When I was starting out in my career, I read many books about managing people. I was fascinated with the “One Minute Manager” – a book I have recommended over the years to countless people who manage the work of others. We have many books about LEADERSHIP, but far fewer books on FOLLOWING. I think it is because we believe it comes naturally. Someone leads, you follow them. Yet, clearly any study of people work will show that is NOT the case – there are principles of following that must be much more deliberately engaged to do it well. Today’s lesson is the story of Jesus uncovering principles of the follower.
Key Principle: Following Jesus is an intentional act of continual and deliberate surrender – with special attention to allowing Him to work through our lives to produce things that will honor His Father.
We are in the final study of three that was designed to look at John 15:1-11, the teaching on the Vine and Branches. The walk from the Upper Room to the place of Gethsemane was the setting. The Disciples of Jesus (minus Judas that was off getting the guards at the Temple ready to arrest Jesus) were walking along the roads from the southwest part of Jerusalem to the east side – where the grove of olives trees and public olive press stood on the edge of the Kidron Valley. Jesus said:
John 15:1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every [branch] that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. 3 “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither [can] you unless you abide in Me. 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. 7 “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and [so] prove to be My disciples. 9 “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. 10 “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. 11 “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and [that] your joy may be made full.
Imagine walking down the alleys of Roman period Jerusalem. Most every villa on the western hill had a trellis of wines, where grapes hung every autumn. This was spring, and the vines lay against the trellis with thin branches that were deeply pruned away now beginning to pop open with green buds – the beginning of leaves. Some of the branches followed the tops of the walls along the street. Maybe Jesus pointed as He spoke about the relationship they had to Him. With each step, He grew closer to the coming agony. What would begin as a prayer time would end in captivity and pain. He knew, and He kept walking…
The vine was so familiar to everyday life in the Bible, prophets of God frequently symbolized Israel with the image. Psalm 80:8 celebrated God’s favor to Israel: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it”. Jeremiah reminded them of the metaphor: “Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2.21). Isaiah 5 and Ezekiel 19 both referred to Israel as a well-tended vineyard that was judged for treachery – particularly because of unfaithful rulers. When Jesus claimed He was the “True Vine,” he was speaking in very familiar terms.
Jesus told a story with three players: His Heavenly Father (the Vinedresser identified in verse 1), Jesus Himself (as the Vine identified in 15:1) and a disciple or follower (as the branches identified in 15:5).
When we looked at the same verses two times before – we sought to understand the works of our Heavenly Father as the Vinedresser, and then the Lord Jesus as the Vine. Now we look again one last time – to see ourselves as the Branches.
We have already observed that:
1. Our Heavenly Father is ACTIVE in our lives, fulfilling a work He long planned to do.
2. Jesus is ACTIVE at work on our behalf, flowing into our lives life that does not originate with us – but with Him, through a connection to Him.
Now we look again, and see a third truth:
3. We have are called to be ACTIVE – we have a DIRECT SET OF RESPONSIBILITIES as a follower in order to live a live woven into the braid.
Branches are NOT passive. They are not only acted upon – they are deliberate in a number of areas in order to bear fruit for the Master. Here is the truth again…
Key Principle: Walking with Jesus is an intentional act of continual and deliberate surrender – with special attention to allowing Him to work through our lives to produce things that will honor His Father.
Jesus described the work of the branch as a follower (15:5) in five ways, we will call them “laws”:
Law One: Branches must respond to the prompting and attention of the Vine dresser (Father) to help the branch bear maximum fruit (15:2).
John 15:2 “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every [branch] that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
God IS at work in His vineyard. He supplies the Vine with nutritious soil, while the Vine supplies it to the branches. He pulls the weeds that steal from the Vine. He prunes, ties and repositions the branches to give them every advantage to bear fruit. At the same time, the Vinedresser does not bear fruit directly – but through the branches. There are four underlying truths that will help explain the BRANCHES’ RESPONSE TO THE VINEDRESSER:
• First, the response includes recognizing a primary purpose is to bear fruit.
