Death Sentence

In December 2005 I became the second alternate juror on a murder for hire trial where the prosecution was requesting the death penalty. For the next three weeks, I listened to the testimony for a fairly gruesome murder. During the time when the judge, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney were interviewing the jurors, they asked me pretty much how I would conduct myself as a juror. I can’t remember my full answer, but I remember that I said something to the effect that I would strive to understand and follow the law as much as possible and to take being in the position of possibly having someone else’s life depend on my decision very, very seriously.

In addition, on this jury were also a pastor’s wife, and two other women whom I remember as also being fellow believers in Jesus Christ. At the same time I discovered that there was a friend of mine on another jury with 200 count indictment and guilty plea for murder that was gong on at the same time. I remember that they were able to face horror of hearing repeatedly about the murders seriously, without wilting or folding under the pressure or intensity. I suspect that they had through their lives also found the need to bring the strength of God to face the hardest and most difficult situations and not shy away from them. I think that all this is part of growing into spiritual maturity and not remaining in extended spiritual infancy or adolescence as a believer in Jesus Christ. Indeed, I’ve often seen that, while sometimes there are young people who are spiritually mature beyond their years, more often spiritual maturity levels are often linked to maturity level in life, as people grow and learn through facing the challenges of this world in the strength of Jesus Christ.

The last night and day of Jesus Christ during his earthly life and ministry  can be some of the most difficult passages of the Bible to consider and study in depth. Yet these hours are all described in detail in all four gospels. I think that it’s part of the spiritual immaturity and emotional immaturity and weakness of so many in our age that we so rarely preach and teach on these passages very much. Part of the problem is that we tend to spend too much time going into the mechanics of how crucifixion worked when we get to the crucifixion. Often, though, we don’t seem to see the need to think, meditate, and preach and teach on the last hours of Jesus, even though a considerable amount of the gospels deal with these hours. But it is part of having the spiritual foundation not to wilt at what is happening and to understand what he endured was for us; it is at least enough for us to understand that all this was what he endured for loving us to the death on the cross. It at least calls for respectful and reverent consideration on a regular basis from us, to remember the price of our salvation. I think that seriously considering these passages from time to time will remind us that our faith is not spiritual fluff, an escape from reality, or getting an emotional buzz, but the strong foundation to be able to face the greatest tragedies, injustices and even horrors that this world can bring against us, as long as we do it with him, since he was there first before us to face them and conquer them.

So here’s how the adjudication the death sentence on Jesus happened. Jesus Christ had a number of hearings and adjudications on the last night and morning of his earthly life. He had what seems to have been a preliminary hearing before Annas, the retired Jewish High Priest, and then a larger trial before Joseph Caiaphas, the current Jewish High Priest, the next, secular trials after dawn before Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. These trials, hearings and adjudications show the religious, political and criminal justice system gone criminally unjust. They show the religious and political machinery of this world through hatred, envy, indifference and incompetence driving an innocent man to capital punishment of a particularly brutal and degrading kind. Yet the injustice of the trial was also the condemnation of the world and provided the innocent victim for the sins of the world. The actual innocence before the laws of man and God, civil and divine justice shown in these hearings, trials and adjudications, and most of all in the trial before the Jewish ruling council and the high priest. They show his utter innocence before the laws of man that was part of his utter innocence that was necessary to take on the sins of the entire world. Through these trials, the redemption of the world came because of a false verdict from the machinery of civil justice gone criminally un just, and they produced a verdict and a sacrifice which God had foreseen from before the creation of the world.

“And the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council were seeking testimony so that they could execute him, and they weren’t able to find any, because many were perjuring themselves, and no testimony held together. And some stood up and perjured themselves as they said, “We heard him as he said, ‘I will tear down this Temple that was made with hands and in three days I will build up another that is not made with hands,” but their testimony did not hold together either.”

“And the High Priest stood up in the middle and asked Jesus, ‘Aren’t you going to give any answer? Why are they testifying against you?”’

“But he was silent and gave no answer.”

“Again, the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most Blessed One?’”

“And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

“And the High Priest tore his garments and said, ‘What need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. So how does it seem to you?’”

“And they all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him, and they covered his face and beat him as they said to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the attendants delivered blows to him.”

(Mark 14:55-65, Dale’s sight translation)

The redemption of the world required an innocent volunteer. As the trials ground onward, the innocence of Jesus was one of the extraordinary things which was acknowledged by pretty much everyone about him. Even more, his innocence was further corroborated by the actual testimony at the trial in the twisted attempt at civil justice, as the testimony of the different witnesses ground against each other and crumbled into dust before everyone. The legal failure of false testimony nevertheless established the innocence of Jesus. False accusations and demonstrably and obviously false accusations have never been the establishment of actual guilt anywhere at any time, and it was the same as Jesus as he came before the bar of civil justice and proved it horribly wrong and twisted.

