Jason Helopoulos / Oct 9, 2016 / John 15:1-8
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
Let’s pray before we come to God’s word. Lord God, we pray that you would open your word to us—that we might see your ways and know you more fully. We pray all this in the strong name of your Son, the living Word. By the Spirit, he implants and seals this word into our hearts. Amen.
This is the holy and inerrant word of God:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. John 15:1-8
Though the grass withers and the flower fades, the word of God stands forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.
While Kevin was gone this summer, I started a series on Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. We made it through five of the seven, so I thought that we should pick one of the two that were left this morning. We’re not going to go through every part of this passage. Instead, we’re going to focus on Jesus’ statement in verse 1: “I am the true vine…”
There are certain things that we don’t have to be taught. They are innate to our humanity—part of our natural makeup. For example, we don’t have to teach people to love or desire love. There is a natural tendency within us that wants to love and be loved. We also don’t have to teach people to be hungry or thirsty. A natural part of us hungers for food and desires drink.
In the same way, we don’t have to teach people to live for something. Everyone lives for something, and that something is always abundance. We all naturally want to do well. No child, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, replies, “I want to be a failure.” They just don’t do that. No child says, “I want to be the worst possible lawyer there ever was. I want to be disbarred someday”, or “I want to be the worst mother that the world has ever seen.” No one wishes for that.
We desire to be fruitful—to live the abundant life. Even the young man who refuses to get a job, holing up in his parents’ basement all day to play video games, desires the abundant life. He wants to be the best video game player—to score the high score.
There is something natural in all of us that wants to be fruitful and have meaning in our lives. We all live for an abundant, fruitful life. In this “I am” statement, Jesus tells us that there is only one way to have that fruitful life. “Here is how you produce fruit that benefits you forever.” He gets at the very purpose for and meaning of our lives.
Let’s take a look at this. First, I want to look at the source of the fruitful life; second, the manner of that life; and third, the goal of the that life.
The Source of the Fruitful Life
It isn’t exactly clear where Jesus is having this discourse with the disciples, but it does take place immediately after John 13-14. In those chapters, Jesus was in the upper room, celebrating the Lord’s Supper with his disciples. He washed their feet and foretold that one of them would betray him on the coming day. Then he identified Judas as that disciple. He also gave the shocking news that Peter would deny him three times.
I imagine that Jesus and the disciples have left the upper room and all of these conversations. They’re on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus will bow in prayer before the Lord all through the night, crying out to him in anguish as he looks forward to that next day, when he will die a ghastly death on the cross.
I like to think that Jesus is walking with his disciples from the upper room to the garden of Gethsemane in John 15. As he is walking with them, they’re passing by all of these vineyards, olive trees, and fruit trees. Jesus is using the scenery around him to illustrate the lesson that he wants them to learn before they are separated from him.
Maybe he points at one of those grape vines, saying (as he points at it), “I am the true vine.” Here is our first point: if we would bear lasting fruit—fruit that matters—we must know the source. Jesus claims to be that source.
To understand this, you have to know that the imagery of the vine is not new. Jesus is grabbing imagery from the Old Testament, where it was used time and time again. In Psalm 80, for example, the psalmist talks about God’s relation to the nation of Israel,
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. Psalm 80:8-9
Israel was like a vine which was planted by God. It was meant to produce fruit which was in keeping with faithfulness to him. Their lives were to be holy unto the Lord. They were to bear different fruit from all of the nations around them.
But, as is often the case in the Old Testament, the imagery of the vine is most often used to speak about Israel’s lack of faithfulness and good fruit:
Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine? Jeremiah 2:22
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! Isaiah 5:7
Israel, the people of God, did not prove to be a fruitful vine.
Then Jesus says here, “I am the true vine.” Don’t miss this. In effect, he’s saying, “I am the true Israel. Israel was to be the embodiment of the people of God, serving him with faithfulness, in faith. But what they were meant to be, I am.” Jesus will trust and obey the Father to the last. He embodies what the people of God were meant to be.
