Beyond Forgiveness – Dr. Donald Fairbairn lecture on John 15:1-17, September 25, 2011, Manchester Creek Community Church, Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA.
One of the recurring themes in the upper-room discourse which Jesus comes back to again and again is: love one another.
As Christians we have heard that so many times we don’t really know what to make of a statement like that. What does that look like in concrete terms?
The Bible gives us lots of answers to that question, but somewhat surprisingly, in this discourse, John 13-16, Jesus does not really answer that question very much. He doesn’t really talk much about what it looks like to love one another, instead he talks about where we will receive the power to do that, as he talks about the Holy Spirit in John 14 and again in John 16.
But there is another thing he talks about as well, and that is the answer to the question, why do we love one another? I would like to suggest three major answers that Jesus gives to this question, a question which I believe forms the heart of the upper-room discourse.
Let us begin by looking at the first eight verses of John 15,
“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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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. I 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. 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.”
When we ask the question, why do we do what we do, why do we love, why do we seek to bear fruit, obviously one of the answers is, out of gratitude because of the forgiveness that God has given us. Jesus brings that up here, and in a way that might not entirely be clear.
Jesus talks about a vine and branches, and then he talks about pruning the vine. Then in a rather sudden shift he says, “you are all clean, because of the word that I have spoken to you.”
In Greek, the word for prune and the word for clean are the same word and we need to recognize that what Jesus is talking about when it is rendered, pruning in English, is directly related to the statement, you are all clean.
You have been cleansed, you have been pruned, if we want to use that word. You have been forgiven because of the word that I have spoken to you. That’s accomplished. Jesus says, you are clean, you are forgiven, you are pruned.
Speaking to believers here, like the disciples and like us, that’s already accomplished. And of course, out of gratitude for what God has done in forgiving us, we can find the motivation to do what we do, to bear fruit, to love one another.
But one of the things that I always try to pay attention to when I am reading the Bible is to notice the places where the text doesn’t say what I am expecting it to say. I follow along and it makes sense and then all of a sudden the text says something that doesn’t seem to follow.
Those are very important places in the Bible because that is an indication of where your expectations are not right and where God wants to say something to you. And we got one of those here.
Right after Jesus says, “you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you,” Jesus goes on to say, “remain in me”. Abide in me and when you abide in me, you bear fruit.
Why does that not make sense to us? Why does that seem so strange to us?
Well, because our image of salvation, the way we think about salvation, is typically an image of status. We were guilty and now we have been declared forgiven. Our status before God has been changed, and that’s true.
That is of course what Paul talks about in Romans chapter 3 and Galatians chapter 2 and many other passages in the New Testament as well. But that is not the metaphor, if you will, that Jesus is using here when he talks about being cleansed. The metaphor that Jesus uses here is being “in him”.
And if you think about it, that is one of the most common images all through the New Testament for describing believers. We tend to miss it because we are thinking so much about guilt and forgiveness.
But actually if you look through the letters of Paul, look through the whole New Testament, the statements, “in Christ Jesus”, or “Christ in us”, are everywhere. The idea is that we are in Christ.
Why do we do what we do? Why do we love, why do we seek to bear fruit as Christians? Because somehow, we are in Christ.
One of the ways that I like to put this, is to say that Christ is not simply the means of salvation, Christ is also the place where salvation happened.
We are saved when the Holy Spirit brings us into Christ, somehow. We are saved when the Holy Spirit enters us, causing us somehow to be united to Christ.
And when we are united to Christ, then Christ works through us.
The branches alone can do nothing.
But when the branches remain in the vine, the nutrients, and the water, and the energy, and the power from the vine, flow through the branches in order to bear fruit.
Why do we do what we do? Because God has placed us, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, giving us the privilege to be the ones through whom Christ works today.
There is also another answer that Jesus gives to the question of why do we what we do. Let us look at John 15:12-17,
This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone 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 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 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. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
Jesus says here, we are his friends. Why do we do what we do? Because Jesus has made us his friends!
Think about that with me for a moment. We are all very fond of calling ourselves slaves of Jesus, and we are, and that’s a good way to think of ourselves. That is the way Paul and Peter refer to themselves. We are slaves, but Jesus says he doesn’t call us slaves anymore. We are slaves, but more than slaves, we are friends.
And what is the difference? A slave is never given the big picture of what his master is doing. A slave is only told, this is your part. This is what you are to do today, then come back tomorrow and I will give you another set of orders. And the only way a slave can be motivated is because of duty, because he or she does not see the big picture.
But Jesus says, I am making you my friends, by telling you all that I am doing. Think with me for a moment about the privilege it is to know the big picture of what God is doing, and thereby to be called God’s friends. In the midst of all the turmoil and uncertainty all around, what is God doing? He is gathering from every corner of the world, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, a people for Himself, to worship Him and reign with Him for all eternity.
Great civilizations rise and fall. The Church, the kingdom of God, continues to go forth. And the privilege given to us as the friends of God, is to know the big picture and therefore to see that our part plays a role in what God is doing to gather a people for Himself.
There is one more reason Jesus gives us here to the question of why do we do what we do. Let us look at John 15:9-11,
As the Father has loved me, so have I 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, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
The love with which the Father has loved the Son from all eternity, is the very love with which Jesus loves us. Jesus asks us to remain in that love.
Several chapters later in John 17:20-26, Jesus is more specific as he prays for us and speaks of the love and the unity and the glory that he had with the Father before the world was created and he prays for us to have that kind of unity, that kind of glory, that kind of joy.
At the very core of existence, lies the eternal love with which the Father has loved his beloved Son, or stated more broadly, the love between the Persons of the Trinity, although here in this passage he does not mention the Holy Spirit. It is the love, the joy, the fellowship that the Father, the Son and the Spirit have shared with one another before anything was ever created.
This is the only place in the Bible where anyone in Scripture talks about what God was doing before he made the world, before there was a beginning, if that makes sense. These chapters in John are very much the central teaching point of the Bible because this is the place where Jesus ties everything that we do, not only with what He is doing here on earth, but with what He and the Father and the Spirit were doing before there was an earth.
At the most fundamental level what Jesus is saying is that, as we serve Him, as we love one another, as we bear fruit, we share in the very love, the very fellowship that has existed between the Father, Son and Spirit before the world was created. That eternal love, as we share in it, becomes reflected here on earth when we love one another, when we bear fruit. Not just because we are forgiven, not just because we are friends with God, but because we have the privilege of sharing and reflecting the love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Notice one more thing that Jesus says in verse 11,
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
What fills us up with joy? What enables our joy to be full? It is when the joy of Jesus Christ [the Holy Spirit] is in us and remains in us. That is when we can serve and love with joy.