The Promise of Fruitfulness

If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 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. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John 15:6-11 ESV

So, what does Jesus mean when He says that those who do not abide in Him will be taken away, thrown out, and left to whither, then collected and burned? Whatever He is trying to say, it doesn’t sound good. And these enigmatic verses have caused generations of believers to speculate and debate over their exact meaning. The sad result is that the church has ended up placing far more emphasis on what it might mean to not abide rather than finding comfort and encouragement from Jesus’ call to remain in Him.

This entire passage is about fruitfulness. And Jesus establishes that fact from the onset.

Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” – John 16:2 ESV

His message to His disciples is that He fully expects them to bear fruit because they are in a relationship with Him. They share a special bond with Him that is intended to result in fruitfulness. But the key to their fruitfulness will be their continued relationship with Him. To leave Him would be disastrous. It would sever the tie to the vine and result in a life of unfruitfulness. It would destroy any sense of purpose for their lives. And Jesus’ mention of the branch that fails to abide is meant to sound absurd and ridiculous. No branch would ever choose to remove itself from the vine. To do so would be to go against its very purpose for being.

This passage recalls an earlier conversation between Jesus and His disciples. In His lengthy discourse on the bread of life, Jesus mentioned that “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (John 6:56 ESV). This rather cryptic and confusing statement from Jesus resulted in many of His followers leaving Him. And He turned to His disciples and asked them if they were going to leave Him as well. To which Peter responded:

Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:67-68 ESV

Yes, the words of Jesus had been difficult to understand. His talk of eating His body and drinking His blood had sounded strange to the disciples. But they believed in Him. He was the Holy One of God, and to walk away from Him would make even less sense than some of the things He said. So, they were sticking with Jesus.

Notice that Jesus had told the crowds that day that if they ate His flesh and drank His blood, they would remain in Him and He would remain in them. Jesus used the very same word that is found John 15:4.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

For all who partake of Jesus’ body and blood, by believing in His sacrificial death on their behalf, they will experience a permanent and irrevocable bond with Him. And that bond will make possible a life filled with fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity. This message from Jesus was meant to be a source of encouragement to the disciples. In the dark days ahead, they were to recall these words from Jesus and find hope.

But sadly, the church has tended to turn the act of abiding into a work. We have made it a mandatory requirement for experiencing fruitfulness. In other words, if we don’t abide, we don’t bear fruit. Which tends to convey the idea that any fruitfulness in our lives is completely up to us. But that is not what Jesus is saying. In fact, He is conveying jus the opposite message. He told His disciples, “you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me” (John 15:4 NLT). In other words, it is the relationship that results in fruit, not the act of abiding. No branch can produce any fruit on its own. And at the same time, no branch has to work at remaining attached to the vine. It is a natural relationship that requires no effort on the part of the branch.

Yet, when we find our lives spiritually fruitless, we tend to question what we might be doing wrong. We begin to wonder what it is that we need to do to get the spiritual juices flowing so that we might be more productive and fruitful. And rather than abiding in the relationship we have, we begin to act as if the fruit production is all up to us. But what does Jesus say?

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:5 NLT

No branch can produce fruit apart from the vine. And no Christian can live a life of spiritual abundance apart from His relationship with Jesus. The key to fruitfulness is recognizing our dependence and complete reliance upon Jesus. That is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT).

Don’t miss what Jesus said in verse 5: “Those who remain in me, and I in them.” That is exactly what He said in John 6:54: “Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” The remaining or abiding to which Jesus refers is not an act of the flesh, but a work of the Spirit. It takes place through belief, not effort. That is the point Paul made to the believers in Ephesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)

Our fruitfulness is not a result of our strenuous efforts to abide. It is the byproduct of believing that our sanctification or fruitfulness is entirely up to Jesus, just as our salvation was. The entire point of this passage is to remind us that it is our relationship with Jesus that matters most. There is no hope of salvation apart from Him. There is no chance of living a life of fruitfulness except through our relationship with Him. He does it all. And like a branch, the degree of our fruitfulness is entirely up to the vine and the vinedresser. The less productive branch will receive special attention from the vinedresser, resulting in pruning and careful cultivating so that the end result will be increasing fruitfulness. That is what means when He says, “he [God] prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more” (John 15:2 NLT).

The goal is fruitfulness. And Jesus is assuring His disciples that they will be fruitful because their God is faithful.

So, what about the branches that bear no fruit? It would seem that these branches were never truly attached to the Vine. They had no lasting relationship with the Vine and, therefore, no hope of producing fruit. Like the people in the crowd who heard Jesus declare Himself to be the bread of life, they walked away from the very source of life and fruitfulness.

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. – John 6:66 ESV

They had been curious but not committed. They appeared to be branches but lacked a true relationship with the Vine. And Jesus had clearly communicated the non-negotiable requirement for a life of fruitfulness.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. – John 6:53 ESV

Belief in who He was and what He had come to do was the key to having a true relationship with Him. Following after Jesus without having faith in Jesus will never produce fruit. Claiming to be a branch is not the same as abiding in the Vine. And all those so-called branches will one day find themselves judged. And the basis for their judgment will be their fruitlessness. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to the fate of these false branches.

“On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.” – Matthew 7:22-23 NLT

They will brag about their fruit, but it will be the wrong kind. They will boast in their knowledge of the Lord, but He will declare that He doesn’t even know them. And these false branches will be “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6 ESV). But for those branches that remain attached to the Vine, Jesus has some outstanding news.

“…ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” – John 15:7 ESV

They will have access to power like they have never known before. But because of their relationship to the Vine, their desires will be the same as the Vine. They will want what Jesus wants and ask for those things that Jesus desires. And Jesus clarifies exactly what they will ask for.

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” – John 15:8 ESV

Faithful branches desire nothing more than fruitfulness. They long to fulfill the wishes of the Vinedresser and act as willing agents in carrying out the work of the Vine. And Jesus describes all of this as nothing less and nothing more than abiding in His love. The very act of the branch remaining in the Vine is a beautiful picture of the love of the Father flowing through the Son into the branch and out into the world. And Jesus assured His disciples that His words were meant to encourage them.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” – John 15:11 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson