Are You a Branch or a Rock?
Scripture: John 15:1–8
Are You a Branch or a Rock?John 15:1-8
Sunday, November 30, 2003
Pastor Randy Smith
I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need for friendship
Friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island
Don't talk of love
Well, I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I'd never loved,
I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no-one and no-one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And the rock feels no pain
And an island never cries.
Simon and Garfunkel
Whether or not Simon and Garfunkel intended to support or critique the isolationism prevalent among youth or the 60's generation, their song that I just quoted is the epitome of human pride and self-centeredness. As one writer said, "The rock imagery brings to mind adjectives such as hard, stable, unchanging, and unemotional. A rock is devoid of feeling. Similarly, an island connotes isolation and independence. If one were an island, one would have no need for relationships" (Rogers, Kailen. The Paradox of Truth in 'I am a Rock).
Rocks prefer to be alienated. They are self-sufficient, inflexible and unchanging. On the contrary, branches are much different. They are soft and flexible, dependent and productive. Maybe we should sing a new song entitled, "I am a branch."
Out in the vineyard
On others my existence depends
They both seek my good
I embrace them as friends
The vine gives me life
To it I must abide
The gardener prunes and cuts
Though my branches have not died
I am a branch
I am alive
Though cutting is painful
The gardener seeks my best
It may not appear pretty at first
But I will survive the test
Soon my foliage will be green
And luscious grapes will appear
The more I abide in the vine
Much fruit will be here
I am a branch
I am alive
A fruitless companion is of no need
His straits are very dire
The gardener will cut him off
And cast him to the fire
Yet I in the vine
And the vine in me
Producing fruit for others
And glory my friends will see
I am a branch
I am alive
This morning's text is one of the most popular in the entire Bible. Overlooking the multitude of incorrect interpretations, many have rightly understood these words from our Lord and have drawn from them great instruction and encouragement.
Our allegory this morning basically deals with three players. The Vine represents Jesus Christ. The Vinedresser (or "Gardener"-NIV, NLT) represents the Father. And the branches represent professing Christians. Kent Hughes visualized this intimate relationship well. "The picture taken together is that of a vineyard with true believers organically related to Christ (the sap that runs in His veins runs in ours) and of the Father walking among the vines lovingly caring for them so they will bring forth fruit" (Hughes, John, 352). Since no doubt most of us this morning profess Christ, we are each individually the branches in this allegory. Therefore I plan to deliver this message from the perspective of a branch.
As you can see in your sermon outline, it is the responsibility of the branch to abide in the vine, bear fruit and be governed by the vinedresser.
1. I ABIDE IN THE VINE
Let's begin with the first point. A true branch abides in the vine. The vine is naturally the branch's source of life. Without close connection to the vine, the branch withers and dies.
In a spiritual comparison, Jesus is the vine in which we as professing believers are to abide. In verse 1 our Lord clearly said, "I am the true vine" (Jn. 15:1a). Now this final "I am" saying clarifies the role of Jesus, but it also was intended trigger a clear image in the minds of His early Jewish disciples.
You must remember Israel was a land of vineyards. Therefore many biblical texts use this familiar imagery to convey an important spiritual truth. For instance, Israel herself was called God's vineyard. After all, God planted her, cultivated her and cared for her with great love (cf. Dt. 7:7-11; Psm. 80:8-16). It is only natural that God would expect her to produce spiritual fruit for His glory. But unfortunately Israel failed. Almost every time God's mentions His vineyard it is followed by words of displeasure and judgment. Take Isaiah 5:1-2 for example: "Let me sing now for my well-beloved a song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. He dug it all around, removed its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it and also hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He expected it to produce good grapes, but it produced onlyworthless ones" (cf. Jer. 2:21).
Though God, the Vinedresser, adequately cared for the vine (Eze. 17:5-6) and nurtured it where necessary, Israel was fruitless having only herself to blame. She would be judged (Isa. 5:5-7; 16:8; Jer. 5:10, 17; 12:10; Hos. 2:12; Am. 4:10) and one day replaced by a vine more faithful.
Now you can imagine the weight of Christ's words when He said, "I am the true vine." Just as He superseded the temple, the Jewish feasts, Moses and various holy sites, here He supercedes apostate Israel and replaces them as the true representative of God. Jesus is the One to whom Israel pointed. Jesus would at last produce the fruit God desired. Though Israel failed to heed the commandments of God, God's own Son would obey the Father perfectly and hear those blessed words at His baptism and transfiguration, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased" (Mt. 3:17; 17:5).
