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John 15:1–15.

The subject of discourse in these chapters is the future work of the apostles, — its nature, honors, hardships, and joys. Much that is said therein admits of application to Christians in general, but the reference in the first place is undoubtedly to the eleven then present; and only by keeping this in mind can we get a clear idea of the import of the discourse as a whole.

The first part of this charge to the future apostles has for its object to impress upon them that they have a great work before them.537537John xv. 1-17. The keynote of the passage may be found in the words: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain.”538538Ver. 16. Jesus would have His chosen ones understand that He expects more of them than that they shall not lose heart when He has left the earth. They must be great actors in the world, and leave their mark permanently on its history: they must, in fact, take His place, and be in His stead, and carry on the work He had begun, in His name and through His aid.

To put their duty clearly before the minds of His disciples, Jesus made large use of a beautiful figure drawn from the vine-tree, which He introduced at the very outset of His discourse. “I am the true vine;” that is the theme, which in the sequel is worked out with considerable minuteness of detail, — figure and interpretation being freely mixed up together in the exposition. The question has often been asked, What led Jesus to adopt this particular emblem as the vehicle of His thoughts? and many conjectural answers have been hazarded. In absence of information in the narrative, however, we must be content to remain in ignorance on this point, without attempting to supply the missing link in the association of ideas. This is no great hardship; for, after all, what does it matter how a metaphor is suggested (a thing which even the person employing the metaphor often does not know), provided it be in itself apt to the purpose to which it is applied? Of the aptness of the metaphor here employed there can be no doubt in the mind of any one who attentively considers the felicitous use which the speaker made of it.539539Sanday (Fourth Gospel, p. 231) speaks of the allegory of the vine as belonging to a different and more didactic period in the life of Christ, and represents it as breaking the thread and having little bearing on the object of the discourse, which is to comfort the disciples in the prospect of their Lord’s departure. That was certainly one object, but not the only one. The allegory is very apt to the other principal object of the discourse, viz. to bring before the hearers their responsibilities as apostles of the Christian faith.

Turning our attention, then, to the discourse of Jesus on His own chosen text, we cannot but be struck with the manner in which He hurries on at once to speak of fruit. We should have expected that, in introducing the figure of the vine, He would in the first place state fully in terms of the figure how the case stood. After hearing the words, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman,” we expect to hear, “and ye, my disciples, are the branches, through which the vine brings forth fruit.” That, however, is not said here; but the speaker passes on at once to tell His hearers how the branches (of which no mention has been made) are dealt with by the divine Husbandman; how the fruitless branches, on the one hand, are lopped off, while the fruitful ones are pruned that they may become still more productive.540540John xv. 2. This shows what is uppermost in the mind of Jesus. His heart’s desire is that His disciples may be spiritually fruitful. “Fruit, fruit, my disciples,” He exclaims in effect; “ye are useless unless ye bear fruit: my Father desires fruit, even as I do; and His whole dealing with you will be regulated by a purpose to increase your fruitfulness.”

While urgent in His demand for fruit, Jesus does not, we observe, in any part of this discourse on the vine, indicate wherein the expected fruit consists. When we consider to whom He is speaking, however, we can have no doubt as to what He principally intends. The fruit He looks for is the spread of the gospel and the ingathering of souls into the kingdom of God by the disciples, in the discharge of their apostolic vocation. Personal holiness is not overlooked; but it is required rather as a means towards fruitfulness than as itself the fruit. It is the purging of the branch which leads to increased fertility.

The next sentence (“Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you”541541John xv. 3.) it seems best to regard as a parenthesis, in which for a moment the figure of the vine is lost sight of. The mention of branches which, as unproductive, are cut off, recalls to the Lord’s thoughts the case of one who had already been cut off, — the false disciple Judas, — and leads Him naturally to assure the eleven that He hopes better things of them. The process of excision had already been applied among them in one instance: therefore they should not be high-minded, but fear. But, on the other hand, as He had said before in connection with the feet-washing, that they were clean, with one exception; so now He would say they were all clean, without exception, through the word which He had spoken to them. As branches they might need pruning, but there would be no occasion for cutting off.

