Transition and change came to our family in 1999. While Nancy and I had a wonderful ministry and community in Boston, we sensed that for our own spiritual growth and for our own long-term fruitfulness as a couple, we should uproot ourselves. The very next morning after our wedding, we packed up our Honda Civic with everything we owned, and moved to California.
In those first few months of adjusting to marriage, we also adjusted to a new job, new boss and work teams, new church, new weather, and new ways of doing things. We had no friends, no community, no familiar church worship, and no weekly small group fellowship.
It was painful and exhausting. But we dug in, trusting that God had brought us these changes for our growth, and recognizing that to grow, new roots were needed. Our vision for long-term fruitfulness couldn’t come without those roots.
In John 15, we see a similar vision for long-term fruitfulness. Jesus was preparing the disciples for a major transition. He had just washed their feet, led them through the Last Supper, and now was walking with them to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Perhaps they were walking past a Jerusalem vineyard. Jesus pointed to the vines, which were just beginning a season of growth. If we saw those vines, we would have seen signs that a vinegrower had been at work: vines that were cut, pruned, cleaned.
Then Jesus said to them:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (vv. 1–2)
Jesus is the true vine, and God is the vinegrower, the owner. The vineyard belongs to God. He is in charge of it and cares about the maximum return—receiving as much fruit as possible.
Then in verse 5 Jesus describes the disciples, and us: “You are the branches.”
I love this role clarity because I am sometimes tempted to think I’m the vineyard owner—that it’s my vineyard, my land, my job, my small group, my campus, my time, my resources—that everything is mine, and that I’m in control.
But Jesus states our role clearly: we are the branches. Branches don’t tell the vinegrower what to do, or how to do his job. A good branch simply trusts in the vinegrower—trusts that he knows what’s best, as he works in the vineyard. Indeed, God the vinegrower is actively doing his job. In the first eight verses, describing God’s work, we see the verbs “removes,” “prunes,” “gathered,” “thrown,” and “burned.”
In contrast, when we look at the verbs that relate to the disciples’ work, we only see one verb—ABIDE—repeated 11 times. In fact, Jesus says the only thing we can do is “abide” because “apart from me [apart from the vine] you can do nothing” (v. 5).
Jesus challenges those of us who like our independence, who like being in control. What will help us become better branches is not to be in control but to renounce control: to trust the vinegrower to do his work.
What might it look like to renounce control and trust the vinegrower?
To increase our trust in the vinegrower, we need to understand the two primary things he cares about for the branches, his purpose for the branches: abounding and abiding.
The vinegrower wants us to ABOUND.
Verses 2–8 say:
He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Notice that “bearing fruit” is repeated six times in these seven verses. Our vinegrower God has a sole focus on wanting to see fruit—not just a little fruit, but much fruit, an abundance of fruit.
In John 15, Jesus is painting a picture of fruitfulness in stark contrast to Old Testament Israel and its fruitlessness. Jesus has a vision of this new community of disciples abounding—“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” As branches, the disciples either abound by bearing much fruit, or they don’t bear fruit and are thrown away and burned.
Some of us need this reminder to abound. We are great at abiding, at “being with Jesus all day.” Our temptation might be to forget about abounding, to go years without seeing much fruit from our lives—no change or growth in our character, no conversations with unbelieving friends or family members about faith, no taking risks in our discipleship—and not care. But Jesus says to abound, to bear much fruit.
At InterVarsity, we long to see this abounding on university campuses. We want to see more fruit. We want to see more lives transformed, more students and faculty following Jesus. We want to devote ourselves to this work, taking to heart Paul’s challenge in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” And we celebrate the record fruit that God has given on campus, such as the 4,576 conversions last year (130 percent more than 10 years ago).
But let me address an important question about abounding. Is it just about numbers? What exactly is this “fruit” that Jesus refers to? Some scholars suggest that Jesus is talking about fruit that comes from bearing witness—conversions, the fruit of evangelism. Other scholars interpret “fruit” to mean the ethical virtues or the character of the Christian life: the type of person we are becoming.
I agree with Rodney Whitacre in his commentary on John in the IVP New Testament Commentary Series that it seems to be both. He writes, “Fruit symbolizes that which is at the heart of both Christian witness and ethics—union with God. It is impossible to be united to God and remain ignorant of him and not manifest his own characteristic love.” We also see this in John 13 and 14—embodying and manifesting God’s love is the evidence that one is a disciple.
