Abiding in Christ (John 15:1-17)
This past week, I attended the board meeting of the Urban Evangelical Mission (formerly BEE—Black Evangelistic Enterprise). I have been associated with this fine organization for nearly 20 years. I look forward to getting together with friends and fellow board members like Dr. Ruben Conner, John Dodd, Dr. Willie Peterson, Terry Woodson, and Dr. Tony Evans. This was a lunch meeting, and, as always, most of the board members were pressed for time. We moved through our agenda as quickly as we could so that one of the men could make an appointment. But when we formally adjourned the meeting, the rest of the men remained seated at the conference table. It was just as though we all sensed that the meeting was not really over, or at least that it was not yet time to go. For the next 20 or 30 minutes, we just sat and talked, about our lives, our ministries, our relationships, our struggles.
When I got home, it dawned on me that something out of the ordinary had happened. It was not like any of the meetings I had attended in the last 20 years. Nothing really dramatic happened; it was just a relaxed time of sharing in the things of our Lord. It has happened before a few times in other meetings, but this time was special. It was like a few moments of calm in the midst of a storm. Together, we shared a few moments of solitude and fellowship. I think it must have been something like those few hours our Lord shared with His disciples in the Upper Room, which John is describing in our text. In spite of their distress and sorrow, I think that as the eleven disciples looked back on these final, intimate moments with their Lord, they sensed that something very special had happened, even if they did not understand it at the time.
Not everyone in that Upper Room found these moments so peaceful and refreshing. The time Judas spent in that Upper Room must have been almost unbearable for him. A good portion of chapter 13 is devoted to Judas and to his departure that night, a departure that forever sealed his doom. As they sat at the table, Jesus shocked every one of His disciples by indicating that one of them was about to betray Him. The eleven believing disciples were perplexed and greatly troubled. But imagine what it must have been like for Judas. Jesus knew what Judas was up to! What would happen next? What would Jesus do? What would the disciples do? (Peter, we know, was armed with a sword—see 18:10.) Judas must have been wide-eyed as he watched Peter gesture to John, and as this disciple asked his Lord (who seems to have been just on the other side of Jesus) who the traitor was. Jesus indicated that the traitor was the one to whom He would hand the bread He had dipped. Judas’ heart must have stopped when Jesus handed him the bread. Surely the others would now know that he was the traitor! Our Lord’s words to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (13:27), must have been “music to the ears of Judas,” who couldn’t get out of the Upper Room quickly enough. And all of this was calmly brought about by our all-knowing Lord, so that His death would perfectly fulfill the plans, purposes, and prophecies of God.
After the departure of Judas, Jesus announces to His disciples that He will be leaving them behind, and that they will not be able to follow Him where He is going, at least for a while. The disciples are caught completely off guard. Peter seeks to assure Jesus of his dedication, supposing (it would seem) that this might convince Jesus that he could be taken along, even if the other disciples could not be trusted. What a blow our Lord’s words were to Peter. Did Peter wish to assure Jesus that he was trustworthy? In but a short time, he would deny his Master, not once, but three times!
Peter was silent from this point on, but not the rest of the disciples. Chapter 14 is John’s record of the “question and answer session” that takes place in response to what Jesus is saying. The disciples supposed Jesus meant that they would no longer enjoy the intimate relationship with Him that they had been privileged to experience up to this point in time. How wrong they were! It was our Lord’s “departure” that made it possible for them to enjoy His presence and fellowship more intimately than they had ever experienced it before.
In our text in John chapter 15, we come to the final “I am” of John’s Gospel. The words of our text are some of the most familiar words in the Gospel of John, but this does not necessarily mean they are well understood. Many are the interpretations of this passage, and while people are drawn to this text, they are also perplexed by it:
… Christians have long been attracted to these verses, both because they are profound and because they are perplexing. They are profound in that they deal with certain deep realities in the Christian faith. … But the passage is as perplexing as it is profound. Exactly what kind of fruit are we expected to bear? Does any believer really enjoy the extravagant prayer promises in verses 7 and 8? Exactly what does ‘remaining in Christ’ really mean? Above all, how is it that branches are said to be in this vine, yet fruitless? And how can these branches be cut off and destroyed?37
Texans use the expression, “between a rock and a hard place.” Verses 1-17 deal with the disciples of our Lord as those who are caught “between a rock and a hard place.” The “rock” is our Lord’s distressing announcement that He will be leaving His disciples behind (chapter 13). The “hard place” is that the Jews will turn against them:
18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own. But because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21).38
1 “I have told you all these things so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue, yet a time is coming when the one who kills you will think he is offering service to God. 3 They will do these things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 But I have told you these things so that when their time comes you will remember that I told you about them” (John 16:1-4).
The disciples are not only going to be left behind by their Master, they are also going to be rejected by their peers. Yet in all of this, they are not being abandoned by their Lord. He is sending His Spirit to dwell within them, uniting them with Himself and with one another. The disciples will now be able to “abide in Him” in a way they never could have previously. Things are about to change significantly, but all for the better. Later on, this same change is recognized by the Apostle Paul:
15 And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised. 16 So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away, see, what is new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:15-17, emphasis mine).
This new relationship with Christ is described by our Lord as “abiding in Him.”39 It is apparent that the central concept in these verses is abiding in Christ. Eight times in these eight verses the word rendered “abide” is found.40 I know from my own experience that abiding in Christ is one of my greatest struggles. From what others tell me, it is their struggle, too. It is perhaps the most serious failure among Christians. The benefits of abiding in Christ are as great as the dangers of neglecting it. Let us first seek to learn what it means to abide in Christ, and then let us strive to do so, by His grace, to His glory, and for our good.
“I Am the True Vine”
1 “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. 2 He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every41 branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. 3 You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you.”
In the Old Testament, the “vine” is a well-known symbol for the nation Israel.42
1 Now let me sing to my Well-beloved A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard On a very fruitful hill. 2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, And also made a winepress in it; So He expected it to bring forth good grapes, But it brought forth wild grapes. 3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. 4 What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, Did it bring forth wild grapes? 5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will lay it waste; It shall not be pruned or dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds That they rain no rain on it.” 7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help (Isaiah 5:1-7, NKJV, emphasis mine).
