"I AM THE VINE--YE ARE THE BRANCHES."
--MAY 7.--JOHN 15:1-11,15.--
THE Apostle gives this as one of our Lord's discourses following the Memorial Supper on the last night of his earthly life. It was probably suggested by the drinking of the "cup," representing the blood of the New Covenant, and may have been uttered after Judas had gone out, and before the Lord and the eleven went to Gethsemane. Or it may have been suggested by the vineyards which they passed on their way to Gethsemane. Or possibly it may have been suggested by the great golden vine over the door of the golden gate of the temple (the "Beautiful Gate"), which Josephus says was very large and "had clusters as long as a man." Another writer says, "Leaves and buds were wrought of gleaming reddish gold, but its clusters of yellow gold, and its grape-stones of precious stones." The moon being at its full would display this vine to good effect. The statement of Chap. 18:1, "When Jesus had spoken these words he went forth with his disciples," seems to favor the first supposition. This view would imply a considerable tarrying in the upper room after the Supper was ended, probably to near midnight--after our Lord said, "Arise, let us go hence."--John 14:31.
"I am the true vine," institutes a comparison, and suggests to the mind a counterfeit or false vine; and this reminds us of the fact that our Lord, through this same writer, subsequently explained that there would be two harvests--a gathering of the fruit of the true Vine, and subsequently a gathering of the clusters of the "vine of the earth." (Rev. 14:18-20.) If, as we shall see, the true Vine represents the true Church, then the vine of the earth represents a false Church, an untrue, ungenuine one.
The heavenly Father is the husbandman who planted, who owns, who cares for the true Vine, and to him it yields its fruit. The word "husbandman" here does not signify merely caretaker, but rather the vineyard-owner. This is in accordance with all the presentations of Scripture: God is therein set forth as the author of man's hope, his Savior, through whom alone comes the deliverance from sin and death. The fact that God accomplishes this through an honored agent and representative, his beloved Son, and the further fact that he proposes to use an elect Church as a Royal Priesthood, under his Son, the appointed Chief Priest, does not alter the fact that he himself is the fountain [R2465 : page 108] from which proceeds every good and every perfect gift.--1 Cor. 8:6; Jas. 1:17.
"Every branch in me," should not be understood to signify every nominal Christian, every professor, nor even those who render a nominal assent to the facts of Christianity, and who are in sympathy therewith. The "justified" believer is just ready to become a branch in the Vine, but his faith, and justification by that faith, do not make him a branch. The branches are those only who have first taken the step of justification through faith, and who subsequently have presented themselves to God as living sacrifices, and thus by consecration [R2465 : page 109] have been "immersed into Christ: by being "immersed into his death."
This procedure, by which we are inducted into membership in Christ (as branches of the Vine), is clearly expressed by the Apostle in Rom. 6:3-5. Be it noted that we, no more than the Apostle, are here making an immersion in water the condition of entry into the body of Christ (as our Baptist brethren mistakenly do); but we are insisting, as the Apostle insists, that none enter the body of Christ except by the immersion of their wills into the will of Christ--their consecration to be dead with him--a self-surrender as justified human beings to death and to be henceforth new creatures in Christ Jesus, under and controlled by him, as their Head or Guide in all things.
Amongst those who thus, according to divine arrangement, now become branches of the true Vine, there are two classes--fruit-bearing branches and non-fruit-bearing branches known as "suckers." But both of these conditions are developments: every branch begins as a very small shoot; every branch develops leaves; every branch has the same opportunities for nourishment, sap from the main stem, Christ, and from the same root of divine purpose and promise. All the branches of the Vine have a tendency to spend their strength upon themselves--in branch-making rather than in fruit-producing, and yet there is a difference. Vine-dressers tell us that they can very early discern the fruit-buds on the proper branches, and that the suckers lack these fruit-buds.
Just so it is with the Lord's consecrated people; he does not expect of them much and fine fruit immediately, but he does look for the buds or evidences of effort in the direction of fruit-bearing; and these fruit-buds will manifest themselves early in those who are proper branches of the true Vine. And those who do not manifest a desire to bring forth fruitage to the Lord's glory, by serving him and his cause, but who on the contrary make use of the knowledge and blessings derived through union with Christ simply to advance themselves before men, and make a fair show in the flesh, are counted unworthy of retention, and are cut off, taken away--cease to be recognized in any sense of the word as branches. They may retain their freshness, green leaves, etc., for quite a little time after being rejected of the Lord, but it is only a question of time until they lose every evidence of fidelity--they wither away. Nor does the fact that they were branches avail anything after they cease to be branches, for the wood of the vine is of no practical value. They are burned, destroyed.
