THE WAY OF EVANGELISM - FRUITFULNESS. (BEING BASED UPON 'I AM THE TRUE VINE’, AT JOHN 15.1-17).
When Jesus illustrated his teachings, with well-known picture-language images; and did not alter the meaning of them; the crowds were happy - including the Pharisees.
But when he gave new slants and applications, to the images: his hearers, especially the Pharisees, got upset.
On one such occasion, they told Jesus: that they could trace their ancestry back to Abraham; that their forefathers 'ate manna in the wilderness', and that, in two of the Psalms, this 'manna' is called: 'Bread from Heaven' (John 6: 30-33).
Jesus listened for a while: and then used that 'Bread from Heaven' image in such a different way; that the Pharisees were surprised, and offended.
Jesus said, in effect: Your forefathers ate that bread and, in due course, they died. What I am talking about is the true 'Bread from Heaven' that gives real and eternal life...
…I am talking about me. I am the 'Bread of Life'. He who eats of this bread; will live for ever’.
The Jewish leaders appear to have seen this teaching: as bordering on blasphemy, at the very least.
Many of Christ’s followers said: 'This is a hard saying! Who can accept it?' and drew back from Jesus; no longer following him. (John 6: 60-66)
The Pharisees, and others, must have been similarly offended: when Jesus took the familiar, ‘picture-language' image of 'The Vine', and changed its meaning, by applying it to himself alone; and saying: 'I am the True Vine' (John 15:1-17).
For generations: 'vine' images had been applied to the Jewish nation. Scripture said that they were 'The Planting of the Lord'; the 'Vineyard of the Lord', and 'The Choice Vine', into which, and through which, the divine life flowed.
The Jews may have thought that: from the moment they were called into God’s service; they were irreplaceable. So, when Christ said that they had failed in their task; they simply could not accept his criticism; and still saw themselves as being essential to God’s great scheme of things.
Jesus stated that he had; actually; replaced them: and claimed: ‘I am the True Vine. In so doing: he cut the thread of the missionary aspects of Jewish history, and doctrine.
He removed what had become half-hearted ministries, from Israel; and began to undertake dynamic, worldwide salvation ministries, in his own life, death and resurrection.
The 'Vine' image was much used in ancient Jewish thought and writings. It had three, main, symbolic meanings.
When the people were nomadic: they prayed for the day when they could stop wandering; stay in one place; plant things; and, in due course, harvest the results.
Therefore, the 'vine' became symbolic of the settled life: of belonging, and, eventually, of nationhood.
Soon after the Jews had entered the ‘Promised Land’: the vine, and its grapes; became symbolic of the prosperous life.
In times of trouble: the people looked towards the fulfilment of 1.Kings 4:25…that ‘Every man should be able to sit under his own vine, and under his own fig-tree’.
The 'vine' then came to symbolize the peaceful life.
The ancient Jews were called: 'The Planting of the Lord': and the psalmist sang of their mission to the world all around.
'You brought a vine out of Egypt; and you planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root, and filled the land.
It sent out branches; as far as the sea, and even to the great river’. (Psalm 80).
Jesus was not the first to say that the Jews had failed.
Jeremiah 2.21 says: ‘I planted you; a choice vine, of wholly pure seed. How is it that you have turned regenerate, and become a wild vine?’
When the Lord removed the 'vine' image from Israel: and applied it to himself…he not only spoke against long-held understandings: but also altered Old Testament teachings, about relationship with God.
In the Old Testament, a great difference in kind existed, between the planter of the 'vine', and the 'vine’ itself.
God planted the ‘vine’, which had to get on with things; grow; and produce fruit, as best it could: within the given circumstances, and through given helps.
In the gospels: God was no longer simply the 'planter', who prepared the ground; did the 'planting', helped things along, and then awaited the result.
Instead, in Christ, he became 'vine’ itself; into the ‘stock’ of which, the branches are grafted: and through the stock of which, everything necessary to healthy growth is given.
The concept of Christ being the ‘stock’ of the ‘vine’; gave a radically new meaning, to a familiar image that: from the moment 'branches’ were ‘grafted into Christ’: they were given some share in aspects of the life, qualities, attributes and ministries of God.
This very positive change to the well-known 'vine' image: is highlighted by the seven 'I AM' statements in John's gospel-record. The first six of them are:-
Good Shepherd….Door of the Sheep….Way, Truth and Life…
Light of the World…Bread of Life & Resurrection and the Life
These relate to the offices and functions of the external-to-us Christ, as he ministers to his people from beyond them.
The 7th statement, about ‘The Vine’, is wonderfully different.
Christ says that: by the Holy Spirit: some of his qualities and attributes, will no longer remain as external helps to his followers…
…but will become an essential part of their Christian lives: actively at work within them: and ministering all necessary spiritual gifts and graces, to them, and through them.
'Abide in me’, says Jesus, 'and I in you. Become a part of me; just as a branch abides, as part of the vine which supports it.
Then you will not only take a share in who I am, and what I do; you will also be fruitful: bearing that fruit to your personal good and benefit; and in witness to the world all around you’.
The 'vine' image, at John 15: warns that the fruitful branches have to be ‘pruned’, in order to keep them that way: and that the 'barren branches' have to be got rid of.
Being a 'branch' of the 'vine' that is Christ, does not; of itself; make us fruitful. Otherwise, the Lord would not have given the warning about fruitless branches being removed.
In ordinary, physical grapevines: the sap that gives life; flows to the branches, and also through them, in order to produce the necessary growth and fruitfulness.
Christians readily apply Christ’s 'vine and branches' image to themselves: because they believe that the spiritual ‘sap’ of good and needful things, flows to them; directly, from God.
But, the concept of God actually indwelling their lives; and not only blessing them from within…
…but also ministering divine gifts and graces indirectly, through them, to other people; is far less readily accepted.
Some Christians: seem to have clung so tightly; to concepts of God being externally accessible to them; through prayer…
…that they have never really considered the possibilities of things being otherwise…
…let alone recognizing the need to have a deep, on-going awareness; of the Lord indwelling, and guiding, their lives.
As said: when Jesus used familiar, and undemanding, 'picture-language' images to illustrate his teachings; the crowds were quite happy; and even the Pharisees found no fault in him.
But challenging new twists; to the meaning and application of familiar images: made the Pharisees, in particular, defensive of habitual standpoints; and unwilling to accept anything new.
Most Christians, at some time in their lives, acquire ‘picture-language' images that help to illustrate aspects of their faith.
But some: more out of habit, than anything else; are very reluctant to abandon such ‘old-faithful’ images; even when their usefulness is long outgrown.
Christ challenged the Pharisees about doing just that. He told them, that much of their lives of faith; were built upon once useful, but now outworn teachings and images.
He indicated that lovingly treasured, but long outgrown concepts; cluttered people’s lives; to their disadvantage; and to the loss of more meaningful things, being discovered and taken hold of.
Instead of considering whether or not the foundations of their faith and practices, needed to be examined afresh: the Pharisees, and others, reacted very badly.
We might be critical: about what they said and did; but…
If the Lord Jesus challenged us, as to the meaning and worth; of particular images that we treasure: how would we react?
Would we, perhaps out of long-established habit, defend them: without considering whether or not we have outgrown them?
Or would the Lord’s challenge bring about a positive response: and encourage us to evaluate our faith and practice afresh…
…and; amending our understandings and practices, where necessary…
… gladly allow Christ to direct our lives yet more fully, and more effectively? Amen!