In our self-focused age, it is possible that many were brought to faith in Christ without any other message but self-interest in view. A relationship with Christ is NOT just about Heaven when I die, nor just about a secure walk in life while I breath – it is about being seized with delight when my Father is honored, and being giddy with the prospect of bearing fruit fit for the King’s table. This was a major part of the reason I was lead to Christ, and His Spirit worked on my heart. In John 15:16, just a few verses after our section, Jesus said:” 16 You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you (ek-leg’-om-ahee: selected), and ordained (tith’-ay-mee: placed) you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain (meno): that whatever you shall ask of the Father in my name, He may give it you.” God stands ready to provide us the needed tools to reach into the lives of people. He is eager to have us bearing fruit. The Vine chose us with that clearly in mind.
Sadly, many believers today have forgotten that God WANTS SOMETHING TO BE PRODUCED THROUGH YOUR LIFE. This isn’t just about skating through and getting the prize – it is about gathering fruits to present the King. We need to KNOW that was His purpose from the beginning. Fulfilling our purpose will fill our lives with JOY! Let me ask you: Is this a primary concern of your life? Are you thoughtfully engaged in how to produce fruit in your life?
• Second, our response as a branch includes understanding what produce (i.e. what fruit) is intended.
You and I were created to do our Master’s bidding – and that is our fruit. We were created FOR Him. We were intentionally chosen and purposefully tended because God knows we can reach people and produce fruit both in our lives and through our lives. Yet, fruit isn’t limited to evangelism. Fruit may be produced by caring for one who is alone (a shut-in) or loving the unloved ones (a shelter). It may be discipling one who comes behind you in their walk – training them to be faithful. Is it your deliberate intention to produce for the Master this week? Grape vines that produce nothing take from the soil but all no particular value. In the end, the best vinedresser is measured, not by the intentions, but by the fruit.
• Third, our response includes identifying the prompting and positioning of the Vinedresser.
I will only produce fruit when I am able to understand what the vinedresser is doing to me. He prunes and repositions – and I dare not resist Him. My job is to reckon His work as RIGHT and trust that He knows what I do not. When He moves me from something that is comfortable and comforting to the something that is harsh and difficult – that repositioning may well be to produce fruit in my life in an area long neglected. When a dear friend is taken away, the comfort of their shade is gone – but light falls on areas that may have been unproductive in the past.
Has God been repositioning you? Are some of the former comforts gone, and the harsh sun now burns a bit? You have several things you can do, but I would ASK THE VINEDRESSER what He is doing. James reminded us that if there were trials in our lives, we could ask of God who would not upbraid you, but open up His intention to you. Comfort is only good when it is productive – don’t forget that.
• Finally, our response includes expending effort in planning our right response to the Vinedresser’s hands.
Don’t wince at God’s work. He knows what He is doing! If He cut it, it was for a purpose. No branch can decide its own position – it will be placed by the vinedresser. We must grow and mature to treasure the touch of God – even when it brings new challenges. Bearing fruit saps our energy. It isn’t easy – but it is valuable.
Planning to respond to God’s tending looks like this:
1. I study the ways of my Vinedresser, to recognize His touch when it comes.
2. I make it my most important mission to produce for Him – and not take up energy on pursuits that will only make me happy.
3. I put my heart into popping out fruit. I expend myself for His honor, for His happiness.
There are too many resistant branches today. Among these are the branch that has not been trained to KNOW that FRUIT is the objective – and they live for comfort and ease. Among these is the branch that resents the Vinedresser’s hand – and they live in bitterness over some pruning work or repositioning that God has done to them. They see themselves as the point – not the fruit, and not the honor of the farmer. They are wrong, and as such they are resistant. They bear little, and they take energy from the vine with no benefit to the farmer. The sad part is, after a time, they no longer seem to care about that!
Law Two: Branches must abide in the vine to be fruitful (15:4). This abiding includes:
John 15:4 “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither [can] you unless you abide in Me…”
• Abiding requires getting connected by the cleaning found in His Word (15:3).
3 “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.
