
Where the church of the Old Testament failed by not bearing lasting fruit, here those “in Christ” will succeed because of Christ, his death and resurrection; they will be lead by the Spirit of God, empowered to be witnesses to the ends of the world.
The church is to remain in Christ, because He is the true vine. The vine of the Old Testament disappointed. Although Israel was known as the son of God in many places of the Bible, they fell short of their task. Psalm 80 says:
Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself. (Psalm 80:14–15, NIV)
With the birth of Jesus the angels sang a song of glory and adoration:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10–12, NIV)
When He was baptised the voice from heaven declared:
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, NIV)
On the mountain where He was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared, a bright cloud enveloped them and a voice was heard saying:
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5, NIV)
Jesus is the Head of his church.
And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. (Colossians 1:18, NIV)
So, it is not the pope who is head of the church; it is not the church which is the true vine, it is Christ. The clear message of the Gospel of John is to teach that everyone outside of Christ lives in darkness, unable to hear, see, taste or drink of the life-giving grace in Him.
That is why Jesus is the son send by God because He loved the world to that those who believe in Him will never perish. He is the bread of life, the living water, the good shepherd, the way, the truth and the life – without Him there is just no way to the Father. But equally true, not being in Him, is to surely fail in the mission of the Father for his church.
The Father is the Gardener of the vine
Verse 2 of John 15 is an interesting verse; the translation and understanding of this verse can be problematic, but it can also be a source of extreme comfort.
Context is everything, and therefore one cannot just look at words and ascribe meaning isolated from the context.
What puzzles me is the inclusion of the words “in Me” in this verse:
He (the Father) cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:2, NIV)
If this verse is how it traditionally translated, the meaning is plainly this: branches that bear no fruit are pruned away, exactly because there is no fruit while the Father expects fruit. The secret for bearing fruit is to “remain” in Christ. This is exactly what the rest of this paragraph teaches:
Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5, NIV)
Our Lord can say these things because this is what the whole Gospel of John teaches. Without Him and outside of Him one is dead, spiritually blind, unable to see the Kingdom of God or to taste the Bread of Life, and drink of the living water. The reason why the saved sinner can see, being saved of his spiritual blindness, is because the Spirit of God gave new life. It is almost as if the Spirit puts us in Christ so that we now live.
So, back to the “in Me” of verse 2. I was puzzled by this “in Me.” How can it be that one is/remains in Christ, and yet one can be cut off by the Father? It was only till I read the commentary of James Montgomery Boice that my eyes was opened to another possible translation.
Our verse does indeed refer to two sorts of branches distinguished by the fact that one bears (is not yet bearing) fruit and the other not. But both these branches in this verse are “in Christ”. Listen to verse 6:
If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:6, NIV)
This refers to a branch that is not “in Christ” anymore. This branch is like the one thrown away and burned in the fire. This verse describes the branch that is not “in Christ”, and therefore it was fruitless. Let’s not minimise the teaching of this verse: without Christ we can’t do a thing, and we are dead; our destiny is the fire of God’s judgement. We will come back to that again.
What then is the Bible teaching us in verse 2. James Montgomery Boice points out that the word translated as “cut off” in verse 2, may also have the meaning of pick up, raise up or lift up.
When we lived down in the wine country of South Australia I saw something that I think helps us in this regard. The new vines are planted. New shoots are in the root stock. These new vines at the beginning of the new season grows wild and will cover the area around the plant. The sun will not shine on the branches and the fruit will be miserably small, if any. So what the farmers do is to “train them up”. The new branches are literally curled around the supports provided, first vertically, and then horizontally. New they can grow, flower and bear fruit. At the end of the season they are pruned so that they would bear more fruit. This is an ongoing process; but starts with the training up.
I wonder if this is not what the Lord meant in verse 2. The translation would then go like this:
He trains up every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:2, NIV)
Jesus was talking to his group of disciples who were still at the very beginning of their journey in the Lord. They still had so much to learn and to understand. Yes, they were already “in Christ”, but there was so little fruit. Look at Peter, bravely he said he would die with Jesus, but he failed and denied his Lord three times. After Jesus completed his mission and He rose from the dead, He spent time with Peter – alone. “Do you love Me?” Three times! Was it to condemn and load Peter with guilt that He asked him? No, it was to pick him up, to train him up, and then to give him the charge to bear fruit, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.”
What does it tell us? We need to understand verse 3:
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (John 15:3, NIV)
The word pure does not mean without sin, but it refers to the pruning work of the Word of God, applied by the Spirit of God. So how does God train us up and prune us? Through his Word. Peter writes:
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22–25, NIV)
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2–3, NIV)
Jesus has the same thing in mind:
If you remain in Me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7, NIV)
How then are we fruitful
I think the answer is short: we remain him Christ, if his Word remain in us. David writes:
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97)
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119:105, NIV)
The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:9–11, NIV)
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:17)
If we understand and study, yes live in and by the Word of God, His Spirit talks to us and reveals to us the depths of God’s grace; our souls are nurtured and we start growing. It is in the Bible where we learn what the will of God is; and by knowing his will we will need how and what to pray for as a church as we need to be fruitful – and our Father will give us what we need. Why?
This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:8, NIV)
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7 July 2013