Sunday, February 20, 2022

What to Do with a Fruitless Branch?

I was baptized in Wynburg, South Africa just before reaching my 20th year. My counselor put a card in my hand after the service. It read “Kept by the power of God.”

I wondered whether that would really be true of me. Was I not responsible to abide in Christ according to his word? If I didn’t, would I not be cast forth like a fruitless branch? So I set 1 Peter 1:5 and John 15 at war with each other in my mind. I tried to soften the force of the Savior’s warning, but his word stayed firm and demanding: I must abide in Christ. That made me responsible, didn’t it? But Peter said I was kept by God’s power; clearly that made him responsible.

Two Passages at War

Mature Christians would have shaken their heads in dismay if they had known of my confusion, but just as our ship was at sea most of the time, so was I. There were many weekends spent far from fellowship with believers, and when I was with them I was too embarrassed or proud to reveal my confusion.

All that is taught in scripture has its background in human history and/or prophecy. If we take a verse to speak to what we should be doing in our time, without noticing that it may have had special significance to a people in an earlier time (history) or will have at a later time (prophecy), we will misinterpret. That was my problem.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine.” The text that follows develops that figure. I may probe into what vinegrowers know about their product and find all sorts of similarities between the way grapes are processed and used today and the Lord’s use of the figure. Perhaps I could draw some practical moral and spiritual lessons. But such an application is not legitimate; I am tearing the figure from its historical setting. We need to ask, “How would those who were the first to hear that teaching have understood it?”

So let us try to ...

Step into the Disciples’ Shoes

The disciples were Jews, proud of being “Jehovah’s vine”, as Isaiah, other prophets, and the current rabbis maintained — a nation called to bear fruit for Jehovah. (Other nations had no similar relationship with God. Their situation is described in Ephesians 2:11-12.) So in saying he was thetrue vine” and they were to view themselves as branches, Jesus was using a figure with which they were familiar. (Please check the gizmo in your hand or a concordance for many references to “vine” in the O.T.) The Lord’s disciples were thankful to be children of Abraham who, although early in their history, were made slaves in Egypt. But Jehovah had adopted them; his word to Pharaoh was “Israel is my son ... let my son go.” God had called this son out of Egypt, he had provided for and protected the nation through a wilderness journey, given them his law and planted them in the land he had promised. Those disciples in the upper room were not part of a false vine, but they probably did not want to dwell on the fact they were part of a failed one. That vine had borne bitter fruit.

When was it Spoken?

Christ had commissioned his disciples and they had known remarkable and fruitful service. They had been weaned somewhat from their attachment to a fruitless vine. Now he was speaking to them about what was shortly to occur; encouraging and also warning them in view of his physical departure from the world and later, from them. They were perplexed by his references to “a little while and again a little while”. Earlier, when some of his followers had left him, he had asked the ones remaining, “Will you also go away?” Their reply was “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” But if he left them, what should they do? Return to supporting the vine that only bore what was bitter? No, they must remain or abide in him as the true vine. Apart from him they could do nothing that was fruitful and have the approval of his Father, the vinedresser.

Much of the rest the upper room discourse explained to that small company how fellowship with Christ could be enjoyed when he would no longer be visibly present with them. It would be a situation more expedient, more advantageous. He spoke of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. For the coming of that Comforter they must wait and, in the meanwhile, abide in him, the real Son called out of Egypt, the true vine.

What About Us?

You are probably a believing Gentile. You should know that your case was not being addressed in the upper room — you never had a previous covenant relationship with Jehovah. A discouraged Jewish disciple might think of returning in hope to his former association if things got tough, and by that means find opportunity be a fruit-bearing branch. He would be wrong. The claim “I am the true vine” was exclusive; he must remain in the Son or face the disapproval of his Father, the vinedresser.

Further, the abiding “in me” a branch must do in order to be fruitful does not carry the same force as being “in Christ” frequently used in Romans, Ephesians and Corinthians. John 15 was spoken before our Lord’s death, burial and resurrection; it addressed human responsibility. After our Lord ascended back to his Father, having accomplished our redemption, and in his prayer in John 17, the emphasis is on the believer’s oneness with him and consequent security; the Christian is united to a risen Christ. The believer is justified, right through to being glorified, in him. For this, says Peter, even dispersed pilgrims experiencing a variety of trials are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation to be revealed in the last time ... to be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Kept for his glory!

— Colin Anderson, “Kept for His Glory”, April 2016

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