John 15:1-17, Abiding in the Vine

[June 5, 2011] We come now to the center piece of chapters 13—17 of the Gospel according to John, the words of Jesus that interpret the coming cross and resurrection. “I am the true Vine,” He says, the last of the seven predicated “I am” (egō eimi) sayings in the gospel (see 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 11; 11:25 and 14:6). There are also seven signs in the gospel, and if this one would correlate to any of them, it would be the first, the changing of water into wine.

The Vine correlates to the Tree of Life in the middle of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9), access to which was cut off by the flaming sword of the cherubim (3:24), and which appears again in the Revelation, growing like a vine on both sides of the river of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2). This Tree corresponds to the tree of the Cross, on which was lifted the body of Christ out of which flows the life-giving stream of blood and water. The crushing of the grapes of the vine speaks of Jesus’ passion and death, which produces the wine of joy in resurrection. It is His death that opens the way to the Tree of Life.

In the cryptic way this gospel alludes to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Vine also evokes the wine of the Last Supper they were then sharing.

In the Old Testament Israel is also called a vine, as is the Wisdom of God. Jesus says, “I am the true Vine,” the fulfillment of the one and the embodiment of the Other. In terms of the cruciform structure of the Gospel according to John, the branches of the Vine correspond to the horizontal crossbeam that stretches from the woman at the well in Samaria to Mary at the table in Bethany (4:4—12:11).

The wedding of Cana invites us to connect the Vine and its wine to the fulfillment of the Bible’s nuptial imagery. By the cross and resurrection, the humanity of the divine Bridegroom marries the Bride of the Holy Spirit. The pre-Incarnate Son dwelt in the Spirit from eternity, but when the Word became flesh, His humanity also began to dwell in the Holy Spirit, and when He passed through death and resurrection, the death and resurrection of His human nature became part of that mutual indwelling. It took, however, His death to divinize His human nature in resurrection. His sacrificial death and this transformation of His human nature released Him so that He could become communicable to us through the Holy Spirit. The marriage of the Word and Wisdom of God took place on the cross by which the Holy Spirit coming to dwell in us makes us the Bride of the Word.

The Father’s House and the Many Abodes (John 14)

In chapter 14 of the gospel, Jesus used housing metaphors to speak of what was about to happen. He is the Father’s House, the Temple, and through His death and resurrection, by which He will release His eternal life, He prepares for us to become the many abodes of the Triune God. In His resurrection, Christ comes to us as the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit involves us in the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The idea is that we become the places (abodes), where this mutual indwelling takes place. This is possible because of the death that Jesus dies, a death that overcomes our judgment by boldly submitting to it out of love.

This is the preceding context of the words that follow in chapter 15. Jesus continues talking about His dwelling in us and us in Him, but changes the metaphor to that of the Vine. The Vine and its branches are an organic metaphor. The significance of this—besides that a vine and its branches are alive—is that an organism is one. Not only is each believer an abode, but they are organically related as branches of the same Vine. To make this clearer, we might bear in mind that a vine cannot be considered apart from its branches. To speak of a vine is to speak of its branches. While other trees reach upward into heaven, a vine grows horizontally, on the earth or on a trellis. In the resurrection, Jesus lives on the earth in His members and—speaking of His indwelling through the Holy Spirit—as His members. This transmutation of Jesus’ earthly continuation makes the connection of His members to one another entirely organic, that is, related to one another as the parts of an organism are.

We are related organically to one another, but not independently of Him. It is only through His indwelling that we are connected in this way. To love one another we need to abide in Him; and if we are abiding in Him, it means we are in a loving relationship to one another. This is how chapter 15 progresses from chapter 14.

The Expression of God in Us (15:1-2)

Jesus is the true Vine. The Father is the husbandman (or farmer). The eternal source of the Son is the Father and the Father’s object and purpose is the Son. The Son is the one focus and aim of the Father’s love and action. The Father gives all that He is, all the fullness and wealth of the divine nature and being, to the Son, who embodied it in His humanity and embodies it still in His divinized humanity (Colossians 2:9). This is the true Vine of the Father by which the Father is manifested and glorified.

Chapter 14 introduced the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of reality who realizes—makes real—the resurrected fullness of the Son in us. This realization in us makes us branches of the Vine. The Son multiplies Himself in us, which makes us branches of the one Vine. One might compare the Spirit to the growth and sap of the Vine. The purpose of the branches is to bear fruit, which are the expression and manifestation of the life and riches and fullness of the Vine, which is the fullness of the divine nature embodied in Christ’s humanity.

The Father prunes the branches—that is, He cuts away the excess and waste—that the branches may bear more fruit. This refers to the work of God’s providence in our lives. Our outward losses are not the Father’s pruning, but may be for the purpose of His pruning. The pruning is inward. When we suffer loss, we need to allow that loss to prune us that we may become more fruitful. In 12:25 Jesus says we must allow the dying of our soul that our soul may become vibrant with eternal life, the life of our spirit.

