The True Vine
So one thing true about every kind of person from every kind of culture is that when we eat food, we often eat food with others. People eat food with other people — which is no surprise to us. We do this all the time. This is a human thing — which is why (just so we’re clear) if you eat Taco Bell by yourself in your car five days a week, you’re doing it wrong. [A couple days a week is okay, but not five.]
Sharing meals with others is a good thing, and what’s best about it really isn’t the food, but it’s the conversation that happens around the food, and usually it’s the conversation that happens not while you’re eating but after you’re done eating — that’s especially true if you have small kids. Dinner with small kids is more about survival. You’re just trying to make it.
But once the kids are finished, and you’ve them sprayed off and put them to bed and you’ve swept, mopped, and scrubbed the floor around where they sit, a lot of times, at least for Melissa and me, that’s when we have our best conversations. And when friends are over, sometimes we can talk for hours, and those are good times.
Think about the times you’ve had dinner with friends, either recently or just in general — think about after-dinner conversations. That’s where friendship happens. After-dinner conversations are important, and that is absolutely the case here in John 15.
The Greatest After-Dinner Conversation
The setting of John 15 goes back to John 13 where Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples; it’s Thursday night, the day before Jesus will be crucified; and Jesus and his disciples are having dinner together — and everything we read from Chapter 13, verse 4 all the way through Chapter 17 is the conversation that happens after that dinner. Judas Iscariot leaves the dinner in Chapter 13, verse 30, so by the end of Chapter 13 what we are reading is a conversation that is happening just between Jesus and his 11 closest friends.
Pastor David pointed out last week in Chapter 14 how there were different disciples who were part of this conversation with Jesus — different disciples were taking turns asking Jesus questions. First, it’s Peter, then Thomas, then Philip, then in verse 22, it’s the other Judas (not Iscariot). And just to get the image right in your minds, the disciples are all going around asking Jesus questions because they’re all sitting around the dinner table together — and John, the disciple who wrote this, was sitting there with them (actually sitting beside Jesus, we read in Chapter 13:23–25).
And so when we read this, it’s almost like we get to be part of this after-dinner conversation with them. And what Jesus says here, in these few chapters, ending with what he prays to the Father in Chapter 17, makes this the greatest after-dinner conversation ever had.
That Your Joy May Be Full
This morning we’re just going to look at Chapter 15, which is a continuation of what we saw last week in Chapter 14. Jesus is meaning to speak words of comfort to his disciples. That’s the theme of what’s going on here. He says twice, in 14:1 and 14:27, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Which means he is saying things to comfort their hearts, not trouble their hearts. And even more than that, in Chapter 15, verse 11, Jesus says: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
So this is amazing. For context, just to get the scene right in your imagination: what we’re reading here is Jesus talking with his closest friends after dinner and he’s saying what he’s saying so that they will have the fullest experience of joy they have ever known. Which means, I want to know what he’s saying. [Don’t you?]
The Horticultural Outline
And he starts, in 15, verse 1, with the last “I Am” statement in this Gospel. Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.”
So for this last image, Jesus goes horticultural on us. He uses the image of a vine, and there are three parts:
- there’s the vine (which is himself);
- there’s the vinedresser or gardener (which is God the Father);
- and then there’s us, his disciples, who are the branches of the vine.
All three parts are connected, but they play different roles, and so, staying within this metaphor, sticking to this image, Jesus tells us three things about these three parts. And so this is the outline for the sermon. Jesus tells us three encouraging truths:
- The focus is on the vine
- Abiding makes the difference
- The gardener gets the glory
#1. The Focus Is on the Vine
The main thing that we need to know in this passage is the first thing that Jesus says. He tells us, verse 1, that he is the true vine (and then he says it again in verse 5) — and I don’t know what you think about when you hear about vines, but I think my grandmother. I call her Nanny. And I think about Nanny because when I was 18 and leaving home for school, she gave me this daily devotional book that was based on a gardening theme. It had a lot of gardening imagery. And what made the book really special was that she read the entire book first and wrote little notes to me on every page. So I read the whole thing, and it was amazing. God used that little book to get me into John 15, which changed my life.
But I didn’t really know anything about gardening, and I still don’t. I can’t even grow grass, y’all. [These kids]. Some of you might love gardening though, and if so, then you might really connect with Jesus’s metaphor, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter whether you know anything about gardening or not, because Jesus is doing something more than giving us a gardening metaphor here.
