This sermon was preached at New Covenant Church South Boston on 04 October, 2015.
We are starting a new chapter in John today, chapter 15. We are still in the midst of Jesus speaking to his disciples. This monologue will go on through the end of chapter 17.
In chapter 14 Jesus spoke of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.
At first, chapter 15 may feel like a change in topic, but as we go along, you’ll see the connection between chapter 15 and the topics, particularly the minor themes of chapter 14, which get expanded on here.
Summary of the Text:
The first thing we must recognize about this text is that Jesus is speaking in metaphor. He does this often. When speaking about the Kingdom of God Jesus uses metaphors, similes, and analogies to convey meaning.
Here, we have a combination of metaphor and simile. Of course, a simile is a particular type of metaphor, and the main metaphor that carries the rest of the pericope is a direct metaphor and not a simile.
So I want to begin with a brief discussion of metaphors and how they are used in teaching, then we’ll look at the purpose of this particular metaphor, and finally we’ll unpack this metaphor and what it means.
So let’s begin with the metaphor itself. What is it, and how does it work?
Simply put, a metaphor is figurative language where you use one thing in place of another to suggest a likeness and convey meaning.
By contrast, a simile compares two different things in order to create a new meaning.
So when Jesus says, in Mark 4,
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed… [Mark 4:30, 31]
That is a simile. He even tells us he is making a comparison.
A metaphor is more direct, without the comparison, simply stating that one thing is the other thing.
So when Jesus says,
I am the true vine… [John 15:1]
That is a metaphor.
An analogy is similar, but less direct. With an analogy, you have to figure out the comparison.
So when Jesus said,
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground… [Mark 4:3-5]
He never tells the crowd the meaning of the analogy, or parable. He leaves them to figure it out for themselves. That’s what he means when he ends,
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. [Mark 4:9]
So that’s an analogy.
But a metaphor is less complex, easier to understand, because we’re told what the comparison is between.
A metaphor is figurative language using one thing in place of another to suggest a likeness and convey meaning.
This means, that a metaphor has meaning. It is meant to teach us something, to help us understand something, or to explain something. It’s not just flowery language for the sake of sounding poetic. It is didactic in nature.
One last thing about metaphors. We must understand the limits of a metaphor. Metaphors are only meant to be taken so far. We mustn’t take a metaphor further than the author intended it, or we’ll derive meaning they never intended.
If I say,
After his wife died, he became a shell of a man.
You understand the metaphor correctly if you take it to mean that he is empty on the inside. But if you start playing with the minutia of the comparison and arrive at the conclusion that this man is hard and brittle, that his skin is ribbed, and that he spends a lot of time in the sea, then you have taken the metaphor beyond its intended meaning.
The purpose: that our joy may be full
Not only does a metaphor have a meaning, but this particular one has a purpose, a goal. What is being communicated is intended to accomplish something in our lives.
Jesus tells us the purpose of the metaphor in verse 11.
These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, an that your joy may be full.
The intended goal of the metaphor is joy. But not your run of the mill human joy. This is fulness of divine joy.
Jesus wants us to experience his joy. And to experience it fully.
Why his joy? If he wants his joy in us, there must be some reason, some difference between his joy and the joy we could have on our own as humans.
I would suggest to you that this is a qualitative difference. His joy is a better kind of joy than ours is. His joy is better because he is better. God is unchanging, steadfast, and immovable. His joy is necessarily better, because it springs from his nature which is better than ours.
Human joy is fleeting, tenuous, shallow, fickle, and weak.
How difficult we find it to “rejoice in the Lord always”, as Paul encourages us to do in Philippians [4:4]. When faced with the difficulties of life, we tend toward sorrow, despair, anxiety, anger, anything but joy.
But when Jesus went to the cross to face not only pain and death, but also the wrath of God for our sins, the bible says that,
Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. [Hebrews 12:2]
That is the kind of joy Jesus would have us experience. Joy so deep, so strong, that even pain, suffering, shame, and death, cannot take it from us.
Furthermore, Jesus wants us to experience his joy to the full.
Here’s what I think he means by that.
Remember Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist? Remember how the crowds were coming out to John and then Jesus showed up and the crowds left him and went to follow Jesus. And John’s disciples mentioned to him that everyone was following Jesus now. How did he respond?
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease. [John 3:29, 30]
First notice that John has the kind of joy, that is there in the midst of hardship and humility. And his joy is complete, or full.
He has the quality and quantity of joy that Jesus wants for all his disciples.
And John says that his joy is complete because Jesus is being glorified, and that is the source of his joy. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Fullness of joy comes in the absence of self concern. When you are more concerned about Jesus’ glory and mission, than you are about your own glory, then you can experience fullness of joy.
But notice also the proximity. John doesn’t just know of Jesus’ glory, he can see it. He says the friend rejoices when he hears the voice of the bridegroom.
In his second letter, the Apostle John wrote to a small group of people, perhaps a family or small church, and he closed the letter like this,
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. [2 John 12]
There is a completeness, or fullness, to joy that comes from being with someone you love.
Lauren and the girls recently went on a trip to visit her sister in North Carolina. I still loved them when they were gone, and to some extent had joy in my love for them. And technology even allows us to not only hear each other voices, but to actually see each other. We did several FaceTime video chats while they were gone.
But when they got home. When I met them at the airport and held them in my arms. When we were actually together, there was fullness of joy.
There is something about being present with the ones you love that increases joy.
And Jesus wants that for us. As we go through this metaphor, Jesus intends for it to increase both the quality and the quantity of our joy, and a big part of that is being with him.
Remember what started this dialog, the disciples were troubled that he would be leaving them. So he told them he would send the Holy Spirit to be in them. In this metaphor, notice how often he uses the words “abide in”. Either telling us to abide in him, or assuring us that he will abide in us.
10 times in 10 verses.
There is something about being with the person you love that increases joy. And Jesus is telling us something about being with him in this metaphor.
The meaning of the metaphor
So let’s unpack this metaphor and see if we can figure out the meaning Jesus has for us.
Now remember that a metaphor is figurative language using one thing in place of another to suggest a likeness and convey meaning.
So first, let’s outline the metaphor. What thing is Jesus using in place of another?
He is using the grape vine.
He says in verse one.
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
Then in verse 5 he says,
I am the vine, you are the branches.
So the metaphor is this. Jesus is the vine, the Father is the vinedresser, individuals are branches. And in the metaphor, there are two types of branches. But before we go there, let’s talk about the function of the vine and the vinedresser in the metaphor.
Jesus is the vine. More than that, he is the true vine. Why add that qualifier? What does it even mean?
It means he is the real vine, which implies there is a false vine.
In the Old Testament, the vineyard or grape vine was often used as a metaphor for the nation of Israel.
Psalm 80 that we began with, spoke of the nation as a vine that God planted in the land.
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. [Psalm 80:8]
But the vineyard was broken down and the vine was in bad shape. The Psalmist asked God to,
Similar language is used in the prophets. In Isaiah, the nation is again pictured as a vineyard, but it is not pleasing to the vinedresser.
Jeremiah picks up this same imagery.
The nation has not yielded fruit pleasing to the vinedresser, and so they are punished.
But as Isaiah’s prophecy continues, you reach chapter 27 where the restoration of the vineyard is pictured.
In chapter 11 Isaiah tells us how this comes about, and it a passage we recognize as being about Jesus, the salvation of the nations, and the peace of the coming kingdom of God.
When Jesus uses this metaphor of the vine, and says that he is the true vine, what he is saying is that he is the true Israel. He is the fulfillment of Psalm 80, Isaiah 11 and 27. The Old Testament nation of Israel proved unfaithful, but he is true. He yields the fruit of righteousness. He is the true vine, the true Israel.
Just like the Old Testament metaphors, the Father continues to serve as the vinedresser, the owner of the vineyard who cares for the vine, cultivates it, and harvests its fruit.
But then Jesus speaks of individuals being branches, and there are two types.
There are fruitless branches, and fruitful branches.
Fruitless branches are dead wood that is taken away, withered, gathered up, thrown into the fire, and burned.
And here is where we need to be careful with the metaphor, and the Old Testament background becomes important.
Without the background verse 2 could be a real problem.
Do you see the difficulty?
Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away,
If we aren’t careful, we’ll take that to mean there are Christians (branches in Christ) who lose their salvation (are taken away) because they don’t do the right works (does not bear fruit). That is indeed how some people read this verse.
But to read it this way is to ignore the Old Testament background and context.
Remember who Jesus is speaking to, Jewish disciples. They would have understood the metaphor of the vine to be about the ethnic nation of Israel. So when Jesus says he is the true vine, he is telling Israel that he is the true Israel. And he is telling Jews that their birth as Israelites doesn’t guarantee them a place in the restored kingdom. If they continue in the unfaithfulness of the nation, they will be taken away, cast into the fire, and burned.
If they would continue to be part of the true Israel, they must do so by faith, not by ethnicity.
Paul says the same thing in Romans 9.
What Jesus, and Paul, are saying is that Old Testament Israel was the type, and Jesus is the antitype. He is the true Israel. He always was. The ethnic nation of Israel served as a type of Christ, to point the way to him, and as Paul tells us in Galatians, the nation constituted under the Old Covenant served the purpose of bringing forth the Messiah, the true Israel of God, Jesus.