The text in Isaiah speaks of the failure of Israel to produce “fruit” as God’s vine. Psalm 80 speaks of this “vine” as well, but then changes the focus to “the branch,” who appears to be none other than our Lord:
8 You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it. 9 You prepared room for it, And caused it to take deep root, And it filled the land. 10 The hills were covered with its shadow, And the mighty cedars with its boughs. 11 She sent out her boughs to the Sea, And her branches to the River. 12 Why have You broken down her hedges, So that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit? 13 The boar out of the woods uproots it, And the wild beast of the field devours it. 14 Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; Look down from heaven and see, And visit this vine 15 And the vineyard which Your right hand has planted, And the branch that You made strong for Yourself. 16 It is burned with fire, it is cut down; They perish at the rebuke of Your countenance. 17 Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. 18 Then we will not turn back from You; Revive us, and we will call upon Your name (Psalm 80:8-18, NKJV, emphasis mine).
In our text, Jesus employs the imagery of a vine to describe the new relationship which His disciples are about to enjoy with Him and with the Father. Our Lord is the “vine”; unbelievers are the fruitless branches,43 while believers are the fruit-bearing branches. The grapes are the “fruit” which God produces in and through the saints as they draw their life and strength from the “vine,” the Lord Jesus Christ. And God the Father is the gardener, who tends the vine, removing dead branches and purifying the living branches.
Jesus speaks of Himself not merely as a vine, or even as the vine, but as the true44 vine. He who created the light (and everything else), is called the true “light” in John 1:9. The “bread” God gave Israel in the wilderness sustained the lives of the Israelites for a time, but Jesus identifies Himself as the true “bread” that comes down from heaven, because He gives eternal life to all those who partake of Him by faith (John 6:30-35). In our text, Jesus identifies Himself as the true “vine,” the full and final revelation of all that the “vine” anticipated and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Believers in Jesus (specifically, the disciples) are branches, who are a part of the vine, and yet who need somehow to “abide” or “remain” in the vine.
The Father is the “vinedresser” (NKJV) or “gardener” (NET Bible), the One who tends the vine. Every branch which does not produce fruit in the Vine is removed by the Father. As we would expect, this verse is understood differently by students of the Bible. There are two key expressions in verse 2, the translation of which will determine (or justify) our understanding of what our Lord means in this verse. The terms are “in Me” and “takes away.” If the phrase “in Me” indicates that these branches are true believers, then we must either conclude (against a mountain of contrary evidence in John and the rest of the Scriptures) that Christians can lose their salvation, or we must show that “takes away” does not refer to eternal condemnation (hell). One solution is to translate the Greek word airw “lifts up,” with the sense of helping or assisting. Thus, unfruitful branches are given special care by the Father, with the view to helping them become fruitful. The majority of translations seem to render this verse in a way that indicates that the unfruitful branches are taken away in judgment. This view is consistent with verse 6, which is much more clear about the fate of unfruitful branches, branches which did not abide in the vine. There, unfruitful branches are cast into the fire.
I believe the weight of the evidence falls on the side of that interpretation which concludes that the unfruitful branches are removed from the vine and destroyed.45 In much more blunt language, the unfruitful branches burn in the eternal fire of hell. If this is the case, then how do we explain the phrase “in Me” (verse 2)? Three passages in the Gospels and one in the Book of Romans help me to understand what Jesus is saying here in verse 2. The first is found in Matthew chapter 3:
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ because I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).
In this text, many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to John for baptism. They certainly appeared to be identifying themselves with John and his message. John rebukes them because they assumed they were going to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom of God based upon their lineage. They trusted in the fact that they were descendants of Abraham. And yet John warned them of God’s coming wrath. Surely the fruitless “trees” here are dead trees—unbelievers—and the fire is that of eternal punishment. Those who believe they are truly saved, and may even appear to be to others, are not really saved, but are destined for the coming wrath of God on the unbelieving.
The second passage also comes from the Gospel of Matthew:
15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. People don’t gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. 21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:15-23).
Here, we learn from the lips of our Lord that not everyone who claims to be a spokesman for God is a true prophet. True prophets and false prophets can be distinguished by their “fruits.” The people Jesus describes in verses 21 and 22 certainly thought they were true believers, and many others may have thought so too. But Jesus says that in spite of their profession, and in spite of their impressive deeds, He never knew them. It is by one’s fruit that his profession of faith is found to be either true or false. Though they may claim to be the people of God, those who profess faith without producing fruit are cast into the fire of God’s eternal judgment.
The third text is from the Gospel of Mark:
1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a great crowd gathered around him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the sea and all the crowd was on the land by the sea. 2 He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. 6 When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it did not have a root, it withered. 7 Other seed fell into the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it did not produce grain. 8 But other seed fell on good soil and produced grain, sprouting and growing, some bore thirty times, some sixty and some a hundred times.” 9 And he said, “Whoever has ears to hear, listen!” 10 When he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 He said to them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those outside, everything is in parables, 12 ‘so that when they look, they may look but not see, and when they hear, they may hear but not understand, so they may not repent and be forgiven.’”
13 He said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand any parable? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: whenever they hear, immediately Satan comes and snatches the word that was sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on the rocky ground: whenever they hear the word, they receive it at once with joy. 17 But they have no root in themselves and are temporary. Then, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they fall away immediately. 18 Others are the ones sown among the thorns: they hear the word, 19 but the cares of life, the deceit of wealth and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it produces nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on good soil: they hear the word and receive it and are productive, one thirty times, one sixty, and one a hundred” (Mark 4:1-20).
It should be said at the outset that the relevance of this text to our text in John 15 is somewhat dependent upon the conclusion that the first three soils represent those who are not saved, and that only the fourth soil represents genuine believers. If this is the case, then the ultimate proof of one’s faith46 appears to be the bearing of fruit. Believers do not all produce the same quantity of fruit, but they do all produce some fruit. Each of the other three soils fails to produce any fruit. Notice, too, that one might assume for a time that the seed sown in the second and third soils has produced true believers. The first soil rejects the gospel immediately, but the second and third soils appear to have life for a time. It is not until persecution and hard times come that they fall away. These seeds sprout, and they appear to be lively, but they ultimately fail to produce any fruit.