The trial started out this way:  vv. 55-59: “And the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council were seeking testimony so that they could execute him, and they weren’t able to find any, because many were perjuring themselves, and no testimony held together. And some stood up and perjured themselves as they said, “We heard him as he said, ‘I will tear down this Temple that was made with hands and in three days I will build up another that is not made with hands,” but their testimony did not hold together either.”

The parade of false witnesses against Jesus, one after another, was part of the setup by the high priest and the Jewish ruling council to get the verdict that they were seeking. These were public officials responsible for justice who were themselves suborning perjury and that in itself was and remains a deep and malicious crime upon their own ledger. It was unjust then, just as it is unjust and illegal now. With all that was said at that time, they could not yet could not find any testimony of anything that would bring a death sentence, even as they strove to bring at least a pretense of legality and public justice to these proceedings. There was probably some kind of record of the testimony, since in the ancient world there were several known forms of shorthand available. As the testimony was coming out, it was obviously insufficient and inconsistent testimony. According to the Old Testament Law, according to Deuteronomy 14:16, the testimony had to agree among at least two witnesses to establish that a capital crime had been committed. The narrative indicates that they were looking for proof of false teaching and public sedition which were capital crimes under the Jewish and Roman Law. It finally came down to the false testimony based upon twisting of something like he really said, which was quoted in John 2:19. Yet even then the trial could not produce anything like the consistent testimony required for a death sentence, since the false witnesses still contradicted each other in some way.

But still, see how much Jesus had to endure standing there before malicious, lying lips seeking to end his life. This round of false testimony probably took at least an hour and probably several hours where he stood in silence before all before the false witnesses seeking to provide testimony that would end his life. Yet there was purpose behind this also, since this was something that had been portrayed in the Psalms as part of the suffering of the Righteous One to come. And as he was standing there, it is a remarkable comfort and encouragement to believers in Jesus for all the ages since then. It seem like something that has been a common situation for believers of all ages as well to stand before others who have been offering false accusations against them, and behind them the instigator of the false accusations has been the Enemy of their souls and the souls of all mankind. Ever since then, one of Satan’s common weapons against Christians have been false accusations:

“Keep up such good conduct among the Gentiles, so that, in that time when they slander you as evildoers, they will still see your good actions with their own eyes and then glorify God in the day of his return” (I Peter 2:12; see also I Peter 4:3-4).

“Blessed are you when they scorn you and persecute you and say every kind of dirty word against you falsely for my sake” (Matthew 5:11,  see also Luke 6:26).

Also, a cursory glance through the Psalms will show that there were many, many times the Psalmist endured false accusations.

So then, if you are a follower of Christ, then be prepared for false accusations. They may come against you and they may even be of unimaginable depravity. They may even be gaslighting accusations, such as Festus shouted to Paul that he was insane when he was given a chance to speak before him in an informal hearing. It’s possible that we may even find ourselves in situations where it seems like everyone is seeing us through the eyes of our haters and detractors, and nothing that we say to set forth the truth about ourselves seems to find anyone willing to give us a fair hearing.

Furthermore, at the same time, this is never something that any believer should ever do to any other believer deliberately, persistently and stubbornly, and no believer in the church of Jesus Christ should continually have to deal with false accusations from fellow believers. The body of Christ, the fellowship of believers, should be the one place where false accusations go to die. But recently, I heard the great line from an old song on the radio: “The talk is cheap when the story is good . . .” Unfortunately, that’s often the situation among many people in our churches. Many people in our churches have never grown beyond the level of social maturity that they had when they were in high school, and the gossip that may fly around even under spiritual pretenses may include stretching the truth beyond recognition, wild insinuations and exaggerations, and false accusations sometimes of the most outrageous, lurid and fatuous sort – sometimes based on something no more reliable than they saw on television or on a website about someone else somewhere else at some other time.

No believer in Jesus Christ should have to live under a cloud of suspicion, rejection and disdain in the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ because of someone else’s overactive imagination and uncontrolled tongue. Unfortunately, some may have grown up and sought attention by being the breathless tattletales about the faults or (highly exaggerated) mistakes of others, or there may be the religious narcissist among us who spreads horrible accusations behind the back against those who may call him or her to account for his or her bad behavior. Some others repeat the same things about the same person for decades, even, and never face the person even to get a fair hearing. We need to deal with such people with the love, consideration and firmness of Jesus Christ. Neil Anderson in one of his books suggested these questions for the purveyor of this kind of backstabbing gossip, which I’ve adapted here:

  1. What is your reason for telling me/anyone this?
  2. Where did you get your information?
  3. Have you gone directly to the source?
  4. Have you personally allowed yourself to be quoted on this?
  5. Will you allow yourself to be quoted on this?

And briefly, note that false accusations are also a normal part of the abnormal situation of abuse, since it seems to be necessary for the abuser to dehumanize the target to make some kind of self justification for their treatment of another human being, to pour out their self nurtured bitterness the result from often exaggerated and fabricated list of wrongs. Note also that both spousal abuse – husband to wife and wife to husband – and child abuse are contrary to clear scripture, such as  Colossians 3: 8,19, 21: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. . . . Husbands, love your wives and do not pour out your bitterness upon them . . . Fathers, do not make your children bitter, or they will become discouraged.”

