by Pastor Robert Griffith
We began this series by examining our roots and looking at how well equipped the Church was in those first 200-300 years after Christ was here in the flesh. We also saw what went wrong and how quickly a dynamic, integrated network of Spirit-led house Churches, growing rapidly in spite of some severe persecution, became a State-sanctioned religious organisation with large, centralised meeting places and a rapidly diminishing number of ministers of the gospel.
Then we were confronted and encouraged by the promise of God in 2 Chronicles 7:14 – a promise that God has never withdrawn which is probably more important today than when those words were first spoken. God said (and is still saying), “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their sin, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin and heal their land.” We live in a time when the nations of the world are desperate for a mighty move of God and the spotlight is turned on the Church; the people of God; the custodians of the gospel of God’s amazing grace; the ones who hold the keys to heaven and the answers to all the problems in our world today. This is why we need to be equipped. This is why the Church needs to once again become the army of God but as we saw in the third sermon in this series, the greatest enemy we face every day is what I suggested is the mother and father of all sins and the greatest single barrier to community-wide transformation and that is unbelief. Using the image of the parable of the sower, we were reminded about the many weeds of unbelief which grow in the garden of our heart and how important it is for us to be diligent in tending that garden so that once again we believe what God has said and walk into the reality of all His great promises to those who believe.
Last week I affirmed that we humans are designed to hear from God and that God speaks to us in a myriad of ways and for us to live and move and have our being in Christ, for us to fulfil His mission on earth, for us to be fully equipped as the Church, then like Jesus, when He walked among us as a man, we need to learn how to hear from God. As a man Jesus said that He only did what He saw the Father doing and only spoke the words the Father gave Him to speak (See John 5). For that to happen, Jesus developed the ability as a man to hear from God and be guided by the Holy Spirit. He modelled that close, personal, intimate relationship with God which each and every one of us has been called into. So today we will be continuing that thought as we look at perhaps the best chapter in the whole Bible which explains what that abiding relationship with God in Christ looks like.
Chapter 15 of John’s Gospel is well known for two primary reasons. Firstly, this is where Jesus says to His disciples, “No longer do I call you servants ... but I have called you friends.”(v.15) This is also the chapter where Jesus gives us a powerful illustration of the nature of a believer in relationship with God. He uses four key components in this metaphor: the vine, the branches, the vine dresser and the fruit. The vine dresser (gardener), the one who owns the vineyard, is the Heavenly Father. Jesus Himself is the vine. The people of God - you and me – are the branches and the fruit is that which is naturally produced because of our connection to Jesus, the vine. Notice I said it is naturally produced. No fruit tree, no vegetable garden, no vineyard has to groan and travail or struggle and strain to bring forth fruit. It bears fruit naturally, provided it is fed, well watered and pruned correctly. Yes, pruning is vitally important. God rewards all growth with pruning. Pruning in the Kingdom of heaven is not punishment. People look at the discipline of God and they often assume that the discipline or the pruning of the Lord has to do with punishment. That's not true as we will see in a moment. Let’s look at the first eight verses of John chapter fifteen.
John 15:1-8 “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 bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.”
Do you remember the parable of Jesus about the landowner who gave each of his ten servants a sum of money? Or perhaps the parable of the talents where three people are given some money with the hope that they would invest their talent wisely and bring a return to the land owner? From the beginning to the end, God created everything to be productive. Every living thing is meant to bear fruit. By nature, everything about our life is designed to be productive and fruit bearing. God is actually glorified by the system He created, where a peach tree will grow peaches, you eat the fruit, you plant the seed, and it grows another tree that brings forth more peaches. That cycle of life and productivity is the cycle which God created. God’s economy is linked directly to His voice, which is not only all powerful, it is also creative in nature. God spoke and said, “Let there be light” and there was light. So as we saw last week, God’s design is that everything would happen through the power of His Word.
In John 16, the very next chapter, Jesus describes how He has re-inherited everything as a man. The Father has given everything back into His hands. As we know, Jesus lays aside everything as God to become a man. Now He is still 100% God. He is entirely God, but He chooses to lay aside His deity to take on flesh and live with all the restrictions of a human being, although He's eternally God. So in that position, as a man, He now re-inherits everything He already had as God. He inherits everything as a man and because He now calls us His friends, He includes us in His inheritance. That’s why in John 16, Jesus announces that, “All that the Father has is mine and the Holy Spirit will take what is mine, and declare it to you.” (v.15). So Jesus is not merely making an announcement here; He's not just showing off what He owns; He is transferring resources from a heavenly account into an earthly account and that transfer takes place whenever He speaks. Not only does God create; not only does He transfer resources through His decree, but the Bible says (Hebrews 1:3) that every molecule is held in place, by the power of His word. Everything is defined, everything is empowered, everything is created, everything is sustained through His Word.
