Exploring the Gospel of John: 15

EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Farewell . . . For Now (III)

John 15:1-27

(1) 15:1-17:

(a) 15:1-11:

Jesus identifies himself as the vine and the Father as the vinedresser.  This identification draws upon an important image from the Old Testament:  the image of Israel as God’s vineyard or God’s vine (Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Psalm 80:8-19; Jeremiah 2:21; 6:9; 8:13; 12.10).  Identifying Israel as the vineyard or vine automatically identifies God as the vineyard owner or the one who cultivates the vines.  By so identifying himself, Jesus makes it clear that he is the true representative of Israel.  This identification also means that it is Jesus who establishes the connection between the vine’s branches (Jesus’ disciples) and the vinedresser (God).

15:2 introduces two important themes, with respect to God’s relation to his people:

The first theme is judgment upon the vine branches that bear no fruit: fruitfulness is clearly a criterion of God’s judgment, in that God expects his people to bear fruit.

The second follows on the first:  God not only removes the unfruitful branches but he also prunes the fruitful branches to make them even more fruitful; the importance of fruitfulness is again emphasized.  “Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (15:3).  The theme of being clean first appeared in 13:10, where Jesus pronounces that the disciples are clean (with the exception of Judas).  What Jesus seems to mean is that his teaching has cleansed the disciples and has placed them in a relationship with him, so as to enable them to bear fruit.  There is no question here of the disciples having some kind of “independence” from Jesus, as if their cleansing was a one-time event, which then enabled them to do things on their own.  The language of “abiding” completely undercuts all thought of independence and demands fruitfulness.  “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (15:4)

What the language offers here is something of an equation, which offends modern ears:  complete dependence upon Jesus = fruitfulness.  It is important to notice that the vine / vinedresser imagery is a perfect way of restating the theme of Chapter 14:  that Jesus’ work of bearing witness to the Father will continue in the disciples.  The “work” of the vine is carried out in its branches, the bearing of “fruit” (grapes).  Lest there be any doubt about this, we have the blunt admonition that “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5).  The theme of judgment on unfruitful branches, first hinted at in 15:2, returns in a way that is unmistakable, in 15:6.  This imagery, too, has its source in the Old Testament (note particularly Ezekiel 15).

15:7 returns to the theme of prayer, which 14.3 first introduced, but makes more clear the link between obedience and answered prayer:  “If you abide in me . . .” clearly refers to obedience to Jesus’ teaching, as 15.10 makes clear.   Note the balance between “keeping my commandments” and “abiding in my love” and Jesus’ keeping of his Father’s commandments and abiding in his Father’s love.  The point is that if Jesus had not been obedient to the Father’s mission and had, finally, avoided the cross, there would be no grounds to say that the Son loves the Father.   Likewise, obedience to the Son is the emblem of abiding in his love.  The mission of the disciples and the mission of Jesus parallel each other, in that the fruitfulness of the disciples’ mission glorifies the Father, just as the fruitfulness of Jesus’ mission does the same thing (15:8).  But this obedience and fruitfulness is not a joyless burden — because Jesus will bring to the disciples the same love that he has from his Father (15:9).  It is precisely by “abiding” in the vine that the disciples will experience a joy that is “full” (15:11).

(b) 15:12-17:

15:12 essentially repeats 13:34.  Once again, the readers understand that central characteristic of the Church is the willingness of Jesus’ followers to embody the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.  Their love is rooted in his.  The richness of Jesus’ love, mentioned in 15:13, is explicated in 15:15.  While Jesus is their superior, he has made the disciples into his friends; they are no longer simply servants who follow instructions simply because they come from the superior.  Rather than simply following instructions, the disciples are to know what Jesus’ intentions are.  Jesus has not kept aside some “secret knowledge” for himself that he is keeping from the disciples but “all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (15:15).  15:16 emphasizes the experience of Israel:  that it is God who calls the disciples; it is God’s prior action which creates Israel and then the Church, neither of which is a volunteer organization.  While God calls the disciples to bear fruit, their fruit bearing is dependant upon their continuing relationship to Jesus and upon the fact that it is his intention and purpose: what is involved here is more than human religiosity and effectiveness.

(2) 15:18-16:4:

The “world” which hates Jesus is not simply everything around us.  John uses “world” (kosmos) in a very strict sense to mean “those structures and orders of creation that are opposed to God.”   Another sign of the disciples’ conformity to Jesus’ mission (in addition to self sacrificial love) is the response of the world’s hatred.  The theme of calling re-emerges here (see 15:16):  “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (15:19).  Notice that this calls for a shift in thinking.  When they experience the ill-will of the world, the disciples are not to wonder about their “effectiveness” but to be aware that this is a sign of their conformity to Jesus’ mission.  The disciples must live in a situation in which the response to their word is just as mixed as the response to Jesus’ word.  The disciples (10:20) should expect both persecution and obedience. The disciples will face opposition but they will not take it personally, since they will face opposition for the very same reason that Jesus faced opposition: “because they do not know him who sent me.” (15:20)

Because the disciples carry on Jesus’ mission, with Jesus in their midst, the rejection of them is a rejection of the one who sent them:  “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me” (13:20).  The same principle applies to rejection: “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (15:23).  15:24 represents the negative aspect of Jesus’ ministry.  He has come primarily to do the Father’s works but for those who reject what he does, judgment has occurred because to reject the one sent by the Father is to reject the Father and, thus, to hate him.  Jesus’ witness makes sin impossible to cover up or ignore.

The phrase “they hated me without cause” (15:25) is from the Greek version of Psalms 35:19 and 69:4.  The purpose of this citation is to show that the rejection of Jesus is part of the will of the Father, though this in no way diminishes the culpability of those who reject him.  We should not view the human rejection of Jesus as indicating the divine rejection of Jesus — only that such a rejection by Israel was foreseen.

In 15:26-27, we return to the theme of the Holy Spirit, already mentioned in 14:15-17, 25-26.  Once again, the Spirit is connected to the witness of the Church.  In accord with Deuteronomy 17:6, which requires two witnesses to establish something, there will be two witnesses to Jesus: the disciples and the Spirit.  It is the Spirit who enables the Church to bear a fruitful witness, even with the hatred of the world directed against it.

The final sub-section of this section, 16:1-4, makes it clear why the disciples are being told all this.  This discourse is aimed at preparing the disciples so that, in the fact of persecution and hostility, they will not fall away into apostasy.

Questions for Reflection

(1)  Are Christians persecuted in any way in our culture?  Have you ever had to deal with persecution?

(2)  In what ways can we manifest joy, even in the midst of difficulty?

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Filed under discipleship, Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John, theology and doxology

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