The fourth and most compelling text comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul:
13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Seeing that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 14 if somehow I could provoke my people to jealousy and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the first portion of the dough offered is holy, then the whole batch is holy, and if the root is holy, so too are the branches. 17 Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, 18 do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 Then you will say, “The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. 22 Notice, therefore, the kindness and harshness of God: harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And even they—if they do not continue in their unbelief—will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:13-24, emphasis mine).
Jewish branches were removed from the olive tree because of their unbelief, even as Gentile branches are grafted into the tree by faith. Surely Paul refers here to the very thing that our Lord is speaking about in John 15. Those Jewish branches which falsely assume they will inherit God’s blessings through Israel (“the olive tree” here, according to their way of thinking) will be severed from the “tree,” Jesus Christ, because they do not believe in Him, and thus they do not abide in Him or bear fruit through Him.47
I believe these New Testament texts give us a great deal of help in interpreting and applying our Lord’s words in John 15:2. The Jews of His day (not to mention our own) believe they are in “the vine.” They suppose that by being descendants of Abraham they have a relationship with God which will gain them an entrance to the Kingdom of God, and which assures them that they will not face eternal judgment. Paraphrased according to my understanding of verse 2, our Lord’s words would be something like this:
I know that many of the Jews think they already have a living relationship with “the vine.” That is to say they suppose that just because they are Jews physically they are in fellowship with God and therefore eternally secure. I must say that this is not the case. In truth, anyone who trusts in anything or anyone but Me—the way, the truth, and the life—is not saved at all. Those who are truly “in Me” are those who enjoy a union with Me by faith, and who thus bear fruit in Me. Those who do not bear fruit in Me will sooner or later be severed from any relation to Me, and will ultimately face the fire of God’s eternal wrath.
Having come to this conclusion, let me call your attention to several things I believe we are meant to learn from these first three verses of chapter 15.
First, notice that the purpose of the vine is to bear fruit. We know from the Synoptic Gospels that our Lord cursed the unfruitful fig tree (Matthew 21:18-19). Our purpose as Christians is to abide in Christ so that we might bear fruit. Just what is the “fruit” which is either absent or present? What is the difference between a “fruitful” branch and an “unfruitful” branch? Some think that the “fruit” our Lord refers to here is the “fruit of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22-23). Others think of the “fruit” as new converts—those who have been saved as a result of the witness of the branches. I understand the term fruit a bit more broadly. I believe that as we abide in Christ, He abides in us, and when He abides in us, Jesus Christ becomes evident in and through us. The “fruit” then, is being Christ-like. The church is the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12). I believe we bear fruit as Christ is manifested in and through our lives. He is seen in us as we manifest His character (Galatians 5:22-23). He is evident in us as we carry on the work He began when He was on this earth (see Acts 3:6, 12-16; 4:13). Being fruitful, then, is manifesting Christ in our lives.
Second, the branches are the instrument through which fruit is produced. While our Lord produced much “fruit” when He was physically on the earth, He now produces “fruit” through those (branches) who believe in Him.
Third, these branches only bear fruit in union with the vine. The branches obtain life through the vine; they are sustained by the vine; they produce fruit through the vine. The only way to bear fruit is for the branches to abide in the vine.
Fourth, the Father is the gardener, who tends the vine. He removes the lifeless, fruitless branches—those branches which were never truly “in the vine,” but only supposed themselves to be. He “cleanses” (some versions render this “prunes”) the branches, so that they will bear even more fruit. We really need to pause here for a moment, to reflect on what these words of our Lord really mean. There is a way in which Christians can very quickly and easily turn things around, losing the emphasis and focus we should have. For example, we think of the Lord’s return, and rather than seeing this as the time when our Lord will prevail over His foes and receive the glory He deserves, we think of it mainly in terms of the cessation of our suffering and pain, and in terms of the benefits we will gain.
When our pleasure becomes paramount, rather than God’s glory, then we have fallen far short of what God’s Word teaches. Our purpose in life is not to “fill our cups” with all the pleasure we can experience; it is to abide in Christ so that we may bear fruit for Him. The process by which this fruit-bearing is promoted is often painful. Thus, the Father cleanses or prunes us, so that we will be more fruitful. And lest you think the Father is being arbitrary, do not forget that the “fruit” which our Lord produced by His life and sacrificial death at Calvary came at great cost to Him, and to the Father.
Fifth, the Word is the instrument which the Father employs to tend the vine. The Word is the instrument which God employs to cleanse the branches (15:3; cf. also 17:17). Put in different terms, the Word is the super-sharp cutting instrument by which God prunes us (see Hebrews 4:12). Further, it is also my opinion that the Word is often the “cutting instrument” which the Father employs to “remove” the unfruitful (and unbelieving) branches (15:2). As I read through the Book of Acts, I see the closing of a chapter for Israel and the Jews.48 The gospel is proclaimed, and some Jews receive it. But many are those who reject the Word of God, bitterly opposing Paul and others who proclaim it. It is in response to the proclamation of the Word that some are “cleansed” and others are “clipped off.” The Word of God is at one and the same time the instrument which separates some from the vine, while drawing others all the more closely.
Exhortation and Explanation
4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up, and they gather them up and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.
The teaching of our Lord concerning “abiding” in Him is based upon a fundamental premise, stated in verses 4 and 5: “Apart from Me, you can accomplish nothing.” This is a very basic biblical principle. Jesus means us to understand that the term “nothing” refers to spiritual fruit. There is a certain sense in which men can do nothing at all without Christ. They cannot live or breath or eat, apart from the provisions God has made:
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. 26 From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:24-28, emphasis mine).
Here, our Lord is quite clearly saying that we cannot bear spiritual fruit apart from abiding in Him.