Without being redundant to our previous studies here, let’s just remember that you and I are only connected to the Vine because we have heard the Word and given our lives to Him. We recognized that we couldn’t grow fruit for Him without getting our life from Him. We couldn’t EARN a place on the Vine by religious performance or morally correct behavior. We needed to believe what He said – that we are lost without His love. We accepted the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE. We asked Jesus to save us – and that is how we were cleaned of the sin that kept us from being joined to Him.
• Abiding demands staying protective of the connection with the ever-renewed flow of life. (15:6a).
6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.…” The heat and dryness of life will wither us – apart keeping an open and unhindered attachment to the vine.
We must recognize that OUR CONNECTION TO THE VINE is vulnerable to Aphids and other life-sucking bugs that like to lodge there. Fungus will attack there. Parasites go to where the best of life is – and that is near the vine. Think with me about the connection of the branch to the vine. If a parasite can get connected there, part of the flow of life will be drawn off.
I see it all the time. A young man sat in worship beside me, his life shattered because his wife left him. He came to Christ – or at least appeared to. He fellowshipped, worshipped, and prayed with us – until SHE came into his life. His loneliness was filled, not by the flow of Christ into him – but by an unbelieving but beautiful woman at work. She pulled him from Christ and His people. His life went back to practices that were there from before his public commitment to Jesus. I haven’t seen him since. Did following Christ mean he couldn’t have a relationship with a woman? No. It meant that woman would be found IN CHRIST. It meant that he would not have a physical relationship that dishonored Jesus by intense sensuality outside of marriage. In the end, the man (if truly a believer) will produce little fruit before the Master.
Adjacent to the church property is a home that once belonged to a man who is now with Jesus. He was called to preach as a teen, and he walked away from God. He knew his call, but he wanted life to be about him. He came back to Christ when the alcoholism that dulled the pain of his life had destroyed his liver. I sat beside him as he died, lamenting that his life was a waste. It wasn’t – because God used it in this message to teach you and I about fruit bearing. Don’t forget, we must understand the alternative – be used continually or only a single and limited use (15:6b). His life is used as an illustration of what NOT to do – and the fire uses him only for one purpose. God purposed him for SO MUCH MORE.
• Abiding involves getting direction in obedience to His words (15:7)
7 “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you… 10 “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love;
Note the focus of Jesus on WORD and OBEDIENCE. It is easy to get distracted in the world in which we live. We can INTEND to know and follow His word, but as the ad says: “Life comes at you fast!” There are many believers who INTEND to listen to the Word, but they are distracted to their own hurt. SOME THINGS REQUIRE SINGULAR FOCUS:
(CNN REPORTED) – A helicopter runs out of fuel midair after its pilot was evidently flying with one hand and texting with another. The chopper crashes, killing everyone on board. It sounds incredible, but it’s true. We live in a multitasking society. That’s a reality. Now some experts wonder whether that reality is clashing with the safe operation of our nation’s aircraft. Distraction in the cockpit was a key element of testimony delivered Tuesday on a deadly 2011 medivac helicopter crash. The pilot was violating Federal Aviation Administration rules and company policy by using his phone in flight. … “You can’t multitask everything,” said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is the nation’s top aviation investigation agency. “To think that you can text and fly, especially a helicopter, is ludicrous. Helicopters require concentration, even more so than many airplanes.” Medivac chopper pilots fall under the same rules for electronic communications devices as commercial airplanes. Goglia and other experts favor stricter FAA rules for all aircraft, including helicopter ambulances. Under a newly proposed FAA rule, commercial pilots would be banned at all times from using “a wireless communications device or laptop computer for personal use while at their duty station on the flight deck while the aircraft is being operated.”
Now I am going to be very pointed in asking something: Are you growing in your knowledge of God’s Word? Can you pick out specific things you have been learning recently? I am hoping some of you will be saying YES! For those, here is a follow-up question: Are you growing in OBEDIENCE to Jesus. Are there issues you are focused on yielding to Him? Abiding DEMANDS hearing, considering and obeying the direction of the Vine.