But as even the best branches in the vine, which give evidence of fruit-bearing, require pruning, so even the most honest and earnest of the Lord's people require the Lord's discipline and providential care--otherwise they might soon run to woodmaking also, and fail to bring forth much fruit. The husbandman's skill recognizes how much of the branch and sprout and leaf are necessary to the bringing forth and proper maturing of the fruit which he seeks, and so our heavenly Father knows perfectly the conditions, etc., most favorable to us that we may bring forth much good fruit. He sees the sprouts of our ambitions in various directions, and knows, as we do not, whereunto these might lead us; and by his providence nips in the bud many of our propositions, deeming it better that the strength and energy which we thus intend to put forth should be expended rather in other directions--in bringing to maturity our good fruits already started and in progress.
The true child of God whose will has been entirely immersed into the will of the Lord is neither offended nor discouraged by these prunings. He has learned something at least of his own unwisdom, and has confidence in the wisdom of the great Husbandman; hence when divine providence estops his efforts in some directions he takes the thwarting of his plans joyfully, assured that the Lord's will and the Lord's way are the best, and intended to work out a blessing.
As the Father's representative, Jesus had been keeping the first branches of the Vine. He had purged or pruned by his reproofs or counsels, so that now, at the close of his three and a half years' ministry, he could say, "Now ye are clean through the word [teaching] which I have spoken unto you." As he again said, in his prayer to the Father, "Those that thou gavest me I have kept [as branches, disciples, members], and none of them is lost save the son of perdition." But henceforth, as the same prayer expressed the matter, the pruning and care of the branches would not be done by our Lord Jesus in the same manner, but through the operation of the holy Spirit--the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.
But it is not sufficient that we be first justified, and then sanctified through a consecration to the Lord; nor is it sufficient that we get into the body of Christ and become branches of the Vine. It is good to be a little shoot, it is good to have buds of promise, it is good to grow as a branch and put forth tendrils, but however large or small the branch may be, however old or young, we must remember that the sap which produces the fruit can only be obtained by continued union with the Vine and its root of promise. If ever separated, all hopes must wither. Only as we are in Christ, and through him heirs of God, have we part or lot in this matter; and only so can we bring forth the fruits which the great Husbandman seeks. It would be folly for the branch to say, I needed at first to be united with Christ the Vine, but now I can stand alone. Whoever [R2465 : page 110] stands alone, whoever is separated from the Vine and from the other branches, will speedily wither away; and whoever abides in the Vine must surely continue to have fidelity to the Vine, must be at one with all the other true branches of the same Vine. And here we see the importance of being in the true Vine and at-one with the true branches.
The wrong thought on this subject of the Vine and the branches is frequently expressed by our friends of various denominations, who claim that the branches of the Vine are the various denominations of Christians. This inculcates a serious error, namely, that it is the duty of every individual Christian to get into membership in one of these branches--as for instance, the Presbyterian branch, or the Methodist branch, or the Lutheran branch, or the Roman Catholic branch, or the Greek Catholic branch. The correct thought, on the contrary, is that each individual Christian in consecrating himself to the Lord becomes an individual branch in the true Vine: and his labors thenceforth should be not to bring forth denominational and sectarian fruits, but to bring forth the fruits or graces of the spirit of God in his own character and life.
One writer, in pursuing this wrong thought respecting the branches, says, "God does not desire to have fruitless churches large and prosperous; he lets them wither away. The churches that keep nearest to Christ will grow the fastest." It should not be difficult for any to discern the fallacy of such reasoning. If this were the correct view it would imply that the church organizations which are the largest in numbers and most prosperous in wealth and honor amongst men are those which have the most truth and which most directly receive the sap of the holy Spirit from the Lord. But let us see: amongst Christians this would constitute Roman Catholicism the holiest and best and nearest to the Lord; Greek Catholicism would claim to be second; Methodism third, and so on. Intelligent people scarcely need to have the fallacies of such an interpretation pointed out.
