A Study of John 15
Background: On the final night of our Lord’s natural life, Jesus gave His disciples a poignant message in John 13-17—the Upper Room Discourse. He started by washing their feet in the first part of John 13, followed by the departure of Judas Iscariot in the last part of the chapter.A foreboding came over the disciples, and Jesus opened John 14 saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Chapter 14 is one of the richest in the Bible, but notice its ending in verse 31: “Come now; let us leave.”
Jesus abruptly vacated the room. The disciples followed Him into the dark streets of Jerusalem. Why the departure? Surely because Judas would be returning with a brigade of soldiers, so Jesus stayed a few steps ahead of them. The streets would have been deserted because everyone was celebrating Passover meals. Passing residences, they would have heard the chatter and laughter of dinner parties through closed windows. Somewhere a dog barked. It was chilly night, and the little group continued through moonlit streets beneath the southern steps of the Temple Mount. Here Jesus continued His message with chapter 15. Perhaps they passed a household vineyard or saw the image of grapes etched into the temple. Jesus said:
John 15:1-2: I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, so that it will be even more fruitful.
This analogy had four elements:
- The gardener (the Father)
- The vine (Jesus)
- The branches (us)
- The fruit (which Jesus does not yet define)
There are two kinds of branches—the fruitful and the unfruitful. The fruitful ones are pruned and the unfruitful ones are cut off. Jesus didn’t interpret that, but we’ve just read chapters13 and 14, and we’ve seen Judas leave the room and we’ve seen the other disciples troubled, so we can make an assumption. The unfruitful vine represents Judas and people like him, who pretend to be His followers but display no evidence. The fruitful vines represent the other eleven, who are genuine followers but sometimes go through difficulties, which God ultimately uses to make us even more fruitful.
In the next verse, Jesus said as much—John 15:3: You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. He was referring back to chapter 13, verse 10, when He said: You are clean, though not every one of you. For He knew who was going to betray Him, and that is why He said not everyone was clean. Judas was not clean; He was not fruitful. But Jesus wanted no more defections, so He continued in verse 4: Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me.
We must remain in unbroken fellowship with Him, abiding in Him, as close as a branch to a vine. When a gardener plants a grapevine, it produces branches and the sap flows from the vine into the branch and bears fruit. If we aren’t abiding in Him, we can do nothing. We can bear no fruit. In the next verses, Jesus expanded the analogy.
John 15:5-6: I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in Me, you are like a branch that thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
Here again Jesus warned about the Judas syndrome—those who outwardly appear to be a followers of Christ, but with no reality, no fruitfulness, no evidence in their lives. How, then, do we remain in Christ? What’s the secret to unbroken fellowship with Him? Read on:
John 15:7: If you remain in Me and My words remain in You, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
We abide in Him when we are united with Him in unbroken fellowship, having His word inside us and praying in His will. If we do that we’ll be fruitful and God will be glorified.
John 15:8: This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Jesus ended the paragraph telling us that if we abide in Him we will bear fruit, more fruit, and much fruit, God will be glorified, and the world will know we are His disciples. Yet He has not yet interpreted for us one crucial element of the analogy. What does He mean by “fruit”?
Many preachers—I’ve done this myself—simply fill in the blank. We say He was talking about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Or He was talking about the results of our ministry. Some say He was referring to good works. Still, as of verse 8, Jesus hasn’t given us His interpretation.
But, of course, the passage doesn’t stop at verse 8. In fact, verses 1-8 are preparatory for what follows. In the next paragraph, we would expect Jesus to define the fruit, and He does exactly that. Here, then, is the question we want to know as we plunge into verses 9-17: What quality does Jesus want to produce in you and me? Well, read on:
- 15:9: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in My love.
- 15:10: If You keep My commandments, you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love.
- 15:12: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
- 15:13: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are My friends if you do what I command. This is an especially important reference because, as we’ll see, it represents the Lord’s own divine definition of love–of the kind of love He is talking about. This is the Jesus-definition of love.
- 15:16-17: You did not choose Me, but I choose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last… This is My command: Love each other.
Verses 1-8 are a parable about fruitfulness, and they lead into verses 9-17, which is the greatest passage Jesus ever spoke on the subject of love. When we remain in unbroken fellowship with Jesus Christ, we grow in His love. We become walking, living embodiments of the love of Jesus. It seems clear to me that the fruit, more fruit, and much fruit Jesus was thinking about in His analogy was the attitude of love He commanded we emulate—and the results of that love in this world.
This is the mark of discipleship—the one thing that distinguishes His followers from everyone else. By this everyone will know you are My disciples. The Father is the gardener. The Son is the vine. We are the branches. And the fruitfulness He reproduces within us is His brand of love, His character of love—and the outworking of that love in this world as we lay down our lives to meet the needs of others.
If you continue reading in chapter 15, the next paragraph is all about hate, which, according to Jesus, is the distinguishing mark of the world. Verse 18 continues, “If the world hates you….” So John 15:1-8 is our Lord’s parable of the vine; Verses 9-17 is about the fruit of love; and verses 18-25 is about the opposite attitude pervasive in the world.
Let me suggest three ways of exhibiting the love of Christ.