When Jesus says that he is the true vine, he’s actually making a critical allusion to the Old Testament — because in the Old Testament, especially in the Prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the metaphor of a vine is used over and over again to represent the people of Israel (God’s chosen people). And so what Jesus is doing here when he calls himself the vine is not that he’s trying to connect with you and your gardening; it’s that he is connecting himself to this image we read about in the Old Testament.
The Failed Vine
And what’s really interesting is that every time this vine image is used in the Old Testament in reference to Israel, it’s negative. I’m going to read to you a couple examples, but the gist of why it’s negative is that God planted Israel as a vine to produce good fruit, but Israel failed to do that. And because Israel failed to be a vine that produces good fruit, God brought judgment on them. Okay, so listen for that in a couple places, first in Jeremiah 2.
Jeremiah 2:19–21 — this is God speaking to Israel —
Your evil will chastise you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God; the fear of me is not in you, declares the Lord God of hosts.  “For long ago I broke your yoke and burst your bonds; but you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yes, on every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore.  Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?
Ezekiel 19:10–13 — this is a lament about Israel by the prophet Ezekiel —
Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard planted by the water, fruitful and full of branches by reason of abundant water.  Its strong stems became rulers’ scepters; it towered aloft among the thick boughs; it was seen in its height with the mass of its branches.  But the vine was plucked up in fury, cast down to the ground; the east wind dried up its fruit; they were stripped off and withered. As for its strong stem, fire consumed it.  Now it is planted in the wilderness, in a dry and thirsty land.”
The Fruitful Vine
Israel was not the vine that God intended them to be. They failed. So why then is Jesus claiming to be the vine? It’s because Jesus is saying that where Israel failed, he will not fail.
Jesus is the true vine. Which means, he is the truer and better Israel — so in all the places where Israel wavered, Jesus will hold fast; in all the places where Israel sinned, Jesus will overcome; in all the places where Israel forsook God over and over again, Jesus will trust God all the way to the very end.
And so this allusion, this connection to the Old Testament, sets up the whole trajectory of this conversation. Jesus is going to talk about the branches, and he’s going to talk about the gardener, but what he says only makes sense if we know that the focus here is on the vine.
The focus of this whole conversation is that everything about the world, and everything about God’s history with humanity, is now changed because of Jesus. When Jesus came to this earth, he came to be the true and better Israel that Israel failed to be, and he came to be true and better human that we all have failed to be. And this is not just a side note about what Jesus did, this is at the heart of his rescue mission. The kind of Savior we need — that you and I need — is not just one who can just get us out of trouble, but we need a Savior who can walk in our shoes, and go through all that we go through, and perfectly trust God and always do what he says and truly love others even when it’s hard and then take all of that righteousness, and all of his power, and give it to us!
That’s what we need, and that is what Jesus has done. He doesn’t just give us his death, but he gives us his life — Jesus gives us his holiness. Jesus gives us his fruitfulness.
And abiding in him is what makes the difference. That’s the second truth we see here.
#2. Abiding Makes the Difference
Jesus, with himself as the focus, talks about the branches. Vines have branches, and in this image, Jesus says that we are the branches. Jesus’s disciples, those who trust him and follow him, are the branches.
And right away, the gardener also comes into the view (the gardener is God the Father). And gardener is the one who works to take care of the branches. Jesus says that in verse 2,
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.
So there are two categories here. There are the unfruitful branches that are removed; and there are the fruitful branches that are pruned so that they produce more fruit. And sometimes when we read this, or maybe you’ve heard it taught this way before, we can get caught up in this anxiety of Oh, no! Am I one of the bad branches or one of the good branches? Am I unfruitful or fruitful? I’ve heard this taught before where the central message was a warning that the branches better be fruitful or they’re going to be cut off and burned.
And I just want be clear: that is not at all what is going on here.
Remember, Jesus told his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” He is saying all that he’s saying here, verse 11, so that they will have the fullness of joy. Jesus is not warning his disciples here — and there are warnings in the Bible — this just isn’t one of them. Jesus is encouraging his disciples here, and in case we miss that, Jesus makes it crystal clear in verse 3.
Remember in verse 2 the fruitful branches are the pruned branches. Well in verse 3 Jesus says,
Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.
And when Jesus says you are “clean” he means you are “pruned.” These two words are the same in Greek. “Pruned” is kathairei and “clean” is katharoi. Same word (a verb and then a noun). And this makes sense to us. We use the word “clean” in the same way.