God's people, the branches, would no longer be incorporated into the nation Israel, but now they would be incorporated into Jesus Christ for salvation. As they abide in the "true vine," corporately connected to and in union with Christ, they will compose God's new fruit-producing vineyard (Mt. 20:1-11; 21:33-43).
However, abiding is the key! Just as branches must abide in the vine, professing Christians must abide in Christ. This thought is dominant throughout our text in John 15. Let's begin by charting every time we see the word "abide:"
- Verse 4, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me."
- Verse 5, I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
- Verse 6, If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
- Verse 7, If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
- Verse 9, "Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
- Verse 10, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love."
Since abiding is mentioned so often and the term is so clear with the vine and branch imagery, we must ask the question, "What does it mean to 'abide in Jesus?'"
To abide means to remain in Jesus. Just as a branch cannot be separated from the vine (even for the smallest distance) without losing its life, the Christian must remain in Jesus. Yes we are truly saved the moment we trust Christ (verse 3). But evidence of that salvation will be our desire to abide and the duration of our abiding. Along the way, nourishment, growth and development will only occur as we abide in Christ.
But just as we are responsible to abide in Christ, Christ also takes the responsibility to abide in us. The branch abides in the vine, but the vine must also abide in the branch. Possibly this mutual abiding is best seen in the beginning of verse 4 when Jesus said, "Abide in Me, and I in you." The first phrase is a command in the active voice. We are expected to abide in Jesus. However, the second phrase is passive. We are to allow Jesus to abide in us.
This mutual abiding is commonly seen throughout Paul's epistles:
- 1 Corinthians 15:10, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain (passive); but I labored even more than all of them (active), yet not I, but the grace of God with me (passive)."
- Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (passive); and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (active)."
- Philippians 2:12-13, "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling (active); for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (passive)."
- Colossians 1:28-29, "We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving (active) according to His power, which mightily works within me (passive)."
Mutual abiding is necessary and it is crucial for the believer to understand this concept. I've seen many Christians (often witnessed it in my own life) who swing too far to one side of the pendulum.
On one side, some fail to exercise "spiritual sweat." "Why evangelize? The Father will call His elect to Himself." "Why disciple? The Holy Spirit will mature the saints." "Why serve? Jesus is sufficient to care for His church." God will not use such strict passivity. We are called to "labor" for our King. We see this modeled by Paul in the verses I previously read. We see it modeled by our Lord Himself, the One who exhorted us to "strive to enter through the narrow door" (Lk. 13:24).
On the other side, some live the Christian life solely in the flesh, depending on their own strength and intuition. This too is equally as damaging. Such people may appear in the church active and successful, but they will become personally frustrated and spiritually unproductive. Most of all, they will not glorify God through their own self-sufficiency. For the triumphant Christian life, we must abide in Christ and Christ must abide in us. Someone once said it well, "We need discipline and dependence."
When mutual abiding occurs, what a blessing it is to have our Savior lead us and minister through us with the strength He supplies (1 Pet. 4:11). What a relief it is to serve the One who said, "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Mt. 11:30). Therefore, as we seek to abide in Christ through the spiritual disciplines (obedience (verse 10), prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, service, evangelism, church attendance, repentance, etc), we do it all by His grace. Our active command to abide now becomes a joy and not a burden, a passion and not a duty.
For instance, as I abide in Christ through regular Bible reading, He gives me a hunger and desire to feast upon His Word. The more I love and trust His Word, the more I will obey. In understanding His will and desiring more to commune with Him, I will naturally go to Him in prayer. I will see more answered prayer since my heart is obedient and my prayers are according to His word, expressed for His glory. I believe that was John's intent in verse 7 when He said, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."
As Christ abides in us and we abide in Him, I can picture the Holy Spirit flowing like sap from the Vine into the branches. I can picture vibrant growth and optimum health for the branches. This only happens if the branch does not become independent like a rock. This only happens if the branch remains attached to the correct Vine. We all abide in something, the only question is, are we truly abiding in Christ?