Having strongly declared the indispensableness of fruit-bearing in order to continued connection with the vine, Jesus proceeded next to set forth the conditions of fruitfulness, and (what we should have expected at the very commencement of the discourse) the relation subsisting between Himself and His disciples. “I am the vine,” He said (to take the latter first), “ye are the branches.”542542Ver. 5. By this statement He explains why He is so urgent that His disciples should be fruitful. The reason is, that they are the media through which He Himself brings forth fruit, serving the same purpose to Him that the branches serve to the vine. His own personal work had been to choose and train them, — to fill them, so to speak, with he sap of divine truth; and their work was now to turn that sap into grapes. The Father in heaven, by sending Him into the world, had planted Him in the earth, a new, mystic, spiritual vine; and He had produced them, the eleven, as His branches. Now His personal ministry was at an end; and it remained for the branches to carry on the work to its natural consummation, and to bring forth a crop of fruit, in the shape of a church of saved men believing in His name. If they failed to do this, His labor would be all in vain.

Returning now to the conditions of fruitfulness, we find Jesus expressing them in these terms: “Abide in me, and I in you.”543543John xv. 4. These words point to a dependence of the disciples on their Lord under two forms, which by help of the analogy of a tree and its branches it is easy to distinguish. The branch abides in the vine structurally; and the vine abides in the branch through its sap, vitally. Both of these abidings are necessary to fruit-bearing. Unless the branch be organically connected with the stem, the sap which goes to make fruit cannot pass into it. On the other hand, although the branch be organically connected with the stem, yet if the sap of the stem do not ascend into it (a case which is possible and common in the natural world), it must remain as fruitless as if it were broken off and lying on the ground.

All this is clear; but when we ask what do the two abidings signify in reference to the mystic vine, the answer is not quite so easy. The tendency here is to run the two into one, and to make the distinction between them merely nominal. The best way to come at the truth is to adhere as closely as possible to the natural analogy. What, then, would one say most nearly corresponded to the structural abiding of the branch in the tree? We reply, abiding in the doctrine of Christ, in the doctrine He taught; and acknowledging Him as the source whence it had been learned. In other words, “Abide in me” means, Hold and profess the truth I have spoken to you, and give yourselves out merely as my witnesses. The other abiding, on the other hand, signifies the indwelling of the Spirit of Jesus in the hearts of those who believe. Jesus gives His disciples to understand that, while abiding in His doctrine, they must also have His Spirit abiding in them; that they must not only hold fast the truth, but be filled with the Spirit of truth.

As thus distinguished, the two abidings are not only different in conception, but separable in fact. On the one hand, there may be Christian orthodoxy in the letter where there is little or no spiritual life; and there may, on the other hand, be a certain species of spiritual vitality, a great moral, and in some respects most Christian-like earnestness, accompanied with serious departure from the faith. The one may be likened unto a dead branch on a living tree, bleached, barkless, moss-grown, and even in summer leafless, stretching out like a withered arm from the trunk into which it is inserted, and with which it still maintains an organic structural connection. The other is a branch cut off by pride or self-will from the tree, full of the tree’s sap, and clothed with verdure at the moment of excision, and foolishly imagining, because it does not wither at once, that it can live and grow and blossom independently of the tree altogether. Have such things never been since Christianity began? Alas, would it were so! In the grand primeval forest of the Church too many dead orthodoxies have ever been visible; and as for branches setting up for the themselves, their name is legion.

The two abidings, which we have seen to be not only separable, but often separated, cannot be separated without fatal effects. The result ever is in the end to illustrate the truth of Christ’s words, “Without, or severed from, me ye can do nothing.”544544John xv. 5. Dead orthodoxy is notoriously impotent. Feeble, timid, torpid, averse to any thing arduous, heroic, stirring in thought or conduct at best, it becomes at last insincere and demoralizing: salt without savor, fit only to be thrown out; worthless vine-wood, good for nothing except for fuel, and not worth much even for that purpose. Heresies, not abiding in the doctrine of Christ, are equally helpless. At first, indeed, they possess a spurious ephemeral vitality, and make a little noise in the world; but by and by their leaf begins to wither, and they bring forth no abiding fruit.

