Let me get to the bottom line on what I share here: God wants you to do great things — with Him, NOT for Him.
In the hours before he was arrested and ultimately crucified, Jesus spoke to his disciples about things that were both near to his heart and important for them to know so that they might remain strong in their faith without him by their side. Perhaps that is why John chapter 14 to 17 are among my favorites, and especially John 15. I have written extensively about the concept of abiding in Jesus that is presented, and how abiding is the primary way to have a life that is both personally fulfilling and pleasing to God. As I read through that chapter recently, I realize that I had perhaps missed a second major theme in that chapter. That theme is “fruitfulness”.
The word “fruit” appears almost as many times as the word “abide”. The two concepts are intertwined, though they appear independently of each other, as well. One clear example of the two being intertwined comes in John 15:4-5. It says,
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. 5I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (ESV)
In this illustration, we are the branches and Jesus is the vine. Jesus says that unless we stay in the vine, drawing our life from him, we cannot bear fruit, because fruit can only be brought forth if the vital nutrients that come from him are available. In this instance, Jesus is emphasizing cause and effect, and is explaining to us how things work in the spiritual life.
Jesus reiterates this idea in John 15:7-8, and then extends it with a completely new idea and new way of understanding this life in him. He said,
7“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (ESV)
Jesus is telling us that at least some of the fruit that he intends for us to bear can only be brought out by asking him for it. Furthermore, we learn that when the fruit is brought out, it brings glory to God the Father. But it appears that it is not only that the fruit brings glory to God directly, but that the fruit gives evidence that we are followers of Jesus. It is in being revealed as his disciples through our fruitfulness, God is glorified.
In what way does this proof of being Jesus’ disciples — this revelation of our relationship with him — bring glory to God? To answer this, we turn to something the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:19-21
19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (NIV)
In this passage, we suspect that Paul was thinking back to what happened after Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and as a result of this act of disobedience (as well as their belief in the lie that Satan told them that revealed their lack of trust in God’s goodness and truthfulness) they were removed from the Garden of Eden, and creation was put under a curse. But in this passage, Paul is suggesting that as we live in the freedom of the children of God — thus revealing ourselves as sons of God (here, “sons” is a term that includes both males and females; see Galatians 3:23-29) — creation is being liberated from its bondage to decay.
Now what is it that causes us to be revealed as sons of God and to walk in glorious freedom? For that, we need to look at the verses preceding this passage. Romans 8:13-17 says
13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (NIV)
Paul says explicitly in verse 14 that those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God. He is contrasting this with those who are led by the sinful nature. One possible interpretation of Paul’s discourse at the end of Romans 7, with his contrasting statements at the beginning of Romans 8 is that if you try to obey the law, you are living by your flesh or sinful nature, and will continuously fail. But if you live according to the Spirit, then you will succeed. If this is so, we might understand this as suggesting that we will not appear to the world as sons of God until we walk away from the life that many Christians live — the life of trying by our efforts to follow the religious rules as we know them. Instead, we are to fully receive Jesus’ completed work on our behalf to make us righteous, and walk in a rich relationship, being led daily by the Holy Spirit.
This has been a long diversion from the main theme of fruitfulness, but it was necessary so that we understand that in context of John 15:7-8, one of the ways we bring glory to God is by walking by the Spirit, which will lead to all of the fruits of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23 (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”, according to the NIV). This would suggest that the type of things we could ask God for is the grace to more fully embrace and receive what Jesus did for us, and to have greater ability to perceive how the Holy Spirit is leading us, learning to really enjoy this new way of life based on a real interactive relationship with God.
Apparently, Jesus and the Apostle Paul really think it essential and fundamental that the world sees people living in the freedom of sons of God. If you took a survey, the world probably wouldn’t list joy, love, or peace as the first characteristics that come to mind when they think of Christians. Self-righteous or argumentative may be the first characteristics that come to mind. This ought not to be, but until we learn to walk in the freedom of sons of God, the world will not be able to see the Father glorified, nor will they be able to understand what Jesus’ actions in this world meant — actions that were intended to liberate people from bondage.