So he is the true vine.
His Father is the vinedresser. The owner of the vineyard who cultivates the vine and harvests its fruit.
And individuals are the branches. To be a branch that is savingly connected to the vine that is Jesus, you must do so by faith. That is what he means by abiding in him.
10 times in 10 verses Jesus uses the phrase abide in. We are told to abide in him and in his love. And we are told to let his words abide in us. What words? The message of the gospel.
In John 6 Jesus already used this language of abiding in him. There he said that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to abide in him. That is, we must partake of him by faith.
But what does life in the vine look like for one who abides?
It involves three things:
- keeping the commandments
- bearing fruit
- and being pruned
In verse 10 he equates abiding in his love with keeping his commandments. This is a restatement of the theme from chapter 14 that love motivates us to obey, and obedience proves our love.
In his first letter, John puts it this way,
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. [1 John 2:4-6]
So abiding in the vine, means obeying the commandments. You can not abide and habitually and willfully disobey. John says the person who tries to do that is a liar.
The second things abiding involves is bearing fruit.
So what does the fruit represent in this metaphor?
It is what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; [Galatians 5:22,23]
So the question is, how do we bear this kind of fruit?
Well first, we must head the words of Jesus in John 15 when he says we can’t, apart from him.
Apart from abiding in him by faith, there is no fruit, just dead branches to be cast into the fire.
So that is the first thing about bearing fruit.
The second is this. Jesus tells us that we start by bearing a little fruit, and then the Father, as the vinedresser, will prune and cultivate us so that we bear more fruit.
Bearing fruit is a process that takes place over time. We call this progressive sanctification. Last week we talked about the Holy Spirit as a teacher, starting by teaching us the basics and then building on that.
Here the metaphor is a vine. We bear some fruit. We get pruned, the bad, unhealthy, and unnecessary parts get cut off, so that we can bear more fruit. But when you prune a grape vine, it doesn’t bear more fruit immediately. The increase doesn’t come until the next harvest season. Pruning takes time.
Peter, in his second letter, gives us a sort of outline.
2 Peter 1:5-8
You start with faith, then you work on virtue, that is moral uprightness or excellence, then you increase in knowledge, then self-control, then the next, etc. One at a time, pruning away sin and bad fruit, and cultivating good fruit. It is God’s work that we are to make “every effort” in.
And let me say this. Pruning is painful. It means having part of yourself cut off and thrown away. It is the unwanted part, the fruitless part, the sinful part, but it still hurts.
Listen to this pruning advice from the Tree Care Industry Association.
Describing the dangers of over pruning, they state:
Any cut made on a tree is a wound that must be healed. The fewer cuts made the better. Smaller cuts throughout the tree’s life are better than large cuts that should have been made many years ago when the tree was small. One large poorly made cut or too many cuts in the wrong places can ruin a tree for life.
They go on to say that over pruning also
- reduces fruit production rather than increasing it
- causes the wrong kind of growth and leaves the tree exposed to sun damage
- weakens the tree and leaves is open to damage from external forces
- and results in an ugly tree
The same is true for us as Christians. The Father is a wise vinedresser and will not over prune. Let him do his work at his pace. And trust his wisdom in your sanctification.
But be aware that there is no option in this text for a branch to abide in the vine and not be pruned.
There is no option for just comfortably doing your own thing and being saved.
There are two options.
You bear no fruit and are cast into the fire.
Or you bear fruit and are pruned to bear more fruit.
But rest assured that even though pruning might be uncomfortable at times, it is for the glory of God and the increase of your joy.
Jesus is the true vine, the true Israel, and those who are in him are those who believe. If you believe, you will be pruned by the Father to bear more fruit and to increase in joy.
Just as a vine must be pruned, it must also be nourished. Fertilizer is added to the soil to aid the vine in producing new growth after a pruning. One form of spiritual nourishment we have is the communion supper.
This meal is an ordinance Christ gave to his church. Which means, among other things, that it is not for unbelievers. This is meant only for those who have been made alive by the Spirit.
The true meaning of this meal is to be apprehended spiritually.
The bread and juice remain bread and juice, but still they represent the body and blood of Christ, sacrificed in death so that we may live.
In this meal we partake of Christ spiritually, and we do so together, as one body, being nourished by him and knit together in love, growing up into him who is the head, into Christ. [1 Cor 10:16-17; Col 2:19; Eph 4:15]
If then, you are in Christ, having been united to him by faith, this Supper is for you. A spiritual meal, to nourish your faith, by making known the glory of his grace.