In and of ourselves, we can do nothing to earn God’s favor or to merit His salvation. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are all under divine condemnation, helpless and hopeless, apart from Christ (Ephesians 2:1-3). So, too, apart from abiding in Christ, Christians cannot do anything that will please Him. This is the point of Romans 7. Romans 6 teaches us the necessity of dying to sin and of living righteously, but Romans 7 informs us of the impossibility of doing so in the power of our flesh. And so Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). It is only through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are enabled to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law (Romans 8:3-4).
In theory, Christians know the truth that our Lord is emphasizing here, but very often we simply don’t believe it in a practical way. We really don’t believe that apart from Him we can do nothing. The message that we constantly hear from the “human potential” advocates and motivational speakers is that “we have much more power within us than we know, and that by digging deep within ourselves and drawing upon our own hidden strengths, we can do great things.” This is not what our Lord teaches us concerning the bearing of spiritual fruit. He instructs us that we can do “nothing” apart from a vital union with Him, in which we constantly draw from His life, His strength, His truth. When we do “abide” in Christ, we bear much fruit (verses 5, 8), we bring glory to the Father (verse 8), and we prove ourselves to be disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 8).
Abiding in Christ is fundamental and essential. But just what does it mean to abide in Him? Our understanding of this great text depends upon our understanding of the word “abide” (KJV) or “remain.” The NET Bible has chosen to consistently render the Greek term (menw) “remain” in our passage.49 The difficulty with the Greek term is that it conveys more than any one English word is able to capture. Let me illustrate this by pointing out the various ways this word is rendered by the translators of the King James Version. Out of 120 occurrences in the New Testament, menw is rendered “abide” 61 times, “remain” 16 times, “dwell” 15 times, “continue” 11 times, “tarry” 9 times, “endure” 3 times, and still in other ways 5 more times. In our text, the idea of “remaining” is clearly present, but the word “remain” somehow fails to convey the full force of our Lord’s words. A number of times in John’s Gospel, the term is used of “dwelling” in a certain place, of staying somewhere as one’s dwelling place:
38 Jesus turned around and saw them following and said to them, “What do you want?” So they said to him, “Rabbi” (which is translated Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 Jesus answered, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon (John 1:38-39, emphasis mine).
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there a few days (John 2:12).
So when the Samaritans came to him, they started asking him to stay with them. He stayed there two days (John 4:40, see also 8:35; 10:40; 11:6).
In addition to these instances, where menw speaks of one’s dwelling somewhere as a place of residence (even if only for a day or so), there are the two occurrences of the related term (monh) in John 14:1 and 23, which refer to the “rooms” (sometimes rendered “mansions”) or “dwelling places” that await us in heaven, in the Father’s house. Because of John’s use of these terms, I would suggest that we render the term menw “make one’s home” or “make one’s abode.” To “abide” in Christ as the True Vine is to “make our home” in Him, just as He also “makes His abode” in us. If we wish to stress the “remain” aspect of the term, we might translate menw “to make our permanent home.”
The idea of having God as our “dwelling place” is found as well in the Old Testament:
A Prayer of Moses the man of God. LORD, You have been our dwelling place in all generations (Psalm 90:1, NKJV, emphasis mine).
1 He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. … 9 Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, Even the Most High, your dwelling place, 10 No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling (Psalm 91:1, 9-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).
For You have been a shelter for me, A strong tower from the enemy (Psalm 61:3, NKJV, emphasis mine).
The name of the LORD is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe (Proverbs 18:10, NKJV, emphasis mine).
Consequently, it would seem that “making your permanent dwelling place” is not far from the meaning of menw in our text. This helps us discern the message that our Lord is seeking to convey to His disciples, and ultimately to us. What, then, does it mean to “make the Lord Jesus our permanent dwelling place”? Let’s simplify this definition, and say that Jesus is instructing us to make Him our “home” as He makes His “home” in us. Think about what “home” means to us:
- Home is where your heart is; it is where you want to be (especially during holidays).
- Home is the place to which you return, the place to which you are eager to get back to (e.g., when you’ve been on vacation).
- Home is where you feel comfortable, and can really be yourself.
- Home is a place of safety and security.
- Home is where you bring your friends when you wish to have fellowship with them.
- Home is our base of operations; it is at the center of what we do.
- Home is where you find your strength for life; it is where you eat and sleep.
- Home is where the people and the things we love the most are found.
Isn’t this what Jesus Christ should be for the Christian? Shouldn’t He be our place of refuge and security? Should He not be the source of our life and strength? Shouldn’t He be the reason for our fellowship with others? Shouldn’t He be where our heart is?
To further explore this matter of Jesus Christ as our “abiding place,” our “home,” let us consider the opposite of making Him our home. What is it that should not be our “home”? Answer: this world. The old song goes, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through …” Isn’t that really true? John warns us not to become too attached to the world, not to love it:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; 16 because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever (1 John 2:15-17).
Isaiah had it right, and so did “righteous Lot”:
So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5, NKJV).
7 … and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked. 8 (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds) (2 Peter 2:7-8, NKJV).
This is why Christians are not to be “at home” in this world, but to find their home in Christ:
11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:11-12, NKJV).
4 For indeed we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord— 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him (2 Corinthians 5:4-9).
Allow me to attempt to sum up the meaning of the word “remain” in our text. Jesus Christ is the “abiding place” for the Christian. He is the One from whom we derive spiritual life and strength and the means to become Christ-like. It is only through Him that we can “bear fruit.” It is by “abiding” in Him that we also enter into the deepest union and fellowship. Thus, Jesus urges His disciples to “abide” in Him when He departs to be with the Father, assuring them that He will likewise “abide” in them.50
Further Instruction on Abiding
9 Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. 10 If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. 12 My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. 17 This I command you—to love one another.
A good teacher employs repetition to clarify and to emphasize his content. In verses 9-17, Jesus reiterates and further explains what He has just said concerning abiding in Him in verses 1-8. He now gives us some specifics as to how we are to abide in Him. He also spells out some of the benefits of abiding in Him. Let me summarize our Lord’s teaching by setting down several principles.
PRINCIPLE ONE: WHEN WE ABIDE IN CHRIST, WE ABIDE IN HIS LOVE. You will remember that John introduces the Upper Room Discourse in chapter 13 with a reference to our Lord’s love for His disciples:
Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the very end (John 13:1).