But what is incongruous when applied to denominations as branches, is thoroughly logical and in harmony with the facts when applied to the individual Christian and his spiritual life. Those who abide in Christ in faith and trust and consecration to his service--to the bringing forth of the fruits which are pleasing in the sight of the great Husbandman--find themselves in a narrow way indeed, often hedged up by providence, and their efforts in various directions changed, or rather, their intentions thwarted; but they find, as a result of all this experience, rightly received, that they are growing in grace--in the knowledge and in the love of God, the fruits of the spirit.--Rom. 8:28.
The close union between the Vine and the branches is brought to our attention by our Lord's words, "He that abideth in me and I in him:" the Vine and its branches have such a oneness that wherever we touch a branch we touch the Vine itself. It is one Vine composed of branches, and so is the body of Christ one body, composed of many members. Wherever a member or branch of the body of Christ is found, all the various characteristics of Christ himself are found--in spirit, in intention, as "new creatures." This oneness in Christ is the secret of the power and of the fruit-bearing and of the acceptableness of the branches with the Father, the Husbandman. [R2466 : page 110]
"Without me ye can do nothing," is a statement well worthy of being deeply engraved in the heart of every truly consecrated member of the body of Christ. But to abide in Christ means to be subject to all the will of the great Husbandman, and gladly and meekly submit to all the prunings which his wisdom sees best to permit. Respecting this necessity for pruning and discipline, Trench, the celebrated theologian, has well said:
"It fares exactly so with God and some of his elect servants. Men seeing their graces, which so far exceed the graces of common men, wonder sometimes why they should suffer still, why they seem to be ever falling from one trial to another. But he sees in them-- what no other eye can see--the grace which is capable of becoming more gracious still; and in his far-looking love for his own, who shall praise him, not for a day, but for an eternity, he will not suffer them to stop short of the best whereof they are capable. They are fruitbearing branches, and just because they are such, he prunes them that they may bring forth more fruit."
Remarking upon the fact that sometimes a vine or tree may attempt more fruit than it is capable of bringing to perfection, and likening this to Christian experience and efforts, another writer (H. L. Hastings) suggests:--
"The best way is to shake the tree, and free it of extra fruit. Prune, clip, cut, pluck, and reduce the fruit, until it becomes manageable, and until the tree can support its burden, and then let every branch be loaded with fruit that comes to perfection, but not overloaded with fruit which never will reach its full development."
This is a very correct thought, as relates to the fruitage of efforts put forth in the Lord's service on behalf of others; for many waste their efforts because they do not concentrate them sufficiently.
The talented Apostle Paul gives his testimony as to the wisdom of shaking off some of our plans and arrangements and efforts for which we have little talent, and concentrating our efforts upon those which we can best bring to perfection, ripeness, saying, "This one thing I do." (Phil. 3:13.) The Apostle's one business in life was to be, so far as he was able, acceptable to the Lord personally, and to do with his might what [R2466 : page 111] he could to assist others into the same condition. But the fruitbearing of works for others we do not understand to be the principal thought in this lesson. The first thought is that we should have the fruits of the Lord's spirit in our own hearts, the graces of the spirit well developed. This, however, implies activity and self-sacrifice in the Lord's service, for only so by the Lord's arrangement can our personal fruits and graces be brought to maturity.
Our Lord gives us an intimation that the growing of much fruit is not wholly dependent upon ourselves, and that even while we abide in him as fruit-bearing branches the quality and quantity of the fruit is to be improved by our having proper ideals before our minds, and earnestly seeking their realization. Thus he says, "If ye abide in me and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you." The intimation is that the desire and the asking of the Father at the throne of the heavenly grace is a means by which we may more and more receive of the sap of the Vine, the holy Spirit, and be enabled to develop the fruits of the Spirit. It will be noticed that nothing here implies the seeking or finding of earthly good things. These are to be left wholly to the Lord's wisdom and providence, and his people, the true branches of the Vine, are to desire and to seek for the holy spirit, which the Father is more willing to give to them than earthly parents are to give good gifts to their children. --Luke 11:13.
