|The True Vine.|
In John's Gospel the chapters 13-17 are holy ground. There are unfathomable depths of truth in every part of these majestic passages. They have continuously over the centuries been yielding refreshing water of life to all who will immerse themselves in them by prayerful meditation and openness to the Holy Spirit's teaching. In a recent encounter with them the Lord graciously granted me new light and truth which have rejoiced my spirit, encouraged my heart and stimulated me to write this message.
Jesus Prepares the Way for His Church
These five chapters contain the final teachings of Jesus before He went the way of the Cross and the resurrection. The Master's words had been indelibly etched into the heart of the beloved disciple who recorded them. They were a distillation and concentration of all that He had been imparting to them, and were preparatory for what was to come in the establishment of the Church. Right at the very centre of these chapters is a revelation straight from the heart of Jesus concerning the true nature of the Church that was about to be birthed. Here are the simple limpid statements in which that disclosure of essential truth was made: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman." "I am the vine, you are the branches.", and "Abide in me, and I in you." For those who long to know Church as God intends it to be, for those "in whose hearts are the highways to Zion" (Ps.84:5) these words are truly spirit and life. The remainder of Jesus' teaching both in word and example which these chapters contain all revolve around this central core.
Two Vines-- The Degenerate and the True
"I am the true vine." or more literally, "I am the vine, the true." For those first Jewish disciples to whom He was speaking the figure of the vine would have been a familiar one. The vine was, in the prophetic scriptures, a symbol of the people of God, Israel. But the tragedy, revealed by the prophets, was that the vine had become degenerate. It was producing wild grapes. The relevant scriptures are Psalm 80:8-13, Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21 and Hosea 10:1-2. which should all be read. The story of Israel in terms of the vine was that she had been brought out of Egypt, she had been a choice vine of wholly pure seed, she had been planted with every care for her life and growth, but she had failed to produce the fruit that the Lord looked for.
Now Jesus was making the amazing claim to be the true vine, replacing that degenerate plant that had failed to fulfil God's purpose. Through and in Him God would raise up a people who would bring forth much fruit for His glory. The true vine was Jesus and those who belong to Him in organic union." I am the vine, you are the branches." When the truth of that simple sentence begins to dawn upon our hearts it will utterly revolutionise our conceptions of Church. It is a death blow to all institutional Christendom. As individuals are incorporated into Christ, as they abide in Him and He in them, so they become, as branches, integrally part of the Vine. The life flowing in the branches is the life of the Lord Jesus. The branches have no autonomy, no vitality apart from Him. Severed from Him they can produce nothing. The Lord Jesus is the root stem branches leaves and fruit of the Vine. His life pervades every part. Of the Church it is true that "Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11), and that it is "the fullness of Him who fills all in all." (Ephesians 1:23) These truths are staggering. The Church is Christ in living union with His people.
My Father is The Husbandman
Of this Church, Jesus said, "My Father is the husbandman." The vine is the Father's vine and He cares for it. Isaiah had expressed this reality centuries before when he prophesied, "In that day: a pleasant vineyard, sing of it ! I the LORD, am its keeper; every moment I water it. Lest anyone harm it I guard it night and day." (Isaiah 27:2-3). It is of the utmost significance that the predominant New Testament designation of the Church is "the Church of God." ( Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 10:32, 11:22, 15:9, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Galatians 1:13, 1 Timothy 3:15 )
As I have meditated on and prayed over these things I find myself asking
Parallels Between Israel & The Church
In answer to the second question it seems to me that there are tragic parallels between the history of Israel and the history of Christendom. Israel, planted as a choice vine, wholly of pure seed (Jeremiah 2:21) became degenerate, rank and unfruitful. The true vine, Christ in organic union with His people, has never become degenerate and it would be blasphemous even to suggest that. But alongside the true vine there has grown up a wild vine, rank and luxuriant like that described by the prophet Hosea in chapter 10:1-2; "Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased the more altars he built; as his country improved he improved his pillars." Is that not a picture of Christendom? In all the preparations the Lord made for the Church there is never a mention of institution, organisational plan, hierarchical authority-structures, financial planning, church buildings, headquarters or offices There was no instruction concerning services, liturgy, praise and worship, clergy and laity or religious rituals. But now every one of these things characterises the church as the world sees it, and as most Christians know it. Look at the massive institutionalism and ecclesiastical bureaucracy of Rome, the Anglican church and the ever proliferating denominations, streams and "ministries" in evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Listen to the call for bigger and better buildings, the constant begging for money to finance this one and that one's "vision." Oh Hosea, you should be living in this hour!
The Lord Jesus gave us a parable of a vineyard hijacked by the husbandmen who had been hired to care for it in the owner's absence (Matthew 21:33-43) This too is reflected in church history. The true Church, the vine of which Jesus spoke has only one Husbandman, the Father. Now a multitude of husbandmen tend the churches, often with motives alien to the teachings and example of the Lord Jesus. I hate to be critical. But in the light of the revelation of the true vine what can one say?
A Remnant of the True.
