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Remain in Christ, the True Vine -- a study of John 15:1-17

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

The purpose of life is to bear fruit that lasts.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 15:1-17

In Jesus' final teaching to His disciples, He explains that our obedience to Him not only proves that we are His friend and disciple, but also that our obedience is how we experience the joy of our salvation. Through our obedience, we remain in Christ and glorify God. And what is Jesus' command? To love one another as He loved us.

No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. (15:13)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The World Seems to Be Getting Worse. What Do We Do?

There's no dancing around the news. This week, we had another school shooting in which 6 people and the attacker died. Thes stories are heartbreaking (and so is some of the reaction, though not in the same way). We also had 37 people die in a mysterious fire at a migrant center near the Texas border (which has gotten less attention).


Tragedies all around us.


How do you deal with it?


This week, I've got two possible directions with this topic, if you think it might be helpful to spark conversation in your group.


#1: The Media Is Actively Feeding Your Negativity

One idea is to take a big-picture approach to "news" itself. The simple truth is that media outlets have discovered that "bad news" gets a bigger reaction than "good news", and so they highlight and promote their coverage of bad news.

But it's more than "bad news sells" -- researchers have learned that people become their own promoters of bad news (i.e., we make things worse for ourselves). This quote is disturbing:

From 2016 to 2019, Facebook gave “anger” emoji reactions to posts five times as much weight as “likes” in deciding which posts to show other users because their machine learning algorithms found posts that angered people fueled more engagement than posts that pleased them. That partly reflected that humans do, in fact, prefer to share news that enrages them, but it also magnified that tendency, which has costs for both the site and its users.

[Warning: The following is a Political Illustration: I read a study that I found extremely thought-provoking, but it might be too distracting for your group. I leave that to your discretion... 🤔


This particular study found that right-leaning news sources used more "negative" terms in their headlines than left-leaning ones. They could only speculate as to why -- perhaps they were under mandate to get more clicks, or perhaps right-leaning people respond more to negative than positive headlines.

To me, what matters is the suggestion that right-leaning people respond more to negative than positive news (this would include many/most conservative Christians). If that's even remotely true, it means that we're not living out this week's passage.]


For example, the news coverage has focused on the victims, the outrage, the shooter, gun laws, school safety, etc. All very important. It has not focused on how nearby churches and families banded together to care for the survivors, the heroic emergency response, and certainly not the possibility that hope could triumph over fear.


Do you feel like the news is actively trying to bring you down? Have you even noticed it? (Something is certainly going wrong -- American happiness hits record lows | CNN Politics -- and we will have a good lesson for this topic in the near future.) Does it make you want to withdraw from the world?


The point of this topic is simply to make your group aware of the pervasiveness of negativity. I think this directly affects our ability to process this week's passage, and the next topic develops that more.


#2: Is Your Reaction to Bad News "Positive" or "Negative"?

If the first topic is simply about the prevalence of "bad news", this one is about how we respond to it. What does "bad news" make you want to do?


Above, I specifically mentioned "withdrawing from the world", a response I've seen more and more frequently. How about you? What is your response?


Jesus has something very specific to say about "bad news" (we aren't covering this passage, so I'm happy to bring it up here):

John 16:33 “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

No one experienced more "bad news" than Jesus. He did not let it overcome Him; instead, He overcame it. In fact, He conquered it. (I like the translation "conquer" rather than "overcome" because today, "conquer" has a much stronger connotation.)


But how did Jesus "conquer" His "bad news"? He didn't ignore it. He didn't give empty platitudes. He actively gave of Himself in love.


Obviously, we are in a different position than Jesus. But the Bible tells us to have that same approach that Jesus had. Let me cite Romans 12 at length. (Paul says things much better than I could.)

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. 10 Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Take the lead in honoring one another. 11 Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13 Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. ... 21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

That is how we should respond to "bad news".


My challenge -- as we study this week's passage, we should ask ourselves how the way Jesus wants us to look at the world lines up with how we actually look at the world.


How Important Are Your Friends?

I'm workshopping this topic for a future post, but you might want to jump in with this if the "bad news" thing is too on-the-nose for you. In this week's passage, Jesus talks about how the disciples are His friends. He means that in a deep and profound way. If Jesus desired friends, how much more important must that be for us?


Unfortunately, the numbers say that Americans (in particular) are having more trouble than ever making and keeping friends.

Why do you think it has gotten harder to make friends? What can we do about that?

 

This Week's "Big Idea": The Purpose of Life

What do you think the purpose of life is (not the "meaning of life", although that's related)?


