Our Teaching About John 15
For many years in our movement we have heard that the fruit Jesus describes in John 15 is the making of other disciples. Often we are told that the choice in this passage is between that interpretation and the idea that fruit is the fruit of the Spirit. We have generally dismissed the latter" often feeling it is a rationalization for those who are not committed to evangelism. My guess is that some would consider it far off line to teach that Jesus meant something other than evangelistic results in John 15. Much of our thinking about this passage was forged in our polemic with the traditional church about the need for every disciple to be evangelistic. My hope is that we could now revisit this passage without any fear that any of us wants to soften the call to go make disciples which is undisputedly crucial to following Jesus.
A recent study of the Gospel of John brought me again to this chapter. As I sought to study the passage with unprejudiced eyes and in context of other Biblical statements about fruit I came to another conclusion that is significantly different I believe from the two alternatives that we have traditionally considered.
Those who heard these words in John 15 had already been exposed to a good deal of teaching about spiritual fruit. David wrote in Psalm 72:3: The mountains will bring prosperity to the people the hills the fruit of righteousness.
"Fruit" is used here as a synonym for "result." Those who live righteous lives will see certain results. Because Hebrew parallelism is employed here as throughout the Psalms the fruit of righteousness is "prosperity" or the blessings that come from God.
Isaiah makes a similar statement in Isaiah 3:10: Tell the righteous it will be well with them for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds.
The same prophet takes the idea of fruit to a deeper level when the says in Isaiah 32:17: The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.
Righteousness has an effect. It produces fruit. You will be able to look at a righteous man or woman and see a qualitative difference in their lives.
John the Baptist took this idea and further developed it when he came preaching:
"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves We have Abraham as our father. For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:8-9)
When his listeners said "What do you mean?" John told them to share their food and clothes with the needy to be honest in their business and personal dealings and to be content with what they were paid. Fruit here was the action that come from a changed heart.
Not much latter Jesus talked about fruit in the Sermon on the Mount: "By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:16-20)
Given the teachings of the Old Testament and those of John the Baptist we would have to assume that when Jesus talked about a tree bearing fruit he also meant the outcome of a righteous life. A good tree will bear a love for God a love for others unselfishness honesty purity " and confidence about life. A good tree will not only bear fruit; it will bear much fruit. There will be plenty there for any observer to recognize. Good fruit is any action or quality of character that reveals God to the world and advances his purposes. A bad tree will produce something that will be quite the opposite and a lot of it.
All of this adds up to what we might call a broader view of fruit. The broader view would certainly include a passion for evangelism as we will see but would not be limited to thinking in those terms.
Revisiting John 15
Our understanding of John 15 must be influenced by the key Biblical references to fruit that have preceded it. To ignore the teaching of the Old Testament" John the Baptist and Jesus earlier statements would be a great mistake. While at first glance it does not appear that Jesus in John 15 says specifically what he means by fruit a careful look at the entire chapter reveals that Jesus was building on this past understanding and his own earlier teaching. Here are verses 1-8 and verse 16:
"I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you ask whatever you wish and it will be given you. This is to my Father s glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disciples" (vv. 1-8).
Verse 16: You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
Several important observations:
1. The primary emphasis of this text is on remaining (or abiding) in the vine. Jesus is that vine and the disciple s primary concern is to make sure the he remains in the vine. We have been appointed to go and bear fruit but apart from that relationship we have no chance whatsoever of producing the desired fruit. Whatever fruit is produced will be produced by that relationship with him.
2. It is most important that we not neglect the verses that occur between v. 8 ("bear much fruit") and v. 16 ("bear fruit that will last"). What Jesus talks about between those two statements would have to be seen as crucial to understanding his thinking about fruit bearing. And what do we find?
a. As the Father has loved me so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. (v. 9)
b. If you obey my commands you will remain in my love just as I have obeyed my Father s commands and remain in his love. (v. 10)
c. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (v.11)
d. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (v. 12)
e. Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. (vv 13-14)
"Fruit" in John 15 is not undefined after all.
1. We find the power to bear fruit when we remain in Jesus love.
2. We bear the fruit of righteousness when we obey his commandments.
3. Such obedience will lead to joy.
4. Such obedience leads to loving each other as Jesus as loved us.
5. No one is ever more fruitful for God than when he lays down his life for his friends (Compare John 12:24).
Having said these things he then says "You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other" (vv. 16-17). Perhaps because he wanted to leave no doubt about what he has in mind Jesus speaks again of the charge to bear fruit and then adds for emphasis: "Love each other" (vv. 16-17).
Verses 9-15 point to the fact that fruit in John 15 is best seen in a broader sense. Fruit includes obedience (including to the Great Commission) and by the sheer number of references the command given the greatest emphasis in John 13-15 is on the command to love each other.
With this in mind it is good to look at the parallel between John 15:8 and John 13:34-35. First consider John 15:8 (emphasis added): "This is to my Father s glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disicples."
This notice the similarilarity to John 13: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."
Fruit is something that you can see that is an indicator of life within. Remember Jesus statement in Matthew: "By their fruit you shall know them." When disciples are loving one another (and doing it a lot!) as Jesus loved us (i.e. laying down their lives for each other -- 1 John 3:16) by this fruit all men will know them to be disciples of Jesus. Loving each other is not the only fruit we are to bear. It is just the one Jesus singles out as making a tremendous impact.