When the Lord Jesus came Israel was a degenerate vine, as we have seen. It was the leaders of the religious system, the wicked husbandmen, the hijackers, who conspired to put Him to death. But there was a remnant of the vine of pure seed still existing in people like Zechariah & Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, people who were looking for the coming of the Messiah and "the consolation of Israel." So too the true-vine-Church has persisted through the centuries alongside the rank vine of Christendom. Now, it may be, God's time has come for the burgeoning again of the true vine. Psalm 80 is a word for this hour with its thrice repeated cry and plea, "Restore us O God: let Thy face shine, that we may be saved." As I have contact with more and more fellow believers who are distressed and disillusioned with current church life and structures and are longing for a better way, I am encouraged by the words of another Psalm, 102. "Thou O Lord art enthroned for ever; Thy name endures to all generations. Thou wilt arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favour her; the appointed time has come. For Thy servants hold her stones dear, and have pity on her dust." (vs.12-14)
How may we enter into the experience of life in the true vine? How may this living organism, wholly vitalised by the Lord Jesus be rediscovered and restored? We will only make this rediscovery when we are willing to let go of the other, the humanly organised and the institutional. While our hands are full of that other we cannot receive the true. We need to come to zero point! "Apart from Me you can do nothing."
The Distinctive Marks of True-Vine Church
The true-vine Church, wholly after Jesus' heart, was planted on the day of Pentecost. In the teachings of Jesus recorded in John 13-17 all the characteristics of that true Church had been foreshadowed. Let me try, although the task is daunting, to indicate in broad terms the distinctive features of the Church which the Lord Jesus had in mind when He spoke of the true vine and the branches.
1) Humble Servant Leadership.
Now put John 13 and this from Peter alongside much of modern churchdom. Look at the ecclesiastical pomp and show, the dressed up prelates archbishops, cardinals and all the array of multi-titled clergy. Listen to the broken hearts of believers crushed by authoritarianism, and see the all-too-frequent grasping for shameful gain. Think of the expensive lifestyles of jet-set religious executives. Where does it all come from? Certainly not from the true vine. I cannot but agree with George MacDonald when he says in his novel, "A Daughter's Devotion", "Church talk and church ways and church ceremonies ..... and church worldliness generally have obscured Him (Jesus Christ) for hundreds of years, and will yet obscure Him for hundreds more, until He comes to remove the scales from the eyes of His own church-bound sons and daughters."
In the true-vine-Church those with leadership function will be stamped with humility. There will be no striving for position or pre-eminence, no ambition to be the greatest. As the Lord Jesus gave an example to these first disciples of glad self-emptying servanthood, so will true leaders be exemplary in willingness to serve even in the most menial of roles.
3) The Absolute Uniqueness and Exclusiveness of Christ.
I have two press cuttings from the "N.Z. Herald" newspaper which illustrate the trend, at least in main line churches, to erode this recognition of the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Christ. Dean Rymer of Auckland reported that , at a conference he attended in Istanbul , "The dynamic Jesuit Francis Xavier D'Sa, told the conference he incorporated many Hindu principles in his Roman Catholic teaching. He said God had revealed Himself to all religions in different ways. It was like a mountain which could be viewed differently from all sides." (11/7/88) On 6th June 1988 in the same paper was the headline, "Christ Focus Too Great Says Priest." This priest, Father Matthew Fox said among other things, "Christianity is one of many wells, such as Buddhism or Taoism which plummet the depths and reach God." The degenerate vine rank in growth and producing wild grapes is a reality now, just as in Hosea's day!
In contrast take note of Peter's uncompromising stance when he was examined before the supreme council of Judaism in Jerusalem, following the amazing healing of the lame man recorded in Acts 3. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Or consider Paul's statement in 1 Timothy 2:5, "There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Such was the unwavering essential testimony of the early Church living in the fresh reality of her union with the Lord Jesus in the true vine.
Here we enter the holy of holies concerning the true vine; fellowship and union with the Triune God. No words of mine can convey the glory and mystery of this. I simply would urge each reader to take time to go quietly before God, considering particularly John 14:15-24 & John 17:20-26, and asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of the heart to know the realities which these incomparable words of the Lord reveal. The fellowship of the true-vine Church is nothing less than being taken up into the love relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; "I in them and Thou in me that they may become perfectly one." (John 17:23) "In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you." That is Jesus' description of fellowship, and throughout the New Testament that is the supreme revelation of fellowship. It is when we truly experience this amazing calling to be sharers in the Divine and perfect love of heaven, the love which eternally flows between Father, Son and Spirit that "sincere love of the brethren, and loving one another earnestly from the heart" (1Peter 1:23) will flourish. Fellowship, as Jesus revealed it has nothing to do with attending services or meetings, but everything to do with deep love relationships, primarily with heaven, and secondarily with each other. Where the divine-human relationship is known and experienced, the believer-to-believer bonding of love will surely follow. "We love, because He first loved us."