Jesus now speaks of abiding in Him as abiding in His love. Our Lord’s love for His disciples is like the Father’s love for Him. As our Lord speaks, He is virtually standing in the shadow of the cross. How can He speak of the Father’s love for Him at a time like this? Usually, we tend to emphasize the Father’s love for us, and that this love prompted Him to send His Son to the cross (see Ephesians 2:4). I believe we must also recognize that the Father sent the Son to Calvary out of His love for the Son, as well as out of His love for lost sinners. How can this be? Dying on the cross of Calvary was indeed an act of humility on our Lord’s part (see Philippians 2:5-8), but it was also intended for His greater exaltation:
9 As a result [of His death on Calvary, as described in the previous verses] God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).
18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead so that he himself may become first in all things. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him 20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross—whether things on the earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:18-20; see also Ephesians 1:18-23).
It is my understanding and conviction that the Father purposed our Lord’s suffering for His own glory, as well as to bring glory to the Son. So, too, God purposes our suffering for His glory, but also for our good. And so it is that our Lord’s love for us includes our suffering (see John 15:18ff.), just as the Father’s love for the Son included His suffering. Abiding in Christ involves “cleansing” or pruning, which is painful for us at the time, but which causes us to cling to the vine, and thus to bear more fruit, and this increased fruit is for His glory, as well as our good.
One more thing should be said about abiding in His love. Abiding in His love is not automatic; it is something which we are commanded to do, and which takes effort and action on our part (albeit, inspired and empowered by God—see Philippians 2:12-13). Abiding in Christ requires the self-discipline that Paul talks about (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) and which the Holy Spirit produces (see 1 Timothy 1:7).
PRINCIPLE TWO: WHEN WE ABIDE IN CHRIST, WE KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS. How, then, do we abide in His love? Jesus is very clear on this matter. We abide in His love when we keep His commandments. We are to keep His commandments just as He has kept His Father’s commandments, thus abiding in His love (verse 10). Just what commandments would these be that our Lord has kept? John certainly indicates what some of these are:
Then Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me” (John 8:28).
17 “This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This is the commandment I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).
49 “For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. Thus the things I say, I say just as the Father has told me” (John 12:49-50).
Jesus never acted independently of the Father, even when Satan sought to tempt our Lord to do so in His testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). He spoke only what the Father gave Him to speak. He even went to the cross of Calvary, in obedience to the commandment He received from the Father. Do you remember the expression, “Your wish is my command?” The Father’s wish (will) was our Lord’s command. That is the way one truly submits.
We often flatter ourselves here, telling ourselves that Jesus died on the cross of Calvary because He loved us so much. There is a certain amount of truth in this, but we often carry it too far. I often cringe when I happen to be listening to a Christian radio station, and I hear these words, “Could it be that He would really rather die than live without us?” Let’s not flatter ourselves. God’s love for the lost did prompt Him to send His precious and sinless Son to the cross of Calvary, but let us not lose sight of the fact that Jesus went to that cross in obedience to the command of the Father.
Our Lord does not say that we abide in His love “if we keep His commandment (singular),” but rather if we “keep His commandments” (plural). Here, Jesus does not say that we abide in His love when we “keep the law.” So long as the term “law” is properly defined, one might say this. Paul said that the “law” was holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). He called the law “spiritual” (Romans 7:14). And in the next chapter of Romans, Paul said that those who walk in the Spirit will “fulfill the requirements of the law” (Romans 8:4). I believe that our Lord avoided the term “law” here and employed the word “commandments” because He did not want to give legalistic Judaisers an occasion to attempt to put the Gentiles under the Old Testament law.
The Judaisers separated the law from love,51 though they should not have done so:
“Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments”52 (Deuteronomy 7:9, NKJV, emphasis mine).
Jesus inseparably joins love and commandment keeping. Jesus summed up the whole law by two commandments, both of which were commands to love:
34 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40).
The Judaisers seemed to be ignorant of the fact that the law was given out of love. God gave Israel the law because of His love for those He had chosen to be His people (Deuteronomy 7:7, 12-13; 10:14-16). He expected His people to obey His law out of their love for Him (Deuteronomy 7:9; 30:16). Whenever we separate God’s love from God’s law, we get ourselves into trouble.
God gave the law out of His great love for His people. What God prohibited, He prohibited for man’s own good. What He required, He required for man’s own good. The law is a manifestation of God’s love for His people.53 No wonder the psalmists can say these things about God’s law:
1 Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2, NKJV).
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; 8 The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes (Psalm 19:7-8, NKJV).
I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart (Psalm 40:8, NKJV).
Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law (Psalm 119:18, NKJV).
Let Your tender mercies come to me, that I may live; For Your law is my delight (Psalm 119:77, NKJV).
Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97, NKJV).
98 You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep Your precepts (Psalm 119:98-100, NKJV).
The law of God should be the delight of every saint because it is a manifestation of God’s love. God gave us His law to keep us from those things which would destroy us and to point us to the only One who can save us—Jesus Christ. Whenever we begin to look upon God’s commands as something other than an expression of God’s love, then we are headed for serious trouble.
For example, consider the account of the fall of man in Genesis 3. When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, He gave them a good work to do, and also many good things to eat. The only thing He prohibited was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). Deceitfully, Satan questioned Eve in such a way as to cause her to question God’s love for her. The serpent convinced Eve that God had not prohibited eating from this tree out of love (which, indeed, He had), but out of some less-than-noble motivation. Satan convinced Eve that God was withholding something good, and that she would have to disobey God’s commandment in order to obtain what was “good” for her. Had she trusted in God and believed that He forbade the illicit fruit for her good, she would not have desired to eat of that fruit.
It is quite easy for us to see the truth as it applies to Adam and Eve, so long ago and so far away. But let us pause for just a moment to consider a present day example.
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home. 36 Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone? 37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:33b-38).