You could take it back even further. Not only is Jesus the true Israel, but he’s also the true Adam—or even the true human! What did God say to Adam in the garden? He said, “Be fruitful.” But Adam, as you know, chose unfaithfulness and fell. But here’s Jesus, the one who embodies what God’s people (and all people) were meant to be. He was obedient and faith-filled, even unto death on a cross. Jesus is saying, “Do you want an abundant and fruitful life? It’s only found in me. I’m the true vine. I am the life.”
But we must be in him. Isn’t that what he says? He’s the source. It’s a bold assertion: “I am the true vine […] apart from me, you can do nothing.” The evidence is given just before this passage. I don’t think you can read John 15 without John 13 going through your mind, where Jesus foretells what Judas would do.
We’ve read and heard it so many times that it’s ceased to shock us, but if you were reading the John for the very first time, when you got to John 13 (where Jesus says that Judas will betray him) you would still be reeling by John 15. Judas was one of the disciples—one whom most would have pointed to as surely being in Christ. He sat under Christ’s teaching, reclined at Christ’s table, talked and looked the right way, and did many seemingly good works. John 13 tells us that he was in charge of the moneybag for the disciples. They so trusted Judas that he carried all of their money. When they needed any physical thing, they turned to Judas and said, “Would you purchase these things for us?” If there was one to trust, surely it was Judas.
All of us would have seen Judas and thought he was a good man. This is so clear. All of the other disciples are around the table when Jesus says, “One of you will betray me,” and none of them look at Judas. They don’t think it could be him. He looked the part of a true believer. He looked like he was in Christ—but he only looked that way. The fruit he bore was absolutely rotten. It’s not enough to look the part. There will be no true, lasting fruit apart from Christ.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. John 15:4
You have to be in Christ, and you can only be in him by faith. You have to be truly converted to bear fruit.
Many have wrestled with this passage. Jesus speaks about branches not bearing fruit and being burned up in judgment, and some have tied themselves into knots, thinking that maybe they’re in Christ one day and not in him another day, so they’ll be bound up, thrown out, and burned with fire. It’s not possible for someone to be truly in Christ, yet finally lost. Jesus is clear about that in John 10, where he says,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. John 10:27-29
The problem with these dead branches is that they’re actually not in the vine, which would give them life. Judas never knew Christ in a saving way. It’s not possible for someone to truly be in Christ, and then be lost. But it is possible for someone to appear to be in Christ, and truly be lost. We can come to church week in and week out, sit, hear, sing the hymns, bow our heads in prayer, come to the Lord’s table, and even be admitted into the membership of the church—but not be in or know Christ, remaining an unconnected branch, because there is no faith.
I’ve been grieving in my prayers all this week. A man whom I have known who is (or was) a pastor was caught in a heinous sin over a year ago. I’ve been reading things that he wrote this week, and they’re absolutely blasphemous. This is a pastor—a man who preached week in and week out, who counseled people in the things of God, and yet may have never known God! My prayer all week has been that he would turn and repent. I’ve cried and pled with God that that might be the case—that he does know God, and will turn, repent, and bear fruit in keeping with Christ—but it could be that he never had faith, though he played the part.
One can belong to the church visible, but show that they’ve never belonged to the church invisible, because they don’t know Christ. Like Judas, they may know of him, but they don’t abide in him, love him, or cherish him. They don’t seek him above all else. There’s a warning here for all of us. If we’re not united to Christ by faith, our connection with any church and it’s activities doesn’t matter. Verse 5 says that “apart from me, you can do nothing.” He doesn’t say that our fruitfulness is impaired, limited, or lacking, but that it’s nonexistent.
Why? Because he is the true vine. It’s in him that there is life. There is no life apart from him. You can’t produce fruit without life. You can’t manufacture, or order it up like George Jetson. It doesn’t happen. Fruit comes from life, and we have no life apart from him.