So when we come to this story, this illustration of us being the branches of a vine, we have the Father God as the vine dresser and Jesus is the vine. He said that every branch in Him that does not bear fruit, He takes away and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes, so that it may bear more fruit. He rewards all of our growth with pruning. In verse 3 Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word I've spoken to you.”So he's saying that when we bear fruit He will have to prune us over and over again because that way, we'll get more fruit. The Lord does everything for the purpose of increase. He thinks in terms of things working, to better life, to bring increase and to be productive. The sun gives light and heat; the leaves of the trees give oxygen; plants give seed to reproduce. God has created a cycle of increase and productivity. He has brought you and me into that life-cycle of God Himself with supernatural increase and supernatural supply. He has positioned us to bring increase, but not an increase that somehow we have to drum up. It's the increase that comes automatically by remaining attached to the vine. It's normal. It’s guaranteed. It’s part of His master design. He'll do the pruning, we just need to stay firmly attached. We don't have to make ourselves grow - we just have to stay connected to or ‘abide’ in the vine.
So Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word I've spoken to you.”It’s important we know that the Greek word translated here as ‘clean’ is essentially the same word as the one translated ‘prune.’ So when Jesus says His disciples are clean already, He is saying, “I've already pruned you.” How did He prune them? By the word He has spoken. The pruning wasn't with a hand it was with His voice and it wasn't yelling and screaming, it was just Him speaking the truth, adjusting values, expectations and priorities so they could be more fruitful. He was always pruning their value system and their interpretation of things.
For example, in Luke chapter nine Jesus sends the disciples out on a ministry trip and they are very, very productive. They come back with stories of breakthroughs, they saw miracles happen they had never seen except for Jesus, but now they actually saw it happen through their hands, through their words and they're beside themselves with excitement. So they're very enthusiastic when they return. The very next moment you find them chatting in a group without Jesus there – and when Jesus turns up He asks them what they are talking about. Of course He already knows what they were talking about - they are arguing about who is the greatest among them. Some things that are in your heart will not be revealed by failure and weakness, they will only be revealed through success. Now we know that the hardest place to minister is at home and so Jesus sent them home to minister. Because a prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown, so you can minister at home, you'll learn to do ministry out of obedience instead of for applause. So Jesus sends them home, and they saw breakthroughs and they bring the reports back. But in the very next scene, because of their success, they are arguing about who is the greatest. It wasn't failure in ministry that caused this problem - it was the fact that they were fruitful; they had stuff happen and they didn't think it happened to any other disciple. So Jesus talks to them about what greatness really is.
You see, people who hang out with Jesus begin to dream of personal significance in ways they never thought of before. There's something about being with people that believe in you. Jesus trusted them and believed in them enough to turn them loose on their own cities. Having somebody believe in them stirred something up that was powerful and right. It was a sense of personal significance and they bore fruit: they had the miracles, they had healings and deliverance, people believed the gospel. That's good fruit but when they came back together they argued about who was the greatest - that's not good fruit. So I want you to picture this branch of the vine and this huge bunch of grapes that has formed, that’s the good fruit. But then the branch keeps growing and growing with only leaves and no fruit. It’s a great looking branch and the leaves are awesome but God wants them to be productive. So He rewards their growth with pruning. He points to what is developing in them which is not healthy, doesn't make sense and brings them glory outside the Lordship of Jesus and He cuts it off. So now that branch can re-shoot at that point and produce real fruit. So by the power of His word, Jesus pruned a branch in His vine.
Take Peter, for example. His boldness is great to a point but past that point he has foot and mouth disease all the time; talking at the wrong time; interrupting God; rebuking Jesus when He talked about His impending death and telling Him that going to the cross is a bad idea. However with that same boldness, when Peter is submitting to the Lordship of Jesus, we see him standing before a crowd of thousands who were mocking the outpouring of the Spirit and he preaches a sermon that brings thousands into the Kingdom of Heaven. That boldness outside of the Lordship of Jesus caused him problems - that boldness under the Lordship of Jesus brought tremendous fruit. So when God sees a branch that's grown way past its ability to bear fruit, He cuts it back. The pain of that cut can be significant, but the pruning is what brings more fruit.
In the very next scene, the disciples are talking to Jesus and they said, “We saw this group over here, and they were trying to cast demons in your name. We told them to knock it off.”By interference they were saying, “They aren’t part of the inner crowd. We are Jesus’ disciples and only we get to do that.” Now their loyalty to the group was healthy. In a sense, it was right. It was good. But loyalty to one in the kingdom never requires disloyalty to another. That's carnal and natural loyalty which is humanistic loyalty. That is not kingdom loyalty. So when they said, “We told them to knock it off,” Jesus got out His pruning shears and said, “No, guys, listen, if they're not against us, they're for us.” Well, that was the whole new concept. So once again we have a branch that is bearing fruit but then is grows beyond the point of fruit-bearing and so God prunes it back, to ensure more fruit later. He didn't lower them. He didn't belittle them. He didn't punish them. He instead spoke to the issue and as long as we are hearers of the Word, as long as we are willing for God to speak change into our life, pruning will always bring forth fruit in time. OK, let’s look at verse five.