If you want to give yourself heartburn, just Google that. Let me start with a few quotes from the never-disappointing "goodreads" quote farm:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson


“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

― Eleanor Roosevelt


“Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven


Oh, it gets better:

"Since our biological evolution is the foundation of our existence, a purpose of our lives is to continue to "evolve" during our lifetime by learning and growing. Each day, our purpose is to strive to be a little bit better than the day before and to continue this evolutionary process throughout our lifetime." (What Is the Purpose of Life? | Psychology Today)


And let's not leave out:

"I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy." (Dalai Lama: What is the Purpose of Life? | UPLIFT)


Most of what I read on the internet tended to be self-oriented. Some who view humanity as a species/organism focus on doing what's best not just for themselves but for "humanity" as a whole (stuff like compassion, service, etc. -- good things, in a vacuum.)


With that in the background, what do you think God would say is the purpose of life?


The most famous Christian answer to this question comes from Westminster's "Shorter Catechism":

Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

I think we can make that answer even more action-oriented by virtue of what Jesus says in this week's passage:

16 You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 This is what I command you: Love one another."

We all know what Paul says in Ephesians 2:

8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

Of course, those answers are related. We glorify God by doing what He put us on earth to do. And He put us on earth to "produce fruit". What fruit do you think God wants us to produce?


Don't go too far down that path -- save something for the study! :)

 

Where We Are in John

Here's the Visual Bible on John 15:

Remember that we are in Jesus' "Farewell Discourse" -- all of the final things Jesus wants to say to His disciples. Last week focused on the Spirit (and more on this in a few weeks). This week focuses on God's command to all Christians and how we accomplish it.


There's really not more to say. We are steadily approaching the betrayal; there is quite literally a ticking timer on Jesus' message.

 

Part 1: Jesus Is the True Vine (John 15:1-8)

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.

I am not "Mr. Agriculture", so I have to rely on others to explain this illustration. Here's a video I am very surprised to have liked very much. This artist focuses on the idea of indwelling and Trinity (he even uses the Greek word perichoresis properly), which I think is absolutely right.

So, yeah -- this is as simple as "cut a branch off from the vine and the branch dies".


The disciples would have immediately known that Jesus was talking about Israel.

Isa 27:2 On that day sing about a desirable vineyard: 3 I am the Lord, who watches over it to water it regularly. So that no one disturbs it, I watch over it night and day. 4 I am not angry. If only there were thorns and briers for me to battle, I would trample them and burn them to the ground. 5 Or let it take hold of my strength; let it make peace with me—make peace with me. 6 In days to come, Jacob will take root. Israel will blossom and bloom and fill the whole world with fruit.

See also Psalm 80, Jeremiah 2, Ezekiel 15, etc.


God "planted" Israel as a "vine" in the perfect "vineyard". Of course, this is specifically talking about grapevines which fruit was crushed into wine.

The Promised Land had a perfect climate for vineyards, and the Old Testament used grapevines to symbolize how fertile the land was (Dt 6:11, Josh 24:13, 1 Sam 8:14, etc.).


The problem was that "Israel the Vineyard" didn't "produce fruit" for God. Jesus told a parable specifically about this is Matthew 21 ("The Parable of the Tenants") which we covered at length before (including how the parable works):

They failed, and so God would cut them off.


But that's not Jesus' point. Here Jesus drops the ultimate bombshell -- He is the "true vine", i.e., Jesus fulfilled the role God sent Israel to perform. We've talked about this before, and I think the Bible Project video on "The Covenants" does a great job picturing this for us.


Israel failed to fulfill the covenant because they tried to do so in their own power and toward their own purpose.


How do we not make that same mistake?


Well, we "remain in Christ". We talked about this last week -- can you summarize what your group concluded about what it means to "be in Christ"?


At first blush, this is as simple as salvation. When we are saved, God the Father and God the Son "take up residence" (dwell) in us by the Holy Spirit. So, we just need to "remain saved". No problem, right?


Not quite. We've already talked in John's Gospel about how Jesus makes it very clear that we cannot lose our salvation (spoiler alert for that post, and more on this below).

So, what does that mean for "remaining in Christ"?


The long and short is this: Jesus specifically talks about "mutual indwelling" -- a two-way street. Our salvation is secure (more on this below), but how we live out that salvation is up to us.


The verbs Jesus uses have a sense of urgency about them. Jesus is imploring us to take this seriously.


Jesus did not die for us simply so we would "enjoy being saved" -- He died for us so we would do something about that in our world.


Here's your discussion: what "fruit" do you think God wants us to bear? If you watched the vine video above, you saw his answer: "love". The next verses will define what Jesus wants this word to mean.


[Btw: the given section headings are so bad this week that I felt obligated to substitute my own.]

 

Aside: "Removes" "Prunes" and Eternal Security

I feel like we have done a good job this quarter of explaining the doctrine of eternal security (that you can't lose your salvation). But some people can get really caught off-guard by verse 2. "If the branches are 'in Jesus' and God cuts them off, doesn't that mean they have lost their salvation?" Let's start with the translation.


Most importantly, the verbs translated "removes" and "prunes" aren't agricultural verbs. Most English translations simply use agricultural verbs because they fit the illustration. What Jesus actually says is "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes it away, and every branch that does bear fruit He cleans it so that it may bear even more fruit." This is actually a word play that doesn't translate into English -- airei auto, and kathairei auto. In other words, Jesus didn't choose these verbs to fit the agricultural metaphor -- He chose them because they fit how His relationship with the Father illustrates our relationship with Him.


The best parallel I think we have is the parable of the wheat and the tares:

Matt 13:28 'So, do you want us to go and pull them up?’ the servants asked him.
29 “‘No,’ he said. ‘When you pull up the weeds, you might also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I’ll tell the reapers: Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them, but collect the wheat in my barn.’”

The most obvious example of what Jesus means is Judas Iscariot. He "grew up" with the rest of the disciples, but he was never truly "in Jesus".


I've heard some hardcore scholars say that Jesus means that God will eliminate unfruitful Christians to prevent damage through their poor witness. Because the Judas-specter is in the background of this passage, I think it's more likely Jesus is talking about false Christians who have grown up with true Christians. They aren't going to bear fruit, so God will "take them away" when the time comes.

 

Part 2: We Must "Remain" Attached to the Vine (John 15:9-11)

9 As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.

According to science, dead branches don't bear fruit. Above, I asked you what you think "fruit" is supposed to mean. Now, let me send you on a "word study" for more. The word "fruit" appears 189 times in the Bible.


Go through those and focus on the times the Bible uses it metaphorically.


Let me list just a few examples:

  • Gen 1:28: God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it."

  • 2 Ki 19:30: The surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward.

  • Ps 1:3 He is like a tree planted beside flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

One to focus on, of course, is Galatians 5:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things.

Something all of the verses you would have read have in common is their relationship with God's/Jesus' commands. "Fruit" is our observable obedience to God's commands. Well, this is exactly what Jesus said just a few verses ago:

8 My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples.

So, "fruit" is simply what people see of our lives. Literally, what our lives "produce". You might have noticed this verse in my little exercise above:

Matt 7:20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.

In John 15, everything Jesus says comes back to "love". Make sure to catch this: the "love" Jesus is talking about is the love God the Father has for God the Son. That's deep. That's really deep. Using your Christian imagination, how would you describe the love God the Father has for God the Son? And then -- With that said, what does it mean that a characteristic of our obedience to God is this kind of love?


God the Father shares with us (Christians) the same love He has for His Son (because of His Son), and now we are to model and share that love with the world. In this way, the "overflow" illustration from the video above is quite appropriate.


Let's put a bow on all of this: "remaining in God's love" isn't some kind of mystical experience. It's something we actively do by obeying God's Word.


We demonstrate our love for God by obeying Him.


We share our love for the world through our obedience.


Have you ever thought about it that way? What are the two greatest commandments?


See?


Don't let anybody be confused by this -- our obedience isn't how we earn our salvation; our obedience is how we experience our salvation.


One more topic: "joy". Not coincidentally, that immediately follows "love" in the fruit of the Spirit. What is this joy?


You could do a word search for it, but there are a lot of Bible verses with this word in it. Let me punt by sharing the Holman Bible Dictionary definition:

Joy is the state of delight and well-being that results from knowing and serving God. ...
Joy is the fruit of a right relation with God. It is not something people can create by their own efforts. The Bible distinguishes joy from pleasure. ...
Joy in the Christian life is in direct proportion as believers walk with the Lord. They can rejoice because they are in the Lord (Phil 4:4). Joy is a fruit of a Spirit-led life (Gal 5:22). Sin in a believer's life robs the person of joy (Ps 51).

God is not a killjoy -- He understands true joy. That dictionary entry highlights the three parables in Luke 15.

  • 10 I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.

Your discussion is going to follow this line of questioning in some way:

  • How do you describe joy?

  • How does the Bible describe joy?

  • Have you ever experienced the Bible's kind of joy? When?

  • What do you need to do to experience that kind of joy more?

 

Part 3: Our Fruit Is to Love One Another

12 “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 This is what I command you: Love one another.

Here, Jesus simply makes His illustration as clear as possible.

  • God wants you to bear fruit.

  • Your fruit is your obedience to My commands.

  • My command is that you love one another.

  • Therefore, people will know you are a disciple by your love.

