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.