English service - January 16, 2022
“I AM the Vine”
If there is anyone online or here in person whom I haven’t yet met since the first of this month, greetings, and I hope you are enjoying 2022 so far. As we move through the beginning of the new year, today we are also reaching an end of a different journey. This is the last message in the series of the seven traditional “I AM” sayings of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John. Can you remember the names Christ uses for Himself, which we have learned so far?
“I am the _______ of _______” (John 6).
“I am the _______ of the _______” (John 8).
“I am the _______. . .” (John 10).
“I am the _______ _______” (John 10).
“I am the _______ and the _______” (John 11).
“I am the _______ and the _______ and the _______” (John 14).
In today’s message, when Jesus says, “I am the vine,” He again is using very simple language, yet communicating deep truths about God’s world and our relationship with Him in it. There is not enough time to explore them all in one message, of course, and I think most of the people in worship today have read or heard John 15 more than one time. So I think I could expect you to be ready for a lot of self-learning of the Bible rather than having me explain it all to you. With that in mind, then, I want to point out several important questions that Jesus’ words in today’s reading raise, then challenge you to pray, think, read, and discover God’s answers to them not just from me but together with Him. Are you making time in your schedule each day to meet God in prayer as you read His word? I hope so. That would be an ideal time. Then when you find questions and so on, talking about them together with me or others in our church family can have even greater meaning.
For example, meditating on John 15:1-11 can guide us as we ask:
Who is Christ, and what is His relationship to God and His people?
How can we live as God’s people? (In these and other questions, I do not mean “How to” as in techniques, processes, and procedures, but more broadly, what is necessary? In this case, what can help us learn to live as God’s people?)
What does the Lord expect of us?
How can we live our most fruitful, productive lives?
How can we be ready to face the righteous judgment of God?
When we assess the quality of our lives, how can we best judge success?
How can we become people whose lives are successful in God’s eyes?
How can we understand the troubles of life that come to us?
How can we become people whose lives glorify God?
How can we live in the greatest joy?
How can we become people whose lives are empowered by love?
How can we grow into spiritual maturity?
Of these questions, or others, which do you sense might touch on an important issue in your life now? About which do you feel God speaking to you? I hope you will listen with an open heart and mind as you seek the message the Lord has for you. I challenge you to keep seeking until you find His answers and the ways you can apply them to your daily life.
To give a little context to the story, it’s not exactly clear where Jesus and His disciples are when He gives these teachings. They are included in the talk we call “The Upper Room Discourse” (John 13-17), as we’ve already learned. So they’ve been in this upstairs room in the home of someone from whom they’ve borrowed or rented it. They are there to celebrate the Passover and for Jesus to give them important parting words and strengthen the group for the challenge ahead of them. But at the end of chapter 14, Jesus has said, “Come now. Let us leave.” Yet there is no mention of whether they actually leave at this point or not—only three more chapters of Jesus teaching and praying, all the way through chapter 17.
It could be that something is happening like an experience you may have. When people were visiting your home, have you ever heard someone say, “Well, it’s about time for us to be going,” yet somehow they found more to talk about and never left until another hour or two had passed? (We could probably exchange some stories about this kind of thing, couldn’t we. Maybe we’ve done it to each other.) Finally in 18:1 we read, “When Jesus had finished praying, he left with his disciples.” Yet John doesn’t tell us exactly where the group left. It could be the upper room or another place they have already gone from there. So it may be that in today’s reading from chapter 15, Jesus is talking to His disciples as they walk toward the grove of trees near the Kidron Valley (John 18:1). Or maybe they have arrived there and found a place where they can talk with some privacy before Judas arrives with soldiers and officials ready to arrest Jesus.