4) The All-sufficient Life-Provider in the True-vine
We have seen that in these last teachings of the Lord Jesus before the Cross and resurrection He was preparing His disciples for the establishment of the Church. Those who were His called-out ones, the "ekklesia", were to be incorporated in Him, sharing His life and bearing fruit for the glory of the Father. It is in this context that the Lord Jesus reveals the means by which all this will be accomplished. It will be by the sending from heaven of One who will fully represent His Father and Himself, the living and life-giving Holy Spirit. The resources of this soon-to-be-manifest Church were to be wholly from heaven. Its power and authority were not to be derived from human abilities, personalities, organisational structures or political influence, but from this Spirit-person entering each believer and bringing the very presence of Christ Jesus and His Father into every heart. Glorious mystery! Not to be grasped by the intellect or perceived by human wisdom, but to be received by childlike faith. The words of Jesus Himself concerning this Comforter, Helper, Advocate are to be read and pondered in holy wonderment and taken deep into our hearts. They need no exposition from me. I urge you to spend time with the rich promises of John 14:15-26, 15:26-27, 16:7-15. Then turn to the record in "The Acts" and see how utterly true and reliable these pledges from the Lord Jesus proved to be. The Epistles throw further light on the total adequacy in the Holy Spirit as the all-inclusive resource of life and power for the Church. Everything for that early Church came down from her exalted Head in heaven by the Holy Spirit. Those first believers lived in the Spirit, walked by the Spirit, prayed in the Spirit, were led by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit. The Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit was in complete command, and through the Spirit all the resources of heaven were made available. Of that first Church, the words of Adolphe Monod were true, "All in Christ; by the Holy Spirit; for the glory of God. All else is nothing." That is the true-vine Church.
Where can we find a church like that today? The churches of Christendom have become degenerate vines, depending for their life and growth, not on humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit, but leaning heavily on planning, organised programs. management skills, entrepreneurial drive, entertainment and a host of other worldly-wise schemes. The fresh spontaneity of energetic life infused by the Spirit is hard to find. The early Christians were used by the Lord Jesus under the direction of the Holy Spirit to further His divine purposes. Today's churches want to use the Holy Spirit to bless their plans.
7) Knowing God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
The true vine Church is made up of those who have been born from above into eternal life, and eternal life, according to the Lord Jesus is "That they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent." (John 17:3) The personal, relational. experiential knowing of God characterises the life of each individual branch of the Vine. Long before, Jeremiah had foreshadowed this in his prophecy concerning the new covenant when he declared, "They shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord." In this knowledge of the Lord there were to be no human intermediaries. "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." That was the promise of God, and it was fulfilled in the true vine Church. Each believer knowing and hearing from God for himself through the "one Mediator", the Lord Jesus. Those first Christians could all echo the cry of Paul's heart, "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
In contrast the degenerate vine has spawned many intermediaries. Instead of enjoying direct access "in one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18) people depend on priests, pastors elders, travelling evangelists to give them access to God. They are living, not in the New Covenant, but in the bondage of the old, failing to avail themselves of their inheritance in Christ.
8) The Three-fold Character of Fruitful Branches
The Hour of Destiny
I am aware that I have dredged only a bucketful of truth from a great and unlimited ocean, but these are at least some of the marks of the Church that Jesus had in mind as He shared with His disciples in this last intimate discourse. What He said was spoken in the acute awareness that "the hour had come" (John 13:1) the hour for which He had come into the world. When He had finished speaking with them He prayed His great intercessory prayer, beginning, "Father the hour has come." He then moved inexorably towards the Cross, the resurrection, the ascension and His exaltation, and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is through these climactic events that the true-vine Church came to birth. It is on the events of that "hour" that the true-vine Church is founded. It is from the ongoing significance of these that her life depends. Only the final "Day of the Lord" will surpass in glory all that was accomplished in that awesome Divinely ordained "hour".
The Fullness of God
The first and last words of the chapters we have been considering concern love. "Jesus, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end." John 13:1. And, "I made known to them Thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which Thou has loved me may be in them and I in them." Thus the true-vine Church is held in the embrace of the love of God the Father, and of His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. In between, these chapters are permeated by that love. Take a highlighter and mark each occurrence of the word "love", and then in meditation let the meaning of it all be unveiled to your heart by the Spirit. And may He grant you "power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:18) It was such a love-birthed, love-infused and love-empowered Church that Jesus had in mind, and for which He laid the foundations in that "hour" of which He spoke.
Earlier I asked the question, "Why have we not seen these great things concerning the true nature of the Church and all that they imply?" Is it not that we have persistently read the scriptures through the coloured spectacles of tradition, that, accepting the status quo, we have not dared to lay aside the spectacles and come afresh to the word as if we had never read it before, humbly asking the Holy Spirit to reveal what it means, and what are its implications for us now? I am convinced that such a reading of these chapters will be revolutionary for those who mean business with God concerning His will for the Church. No longer will they be content with the institutions, the denominations, the humanly organised. Instead their hearts will be captured to know in experience the life of the true-vine. which is Christ in living union with His own.