Wait -- isn't that exactly what Jesus said a few verses ago?

13:34 “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Why do you think Jesus felt the need to repeat this in His "Farewell Discourse"?


If your discussion about this a few weeks ago including anything along the lines of "we're not doing a very good job of this", then this week's passage must rub salt in that wound. This idea is so important that Jesus explained it twice in two different ways using two different illustrations. As Christians, we have to get this right.


Jesus gives us the ultimate fulfillment of what He means: to lay your life down for your friend. My first meaningful exposure to this verse came at Texas A&M. Their on-campus war memorials all include this verse:

It's a classic argument of greater-to-lesser: "if x is true, than anything less than x must also be true".


My favorite illustration of this comes from a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 (I paraphrase):

  • "It's great that you're willing to take a bullet for me, but all I want you to do is take out the garbage when the can is full."

How do you demonstrate your love for the people around you?


[Aside on the word "friend": so, if we do this for our friends, we don't have to do this for our enemies, right? What do you think? Go and read Matthew 5:44-46 and Romans 5:6-11. The word "friend" literally means "one who is loved". We are supposed to love everyone. Kinda like how we are supposed to consider everyone our neighbor. That said, we are supposed to have a special kinship with our Christian brothers and sisters, but more on this below.]


And now we get to the heart of it all. By giving His life for us, Jesus is proving to us that He considers us His friends. But in return, all we have to do to prove that we consider Jesus our Friend is obey His commands. Catch that difference? He is not calling all of us to a martyr's death. He is calling us to a life of obedience. And if that life leads to a martyr's death, He asks us not to shrink away from it.


And so here is the key distinction -- friend vs. slave. A slave can be commanded to do what the master wants. But a friend will be asked to do what a friend wants.


I had always found the "no longer call you slaves" interesting, because I hadn't found anywhere Jesus called the disciples His slaves! That's not what Jesus is saying here. Instead, He's acknowledging that when the disciples first came to Jesus, He basically just told them what to do because they did not understand why yet. But now, they understand why. There will be no more "micromanaging" after the crucifixion -- it is time for them to act on the Father's behalf by their own volition. They should ask the Spirit for guidance, but now it is up to them to live out their salvation.


How have we said this before?

  • Love that is demanded isn't truly love.

  • Peace that is enforced isn't truly peace.

  • Joy that is self-created isn't truly joy.

But now God shares His love, peace, and joy with us. They are for us to experience as the overflow of His relationship with us in Jesus.


[Aside on "choosing": Some people lose a lot of sleep over this verse. But they shouldn't! Let's just look at the raw facts -- did Jesus choose the disciples, or did they choose Him? The Gospels go out of their way to show that Jesus "picked" the disciples. And this was necessary, else we might try to say that the betrayal was an unfortunate mistake. No, Jesus was in complete control over whom He considered His Twelve. So you might conclude, "so this has nothing to do with us?" No, not that either. Remember that salvation is a mystery, and it must remain a mystery. We know that we bore the responsibility of saying "yes" to Jesus, but we cannot "take credit" for that. For our purposes today, what we should focus on is the outcome. Did Jesus say "I chose you so that you might debate what that means" or "I chose you so that you might go and bear fruit"?]


We finally get to the answer to the question I proposed at the beginning: "what is the purpose of life?" The purpose of life is to "bear fruit that lasts".


Here's the big discussion I want you to have. I included the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

I believe that is a very common sentiment of most altruistic people. The purpose of life is to make a lasting (and positive) impact on the world around you.


How is that different from "fruit that lasts"?


My guess is that many people in our churches have a Ralph Waldo Emerson view of "the purpose of life". (And hear me -- it's sure better than a lot of the other dreck I read online.) A small group Bible study is the best place to help us confront that kind of attitude within ourselves and bring us to the Jesus way of looking at things.


Closing Thought: The Importance of Small Group Bible Studies

Speaking of small groups ... The kind of friendship Jesus talks about here is something the disciples understood from their three years of walking and serving with Jesus. Yes, we are to think of everybody as our friend, but Jesus certainly had a deeper meaning in mind that the disciples would have immediately grasped. It's a relationship based on sharing life together.


We need friends, especially in America.

If you used this topic at the beginning, hopefully you got around to the importance of the church in facilitating those friendships. If you didn't, then that's where I'm going with this. God knows we need friends. That one of the reasons He created the church, so that Christians could have a spiritual family in which they could cultivate the friendships they need to face the world. What does your Bible study group need to do to build stronger friendships among your members?


Bonus Closing Thought: Another Video

I don't follow all of the choices of animation, but I'm a big fan of listening to and watching God's Word. Here's another voice reading our passage out loud.


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