Jesus begins the chapter 15 section of His talk by saying (v. 1) “I am the true vine. My Father is the gardener.” The disciples and pretty much everyone in Israel know about vines, branches, and gardeners because many grapes are grown there. There are lots of grapevines, as well as trees (olive and fig, for example). Even if this part of Jesus’ talk takes place in “the upper room,” His listeners have no trouble understanding physical vines and branches and caring for them. After all, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, about this same time, Jesus gives the disciples the first Lord’s Supper, including the wine. So they probably have just drunk “the fruit of the vine” and have it fresh in their minds. Also, in the famous Temple in Jerusalem, a door and the wall around it are covered with gold, and laid over this area are golden vines and grapes. The clusters of grapes are as large as a man in size. It could be that Christ points to that Temple, as they make their way toward the grove of trees beyond the Kidron Valley, seeing the building or a shadow of it in the night as they go. Or maybe Jesus is actually pointing to a garden with grape vines in it as the group walks along. Finally, it could be that there are in the grove of trees where they are, vines like the ones He describes there.
In verse 2 Jesus says that God “. . . cuts off every branch joined to me that does not bear fruit.” He continues in verse 6, “If anyone does not remain joined to me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and dries up. Branches like those are picked up. They are thrown into the fire and burned.” Who is in Jesus’ mind as He talks about this? Judas is a prime example of the branch that is not going to bear fruit and so is cut away from the branch. We need to keep in mind him and all that is happening inside Jesus’ group of disciples in order for us to understand this whole section of the Gospel of John.
In a larger sense, the nation of Israel has turned away from God and faces judgment as a result, the New Testament claims in a number of places. The Lord longs for this people in particular to return to Him and receive His blessing rather than curse. And that clearly does happen in individual cases and on a small scale at various times. But because it has not been the case generally speaking, God grieves and judgment waits.
The same can be said for all of us as humans if we insist on turning away from the salvation which God has provided for us through His Son, the Bible teaches. I don’t want to be a Christian “that is thrown away and dries up.” I don’t want Open Door to be a church that is “picked up, . . . thrown into the fire and burned.” I don’t want to get into the question now of whether people who are truly saved can then lose their salvation or not. But, sadly, there are individuals and churches who turn away from the faith we have received. They follow a basically different set of teachings, often in an attempt to receive acceptance from their particular current cultures, even if they continue to use the name Christian. I pray that we will form and keep a firm, strong, unbreakable connection to Christ and His way.
God the gardener also “trims every branch”—even if it is a good one—so that it will bear more fruit, Jesus says. Then in verse 3 He tells the disciples, “You are already clean. . . .” In the original Greek, these two words “trims” and “clean” are basically the same word. (The only difference is that “trims” is in verb form, and “clean” is used as an adjective.) They are both words commonly used to talk about a gardener’s cutting away parts of a plant that are not going to produce fruit. Removing them makes the plant as a whole healthier and freer to do what it is there to do. You can get an idea of this by looking at the slides on the screen.
So when trouble comes to us, what are we to think? Is it because God doesn’t love or care about us? No, that is never the God of the Bible. Is it that He is judging us? If we close our hearts to Him and will not accept His presence in our lives, that eventually will happen. But if we have received Him by faith, we do not need to worry about that. The discipline He sends or allows to come our way is an important part of His good plans for us. Without it, we could not grow.
Yet we need always to ask ourselves the question, “Am I allowing God’s ‘trimming,’ ‘pruning’ work to take place in my life?” Remember, He says that we are clean (or trimmed) “. . . because of the word I have spoken to you.” When we read or hear God’s word, are we letting it steer us away from the habits and frames of mind and ways of spending our time that will stop us from being our most productive, fruitful selves? If not, we end up blocking the work God plans to do in us. If so, we are ready for growth and effective service. We are like the tree in the teaching in Leviticus 19:23-24.
When you enter the land, suppose you plant a fruit tree. Then do not eat its fruit for the first three years. The fruit is not “clean.” In the fourth year all of the fruit will be holy. Offer it as a way of showing praise to me.
Jesus’ disciples have apparently been with Him for about three years at this point, so He may be telling them that His time of preparing them is nearly finished. Now they are going to be actually carrying on His work in His name after He is gone. His process of trimming away the unproductive parts of our lives is for that same reason—far more than just giving us a comfortable and pleasant life. He intends for us to bear fruit that will last, and He has been preparing us for that at great sacrifice to Himself for a long time already. Now He is ready to use us for good things if we are willing to let Him and cooperate.