Even where there are a slew of false charges, the innocent do not always have to answer the false charges. False testimony may fail by itself and this is what happened with the false testimony against Jesus. It may well be part of our following him in our lives not only to face false accusations but perhaps even to remain as silent as he was before these false accusations. I don’t think that there’s a hard and fast rule here – some well meaning believers may say, “Never defend yourself,” but I see throughout the Bible many godly people asserting the truth about themselves in the face of false testimony. But in all this we can know that he has gone through it also: “ . . . for we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who was tested in every way in a similar way, yet without sin. So then, let us come with boldness to the throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and we might find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

So, as all this was going on, Jesus remained silent:

“And the High Priest stood up in the middle and asked Jesus, ‘Aren’t you going to give any answer? Why are they testifying against you?”’

“But he was silent and gave no answer.” (verses. 60-61a).

The silence of Jesus during all the false testimony was dramatic but not intended for dramatic effect. He knew whatever he said would be twisted and used against him. Caiaphas, whose real first name was Joseph, had been give a name which meant something like, ‘the inquisitor.’ So when he invited Jesus to take the opportunity to defend himself against the false witnesses, he was not acting as someone who was on side side of Jesus, let alone someone who was on the side of justice. Even more, it was not the responsibility of the high priest to ask this question on why Jesus did not defend himself or the next question. Underneath Joseph Caiaphas was growing more and more irritated and baffled, and it seemed that this false friendliness was intended to bait Jesus into saying something incriminating about himself in response to the false testimony. That it had come to this point demonstrated the frustration that the false testimony had given to their murderous intentions. Certainly the silence of Jesus was entirely appropriate in a legal sense, since it was not necessary to answer and refute false testimony, which he could have done easily.

The responsibility of Jesus during this trial, though, while all this false testimony was happening, was not to defend himself. Rather, his responsibility was the fulfillment of prophecy of the Messiah of Isaiah, from his concern from the conclusion to Gethsemane, that the scriptures would be fulfilled in him. He was then living out before the Jewish ruling council Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Years later, the apostle Peter, who seems to have watched this from a safe distance, described it in this way: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23).

When false accusations come, then, choose the Christlike reaction. Know that before this world Jesus was there first and your reaction is to be like his, This does not mean that there will not be legitimate concerns for personal safety or civil justice from the brutality of this world; certainly both Jesus and Paul did point out illegalities during the proceedings when they were on trial. But know this, that in the power of Christ it possible not to answer or become angry in turn no matter how ridiculous or maddening the false accusations are and how false and hateful the accusers become, and above all, do not hate the haters in return. Live out Romans 12:17-21: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Living like Jesus in this world even in the face of the most maddening and infuriating experiences is part of what it means for us to be in the world but not of the world. But even more, knowing what he went through gives the assurance that even in the hour of darkness, there was no darkness in him. His victory over the darkness included his coming through without a stain through all the accusations that were thrown against him. This was a part of his sinless life, of how he came to and lived through this fallen world without a stain of sin upon him, even through the worst that the twisted machinery of human justice tried to throw at him. So then, with his utter innocence and his utter willingness, he was utterly worthy to be the sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. Because he had no sins of his own so therefore he could take on the sins of all humanity, and so his worthiness took away our unworthiness in the cross.

But even more, the redemption of the world required the death of the Son of God. The redemption of the world required not just someone completely innocent, or even an innocent volunteer, but someone who was able to shoulder the sin of the entire world and take it away forever.

One remarkable fact came from the trial of Jesus. It brought forth the plain acknowledgment from Jesus of his being the Messiah. At the climax of the trial he acknowledged before the world who he was. The frustration of the High Priest drove him to ask Jesus plainly whether the was the Messiah, in terms no one could misunderstand. . vv. 61b-62:

“Again, the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most Blessed One?’”

“And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

In a way, the question which came to Jesus was a trick question, but it received a plain and forthright answer. The plain question was asked in a way as if Jesus had been under oath to answer. In fact, the High Priest could not have asked the question in a more serious and compelling way in a Jewish court proceeding. He plainly asked Jesus if he were the Messiah, and Messiah as the Son of the living God. The reaction shows that Caiaphas did not mean it just as a traditional Messianic title, but as a virtual admission of personal Deity. He was in effect, trying to trick Jesus into an admission which might be interpreted just as a traditional title, but which he would twist into a virtual admission of personal Deity.

And Jesus answered the question. He gave his answer in the language of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, before the entire ruling council. The answer of Jesus was solemn acknowledgement of his Messiahship before the entire ruling council. If he had been silent and had refused to answer, that would have been denial and disrespect to the office of the High Priest and to the name of God. In that moment; his own public testimony told the truth about himself to the entire Jewish ruling council;. He was already before the highest court in the land, but his answer also implied and carried a warning that he would one day be their judge. And their rejection of his Messiahship would in fact secure his exaltation and his glory yet to come as King, Judge and Conqueror. And his answer was also the indirect explanation also as to why he was not there yet in glory as the conquering Messiah, since his glory was yet to come. He identified himself as the right person, but pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of how they expected him to come to the future.

