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Success in God’s eyes

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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Topical Scripture: John 15:1-17

Tom Brady is the quarterback of the New England Patriots and winner of three Super Bowls. But with all his fame and success, when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes he said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.’ Me, I think, God, it’s got to be more than this. I mean this isn’t, this can’t be, what it’s all cracked up to be.” “What’s the answer,” asked the interviewer. “I wish I knew,” Brady replied. “I wish I knew.”

Most of us have experienced a measure of success in our lives and world. Now we want to be significant. We want our lives to count for something. We want our time on earth to matter. We want to know that we’re headed in the right direction, that God is pleased with us, that one day we’ll hear the most joyous words in all of eternity: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

In our summer series we have learned that our church belongs to Jesus: “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Because our church is his, we are his as well–God’s “saints,” his separated ones. He expects us to live like his saints as his new creation. We do this by being “filled” or controlled with the Spirit every day.

Now, how do we know that we’re on track? How do we measure ourselves as the church of Jesus, his saints, his new creation, filled by his Spirit? What results should be obvious if we are living in his word and will? How does he define success for us? How can you know if you are pleasing God today? If you will please God in heaven? If your time is significant in eternity or wasted forever?

Measure success by fruit

Our text begins: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). This seems a strange way for God to describe himself–a spindly, prickly vine growing along the ground or climbing up a fence. But in Jesus’ culture, a “vine” meant far more than we envision.

Throughout the Old Testament, the vine was the symbol for the nation of Israel. For instance, the Psalmist said of God and his people, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River” (Psalm 80:8-11; cf. Isaiah 27:2-6; Hosea 10:1).

This image was so important to the people that they made it their national symbol. They constructed a tall, golden cluster of grapes on the doors of their Temple, and typically referred to themselves as the “vine” of God. Our symbol is the eagle–theirs was the fruit vine.

However, Scripture says that their vine had become decayed and corrupted: “I planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21).

Thus Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” the real, authentic vine of God. His Father is the “gardener,” the One who owns and tends the vine.

God “cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (v. 2).

The fruit vines which are found in Palestine grow rapidly along the ground or trellis. They spread so quickly that plants are typically spaced at least 12 feet apart. A new vine is not allowed to bear fruit for the first three years of its life, and is constantly pruned so that it will grow thicker and stronger.

When the vine matures, it bears two kinds of branches–one that produces fruit, and one that does not. An observer cannot tell them apart until the fruit appears. Then the gardener will cut off the branches which bear no fruit, so they do not take life and energy from those which do.

The discarded branches were good for nothing in Jesus’ day. Their wood was too soft to be used for building material. It did not even make a good fire for cooking or light, as it smoldered and smoked more than it burned. So the fruitless branches were “picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” as trash (v. 6).

Producing fruit-bearing branches was the gardener’s goal, but even they had no value in themselves: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (v. 4). If a fruit-bearing branch were broken off the vine by storms or malice, it would quickly dry up. It retained its value only so long as it remained attached to its vine.

So we find in Jesus the “true” or genuine vine, in contrast to the decayed, withered vine of the nation of Israel. We have learned that three kinds of branches are attached to him.

One is fruitless. It looks good, even beautiful, but produces nothing of value. Profession without practice, words without works, all leaves and no fruit. Has your life born fruit for God? As a tree reproduces by bearing fruit, so the Church reproduces when Christians make Christians. Have you made evangelistic fruit for God? Do you bear spiritual fruit for God, the “fruit of the Spirit”? Do others see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control with consistency in your life (Galatians 5:22-23)? Does your branch bear fruit?

The second branch bore fruit until it broke from the vine. Successful until it became complacent, now self-sufficient and fruitless. When last did you pray first? When last did you surrender your day to the Holy Spirit, asking him to “fill” and control and use your life? Are you consistently connected with the vine through prayer and Scripture, praise and worship, obedience and gratitude? Are you attached to the vine this morning?

The third branch bears fruit by staying connected with the vine. This is the gardener’s goal for his vine: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (v. 8). Bearing evangelistic and spiritual fruit is God’s goal for his people. This is how the gardener measures the vine. Is this your definition of success?