• Abiding also entails becoming constantly absorbed in experiencing His love (15:9).
9 “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
You and I are not called to “gut out” our walk with Jesus. This isn’t supposed to be HARD ROAD of “suffering and ill, awaiting the breaking of the veil of death for eternal rest from our labors” as some in medieval Christianity described. We are pulled by the LOVE OF CHRIST and we move in desire to please Him. We wrap ourselves in His love. We pursue His desires. How do I do that? Well, perhaps we can start by watching another who did and see if it becomes clearer…
Paul was CONTROLLED by the Love of Christ. He said so plainly:
2 Corinthians 5:14 For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; 15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
Abiding in Jesus is being controlled not by legal lists, but by His vast love. His death for men is the example – giving all of Himself for other’s to be blessed with life. In that same way, we give our all and no longer live for ourselves. Abiding is emptying myself of MY desire to produce fruit on my own, and allowing His life to flow through me. It is a focus not on ME.
The love taught in the world is not God’s love. Singers sound off about LOVE, but it is often confused with physical desire and lust, or selfish interests. It is NOT about the other. Love is acting to meet the needs of another – expecting the good of the other to be the joy of your only payment. Full abiding is selfless loving.
Law Three: Branches must rely solely on the Vine’s power (15:5)
John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
There is a temptation today to rely on the power of the world to do the Father’s fruit production. The modern church reaches to grasp the heart of contemporary man and struggles to get a hearing without changing their presentation. Subtly there is a pressure to change even more – the very essence of the foundational belief itself. Hell? That is so judgmental. Creation? That doesn’t all seem to line up with science. Sexual morality? How can one be rejected by God for simply fulfilling desires they were born with. On and on the reasoning goes to erode the reliance on God’s truth, honor God’s place, and wholly trust God’s Word.
Though methods of ministry can flex for the culture and time –the essential truths of our faith – palatable or not to modern mind – cannot and must not be altered to appease the modern appetite. If we do, we join the world, and they do not truly join Christ and His followers.
There is a far better preparation to powerfully re-launch the Gospel in our era than a survey of “how lost man would like church to be” when they visit. Rather, we could drop to our knees and plead before God’s Spirit for the souls of men. We could search the Scriptures for the patterns and principles of the past success of God’s outreach – and relentlessly apply love, grace and truth. We could, in short, work harder at our walk with Him than our intimate knowledge of each detail about what appeals to THEM – and the Lord would overcome our cultural weakness by His irresistible love and powerful magnetism.
It is possible that men will turn from God’s truth, and we will take it personally. We must become mature. Beloved, we must not fear times of unpopularity to face the days ahead. We cannot bow to modern pressure, for we bow only to our King who reigns above all. He knows the hearts of men – He made them. He knows what will reach them, and what will bear faithful witness to our generation. We serve Him, and not the affirmation of our apparent earthly successes.
Law Four: Branches produce solely for the Father’s honor (15:8).
John 15:8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and [so] prove to be My disciples.
The fact is this: branches prove their healthy connection through their fruit (15:8b). No fruit, and we are in essence a useless waste of cells. The Vine nurtures, the Vinedresser attends – but in the end the branch must PRODUCE FRUIT. Don’t be fooled by fake Christianity that makes God sound like He sits in Heaven pining for the love of men. He is intrinsic and complete. His love is a gift to us, not a need He must satisfy. We are badly mistaken if we don’t recognize that in the exchange between the potter and the clay, the clay is the beneficiary and the potter the planner and designer. We are not God’s colleagues – we are His workmanship. We have the privilege to be His – but we must understand that we are made for a purpose, and the benefits come from living out that purpose.
Great are the benefits of working for Jesus – for having His life flow through mine… I have great friends. I have rich experiences. I have unbelievable moments of being pampered, loved and affirmed in my life. I serve among deep and rich brothers in the Lord. I serve with patient and kind fellow laborers. I have a full stomach, a home that is more than equipped and comfortable, and vehicles that are much more than what is needed. I have loving parents, healthy children, as well as a wise and beautiful wife. In finance, I have brothers and sisters that are constantly concerned with my needs and give generously to my family’s support. The truth is that I do not complain – not because I am so very holy – but because I am so very well cared for. Yet, in all this, there is one concern… that I would forget WHY I labor.
Our call is to labor for the Father’s honor, and not our own. It is to make HIM comfortable, and not ourselves. It is to press ourselves for His service – not press others for our benefit. We may be affirmed, but MUST NOT hunger for fame. We may be enriched, but we must resist the insatiable appetite for fortune. We serve the King, and Him alone. We cannot take the best for ourselves – for offering the best to Him as His portion is our call and our privilege.
Honestly brothers and sisters, I fear that it appears some have professionalized ministry to be little more than another way to “make a living”. There is no sin in accepting the perks and benefits of ministry as gifts from the Lord through the hands of His servants (Paul taught that to the Corinthians). The real issue is that these benefits may become the REASON some seek to work in the field of the Lord. We must constantly renew our commitment to produce fruit for His table – and remind ourselves that is our purpose. In that purpose, there is the joy of knowing that I am what I was created to be. Branches prove their healthy connection through their fruit. They see the relationships that are growing toward God. They experience the PEACE of God amid the storm.
They don’t seek to bear fruit to prove their relationship – they seek to build their relationship and then experience growing fruit.
Law Five: Branches flourish in the JOY of the connection! (15:8, 11).
John 15:11 “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and [that] your joy may be made full.
Real branches celebrate connection. They aren’t weary of the demands of fruit bearing, they are renewed by the juices of connection. They JOY because they make Him happy. Consider our Vine. Jesus’ joy didn’t come from this world, or from His work – it came from bringing His Father HONOR AND GLORY. In The Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado said it very well. (Word Publishing, 1996, p. 6-8) He wrote a story of a certain King: “No man had more reason to be miserable than this one-yet no man was more joyful. His first home was a palace. Servants were at his fingertips. The snap of his fingers changed the course of history. His name was known and loved. He had everything wealth, power, respect. And then he had nothing. Students of the event still ponder it. Historians stumble as they attempt to explain it. How could a king lose everything in one instant? One moment he was royalty; the next he was in poverty. His bed became, at best, a borrowed pallet-and usually the hard earth. He never owned even the most basic mode of transportation and was dependent upon handouts for his income. He was sometimes so hungry he would eat raw grain or pick fruit off a tree. He knew what it was like to be rained on, to be cold. He knew what it meant to have no home. His palace grounds had been spotless; now he was exposed to filth. He had never known disease, but was now surrounded by illness. In his kingdom he had been revered; now he was ridiculed. His neighbors tried to lynch him. Some called him a lunatic. His family tried to confine him to their house. Those who didn’t ridicule him tried to use him. They wanted favors. They wanted tricks. He was a novelty. They wanted to be seen with him-that is, until being with him was out of fashion. Then they wanted to kill him. He was accused of a crime he never committed. Witnesses were hired to lie. The jury was rigged. No lawyer was assigned to his defense. A judge swayed by politics handed down the death penalty. They killed him. He left as he came-penniless. He was buried in a borrowed grave, his funeral financed by compassionate friends. Though he once had everything, he died with nothing. He should have been miserable. He should have been bitter. He had every right to be a pot of boiling anger. But he wasn’t. He was joyful. Sourpusses don’t attract a following. People followed him wherever he went. Children avoid soreheads. Children scampered after this man. Crowds don’t gather to listen to the woeful. Crowds clamored to hear him. Why? He was joyful. He was joyful when he was poor. He was joyful when he was abandoned. He was joyful when he was betrayed. He was even joyful as he hung on a tool of torture, his hands pierced with six-inch Roman spikes. Jesus embodied a stubborn joy. A joy that refused to bend in the wind of hard times. A joy that held its ground against pain. A joy whose roots extended deep into the bedrock of eternity. In John 15, Jesus said He wanted that joy to be OURS as well. The connection – with its purpose and filling – should produce full joy in us.