The world without Christ also puts the believer in Christ on trial constantly. We may not necessarily be called to stand for Christ in a court trial for our lives, though many believers worldwide have had to face that even in our day. Still, our confession of Jesus before the world is what he expects from us when the world challenges us, asks us whether we are what we say we are, whether we are genuine. The answer we need to give and live out is the answer that God expects, though, not the answer that the world expects and want. Though Jesus’s confession of himself before the world for who he was gave the answer that led to his sacrifice for the sins of the world, our truthful answer will likewise be redemptive in a way, in that our witness before the world will lead to some to faith in Christ. Once a rabbi introduced Corrie ten Boom, to a meeting of Jewish friends, and she told them that she had come to tell them about her greatest friend, the Jew Jesus. At that point some tried to leave, but they were told to sit down and listen respectfully. At the end, one doctor said, “When I hear Corrie ten Boom tell about the joy and security she had from her Jesus, even in such difficult circumstances, and what love he had given her for her enemies, I almost envy her and get a longing to know the Lord Jesus more intimately.”

The confession before the world did not meet with the acceptance of the world, though, but rather the most extreme rejection that the world had to offer:

“And the High Priest tore his garments and said, ‘What need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. So how does it seem to you?’”

“And they all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him, and they covered his face and beat him as they said to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the attendants delivered blows to him.” (verses. 62-65).

When Jesus made the plain acknowledgment that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, he met with an immediate summary judgment and its aftermath. The death penalty for blasphemy normal in OT Law (Leviticus 24:16, I Kings 21:10, in the case of Naboth. He could have offered a credible defense of his self identification as the Messiah, based on his words and deeds. Indeed, he could have given a discourse like he had given the men on the road to Emmaus, on the day of his resurrection, as he “ . .  began from Moses and from all the prophets explained to them from the scriptures all concerning himself . . .” (Luke 24:27). But all this would have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, he wasn’t even given an opportunity to mount a credible defense once the words left his mouth.

The answer of Jesus was taken as self incrimination before the Jewish High Council. It was the only play they had left in face of the inability to get other testimony earlier that would have warranted a death sentence. There was deliberate high drama of the high priest tearing his garment to get the verdict, since he had to make it as dramatic as possible. Still, they had no legal authority to perform the execution. As a conquered nation subject to the Roman governor, they still had the legal requirement then to take it to Pontius Pilate for the actual execution. Later, in Mark 15:1, the official sentencing took place at the crack of dawn to meet the letter of the law in the legal requirement that it not be at night. But let us also note right here, finally and forever, that this verdict was the responsibility of the men that were there at that time in that century. There is no justification ever after for any of the idiotic and brutal pogroms and persecutions of Jews that took place centuries later with the horrible epithet of calling them “Christ killers.” Any Christian who takes the Bible at all seriously at this point must bow his or her head in shame at how some groups of professed and utterly ignorant Christians tried to use this to justify their brutality toward the innocent Jews in their midst.

But – to go on further about the events of that day — immediately, after Jesus had spoken and they all agreed to the death penalty, the trial degraded to the beating and mockery from some members of the ruling council and by the Temple guards which preceded the beating and mockery of the Roman guards later, in 15:16-20 (see Abused for a further explanation of this passage). This beating by the Temple guards, though was itself an official, legal act as taking place under the authority of the high priest, and marked an official rejection of the purported blasphemy. The blindfolding was a weird Messianic test based upon Isaiah 11:2-4, the idea that ‘the Messiah does not need to see’. But the reality is that he was fulfilling Isaiah 50:6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”

So when it comes down to us, the world will often reject our testimony to the Messiah. So do not expect them to accept your confession of Jesus. They may immediately reject our testimony and make up all sorts of false tests for us in the form of “if you were really a Christian you would do this.” And these false tests, like they made up for Jesus, will often something be humiliating, selfish and ridiculous, as if they were the authorities on what it means to be a Christian, as if they were living up to their own standards and as if they were trustworthy to stand in judgment on the credibility of the testimony of believers. Yet again, remember that this also how they treated Jesus, as he was there first also; and also their rejection of our testimony to him is also their continuing rejection of him. But even so,  some will respond to our testimony. This means that there is still the need for believers to continue and realize expendability in the mission, as we follow Jesus in this world. It’s incumbent upon us also to recognize that we’re expendable in the mission, as Nate Saint did, before he and three others were martyred by the Auca Indians: “During the last war, we had to be willing to be expendable. A missionary constantly faces expendability.” His understanding of his expendability was echoed by Jim Elliott: “If that’s the way God wants it to be, I’m ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”

Too often the church has mistaken being glib and talkative with knowing the truth and being called to speak the truth, and the simple forthrightness of Jesus is too often missing, though it is the mark of those who have truly been with Jesus. Though this world challenges us to be genuine and will not accept it when we are genuine, nevertheless there will still be those for whom our confession of Jesus before them and before the world will mean salvation from this world and its judgment. Though the time will come when this world will accept the ultimate phony, the ultimate counterfeit from the phony factory of Satan, yet the believer in Christ can be assured that the eternal Son of God has come, has taken the sins of the world upon his shoulders and has taken them away for our eternal salvation.

