One of Jesus’ most vivid and powerful illustrations for the believer’s relationship with him is the vine and branches. Just as branches can only bear fruit if they abide in the vine, so the only way believers can glorify the Father through fruitful lives is by abiding in Jesus. The teaching is found in John 15, where Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent death and departure, by instructing them about their calling and mission as his disciples, and emphasizing their absolute dependence on him. As Jesus says in verse 5,
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.
Unpacking the metaphor
This picture is a rich metaphor that needs unpacking. The vine is Jesus, while we (believers, disciples) are the branches. The Father, Jesus says, is the vinedresser (v. 1) – that is the gardener who tends the branches. He prunes the fruitful branches so they will bear more fruit (v. 2), and takes away the unfruitful branches, throwing them into the fire (v. 2, 6). The unfruitful branches appear to be nominal disciples: people who outwardly follow Jesus for a time, but fail to bear fruit. Think, for example, of Judas Iscariot. The fruit we are called to bear probably includes both the fruit of transformed character (similar to “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23) and fruitfulness in evangelism as we bear witness to Jesus and his work.
What does it mean to abide?
That much seems to be clear. But what does it mean for us to abide in Jesus as branches in the vine? I believe three things are implied: connection, dependence, and continuance. Don’t think of these as three successive steps, but as three interwoven aspects of abiding.
Abiding in Jesus first of all means having a life-giving connection to him. A branch is connected to the vine, and a vine to the branch. This is what theologians frequently describe as “union with Christ.” Notice that this connection, this union, is mutual. We abide in him and he abides in us (v. 4). If there is no connection, there is no life, no fruit.
But abiding also implies dependence. This aspect of abiding, unlike connection, is not reciprocal. The branch is dependent on the vine, but the vine is not dependent on the branch. The branch derives its life and power from the vine. Without the vine, the branch is useless, lifeless, powerless. Sap flows from the vine to the branch, supplying it with water, minerals, and nutrients that make it grow. And believers receive the “sap” of Christ’s grace through our life-giving connection to him. We are completely dependent upon Jesus for everything that counts as spiritual fruit (v. 4). Apart from him, we can do nothing (v. 5).
Abiding also involves continuance. In fact, “abide” (Greek, meno) means to remain, or stay, or continue. For example, in John 1:38-39, two of the disciples who first encountered Jesus asked him “Where are you staying?” They wanted to know where Jesus made his residence. The word “staying” is the same word translated “abide” in John 15. To abide is to reside. To abide is to continue, to stay, to remain.
This shows us that another aspect of abiding in Jesus is remaining in Jesus. This simply means that we go on trusting, that we keep on depending, that we never stop believing. To abide in Jesus is to persevere in Jesus and his teaching. This is what Jesus is talking about in John 8:31-32, when he says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
In summary, to abide in the vine means to be united to Jesus (connection), to rely on Jesus (dependence), and to remain in Jesus (continuance).
Who is this for?
That leads to another question: who is this for?
In one sense, Jesus description of abiding seems to be an all or nothing deal. If someone abides in him, his love, and his word, this proves that they are his disciples. To not abide in him (and his love and word) is to show that one is not a disciple at all. So, to be a believer is to abide.
But on the other hand, “abide” is a command (v. 4). Jesus tells us to abide in him and to abide in his love (v. 9). It’s something we have to do. So, is abiding in Jesus something that is true of all believers?
There are certain streams of Christian teaching that have made this unnecessarily complicated. They have suggested that abiding in Christ is something additional, something special, that we gain through a crisis experience that ushers into a higher, deeper, or victorious life, sometimes even called the “abiding” life. And it is then suggested that Christians can be broken down into two groups: the “haves” and “have not’s.” The ordinary Christians who believe in Jesus but don’t abide and the extraordinary Christians who believe and also abide.
But I think it’s simpler and closer to the text to say that abiding, like faith itself, is a reality true of all Christians but also an experience that we grow into by degrees. It’s not that some Christians abide and some don’t. If you believe in Jesus, you are in him. You are united to him. You are connected to the life-giving branch. But no matter where you are on your spiritual journey, you can experience the reality of this connection to Jesus more and more.
You can become more fruitful. There are degrees of fruitfulness. The passage not only speaks of bearing fruit, but of bearing “more fruit” (v. 2) and “much fruit” (v. 8).
You can enjoy Jesus more. That’s why Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (v. 11). He not only wants us to have joy, he wants us to have full joy.
And you can be more like Jesus. You can experience the sweetness, power, and joy of your connection to him in greater degrees, as you grow in ongoing daily dependence on him. In theological terms, all believers have union with Christ, but all believers can also known communion with him in greater (or lesser) degrees.
How do you abide?
That leads to a final question: how do you abide? If abiding in Jesus involves ongoing daily dependence on him, what does that look like? Jesus himself tells us. We abide in Jesus by letting his words abide in us (v. 7) and by abiding in his love (v. 9-10).
To put it simply, abiding in Jesus doesn’t require advancing beyond the gospel to something else. It doesn’t demand a crisis decision or a mystical experience. It just means keeping the words of Jesus in our hearts and minds, so that they are renewing and reviving us, shaping and sanctifying us, filling and forming us. And it means keeping ourselves in his infinite, enduring, sin-bearing, heart-conquering, life-giving love.
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church and the author of Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change, Licensed to Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin, and Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.comand you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.