The conception of a dead branch, applied to individuals as distinct from churches or the religious world viewed collectively, is not without difficulty. A dead branch on a tree was not always dead: it was produced by the vital force of the tree, and had some of the tree’s life in it. Does the analogy between natural and spiritual branches hold at this point? Not in any sense, as we believe, that would compromise the doctrine of perseverance in grace, nowhere taught more clearly than in the words of our Lord. At the same time, it cannot be denied that there is such a thing as abortive religious experience. There are blossoms on the tree of life which are blasted by spring frosts, green fruits which fall off ere they ripen, branches which become sickly and die. Jonathan Edwards, a high Calvinist, but also a candid, shrewd observer of facts, remarks: “I cannot say that the greater part of supposed converts give reason by their conversation to suppose that they are true converts. The proportion may perhaps be more truly represented by the proportion of the blossoms on a tree which abide and come to mature fruit, to the whole number of blossoms in spring.”545545See memoir by Sereno E. Dwight, prefixed to English edition of the Works of Edwards, in two volumes: vol. i. p. clxxii. The permanency of many spiritual blossoms is here denied, but the very denial implies an admission that they were blossoms.

That some branches should become unfruitful, and even die, while others flourish and bring forth fruit, is a great mystery, whose explanation lies deeper than theologians of the Arminian school are willing to admit. Yet, while this is true, the responsibility of man for his own spiritual character cannot be too earnestly insisted on. Though the Father, as the husbandman, wields the pruning-knife, the process of purging cannot be carried on without our consent and cooperation. For that process means practically the removal of moral hindrances to life and growth, — the cares of life, the insidious influence of wealth, the lusts of the flesh, and the passions of the soul, — evils which cannot be overcome unless our will and all our moral powers be brought to bear against them. Hence Jesus lays it upon His disciples as a duty to abide in Him, and have Him abiding in them, and resolves the whole matter at last, in plain terms, into keeping His commandments.546546John xv. 10. If they diligently and faithfully do their part, the divine Husbandman, He assures them, will not fail to give them liberally all things needful for the most abundant fruitfulness. “Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”547547Ver. 7.

The doom of branches coming short in either of the two possible ways, is very plainly declared by Jesus. The doom of the branch which, while in Him structurally, beareth not fruit, either because it is absolutely dead and dry, or because it is afflicted with a vice which makes it barren, is to be taken away — judicially severed from the tree.548548John xv. 2. The doom of the branch which will not abide in the vine, is not to be cut off, — for that it does itself, — but to be thrown out of the vineyard, there to lie till it be withered, and at length, at a convenient season, to be gathered, along with all its self-willed, erratic brethren, into a heap, and burned in a bonfire like the dry rubbish of a garden.549549Ver. 6.

In the latter portion of the discourse on the vine,550550Vers. 8-17. Jesus expresses His high expectations with respect to the fruitfulness of the apostolic branches, and suggests a variety of considerations which, acting on the minds of the disciples as motives, might lead to the fulfilment of His hopes. As to the former, He gave the disciples to understand that He expected of them not only fruit, but much fruit,551551Ver. 8. and fruit not only abundant in quantity, but good in quality;552552Ver. 16. fruit that should remain, grapes whose juice should be worthy of preservation as wine in bottles; a church that should endure till the world’s end.

These two requirements, taken together, amount to a very high demand. It is very hard indeed to produce fruit at once abundant and enduring. The two requirements to a certain extent limit each other. Aiming at high quality leads to undue thinning of the clusters, while aiming at quantity may easily lead to deterioration in the quality of the whole. The thing to be studied is to secure as large an amount of fruit as is consistent with permanence; and, on the other hand, to cultivate excellence as far as is consistent with obtaining a fair crop which will repay labor and expense. This is, so to speak, the ideal theory of vine culture; but in practice we must be content with something short of the perfect realization of our theory. We cannot, for example, rigorously insist that all the fruit shall be such as can endure. Many fruits of Christian labor are only transient means towards other fruits of a permanent nature; and if we satisfy the law of Christ so far as to produce much fruit, some of which shall remain, we do well. The permanent portion of a man’s work must always be small in proportion to the whole. At highest, it can only bear such a proportion to the whole as the grape-juice bears to the grapes out of which it is pressed. A small cask of wine represents a much larger bulk of grapes; and in like manner the perennial result of a Christian life is very inconsiderable in volume compared with the mass of thoughts, words, and deeds of which that life was made up. One little book, for instance, may preserve to all generations the soul and essence of the thoughts of a most gifted mind, and of the graces of a noble heart. Witness that wondrous book the Pilgrim’s Progress, which contains more wine in it than may be found in the ponderous folios of some wordy authors, whose works are but huge wine-casks with very little wine in them, and sometimes hardly even the scent of it.