Not just in this passage, but in other New Testament texts as well, Paul calls for men and women to function differently in the church, particularly in its gathering for teaching and worship. Paul instructs the women to be “silent in the churches.” He then indicates that this is part of the submission of women which the law requires. And then he goes so far as to insist that his instruction is the “command” of our Lord. Why is it that a distressingly large number of evangelical Christians cannot accept this prohibition in the same way that Adam and Eve should have accepted the prohibition of the forbidden fruit? Why is there the assumption that a loving God would not, and could not, restrict the public ministry of women? Why is it that students and scholars are rushing back to their texts, trying to find some loophole which will allow them to set this command of our Lord aside? This prohibition is one of our Lord’s commands, and we should look upon it as a manifestation of His love. And if we are to truly abide in His love, then we must keep this command, as well as all the other commandments of our Lord.
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
PRINCIPLE THREE: WHEN WE ABIDE IN CHRIST, WE LOVE THE BRETHREN. While the words of our Lord make it clear that we are to keep all of His commandments (verse 9), at this moment Jesus gives His disciples but one commandment: they must love one another, just as He has loved them (verse 12). In some ways, this one command encompasses all other commands in that if one acts in love toward others, he will keep the commandments. This command has already been given by our Lord:
34 “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
In chapter 13 and in our text in chapter 15, Jesus is commanding His disciples to love each other. The command does not appear to encompass the world at large, but their relationships with one another as His disciples. As the world witnesses this love, they will see that its origin is divine, and that these men really are the disciples of Jesus. Very shortly, Jesus is going to reveal to His disciples that the world will hate them because they love Him. No wonder it is vital for these men to love one another. It is apparent that these men have not always been of one mind. This very night these men were arguing with one another over which of them was considered the greatest (see Luke 22:24). In our Lord’s absence, the potential for division was increased. The Holy Spirit would give them a supernatural unity in Christ, but they must strive to maintain this unity by living in love.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: WHEN WE ABIDE IN CHRIST, WE HAVE GREAT JOY (verse 11). Leon Morris calls our attention to the fact that the word “joy” occurs only once before the Upper Room Discourse, but it will now occur seven times.54 Obviously, “joy” is a prominent theme in our text, at a time when we might not expect it. Hearts were heavy that evening, for Jesus had told them some very distressing things, which troubled them greatly (13:22; 14:1, 27; 16:6, 22). If His disciples would abide in Him, their sorrows would be dispelled, and they would be replaced by great joy. Not only would His joy be in them, but their joy would be full. Their hearts would overflow with joy. When we read through the Book of Acts, we find joyful believers, very often in the midst of adversity (see Acts 2:28; 8:5-8; 13:52; 15:3; 20:24).55
What is it that will give the disciples—and us—great joy? The first thing I would say is that the “joy” one experiences as an unbeliever is very different from the “joy” of the Christian. In fact, the “joy” we experience as Christians is almost the opposite of the joy we once experienced apart from Christ. Unfortunately, Jonah illustrates the wrong kind of joy. He could rejoice in his own personal comfort, thanks to the vine that afforded him some shade (4:6), but he was greatly distressed by the salvation of the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4:1-4).
Our joy is very different …
First and foremost, our joy is really His joy (John 15:11; 17:13). As we abide in Him and He in us, we experience great joy from those things that bring Him joy, as we would also be grieved by what grieves Him.56
Second, the disciples had a very special joy. As they were greatly grieved at the death of their Master, their joy at seeing Him alive, raised from the dead, can hardly be described (see John 16:22; 20:20; 21:7).
Third, joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:42; Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
Fourth, we have joy when we become born-again Christians by faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 8:5-8; Romans 15:13).
Fifth, we rejoice when others come to faith in Christ, as well as when they grow in their faith (Acts 11:23; 15:13; 2 Corinthians 7:13; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; 3:9; Philemon 1:7; Hebrews 13:17; 1 John 1:4).
Sixth, we have joy in taking part in the plans and purposes of a sovereign God, even when this brings about our own suffering (Acts 4:23-31).
Seventh, we find joy in doing that which brings the Father’s approval (Hebrews 12:2).
Eighth, we have joy in sacrificial service (2 Corinthians 8:2).
Ninth, we have joy in being with other saints and enjoying their fellowship (Philippians 1:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 1:4; 2 John 1:12).
Tenth, we have joy when we ask God for what He desires and for what we need, and in seeing Him answer our prayers (John 16:24).
PRINCIPLE FIVE: WHEN WE ABIDE IN CHRIST, WE ARE HIS FRIENDS. Jesus tells His disciples that He no longer calls them slaves, but rather friends. Nevertheless, in the Epistles, the apostles call themselves “slaves” of Christ (see Romans 1:1; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 4:12; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1). They also urge others to think of themselves in this way (Ephesians 6:6; 1 Peter 2:16).
Nevertheless, Jesus speaks of a change which is about to take place in His relationship with His disciples. He will no longer deal with them as His slaves but rather as His intimate friends. A slave is expected to do what his master instructs him to do, whether or not he likes it, and whether or not he understands why he is commanded to do it. The best analogy today would be found in the armed forces. The change would be from the status of a “private” in the army to a “pal” of the sergeant. When new recruits are sent to boot camp, it is to train them to be “slaves.” That is, it is to train these men to obey orders, instantly, and without question. If the sergeant orders a private to dig a hole four feet square, the private is to do it. If the sergeant then orders the private to fill the hole back in again, he is to obey without hesitation. The “private” is virtually the “sergeant’s” slave (at least that’s how it used to be). The private would never think of expecting the sergeant to explain his reasons for giving any order.
Up till now, there was a sense in which the disciples were more like slaves than friends. It was not because Jesus was treating them unkindly, but because they were incapable of being anything else. A “friend” is one with whom you share your thinking, your goals, your motivations, your reasons for doing things. The disciples were simply not able to understand any of these things, even though our Lord communicated many of them to His disciples. But now, with the coming of the Holy Spirit and their abiding in Him, He could openly disclose His plans and purposes, so that they knew not only what He was seeking to do, but how and why He was doing it. No longer were His disciples to be “in the dark”; they were to be fully enlightened as to what He was doing. Abiding in Christ intimately connects us with Christ, so that we not only draw life and strength from Him, but we also come to know His heart and mind.
