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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

A Fruitful Life


“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

John 15:1-2

In recent weeks, I have been doing a series of messages on what are known among Christians as the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus. They are all found in the record of John’s Gospel and, today, we are looking at the final one.

In these sayings of Jesus, he likens himself to things from everyday life. The character of Jesus is expressed in picture form, to help our understanding of who he is. Actually, in John 15, there is something else in this verbal picture painted by our Lord. If we are true followers of ‘the true vine’ then we are included in its detail. In verse 5, Jesus says, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’

So, what is a vine and why does Jesus liken himself to it? Well, it is the plant that grapes grow on. Like many other plants, the grapevine has a root system, through which the plant receives water and nutrients from the soil. The grapevine has many branches that extend over a wide area, all nourished by this root. In the correct conditions an abundant harvest will be had. However, if a branch is broken off, or not actually connected to the root, then no fruit will be seen on that branch, and it will quickly die. Jesus is telling his followers that he is like the vine. He supplies those things that are vital to the feeding and maintaining of their spiritual lives. Because of this, they can produce fruit.

The grapevine is significant in Bible terms. If you count all the references to this plant, so ‘vine’ and ‘vineyard’, and also to its fruit, such as ‘grape’ and ‘wine’, which we produce from grapes, then it has more mentions than any other plant in the Bible.

One of my favourite pictures in the Bible, of the abundance of our God, is found in Numbers 13:23. The people of Israel are standing on the border of the land that God has promised to them. Their leader, called Moses, has organised some men to go and scout out the land. One of the things he wanted to know was what the ‘fruit of the land’ was like. When the men return they come with ‘a single cluster of grapes’, which was so large that, ‘two of them carried it on a pole between them.’

I often get asked for grapes. Usually at around 9.30pm. One of my daughters will ask, ‘Dad, do we have any grapes for me to take to school tomorrow?’ This translates as, ‘Dad, we don’t have any grapes, will you go to Lidl and get some, please?’ So, I am found walking down to the supermarket in the late evening, spying out grapes in the promised land of aisle one. But I have never returned empty handed and said, ‘You are going to have to come back with me. There is no way that I can carry one of those punnets on my own!’ It is really hard for us to imagine the size of that cluster mentioned in this Old Testament record.

In the Old Testament, God had a special relationship with the nation of Israel. In that part of the Bible he often likens that particular people to a vineyard; his vineyard. The people of Israel gradually rejected God, and refused to obey his commands. God once spoke to them through a prophet called Jeremiah. He said, ‘I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?’ (Jeremiah 2:21)

When Jesus came to this earth, he came first of all to Israel. He was born in that country. Jesus was an Israelite. He came to tell them that the Old Testament, or covenant, that they had with God, was coming to an end. God was finally, fully, revealing a New Covenant. He was to have a relationship with people, not based on where they were born, but whether they were ‘born again’ (John 3:3). Jesus told this news to the Israelites.

One such time was in the form of the parable that we read this morning from Matthew 21:33-46, where Jesus uses the illustration of a vineyard. He likens the Israelites to tenant farmers. They should have produced fruit for the vineyard’s owner, God himself. But they hadn’t. Jesus told them, ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit’ (Matthew 21:43).

Some parts of God’s word can be trickier to understand than others. Fellow Christians may come to different conclusions on certain aspects of the Bible’s teaching. That isn’t necessarily unhealthy. In fact, within flourishing Churches, there will be a healthy level of liberty in what we may call ‘grey areas’.

However, here, Jesus is stating things that are certain. He is dealing with the human condition and the serious matter of relationship with God. There is no grey area. It is black or it is white. It is on or it is off. It is yes or it is no. Jesus tells us, in the chapters that surround these verses, that in order to be in a loving, united relationship with God the Father, who he likens to a heavenly ‘gardener’ here, then we must be united to Jesus himself. Jesus is the one true and life giving vine.

Following the death and rising again of Jesus, the New Testament Church was born. One of its leaders, the apostle Paul, wrote several letters to Christian Churches in various places within the Roman Empire. These letters are recorded in our Bibles. When he wrote to the group of Christians that met together in the city of Rome, he used the word, ‘flesh’. This is in Romans 7:4-6. The bible often uses this word, ‘flesh’, to refer to the sinful state of human beings. It is the position that we find ourselves in if we have not put our trust in Jesus. The ‘flesh’ is like a power, or unstoppably powerful influence over our lives. Paul was reminding the Roman believers of what he, and they, were like before they came to faith. He says, ‘…we were in the realm of the flesh’. He tells them of the sad consequence of this position - ‘we bore fruit for death.’

But, now, they were different. Paul says that they, ‘belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead’, so Jesus. This had come about by another, greater, power (Romans 5:20). Paul says, ‘we serve in the new way of the Spirit’, referring to the influence of God’s Spirit, that had transformed the lives of these Christians. And there was a happy consequence to this new position. They had been transformed by God himself. He did it for a reason. Paul says, ‘in order that we might bear fruit for God.’

Fruit for God’. This is what Jesus is dealing with in today’s chapter. And there is a stark contrast placed before us by him. If we are not connected to him then we cannot produce ‘fruit for God’. If we are connected to him then we absolutely will. It is yes or it is no. Jesus says, in verse 4, ‘…No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.’ In verse 5, he continues with, ‘If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.’

All too often, people hear of the saving, good news which is found in the Bible, and make a huge mistake. They want to enjoy this prospect of renewed relationship with God. They think that they must turn their lives around first, in order to be accepted by God. I was like that once. I thought that I had to produce fruit in my life in order to come to Jesus. The words of Jesus here, put paid to that misconception. Separate from Jesus, we will remain fruitless. We must be joined to him first, by simply trusting that he has the power to save us from all of our sin and all of our fruitless failure.