But I don’t want to limit this discussion to just fruits of the Spirit. I think in light of Jesus’ reference — one chapter earlier in John 14:11-14 — to his followers doing miracles just as he did leaves open the very real possibility that we could ask for various charismatic gifts to be released to us (see 1 Corinthians 12 and 14) and to operate through us, and through those gifts we would also be seen to be Jesus’ disciples and bring glory to the Father.
The last reference to fruit from John 15 that we will consider here comes in verse 16, where Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (ESV). In context, Jesus is speaking to his 12 disciples, and he is telling them that while it may seem like they were the ones that took steps toward Jesus, it was also very true — and perhaps even more important than the disciples taking steps toward Jesus — that he was the one who chose them.
Perhaps we can all identify with that. We can easily see choices that we made that led us to become followers of Jesus (if in fact we have done that). Just as Jesus told his disciples here, the Apostle Paul, speaking more generally to all followers of Jesus, tells us that we were all chosen by God (see Ephesians 1:4 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13). How does that make you feel, that you were chosen? I have written about this choosing in Ephesians 1:4 in the past (see http://www.wowgod.org/Ephesians1_4to6_11to12.htm), and have argued that part of what it means to be chosen is to say “yes” to God when He calls. Yet there is a mystery about this “choosing”, and I acknowledge that beyond my own ability to comprehend, it is also true that God had a very strong role in drawing us to the point where we could respond to His call.
So if each of us were chosen, just as Jesus’ 12 disciples, then perhaps it is also true that we were also “appointed” to bear fruit. That is, as part of our being called and chosen to follow Jesus, he wants us (and has always wanted us) to bear fruit. He wants us to bear special fruit — fruit that abides. In most of John 15, if you mentally translate the word “abide” to mean “lives in”, “dwells in”, or “resides in”, then we will get the correct meaning. “Abides” also means “lasts” or “remains”, which is to say that the fruit that we bear is not supposed to be fruit that rots quickly, but rather fruit that stays fruity for a long time. If you invest in people, say, in order to bear fruit, this means that you don’t take short cuts, helping them to look good briefly, but affecting no real change in their hearts. Rather, you invest in changing their hearts and minds and planting them firmly on Jesus — this is fruit that lasts.
Verse 16, when coupled with verses 7 and 8, illustrate what I call a “positive feedback loop”. In verses 7 and 8, we ask for fruit as a result of our abiding. But here in verse 16, we receive more fruit as a result of our fruitfulness. This seems to be saying that the more fruitful we are (in producing LASTING fruit), the more our prayers are answered. Some fruit is received as a result of abiding in Jesus, other fruit is received because we ask, but additional fruit is received as a result of being fruitful.
This explains something that many of us have noted, in which certain followers of Jesus get their prayers answered more frequently than others. Often these people are those that have been following Jesus for a longer time. We usually explain this phenomenon by saying that they have practiced longer and come to a better understanding of things. While that may be true, we see here in John 15 that it is also because they have borne fruit, and so are reaping additional fruit as a consequence. In some ways it parallels promotion (ideally, though not always in practice) in a highly productive company: those that do the best work get promoted to the next level, because they have demonstrated efficiency and trustworthiness at the lower level. At higher levels, they have the ear of the CEO, so to speak, and can more readily access company resources.
Perhaps it is best to conclude with a summary of what we have covered. Abiding in Jesus — living our lives immersed in Him — allows us to bear fruit. Apart from Jesus, we cannot bear fruit. If we abide in Jesus, we can come to God and ask for anything that will bring about fruit, and he will give it to us. God wants us to bear a lot of fruit! Bearing fruit shows the world that we are followers of Jesus, and this gives glory to God the Father. When people see us acting as true disciples of Jesus, they can more accurately perceive the true nature and character of God. We were chosen by God to be fruit-bearers — people that produce lasting fruit. That is our true nature now as followers of Jesus! As we produce this excellent quality fruit, God becomes more receptive to our prayers, so that we become even more fruitful.
These verses spoke to me personally in that I feel special in learning that God chose me to bear fruit. And I feel empowered, because I don’t have to bear fruit by my own efforts. Instead, I bear fruit by hanging out with Jesus, and by asking him to provide everything I need for that fruit to appear.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to my friends who attended the Maryland Emmaus gathering when I presented an early version of this talk, and who gave me some very encouraging feedback.
First posted in October 2009