Publication: Pastoral Letter, June 2003
Dear Friend in Christ:
In my last letter, I discussed the difference between viewing the Church as a circle and viewing it as a vine. In this letter, I want to pursue the vine analogy that Jesus gives us in John chapter 15, and how we can be fruitful branches. This is a vital issue and a personal issue.
I had a recent conversation with a minister; we discussed the story of the Good Samaritan who assisted a man who had been beaten and robbed. The story refers to the Priest and Levite who saw the man and crossed over on the other side. My friend referred to them as “the church on the other side of the road”.
In order to be fruitful, we must be on the right side of the road. That is, we must not avoid the need. Jesus was the Fruitful Vine because His mission and attitude was to help the very people who are so often avoided by religious people. We are sometimes guilty of looking for people who have something to give rather than someone that we can give to – people who have nothing of offer. One cynic remarked that the reason the Priest and Levite crossed the road was that they saw the man had already been robbed.
The last phrase of John chapter 14 says, “Let us arise and go from here.” Whether Jesus is telling the disciples that it was time to make a physical move or a spiritual one, it applies. Jesus then begins His discourse on fruitfulness in John chapter 15. The spiritual move was from watching and listening, to taking responsibility to become fruitful themselves. He is still saying the same thing to us: “Let us arise and go from here.”
Jesus died to produce fruit (see John 12:24). He described Himself as the Vine. The flow of life from Him who was rooted in the eternal love of God produced the disciples, and then the seventy, and then multitudes of people who were delivered from darkness and healed of diseases. The centuries since His birth, death, and Resurrection have been brightened by the prolific fruitfulness of His life.
Jesus described the disciples as branches. All who have been born of Him are branches of His life in that they draw life from Him. Branches cannot bear fruit of themselves; they must be connected and draw life. Churches are not branches, believers are. The issue is not whether or not our church bears fruit; the issue is whether or not you or I bear fruit. Branches are there to bear fruit – not of themselves, but of the life of Christ.
The Vine Dresser
In John 15 Jesus tells us that the Father is the Vine Dresser. He observes each branch (person) to see if they are fruitful. Leaves or activities are not fruit. Jesus goes on to say that if a branch is not fruitful, the Father takes it away – it loses its place and its life. The message here is that each believer is accountable to the Father to be productive.
What is the fruit to which Jesus refers? The Scriptures speak of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of Good and Evil, the fruit of the earth, natural offspring, and the fruit of repentance. In this instance, I believe Jesus is speaking of reproducing healthy believers – followers. The primary purpose of fruit is to be reproductive.
Should every disciple of Christ make disciples? I believe so. The commission to His disciples was, “Go make disciples.” No branch can say to the Vine Dresser, “that branch over there is bearing fruit for me.”
If it is true that every branch is accountable to bear fruit, then how can we become fruitful? It is a vital question. Jesus gives several keys in John chapter 15; let us look at 3 of them:
The Word cleanses and keeps us healthy (see John 15:3). Sin blocks our life flow. The Word provides seed for our sowing and guides us in fruit bearing. The living Word is life to us and to our hearers.
Abiding in relationship with Him enables us to draw life, strength, and leadership from the Holy Spirit (see John 15:4). Our connection to the Vine is our source. The flow of life from us draws the thirsty and hungry. The continual awareness of His presence is evidence of our abiding.
Abiding in love (see John 15:10). The love of God is indescribable. It is eternal, unselfish, loyal, and unfailing. It is what sought us in our sin and saved us from ourselves. It is what sent Jesus to the earth and to the Cross. It is what has been shed abroad in our hearts. It is what we have received – and what we are called to give.
These are three keys that take us beyond ourselves and into His purpose – bearing fruit.
More Keys from John
John chapters 14-16 are inexhaustible in their rich truths, and incomprehensible apart from the Holy Spirit revealing them to us. Here are a few thoughts that I would point out from John 15:1-16.
Fruitlessness can cause a loss of relationship. I do not build theology on metaphors, so I do not infer that if we fail to lead someone to Christ that we will go to hell. But Jesus is saying that prolonged unfruitfulness can indicate a loss of life-giving relationship to Him. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. That is said loud and clear (see Zechariah 4:6). If we recall what it was like “apart from Him,” then the warning to unproductive branches is a very serious one.
“Just as My Father loves Me, I also love you. Abide in My love” (see John 15:9). I confess that I cannot comprehend that Jesus would love me in the same way that the Father loves Him. I can only accept His Word. But it gives me the security to obey and reach out.
“This is My command, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (see John 15:12). That command must define all our relationships if we are His disciples.
“All things that I have heard from My Father, I have made known to you” (see John 15:15). Again this is amazing. I accept the Bible and the revelation of Christ as the eternal wisdom of God. When Jesus spoke, people marveled. What a privilege disciples enjoy!
“Whatever you ask the Father in My Name, He may give to you” (see John 15:16). I do not receive this as Jesus promising that the Father will do my will in Jesus’ Name. But I do receive it on the conditions of the Word, abiding relationally, abiding in His love, and being fruitful. To be honest, I believe that there are special benefits to good stewards of Divine life.
Jesus was fruitful for many reasons, but one special reason was, He knew where the fields and potential fruit were. He saw harvest where others saw problems to be avoided. His attitude toward sinners allowed Him into their lives. They somehow understood that unlike the religious leaders of the day, Jesus was on their side of the road. And that is where the fruit was.
Loving the Church
A few weeks ago I reached 66 years of age, defying the prophesies of some. This year has been very, very full so far. I pray for continued good health and resources to bear fruit.
Carolyn and I have been very blessed in our 43 years of marriage together with, among other gifts, three children and their dedicated spouses who all serve the Lord. Stephen and Susanne live near us in the Mobile area. He pastors, writes, and travels in ministry. Charlyn and Enrique minister to children and needy parents in Costa Rica. They have adopted 5 children, have one born to them, and help feed and educate approximately 20 more. Jonathan and Sarah serve the Lord in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is in business and they are involved in New Life Church.
We are grateful for our fruit. Beyond our family fruit, God has given us spiritual offspring that serve God in many ways and many places. We are blessed with “branches”. My desire is to serve the fruitfulness of the vine.
We love the Church and for more than 45 years, I have planted, pastored, and promoted churches. I am, however, deeply exercised over the state of the Church. The professionalization, performance, and spectator qualities of much of it leave me in some spiritual pain. The challenge to change the individual Christian mindset from merely hearing, watching, and commentating, to becoming engaged personal mission, is great and crucial at this juncture of our history.
Jesus is not only our Savior, He is our model. He gathered, but then He also sent. I classify “worship” music four ways: About us (thanksgiving), about Him (praise), to Him (worship), and from Him (sending music). When Isaiah worshipped (Isaiah 6), he saw the Lord, he was cleansed by the Lord, and he was sent by the Lord. We must mot stop short of being sent. We must not just leave the service on Sunday – the Word of the Lord sends us into the harvest. I am praying for more sending music, sending messages, and more sent messengers.
May God deliver us from merely “hand-holding” the dead branches. May He deliver us from self-absorption, and comparing ourselves with ourselves. May He not only deliver us “out of” sin, but into the fullness of the harvest.
I do not count my life as a model. I often flinch as I’m reminded of my own weakness and failure. The donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem might have misunderstood when people shouted, threw garments, and palm branches. Perhaps the lowly donkey might have felt like a stallion for a few moments. But when Jesus got off of its back, it was still just a donkey.
What could I do without Jesus? No, I don’t even want to think about it! Thanks for you love, prayers and support. Please continue. I need you.
Scripture References: John 14-16; Zechariah 4:6; Isaiah 6