As a young member of InterVarsity’s staff, I wrestled with an important decision that would maximize fruit. I wrote to former president Steve Hayner about my struggle. I’ll never forget what he wrote back: “Don’t just consider the fruit that God is able to manifest through you, but also the fruit God is able to manifest in you (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control).” Similarly, Dallas Willard writes: “(In ministry) it is possible to become so obsessed with doing what Jesus says that you fail to become the kind of person Jesus wants.”
One last but important aspect of abounding is one we like to skip over in this passage—the pruning. If you’re abounding, it means more pruning not less pruning! Verse 2 says: “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit”!
So for those of you through whom God has been doing powerful work, maybe in your office or family, Jesus is saying, “Now let me prune you some more.” For those of us who have grown a deeper love and compassion for others, Jesus is saying, “Now let me prune you some more.” Pruning is painful and exhausting. We’ve cried out, “Why me, Lord?” or “Why now, Lord?”
During the cross-country move to California that Nancy and I made, in all the excitement of change and the promise of abounding, I experienced some of the most painful times in my relationship with my parents. Mom and Dad wouldn’t talk to me or take my calls.
I remember telling Nancy, “I can’t cry. I have no tears. I wonder if my heart is becoming hardened not just toward them but to others.” Two years later, Mom was diagnosed with stage four cancer and given less than one year to live. When she and I reconciled before she passed away, when she embraced me and said, “I’m so sorry, Tom,” something broke inside of me. My heart softened. Tears came flooding down. And to this day, I can’t stop the tears. My girls can’t take me to a movie without me crying, and they’re usually Disney animation movies!
Pruning was painful and exhausting, but God was doing something in me, bringing forth more capacity to love than I had before, bringing more fruit into my life. My task through it all was to trust God the vinegrower.
As we experience pruning and long to abound in the years to come, our task is to trust God the vinegrower and his leading.
The vinegrower also wants us to ABIDE.
In the NIV, the word for abiding is “remaining,” to remain in him. Today, we might use the phrase “having deep roots in him.”
Jesus shares that it’s impossible to abound without abiding. It’s impossible for me to produce any fruit apart from being deeply rooted in him. Paul Metzger writes in IVP’s The Gospel of John commentary, “Apart from the Father’s pruning and Jesus’ abiding presence in and through his word, I can do nothing that really matters for God. I am nothing apart from Jesus.”
At InterVarsity we are great at abounding. But it’s possible for people who minister and serve to solely focus on abounding and burn out, to develop a toxic culture where there is no connection to Christ. In the excitement of abounding, it’s possible to get caught up in what we’re doing for Jesus rather than being in Jesus.
We need Jesus the vine. The external environment around us (a scorching sun, polluted water, weeds, insects, disease) can stunt growth if we aren’t connected to Jesus the vine. Jesus says to abide, to maintain deep roots in him.
Abiding requires intentionality. It requires not simply believing in Christ, but being in union with him, having Jesus’ words constantly at hand, sharing his thoughts, emotions, and mind. It requires being caught up into Jesus’ focus on doing his Father’s will. It requires praying for his purposes rather than for our own selfish purposes. Are we caught up into Jesus’ focus and praying for his purposes?
Of course, in today’s culture, abiding in Christ alone isn’t easy. We are tempted every day to be connected to multiple things that we think will give us life rather than being solely connected to the true vine. We hedge our bets. We build a lot of other vines around us (social vines, family vines, money vines), but ultimately that doesn’t bear fruit.
Abiding fully in the vine is saying, “I surrender everything to you; I am going to depend on only you, nothing else.” In California, Nancy and I surrendered all our vines, having nothing else to connect to. We didn’t want to hedge anymore, and we cried out, “We abide only in you, Jesus.”
One practical area where I’ve been challenged is my temptation to abide more in technology vines than the true vine. I remain connected to my devices instead of remaining connected to Jesus. I’m on my phone 24/7, on my phone when I go to bed and when I wake. (I’m in union with an iPhone instead of Christ!) In Andy Crouch’s book The Tech-Wise Family, he suggests taking a Sabbath from our devices: one hour per day, one day per week, one week per year. What would it look like to commit to disconnecting in the hour before sleep and the hour after waking?
Another practical area where I’m challenged is to intentionally invest in spiritual disciplines—to build deeper roots in Christ through Scripture study, theological study, prayer and time with God, and healthy community and relationships.