We see hints of this kind of friendship with God in the Old Testament.57 God called Abraham “My friend” in Isaiah 41:8. When He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, He would not keep this from His “friend”:
17 And the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, 18 since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Genesis 18:17-18, NKJV; see Isaiah 41:8.)
The same kind of intimacy can be seen with Moses:
9 And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. 10 All the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door, and all the people rose and worshiped, each man in his tent door. 11 So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle. 12 Then Moses said to the LORD, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ 13 Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.” 14 And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:9-14, NKJV, emphasis mine).
I would ask you to take note of the fact that both Abraham and Moses are called the friend of God. In both cases, God reveals things to His “friend” that He does not reveal to others. And in both cases, on the basis of what God did reveal to His “friend,” this “friend” petitioned God on behalf of others, and the petition was granted.
Throughout the Gospels, we are told that the disciples did not know or did not understand much of what Jesus was here to do. They misunderstood and misapplied much of what He did tell them. But after His death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, things became clear to the disciples. And since the apostles wrote the New Testament Gospels and Epistles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have passed on to us what they learned. And so from the time of Pentecost onward, any saint can be an informed “friend” of our Lord, knowing what He is doing, and why, through His Word.
Think of someone you know of who is powerful and influential, and who is sought after by many. Can you imagine what it would be like to know that person intimately, to spend time with this one, and to be able to speak freely about the most confidential matters? This is the relationship which our Lord not only makes possible for us, it is a relationship He urges us to enter into, and in which we are to abide.
One’s last words must be assumed to be significant. Prominent among our Lord’s last words to His disciples was the command to abide in Him. It is the key to fruitfulness, but it is much more than that. It is as essential to our spiritual lives as eating or breathing is to sustaining physical life. As I was reflecting on what it meant to abide in Christ, my attention turned to the words of our Lord in John 14:6, where He claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” No born-again Christian would think of denying the truth of these words, but some are inclined to restrict and limit them to the time when people come to faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and for the gift of eternal life. Jesus is “the way” to the Father, but we must continue in that way. Jesus is “the truth,” and we must believe in the truth of the gospel in order to be saved. But we must constantly be in “the truth” of God’s Word because the world and the devil are constantly dealing in deception and illusions (see Ephesians 4:17-25). Jesus is “the life,” and we must abide in Him, drawing life from Him daily, for these earthly bodies in which we live are, in Paul’s words, “bodies of death” (Romans 7:24). If there are many texts which instruct us regarding our initial entrance into the faith, there are also many texts like our text in John 15 which instruct us to continue to abide in Christ.
And so I would ask a very simple question of you, my friend, “Are you abiding in Christ?” Have you come to recognize your sin, your need for truth, for life, for a way to God the Father and to His heaven? Have you placed your trust in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of eternal life? In other words, are you a Christian? There are many who suppose themselves to be, based upon family background, church attendance, an occasional prayer offered God-ward. But are you abiding in Christ, looking only to Him for life, for strength, for fruit? Do you have a daily sense of your inadequacy in and of yourself? Do you find that it is only “in Christ” that you are assured of eternal life and of spiritual fruit? If you are not abiding, it may be appropriate to ask whether or not you are really “in the vine,” whether or not you are one of God’s chosen people.
If, indeed, you are a true child of God, then you should daily seek to abide in Christ. How is this done? How does one abide in Christ? Jesus has told us in this text. We abide in His love as we obey His commands. We abide in Christ as we draw near to Him and rely on Him to meet our every need, which we cannot meet ourselves.
As I conclude this lesson, let me highlight two things which I believe are very detrimental to our obedience to our Lord’s command to abide. The first is complacency—the false sense that we are self-sufficient, and thus do not need to draw our life and strength from our Lord. This was the case with those in Laodicea:
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the originator of God’s creation: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot! 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth! 17 Because you say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,” but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, 18 take my advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich! Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (Revelation 3:14-17)
If we feel self-sufficient, we are greatly deceived, and we need to reassess our total dependence on Christ for our life. When we see that “apart from Him” we “can do nothing,” then we will be prompted to actively abide in Him.
Second, we are greatly hindered by the hectic pace of our times. As I have sought to teach this text over the past two weeks, I have emphasized my own appraisal that Christians today are not abiding because they are working so hard to “achieve” for Christ, rather than to “abide” in Christ. We have become preoccupied with programs and activities. We are spending more and more time at church and “in ministry,” but less and less time “with our Lord.” We see Him as the “Giver,” but not the “Gift.” We are intent upon obtaining the “power” that He gives, but we are not as intent on knowing the “person” of God in Christ. Of all the time which you are spending “for Christ,” how much time is spent in the pursuit of Christ? I do not ask this as one who is successful in this area, but as one who sees how badly I have failed here. And my guess is that you are struggling in this same matter.
The words “effective” and “successful” are often found in print in a Christian bookstore. And so it is that we continue to read those books which tell us how to be an “effective” leader or husband or parent. We grab up any book that promises us a successful marriage. I do not think in this day and age (and in this culture) that we are doing a great deal of abiding, but only seeking to achieve. It is my opinion that Christians are doing more and more, but abiding less and less. Perhaps it is time for us to have fewer programs, fewer nights at the church, fewer meetings, with the expressed purpose of giving ourselves to abiding in Christ.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should completely do away with church functions and devote ourselves only to “individual” activities with the Lord. I do not think it is possible for a Christian to abide in Christ apart from commitment to and involvement in a local church body (see Hebrews 10:23-25). But we can be tempted to look to programs to give us what only Christ can give. Christians are so busy that they are running themselves ragged, and when they finally have a moment to sit down quietly with the Word of God, they fall asleep (I speak from experience here).
I have spoken about too much church activity, and I believe it to be true in many cases. But I must also say that many of the families I see that are stressed out and spiritually fatigued are not just consumed with church functions, but with family functions, especially those related to the children. We feel that we must have our kids in little league baseball, in soccer, in music lessons, and a myriad of other activities. Somehow, somewhere, we must stop and say that enough is enough. When was the last evening that you spent together quietly at home as a family? When was the last time you invited your unsaved neighbors over for coffee?