John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
So Jesus announces here that we can do nothing without Him. But ten chapters earlier He announced that He can do nothing without the Father. So can you see that He's trying to bring us into the same place of dependency that He lives in. He has set the example; He has modelled the lifestyle and the value system; from day one He's working to bring us into the same place of dependency. He could do nothing without the Father. That's how much He emptied himself. He's still eternally God but He emptied Himself to function as a human being who was completely dependent on the Father throughout His whole ministry. In so doing He set a powerful example for us and effectively puts us in a position where we can do nothing of any significance in His Kingdom apart from Him. Which means we're going to have to learn dependency to pull this off because He is expecting fruitfulness. So what is our responsibility? Abide in Christ; stay connected to the vine. We don’t focus on fruit bearing – we focus on abiding and staying connected to the vine. That’s why we need to hear from God every day. We need to really listen and allow the corrective Word of the Lord to prune us when it’s needed and the fruit will come naturally by virtue of our abiding in the vine. As we listen to what He says - the fruit will form naturally. But we must stay connected to the vine. When a branch is no longer connected, it's just a stick and it’s useless.
John 15:7 “If you abide in me my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it will be done for you.”
God is glorified through fruit and in this particular verse, the fruit is answers to prayers. But make sure you understand the context here. He's not answering any whim because He refuses to answer any prayer that undermines His purpose and our purpose in Christ. What's supposed to happen in this walk with the Lord is that desires are formed in us as the offspring of our walk with God. Dreams and desires form because of our time spent abiding in Christ. So we don’t just come in prayer with our shopping list - our prayers emerge from the depth of our abiding, our sharing in the heart of God. That's the context of being called friends. Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call your friends.” Why? Because the servant doesn't know what the master is doing. The servant doesn't get a picture of what’s happening behind the scenes where God shares His heart and says, ”This is what moves me, this is what marks me, this is my value system.” The servant doesn't get access to that. But the friend does - as friends we get to see what moves the heart of God and then we pray accordingly. We pray out of an understanding of His heart. We pray out of this great privilege to make cries in the earth that represent his heart.
The word translated here as ‘anything you desire’ is tied to the will of God. In New Testament Greek there are two words for the will of God. One is that which is concrete, it's established. You can vote yes or no, it doesn't matter - it's going to happen anyway. It's like saying you don’t believe Jesus is coming back. Well, that doesn't matter, it’s happening and you don't get to vote. Your prayer has nothing to do with it. Your belief system has nothing to do with it. He's just decided He's going to do it so it is going to be done. That's one aspect of the will of God. But there's another whole part of the will of God which can be described as a dream or desire or wish of God. He can pull off anything He wants, He can force anything into being that He wants to. But His dream is not the outcome. His dream is the journey with yielded people that help bring about the desired outcome. He values the journey above the destination. He willingly submits His sovereignty to the actions of His much-loved sons and daughters.
So then in practical terms, we play a vital part in His will being done. He brings us into this special relationship where we have the privilege of discerning His heart, His dreams, His desires, His ultimate will and we then make that the cry of our heart. It's a prayer where we say, “God, we want your dreams and desires to unfold here as they do in heaven.” So it's a mirroring of the heart of God. By abiding in Him we learn His heart and can begin to mirror it back to Him, not as robots but as sons and daughters who learn what our destiny is all about so that the cries of our heart reflect the cries of God’s heart. There's something happening in that merging of hearts, that marriage of hearts, where the Father becomes glorified, because He delights in our cry. So can you see how God created a system whereby a covenant people can make a difference in the course of world history, a covenant people can have prayers answered, and it is God’s delight to do so.
John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last - and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”
Here we see Jesus trying to create the relational connection between a yielded heart and a generous heartso that His purposes will be fully realized in the earth and all creation will celebrate His plan.The world will notice. His plan worked: broken, destroyed, hell-bent humanity is redeemed and now they're making a difference in the course of world history.We never thought it could work, but it's working.Look, they are forgiven and now they look so much like Jesus. This is amazing. It's working. All of creation groans and travails for the sons and daughters of God to realize who they are and take their rightful place. Heaven is waiting to celebrate the answers to our prayers. But not just the result of a request ... but the result of us saying ‘yes’ to a journey ... saying ‘yes’ to abiding in the vine, Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord again today: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from the Vine, you can do nothing. Abide in the vine and you can do anything and everything God desires and the world will finally see the Glory of God across the earth, in and through His surrendered, abiding sons and daughters. Amen!
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