David Olson, one of our deacons, has this little chainsaw on a pole, and you can extend it, and it’s meant for trimming high branches in trees. And I’ve got this maple tree in my front yard and it has some branches up high that hang down low, and last week, David came over to my house one night with his chainsaw on a pole and he cleaned my tree up for me. [You know what I’m saying, right? He trimmed it. He pruned it. He cleaned it up. That’s what Jesus means here.]
When he tells the disciples that they are clean he’s saying that they have been pruned, which means he is assuring them that they will not be cut off and trashed. Remember, Judas Iscariot has already left. That was Chapter 13. He was cut off. He’s gone now. He’s out of the picture. But here, in Chapter 15, Jesus is comforting the hearts of his disciples by telling them that he has pruned them. He has cleaned them. They are good, fruitful branches because they are part of the vine — which he explains as abiding in him.
That’s verse 4. Jesus says,
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.
So simply put, the branch is impossible without the vine. There is no such thing as a branch by itself. There is no such thing as a branch just sitting around, by itself, producing fruit. Branches only bear fruit when they are connected to the vine, and Jesus says it’s the same way with him. And he makes it clear again in the next verse. Verse 5, Jesus says,
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.
So in the same way that a branch is connected to a vine — in the same way that a branch has its meaning and sustenance and life and fruit in the vine — Jesus’s disciples abide in him. In verse 6 Jesus says that if you don’t abide in him then you’re thrown away and used for a bonfire, because when you don’t abide in Jesus you’re not a branch producing fruit, you’re a dead stick, like Judas. And so abiding in Jesus is what makes the difference. If you don’t abide in Jesus, then you’re not part of this thing.
But if you do abide in Jesus you are a branch of the vine and you will be fruitful.
What Is Abiding? What Is the Fruit?
So there are two things here we’ve got to understand. What does it mean to abide? What does it mean to be fruitful? We’ve got to understand what Jesus means with these two words in order to understand what he’s saying. So let’s look first at “abide.”
What does it mean to abide in Jesus?
I think visually this makes sense to us. In the same way that a branch is connected to a vine, to abide is to stay. It’s to stay connected. Now we can see that with our minds, but that still doesn’t really get at what it means to abide, but a little later, in verse 9, Jesus says to “abide in my love.” And then he explains, that “if you keep my commandments you abide in my love.” So now there is Jesus, and there’s his love, and there’s keeping his commandments, and all of that has something to do with abiding — which I think actually simplifies this for us.
We shouldn’t complicate what Jesus says here. Abiding is another way for Jesus to talk about faith. To abide in Jesus is to have faith in Jesus.
And we’re not too surprised by that in the Gospel of John because we’ve already seen some creative ways to describe what it means to believe in Jesus. For example, in Chapter 6 believing in Jesus means to eat his flesh and drink his blood — which is meant to deepen the meaning of faith. So whatever categories we have for faith as just checking a few boxes, this Gospel just shatters those categories. Faith means more than sending Jesus a thumbs up emoji. Faith is deeply relational.
Faith is holding on and hiding in, it’s clinging tight and standing firm, it’s eating your fill and drinking your heart out, it’s digging your heels in when it seems like the ground beneath your feet is shaking. You just grab onto Jesus with all your soul. even when you know your embrace is as pathetic as a mustard seed, you embrace him until your knuckles turn white and you lose all the feeling in your hands and you do not let him go — whatever you do, you do not let him go — because he’s not letting you go. That’s what the embrace is about. Your embrace of him, however weak it is, is that you know HE is holding on to you. That’s what faith is.
And that’s where the vine image is so helpful. There is a vital union between a vine and its branches, and in the same way, there is a vital union between Jesus and those who trust him. We don’t stand back, away from him, and send him our faith. Our faith in Jesus means that we are inseparably connected to him so much so that there is no such thing as me apart from him. Jesus says in verse 5, “apart from me you can do nothing.” And the truth is, apart from him we are nothing.
That’s what it means to be the branches of a vine. There are no branches without the vine. That’s what abiding in Jesus looks like. That’s what it means to believe in him.
Which, in case you’re wondering right now whether you abide in him or not — if you’ve been thinking this whole time about whether or not you’re a fruitful branch, the answer is to trust Jesus. Put your faith in Jesus. Believe in him.
Believing in Jesus is what it means to abide in Jesus, and if you abide in Jesus you will be fruitful.
What does it mean to be fruitful?
