“I Am the True Vine”
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Identify what Jesus meant by vine, branches, and fruit.
2. Explain why we must remain connected to Christ in order to bear fruit.
3. Correct one situation where he or she has failed to stay connected to the vine.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Feb. 19—How the Word Grows (Matthew 13:18–33)
Tuesday, Feb. 20—Jesus Prays for His Followers (John 17:13–19)
Wednesday, Feb. 21—Remain in Christ (1 John 2:24–29)
Thursday, Feb. 22—Continue in Christ’s Teachings (2 John 7–11)
Friday, Feb. 23—The Blessed (Psalm 1)
Saturday, Feb. 24—I Am the True Vine (John 15:1–8)
Sunday, Feb. 25—Love One Another (John 15:9–17)
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
Why Teach this Lesson?
The process of pruning is sometimes not a pleasant sight. What once were beautiful and full trees or plants are suddenly chopped down to almost nothing. At the college where I work, Crepe Myrtle trees go through this kind of pruning from time to time. And each time this happens a notice has to be issued to those unfamiliar with the process to explain that this is not a bad thing but a good thing. It is vital that the bad be cut out. It is also necessary that the whole tree or plant be thinned so that the beauty can continue to be displayed from year to year.
We accumulate lots of spiritual (and material!) “junk,” don’t we? Yet God, the master gardener, knows how to get the best fruit and the greatest growth from his spiritual garden. As plants in that garden of God, it should be our desire to be cleaned out, pruned, and cultivated by God so that we can be as productive and appealing as possible. This lesson will help you understand the work of the master gardener and the fruit he desires to produce in you.
A. You Can’t Do It Alone
Whether we like it or not, there are many things a person can’t do alone. You can’t sing a duet alone; you can’t run a relay race alone; you can’t hold a conference alone; you can’t do a group presentation alone; you can’t play catch alone. As much as it may hurt our pride, there are some things that we can only do with the help and support of other people.
In our passage today Jesus adds something else to the list of things that we can’t do ourselves: Jesus insists that we can’t please God alone. This is the case because we draw our strength for service from our connection to Christ. God also commands us to love other people. We can’t love others as long as we are focused on “going it alone.”
B. Lesson Background
The three letters that John wrote (namely, 1, 2, and 3 John) reveal sobering news: the churches and people whom John addressed had experienced, or were just about to experience, serious internal crisis. John wrote his Gospel around a.d. 85–90 and the letters perhaps shortly thereafter. The 55 years or so since the death and resurrection of Christ allowed ample time for false doctrines and false Christs to spring up (compare 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). Church splits were occurring (3 John 9, 10).
John’s letters reveal that he wanted to correct these situations. A large part of the solution is found in John’s Gospel. There John made sure to include Jesus’ teaching about the vine and branches. This reminded believers that they must remain connected to the true Christ and to one another if they wished to please God.
I. Connected to Jesus (John 15:1–11)
A. Pruning the Vineyard (vv. 1–3)
1. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
Jewish readers would likely detect an allusion here to Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. In Isaiah 5:1–7 the prophet compares Israel to a choice vineyard that God planted in the promised land. He tended it with special care. Of course God expected a good harvest for his work, as any farmer would. Instead the Israelites produced unrighteousness and injustice.
The vine imagery appears in other Old Testament passages as well (see Psalm 80:8–16; Isaiah 27:2, 3; Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10, 11; and Ezekiel 15). Here in John 15 Jesus now applies Old Testament imagery in a new way: the true vine, which will yield a faithful harvest, is Christ himself. Jesus replaces Judaism as the means by which people are connected to God, the keeper (gardener) of the vineyard.
2. “He 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.
The imagery in this verse outlines God’s work as the keeper of the vineyard. Jesus is the vine, and he now pictures the disciples as branches. When a branch withers or fails to produce fruit, it must be cut off from the vine to protect the overall health of the plant. In a similar way the disciples are forewarned that God expects them to be faithful; if they are not, they may lose their privileged position. Compare John the Baptist’s dire warning in Matthew 3:10: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
On the other hand, the vine keeper also tends to the healthy branches by pruning them back in order to insure the maximum yield. This imagery possibly alludes to the persecution that Jesus will predict for the disciples in John 16:1–4. See also the discussion of God’s discipline in Hebrews 12:3–11. Some will respond to suffering by losing their faith; others will become stronger and even more effective through these experiences.