In The Sacred Romance Brent Curtis said, "If I'm not abiding in Jesus, then where is it that I abide? I once asked myself. I began to notice that when I was tired or anxious, there were certain sentences I would say in my head that led me to a familiar place. The journey to this place would often start with me walking around disturbed, feeling as if there was something deep inside that I needed to put into words but couldn't quite capture. I felt the 'something' as anxiety, loneliness, and a need for connection with someone. If no connection came, I would start to say things like, 'Life really stinks. Why is it always so hard? It's never going to change.' If no one noticed I was struggling or asked me what was wrong, I found my sentences shifting to a more cynical level: 'Who cares? Life is a joke.' Surprisingly, by the time I was saying those last sentences, I was feeling better. The anxiety was greatly diminished. My comforter, my abiding place, was cynicism and rebellion. From this abiding place, I would feel free to use some soul cocaine-watching a violent video with maybe a little sexual action thrown in, having more alcohol with a meal than I might normally drink-things that would allow me to feel better for a little while. I had always thought of these things as just bad habits. I began to see they were much more; they were spiritual abiding places that were my comforters and friends in a very spiritual way. The final light went on one evening when I read John 15:7 in The Message. Peterson translates Jesus' words on abiding this way: 'If you make yourselves at home with Me and My words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.' Jesus was saying in answer to my question, 'I have made my home in you, Brent. But you still have other comforters you go to. You must learn to make your home in me'" (Curtis, Brent and Eldredge, John, The Sacred Romance, Nelson, 1997).
2. I BEAR FRUIT
As branches we are commanded to abide in Jesus. As I move to point two, we are also commanded to bear fruit. Verses 1-8 make this point very clear:
- Verse 2, "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit."
- Verse 4. "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me."
- Verse 5, "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing."
- Verse 8, "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples."
- Verse 16, "You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you."
Just as we witnessed earlier with "abiding," it is clear that "fruit-bearing" is also a theme of John 15. Now we have to ask the question. "What is the relationship between abiding and bearing fruit?" I think the answer is rather obvious. If we desire to produce fruit for God, we must abide in Jesus Christ. In other words, abiding in Jesus enables us to produce fruit for God. Just like the imagery, fruit-production will be the natural and expected product of a branch abiding in a healthy vine. I think our Lord made this very clear in the conclusion of verse 5. "For apart from Me, you can do nothing." Oh how we need the Lord to sear those 8 words upon our conscience.
One pastor said it well. "All the other religions and philosophies of the world reduce to single principles of self-effort. It may be 'know yourself' as the ancient Greeks might have said; or 'control yourself' as the Stoics of the Roman imperial world would have said; or extinguish yourself as the Buddhist might say; or subordinate yourself as the Muslim might say; or improve yourself as a modern positive thinker might say. But here is a completely different principle. Here, in Christianity we are told: 'without Christ we can do nothing.' It is absolutely a religion of personal responsibility - we must do something, we must (abide) in Christ, we must obey, we must pray - but it is first a religion of grace - we can only do these things if God first acts for us and works in us. How different this viewpoint is from what men naturally think" (Dr. Robert S. Rayburn)!
Oh yes, there is much we can do without abiding in Christ. Every day, millions, raise their family, pursue their profession and function in their community without even a thought of the Savior. However, from a spiritual perspective, we will produce nothing worthy of spiritual value or eternal reward unless we abide. We are helpless and unproductive apart from Christ and destined for spiritual failure.
I was continually reminded this week about that account in Numbers 14. The Israelites grumbled in the wilderness and refused to enter the Promised Land after they received the favorable report from the spies. Due to their disobedience, God promised through the mouth of Moses that Israel would wander for 40 years in the desert and the current adult generation over 20 years old (save Joshua and Caleb) would not enter the Promised Land.
Picking up the text in verse 40. "In the morning, however, they rose up early and went up to the ridge of the hill country, saying, 'Here we are; we have indeed sinned, but we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised.' But Moses said, 'Why then are you transgressing the commandment of the LORD, when it will not succeed? Do not go up, or you will be struck down before your enemies, for the LORD is not among you. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there in front of you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned back from following the LORD. And the LORD will not be with you.' But they went up heedlessly to the ridge of the hill country; neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses left the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down, and struck them and beat them down as far as Hormah" (Num. 14:40-45).
We can do nothing apart from Christ, but when we abide in Christ through steadfast dependence and reliance, forsaking our own resources, we "can do all things through Him who strengthens (us)" (Phil. 4:13). Thanks to the Holy Spirit who links us to Jesus, we can produce spiritual fruit such as: "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23); fruit such as repentance, obedience and Christlikeness. When we abide, we can be victorious in the Christian life and produce the spiritual fruit God desires to see.
Think about it this way. If I had an apple tree in my backyard that produced many healthy and delicious apples, what conclusions would I naturally draw? First of all, fruit enables me to give praise to the tree. That tree will be honored and well spoken of. Second, fruit identifies the tree. There would be no doubt in anybody's mind as to what kind of tree it is. Glory and identity-don't forget those two terms!
