“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” -John 15:1-2
Jesus tells us here that, whether you bear fruit or you don’t bear fruit, either way, you’re gonna get cut. “Come again?” If you’re someone just sitting in church, hearing the Gospel but not responding, not growing, not developing the faith and showing no signs of spiritual life you’re going to be cut by the Lord. AND, if you’re someone who has responded in faith, is growing, developing, deepening in your love by the Spirit’s power, and showing the good fruit of good works, you’re going to be cut by the Lord. This is straight from Jesus’ mouth.
The Gardener, The Vine, and the vines
But why? Because God is a Gardener, the Great Vine-dresser attending to the health and growth of the Church which draws its life from the Son, the True Vine. To get where this is going, you have to understand the image of the vine. The image Jesus uses here is one drawn from the OT. Israel is often compared to a vine that gives or does not give the fruit of true obedience. Here, Jesus tells us that he is the True Vine, the one that Israel was always supposed to be. He will do all that Israel should have done and be all that Israel should have been.
Now, building on that, he compares as branches that have been grafted onto a good vine. As Calvin reminds us, Jesus is using this image to tell us “that the vital sap — that is, all life and strength — proceeds from himself alone. Hence it follows, that the nature of man is unfruitful and destitute of everything good; because no man has the nature of a vine, till he be implanted in him.” (Commentary on John 15:1) On our own, we can do some relatively (outwardly) good things, yes, but to work truly spiritual works, those that are pleasing to the Father, producing true fruit, we need to be dependently drawing on the grace of the Son. In other words, the goodness of the Messiah only flows to us as we’ve been made a part of his people, being united by faith with Christ.
Here’s the thing, when you’ve been around long enough, you start to see that there two kinds of branches appearing to be connected to the vine. There are some branches that bear fruit and some that apparently have only been outwardly grafted on. Some people have joined up with the Messiah outwardly, but never started to draw life from him. Instead, at best they’re harmlessly taking up space on the branch, or at worst, they’re impeding the growth of the other branches. Others have taken hold of Christ by faith, or rather been grasped by Christ, and they’ve begun to take on the character of the original vine and are producing real fruit.
Thing is, as a good gardener, God cuts both. The dead branches get cut to clear them away for the health of the whole. If it’s not growing and giving off fruit, it’s dead wood. The live vines he prunes so that they might give more fruit.
The Cutting Tool
Now, the interesting thing is that he uses the same tool to do it: adversity. It doesn’t say this explicitly in the text, but I think it’s a legitimate inference from the surrounding context. Jesus is preparing his disciples to deal with his absence. He talks to them about the comfort of the Holy Spirit, their need to remain in him, the opposition they’re going to face in life because of his name, and so forth. One of the main themes of the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17), is comfort in the face of adversity.
Adversity will often-times reveal the character of our faith; is it merely superficial, that of dead branches, or deep and true, one that draws life from the vine? How do we react when the bills start stacking up? Or marriage stresses? Or a difficult semester? Maybe a break-up? Divorce? Death? An unruly child? A church community divided against itself? Hostility from co-workers? Unrelenting health issues? I could go on for pages here, but you all know the adversity that life brings–the cuts.
And the cuts reveal the character. So, when adversity hits, do we get bitter, or cling harder? Do we shake our fist up at God for “failing” to give us what he never promised, or dig deeper into the gospel-blessings that he has provided for us in Christ? Do we feel robbed by God, or held by God? Does our faith deepen and grow, or die and grow cold? Do we strive for greater obedience and hope, or plunge ourselves into rebellious apathy? Will the cut lead to death, or deeper life? The same cut, the same adversity reveals the nature of the branch.
Believers need to know that Jesus never promises protection from the ordinary troubles of life, or the particular problems that attend with following him in the world. They need to understand that, so when the Gardener’s pruning tools go to work they accept it as the perfecting work of God in their life, instead of his careless abandonment. Again, either way, you’re gonna get cut–but for the person who has truly been in-grafted, they can know that the cuts come from the good hand of the master Vine-dresser whose aim is to cut away the dead parts of your life. We need those cuts so that the new, true life of Christ can flow more freely and result in even great fruits of righteousness and life. Trust the Gardener when the cut comes and remain in the Vine.
Soli Deo Gloria