By Rick Ezell
Vineyards during Jesus’ time were common and have always been central to Israel’s agriculture and economy. In fact the grapevine was the emblem of Israel, much like the bald eagle is for America. Grapes appeared on coins during the intertestamental period between Malachi and Matthew. At the time of Jesus, a golden vine hung over the entrance of the Jewish temple. So when Jesus said, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), he was employing an image that was very familiar to his followers.
The vine image seems somewhat remote for us today in the midst of life’s demands and responsibilities. It seems out of place and out of touch. Yet this metaphor has tremendous meaning for Christians. When Jesus spoke of himself as the true vine, he communicated that he is our strength, the source of spiritual nourishment, and the provider of our every spiritual need. When we come to faith in Christ, we do not simply adopt a new religion, we come to the living Christ who has redeemed us by his own sacrifice and now indwells us with his satisfying life. We come to him who alone is our sufficiency.
The relationship indicates union.
Jesus’ followers have entered into a relationship with him in much the same way the branch is connected with the vine. As a branch is connected to the vine, believers are attached to Jesus. We have union with Christ, like a man married to a woman. A new relationship has begun.
The responsibility demands communion.
Not only are we in union with Christ, we are in communion with Christ. Our union with Christ depends totally on him; but our communion with him depends totally on us, as we faithfully maintain the relationship.
Again think of a marriage relationship. A wedding ceremony creates the union of husband and wife; but it takes daily love and devotion to maintain the communion. Many a marriage has ended because one or both of the partners refused to perform the daily and necessary activities to keep the relationship healthy and whole. Union does not guarantee communion—either in marriage or with Jesus.
The key word in Jesus’ teaching is remain, as when he said, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4). The word commonly implies “to abide, to continue in, to dwell in, to stay, to endure.” It means to keep in fellowship with Christ so that his life can work in and through us to produce his character and his nature. It’s similar in usage to the many times Paul speaks of being “in Christ.”
In practical terms, what does it mean to remain in Christ? First, remaining in Christ implies a continual sense of needing him. As a person needs air to breathe, so a believer needs this relationship with Christ to survive spiritually. Christ has become for us the true bread and the true drink, so that we are satisfied only in Christ.
Second, remaining in Christ implies a continuing perception of the all sufficiency and wonder of Christ. Believers, regardless of their maturity, are conscious that Jesus Christ is all sufficient in all things.
Third, remaining in Christ implies a dependency and trust in him both for salvation and our daily walk. In relationship with Christ we are not codependent; we are totally dependent on Christ. Jesus is not our copilot; he is the very essence of our lives. We can’t imagine living life without this relationship. We would be lost without him, clinging to him as a helpless drowning victim clings to a life raft.
As we remain in Christ we have the confident assurance that he, in turn, remains in us. This remaining is mutual rather than singular.
The result evidences fruit bearing.
The evidence of true salvation in Christ and communion with Christ is fruit bearing. The fruit of apple trees are apples, of peach trees are peaches, of grape vines are grapes. In Bruce Wilkinson’s book Secrets of the Vine, he suggested that there are two kinds of fruit that believers bear:
We bear inner fruit when we allow God to nurture the Christlike qualities found in Galatians 5:22, 23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” This character transformation is the desire for personal holiness, a longing to have the imprint of our Lord’s holy life radiating through us. We cannot manufacture or produce these attributes on our own: peace in the midst of trouble; joy while facing adversity; love toward those who have wronged us; forbearance while enduring trials; kindness without expecting a return; goodness in terms of purity of life; faithfulness in going after God; gentleness in the exercise of our strengths; and self-control in the disciplines of life.
And we demonstrate outward fruit when we allow God to work through us in tangible ways that bring him glory. This certainly involves helping someone come to faith in Christ and helping people grow in Christ. Outward fruit means joy will be demonstrated, even in the midst of troubles and difficulties. We will love one another. We will be obedient to fulfill his commands and follow him faithfully.
We need to look for real fruit as evidence of a changed life. The fruit of true conversion causes us to rejoice in the saving grace of God. When we reject the old life, grieve over our sin, turn from our former ways, follow Jesus, exercise kindness and gentleness toward others, and hunger for holiness, then we know that we are submitting to God’s Spirit.
The role of the gardener necessitates pruning.
The gardener is charged with caring for the vines. This is the Father’s role. God prunes the branches so they will produce more fruit. Most believers want to produce more fruit, but they don’t want to experience the pruning process.
The gardener prunes the branches in two ways. First, he cuts away dead wood that can breed disease and insects. Second, he cuts away living tissue so that the life of the vine will not be so dissipated nor the quality of the crop be jeopardized. In fact the gardener will even cut away whole bunches of grapes so that the rest of the crop will be of higher quality. God wants both quantity and quality.
Warren Wiersbe wrote, “The greatest judgment God could bring to a believer would be to let him alone, let him have his own way. Because God loves us, he ‘prunes’ us and encourages us to bear more fruit for his glory. If the branches could speak, they would confess that the pruning process hurts; but they would also rejoice that they will be able to produce more and better fruit.”
Our heavenly Father is never nearer to us than when he is pruning us. Pruning hurts, but it also helps. We many not enjoy it, but we need it. God has plans for us, and his actions are intended to move us toward the place he wants us to be. Sometimes he disturbs our slumber so he can shock us with growth.
We can be fruitful but we must come to Jesus, not run away from him. God’s pruning is always intended to be redemptive and restorative. He is more interested in propelling us toward fruitfulness than he is in punishing us.
The reality of the vine-branch relationship proves our discipleship.
Being in union with Christ, remaining in Christ, being pruned by Christ, and bearing fruit for Christ are all signs, evidences, proofs, if you will, that one is a Christ follower. Such a life lived in relationship with Christ becomes a distinguishing mark of genuine Christianity—of being branches remaining in close relationship to the life source of the vine.
Who would you be if you were connected to the life source? if you lived in communion with the Father? if you remained in close relationship with God? if you bore fruit as one drawing his nourishment each day from Jesus? if you accepted God’s pruning, knowing that he knows best and is working to make you more productive in life? You would be a healthy, Spirit-led Christian, bringing glory to God—the master gardener.
Rick Ezell is a pastor and author living in Greenville, South Carolina.