Do you understand this? As Martin Luther wonderfully said, “We are either clinging to the belt of Adam or we’re clinging to the belt of Christ.” It’s one or the other. As children of Adam, we’re born into this world dead on arrival. Because of Adam’s fall in the garden, we are dead! There is no life that comes from that. You must hold onto Christ and his belt. Dead branches cannot bear good fruit. Only a good tree bears good fruit, as Jesus says in Matthew 7.
Many of you have heard an illustration that David Powlison and Paul Tripp both use. I think Pat also uses this a lot in his counseling class. I remember hearing it 15 years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Imagine that you’re sitting on your back porch, and you see your neighbor’s yard. In his yard, he has an apple tree. But this tree is covered with dead, molding, rotten, stinky apples. The tree is dead, and you’re wondering why your neighbor doesn’t just cut it down. It’s worthless!
But then you see your neighbor come out of his garage. He’s carrying a ladder, which he sets down by the tree. Then he goes back in and gets a bucket that’s filled with these beautiful red apples. He brings them out to the tree and sets them down. Then you watch him go back in and come out with a stapler. He sets his ladder up, takes the apples, and begins stapling them to the tree.
You’d say, “That’s nuts! The tree is dead! You can’t staple good fruit to it and make it alive! The tree must have life to bear good fruit.” If we would bear fruit, we must have life. Christ alone is the source of life. As he says, “I am the true vine.”
The Manner of a Fruitful Life
A person in living relationship with Christ will bear fruit. It’s our manner of living: we are fruit-bearing. We can say (with the apostle Paul), “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” There’s an organic union between us and Christ that produces fruit by necessity. When you examine a tree, you know that it has a trunk and branches, but you can’t quite identify where the branches start and the trunk ends. They’re that intertwined with the life of the tree. In a similar way, we’re intertwined with the life of Christ. He is the vine, and we are the branches. We’re caught up in him. We’re tied to him. We live in union with him. And so, we bear fruit.
This is why Paul reacts so strongly in 1 Corinthians when he finds out that members of that church had been living in sexual immorality. He says,
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 1 Corinthians 6:15
They’re joined to Christ in faith. They’re one with him. They have been made into a temple of the Holy Spirit. They’re in a vital union—a relationship with Christ that lives and breathes. There is life in their souls—life that produces fruit.
Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
It’s not just that we’re in him. He is in us, and the pulsating life of the vine (as D.A. Carson wonderfully said) fills us. It reaches throughout the branches and produces fruit.
The picture that Jesus is painting of the disciples’ life in him is one of continual and utter dependence—of living all of life connected to and dependent on him. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you know this to be the case. “Every hour, I need thee.” We’re reliant upon Christ. We need to look to Christ. We’re utterly dependent upon Christ. He is our life.
This morning, while I was getting ready, I was thinking of all the different word pictures that are used in the Scriptures to speak about Christ in relation to us. He is the Good Shepherd, our Savior, our King, our High Priest, our wisdom, our peace, and our righteousness. They all speak of what he gives to us, even when they’re analogous to an inanimate object—like where he is called our Rock, our Fortress, or our Strong Tower. They’re all in relation to what he gives to us. We’re in need. We’re utterly dependent upon him. He is our life.
I could be wrong, but I can’t help but think that Jesus is emphasizing this on the heels of telling them that Peter will deny him three times. Again, this would shock you if you were reading the gospel of John for the first time. If there was a disciple that you knew would be bold for and faithful to Christ, it would be Peter. He had strength and zeal. He was a rock!—yet Jesus said he would deny him three times. Peter serves as an object lesson for us: though he was in Christ, it was not enough for him to rely on himself. We must have a continual dependence upon Christ, looking to him as source of our life and manner of living. For the Christian, all things begin in Christ and continue in Christ. All of Peter’s boasting was fruitless, because he could do nothing apart from him.