To satisfy these two requirements, two virtues are above all needful, viz. diligence and patience, — the one to insure quantity, the other to insure superior quality. One must know both how to labor and how to wait; never idle, yet never hurrying. Diligence alone will not suffice. Bustling activity does a great many things badly, but nothing well. On the other hand, patience unaccompanied by diligence degenerates into indolence, which brings forth no fruit at all, either good or bad. The two virtues must go together; and when they do, they never fail to produce, in greater or less abundance, fruit that remaineth in a holy exemplary life whose memory is cherished for generations, in an apostolic church, in books or in philanthropic institutions, in the character of descendants, scholars, or hearers.

When the two requirements are taken as applying to all believers in Christ, the term “much” must be understood relatively. It is not required of all indiscriminately to produce an absolutely large quantity of fruit, but only of those who, like the apostles, have been chosen and endowed to occupy distinguished positions. Of him to whom little is given shall little be required. For men of few talents it is better not to attempt much, but rather to endeavor to do well the little for which they have capacity. Aspiration is good in the abstract; but to aspire to exceed the appointed dimensions of our career, is to supply a new illustration of the old fable of the frog and the ox. The man who would be and do more than he is fit for, is worse than useless. He brings forth, not the sweet, wholesome fruits of the Spirit, but the inflated fruits of vanity, which, like the apples of Sodom, are fair and delicious to the eye and soft to the touch, but are yet full of wind, and, being pressed, explode like a puff-ball.553553Robinson, Biblical Researches, i. 523.

The demand for much fruit, while very exacting as towards the apostles, to whom it in the first place refers, has a gracious aspect towards the world. The fruit which Jesus expected from His chosen ones was the conversion of men to the faith of the gospel — the ingathering of souls into the kingdom of God. A demand for much fruit in this sense is an expression of good — will to mankind, a revelation of the Saviour’s loving compassion for a world lying in sin, and error, and darkness. In making this demand, Jesus says in effect to His apostles: Go into the world, bent on evangelizing all the nations; be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it. Ye cannot bring too many to the obedience of faith; the greater the number of those who believe on me through your word, the better I shall be pleased. We have here, in short, but an echo of the impassioned utterances of that earlier occasion, when Jesus welcomed death as the condition of abundant fruitfulness, and the cross as a power by whose irresistible attraction He should draw all unto Him.554554John xii. 24, 33.

From the high requirements of the Lord, we pass on to the arguments with which He sought to impress on the disciples the duty of bringing forth much and abiding fruit. Of these there are no less than six, grouped in pairs. The first pair we find indicated in the words: “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit, and that ye may be my disciples.”555555John xv. 8. Vide various reading, γένησθε instead of γενήσεσθε. The sense is the same ultimately, whichever reading we prefer. In other words, Jesus would have His chosen ones remember that the credit, both of the divine Husbandman, and of Himself, the vine, largely depended on their behavior. The world would judge by results. If they, the apostles, abounded in fruitfulness, it would be remarked that God had not sent Christ into the world in vain; and their success would be ascribed to Him whose disciples they had been. If they failed, men would say: God planted a vine which has not thriven; and the vine produced branches which have borne no fruit; or in plain terms, Christ chose agents who have done nothing.

The force of these arguments for fruitfulness is more obvious in the case of these apostles, the founders of the Church, than in reference to the present condition of the Church, when the honor of Christ and of God the Father seems to depend in a very small measure on the conduct of individuals. The whole stress then lay on eleven men. Now it is distributed over millions. Nevertheless, there is great need, even yet, for spiritually fruitful life in the Church, to uphold the honor of Christ’s name; for there is a tendency at the present time to look on Christianity as used up. The old vine stock is considered by many to be effete, and past fruit-bearing; and a new plant of renown is called for. This idea can be exploded effectually only in one way, viz. by the rising up of a generation of Christians whose life shall demonstrate that the “true vine” is not one of the things that wax old and vanish away, but possesses eternal vitality, sufficient not only to produce new branches and new clusters, but to shake itself clear of dead branches, and of all the moss by which it may have become overgrown in the course of ages.