IN THE TRIAL BEFORE THE WORLD, THEY JUDGED THE PERFECT SON OF GOD TO BE A PHONY. THE ONE WHO HAD COMMITTED NO SIN OR DECEIT WAS SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT HIMSELF BEFORE A WORLD WHICH DID NOT ACCEPT IT. THE SON OF GOD THEN WENT TO THE CROSS TO DIE FOR US AS THE PERFECT SACRIFICE FOR OUR SINS, AND THERE HE TOOK THE SIN OF THE WORLD UPON HIS SHOULDERS. BECAUSE OF HIM WE DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT, TO HAVE PERFECTLY FULFILLED THE MORAL LAW OF GOD WHICH WE AND THIS WORLD HAS REJECTED, MOCKED AND TRAMPLED. WE SIMPLY HAVE TO BE FORGIVEN, TO HAVE RECEIVED HIS SALVATION, AND TO BE GENUINE IN OUR FAITH IN HIM ALONE FOR OUR ETERNAL SALVATION, TO BE GROWING IN LOVE AND PURITY TO GLORIFY HIM. AND THEN WHEN YOU MAY STAND BEFORE A WORLD WHICH REJECTED HIM AND WHICH MAY ALSO HAVE ALREADY JUDGED YOU TO BE A PHONY BECAUSE YOU HAVE RECEIVED THE SALVATION IN JESUS THAT THEY REJECT, KNOW THAT JESUS WAS THERE BEFORE YOU. BECAUSE OF THEIR OWN UNBELIEF THEY CANNOT STAND FOR YOU TO BE GENUINE IN YOUR FAITH IN CHRIST, BECAUSE THAT WOULD MAKE THEM OUT TO BE THE PHONIES, IN THEIR OWN CLAIMS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, RELIGION, AND PIETY.

Be ready to confess your faith before the world no matter how you anticipate the world may react to the plain confession of Jesus Christ, and be ready to live like Jesus in the face of the rejection of this world. This is a strong reason to walk more closely to Jesus, to experience his power to live the risen and changed life; his power also to be able to testify with holy boldness to the change which he has made. And understand that this is the Jesus who died on the cross for you. His love was there for you for now and to eternity, and this is the love which you need to receive to experience truly. So then receive him now through repentance and faith as Lord and Savior.

Productive

Long ago I copied down a striking quote from the late Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts. In these days it still rings true: “The sick, the dying, the poor, the brokenhearted, the desperate — few of these looked to the church for help. I was convinced that the great bulk of our time and effort was spent on ourselves — meetings for church members, prayers for church members, church for church type people. Now and then we would reach a new family and see a new face, but they were usually related to someone already in the church.”

So many of us look out at the world around us and see these situations and see that the Church of Jesus Christ is here to minister to them. These are the situations around us that call for effective disciples of Jesus:

  • Fellow believers who need our love and care
  • New believers who need love and guidance to grow to be mature, effective disciples
  • Those unsaved around us who need an effective witness from us;
  • Our own needs and those of our families in the face of our difficulties in this world

Throughout the past two millennia there has been a need always for effective disciples of Jesus Christ in this world, and this is still true today, as it will be until the day comes when Jesus returns. So the need for effective disciples calls for understanding and following what the Word says about spiritual effectiveness. And this comes down to the last teaching session of Jesus with the Eleven disciples, in the last evening before his crucifixion. He had this time to sum up and drive home all that he had been teaching them over the past three years. This was the night of the betrayal of the Lord Jesus by Judas and then his arrest, trial and crucifixion. This happened just after the Last Supper, the exit of Judas, the foot washing and the preview of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who would come about 50 days later on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus had only a couple of hours left with the twelve disciples, minus Judas, and he used this time to give further teaching to them, to prepare them for all the challenges and for the mission to come. It was in this time that he gave them the parable of the Vine and the Branches. This parable was his guidance for the apostles, as well as all believers in the centuries afterwards to his  secret of effective life and ministry, of what it would mean to abide in him and be productive in ministry.

So this is what Jesus had to say, as he gave the Parable of the Vine and the Branches:

“I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you all. Just as the branch has no ability to bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the Vine, so you all are unable to do so unless you remain in me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. That person who remains in me is the one who will bear much fruit, because without me you have no ability to do anything.” (John 15:1-5, Dale’s sight translation).

Spiritual productivity is the will and the provision of God for believers in Jesus Christ. God’s intention is for those who draw their life from his Son to be marvelously effective and productive in ministry for him in this world. And even more, he will not be passive, lax or ignorant throughout the lifetime of the believer to fulfill his intention. All his power, wisdom and love will be directed toward us in our lives upon this earth to make us spiritually effective and productive through our new life in his Son.

