The Upper Room Ministry (John 13-17) (5)
This chapter leans upon the Old Testament illustration of Israel as Jehovah’s vine. As such they were responsible to bear fruit for God. Sadly, in this duty they failed. However, Christ succeeded where they failed; hence the description of Himself as "the true vine" (v.1). Since vital union with Christ inevitably leads to persecution (Acts 14.22), He explained the reasons that lie behind the world’s vehement hatred of believers. Through the powerful indwelling Holy Spirit saints are enabled to witness in such a hostile climate.
Fruit bearing (vv.1-17)
The Vine. "I am" (v.1) is an Old Testament name for the eternal, self-sufficient God. By unreservedly applying this title to Himself, the Lord Jesus witnessed to His own deity. In stating, "I am the true vine" (v.1), He immediately compared and contrasted Himself with Israel the nation. God had delivered Israel from Egypt (Ps 80.8), transplanting them in the fruitful Promised Land, where they were free to put down deep roots and grow into a large spreading plant (Ps 80.8-11,15; Is 5.1). While there, Israel was given every conceivable advantage to promote fruitfulness. This is what God eagerly looked for (Is 5.2-4; 27.3). Instead, however, Israel "turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine" (Jer 2.21), brought forth "wild grapes" (Is 5.2), fruit for herself rather than God (Hos 10.1). The gnarled, twisted wood of a vine, if unfruitful, is worthless for anything (Ezek 15.2-5), and so God judged them. God withdrew His protecting care allowing surrounding nations to tread down the vine (Ps 80.12,13; Is 5.5); and in judgment it was burned (Ps 80.16; Ezek 15.5-8). Mercifully, the Old Testament still holds out a glorious hope for Israel’s future as Jehovah’s vine, when it will "fill the face of the world with fruit" (Is 27.6) under Messiah’s direction.
Israel was meant to be "the choicest vine" (Is 5.2) and "a noble vine" (Jer 2.21), but only Christ fulfils these descriptions. He too was brought out of Egypt (Mt 2.15). Israel was granted an exceptionally fertile and well-maintained land in which to flourish, protected by fencing, a wall, and a hedge (Is.5.2,5). The Saviour grew up "as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground [harsh surroundings]" (Is 53.2), surrounded by enemies and experiencing relentless temptation by the Devil (Lk 4.13). As God constantly watched over Israel with tender care, so the Father ever watched with delight the pathway of His beloved: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3.17). Unlike Israel, the Saviour was always fruitful. Sinful Israel was judged by God, and so the vine was broken down and burned. The Saviour also experienced divine wrath, but for the very different reason of atonement.
The Vinedresser. God the Father, as "the [perfect] husbandman" (v.1), constantly and meticulously cares for "every branch" (v.2). Through the Word of God fruitful branches are cleansed from everything that would impair fruit bearing (vv.3,15; Heb 12.11), while fruitless branches are noted, and dealt with accordingly (vv.2,6). Fruitful Christians glorify God the Father (v.8) just as a productive vine reflects well on its vinedresser.
The Branches. This passage throws up several difficult questions. For example, who do the different branches represent – fruitful believers, unfruitful believers, or unbelievers – and what does it actually mean to abide in Christ? Does it refer to the living union between Christ and His disciples, or to practical fruitfulness that results from constant communion with Him?
The suggestion that unfruitful branches that are taken away (v.2), and withered burnt branches (v.6), are true believers who apostatise, is easily refuted, for this would deny the believer’s eternal security (Jn 10.28,29). More tenable is the proposal that, in view of the first century viticulture practice of "removing the nonfruiting branches from the ground and placing them on the trellis (to) allow the rows of plants to benefit from unhindered aeration", the taking away of unfruitful branches refers to the caring husbandman encouraging fruitfulness in unfruitful Christians. Less plausible, however, is the implication that the burnt branches (v.6) symbolise true believers who because of persistent fruitlessness and sin are removed from this life by God in judgment (1 Cor 11.30). The imagery of "cast…into the fire, and they are burned" describes judgment. The Old Testament used such phraseology for God’s judgment of Israel (Ps 80.16; Ezek 15.5-8), and even the New Testament explains that the quality of every believer’s work "shall be revealed by fire" (1 Cor 3.13). However, believers themselves are never depicted as suffering God’s fiery judgment. Instead, they have been "delivered…from the wrath to come" (1 Thess 1.10). More likely, the burnt branches (v.6) represent false professors who have never experienced a gracious work of God in their hearts.
