Abiding in the Vine
One of the most vivid and powerful illustrations for the believer’s union with Christ in all of Scripture is that of the vine and branches. Branches bear fruit only when they abide in the vine. So it is for believers: the only way we can glorify the Father with fruitful lives is by abiding in Jesus. This teaching is found in John 15, where Jesus continues to prepare his disciples for his imminent death and departure by instructing them about their calling and mission as his disciples, 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.”
Take some time to meditate on this magnificent metaphor:
- The vine is Jesus, while we (believers, disciples) are the branches.
- The Father 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 (vv. 2, 6).
- The unfruitful branches are nominal disciples: people who outwardly follow Jesus for a time, but fail to bear fruit. Remember the original context: Judas Iscariot has just left the upper room to betray Jesus.
- The fruit we are called to bear probably includes both the fruit of transformed character (similar to “the fruit of the Spirit” in Gal. 5:22–23) and the fruit of evangelism as we testify to Jesus and his work.
This much seems clear. The image of the vine and branches seems straightforward, though it offers great riches for meditation. But the illustration hinges on the word “abide,” so we also need to understand that. What does it mean to abide? Who does it? How is it done?
What Does Abiding Mean?
Just as branches are connected to their vine, depend on their vine, and continue in their vine, so for believers to abide in Jesus implies connection, dependence, and continuance. Don’t think of these as three successive steps but as three interwoven aspects of abiding.
Abiding in Jesus means enjoying union with him through a life-giving connection. The branch connects to the vine as the vine to the branch. The connection is mutual: we abide in him and he abides in us (John 15:4). It is what Paul describes as being “in Christ.” No connection means no life, no fruit; connection means life and fruit.
Abiding in Jesus also means relying upon him as the life-giver. The branch depends on the vine, but the vine does not depend on the branch. The branch derives its life and power from the vine such that the branch is useless, lifeless, powerless without it. Thus, unlike connection, dependence is not reciprocal. Sap flows from the vine to the branch, supplying it with water, minerals, and nutrients that make it grow. And believers receive the “the vital sap of the Holy Spirit” through our life-giving connection to Jesus. We are completely dependent upon Jesus for everything that counts as spiritual fruit (v. 4). Apart from him, we can do nothing (v. 5).
So abiding in Jesus means continuing to rely on him, remaining in him. In fact, the word for “abide” (meno in Greek) means to remain, 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 and remain in Jesus. We go on trusting, we keep on depending, we never stop believing. Abiding in Jesus means persevering in Jesus and his teaching. “If you abide in my word,” he said, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
Jesus’ description of abiding seems like an all or nothing deal. Abiding in him and his love and his word proves you are his disciple, whereas not abiding in him and his love and word shows that you are not a disciple at all. That’s why John writes of abiding in such categorical terms: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15) and “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). To be a believer is to abide.
At the same time, we must recognize that Jesus commands us to “abide” (John 15:4). He tells us to abide in him and in his love (v. 9). It’s something we are, but it’s also something we must do.
Certain streams of Christian teaching have made this unnecessarily complicated. They have suggested that abiding in Christ is something additional that we gain through a crisis experience ushering into a higher, deeper, or victorious life. Sometimes this is even called the “abiding” life. Christians can therefore be broken down into two groups: the haves and have-nots, the ordinary Christians who believe in Jesus but don’t abide and the extraordinary Christians who believe but also abide.
A simpler and closer reading of the text suggests that abiding, like faith itself, is a reality true of all Christians and 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 enjoy union with 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. After all, the passage not only speaks of bearing fruit, but also of bearing “more fruit” (v. 2) and “much fruit” (v. 8). You can enjoy Jesus more . . . with joy, yes, but even full joy (v. 11). You can be more like Jesus. You can experience the sweetness and power of your connection to him more as you grow more dependent on him. In theological terms, all believers have union with Christ, but all believers can also experience communion with Christ in greater (or lesser) degrees.
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 (vv. 9–10). To put it simply, abiding in Jesus does not mean 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.
John Owen described abiding in Christ in a whole-souled way involving our minds, wills, and affections. We use our minds to think about him, we exert our will in careful obedience to him, and we cultivate our affections to love him and to love what he loves more and more. Our role is to remain in Christ, the true vine, and Jesus gives us all the tools we need to do just that. While we have a clear responsibility to abide, the security of our union with Jesus doesn’t depend on what we do but on him. Jesus commands us to abide in him and then prays without ceasing for us.
Excerpted from With Jesus: Finding Your Place in the Story of Christ by Brian G. Hedges, now available for pre-order.