This means that the wonderful plan for our lives for those who have received life through Jesus Christ is defined by “abiding in Christ.” Those who share life with the Son of God are automatically enrolled in the plan of God the Father for our spiritual effectiveness of God the Father. It’s not an optional accessory of having eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, it’s an essential part of living for Christ and in Christ for anyone who has received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus, on that evening he was delivering his last teaching session to his eleven disciples, gave them this extended metaphor in verses 1-3: “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you . . .”

In this extended metaphor, Jesus brings together and explains the relationship of the Father, the Son, and believers all together, and he uses the metaphor of a vine and a gardener. In the Old Testament, the vine had been a metaphor for Israel in the Old Testament, and every day that they had attended the Temple in Jerusalem during the previous week they would have passed through the Temple gates and they would have seen the golden Vine on the Temple gates which stood for Israel. But here and now Jesus takes the symbol which they had lived with all their lives and with which they had been long familiar and recasts it in terms of himself. With this metaphor he characterizes himself as the center, definition of the true Israel, in defining himself as the true Vine first of all.

But then he brings in the description of God the Father as the gardener, or vinedresser, as the term is translated in some translations. He gives the greater emphasis on the work of the Father, as the gardener/ vinedresser. They would have known what the vinedresser’s work is, but Jesus emphasizes there that God the Father as the vinedresser would trim and prune the vine and its branches for its maximum output. Then Jesus mentioned how the Father would remove removing unfruitful members from the vine. This could be a reference to the false and temporary disciples they had encountered (6:66) and to turncoats such as Judas. But the emphasis is not so much for them about what would happen to unfruitful branches but for God’s purpose for them. In the original language a pruned branch was a clean branch, and the reference to the disciples being clean was a play on clean from v. 13:10. What Jesus meant was not that they were perfect, but that they were faithful already and abiding with him then, and then the promise for them was that they would remain, but continue to be under the care and the plan of the God the Father. The result would be that they would continue to be effective and productive in the days ahead, as Jesus was looking forward to the days after his ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church for ministry.

This, then, is the plan of God the Father for the life of the believer in Christ. When we talk about how God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, this is it. If you were wondering why you are here on earth, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, this is it. It is not merely for the possession of eternal life alone, as having a ticket to heaven. The possession of eternal life through faith in Christ means that each and every believer is already a branch on the Vine and drawing life from the Vine, But the plan of God is for the believer, each and every believer, to be fruitful – which I explain as being spiritually effective and productive. The pruning/cleansing word play indicates the direction that this work of God in our life, the fulfillment of his plan, takes; it will be directed toward the spiritual effectiveness and productivity of each believer in Christ. He will use every means at his disposal to accomplish this. He will use the indwelling Spirit, the written word, the teaching, correction and rebuke of church leadership and of other believers, and even the most painful experiences of life, as his tools for pruning our lives to make us more and more spiritually effective and productive.

This pruning is necessary because as we are, we will not either become or continue to be spiritually effective without his pruning in our lives. We often wonder why things happen to us, why others say this or that and so on and so on, and some may lamely shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” as if that settles the matter. Well, when we’re looking for a reason, this is often the last reason that we will consider, if we consider it at all. We often try to figure out the machinery of the circumstances of our lives and may complain and cry when we find painful things in our circumstances. The simple consideration of these few words that Jesus gave us on the last evening of his earthly life and ministry, though, would give us a whole new perspective and sense of purpose on much that happens in our lives. For example, there was once a minister who visited a man who had been was complaining about apparent unfairness of God during a time of deep trouble. The minister found the man in his garden trimming his grapevine, and he asked the man what he was doing. He replied, “Because of the rains, this vine is overgrown with a lot of unprofitable stuff. I have to cut it away so the sun can get to the grapes and ripen them.”

So the minister asked, “Does that vine resist and oppose you?”

The man replied, “No.”

So then the minister came to the point: “Then why are you so displeased with our gracious God, who must do to you what you are doing to your vine to bring its fruit to maturity?”

Such a great question for so many of us! What are we doing when we complain and resist God when he is doing with all his wisdom and love what he needs to do in our lives to bring us to be spiritually effective and productive, in ways that we could not imagine or conceive for ourselves, in those times when we childishly imagine that we are in control of our lives and our circumstances and that it’s all about what we want. God’s goal in our lives upon earth is our spiritual effectiveness and productivity through Jesus Christ. However painful it may appear at times to be pruned, because it is done by the Father, we can trust that it is done with infinite compassion and skill. Moreover, we can trust that it is being done far better than we would have thought possible and far better than we could have done in our own wisdom and strength.

So this first application of the lesson may be painful at times, and as we go on, the second lesson may then seem to be an unwelcome splash of cold truthfulness to us, but it likewise is necessary for us to come to the joy of becoming effective as disciples of Jesus. So here’s the second lesson that Jesus gives us from the Parable of the Vine and the Branches: without Christ we are completely ineffective and unproductive.