"Abide" translates the Greek word meno. It occurs 41 times in John’s Gospel, also being translated there as dwellest (1.38), tarry (4.40), endureth (6.27), present (14.25), continue (15.9), and remain (15.11). John’s writings generally explain everything in unqualified terms of black and white, such as light and darkness, life and death; "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1 Jn 3.9). In practice every believer experiences less fruitful seasons, and frequently the sensation of distance from the Lord because of personal failure, yet every true child of God bears fruit. Only false disciples, in the absolute sense, can remain unfruitful. Therefore, I suggest that the unfruitful and burnt branches (vv.2,6) both stand for fake believers such as Judas. Furthermore, "abide" cannot be restricted to either union or communion with Christ, but rather encompasses both, for ideally the one assumes the other. In summary, the true Christian at conversion is vitally and inseparably united to Christ, and through daily obedience to the Word, produces spiritual fruit. Abiding in Christ indicates "unbroken communion with (Him) on the part of the one who through infinite grace has entered into an unchangeable union with Christ". Conversely, unsaved professors, having never truly tasted Christ’s life in them, will eventually manifest this through unfruitfulness. They will finally be taken away by God and suffer the fire of His wrath.
Believers are so closely linked to Christ that they abide in Him, while He simultaneously abides in them (vv.4,5). Our experience of Christ’s joy in us (v.11) will be in the measure that His Word abides in us (v.7), and we obey it (vv.10,14). Therefore, studying and submitting to Scripture is a fundamental aspect of the Christian life. The Saviour kept the Father’s commandments and abode in His love (v.10). Similarly, "the obedient believer will abide in Christ’s love (vv.9,10), and there will be an unhindered inflow of spiritual vitality from Christ which, like the sap of the vine, will result in fruitfulness".
Enduring spiritual fruitfulness is the Christian’s raison d’être (v.16). This fruit stands the test of time (v.16) and is characterised by righteousness (2 Cor 9.10; Phil 1.11; Heb 12.11) and holiness (Rom 6.22). It includes the Spirit produced manifestation of Christ-likeness in the believer (Gal 5.22,23), worship (Heb 13.15), and gospel preaching (Jn 4.35,36; Col 1.6). Never can it be divorced from obedience to God’s Word (v.10) and prayer (vv.7,16). One practical example of this fruit is a self-sacrificial love for the brethren similar to Christ’s (vv.12,13,17; 1 Jn 3.16). Each believer is expected increasingly to produce more fruit (vv.2,5,8).
"The cosmos world is that system organized by Satan, headed by Satan, and run by Satan, which leaves God out and is rival to Him." In sharp distinction to the church, which radiates love, this Christ rejecting, ignorant (v.21) world hates the Father, the Son (vv.23,24), and all true believers (vv.18,19,20). Make no mistake, "the name of Christ from your mouth will be to them nothing but poison and death". Saints are persecuted (v.20) because they have been called out of this world system (v.19) and indissolubly associated with Christ (vv.18-20). "It is a mark of genuine discipleship if we share the experiences of our Master, encountering the hatred of the World." The world’s loathing of Christ was "without a cause" (v.25), in spite of His flawless witness in both word (v.22) and deed (v.24). In fact "now they have no cloak for their sin" (v.22).
The Holy Spirit, who was sent to testify about the Son (v.26), energises Christian witness. In addition to saving sinners (2 Thess 2.13), He supplies divine power (Acts 1.8; 1 Cor 2.4), irresistible wisdom (Acts 6.10), and supernatural guidance (Acts 8.29; 10.19; 16.7) for gospel preachers. The disciples were able to bear witness for Christ "because (they had) been with (Him) from the beginning" (v.27). Fellowship with Christ is an essential prerequisite to effective Christian witness.
To be continued.