A second pair of motives to fruitfulness we find hinted at in the words: “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be fulfilled.”556556John xv. 11. Jesus means to say, that the continuance of His joy in the disciples, and the completion of their own joy as believers in Him, depended on their being fruitful. The emphasis in the first clause lies on the word “remain.” Jesus has joy in His disciples even now, though spiritually crude, even as the gardener hath joy in the clusters of grapes when they are green, sour, and uneatable. But He rejoices in them at present, not for what they are, but because of the promise that is in them of ripe fruit. If that promise were not fulfilled, He should feel as the gardener feels when the blossom is nipped by frost, or the green fruit destroyed by mildew; or as a parent feels when a son belies in his manhood the bright promise of his youth. He can bear delay, but He cannot bear failure. He can wait patiently till the process of growth has passed through all its stages, and can put up with all the unsatisfactory qualities of immaturity, for the sake of what they shall ripen into. But if they never ripen, — if the children never become men, if the pupils never become teachers, — then He will exclaim, in bitter disappointment: “Woe is me! my soul desired ripe fruit; and is this what I find after waiting so long?”

In the second clause the stress lies on the word “fulfilled.” It is not said or insinuated that a Christian can have no joy till his character be matured and his work accomplished. The language of Jesus is quite compatible with the assertion that even at the very commencement of the spiritual life there may be a great, even passionate, outburst of joy. But, on the other hand, that language plainly implies that the joy of the immature disciple is necessarily precarious, and that the joy which is stable and full comes only with spiritual maturity. This is a great practical truth, which it concerns all disciples to bear in mind. Joy in the highest sense is one of the ripe fruits of the Holy Spirit, the reward of perseverance and fidelity. Rejoicing at the outset is good, so far as it goes; but all depends on the sequel. If we stop short and grow not, woe to us; for failure in all things, and specially in religion, is misery. If we be comparatively unfruitful, we may not be absolutely unhappy, but we can never know the fulness of joy; for it is only to the faithful servant that the words are spoken: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” The perfect measure of bliss is for the soldier who hath won the victory, for the reaper celebrating harvest, home, for the athlete who hath gained the prize of strength, skill, and swiftness.

The two last considerations by which Jesus sought to impress on His disciples the duty of being fruitful, were — the honorable nature of their apostolic calling, and the debt of gratitude they owed to Him who had called them, and who was now about to die for them. The dignity of the apostleship, in contrast to the menial position of the disciple, He described in these terms: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”557557John xv. 15. In other words, the disciples had been apprentices, the apostles would be partners: the disciples had been as government clerks; the apostles would be confidential ministers of the king: the disciples had been pupils in the school of Jesus; the apostles would be the treasurers of Christian truth, the reporters and expositors of their Master’s doctrine, the sole reliable sources of information concerning the letter and spirit of His teaching. What office could possibly be more important than theirs? and how needful that they should realize their responsibilities in connection with it!

While endeavoring to walk worthy of so high a vocation, it would become the apostles also to bear in mind their obligations to Him who had called them to the apostolic office. The due consideration of these would be an additional stimulus to diligence and fidelity. Hence Jesus is careful to impress on His disciples that they owe all they are and will be to Him. “Ye did not choose me, but I chose you,”558558Ver. 16. He tells them. He wishes them to understand that they had conferred no benefit on Him by becoming His disciples: the benefit was all on their side. He had raised them from obscurity to be the lights of the world, to be the present companions and future friends and representatives of the Christ. Having done so much for them, He was entitled to ask that they would earnestly endeavor to realize the end for which He had chosen them, and to fulfil the ministry to which they were ordained.

One thing more is noteworthy in this discourse on the true vine, — the reiteration of the commandment to love one another. At the commencement of the farewell address, Jesus enjoined on the disciples brotherly love as a source of consolation under bereavement; here He re-enjoins it once and again as a condition of fruitfulness.559559Ver. 12, 17. Though He does not say it in so many words, He evidently means the disciples to understand that abiding in each other by love is just as necessary to their success as their common abiding in Him by faith. Division, party strife, jealousy, will be simply fatal to their influence, and to the cause they represent. They must be such fast friends that they will even be willing to die for each other. Had Christians always remembered the commandment of love, on which Christ so earnestly insisted, what a different history the Church would have had! how much more fruitful she would have been in all the great results for which she was instituted!

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