From the words and teaching of Jesus himself,  the need of abiding in Christ is absolute. For us to fulfill our purpose here on this earth as believers in Christ, remaining in fellowship with him is completely necessary. Any attempts at effective ministry apart from him will be completely inadequate and ultimately fail. We will find no effective ministry and no spiritual productivity through our own ideas and efforts when they are divorced and estranged from dependence on and close fellowship with Jesus Christ. This underscores the necessity to abide in Christ, because of our utter ineffectiveness apart from him. We ignore this truth from the teaching of Jesus himself to our own sorrow and difficulty, and when we ignore it we bring ineffectiveness, incompetence and unproductivity to those around us who need our ministry.

So Jesus went on to say, in verse 4: “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me which does not bear fruit, he cuts away, and every branch which bears fruit, he prunes, so that it bears more fruit. You all are already clean – based on what I already told you.”

The command to remain in Christ is balanced by his promise to remain in us, and then the fellowship with him is maintained so as to be able to have his life and ministry flow through us. This was definitely necessary for the apostles in the days ahead, during the days of preaching, teaching, laying the foundations for the church and its ministry. They would fail if they did not learn the lesson of helplessness in ministry apart from abiding in Christ.

This lesson of helplessness in effective ministry apart from Christ is a lesson, then, best learned early in the lifetime of a believer. It’s simply an extension and logical outcome of the moral helplessness and inability to earn salvation apart from Christ for each one of us. This then becomes a lesson that we always need to be reminded of, to avoid self-reliance and self-confidence, in the pursuit of one’s own ministry as a believer. And make no mistake, we like to try to rely upon our own ideas, experiences and abilities and we like to try to rely upon the repeating the words and experiences of other believers which we have heard; we love to be spiritual tailgaters and copycats. And even more, in ourselves, we love to try to rely upon own abilities, talents and attractiveness, as if there were something within ourselves that was worthy of credit for being effective and productive in ministry. And we often forget the deceit of enemy and of others under his suggestions who try to get us to look at and depend on ourselves instead of Christ and try to get us to try to control the work of God in our lives and others. So often, then, when we go down these by-paths, we come back to our need of  personal experience with Jesus Christ and fellowship with him through his Word and in prayer, and then back to reliance upon him in the times of ministry. And it’s then we find that abiding in him that we find again the wonderful privilege of his letting us be a loving witness to unbelievers, the ministry of evangelism, and to build up fellow believers, the ministry of edification, for the glory of God.

The situations around us, therefore, that are opportunities for ministry not reason for rushing off armed with our plans and our own ideas for what is to be done and for how it is to be done. So many times and in so many ways we do this. In our day and age, maybe we hear a teacher and go to a seminar where we hear a few principles that are laid down for success, which the teacher backs with proof texts from the Bible. We rush off and in our spiritual pride and conceit that we’ve received these principles  — which we may not take back to the scriptures and see if they really are scriptural, in the context of the surrounding scripture and the teaching of the Bible as a whole – and strut around and try to correct others according to what we’ve heard from that seminar – and end up being as rigid and self righteous as any Pharisee from the time of Jesus. Or we may start reading and decide that we need to do some radical things in our lives and be counter cultural and go against the political establishment – and end up as bitter and backslidden and far from Christ as anyone who has turned from the fulness of Jesus to their own ways. I fear that the former way of the seminar junkie and self appointed moral policeman and detective was the problem of the 1970s onward for many, and the latter path of the descent into bitter radicalism has been the path of more recently, though I can remember some back in the 1970s that fell into that retrograde spiral away from the Author of Life and the Source of true ministry. So you want to be effective and productive in your personal growth in righteousness? You’re not going to find it in the rules from the seminar; you’re going to find it in Jesus himself, and drawing from him and his life, and only through him will you have an effective – and genuinely loving and gracious – ministry to others in the body of Christ. So you want to make a difference in this world for Christ? So don’t try to be radical and grow more and more radical as you can; what you will find there is more and more bitterness and antagonism when the problem is at least as much in your own sinful heart as it is in the world outside you. You will not be able to make more of a difference in this world than you can make in eradicating your own sin from your own heart by yourself. Rather, find your life and ministry from Jesus himself, and let his life and ministry flow through you for his glory and to be the difference that he wants to make in this world. 

Our self sufficiency and self importance mean that we will fail if we are not abiding in Christ. Rather, this is the reason to approach it first from within a deep, abiding fellowship with the Lord Jesus, to make a prayerful examination of the situation through his Word, to take it to him in a Biblically based time of prayer and to work in harmony with the leaders and others in the church, as being his body to minister to each other, reach out to the world. The place where the spiritual effectiveness and productivity starts is not with us but in him and from him and him alone.