Moving back to verse 4, we hear Jesus teaching us, “Remain joined to me. . . .” OK. So how do we do this? It will not happen if we decide we are too busy for the day-to-day spiritual disciplines including individual prayer and Bible study. These are as necessary as good nutrition is to our bodies. Your faith and life as a whole will grow weak and unhealthy without personal, one-to-one time with God. After all, branches don’t receive life from each other. Each depends on its own connection to the vine. This is true. Breaking a rule of writing and speaking by mixing metaphors, we can recall the saying, “God has no grandchildren.” He only has children. Our individual relationship with Him is a necessary, basic part of our life of faith.
But we may be tempted to think that because of this, we don’t really need each other. Staying involved in church life is too much trouble. A lot of people have stayed away physically during the COVID pandemic and now are choosing not to return. We may decide that the only thing that matters is “Jesus and me.” Western Christians from individualistic societies may tend to think this way more. We may often need to learn from Eastern Christians at this point and ask what God wants to do among us in our relationships with others. When Jesus says, “Remain joined to me. . .”, is a longer quiet time what He has in mind? I doubt that is the main point. He explains more in later verses. First, in 9-10a He tells us, “Just as the Father has loved me, I have loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love.”
All right, Jesus. I think I’m with you so far. To remain joined to you, I need to obey your commands. Is there one in particular that you have in mind?
As a matter of fact, yes, He says (verse 12). “Here is my command. Love each other, just as I have loved you.” Then again, so there is no way we can miss it, He says again in v. 17, “Here is my command. Love each other.”
So it’s not just about “Jesus and me.” Obeying Christ’s commands involves His people’s behaving lovingly, first toward each other. It’s not just an individual faith He is teaching His followers. Stronger personal beliefs and deeper inner peace are not the final goals He has in mind. Neither is personal purity of character. He also wants us actively involved in deepening relationships of love and trust with the people around us, building community, joining Him in the work of salvation, justice, and peace-making.
Loving each other. Sounds good, doesn’t it. I don’t know anyone who is against it. Do you? But when you actually get involved in doing it, things can get messy. I can try to help someone and end up hurting that person. I can misunderstand or simply not care deeply enough to be of help when my brother or sister in Christ needs me. In my first culture (in the U.S.) and quite a few others, these are times of great political division. When people inside the church feel different from us about important matters and may be very passionate about them, the command to love them can be especially difficult to keep. Far from feeling love, the emotions we have when we listen to them may more often be anger or embarrassment. So developing strong relationships, spiritual health, and true maturity is clearly not an instant thing but requires commitment, patience, and endurance. Once again, we have to have God’s help in order to live out the teachings we receive from Him.
That’s right. He tells in verse 4, “. . . You can't bear fruit unless you remain joined to me.” Then He doubles down on it in verse 5: “You can't do anything without me.” That may hurt my pride to see. I may want to think I can do quite a lot of good if I try my best. But deep down, I know He’s right. People with experience in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step recovery program have a saying: “I can’t. He can. I think I’ll let Him.” It’s a short summary of the first three steps—realizing they do not have the power to overcome alcoholism on their own, finding their “higher power,” and turning their lives over to its control. (If that sounds Christian to you, it’s because the people who began and built Alcoholics Anonymous were active, sincere followers of Christ.) That’s a good set of ideas to keep in our minds, even if we’re not addicted to alcohol. “I can’t. He can. I think I’ll let Him.” Are we as a church attempting things without truly seeking God’s help to accomplish them? What are we as individuals trying to do without relying on Christ, the vine? Whatever answers you find in your heart to those questions, let’s first decide to respond to them with the thoughts in mind, “I can’t. He can. I think I’ll let Him.”
And what happens if we do? In verse 5, Jesus promises us, “If anyone remains joined to me, and I to him, he will bear a lot of fruit.” He doesn’t challenge us to great performance so that we may achieve fruitfulness. No, it will happen if we remain faithful, stay joined to Christ. Have you ever seen a branch on a grapevine laboring, stressing, sweating, and grunting as it struggles to produce fruit? No, of course not. That’s not how fruit-bearing works, is it. Likewise, more effort may not be God’s wish for you and me. More often, it probably is more confident reliance on Him.