1. Meeting Physical Needs
We love others when we meet their physical needs. When the apostle John wrote those words in His Gospel, they lingered in His mind. Later, in his first epistle, he referred back to this incident and quoted Jesus. John said, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:16-17). Here John harkens back to the Upper Room and reminds us of the Jesus -definition of love. It’s not necessarily a matter of dying for someone, but of putting their needs before our own and helping even at sacrifice.
This is what people should notice about believers. Two quick examples:
- There’s a Christian dentist in my town who drives into the poorer streets one day a week and collects people needing dental work. He brings them to his office and takes care of their teeth at no charge, and delivers them home.
- I read about a church group of 120 women in Texas who volunteer to go to the bus station to meet women prisoners being released. The prison bus leaves the newly released women at the station, needy and scared. In the past, predators lurked around to lure them into something bad. But these Christian women take over the bus station, guide and guard the needy women, and help them find their buses and destinations. They give them goody bags and Bibles. It’s a major operation, but the testimonies coming out of it are incredible.
This is the love of Christ that compels us to meet the physical needs of others. If we’re abiding in Christ, we should be doing something to help someone who isn’t as well off as we are.
2. Meeting Emotional Needs
When we love as Jesus did, we’re also moved to meet the emotional needs of others. In his book, Just a Minute, Wesley Stafford spoke at an educator’s conference in Nairobi and was impressed by the dedication of the 400 teachers in attendance. At the end of his talk, he asked if anyone had a story to share. A young man stood and said he was in his first year of teaching. He told the group why he had chosen the field of education. His first days as a schoolchild had been a painful ordeal because of his stutter. He felt embarrassed and alone and could hardly wait each day to run home. His teacher, noticing his struggle, approached him, praising his work. She wrote encouraging notes on his papers and gave him some of the only hugs he ever received. That’s when he decided he wanted to be a teacher—all the way back in the first grade because of a wise and loving teacher.
Stafford asked, “Did you ever tell her of her impact on your life?”
“No,” he said softly. “I never really did.”
“Do you think she even knows?” asked Stafford.
The young man said, “Well, sir, she does now…” There was a hush in the crowd as the young man collected himself. Turning, he pointed across the room and continued, “…because she is sitting right over there.” The teachers gasped and turned to see where the man was pointing. There sat an aged, gray-haired woman with glistening eyes who, amid tremendous applause, stood quietly to her feet. Stafford later said, “Now, I can’t prove it, but I would swear violins were playing as the two of them made their way to the center aisle and met in a long and over-due embrace.”
3. Meeting Spiritual Needs
Most of all, if we are abiding in Christ and bearing the inward fruit of His love, we’ll want to meet the spiritual needs of others. A year or so ago, I spent time with a man who had devoted his life to Ethiopian missions, and he gave me a book, Warriors of Ethiopia, by his coworker that told some incredible stories. One was about an evangelist named Laliso.
Laliso had a burden to reach the Ethiopian village of Goybi with the Gospel. One day he set out for this village, wanting to be there before dark. But he was detained at a checkpoint. By the time the police let him go, it was nearly sunset. Laliso had trouble following the pathway, which ran by a small river. Suddenly the ground collapsed and he slid down the bank and tumbled into the water. He was soaked to the skin and scratched and bruised, though his Bible was wrapped and watertight. He couldn’t get of the water because the banks were steep and slick. All he could do was walk upstream, hanging to branches or tree limbs as best he could. Finally he came to a village and called out for help. He was delighted to find he was in Goybi.
A man ran to him holding a torch. He called others and they stared at Laliso in amazement. They said, “He is the fair one and he came to us out of the water,” they said, “but does he have the golden leaves?”
They took Laliso to a hut where he wrung out his wet clothes and dried off. Everyone looked at his skin. It was lighter and fairer than their dark Ethiopian skin. Suddenly the crowd parted, and the town witchdoctor walked in. He looked at Laliso, pressing his hands together and opening them like opening and shutting a book. He kept saying, “The golden leaves. The golden leaves.”
Laliso didn’t know what this meant, but he prayed for guidance and unwrapped his Bible. The crowd gasped. It was a black Bible, but the edges of the pages were colored gold. The people started shouting and clapping and saying, “It is true! It is true!” The witchdoctor fell to his knees and reached out and touched the Bible. “Yes, it is true. The truth has come at last. Now we can find the way to life.”
Laliso asked he was talking about, and the man said, “A long time ago, before my father died, he told us that one day a fair man would come out of the water with some gold leaves. The gold leaves were the truth that would show us the way to life. We have waited for the truth for so long. But now you have come.”
Laliso was able to evangelize that village, and the word multiplied from there; and according to my friend, the message is still radiating through Ethiopia because of those golden leaves.
Conclusion: You and I have the Golden Leaves. We have the love of Jesus Christ that drives us to meet the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual needs of this world. The love of Christ compels us because we are convinced that one died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14).
What can we do—what can you and I do—to bear fruit, more fruit, and much fruit?
Imagine you were there in those darkened streets in Jerusalem with the Lord. Imagine you were there on that darkened jungle trail with Laliso. Imagine the opportunities you’ll have this week. Abide in Christ and let love become the most obvious factor about you—the mark of discipleship. And let’s be disciples of Him who said, “Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friends.”