What Do You Think?
In what ways have you noticed God “pruning” your life? What have you learned from this experience?
The exact nature of the fruit that Jesus has in mind is not defined here. He may be alluding back to John 14:15. There he said that those who love him will keep his commandments; if this is the case, then the fruit here is similar to Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit”—a Christian lifestyle characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23).
Or it may be that Jesus is thinking more of John 14:30, 31, where he speaks of what the world must learn. If this is the case, the fruit would refer to the disciples’ evangelizing efforts. Both meanings may be in view, and each is certainly an essential measure of spiritual health.
What Do You Think?
Bearing fruit (not just foliage) is vital. What kinds, qualities, and quantities of fruit do you think Jesus expects you to bear? How do you avoid the trap of perfectionism in this regard?
[Matthew 7:15–20 and Galatians 5:22–26 can jump-start your thinking.]
When Less Yields More
I grew up in suburbia in a family that had no interest in landscaping or beautification. I can’t remember either of my parents ever planting any flowers or even maintaining houseplants. We had a happy home, but developing a green thumb was just not part of our family activities.
When my wife and I bought our first house, it was on a small lot in a major city, and the previous owner had planted a rosebush just in front of the house. I didn’t know much about gardening. But even I could tell that the rosebush, which carried very few blossoms, was overgrown. The next spring I decided to cut back the plant. There were a lot of branches clustered in the center of the bush, and they were bending across each other.
So I cut out some of the excess branches in the center while thinning some of the outer branches. To my delight that summer the rosebush was covered with blossoms! There were far more blossoms than I would have assumed, even though I knew that was supposed to be the result.
That’s the principle Jesus is talking about here. Even healthy plants need to be pruned for maximum productivity. Sometimes Jesus needs to cut some of the “stuff” out of our lives so that we can produce more and better results for his kingdom. We should expect him to do so. —J. B. N.
Visual for Lesson 13
Point to this image as you ask,
“What have you found that
helps keep you close to Jesus?”
3. “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
The word clean refers back to the pruning process in verse 2. The disciples have been cleansed—prepared to serve and to witness—through their constant exposure to Jesus’ teaching. Earlier, Jesus had referred to them as clean in order to distinguish them from Judas, whose motives obviously were impure and ungodly (John 13:10, 11).
B. Bearing Fruit (vv. 4–8)
4, 5. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
The ideas of “that which should remain in us” and “whom we should remain in” are very important to the apostle John (see John 5:38; 14:17; 15:7; 1 John 2:14, 24, 27). The emphasis is on persistent faithfulness. This can come about only through closeness and unity with God.
The first statement in verse 4 is a promise to believers. A good paraphrase might be, “If you continue to be faithful to me, then I will continue to be faithful to you”—Christ will not abandon us. This charge is especially important in light of verse 2. Just as a branch cannot bear grapes without the nourishment provided by the vine, so believers cannot live lives that please God without the strength available through Christ.
If we lose that connection, then we lose our power to serve. And once we lose the power to serve and bear fruit, we are in great danger. The danger is not just in being pruned back a little but in being pruned away permanently (Luke 13:6–9). Jesus emphasizes this point here in verse 5 so that there can be no misunderstanding: apart from me you can do nothing.
What Do You Think?
What are some specific challenges that your church and her individual members face that cannot be overcome without complete faithfulness?
6. “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
After the keeper of the vineyard prunes away the dead branches, he throws them into a pit and burns them. The wood from vines is useless for anything but burning (compare Ezekiel 15:1–5). Jesus alludes here to ultimate judgment of those who fall away: they are separated from the faithful and cast into eternal fire (compare Matthew 13:37–42).
7. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.
Jesus informs his hearers of one way that he will continue to empower them: through his words or teachings. By learning what Jesus commanded while on earth, believers will know what they must do to please God. Is there anything more important than learning what Jesus desires of us?
