The splendor of the Christian life begins well before we leave this world.
What You Can Expect from a Tomato Plant
Call it astute marketing—all those little seed packets for sale in the hardware stores. They feature the final product in vivid color right there on the package, and boost your confidence that you’ll get those same beautiful red tomatoes, or bell peppers so glossy green they look as if they’ve been buffed with turtle wax.
And so you enter this mini-agricultural adventure with expectation. Which only makes it worse when, after a while, all you’ve got to show for your dollar-and-something is an ornamental tomato plant, leafy and pretty, but void of anything you might be able to slice and place on a sandwich.
Nobody expected the plant to do tricks. Only bear fruit. That’s reasonable.
Christians need to learn a lesson from this. A fruitful life isn’t something super spiritual, or even admirable.
Since God does everything with the aim of bearing fruit in our lives, fruit is normal. He never plants ornamental Christians.
The Family Business of Father and Son
In fact, Jesus portrays the universal enterprise of God in John 15 as that of a vineyard.
First, He calls Himself “the true vine” (John 15:1). Although a lot of things grow in this world, from corporations to cults, the one reality of any consequence that grows and spreads is the personal, organic reality of Christ Himself.
And contrary to our expectation, the Father, the holy God, is not a distant hands-off deity, watching it all at a great distance. Instead, He is a farmer—a “vinedresser”— who engages in the closest sort of hands-on labor for the sake of full, ripe produce. He Himself does the trellising, pruning, and harvesting. One could get the impression that this work of God rivals that of Genesis 1 for glory. And why wouldn’t it? The fruit of John 15 is the image of His Son formed not only in us, but replicated through us in others.
Everything He does, even those things unpleasant to our sensitivities, benefits the bearing of more fruit in our lives:
2Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away [or, according to the Greek word, airos, lifts up], and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
Note that while the drooping, unfruitful branch receives divine attention, and gets lifted up and braced in place, even the perfectly fruitful branch must receive pruning. We would leave healthy branches alone, since they’re doing what they ought. Why fix something if it’s not broken?
But as the healthy branch grows and yields more fruit, so does the thickness of its wood and the leafy verdure that tends to borrow its sap. If pruning doesn’t take place, the fruit will eventually become smaller, less plum-like and more puny and pearl-like.
That’s why the vinedresser “mercilessly” trims back these productive branches to a stump. It seems His dealing is fatal, overly severe. “I’m done,” we think, “Cursed.” “I will not recover from this.”
The temptation to disappointment and even spiritual depression often follows in the wake of the vinedresser’s dealing.
And yet, the next batch of our fruit becomes more luxurious than the last. Sometimes, the things we thought impossible just a few years ago, are now commonplace. We did more than survive; we flourished.
The Lord’s teaching in this chapter is not about initial salvation since, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (v. 3). He speaks of the subsequent experience of our salvation—“Abide in me, and I in you” (v. 4a). Having received Christ, we are to continue in Him, because “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (v. 4b).
When we remain in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the most normal expectation God could ever have of us is fruit, fruit, and more fruit.
We’re pleased and excited with the tomato plant or the apple tree, or the vine, when they bring forth produce. But we’re never surprised. Nor should we be shocked when even the youngest Christians, after abiding in Christ, begin to look like the Son of God and affect the people around them.
A Lot Rides on this Vine
Is fruitfulness simply another church growth strategy? No. The vineyard enterprise of the Father and the Son is more than a religious erector set. Jesus clearly portrays it as the way to glorify God, to deeply learn from Christ, and receive fullness of joy. And so this glory-learning-joy package initiates not with a manual, but an instruction so simple it seems counter-intuitive to our activist natures.
5 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.
The implied command is to stay, remain, in Christ. If we do, fruit will occur—that’s a guarantee as strong as any law of botanical reproduction. But if you’re the kind of Christian who wants to know the dark alternative—“What happens if I don’t abide in Christ?”—he says, “You can do nothing.”
Now perhaps you can accomplish a lot of things like starting a business, or becoming wealthy, or ascending to public office. You can get married, earn a degree, write a novel, or yes, even cultivate an appearance of religious piety. It’s possible that you could even build a religious organization, call it a church, and turn it into a thriving group. Yet without abiding in Christ, you can do nothing to bear fruit that renders real glory to God, furnishes a spiritual depth of education, and bubbles over into divine joy.
The consequences of a non-abiding life grow still worse:
6 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.
Before the horror of lost salvation overcomes the reader, remember that these are instructions about abiding and the experiences attached to it, rather than thoughts about our eternal salvation. Non-abiding and the fruitlessness that ensues, leads one to feel thrown away, separated, or distant from God. An inward withered sensation fills such a Christian, and finally, the feeling of worthlessness, where branches are good for nothing but burning.
In order to avoid this kind of Christian life, Jesus enlarges and strengthens the idea of abiding unto fruitfulness—
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
The words of Christ offer a practical touchstone in this otherwise mystical lesson on abiding. Enter the Scriptures. We are to treasure up His words in our hearts, allowing the spiritual power within them to align our inward condition with His own—all our passions, hopes, and attitudes. This creates a renaissance in the very nature of our prayer. And so when you “ask whatever you wish,” your prayers stop sounding like the ungodly ramblings of a person full of self, and begin to harmonize with God. The result is a happy “Yes” from the Father, since the prayers coming to Him sound like His very Son.
Thus, even our prayers are fruitful, leading us into a life that glorifies God, proves our submission to Christ as Lord, enriches our love relationship with Him, and exposes new veins of joy:
8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.
11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
There’s a lot riding on this vine.
The Vine that Circumnavigates the Globe
The largest and oldest grapevine in the world is the Great Vine of Hampton Court. Planted in 1768 during the reign of King George III, its produce was intended for the royal family. Its elephantine base is thirteen feet in diameter, and the longest of its branches have reached 120 feet. It yields some 600 pounds of grapes each year.
This vine, in a representative sense, reflects the fruitfulness and reach of the British Empire, which in the nineteenth century, was an empire on which the sun never sat.
And yet there is something bigger and more royal. “The true vine” has reached around the world and even at this moment, its fresh green tendrils still enter barren places. Under the care of an all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful vinedresser, the Son of His love never stops spreading into the hearts of men, turning them into branches of His wonderful reality, and causing them to bear fruit. The glory of an eternal kingdom depends on this blessed enterprise.
As a believer in Jesus, you my friend, are part of it.