Produce fruit by love

How do we stay attached to the vine as fruit-bearing disciples? How do we find such significance in our lives and souls today? He tells us to “remain in my love” (v. 9). “Remain” is the word he used earlier for “remaining” or staying attached to the vine.

How do we do this? “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). We stay attached to Jesus by obeying his commands.

Which commands? “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (v. 12). Later he would repeat the order: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

When we love one another in the ways Jesus loves us, we obey his command. When we obey his command, we stay attached to him as a branch to its vine. So, how did Jesus love us? How does he love us today?

First, his love is sacrificial: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (v. 14).

Earlier Jesus taught them, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). His best friend, the disciple John, later testified, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16).

When last did it cost you something significant to love the people of God? Are you being asked today to show God’s love in yours, at the cost of time, effort, money, status, popularity, success? Where next will you sacrifice to love the Lord and his people?

Second, Jesus love is unconditional. My favorite promise in all God’s word is this glorious paragraph in Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vs. 35-39).

What is keeping you from loving one of God’s children unconditionally today? Have you been hurt without an apology? Used or manipulated? Gossiped or lied about? Neglected in some way? Is a problem or grief in your own life keeping you from loving others? Guilt in your past, fear about your future, struggles in your present?

Anyone can love when it’s easy and people deserve our affection. We prove that we belong to Jesus when we love unconditionally as he does. When last did you demonstrate such compassion? Where will you next?

And last, Jesus’ love is shown in service. On his last night before the cross, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:1-5).

Washing feet was the most menial service a person could perform in Jesus’ day. It was so lowly that no Jew could be made to do this, not even a Jewish slave. But Jesus washed the feet of Judas before he betrayed him, and Peter before he denied him, and the other disciples before they abandoned him.

Then he told us, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (vs. 14-17).

God measures success not by our title but our towel. To see if you’re a servant, watch how you react when someone treats you like one. When last did you serve someone’s need, thus showing Christ’s love in yours? Where will you next?

Conclusion

When we love as sacrificially and unconditionally in service as does Jesus, we obey his command. When we obey his command we “remain” in his love. When we “remain in his love” we stay attached to the vine. And when we stay attached to the vine we “bear fruit–fruit that will last” (v. 16a). Our prayers are powerful: “Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (v. 16b). And our lives are significant.

I’ve been preaching the word of God for 30 years now, and been privileged to meet some remarkably godly servants of the Lord along the way.

I’ll never forget the hour I was honored to spend with Billy Graham, part of the team which invited him to return to our area for the Metroplex Mission in October of 2002. I have been grateful to know presidents and governors, seminary presidents and professors, some of the most brilliant scholars and preachers of our generation.

But the best example of our text I have ever encountered came very early in my ministry. In the summer of 1979, on my way to spend eight weeks preaching in East Malaysia, I was first sent to Singapore for a week of training. At the International Baptist Church I was introduced one evening to a young boy, perhaps 12 years of age or so. The missionaries told me his name, he shook my hand, and he ran off to play with friends. Then the missionaries told me his story.

They had led the boy to Christ several months earlier through a Bible study they started in his apartment complex. He immediately began attending worship every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. He came to their Bible studies and prayer meetings, displaying a great hunger for the Lord and his word. But soon the missionaries began to notice bruises and welts on the boy’s body. One day they asked him what was wrong. He told them that when he went to worship and returned home, his father beat him for going to church.

The missionaries were shocked and asked the boy why he continued coming to church. “Jesus said in the Bible we were supposed to go to church” was his answer. “Why, then, do you stay at home?” they asked. Several of their converts had been cast out of their families and had come to live at the mission; they thought that this might be best for the boy as well. But his reply put them to shame: “My father’s not a Christian. If I leave home, he won’t hear about Jesus.”

I don’t know what became of that boy, or even if he’s alive today. But I do know that he was a fruit-bearing disciple of Jesus, a success in the eyes of God. And I know that I want to be like him. Don’t you?