It is important to stress both the context and the condition of the promise in this verse. First, in context Jesus is speaking about our ability to bear fruit through obedience to him. Thus we are invited to ask for the power to serve, and Jesus will give it. We are not necessarily being promised that physical health or material blessings await just for the asking. In fact the reference to “pruning” in verse 2 may suggest that God will ask us to do without such things at times in order to increase our faith.
Second, the condition of our successful asking is stated in the first part of the verse: we must remain in Christ and allow his Word to remain in us. If we remain closely connected to Jesus and meditate on his teaching, then we can have a proper perspective on God’s will for our lives. This perspective should focus our prayers on things that please him rather than ourselves (compare James 4:3).
8. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
God receives glory when we bear much fruit in the sense that our actions reveal his power at work in the world. When we do the right thing, our witness to others shows that we recognize God to be worthy of our service and worship. Jesus’ entire earthly ministry has been focused on the glory of God (John 17:4). We show that we are his true followers when we attempt to do the same thing in our own lives.
Channels of Productivity
We all enjoy the result of fruit trees’ productivity. Fruit, however, is not always automatic. I remember we had an old apple tree in our yard when I was a youngster. We did nothing to enhance the fruit, and the result was not very good. There were a lot of apples, but they were wormy, misshapen, blemished, and not worth eating.
Much later I learned that fruit trees require a good deal of care. Spraying controls the worms and blemishes. Pruning the trees helps production. Fertilizer and special applications aid the whole process. Fruit growers spend a lot of time and go to considerable expense to increase the yield of their trees.
But there is one thing that never happens in the process of producing fruit: the tree branches themselves don’t have to go to extra effort to produce. Imagine tree branches hunkering down, grunting and groaning like a weight lifter doing a dead lift. Imagine tree branches working up a sweat while trying to increase the size of their fruit. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Yet we often attempt the same thing in trying to produce spiritual fruit. We strain as if the fruit comes from us. It doesn’t. It only comes when we (the branches) are tapped into Jesus (the vine). Perhaps that’s why Jesus says that the Father is glorified when we produce fruit. We aren’t the producers—God is. We are channels of his productivity, if we allow ourselves to be. —J. B. N.
C. Abiding in Love (vv. 9–11)
9. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
Love is the bond that unites the Father and the Son. It is also the bond that unites the branches with the vine. Jesus’ entire ministry has been an expression of God’s love for him and for the world, and Jesus has shown the same love to the disciples. Remain indicates that Jesus’ love is our home, the place where we live. Verses 10 and 11 (next) will spell out two effects of this enduring love in our lives.
10. “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.
Jesus now explains exactly how it is possible to continue living in his love. When we see what Christ has done for us, we should respond by obeying his teachings. This could include all of his ethical commands, such as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. But the focus here is probably on the “new commandment” that Jesus has just spelled out at John 13:34. He will repeat it in 15:12, below—“love one another.” By showing love for one another, we imitate Christ’s love for us. (See also 1 John 5:2.)
11. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
The thought of Christian service, love for others, and obedience to Christ’s commands often seems overwhelming and impossible. Yet Jesus highlights the benefit of obedience: joy. The phrase my joy refers to the satisfaction that Jesus receives from knowing that he perfectly fulfills God’s will, despite the difficulties he faces.
Such joy remains with us when we know that we also are following Christ’s commands and bearing fruit despite circumstances. Of course this is not to say that we always will be happy in this life; we can, however, always be confident in the knowledge that God is pleased with our work.
What Do You Think?
How has obedience to Jesus brought joy to your life?
II. Connected to One Another (John 15:12–17)
A. New Commandment (vv. 12, 13)
12, 13. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Love each other is Jesus’ “new command” of John 13:34, as noted above. Jesus’ love is the model for the relationships we are to have with other believers.
Jesus illustrates this love by referring the disciples to what he has done for them already (as I have loved you). Up to this point in time, he has allowed them to enjoy a special, privileged relationship with him. He has provided for their needs. He has protected them both physically and spiritually, as they have allowed him to.