Incidentally the Lord here points out the value of the Scriptures to his true branches or disciples, when he says, "If my words abide in you." It is not only necessary and proper that we seek divine grace, but it is equally proper that we avail ourselves of the divine revelation respecting what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God our Father, the Husbandman of the true Vine. Hence it will be found that those who bear much fruit and good fruit not only have been justified through faith, and sanctified through consecration, and thus accepted into membership in the true Vine, but that additionally they are seeking to be fruit-bearers,--seeking to abide in the Vine, and to have all the characteristics of the Vine, seeking grace to help in every time of need, and availing themselves not only of the sap which flows through the roots, but also of the light of truth and grace which shines upon them through the Word of the Lord. And only by following these conditions can we be fruit-bearers, and only by being bearers of fruit can we be the Lord's disciples --to the end; for we are to remember that the Church of the present time is merely the probationary Church, a company of those who have professed loyalty, love and obedience. The Lord will bring testing to prove the sincerity of their professions, and only those who thus prove the sincerity of their professions will be accepted as members of the Church glorified, symbolized by the golden vine of the Beautiful Gate of the Temple.
Our Lord would have all the true branches realize his love, his interest, his care for them, his desire that they might make their calling and their election sure by compliance with the conditions of membership in the Vine: hence he assures them of his love in the strongest possible language. He tells them that his love for them is of the same kind as the Father's love for him. Even with all the various evidences of the truthfulness of this statement, corroborated by the "exceeding great and precious promises" of the Lord's Word, it is far too wonderful for us to fully comprehend. We can readily see how and why our Lord Jesus was greatly beloved of the Father, and called his well-beloved Son, but it astounds us to know that this same love is exercised by our Lord in turn toward us. "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God;" for our Lord Jesus expressed and fully manifested the Father's love.--1 John 3:1; John 14:7.
But then comes a limitation, namely, that this intense love is only for the "little flock." True, "God so loved the world," and our Lord Jesus loved the world also, in the sense of sympathetic love, and a desire to do them good. But the love which the Lord is here declaring is a different one. It is only for those who have made a full consecration to him--indeed, that consecration is the secret of his special love. The Father loved the only begotten Son because he was full of faith and trust and obedience--"unto death, even the death of the cross." And likewise this same love extends to those justified ones who, filled with the Master's spirit, desire to walk in his footsteps, to take up their cross and follow him. God's love, of the same kind that went out toward our dear Redeemer, goes out to all such; and the Redeemer's love goes out to them; and the good message comes to them, "All things are yours, for ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's." "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth....It is Christ that died."-- 1 Cor. 3:22,23; Rom. 8:33,34.
But as this special love is in view of the consecration and obedience of this class, so it depends upon the continuation of that spirit of consecration and obedience. If their loving devotion grow cold, and they become filled with self-love and the spirit of the world, to that extent they grieve the holy Spirit,--they turn from them this special love of the Lord: and hence the injunction of our Lord, "Continue ye in my love." These words show that it is possible for us to forfeit the Lord's love and to become castaways--to fail to make sure our calling and election to the exceeding great things which God hath in reservation for them that love him with this supreme love.--2 Pet. 1:4-11; 1 Cor. 9:27.
It is important that we keep in mind that true love on our part will manifest itself in obedience, and hence that disobedience is an evidence of the loss of love as [R2466 : page 112] viewed from the Lord's standpoint; and we must all agree that this is a reasonable standpoint of judgment. Some may say, How would it be if we disobeyed through ignorance? We answer that the Lord has made provision against our ignorance: first, he has given us the Word of truth, "that the man of God may be perfect [perfectly informed], thoroughly furnished unto every good work;" and secondly, he has promised to supply such helps in the spirit of holiness, and the understanding of his Word as will enable us to do those things which are pleasing in his sight. (2 Tim. 3:17; John 16:13.) Thus, carelessness respecting the Word of the Lord is one evidence of the lack of love. Our Lord points out that his continuance in the Father's love, as the well-beloved Son, with all that this implies, was because of his obedience to the Father's will, and that following the same line he must require that we shall be obedient to him if we would abide in his love, share his throne and glory.
"These things have I spoken unto you that my [page 112] joy might be in you, and that your joy might be filled-full." [R2466 : page 112] Our Lord's instructions and commandments are not intended to terrify us, nor to deprive us of happiness. On the contrary, as the most fruitful branches well know, obedience to the Lord's words, and the privilege thus obtained of abiding in him and his love, is the greatest joy--a joy which wholly outweighs all the trifling pleasures which the world has to offer. It is the joy and peace that passeth all understanding, which rules in the heart, and which brings with it the promise, the assurance, not only of the life which now is, but also of that which is to come.