We have a pecan tree in our front yard that has a habit of shedding…fruit, leaves, seeds…and if that was not enough, it sheds it share of branches. It happens with some regularity that I am dragging a branch 5 to 20 feet long around to the side of the house to be chopped up and put in the trash. Yet, what do you think would happen if I took one of these branches out into the yard and planted it in the ground and watered it…would come back to life? No, we understand that this is not how it works, because branches get nutrients that they need to live from the tree. Branches cannot live or grow without the tree. If the branch comes from a fruit tree, there will never be fruit on the branch if it is separated from the tree. I have to wonder if this is what prompts Jesus to break into this discussion concerning the vine and the branches with his disciples on their last night together. In the time of Jesus, a great golden vine hung over the entrance to the Jerusalem temple. Jesus and the disciples would have likely walked by it on their way to the upper room, and it would have been fresh in the minds of all who were present…and thus, it would provide a fitting illustration as to their spiritual reality. It is also interesting to note that the grapevine symbol was also found in coins, Temple décor, burial places, and art of the period. These examples demonstrate the cultural presence of the vine symbolism for Israel before, during, and after the time of Christ. The key for Jesus is that He wants His disciples to understand just how important it is that they stay connected to Him and to one another.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1, NIV). This is the seventh and final of the great “I AM” statements that Jesus makes in John’s gospel. Since the cultivation of vineyards was important to the life and economy of Israel, when Jesus starts using this imagery, it is not something new, but is familiar to every Jew. There are different vines found in the Word of God. One is old -- the past vine was the nation of Israel. In an act of grace, God transplanted Israel into Canaan and gave the nation every possible benefit. God asks, “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4) If ever a nation had everything it needed in order to succeed, it was Israel. But, the vine produced “wild” grapes. Instead of practicing justice, it practiced oppression…instead of producing righteousness, it produced unrighteousness. God chastised Israel, but even that was not enough, for when the Son of the Master Gardener came into the vineyard, the tenants killed Him (Matthew 21:33-46).
The other vine is new – it is Jesus Himself. He is the true or “original” vine. In Him is genuine life…and the branch that is connected to Him has life. For believers, it is our communion with Christ through the Spirit that makes it possible to bear fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is present in the life of a growing believer…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus says, “You will know them (true disciples) by their fruit" (Matthew 7:20). A true branch, united with the vine, will always bear fruit. Not every branch is going to bear a bumper crop, but it will bear fruit…as there is always fruit where there is life. This imagery is similar to what Paul shares concerning the Head and the body. Christ is the head and the church is the body. They are inseparably connected…you cannot have one without the other. Many of the images of Christ and the believer given in Scripture (head, body…bride, bridegroom…sheep, Shepherd) emphasize the importance of union and communion…and we can see the connection.
Something else to understand about the vines in the Holy Land…they were very strong, and it was nearly impossible to break off a mature vine without injuring the plant. That being said, a branch disconnected from the vine is weak and useless – branches are good for bearing fruit or for burning. The sooner that we believers discover and understand that we are but branches, the better we can and will relate to the Lord…for we will know our own weakness and confess our need for His strength. I do believe that “self-sufficiency” is the bane and decay of the vineyard today. When we think we are strong enough and can handle things on our own, in effect, we sever ourselves from the vine. When we are so busy that we cannot “be Jesus” to one another, then we are too distracted. We need to be strongly connected. The key word in this passage is “abide”…it is used eleven times. How can we tell when we are “abiding in Christ?” Is there some special feeling that is associated with it? No, in fact, most of the time, our feelings will run contrary to this “abiding, connectedness”. Satan will try to dissuade from being “connected.” There are evidences of “abiding” that are clear. When you are “abiding” in Christ, you are “producing fruit” (v.2). Also, you will experience the Master Gardener’s “pruning.” He will teach, train and discipline us in order that we can grow. The believer who is “abiding” has his or her prayers answered (v.7), experiences a deepening love for Christ and for other believers (vv.9, 12-13), and experiences “joy” (v.11). The abiding relationship is natural to the branch and the vine...but, it must be “cultivated” in the Christian life – it does not happen automatically. Abiding demands worship, meditation on God’s Word, prayer sacrifice and service. Once we begin to cultivate a deeper communion with Christ, we will have no desire to return to a shallow Christian experience.
In Ontario near an abandoned cemetery, there is this broken dead tree branch, devoid of life, hanging between two trees. At one end, a vine has intertwined itself around the dead branch and the trunk of one of the trees that supported it, giving the appearance that of still being part of the living tree. But in truth, it isn't…it is dead, truly dead, hanging by a thread! Or should I say, hanging by a vine? If we are not leading a victorious life through the authority Jesus gave us, we are not "remaining in the vine". We may appear alive, but the sap that gives us victory is not coursing through our veins. We have somehow been detached from the source of real living! "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." (John 15:4 NIV) Faith stands firm in the face of trial and temptation, believing in God's promises: Are we grafted in the vine or are we lifelessly hanging between trees?
I believe that many believers are like that branch being held up by the vine…they have the appearance of being alive, but they really are not. Something we must understand as we come into this New Year -- we are not going to gain by being disconnected from the Jesus and from one another…in fact, we are going to be hurt, spiritually. We need to be committed to Jesus and to the body if we are going to grow and prosper spiritually. As we have discussed previously, we live in the most technologically connected, but least personally connected society, in the history of mankind. It is good that we can communicate with friends around the world via Facebook, Twitter and the like, but we hardly spend time with one another outside of our regular meeting times. I don’t believe this is where the Lord would have us to be…especially since many of the early believers were meeting day by day in fellowship (but which also would be entirely unrealistic today). If we are separated from Jesus, and from one another, our leaves will wither and die and we will never put forth any fruit. If we are staying connected, our lives will produce beautiful leaves and delicious fruit. Since we have so many distractions today to keep us from being connected, what are we going to do to fight the cultural norm and the spiritual battle? This is an important question that each of us has to answer.