Jesus also illustrates the kind of love he is talking about by referring the disciples to what he is about to do in the very near future. He will provide the ultimate sacrifice by laying down his life for them on the cross.
Such sacrificial love is the purest expression of the fruit that Christ empowers us to bear. This does not mean that Jesus calls us to die upon a cross as he did. That was a one-time event, not to be repeated. Yet if the type of love that is evident in the cross is not evident in our lives as well, then we clearly are not drawing our power from the Christ, who died for sinners.
B. Friends of Christ (vv. 14–16)
14. “You are my friends if you do what I command.
The term friends is used to refer to people sharing the same social status in the ancient world. Viewed in this light the disciples must see this comment as something of a paradox. Technically, a servant (one who follows commands) is not a friend (an equal) to his or her master. We are friends of Christ in the sense that we are privileged to know his thinking, as was Abraham (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) and Moses (Exodus 33:11). See the next verse.
What Do You Think?
Here Jesus refers to his disciples as friends. But in John 13:13–16, he affirms his role as Lord. How do you harmonize these? How do you fulfill your roles as both a servant and a friend of Jesus on a daily basis?
15. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
The slave or servant does not need to understand the master’s orders; he or she simply needs to obey them without asking questions. Jesus is our Lord, and he does not invite us to question his commands. At the same time, however, he has not simply left us with a code of laws and rules. Rather, Jesus has openly revealed the Father’s will and purposes to the disciples. He has taught them the importance of revealing God’s love to the world.
We should therefore be able to understand why it is so important for us to bear fruit and love one another. If we do not understand this, then we really cannot say that we understand anything that Jesus did or taught.
16. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
While we can enjoy the privilege of friendship with Jesus, we must never forget that he is the boss. Christ is the one who initiates a relationship with us, and we should not take his offer lightly.
At the same time, however, we should feel secure in the knowledge that Jesus has not set us up to fail: he has not appointed that we should be pruned away and cast off (v. 2). He has cleansed us instead (v. 3). He tells us everything that we need to know to bear fruit. Because of our relationship with him, we can expect not only God’s favor but also his power for service.
C. New Commandment Reprised (v. 17)
17. “This is my command: Love each other.”
Jesus closes by repeating the essential element in bearing fruit: that new command to love each other. By the time the apostle John writes his letters, this new command becomes an old command (2 John 5). Yet it bears repeating!
The disciples will have to depend on one another for support once Jesus is gone. The church will not be able to grow if it is divided. Strangely, Christians often take the command to love one’s neighbor (Mark 12:31) more seriously than the command to love one another. That makes us prey to easy criticism from nonbelievers. Who wants to join a divided church?
Everyone knows that there are a lot of things we can’t have access to unless we know people in “high places.” I am devoted fan of NASCAR, and recently I was able to secure a garage pass to a race in Indianapolis. This allowed me full access to all the behind-the-scenes areas at the race. These included the garages where the cars are serviced and the areas where the drivers and crews meet to discuss strategy. I saw many of my favorite drivers up close there, as well as some other celebrities who had come to the race. All this was possible solely because my cousin’s husband works as a member of the crew on one of the NASCAR teams. Without his help I would have been watching from the stands or on television.
Our passage today applies that principle to our spiritual lives. If we follow Jesus’ teaching, he treats us as “friends,” and with Jesus, you really do have “a friend in high places”! With him on our side, there is no limit to what we can do—provided that we stay connected.
How sad it is to see an unconnected Christian! Ironically, it seems sometimes that it is preachers who are in the most danger of losing their connection to the true vine. Preachers are under tremendous pressure to be involved in all the major and minor activities of the church. They scurry from one meeting to another, trying to keep all the programs going. Under all this time pressure, it’s tempting for them to start cutting back on their prayer and devotional life.
The cure for the Christian who is relying on his or her own strength to get things done is Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.”
Thought to Remember
When we bear fruit and love one another we show that we understand Jesus.
Lord, we know that you have called us to love one another the way that you loved us. But sometimes our pride and feelings get in the way, and we don’t treat each other the way that we know we should. Help us to see the importance of unity in your church. Help us to bear fruit by staying closely connected to you and to one another. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Underwood, Jonathan ; Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing