Christ’s Vision for the Church (9)
“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.” John 15.5-8
Those who are cut off from Christ are said to whither like a dead branch; because, as the commencement of strength is from him, so also is its uninterrupted continuance. Not that it ever happens that any one of the elect is dried up, but because there are many hypocrites who, in outward appearance, flourish and are green for a time, but who afterwards, when they ought to yield fruit, show the very opposite of that which the Lord expects and demands from his people.
- John Calvin, comment on John 15.6
A vision of life and fruit
Perhaps the most foundational of the visions of the Church which Jesus taught, or inspired His disciples to teach, is that of the Vine and the branches. While describing His Church as a temple or a nation of servants, as weapons for righteous warfare or an agent of change, or as the Bride of the Lord, or even a city on a hill – while these facets of Christ’s vision for His Church can be fairly abstract – the vision of Vine and branches leaves little room for wondering about what Jesus intended.
Here is a vision of life and fruit, using an image everyone in Jesus’ day would have immediately recognized and understood. Vines and their fruit were everywhere in ancient Israel. People had at least a rudimentary understanding of the relationship between fruit, branches, vines, and roots. Vines were an integral part of the economy of Judea. They required much work and tending to – pruning, fertilizing, protecting against beasts and weeds, and so forth – but the payoff every year was well worth the effort.
In using this image of the Vine and the branches, Jesus connected His mission with that of the Lord in the Old Testament. God used this image to describe His people, as in Psalm 80.8-11:
You have brought a vine out of Egypt;
You have cast out the nations, and planted it.
You prepared room for it,
And caused it to take deep root,
And it filled the land.
The hills were covered with its shadow,
And the mighty cedars with its boughs.
She sent out her boughs to the Sea,
And her branches to the River.
In this image, the vine spreads throughout the land (Hebrew: אָֽרֶץ, earth), taking deep root and dominating even the largest and most impressive trees in the landscape, sending out boughs and fruit throughout the land of promise.
What kind of vine can be so sturdy and fecund as to spread throughout, shelter, and fructify the whole earth? Can there be any doubt that this vision of vibrant, growing, spreading, life and fruit was in the mind of our Lord Jesus when He described Himself as the Vine and His followers as its branches?
Let’s look briefly at two key components of this vision, and think about their implications for how we lead and teach the people in our churches.
First, Jesus is building His Church to bear fruit. That fruit is twofold.
First, Jesus is bringing the fruit of new life through His people – the fruit of the Spirit, the tokens of love, and the markers of holiness. They who believe in Jesus are new creatures; old things have passed away, and all things are becoming new in the image of Jesus Christ Himself (2 Cor. 5.17; 2 Cor. 3.12-18). Believers are being transformed from glory to glory into greater completeness in Jesus (Col. 1.28). And churches are growing in unity and maturity so that they grow up into Jesus Christ in all things (Eph. 4.11-16).
Eternal life in the believer issues in rivers of living water, flowing from the Fountain which is Christ to refresh and renew everyone and everything (Jn. 7.37-29). Eternal life experienced together leads to a compounding of spiritual vitality, allowing believers and their churches to realize their callings to bring joy, beauty, and holiness into their communities (Ps. 48.1-3).
The second kind of fruit involves the ingrafting of new branches into the life-giving Vine of Christ (Rom. 11.16-18). We have seen that, as church members go forth from their assemblies into every nook and cranny of their community, living the life of liberty and love which they enjoy in Jesus, others are drawn to Him, desiring to learn a reason for the hope they see in us, and many will be converted and ingrafted into Jesus as well. Churches should expect to add to their ranks such as the Lord is pleased to save through their efforts as witnessing bodies in their communities (Mic. 4.1-8; 1 Pet. 3.15).
Church leaders must cast this vision of life – spiritual life, new life, full and abundant life, and eternallife in Jesus – so that church members rejoice in the vision, seek to grow in it, and eagerly extend it to all the people they encounter.
Abiding in Christ
Such fruitfulness is the result of abiding in Jesus – of communing with Him earnestly and faithfully in prayer and of being filled up with His Word (v. 7).
The most important thing shepherds can do for their flocks is lead them to abide in Christ and help them remain there by diligent and loving pastoral oversight. Branches that do not bear fruit show that they are not connected to the vine. Such branches are cut off and used for kindling.
And what of believers who are not increasing in fruitfulness? Or whole congregations that bear but little fruit in their communities? Is their connection to the Vine hindered in some way? By sin? Or a faulty vision? Or poor teaching and disciple-making? Or are they already dead, and simply haven’t realized it?
Only as God’s people – individually and as congregations – abide in Jesus can they do anything He commands (v 5). Shepherds, who are charged with watching over the souls of God’s people (Heb. 13.17), must be diligent to connect church members with Jesus, and to strengthen the ingrafting of one and all in the vital life of Christ, His Word, and His Spirit. Corporate worship is the focal point of such vital connectivity; our services of worship should be conducted to refresh and renew and strengthen church members in their connection to Jesus, so that they may abide in Him, and He in them, throughout the week ahead through prayer and obedience to the Word.
What matters most for members of a congregation is not that they are at the church every time the doors are open. Plugging people into programs or groups is not the reason for the church; plugging them into Jesus is.
Let us embrace Jesus’ vision for us as branches on the life-giving Vine of His presence, promise, and power. And let us hold out expectations and work diligently for abundant fruitfulness and vital, ongoing abiding in Christ in all church members, and in all we do as churches.
“For the relation of the branches to the vine is such that they contribute nothing to the vine but derive their own means of life from it, while that of the vine to the branches is such that it supplies their vital nourishment and receives nothing from them. And so their having Christ abiding in them and abiding themselves in Christ are in both respects advantageous not to Christ but to the disciples.”
- Augustine (354-430 AD), Tractates on the Gospel of John 81.1
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T. M. Moore
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).