Abiding in Christ (John 15)
When Community Bible Chapel began several years ago, I was given a bit of wise counsel from one of the elders of Believers Chapel. He said, “Bob, I’ve been involved in the starting of several churches and my experience has always been the same. You begin with a flurry of enthusiasm and excitement, but sooner or later it comes down to just plain endurance just sticking it out.”
Such a statement is not only true of starting a church, but of other areas of life as well. Take marriage, for example. For the first few weeks or months, marriage is able to function on the fuel of romantic feelings. But sooner or later we come to the realization that marriage is not only enjoying, but enduring. There must be the transition from romance to routine. I do not mean that marriage is a drag to be endured with gritted teeth, but that it is not one continual high, perpetually warm fuzzy feeling.
When the words of John chapter fifteen were spoken, the disciples had spent a great deal of time with the Savior and the honeymoon period was about to come to a close. The expectations of the disciples were unrealistic and untimely. They had hoped for a spectacular demonstration by our Lord which would convince the nation of Israel that He was their Messiah. They had hoped for the Kingdom to be established and for positions of power and prominence in His regime. The ‘triumphal entry’ (John 12) seemed to elevate their expectations and excitement.
In John chapter 15, our Lord brought before the eleven the realities of the future. He would not be heralded as Israel’s king, but hated (verse 18). They, too, would soon experience the hostility of an unbelieving nation (verses 18-25). This should come as no shock, for Christ’s rejection had been prophesied centuries before (verse 25).
In this chapter our Lord gave instructions concerning how His disciples could maintain fellowship and fruitfulness in the difficult days which lay before them. The nature of the relationship between Christ and His followers was to change from a physical one to that which was spiritual, and the means of sustaining this kind of relationship are described for us.
Abiding in Christ
Throughout the upper room discourse, the disciples found our Lord’s words to be abstract and confusing (John 13:22ff.; 14:5,8,22; 16:17ff.). To make His teaching clear and concrete, He used the analogy of a vine, a figure familiar to the Jewish mind.
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was often likened to a vine. In Psalm 80:8 the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is described in terms of a vine being transplanted from the soil of Egypt to that of Canaan. In Isaiah 5 the nation Israel is likened to a vineyard that does not produce fruit. In Jeremiah 2:21 Israel is described as a vine that is sending out degenerate shoots. Over and over again Israel was referred to as a vine. The vine had become a symbol of the nation Israel. It was found on Jewish coins in the Maccabean period, and in the days which our Lord walked upon the earth there was a huge filigree of a vine adorning the entrance of the temple of Herod, evaluated by some (who likely were exaggerating) at a value of more than $12,000,000.147
Our Relationship Is Defined in Terms of a Vine (vss 1-3)
Our Lord described the new relationship between Himself and His followers in terms of a vine and its branches in the first three verses. He is the true vine, believers are the branches, and the Father is the vine-keeper.
The Lord Jesus is the true vine. This word true is used primarily in two senses in the New Testament. First of all it denotes that which is true or genuine in contrast to that which is false or spurious. Surely our Lord is the one genuine vine in whom we should abide, and surely we understand that there are other “false” vines. But this I do not think to be the emphasis which our Lord intends here. This word “true” is also used of that which is the ultimate realization, or here, of that which is the heavenly reality which transcends any earthly counterpart. I think, then, that Jesus is saying that whereas the vine was a picture of Israel in the Old Testament, He is the fullest realization of Israel’s hope, of their expectations, of what God intended her to be as her Messiah. Israel, as a vine, was an utter failure; it never achieved its goal. Our Lord Jesus Christ Who came as the True Vine would accomplish all Israel failed to do.
As the true vine our Lord is the source of life and strength and fruit. There is a relationship of complete dependence between the branch and the vine. The vine supplies life-giving nourishment to the branches. Apart from it, the branches have neither life nor fruit.
As the branches, we are the visible manifestation of the life of the vine. We are the instruments of fruit-bearing. Since our Lord’s ascension into heaven, the church has been the body of Christ. The world is to see Him in us—we are His hands, His feet, His mouth. The Lord once ministered in His earthly body, but now ministers and reveals His life in His spiritual body. What Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1), His church now continues to do and say.
The Father is intimately involved in this relationship between the vine and the branches. He deals with the unfruitful branches.148 Even those branches which are fruitful receive His care in order to effect greater fruitfulness.