ABIDING is also critical in our external context today, in our nation. Americans are desperately in need of connecting with the true vine and being rooted in Christ. We see neither witness to Christ nor the character of Christ in many of our national leaders. The church has also been complicit, perhaps reflecting our shallow roots. There is too much racial hatred and too many racist ideologies, too much violence and pain. We saw this clearly in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August.
We need to ABIDE in the midst of chaos—in the midst of diverse political perspectives and words from the media—to abide in the one true vine, in his Word. From God’s Word, we believe that every person is precious and made in the image of God. Any ideology based on the superiority of one race or the inferiority of another rejects the true vine. Racism and White supremacy are incompatible with God’s will, and they are sinful.
At the same time, we also believe that Christ died for all of humanity—including those who promote racial hatred—so that they and we could be in union with God. We are all sinners and invited to abide in Christ, confess our sins, and receive his pruning, and we are called to something challenging here in verses 9–14 and 17—to love:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
To ABIDE is to “love one another.” Love is repeated nine times in these verses. Jesus commands the disciples to love those who are their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Somehow, abiding in Christ’s love is caught up with loving others—they go hand in hand.
ABIDING means loving brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, those who have hurt us, or those who simply annoy us. It means loving our coworkers. What might your workplace look like if you displayed this love? When Nancy and I moved, my new California job was at Hewlett Packard, and I asked myself this question: what would my coworkers love the most? I began giving away dozens of donuts every week, then candy, then raffled off movie tickets. For some reason, I had the most popular desk on my floor!
I want to invite you into four practices that will help us both ABOUND and ABIDE.
1. Attentiveness: practice being attentive to God, your relationships, and yourself.
Last summer almost the entire nation stopped to be attentive to the total eclipse of the sun. What an amazing picture of beauty and power moving across the sky for those moments. Why don’t we pause to be attentive to the everyday miracles that surround us all the time?
What if we took a few moments every day to be attentive? Leave our to-do list, our next errand, our multitasking behind, and instead be fully attentive to our brother or sister. Pause and be attentive to what God may be speaking, to an issue that God may be pointing out to us (whether an issue in our own character or in our ministry).
I’ve found Leighton Ford’s book The Attentive Life very helpful. One of the simple practices Leighton recommends is a form of Examen—pausing before you sleep at night and asking yourself two basic questions: “When did I sense God most today, and when did I miss him? When was I most fulfilled, and when was I most drained?” (You could also ask, When did my actions reflect/not reflect being connected to the vine?)
2. Prayer rhythms: practice regular rhythms of prayer as an expression of dependency on God for fruit.
That rhythm might be a daily early morning prayer, weekly prayer with friends, or a monthly prayer retreat.
I first learned prayer rhythms as an InterVarsity student on campus through daily noon prayer meetings with my InterVarsity chapter at the top of Memorial Church. It helped keep me connected to Jesus in the midst of classes and pressures. It helped our chapter grow in depth and breadth.
One of the most helpful prayer rhythms for me in recent years has been setting aside an annual three-day weekend in solitude, far from distraction, in Lake Norman, North Carolina, to pray: to hear from the Lord and to intercede, specifically focused on the coming year. What might be a prayer rhythm for you in this coming year?
3. Abide and abound by practicing your gifts.
God has given you specific gifts, and every gift is needed in the body of Christ: gifts of hospitality or prophecy, administration or accounting, counseling or coding, giving financially or giving compliments, organizing files or organizing game nights. You may have networking gifts, shepherding gifts, or preaching and teaching gifts. All of these gifts build the community of Christ. What gifts will you practice this year to help your community abound and abide?
4. Practice keeping the Father’s commandments, even when discouragements come.
In John 15:18–25, Jesus speaks of the persecution and hatred his followers will face as they obey him. In the midst of being pruned, being persecuted, it will be tempting to give up, to become careless about our tongue and words, to believe in lies about our self-worth. It’s most difficult to lean into obedience when we’re tired and discouraged. Let’s commit to lean into obedience together: “Though trials may come, though I’m persecuted, I will choose to obey God’s Word.”
When we keep the Father’s commandments, when we lean into obedience amidst struggle, an interesting benefit happens to us as branches—we share in Jesus’ joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (v. 11). As Jesus’ words abide in the disciples through their obedience, they share in Jesus’ union with the Father, which is characterized not only by obedience, but also by joy. When we obey, we are swept up into this beautiful and intimate union, which brings deepest joy into our lives.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”
Brothers and sisters, as we engage in a new year of change and challenge, may we abide in Jesus, the true vine, and may we trust in God, the vinegrower.