I have already mentioned that this was the last ‘I am’ statement spoken by our Lord Jesus. In a short while, he would be put to death on the cross. Jesus knew the tremendous ordeal that was in front of him, but his concern was for others. He was speaking to his eleven, remaining, disciples. In the context of Jesus’ words here, it is really significant that Judas has already left. Jesus says, in verses 1 and 2, ‘‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.’ Judas was now cut off from that group of intimate followers of Jesus. Judas was fruitless. He had not been able to overcome his love of money and, when rebuked by Jesus, rather than humbling himself before his friend, he had turned against him and embarked on the path to betrayal, and the road to spiritual ruin (John 12:1-8).

It is so sad when a person fully, and finally, falls away from following Jesus. We should be grieved, especially in the light of the solemn teaching of Hebrews 6:4-6. But there is also reason to thank the Lord when he reshapes his garden. He loves it, and therefore is not indifferent to the way that it looks or the shape that it takes. I think this is so significant now, at this present time. Many Churches have been re-shaped by this pandemic. Our own lives of fellowship have been dramatically altered. We have experienced grief. But we have reason to be thankful also. Perhaps this new shape will bring new fruit. And it is all about the fruit.

Another letter of the apostle Paul is that written to the fellowship within the city of Philippi. In Philippians 1:3-11, Paul tells the Church that he longed for them ‘with the affection of Christ Jesus.’ He was praying for them constantly, and he told them, ‘…this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.’

Paul desired fruit to be visible in God’s people, to God’s glory. He wanted to see this ‘fruit of righteousness’, or rightness. The NLT calls it, ‘the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ.’ How would this happen? Paul said that it ‘comes through Jesus Christ. It is the same process that Jesus is referring to here in John 15. Fruit seen in the Lord’s people grows only because of the vital supply that Christ gives to them.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he again tells the believers about the way that he, and a fellow Christian called Timothy, were praying for the Church. ‘We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…’ (Colossians 1:9-11).

Here, Paul is giving us more clues to what these fruits are. ‘Growing in the knowledge of God’ is a fruit of being united to the true vine, Jesus Christ. ‘Being strengthened with all power’, in the difficult circumstances that following Jesus brings, is a fruit. Endurance and patience, in those times, are also fruits.

In this final conversation that Jesus has with his disciples, he tells that that God is going to send his Spirit to convey the truth of Christ continually to the Lord’s people. We find this in John 15:26, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me.’ When Paul wrote to the Galatian Church he mentions this Spirit, and links him to the fruit growing in the lives of the Church. He says, ‘…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23).

How is this going to happen in my life, we may wonder? I’m so prone to waywardness. One day, I’m going in one direction then, the next day, I’m moving somewhere else. The answer is pruning. When Jesus tells us that his ‘Father is the gardener’, he goes on to say, in John 15:2, that, ‘every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.’

I’ve practiced pruning in my garden. Trimming healthy, fruitful branches, seems wrong, but it is essential. If I don’t do it, then the tree will eventually grow into a size and shape that no longer pleases me. If I trim those healthy branches then I encourage new growth. Effectively, by pruning, I am training, or disciplining, the tree to grow in the way that I want. The Lord does this to his people. When our lives take a direction that, ultimately, isn’t for our good, and doesn’t please him, he lovingly prunes.

The letter to the Hebrews speaks about such discipline. This letter was written to believers who were experiencing really testing times. Hebrews 12:11 says this, ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’

Last year my neighbour kindly gave me some tiny tomato plants. He knows a lot more than I do about gardening. He told me to prune the plants. ‘When they start to bush out, just pull off all the growing tips’, he said. I hated it. It didn’t seem right to stunt the growth. But he had told me the reason for doing this. ‘Rather than putting its energy into growing in all available directions, pruning will teach the plant that it needs to concentrate on producing fruit’, he said. So, I did. And the result? I had week after week of fresh tomatoes during the summer and, once autumn arrived, I made some tomato chutney from the remaining fruit. Pruning produced that bountiful harvest.

Proverbs 11:30 says this, ‘The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.’ This is never truer that when the Lord’s people take the message about Jesus, ‘the true vine’ out into a fallen world, that others might hear it and be saved. As a group of believers, I believe that we have this vision here. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we saw fruit like the single cluster of grapes mentioned in Numbers 13; an abundant harvest of men, and women, and children, responding to the gospel call in future days?

Well, that record in the book of Numbers contains promise, and it also contains warning. From that large body of Israelites, only two men of adult age made it to the Promised Land. Those men were Caleb and Joshua. All the others were too terrified of the opposition that they would face in trying to claim that land as their own. That opposition was more prominent in their consciousness than the prospect of abundant harvest. They lacked the faith, to look beyond the opposition, to a God who had promised them fruitfulness if they obeyed him. In Numbers 14:8, we have the promise that Caleb and Joshua spoke to the Israelites. They said, ‘If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us…

Do we find the opposition to the gospel message scary? You may find it helpful to know that I do. But I’m thankful to the Lord for ‘his very great and precious promises’, which are found throughout his word. They act like fertiliser to the weak Christian’s soul. The apostle Peter tells us, ‘that through them you may participate in the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).

So, we can do it. Not in our own strength and wisdom. That is doomed to failure. But, as faithful Caleb and Joshua said, ‘If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us…

So, one question remains. Is the Lord pleased with us? He is, as we remain in Christ Jesus. Jesus said this, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.’


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