Lest the mention of removing unfruitful branches create any doubts or fears, Jesus assured the disciples that they had already demonstrated their genuineness and sincerity. They had already been cleansed by faith in His words (verse 3). The word ‘clean’ in verse 3 is the same expression used earlier by our Lord of saving faith. “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (John 13:10). His true followers were saved; they were ‘clean.’ Only Judas was unclean, due to his unbelief.
Our Responsibilities in the Vine (vss 4-8)
Verses 1-3 pertain to our position, while verses 4-8 speak of our practice. We come to the first imperative (or command) of the chapter in verse 4. Here our Lord tells us what we are to do as branches in Him. “Abide in Me, and I in you” (John 15:4a).
This is our Christian responsibility—to “abide” in Christ. John is fond of this word “abide.” He uses the term (meno) over fifty times in his writings; eleven times in this chapter. Underlying the meaning of this term is the idea of belief. Negatively this is seen in chapter five of John’s gospel: “And you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent” (John 5:38).
Positively, it occurs in this sense of belief in chapter six: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
Abiding, then, requires a belief in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. It is a dependence upon His provision of life and strength that is emphasized in John 15:4. It is a belief and a relation with the person of Jesus Christ and His Word (John 15:7).
In addition, the idea of remaining or enduring is implied by the word abide. “The multitude therefore answered Him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain (abide) forever, and how can you say, ‘The Son of man must be lifted up’?” (John 12:34).
This is clearly the force of the term in verse 16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). Abiding is believing, depending, and persevering.
The principle behind the command of our Lord to abide is stated both negatively and positively in verses 4 and 5. Negatively, it is impossible to bear fruit without abiding. Positively, if one abides in Christ he will bear much fruit. Abiding is essential for fruit bearing.
The necessity of abiding is further demonstrated in verses 6-8. In verse 6 we are given a negative illustration of the results if we do not abide. In verses 7 and 8 we learn the benefits of abiding.
Failing to abide is more than just a hindrance to fruitfulness; it is a severing from the source of life. Not to abide leads to death and destruction. “If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (John 15:6).
I do not believe that Jesus is here teaching that we can lose our salvation by failing to abide. He is simply showing that abiding is not an option, but an essential requirement for life. To not abide is to face the inevitable consequence which is death and judgment.
On the positive side, abiding in Christ results in conformity to the Word of God. The one in whom the Word abides can be confident of receiving the answers to his prayers for he will pray according to the will of God. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).
Furthermore, by abiding in Christ we are caused to bear fruit which brings glory to the Father and thereby demonstrates our discipleship (verse 8).
Abiding in Christ’s Love
Yet another dimension of abiding in Christ is introduced at verse 9, for we find another imperative. “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love” (John 15:9).
Abiding in Christ (verses 4-8) stressed belief, dependence, and endurance. The emphasis in verses 9-25 is on obedience. This is “how” we abide in Christ’s love: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His Love” (John 15:10).
The finest illustration of this kind of abiding is found in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. His life was marked by a total submission and obedience to the will of the Father (John 8:28-29).
One result of our obedience to our Lord’s command is joy. Obedience brings joy into our Christian experience as it did for our Lord: “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Not wishing to leave the imperative to abide in His love in abstract terms, Jesus gives a very specific and practical example of the commandments of which He speaks. “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” If abiding in Christ is understood as experiencing God’s love in Christ, verses 12ff. underscore expressing Christ’s love through us. The ultimate demonstration of love is about to be witnessed by the disciples. Christ will lay down His life for His friends. If the love of Christ is to be shown in His disciples, they must be willing to give themselves to and for others.
I must repeat the story I heard of the man who was waxing eloquent to his wife of how much he loved her. He told her he would even die for her. “That won’t be necessary,” she responded, unimpressed, “just pick up that towel and help me with these dishes.” Few of us will be required to pay the ultimate price of friendship. All of us should be willing to do so and to show it in simple acts of sacrificial kindness.
The abiding of obedience results in an intimacy which cannot be experienced in any other way. Abiding in Christ by obeying His commands changes our relationship from that of slaves to that of friends (verse 14-15). The intimacy of friendship includes us in the inner circle of God, and here our Lord makes known His secrets.
Abiding in Christ in its simplest terms is trusting our Lord and obeying His word. There are no special techniques or formulas. It is as simple as our belief and behavior. Abiding in Christ provides us with life and strength. It is the only way to fruitfulness. Abiding in Christ assures us of answered prayer and an intimacy with Christ.