3. If someone bears no fruit that person is cut off. All things considered it seems much better to understand this as describing the broader view of fruit. If someone shows no fruit of repentance if there is no change of heart no change of character no love for God no love for other people no service to others no gratitude and no thanksgiving then God will cut them off. On the other hand if a disciple is seeking God being humble staying committed to the mission of Jesus and loving his brothers thankfully he will not be cut off just because he cannot point to someone and say "there is my personal fruit." Even if he could do it that would hardly qualify as much fruit. In our fellowship are dozens even hundreds of good-hearted and committed people who may go for several years before they bring someone to Christ and then several more years before they bring another person to him. Yet none of us believes that these people are cut off from Christ.
4. Jesus says that the person who remains in him will bear much fruit. Again it is much better to understand this to refer to the broader view of fruit. In fact this phrase more than any other in this passage compels us to understand fruit" in the broader sense. The truth is that every person who stays faithful to Jesus shows the world a great deal of love joy and peace. They demonstrate a great deal of humility and courage and perseverance. They will live a life of service and sacrifice. They will share their possessions with others and give to those in need (see this described as fruit in Romans 15:27-28). Because they love Jesus and are committed to his mission they will always be focused on seeking the lost. However bringing in the lost will be just one element of the "much fruit" that Jesus describes.
5. The narrow "evangelistic fruit" view puts an unrealistic burden on disciples. Given this view only a very few people (usually those with unusual evangelistic gifts boundless energy or those who are in full-time ministry) ever bear "much fruit." While no one knows exactly how much would be "much" if it does mean evangelistic fruit it is safe to say that most disciples do not even come close to something they would describe as "much." When thinking about evangelistic results "occasional fruit" describes the experience of most disciples. Many outstanding leaders who live "kingdom first" lives and play a key role in the growth and strengthening of the church go for months or longer without having what we sometimes have called "personal fruit." I would suggest that such people are still producing "much fruit." Some of it will be evangelistic results and much of it will be something else that is "to my Father s glory." While bringing someone to Christ make take months or even years and while the average disciple will only experience every so often the joy of baptizing someone into Christ it is possible every day of our lives to bear much fruit in the broader sense. Every day we can be giving and encouraging and thankful and full of conviction. Every day can be a fruitful day of service to God. To bear fruit is to reproduce the life of the vine. Every day we remain in Jesus is a fruitful day. Every hour we are abiding in Christ there are results in our lives that bring glory to God.
By teaching that John 15 means only evangelistic fruit we deprive the great majority of Christians of the joy of knowing that their lives are making a difference every day that they live. This is why it is so important for us to correct our teaching about John 15. If they are giving themselves to the Lordship of Jesus and seeking to do his will they will be in the words of Paul "bearing fruit in every good work" (Colossians 1:10 emphasis added).
To this discussion we should add the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35-36: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink I was a stranger and you invited me in I needed clothes and you clothed me I was sick and you looked after me I was in prison and you came to visit me."
People doing such things receive the highest commendation from Jesus. They are told "take your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." (v. 34) Why? They were doing in people s lives what Jesus would do. They were doing things that expressed the heart of God. If this resulted in baptisms that would be the greatest good (although not mentioned here) but in just these actions they were "bearing fruit in every good work."
The disciple who gets up in the morning takes time to draw near to God shows love kindness and patience in his dealings with others at home or work or school helps someone in need shares his faith with anyone who is open follows up with disciples or non-disciples and teaches his children more about God should go to bed rejoicing that Christ has produced in him much fruit during that day. A person who lives like this day after day will surely contribute to the harvest of souls -- the fruit specifically described in John 4 -- but he should feel fruitful in the broader and deeper biblical sense on days when he can see those specific results and on days when he cannot.
"If a man remains in me he will bear much fruit." Our understanding of John 15 must be such that every disciple -- everyone who remains in the vine -- is assured that he or she can bear much fruit. Our teaching on this passage must equally apply to the young healthy full-time ministry worker and to the bed-fast disciple whose physical condition does not allow him to leave his home. Perhaps severe physical limitations will mean that one person s primary fruit will be patience faith prayer and an unreasonable joy. But such a person needs the assurance that as long as he abides in Christ " fruit is being produced in his life that makes a difference.
As it is now" most of our people do not feel fruitful. Just ask them and watch their faces fall. Because of what they have been taught they think only in terms of who they have been able to meet study with and baptize and often they know that they have not be personally and consistently successful in that area. They may rejoice that someone they reached out to became a disciple but that hardly seems like "much fruit." Such thinking leads to minimizing what the Spirit is doing in our lives and to feelings of discouragement in our hearts.
There is no doubt that Jesus has sent every disciple of his to "go and make disciples." Everyone who loves Jesus Christ will want to obey that commandment in whatever way he or she can. Attempts to rationalize disobedience to this command are ungodly. However it is not biblical for disciples to equate the fruit God is producing in their lives only with the number of people they are successful in bringing to conversion.
We all need to be abundantly grateful that we are no longer enslaved in the fruitless deeds of darkness but have been set free to produce the fruit of light (Ephesians 5:9) and that we can do it every day by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every day there can be attitudes and actions in our lives that show God to the world and advance the kingdom.
Other passages that describe the broader view of fruit:
Romans 7:4-5: So my brothers you also died to the law through the body of Christ that you might belong to another to him who was raised from the dead in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies so that we bore fruit for death.
Romans 15:27-28: They were pleased to do it and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews spiritual blessings they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. So after I have completed this task and have made sure that they have received this fruit I will go to Spain and visit you on the way.
Galatians 5:22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness...
Eph. 5:9: ...for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness righteousness and truth.
Philip. 1:11: filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God.
Col. 1:10: And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work growing in the knowledge of God
Hebrews 13:15: Through Jesus therefore let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.
James 3:17: But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving considerate submissive full of mercy and good fruit impartial and sincere.