Abide in Me” (15:3-6)

The word which Jesus has spoken to us has opened our eyes to see and know Him, and thus be regenerated. This is the meaning of being “clean” (see 13:10-11). Judas, who heard the words of Jesus without receiving their revelatory power, was not “clean.”

When Jesus breathed into His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” He Himself came to dwell in them. “In that day you will know that you are in Me and I in you” (14:20). However, to be in is not the same as to abide in. Christ is in every believer and every believer is in Christ, but not every believer is abiding in Christ, or letting Christ make His home in His heart (Ephesians 3:17). Paul tells us in Ephesians 3:16-17 that this home-making takes place through faith when our spirit is strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit and we are rooted and grounded in love. For Paul, this does not take place apart from “all the saints” (verse 18).

  In other words, to “abide” means to be fully conscious of our union with Christ and in Him with one another. To abide is to be living not out of our soul alone, as if the soul were an independent or self-sufficient thing, but out of our spirit. When Jesus spoke of “My commandments” in 14:21, He was speaking of His resurrected Presence in us by the Holy Spirit. That Presence has its own insistence; it is “commanding.” It is the one who walks according to the spirit, who walks and is led by the Holy Spirit, who keeps His commandments. This is the one who loves the revealed Christ.

Without such an inward disposition and faith, we as branches are not abiding in Christ and therefore cannot bear fruit. The inner life of the Vine is not flowing through us, so the Vine is not able to propagate or even express itself through us. We may be able to do a great deal, but Jesus says it amounts to nothing, for we are doing it apart from Him.

There is not just the objective revelation of Christ going on in the Gospel according to John. The Holy Spirit dwelling in us is something subjective and organic. Christ’s life flows into us and through us. While objectively we would not want to identify much that we see with the holiness of His life, subjectively it is happening all the time, albeit more like a mist than a flow.

As we abide in Him, He abides in us. Thus He commands, “Abide in Me and I in you,” but when He speaks of not abiding, He only says, “unless you abide in Me,” “if one does not abide in Me.” His action is to come to us and be in us that we may be in Him. Our action is to abide in Him with the result that He abides in us. Objectively He is in us first. Subjectively, we abide in Him first. We do not make Him abide in us; He does this when by faith we abide in Him. We do not confuse ourselves with Him. We do not attempt to find Him within, where our soul can easily deceive us. Rather, we exercise our spirit to seek Him in His revelation: the revelation of Jesus Christ through His witness in the Scriptures. Thus Paul prays that we may be strengthened with power through His Spirit into the inner man that we may be full of strength to apprehend with all the saints the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ, that thus we may be filled unto all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).

If believers do not abide in Christ, they are “cast out as a branch” and are dried up; they are then gathered up and cast into the fire where they are burned. This is not speaking of our redemption but rather of our functioning. Practically we are cut off from the enjoyment of the riches of the life of the Vine, from the fellowship of the branches, from the expression of the Son with the Father, and from the divine purpose (see Witness Lee in his Life Studies). Of course we will dry up. What might surprise some believers is that we can be cast into the fire and burned. This does not refer to damnation but rather to the purging fires of God’s discipline. The “gathering up” takes place at the judgment seat of Christ, when we shall appear before Him. Then the fire shall try the work of each, of what sort it is, and the work of each will become manifest. Some will suffer loss, but they themselves will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:13-15; see Hebrews 6:7-8).

Bearing Much Fruit (15:7-8)

Jesus spoke of “bearing much fruit” in 14:5. In verse 8 He relates it to asking for “whatever you will.” If we would be His disciples, we need to bear much fruit and thus manifest His inner presence in our outer lives in a way that satisfies the real thirst of others and that propagates the life of Christ in them (see 2 Corinthians 4:12). This glorifies the Father, because His fullness comes more and more into the creation. This can happen if we abide in Christ and let His revelatory words (the Gospel revelation) abide in us. Then we can ask for what we will—which is to be fruitful—and it shall be done for us.

Asking for whatever we will cannot refer to the self-serving desires of our souls, that we may consume them on our pleasures. James refers to this as asking “evilly” (James 4:3). Jesus refers to fruit. Primarily fruit refers to the multiplication of Christ in others, whether this refers to their regeneration or their growth in Christ.

The Wine of Joy (15:9-11)

If we abide in Christ, we abide in the Father’s love of Christ, that is, we enjoy being the objects of that love ourselves; and we also abide in Christ’s love for us, which is the outcome of His love of the Father. To keep His commandments (the same as in 14:21) refers to His commanding presence in our spirit through the Holy Spirit. If we are thus led by the Spirit, we abide in His love, which means that we are in that place where we can enjoy His love for us just as He enjoys the love of the Father as He keeps the Father’s inner commandments. If we enjoy Christ’s love for us we are enjoying the Father’s love for Christ, for we are participating in Christ’s joy. The joy of Christ is the result of the Father’s love for Him and His abiding in that love. To enjoy Christ’s love for us enables us to enjoy His joy: “that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

For us, this joy is contemplative. It is the enjoyment of Christ. The fruit of the Vine produces the wine of joy. If we would have this wine, we must abide in the Vine.