Now think about what happens when we bear much fruit for God. What conclusion can you draw? What were the two terms (glory and identity)? Jesus said in verse 8, "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit (glory), and soprove to be My disciples (identity)" (Jn. 15:8). When we bear spiritual fruit (individually and corporately as a church) we glorify the Father and give evidence of our identity as a His disciples. Or negatively, when we produce no spiritual fruit, we shame the Father and need to examine ourselves if we are truly in Christ.
3. I AM GOVERNED BY THE VINEDRESSER
So as a branch I must abide in the vine. I must produce fruit. And thirdly, I am completely governed by the vinedresser (or gardener). Viewed spiritually, if Jesus is the Vine and I am the branch (verse 5), God the Father is the Vinedresser (verse 1).
Based on this allegory, the Father has two primary responsibilities to the branch. He prunes and He removes.
Look at the second half of verse 2. "Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit." If the Father, the Vinedresser, desires and is glorified by much fruit (verse 8), He will do whatever is necessary to produce more and sweeter fruit. And like any good vinedresser, He will prune the branches.
This pruning comes from His loving and sovereign hand and often takes the form of trials, afflictions or failures often through situations, circumstances or people. Though we despise such events, we must see them as part of His work in making us more Christlike "so that we may share His holiness" (Heb. 12:10). This faith-filled attitude will prevent us from bitterness and unforgiveness. Pruning purges us from the sin and worldly distractions in our lives only to leave us more productive in growing fruit for His glory. Therefore if glorifying God is our ultimate goal, the results that come from such difficulties will be embraced, despite the pain often caused by the Vinedresser's knife (Psm. 119:67, 71). The way we respond to this pruning reveals the true level of our spiritual maturity.
Think of it this way if you struggle with this concept. During times of pruning, God's loving hand has not departed; rather, it's the closest it will ever be to the branch. Or, the Vinedresser only prunes the branches that belong to Him. Or, pruning is intended to produce fruit, and joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Or, what appears cruel and harsh leaving the branch gnarly and unattractive in the winter, will yield lush and productive fruit in the summer. We must believe the Vinedresser knows what He is doing and that His doing is for our best!
The Vinedresser also has a second responsibility mentioned in our text. Beginning in verse 2 our Lord said, "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away." Since the Father is looking for fruit, branches that do not bear fruit do not belong to Him and are spiritually dead. These branches are not pruned; rather the text says they are "taken away." You say, where are they taken? Look at verse 6. "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned" (cf. Eze. 15:1-8).
Since the imagery no doubt speaks of being removed from the Father's presence and cast into hell, we only have two interpretative possibilities. Are these Christians who have lost their salvation because they failed to abide, or are they people who profess Christ, but never abided and never bore fruit because they were never truly saved? I believe it is clearly the latter and this gospel itself proves it.
First of all Jesus said in 10:28, "And I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (cf. 6:37; 17:12). Once in Christ, we are always in Christ. We can't lose our salvation. Once a sheep we cannot become a goat. Second of all, we have continually witnessed professing believers walking away from Jesus. Do you remember John 6:66? "As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore." The most recent example was Judas (Jn. 13:30; cf. 2:23-25; 12:41-43). In his epistle, John said, "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us" (1 Jn. 2:19).
Thought it appears that these "believers" departed from the faith, in reality the Father removed them from the Vine that they were only attached to in a superficial way. Their absence of fruit indicated that they did not belong and such "dead wood" is removed so the living "fruit-bearing" branches have more room for growth. This is the way God purifies His church. He is forever removing individuals who are Christian in name only.
Once again this morning we have covered a lot of material so allow me to conclude by way of summary. This allegory is about two groups of people. One group abides in Jesus Christ and produces spiritual fruit for God's glory as evidence that they belong to Him. God could not find fruit among Israel, but He does among the church because the church abides in the "true vine," Jesus Christ. Therefore a mark of every Christian is some degree of spiritual fruit. Every Christian will bear fruit. The second group of people profess to be Christians, but their lack of abiding and hence lack of fruit proves they do not belong. From our perspective they will fail to persevere and eventually apostatize. From God's perspective He is removing these imposters from His people and His judgment upon them will be consummated in hell (Jn. 15:22-24).
Here's my question. To which group do you belong? Both groups attend church and both profess to be Christians, but only one really belongs to God's vineyard. It's those people through abiding in Christ who have fruit in their lives that identifies them as true disciples of Jesus Christ.