And He expands on this bold claim with verse 7: “If you remain joined to me and my words remain in you, ask for anything you wish. And it will be given to you.” This may be the most misused promise in the Bible. The “name-it-claim-it gospel,” the “prosperity gospel,” is based on a misunderstanding and misapplication of these words of Christ.
In reality, we can only understand this promise in light of His words in v. 16, “. . . The Father will give you anything you ask for in my name.” The words “in my name” are key. They do not mean that you can just tack on “in Jesus’ name, amen” to a selfish prayer and expect God to give you whatever you want like a genie out of Aladdin’s lamp. God doesn’t work that way. Asking in Jesus’ name means asking with His motives, priorities, and concerns. It is asking with the kind of character He has and teaches us to have—in His spirit. In other words, to fully ask in Jesus’ name, we need to grow into the kind of people who love what He loves, see as He sees, and commit ourselves to the goals He continues to pursue. When we do, and we ask Him for something, of course He will be glad to give it because it fits naturally within His will and plans. There will be nothing such as our greed and willfulness and pride to block Him from acting according to His character. Out of His deep love and wisdom, He will freely give to His people, as He so much enjoys doing.
What kind of thing does Jesus have in mind that He calls fruit? Is it multiplied numbers of new believers who hear the gospel from us when we pass it on? Over time, generally speaking, that is no doubt part of it. But Galatians 5:22-23a tells us, “. . . The fruit the Holy Spirit produces is love, joy and peace. It is being patient, kind and good. It is being faithful and gentle and having control of oneself.” When those are the things that characterize our thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting from day to day, God will use them in specific situations and ways to do the work of His kingdom. In a huge number of different ways, we will see “fruit” that He bears through us.
Jesus continues in verse 8 with the results of our remaining joined to Him: “When you bear a lot of fruit, it brings glory to my Father. It shows that you are my disciples.” The New International Readers Version (NIRV) says that bearing fruit “shows” that we are Christ’s disciples. That is true, but that translation involves some interpreting for the sake of simplicity. The original text says simply, “and become my disciples.” We become His disciples if we bear a lot of fruit? It may sound like a condition is being placed on membership in His group there. But it would be a mistake to think that Jesus is setting up some system of salvation by works. If we do enough good things, then we have earned the right to be His disciples? No, that understanding would not match with the complete body of His teachings throughout His life and in the Bible as a whole. The point for us is that when we are joined to Christ and continue to live in that relationship, good things will grow out of this life of faith (we will bear fruit), it will reflect the fact that we are followers of Christ, and God will receive the glory from this that He deserves.
And Jesus notes one last result of our maintaining that vital link with Him.
“I have told you this so that my joy will be in you. I also want your joy to be complete” (v. 11). It’s interesting that He puts joy kind of at the end of this section of His talk. I suspect that is because He doesn’t want us to seek joy itself so much. It’s great to have, of course. But if you seek it, you don’t usually find it—at least not the deepest, lasting type. It’s really more of a natural outgrowth of healthy relationships. When we seek and step by step build them with Him, others, and ourselves, with His help, joy is the result, the byproduct.
So let’s make our goal for 2022 and always, once again, learning to live more and more fully out of the connection that Christ has established with us. Let’s pray that this will be a year of bearing rich fruit as we stay firmly attached to Christ, the vine.
God, we pray to you today remembering that all we are and have is possible because of you. Thank you for the gift of life, which we receive so constantly through your grace. Help us to go through each day closely joined to you by living in loving relationships with the people around us, as you want us to do, and we know that we need to do. Let our lives this year bring you the glory you deserve and lead to the joy that you in your goodness want us to have. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.
Gill, J. (1746-1763). John Gill's Exposition of the Bible. Bible Study Tools. https://www.biblestudytools.com/. Retrieved January 3, 2022 from
Monico, N. (2021, December 20). The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Retrieved January 9, 2022 from https://www.alcohol.org/alcoholics-anonymous/
Newberry, J. (2021, December 8). I Am the True Vine. Wheaton College Chapel.
Retrieved January 8, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=od8K6CPHpOM