Verse 16 makes it crystal clear that our abiding in Christ is not the determining factor behind our eternal security as believers. Our Lord is not threatening us with the loss of salvation if we sometimes fail to abide. This passage was intended to bring peace, assurance and comfort to troubled men (cf. John 14:1). How comforting, then, to hear these words of assurance: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give you” (John 17:16).
We might like to think that we found Christ, as the “I Found It” bumper stickers seem to imply. Ultimately, we did not choose God; He chose us. The initiator of our salvation determines the one on whom our security rests, for Paul wrote, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God chose us as the objects of His grace. He appointed us to represent Him to a lost world. He determined that we would bear fruit and that the results of our labors would be lasting. What a comfort! What motivation for service!
God never requires us to do that which is without good reason. One practical reason for the command to love one another is that if we do not love other Christians, no one will, for the world will hate us because of Christ (verses 18ff.).
We shall not explore this final portion in great detail, but will make several observations.
(1) The world’s hatred for us is the result of our abiding in Christ. Abiding in Christ identifies us with Him before the world. Because the world hated Him without a cause (verse 25), they will also hate us (verse 18).
(2) The Lord bursts the bubble of the disciples’ messianic expectations in these verses. They were looking for glory and honor. That is not what lay ahead. According to tradition, all of the disciples, save one, would die a martyr’s death. Within hours, our Lord would be lifted upon a cross and His disciples scattered.
Circumstances were to be drastically changed within a few hours. A week after He was heralded as Messiah by the throngs, He was rejected and crowned with thorns. The intimacy of physical contact and association with their Lord would be set aside for a deeper, more lasting, spiritual union with Him. All of these changes necessitated learning to abide in Christ in a way they had never known before.
The summation of this chapter can be expressed in two statements: (1) Abide in me—experience that love (verses 1-8); and (2) Express that love (verses 9-17).
If we understand and apply this passage correctly, it will virtually turn our priorities upside-down. Most of us are preoccupied with our performance as Christians, rather than being occupied with the person of Christ. We are more interested in the results we achieve than in simply resting in Him—abiding in Him. We want to appropriate His power, but fail to appreciate His person. Abiding stresses the source of our life and strength, but we frequently ignore the person of Christ to seek the product of our union with Him. We have the cart before the horse.
Abiding is our obligation; fruitfulness is God’s concern. The True Vine is the Author, the Source and the Finisher of our faith. We should be seeking His fellowship, and leaving the fruit to Him.
How instructive the physical union of man and woman is here. This is not conjecture; I find it clearly taught in Psalm 127.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.”
The first two verses graphically reveal the futility of self-effort. Human effort without divine enablement is fruitless and frustrating. We simply wear ourselves down for no good reason.
Verses 3-5 are in contrast to the first two verses. Children are a gift of the Lord. Men do not acquire offspring by hard labor. Children are given to men in their sleep, without striving. That is, children are a result, not a cause. When a man and his wife have an intimacy of relationship, there is often from their union the gift of children. Children come from resting, not striving, from intimacy, not fervency; they are the result of a union, not an intense effort.
That is the lesson which we need to learn today. We have become preoccupied with results. We want to have guidance, but we ignore the Guide. We seek God as the Giver, rather than the Gift, the Rewarder rather than the Reward. We seek His blessings rather than see Him as the Blessing.
There is no special formula or technique by which fruitfulness can be attained. It results from merely abiding. Abiding in its simplest terms is trusting—and obeying. May God enable us to abide in Him.
148 The commentaries contain seemingly endless discussions of the interpretation of the expression in verse 2, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; …” The questions are difficult.
(1) Since these branches are said to be ‘in me,’ does this mean that they represent unfruitful Christians? Many fine scholars do not think so, cf. Rosscup, pp. 185ff. If the answer to this question is “yes,” then the crux of the matter falls upon the Greek word (airo), ‘takes away’ (NASV). It could either mean ‘lifting up’ in the sense of supporting, undergirding (cf. Matthew 4:6), or the ‘removing’ of physical death (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30). It cannot refer to one’s loss of salvation. First of all, the context is one of comfort and assurance, not of warning (cf. John 14:1). Second, we must remember the words of Jesus in verse 16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give you.”
(2) The second major question is whether or not verse 2 must be understood as parallel to verse 6. My personal opinion is that we have lost sight of the major thrust of these verses which stress our relationship to the Father and the Son. We are confident that the loss of our salvation is impossible (verse 16). It is the Father’s task alone to deal with believers (fruitful branches) and unbelievers (unfruitful branches, those who only profess to be ‘in the vine’).