Every October, I spend time in deep and prayerful evaluation. This is evaluation of my own ministry in the context God has me in and of the church or ministry God has us leading. This year, my evaluations lead me to John 15. I was wondering if it was even Biblical to do evaluations because it’s not fun and it forces us to see the areas in which we are lacking. I don’t really like seeing where I am deficient or seeing where the ministries of the church may fall short of God’s design. There was only one answer presented through the Scriptures. We must consider our ways if we are going to actively participate as God conforms His people to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.
There are many hurts in ministry and many struggles. Financial giving rises and falls. When it falls, we find ourselves wondering how to increase giving. Attendance rises and falls. When it falls, we find ourselves wondering why people have stopped coming. It feels, metaphorically, like we have been stabbed in the back and, literally, like we have been forsaken, unloved, uncared for, not cherished, rejected, and condemned outright by others. It is one of the worst feelings I have ever personally experienced. We find ourselves trying any multitude of things to get people back or to fill seats. There are times of unity and division. When there are times of division, we find ourselves frustrated, simply wishing that people weren’t so peoplish even if these are the most fruitful times for real ministry. No matter the season of the local church, there is a danger that any of these things, whether in prosperity or poverty, can take our attention away from Christ in such a way that we are trying to keep the level of comfort we have attained or achieve some external result by resorting to worldly means. This is how healthy churches dive into churchlessness. Dare I say that it is our focus on increasing giving, attendance, and appeasing people that is actually killing otherwise healthy local churches the world over. Jesus is clear about what He desires. From John 13:1-17:26, Jesus is teaching his disciples during the Passover. He teaches them as a servant (see 13:5). He teaches them not from a pulpit or stage, but while sitting with them or walking with them (cf. 14:31). Though He is their pastor, he teaches these truths from a place of humility. So, this is the posture I take this morning- a more intimate, communal, and Christlike teaching posture. Let’s look at the promise of Scripture together.
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.
These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another.
Abiding in Christ (v. 1-6)
In verses 1-2, Jesus refers to Himself as the true vine and the Father as the vinedresser. Jesus is the one through whom life is given and the Father is the one who prunes the vine so that the branches grow. Every branch that does not bear fruit is cut off by the Father. Every branch that bears fruit is pruned to bear more fruit.
In verse 3, Jesus, talking to His disciples (cf. 13:5), says, You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” This perpetual washing, what we normally refer to as regeneration or true conversion, preceded the instruction that the disciples are about to receive. Before one can do what Christ is about to instruct, he or she must first be converted. His or her heart must first be regenerated.
In verses 4-6, we receive the instruction to abide in Christ because it is impossible for a branch to produce fruit without the vine. Here, we learn that it is Christ’s desire that His people bear fruit and that the means of bearing that fruit is our abiding in Christ. Those who do not abide in Christ as a result of a regenerate heart are cut off by the Father and thrown into the fire to be burned up. So, there are Christians, those who abide in Christ and bear an ever-increasing degree of fruit, and there are nonchristians, those who, even if they are in church (connected to but not truly part of the vine), do not abide in Christ and cannot bear good fruit.
How to abide in Christ (v. 7-11)
What does it actually mean, though, for any person or church to abide in Christ?
In verse 7, we receive a promise. If we do abide in Christ and His words abide in us, we will receive whatever we ask for. That is a huge promise and deserves some working out, but the prerequisites are that the people of God abide in Christ and that Christ’s word abides in the people of God. We will come back to this promise after discovering what it actually means to abide in Christ.
In verse 8, the question is still not answered explicitly. All we know is that the bearing of much fruit is meant for God’s glory. It is by bearing much fruit that we prove to be disciples of Christ. Without this fruit, we prove not to be disciples of Christ or abide in Him.
In verse 9, the question still remains unanswered. Christ reemphasizes that we are to abide in His love. His love for us is a picture of the love that the Father has for the Son, which is an amazing and theologically deep concept. God loves people not just because He has some arbitrary love for people. He loves His people the way that He does because it is a picture of who He is in His essence. He loves His people because it brings glory to Him and causes us to realize something about who He is. That is what it means for us to be created in God’s image. Everything about us, the relationships we have, natural sexuality, and the natural bend of our hearts in our self-righteousness reveals something about God. This is why God created people with such a nature that they could not keep His Law or seek after Him. Our self-righteousness reflects God’s true righteousness as His essential character. It is an image of His righteousness, and so necessarily falls short of His righteousness. It logically follows that if God is to have a creature in His image, that creature would not naturally be able to abide in Him because He is entirely and perfectly self-righteous and self-sufficient. For this creature to abide in Him and glorify Him, He would need to hand this creature over to sin and to death, killing the mere image of righteousness in him and clothing him in His true righteousness alone. This is what was accomplished as God handed us over to sin (cf. Romans 11:32) and redeemed us in Christ. Now it is possible for us to be both God’s image and abide in His glory alone. But, what does it mean to abide in Christ?
In verse 10, we finally receive our answer. If we keep Christ’s commandment, we will abide in His love. This is meant to reflect the fact that the Son is perfectly obedient to the Father and so abides in the Father’s love. Our obedience isn’t even about us! Even our obedience is meant to be a picture of the Godhead, not earn any kind of merit for ourselves. It is the picture within God’s creation of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father. We will work this doctrine out later. What we know, here, is that God is not arbitrarily commanding our obedience and threatening people with death if thy don’t obey. This is not the obedience described by so much or the human-centered religion out there. Obedience is part of the Imago Dei. It is part of God’s revelation of Himself for His glory alone within His own creation. There is a point! Here, we see that our obedience means much. It follows regeneration. We are not saved by merit. Salvation does cause us to become more obedient to Christ as Christ is obedient to the Father. This is the pruning process that Christ described earlier in His illustration. Our growth in obedience, sanctification, causes us to bear more and more fruit.