From the parable of the Vine and the Branches, the first two lessons do a great deal to keep us from an unwarranted self confidence in ministry. The third lesson, though, guides us to the proper source of confidence for ministry: through Christ there is great effectiveness and productivity. The promise of great effectiveness and productivity, then, is a great reason for faith and perseverance in the face of the most difficult ministry situations into which God may call us and guide us. This is the reason to go forth into them with the confidence in Jesus that he will make us effective and productive. The realization that the life, ministry that flows through us is from Christ is the basis for confident ministry and the basis for ministry that has real results that will last for eternity, because its source is not in us, but in the Lord of eternity. And so Jesus goes on in verse 5: I am the Vine, you are the branches. That person who remains in me is the one who will bear much fruit, because without me you have no ability to do anything.”

His earlier lesson of helplessness now passes to and is backed by his promise of much effectiveness and great productivity. This promise was given in a general manner, not just to the eleven there in the Upper Room, but to believers throughout the centuries. His repetition of the Vine and the branches shows that he is drawing out another implication of the metaphor:. He reinforces that apart from his being the source of their life, ministry, they can do nothing. But the promise is that as they rely upon him as the source of their life and effectiveness, they – and any other believer afterwards — will be extremely productive. The truth of this promise was then demonstrated in the extremely effective ministries that these eleven rather ordinary men actually had. The thing is that this is also the plan of God in our salvation, for us to be productive:  as revealed in Ephesians 2:10 – end result of not abiding: verse 6

Effective and productive ministry, then, has its source in Christ, and it is effective because it is from him and not from us. His life and continuing ministry is  received, transmitted and continued through us. But then this becomes the confidence of those effective in ministry in Christ above all, that because it is from him and through him, then it must be effective in this world. And this confidence in him and his ministry can make us effective in the face of situations that would stagger and overwhelm us if we only depended on ourselves. Then, it comes back to us, to pour ourselves out in ministry, as those who have freely received, then to freely give (Matthew 10:8). This is the kind of faith that the eminent missionary to Korea, Jonathan Goforth, had when as a young man he went to witness in an area with a bad reputation. A policeman asked him, “How do you have the courage to go into those places? We never go except in twos or threes.”

His answer was: “I never go alone either; there is always someone with me.”

The need of the world around us, the fellow believers around us and our own friends and families, calls for effectiveness in our own lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. The need of the lost and broken world around us calls for us to be effective and productive disciples of Jesus Christ, and his life and ministry flowing through us means that we can and should be those through whom the life and ministry of Christ can flow. His ministry through us must be a much greater priority in our lives. This gives us a strong reason for refusing the useless pursuits – such as gossip, video games, sexual fantasy and actual immorality, rigid religious routines and give ourselves for complete consecration to the Lord Jesus, for us to be all his so that all that is his can flow through you to those around you. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, had this kind of consecration, and he said that this was his secret of ministry: “God had all there was of me. There have been many men with greater brains than I and men with greater opportunities; but from the day that I got the poor of London on my heart, and a vision of what Christ could do for them, I made up my mind that God should have all there was of William Booth.”

So then, Jesus gave these three basic lessons from the Parable of the Vine and the Branches to guide us to a life of effective ministry. What remains, then,  after hearing about them is to put them into practice in our lives. The wonderful plan of God for the lives of believers in Jesus Christ is for them to know his life and ministry flowing through them for spiritual effectiveness and usefulness. In this life, for believers, the wages of our sins and lack of fruitfulness will always be far greater than any difficulties that we may anticipate in breaking our routines, leaving behind our own ideas and ingrained habits of thinking, speaking and doing, for a new life of going forward with Christ, into a deeper and closer, more effective walk with Christ. Living in close fellowship with Jesus, and letting his life and ministry flow through us is the path to satisfaction as believers in Christ.

First of all, therefore, accept Christ as the source of your life and effectiveness as a disciple in ministry. Accept your place in him as a branch in the Vine, and himself as the Vine, for your own life and power for ministry for him in this world. Go forward to him and with him beyond that first and initial  trust in him for eternal life, and put on Christ as your life and power for ministry, as part of the ongoing process of putting on Christ for the lifetime of a believer. What? You weren’t aware that the key to growing deeper in Christ wasn’t more discipline but more of him, and taking up Christ in your life in all his fullness and living for him? Start here, then, and make this a definite transaction before him, to acknowledge him as the Vine in your life and yourself as a branch. Maybe even you could commemorate it by some kind of memorial to yourself, like a note in your Bible or prayer notebook, to remind yourself in the future that you have definitely received this promise from Christ as your own.

Understand also that God the Father is working in your life to make you effective and productive in your service and ministry for him, to glorify him in this world. Consider, then, that your earthly difficulties, those situations that you complain about, or those passages of the Word that hit you where it hurts, as pruning actions by God the Father. Regard it as God’s gracious, skillful work when his Word may cut and hurt in the correction of what is wrong and unproductive in your life as I must do so also in my life. But even more trust God that this pruning of your heart and life will result in greater usefulness and effectiveness and that it will have lasting spiritual, eternal results in your life.  Go into all the depths of the life and fellowship with Jesus, and you will see his gracious effects upon the lives of the others around you as you become more effective as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Take the promise of Christ for great fruitfulness for each opportunity for ministry that you have. Make it a matter of trust as you follow Christ, and give him the glory for the results.