The story is told that on one occasion Mohammad Ali, the former heavy weight-champion of the world, was on a flight when the passengers were told to put on their seat belts. Seeing that Ali hadn’t done so, one of the air hostesses asked him to fasten. ‘Superman don’t need no seatbelt,’ Ali replied. To which the hostess brilliantly responded, ‘Superman don’t need no plane.’
Mohammad Ali may have claimed to be the greatest, but he was only the greatest in the boxing ring. He certainly wasn’t Superman! Indeed, if you had asked Mohammad Ali, who was a Muslim, if he was one with Allah, he wouldn’t have wouldn’t have laughed. He would have considered such a claim to be utterly blasphemous.
Amazingly Jesus is comfortable to say, ‘I and the Father are one’, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ and ‘I live in the Father and the Father lives in me.’ If he was not the unique Son of God then he was utterly mad. If he is the unique Son of God then we cannot make sense of life without him!
In this passage we see that Jesus makes an amazing claim about himself, and that this is a claim that reveals our purpose in life.
The amazing claim (I am the vine)
It is the evening before the cross. Jesus has been in the Upper Room preparing the disciples for his departure. Now he commands them, ‘come, let us go.’
Perhaps they are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus points to a vine hanging over a wall, or maybe he is looking at the great golden vine that decorated the temple. ‘I am the true vine.’
This is the seventh of John’s ‘I am’ sayings. His Jewish disciples would have been aware of the significance of words ‘I am’. These words were God’s self-disclosure at the burning bush. He is claiming to be no less than the Lord God.
As the shamrock is associated with the Irish and the thistle with the Scottish, the vine was associated with Israel. Israel, as God’s Old Testament people, had been called to bear fruit. But they had failed to live up to their calling. So Jesus claims that he is what they refused to be. He is the one who gives God obedience he has been looking for in his people. Now he offers to produce in us fruit that is pleasing to God.
Many of your friends may describe themselves as being spiritual, but Jesus is claiming that we cannot be truly spiritual unless we are in a living relationship with him.
Jesus’ claim reveals our purpose (to bear fruit)
Jesus is the vine, and through abiding in him we fulfil our purpose in life. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit and that your fruit should last’ (16a).
But not all branches bear fruit. As James teaches, in his epistle, ‘faith without works is dead.’ There are branches on the vine that are dead, and that will be cut off and destroyed. You see, it is possible to be associated with Jesus but not to know him. You may have been baptised, attend a church, even name the hour that we prayed a prayer at a meeting but if Jesus is not changing us from within then we are not born again.
What is the fruit that the Father is looking for from those who are connected to the vine? In these verses it is primarily our love for Christ’s people. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven. We are to bear each other’s burdens. We are to lift each other up in prayer. We are to practice hospitality. We are to watch what we say about each other. We are to speak to each other with truth and love.
How is this fruit produced? Partly through pruning! The gardener not only takes the knife to the dead branches, he prunes those branches that do bear fruit, so that they might become more fruitful. The pain that you are passing through at this time might actually be a sign of God’s loving commitment to you. James teaches us to count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (James 1:2-3, ESV).
An old Christian lady who had served Christ all her life was telling her story at a church meeting. A young Christian man in the congregation, awestruck by her godliness, whispered a bit too loudly, to his neighbour, ‘I'd give everything to have a testimony like that!’ The old lady, whose hearing was still very sharp, overheard and replied, ‘Young man, everything is what it cost me!’
Pruning and abiding are the keys to producing fruit. Jesus links abiding in him to obeying his words (7 and 10), praying in his name (7 and 16) and obeying his commands (10 and 17). If you abide in me, and my words abide in you (7a)—he already (in verse 3) taught that it is through his word that he brings people into living faith, and now he says that it is his life-giving word that sustains us in the faith. Then ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you—he teaches that we are to ask in his name (which means to ask in line with all that his name stands for). If you keep my commands you will abide in my love (10a)—including the central command to follow the example of the one who laid down his life for his friends.
Over the summer, as a family, we read a book about Eric Liddle. Not only did Liddle win the gold medal in the four-hundred metres, at the 1924 Paris Olympics, he gave it all up to serve as a missionary in China, where he died of a brain tumour in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two.
People, who were in that camp with Liddle, spoke of his selfless generous warm life. Every memoir that has been written by people who survived that camp mentions Eric Liddle. The kids’ called him Uncle Eric. He was the only adult that everyone trusted to be fair. One person described him as the most outstanding person in the camp ‘in his early forties, quiet-spoken and a permanent smile. Eric was the finest Christian man I have ever had the privilege of meeting.’
But what made him such a Christlike man? There can be no doubt that it was the result of the time that he carved out to be alone with God in Bible study and prayer. God certainly pruned him, and he let that pruning have its full effect. He abided in Christ as he let the word of Christ shape him, took time to pray and sought to obey. Even though that camp was crowded with eighteen hundred people he found the time to be alone with God. Who we are becoming when we are alone with God, is who you will become when the pressure is on.
The blessings of abiding
So, Jesus makes amazing claims about himself. He uses God’s self-description, ‘I am’, of himself. He says that he is the vine, who produces the fruit that God is looking for. He teaches that it is only as we are intimately connected with him that we can be truly spiritual. He claims that prayer will be answered when it is asked in line with what his name stands for. He is the one who sustains us in our Christian lives.
These claims of Jesus enable us to achieve our purpose in life—which is to produce fruit that is pleasing to God! Producing this fruit is actually the course of great blessing!
Producing fruit, as we abide in Christ and experience the Father’s pruning brings God glory—by this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit (8a); it proves that we are true disciples of Christ (8b)—are sense of assurance grows as we see that we are being made more like Jesus; it causes us to remain in the Father’s love (10); it brings us joy—these things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (11); it means that we enjoy friendship with the one who has loved us like no other (15); it enables us to fulfil our purpose in life—we were chosen to bear fruit (16a); it is results in answered prayer—as we learn to know what Jesus would have us pray and see the Father graciously respond (16b); and, it will enable us to love one another—these things I command you, so that you will love one another (17).
Christ has chosen you not merely that you would experience the wonderful forgiveness of sins and have eternal life, but also that your life will be fruitful and productive in fulfilling God’s purposes. Do this and you will enjoy greater blessings that anything the world has to offer. ‘These things I have commanded,’ declares Jesus, ‘so that you will love one another.’