In verse 11, we see that this growth in obedience is accompanied by an ever-increasing joy until our joy is complete. It is not a burden of works-based righteousness, but the freedom of righteousness based obedience.
The promise of Godly prosperity (v. 12-17)
In verse 12, Jesus tells us precisely what His commandment is. It is for His disciples to “love one another” just as He has loved us. Jesus has already described this love for us in the illustration He has provided. Just as obedience is not arbitrary or without real, Christ-centered purpose, love is not an arbitrary love, but a familial love revealing the love that the Father has for the Son and that the Son has for the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 11), in which each true branch is sanctified for God’s glory alone. In verse 13, Jesus clarifies the type of love He will show. Christ will demonstrate this love perfectly as He dies for our transgressions. We practice this love as we strive for one another’s good in sanctification and as we sacrifice our own lives for the good of one another. Christ has even proclaimed that all the Law and the Prophets hang on this command and the greatest command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” (Matthew 22:37), which is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6. Our love for one another comes as a result of our growing in obedience to Christ’s words throughout all of Scripture. This is specifically and explicitly how we abide in Christ following regeneration. We keep His command throughout the Scriptures. If we love Him, we will keep His commandments (see John 14:15).
In verse 14 and 15, Jesus clarifies. We are His friends if we do what He commands. This would indicate that we are not His friends if we do not do what He commands.
In verse 16, Jesus reminds His disciples that they were first chosen and their hearts regenerated. Christ’s disciples do not choose Him; He chooses them. He appoints us that we may go and produce fruit. He appoints His disciples so that whatever we ask of the Father in His name He may give to us. Everything depends strictly and explicitly on Christ’s appointment as He follows the ordaining instruction of the Father (cf. v. 10). Everything, again, goes back to the regeneration of the heart and regenerate local church membership. Without this, people and local churches are without hope. The fruit one produces when abiding in Christ is twofold. It is the fruit of obedience to Christ, the keeping of His commandments, and of receiving whatever we ask in the Father’s name, which means according to His will and for His glory or fame (not ours).
In verse 17, Jesus reminds us again, “This I command you, that you love one another.”
So, we want to experience godly prosperity in our local churches. God has given His people a method that He promises to bless. If God is real, it is fail-proof. Our problem is that we try so often to use the ways of the world to grow God’s church, and the ways of the world are entirely opposed to godly ways. There are, then, two ways to grow an organization that we refer to as a church. The first way is by attracting people in a strict sense and making sure people are pleased enough to stay. We grow churches by building them around a personality and by giving worldly people exactly what they want, either in music or in our offerings of specialized ministry or in the promise of worldly prosperity or in the promise of healing. The only thing this accomplishes is filling a building with souls who are still on the highway to Hell.
The second way is that way that God described explicitly in His Bible:
- It all begins with a regenerate heart and regenerate local church membership.
- This is a work of the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. I spent my first year, here, making sure we really have this right. Everything else depends on this.
- After regeneration, we are instructed to abide in Christ alone.
- This will require ongoing maintenance as we live and do church together.
- To abide in Christ is to keep His commandment.
- Those who abide in Christ by keeping His commandment (especially to love one another) will bear much fruit.
- This is the direction we are moving in according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is, from our perspective, the more uncertain and certainly more terrifying road to take. It forces the Christian and the local church body to step out and walk by faith with absolute trust in God. It takes courage and strength. This is why we take the time to consider our ways and to evaluate every aspect of the local church according to Christ’s command, not the preferences of people. We want to bear much fruit. We want God to bless financially. We want to experience long-lasting godly growth qualitatively and quantitatively. God is under no obligation to bless our plans. He will, however, move Heaven and Earth to see His own work accomplished through His people who are abiding in Him alone- even in such a way that He promises to give whatever they ask as they abide in Him. If what we ask is in obedience to Him, why would He ever say, “No”?
So we have this as our reminder during seasons of prosperity and as our comfort during seasons of poverty. Our one goal is simply to keep Christ’s command personally and as the local church. God doesn’t merely promise to take care of us, but that we will bear much fruit as we grow in our obedience to Christ’s command throughout Scripture. So, we evaluate and consider our ways and change in response to God’s word because we love God. There comes this moment, because we desire to follow Christ, when we willfully choose to abandon making the church body look like us, forsaking what we think church ought to be in order to follow Christ fully. It’s scary, but that is what it means to walk in the faith that has so graciously been provided to us by the Father through Jesus Christ.
When Israel was exiled into Babylon, they lost their religion, everything that they had built. Through 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra told the story of God’s building up of Israel to remind the people that God is the one who builds, not them. This is happening in many places today, though not many recognize it as the hand of God. Organized religion is failing. People are leaving the organized church en masse. Many church people respond by asking, “How can we turn this trend around?” No matter what Thom Rainer claims, God’s Bible is clear that we cannot. God is the only providential one. It is because of our own religious unfaithfulness that God causes ministries, churches, and nations to fail. He does this for the good of His people, that we might stop trying to build things for ourselves and return to Him, humbling ourselves in payer (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14).