One of my fellow-elders remarked that he agreed with much of what I had said about abiding and over-activity. He also pointed out that busyness is not, in and of itself, an anathema to abiding. He is right, of course. No one was busier than our Lord, and yet He never failed to “abide” in His Father’s love. But even here, Jesus was able to abide because He purposefully removed Himself temporarily from these busy activities to spend time alone with His Father. We need to do likewise.
It occurred to me that many of those whom I would call “abiders” in the Gospels were women, not men. We see them described, not so much in terms of their great works for our Lord, but rather in terms of simply being with Him (see Luke 8:1-3). I was thinking about Mary and Martha, as described in Luke chapter 10:
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? So then tell her to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
What was “the best part” that Mary chose and that Martha neglected? Was it not simply “abiding” in Christ, sitting at His feet, enjoying Him? Are we not so much more like Martha than Mary? I would simply ask you to take the time to sit down and assess the quality of your abiding, and if your abiding is lacking, to purpose before God to do something about it. We are not commanded to produce fruit, for this is what our Lord does in and through us. We are commanded to “abide in Christ,” and thus it would behoove us to have a plan and a process by which we seek to obey His command to abide in Him. After all, isn’t this what we should really want to do anyway? Should we not desire to delight in Him, even as He has chosen to delight in us? May God use this text to stimulate us to actively seek to enhance the quality of our abiding in Him, to His glory, and for our eternal good.
39 It had never occurred to me before that the exhortation of our Lord in John 13-17 is similar to that found in the Book of Hebrews, where the Greek term menw (“abide”) is found six times. Just as the writer to the Hebrews seeks to keep them from stumbling when persecution intensifies against them, so our Lord speaks to His disciples in the Upper Room, to keep them from stumbling (16:1) and to encourage, instead, their abiding in Him.
40 The Greek term menw occurs 120 times in the New Testament, nearly half of which (55) appear in one of John’s writings. The term occurs 34 times in the Gospel of John, 20 times in the Johannine epistles (18 times in 1 John, 2 times in 2 John), and 1 time in Revelation.
41 Note the word “every,” used twice in this verse, so that “every” unfruitful branch is removed, just as “every” fruitful branch is cleansed or pruned. I believe that John intended for us to recognize this repetition of “every” as significant. The fact that “every” branch that does not bear fruit is removed seems to speak of one thing—the eternal destiny of the fruitless. All unbelievers will perish in the lake of fire, away from God’s presence (Revelation 20:11-15), while “every” true branch will go through various cleansings to make it more fruitful. The “every” in both instances presses me to conclude that Jesus is contrasting true believers and unbelievers. It is in these two instances that the destiny or experience of each is all-inclusive.
42 In addition to the verses cited below, see Psalm 80:8, 14; Isaiah 27:2ff.; Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10-13; Ezekiel 15:1-8; 17:8; 19:10-14; Joel 2:22; Zechariah 8:12; Malachi 3:11. Rosscup adds, “… the vine had been an emblem of Israel on Maccabean coins as well as on the gate of Herod’s Temple.” James E. Rosscup, Abiding in Christ: Studies in John 15 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 246.
43 In the context, unbelieving Jews are in focus, but in its broader application “fruitless branches” would include all unbelievers, especially those who falsely suppose themselves to be true believers in God.
44 This word is found 28 times in the New Testament. It is found only once in the Synoptic Gospels. It occurs once in 1 Thessalonians, three times in Hebrews, and the other 21 times it is found in one of John's writings (John, 9 times; 1 John, 2 times; Revelation, 10 times). Carson writes, “The word for ‘true’ (alethinos), here and often in John, means ‘real’ or ‘genuine.’ … In some passages this notion of ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ shades off into ‘ultimate’, because the contrast is not simply with what is false but with what is earlier and provisional or anticipatory in the history of God’s gracious self-disclosure.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 122.
47 Hendriksen writes, “In no sense whatever do such passages as 15:2 and 15:6 suggest that there is a falling away from grace, as if those who were once actually saved finally perish. This allegory plainly teaches that the branches which are taken away and burned represent people who never once bore fruit, not even when they were ‘in’ Christ. Hence, they never were true believers; and for them the in-the-vine relationship, though close, was merely outward. There is, accordingly, nothing here (in 15:1-11) that clashes in any way with 10:28. … The true believers of chapter 15 are represented by those branches which, abiding forever in the vine, bear fruit, more fruit, much fruit. These never perish!” William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, p. 296.
50 His “abiding” in us is not exactly the same as our “abiding” in Him. By abiding in Him, we draw life and strength, and thus we bear fruit. As He abides in us, He imparts His life, truth, and strength to us. Thus, Christ is manifested both to us and through us. He does not draw His strength from us, but imparts it to us. Our abiding is that of dependence; His abiding is the gracious manifestation of His presence and power in and through us.
51 In Luke 13:10-17, we read of our Lord healing the woman who had been bent over double for 18 years. Because she was healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue official was indignant—the law had been broken (by his reckoning). Jesus rebuked the official for not caring about this woman’s affliction, and for not rejoicing in her healing. The official was only concerned about the law; Jesus acted in love, and in so doing, the law was not broken, but fulfilled (cf. Matthew 5:17).
53 This is a point at which some dispensationalists need to be very careful. In their efforts to contrast “law” and “grace” (the old covenant and the new), they tend to portray the law as being evil, and opposed to grace, when the law was given out of God’s love to point men to the grace they desperately need as sinners, condemned by the law, and which they can obtain only in Christ.
54 “Up till this point the word joy has occurred in only one verse in this Gospel (3:29). But in the Upper Room it is used seven times.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 3, p. 521.
57 “We should remember that in the Old Testament we read that Abraham was the friend of God (Isa. 41:8) and that God did not hide from Abraham what he proposed to do (Gen. 18:17). Similarly, God spoke to Moses as to a friend (Exod. 33:11). The disciples had been admitted to a relationship like that. They were not slaves, but friends.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John, vol. 3, p. 525.