So what’s that mean? This is the second thing we need to know. If you abide in Jesus you will be fruitful, so what does fruitful mean?
Well, I think Jesus tells us in this passage.
Check out verse 7. Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you […]” — now, hold on, remember Jesus said this before in verse 4. In verse 4 it’s “Abide in me and I in you” in order to be fruitful. And then here in verse 7 it’s “if you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (which means he’s talking about answered prayer).
So abiding in Jesus in verse 4 means fruitfulness. Abiding in Jesus in verse 7 means answered prayer — and I don’t think these are two different things, but they’re the same thing — because we see it again in verse 16. Look there for a minute. Verse 16, Jesus says,
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give it to you.
So here, in this one verse, bearing fruit that remains is equated with answered prayer. It goes like this: Jesus chose you and appointed you so that you would bear fruit, which is to say, so that your prayers would be answered — so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give it to you.
So fruitfulness then, according to the passage, is answered prayer. That’s what Jesus is saying.
And I think there is so much here.
But one of the problems for us when it comes to having an answer to what fruitfulness is is that it can cause us to reduce fruitfulness down to one, single thing, and then that one thing gets all the attention — because we think we just have to do this one thing.
This text has been misunderstood that way before.
There is a tendency to reduce fruitfulness down to one thing, say, it’s obedience, or no, it’s new believers, or no, it’s moral character. But that’s not what Jesus is doing. For how you envision it, fruitfulness is not just a bowl of grapes, but it’s a lush, bountiful orchard of fruit. So now, how does fruitfulness being answered prayer do that? How does fruitfulness being answered prayer not reduce fruitfulness down to one thing?
Well, it’s because answered prayer becomes the vista through which we see the bountiful manifestation of God’s work in our lives.
Because that’s what we pray for, right?
See, fruitfulness being answered prayer only reduces what fruitfulness is if we have already reduced what prayer is.
And we can do that. If we think of answered prayer as only when God gives us those big things we ask for every two or three years — and if that’s what we think answered prayer is then we’ve just got a bowl of grapes. But answered prayer is more than that!
So often when we read verses like John 15:7 where Jesus tells us ask anything and it will be done for us, we tend to put Jesus on the hot seat — we say really Jesus? You being serious here? We read this verse and scrutinize Jesus, but instead — hold on a minute —let’s turn the tables on ourselves. The real question is: What are we asking for?
Jesus said he would give us whatever we ask, so are we asking for his kingdom to come? Are we asking for the sun to rise and for the heavens to declare his glory? Are we asking for his Spirit to strengthen us? Are we asking for him to give us the power to understand his grace more deeply? Are we asking that he keep us every night — now I lay me down to sleep, Lord I pray my soul to keep; if I die before I wake, Lord I pray my soul to take.
God has always answered that prayer for me. Every time I pray it, God answers it. And on the morning when I don’t wake, he still will have answered it.
See, the more we pray God’s will it means the more answered prayer will become every little way that we experience and comprehend the activity of God in our lives.
So fruitfulness being answered prayer doesn’t reduce fruitfulness, it expands it. Yes, it’s obedience, and it’s love and patience and witness and endurance — fruitfulness is every way that God is working in and through your lives, because that is what we’re praying for. And it’s just what happens when you are branch connected to the vine.
And one more thing: the gardener gets the glory for it.
#3. The Gardener Gets the Glory
Jesus mentions God the Father right away in verse 1. He’s the one who is tending to the vine. He’s doing the pruning, he’s cleaning it up.
And when it comes to answered prayer, verse 8 — when it comes to fruitfulness — Jesus says,
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
So the one who tends to the branches of the vine, he is glorified by its fruit. God the Father wants to see his work displayed in your life because he is glorified by that. Your fruitfulness — the display of God’s work in your life, even in just the smallest ways — says something wonderful about him! It glorifies him. It magnifies him.
And the disciples were sitting around that table, in the middle of this epic after-dinner conversation, and maybe their heads were spinning, at least a little bit. But Jesus has told them all this so that they would have joy — so that his joy would be in them, that their joy would be full. And this truth about the Father a cause of joy.
Because it means this whole thing is his doing. All of this. The whole thing. He has done it all. We’re just branches, man. We’re just branches on a vine that is truer and better than anything we could ever dream of. We’re just glad to be here. We are part of this thing that is so much bigger than us and beyond us and not up to us. The gardener is the one who is handling all this — and he’s the one who gets the glory. And that gives us joy.
And it’s in that joy that we are invited to this Table.