What fruit are we to seek to produce in Christ? Some have tried to identify the fruit that Jesus is speaking about with one specific thing or another, but that’s not what he’s doing here. Fruit represents everything that’s produced by a life lived in Christ. See what Jesus does in these verses. In verse 10, he points to obeying his commands. In verse 11, he speaks of having joy. In verse 12, he talks of loving one another. In verse 16, he tells us to be a witness to the world around us.
We could list other fruit, like the fruit of the Spirit: peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness. We could speak about other marks of the Christian: a forgiving spirit, meekness, and humility. We could talk about the fruits of repentance, worship, and love for God’s word. There are all kinds of fruit.
A life lived for God produces much fruit. In fact, it can’t help but do so, because life courses within. Every disciple of Christ produces fruit because we live in union with him. Every disciple of Christ seeks to bear that fruit.
The Goal of the Fruitful Life
Why does this even matter? Because it’s to the goal and purpose of our lives. We all exist to live the abundant life, but that life can only be lived in Christ. It’s only in Christ that we can have the right goal or purpose and produce the right fruit. Look at what Jesus says in verse 8:
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. John 15:8
This is Jesus’ aim in life. This is his motivation. Thus, giving glory to the Father becomes the aim and motivation of the one who lives life in him.
Jesus’ earthly life was caught up with giving glory to the Father. As he said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” He gives glory to the Father in his high priestly prayer in John 17, just a couple of chapters later: ““Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you…” He became flesh, lived a perfect life of obedience and faith, went to the ghastly death on the cross, saved sinners such as you and me, sent the Spirit into the world, and exists in flesh and submits himself to the will of the Father—all to glorify the Father! That is his purpose.
That’s the whole point of this passage. As his branches, we’re to bear fruit, but we cannot do so unless we’re connected to Christ, the living vine. We must abide in Christ, this living vine, so that we (as branches) would bear fruit and glorify the Father, even as the Son glorifies the Father. By this, you fulfill your purpose of an abundant, God-glorifying life.
I just finished reading a book about John D. Rockefeller, who was probably the richest man who ever lived. When Rockefeller died, his son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., inherited the vast majority of his money. John Jr., like his father, would often donate a lot of money to charitable causes. One day, John Jr. was in France. He went to Versailles, the palace of King Louis XIV, the Sun King. When he got there, he stood in shock. The gardens around the palace were in utter shambles. They were an unmaintained wreck!
So he called the French government (because when you’re rich, you can just make that call) and said, “I would like to donate money so that the gardens can be restored.” The French probably said something like, “Oui, oui! We like your moolah!” Maybe they didn’t say “moolah”. It’s probably not a French word, though it sounds like it. After his donation, the gardens were restored. They became beautiful again.
Have you ever wandered into a beautiful garden, where the plants are all in full color, arranged perfectly in beautiful patterns, and there’s not a bush out of place? All of these different trees, flowers, bushes, and plants rise up together to create a beautiful landscape—a picture of beauty. Gardens like that don’t just happen. What would you think of such a place, especially after it was once a ruin? You’d think that there must be quite a gardener! You’d ascribe glory to the gardener. Someone has been working wonderfully.
So it is in the Christian life. When our fruit shines forth, it ascribes glory to the gardener. As Jesus says, “…my Father is the vinedresser.” Haven’t you experienced this?
Just the other night, I was standing in the parking lot after a meeting, talking with one of the other elders. For some reason, we were talking about elders whom I had served with. I began talking about one whom I had served with at another church. This brother, who is now in glory in heaven, suffered so incredibly in his life—yet he manifested peace, tranquility, graciousness, and love. Then I got in my car and started to drive home. As I drove, I found myself saying to God, “Thank you for allowing me to serve with that man all of those years, because of the blessing he was to my life.” Why? Because it was God’s working. You thank and give glory to the gardener.
We exist for the glory of God, and we will not and cannot produce fruit that ascribes him glory apart from abiding in Christ. Christ is the beginning, middle, and end of ascribing God glory.
Friends, your heart will chase after something. You were created to. You naturally want to live an abundant life. You were meant to. You’ll seek to be fruitful, motivated, and moved by something. The question is: is worth it? Is it lasting? Is it truly worthy of your pursuit?
