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I am the true vine

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topic Scripture: John 15:1–17

You and I live in a culture that separates Sunday from Monday and religion from the “real world.” We learned this heresy from the ancient Greeks, who had transactional relationships with their gods.

They offered their gods what their deities wanted in order to get what they wanted. But these were mean, capricious gods. You didn’t want a personal, intimate relationship with them. You made offerings to placate them, then went on your way.

The Romans adopted this approach to religion. When Christianity spread into the larger Roman world, many of its followers adopted the same mindset.

They eventually invented the concept of “clergy,” separating the religions leaders from everyone else. Then they constructed buildings so the clergy would have a place to work while everyone else watched. Then they developed a monastic mindset that measures spirituality by time spent in the building.

All the while, the “real world” outside the church recognized none of these values. You had to go along to get along. You had to make a living to make a life. So, you went to church on Sunday to please God, hoping he would bless you on Monday.

None of this is what Jesus intended for his followers. In our last “I Am,” he offers a metaphor that explodes our Western separation of the “spiritual” and the “secular.” Let’s see what he taught and why it matters so much to our souls today.

How do we become part of the vine?

Our text is part of Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” with his disciples. The “I am” he states is simple and profound: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). “I am” is emphatic in the Greek. The definite article, “the true vine,” shows that he is the one and only. But how is he a “vine”?

Our Lord and his disciples have probably turned off the road and into one of the temple courts for a while. Here they’ve come face to face with one of the most beautiful and powerful symbols in all Israel: the vine of grapes. A large vine of pure gold, fixed to the gate of the Temple itself.

The “vine” was Israel’s image of herself. She put it on her coins and used it constantly. As America’s image is the eagle, and Russia’s is the bear, so Israel’s was the vine. Over and over again in the Old Testament, this symbol was used for their nation.

However, the Old Testament also makes clear that Israel’s vine had degenerated. Her vineyard has run wild; her grapes are sour and bitter. The psalmist complained: “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire” (Psalm 80:16). Jeremiah quotes the Lord: “How did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21; cf. Isaiah 5:7).

On the other hand, Jesus is the “true,” authentic and correct vine. Israel is the false and corrupted vine; Jesus is the true and right vine. Being “attached” to their temple or our church is not enough. Being an adherent of their religion or ours is not enough. We must be connected to the “true” vine, the only One who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). No other vine will do.

When we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord, we become his. We “shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16); we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17); we “shall never perish,” for no one can take us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). All this happens when we make Jesus our Lord.

To what vine are you attached today?

What is spiritual fruit?

It’s not enough to be in the vine—we are also supposed to bear fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). If we bear “fruit,” we are his true disciples. If we do not, we are not.

So, what is this spiritual fruit? How do we bear it? What happens to us if we don’t?

The vines of Israel, then and now, grow two types of branches. One bears fruit—the other does not. Those which do not bear fruit are immediately cut off, so they won’t burden those which do. Those which do bear fruit are pruned—cut back, disciplined as it were—so they will bear more fruit. This occurs each year in December and January.

Jesus’ point is clear: some branches bear fruit, while others do not. How do we know which we are? Here is the “fruit” God inspects.

One: Our lives glorify God.

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (v. 8a). Jesus told us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). When last did someone praise God because of you?

Two: We have the joy of Jesus.

“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). When we are properly related to the vine, we bear the “fruit of the Spirit,” including “joy” (Galatians 5:22). We have joy which no circumstances can give or steal. How much joy is in your heart today?

Three: We reproduce spiritually, bearing “fruit that will last” (v. 16).

A tree reproduces by bearing fruit—so does a disciple. We are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We are to tell what we know, to give what we have. God measures the faith we possess by the degree to which we share it.

How do we bear spiritual fruit?

So, what do we do to bear such fruit? How can we be attached to the vine so that our lives glorify God, bring us joy, and bring others to him? Let’s learn Jesus’ imperatives, as they build one on the other.

First, admit that we need the vine.

“Apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Not something, but “nothing.” No matter our stock portfolio or educational achievements, or title or status.

When we moved to Midland many years ago, I was sent out to the front yard to clear off all the vines that had grown up on the walls of the house. I thought they looked just fine, but the landscape artist who lived inside disagreed. So, being the hired help, out I went.

I pulled at ivy and vines for hours, to little effect. Then a thought occurred to me: it would be easier to cut them off at the roots, then come back later. I did—a week later they were all dead. I didn’t have to pull them off the brick—I could brush them off. They had turned to dust. The branches couldn’t abide without the vine.

Admit that you need the vine, that you’ll shrivel up and die without staying connected to Jesus every day. “Abide” in him, choose to stay connected with Jesus every day, to “remain in me” (v. 2). A branch without the vine is Christianity without Christ. A branch in the vine climbs and grows to the sky.

Second, pray continually.

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (v. 7).

How much do you pray? How often? Prayer is how we connect with the vine. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are surrendered to God in prayer.

Third, obey his word.

“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (v. 10).

Is there an area of disobedience in your life? Do you need to confess gossip, slander, anger, lust, laziness, pride? Are you giving the tithe to the Lord? Are you using your spiritual gifts fully in evangelism and ministry?

Last, love his people.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). How did he love us? Unconditionally, absolutely, no matter how we treated him. Our Master says it again: “This is my command: Love one another” (v. 17).

You may not have the human ability to love all those God loves. There may be people in your family, community, or church whose words or actions have hurt you. You may find it difficult if not impossible to forgive. But your Father will help you. If you will abide in him, his Spirit will give you the grace to give others. He will lift the burden of your pain, heal the wounds of your betrayal, calm the fears of your frustration. He will love his people through you.

Conclusion

Your culture wants you to separate soul and body, Sunday and Monday. Your Lord wants you to abide continually in his presence in dependence, prayer, and obedience.

The choice is yours. But know this: the only way you and I will impact our lost world is by abiding in Jesus. The only way we can speak words that change lives is if he speaks through us. The only way we can love those who do not love us or our Lord is with his love.

But when we abide in him, he works in us and through us. And the world cannot be the same.

Many years ago, my church in Midland, Texas invited a retired Baptist missionary to Vietnam to speak to our annual missions banquet. He told a story I’ll never forget.

It had been a difficult day. People were not responsive to his work; churches were struggling; his car had broken down and he had to ride around town in a beat-up taxi. The heat was oppressive. He got home that evening to discover that a thief had stolen all his family’s furniture and belongings, leaving only their sofa in the middle of the living room.

The missionary collapsed on that couch in total frustration and prayed, “God, I can’t do it any longer. I don’t love these people. You have to get me out of here. I don’t love the Vietnamese anymore.” He sat for hours on that couch, praying and crying, angry and bitter. Around 2:00 in the morning, the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “You’re not here because you love the Vietnamese. You’re here because I love the Vietnamese.”

If you abide in the vine this week, someone will see your Father’s love in yours. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.