To Love One Another (15:12-15)

When Jesus speaks of “My commandment” in the singular (see also 13:34), He identifies it as the command that we love one another. Our love for one another is a condition for abiding in Him and it also issues from abiding in Him. We cannot abide in Him unless we are organically related to those who share His life, that is, to all who have been regenerated by the Gospel (1 Peter 1:22-25). This organic relation means that we are to “love one another from a pure heart fervently.”

Love, of course, does not mean that we do for people what they want us to do. Nor does it mean that we simply meet their needs as they or we define them. Love means that we love others with the same purpose that Christ has for them. Acts of charity are important in themselves, of course, but the purpose of our love has to be the propagation of Christ in them through our words and deeds. We need to recall the reason for our existence and what is the meaning and end of creation, which is its glorification (or divinization). Acts of charity as such cannot achieve this, though they may help to make it possible (or hinder it, because of our lack of understanding). With good intentions, often our “love” creates dehumanizing institutions and technologies that undermine the personalism that is essential to the propagation of the Gospel.

To lay down one’s soul—this is literally what Jesus says—is to end the constructed soul that—not in our Lord’s case but in ours—insulates itself from God. The soul needs to be opened up to reality, which is personal (in the Trinitarian sense), and for this it has to die to the world and its powers, which requires that it die to the constructed identifications that bind us to the world.

Loving our Lord Jesus, including His inner commanding Presence, makes us His friends. No longer are we His slaves (though we continue to be such, because He continues to be our Master), but we enter into the fellowship of the Trinity which is the relation of Person to Person. Friendship is based on mutual esteem. In verse 15, to befriend is to share what one has with the other. When Christ shares whatever He has received from the Father with us, we are His friends. We ought to befriend one another and share whatever we have received. To give up our soul for one another is more, however, than friendship.

To love does not always require giving up one’s life, but love can motivate one to do so. A Christian, however, does not give away his or her life. This kind of submission to the self-serving needs of others is not Christian love. Jesus offered up His life to God when He did it for us (Ephesians 5:2). The love that Jesus requires of us is meaningful in relation to God. For one thing, it is not an impersonal or condescending caring or self-righteous “giving” of oneself; rather it is the kind of service that restores the “face-to-face” relation of personhood and imbues it with something spiritual.

Fruit that Remains (15:16-17)

Of course those who believe did not choose Jesus. Rather He chose them. To believe requires that we inwardly perceive who Jesus is. Our soul, however, in its social and psychological insularity, is blind to what is spiritual, despite all the efforts of Christian Science, New Thought and New Age practitioners. They do not recognize the higher powers of the world (the functions of the gestalt of the collective soul) for what they are, nor the knack of the soul for denial and self-deception. (I would distinguish this from the efforts of Krishnamurti and some serious Buddhists, who at least really do distinguish between soul and spirit).

In any case, to know Christ requires the action of the Holy Spirit on the testifying word that enters the soul. This action cannot be produced by the soul. It requires something gratuitous and transcendent, outside the soul, to awaken the spirit, as if it were the word itself, but it is more—that to which the word refers, that to which it testifies. It is the Personal presence of a spiritual reality that addresses us through the word, not the word as a referential symbol. The wall of the soul needs to be broken through by the force of this reality—a “force” which is that of a Person who imposes His Presence on us and, by calling us, brings us into a personal relation to Himself.

The initiative, then, cannot come from us. It comes from Christ, who chooses us, and, by calling us, creates our relationship to us. This One has “set” us, as if grafting us onto Himself, so that our inner life—of our spirit, not (directly) our soul—now draws its life and sustenance from Him.

He has thus set us in Himself that we might “go forth and bear fruit,” fruit that remains. This refers to bearing spiritual offspring, producing new believers. The fruit are not our virtues as such but rather people, new abodes of the Triune God. These are, or ought to be, the fruit that remains. Their remaining refers to their continuing in the church, that is, in the fellowship of the believers.

“That whatever you ask the Father in My name, He may give you.” What we ask for is not indeterminate, but refers to the fruit that we ought to bear. What we ought to be asking for and seeking is the multiplication of Christ in others. To ask the Father in the name of Christ means that it is Christ in us who asks this and we ask with Him. The ground or basis of our petition is Christ’s own, that of His divine relationship to the Father, and the relationship of His faithful humanity in relation to God, and that of His relation to us established by the His intercessory life, sacrificial death and resurrection. In other words, the basis of our own intercession for others is Christ’s election by the Father and Christ’s electing of us in the Father’s name.

 “These things I command you that you may love one another.” We are to bear the fruit of new believers, fruit that remain. The others whom we are to love are inclusive of those whom Christ has chosen, whom we are to bear as fruit, and the fruit that we have borne, that remain. The metaphor has shifted: the fruit that we bear are also new branches that Christ grafts onto Himself as the Vine. In relation to us they are fruit; in relation to Christ they are branches that bear more fruit. In either case, whether we are someone’s fruit or are branches, we are organically related to the Vine. As such Christ commands us to love one another. This love that issues from Christ within us is the outward basis of our common life, not any organization as such (albeit, living things also need a certain measure of organization).

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