I think that one of the greatest, most famous sermons that has ever been preached was by a divine named Thomas Chalmers, back in the early 1800s. It was titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”. In that sermon, Chalmers points out that you and I are driven by love. We seek after and live for what we love. You can tell someone that riches and wealth don’t ultimately satisfy, but even if they’re convinced of this argument and abandon wealth or riches, the desire for position, or the success of having a great family, it doesn’t really matter. As soon as that thing exits their heart, something else immediately fills it. We live for something. We love something.
He said that our tastes for something seldom disappear by a mere process of passing away. Things don’t just begin to lose a grip on us over time. What happens is that something else comes to us that’s more lovely.
You know this. Think about a boy and a girl who are dating. The boy is in love with the girl, Katy. He glows about Katy, and can’t help but talk about her. Then she breaks up with him, and you hate being around this guy, because all he does is mourn about how he wants to be back with her. He’s continually talking about Katy.
Then, one day, you sit down and have lunch together—and he doesn’t say anything about Katy! Why? Because he’s talking about Susy. You say, “What about Katy?”, and he says, “Katy doesn’t matter. I’ve found Susy!” It’s a greater love. When you rid the heart of something, the vacancy will be filled immediately.
This morning, some of you aren’t in Christ. You don’t have faith in him or a living relationship with him. You may decide that whatever you’ve set your affections on—whatever it is that you desire and are chasing after—is just not worth it. So you think, “Well, I’ll just start living for God, or this other thing, and I’ll produce good fruit.” But it’s not that simple. You can’t get rid of that old affection by grasping on. You can only rid your life of meaningless things by grabbing hold of something greater. You must turn your eyes to something more excellent, beautiful, rich, and kind—something greater in love and goodness. The only way to rid yourself of chasing after the world is to have, as Chalmers said, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”. The best way to cast out an impure affection is to admit a pure one, and (by the love of what is good) to expel the love of what is evil.
Chalmers wonderfully illustrates this by speaking of a man who stands on the edge of the world. He looks out at the world, and sees that it is green, with full fields. He sees how society works, and it looks like people are succeeding with and having fun in life. The bright sun that is shining upon the earth looks good to him—especially when he looks past the earth, and all that he sees is this chasm of darkness. If he has to choose between the world and wandering into this lonely chasm of darkness, surely he’ll choose the world.
But what if, as he’s staring at the world and this darkness, the island of heaven suddenly passes by? There he sees all of these people gathered in greater peace, love, harmony, and unity. They’re experiencing eternal joy, singing sweet songs to God in heaven. He sees that a good Shepherd governs over them. A lovely Savior cares for them, protects them, and provides for them. The Father, who is seated upon the throne, loves them desperately, and will forever. What if that man also saw that there shall never be tears, crying, mourning, pain, sickness, or dying in that place? The world would suddenly look like a wilderness, and he would choose heaven. His heart would be swayed.
As a Christian, you know the living power of this new affection. You look to him, delight in him, and seek to abide in him. He becomes more and more the object of your affection, and the things of this world grow strangely dim. You know his beauty and condescending love. You know that he has granted you a salvation that was wholly his work. You contributed nothing to it. He took your life of death and made it a life of life. He pulled you out of darkness into the light. He made you a son of the living God. He has seated you in the heavens with himself, and when you arrive, he’ll place a crown on your head, and you’ll reign with him forever. How can we not adore, love, and desire such a Savior, and seek to abide in him more and more? So we seek to abide in him and live with him to the glory of the Father. That’s our life’s aim and purpose. That’s our every motivation.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
Let’s pray. Oh Lord our God, we thank you that you are a God of salvation. You take the sons of Adam and make them sons of Christ. We’re grateful that what we cannot do in and of ourselves was done for us in our Lord and Savior. We find that he abides in us, and we abide in him, that we might produce much fruit for your glory. In Christ’s holy name we pray, amen.
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