Last week we began studying John 15:1-8 as Jesus talked to His disciples about the Vine, the branches, and the Vinedresser. Today if you were to visit a vineyard in Napa Valley or somewhere in France you would see row after row of grapevines being held up by various kinds of trellises, but if you were to step back in time and visit a vineyard in Israel, in biblical times, you would see something very different. Stones and sticks were used by the vinedresser to train and support the young vines. Vineyards in Israel, like vineyards today, needed a vinedresser to care for them because vines by nature grow on the ground, produce an abundance of leaves, and very little fruit. Left to its own the vine will produce so much foliage that the cover of leaves will prevent the sun from ripening the tiny grapes trying to develop beneath the cover of thick leaves.
I found an article this past week which had so much information about ancient vineyards. The role of the vinedresser was crucial for the life and productivity of the vine. Dr. Mark Whalon, a Professor of Entomology at Michigan State University, has studied the Mesopotamian viticulture practices of Antiquity. “Viticulture” was a new word for me that I’d never heard of before this week. It is the science and study of the production of grapes. I’m so grateful for the insights I’ve learned from his years of study. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning and then we’ll talk about the works of the Vinedresser.
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 “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. 6 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. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8 NIVO)
This morning I want us to focus on the work of the Gardener, as the New International Version translates the Greek word which literally means, “farmer.” If we go through these verses we will see that there are two items on the job description of the Gardner: First, we read that He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit. Second, He prunes every branch that does bear fruit so that it will be even more fruitful. We know these are not the only tasks of the Gardner because He also plants, waters, and fertilizes the vines as well. Let’s focus on the first task mentioned by Jesus, the task mentioned in verse 2 where Jesus says, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit…”
The Greek word that is translated “cuts off” is the word, “????” (airo) and it means, “to raise up, elevate, lift up, to take away, or to remove.” Most every translation of this verse says the same thing, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit…” This Greek word is used 100 times in the New Testament and you will find it translated in a variety of ways. In Mark 6:43 the disciples “picked up” twelve baskets full of food after Jesus fed the 5,000. In John 8, Jesus healed a man who had been sitting by the pool at Bethesda for thirty-eight years waiting for the waters to be stirred so he could enter the waters and be healed. Jesus said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” He did what he was told, picked up his mat, and walked away. “Pick up” is the same Greek word. In Acts 4:24, after the Jewish religious leaders had threatened Peter and John, they released them and they went back to tell the followers of Jesus what had happened to them. We read,
24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. (Acts 4:24 NIVO)
“They raised their voices…” It’s the same Greek word. So you see, the word we are looking at can mean, “to lift, raise, or pick up.” We can’t stop there though because the word is used in other places to convey a different meaning. For example, in John 1:29, John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” “Takes away” is the same Greek word. In John 17:15, Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed to God,
15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. (John 17:15 NIVO)
Jesus doesn’t want His followers taken out of the world, removed from the world. It’s the same Greek word. I wanted to take the time to show you these two uses for the word we are looking at because every translation I’ve looked at this week, and I’ve looked at almost twenty different translations, all translate the Greek word as “remove,” “takes away,” or “cuts off.” So, if we just stick with the translations then we can conclude that if you, a branch that is connected to the Vine, do not produce fruit, then you will be cut off. Is that what the Bible teaches? Well, let’s take a look. I want to share three different passages from John’s Gospel, the last two Scriptures we’ll look at were spoken by Jesus. In John 1:12-13, John writes,
12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13 NIVO)
In John 6:37-39, Jesus was surrounded by a large crowd when He shared these powerful words with them. Read along with me.
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. (John 6:37-39 NIVO)
The most powerful witness concerning what we are looking at is found in John 10:27-30. Jesus had been speaking to the crowd about the relationship of shepherds and their sheep when He announced, “I am the good shepherd.” Then, in verse 27, He said,
27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30 NIVO)
I don’t think it is too difficult from the evidence provided for us in these verses that we’ve been looking at to conclude that salvation is the work of God and God alone. He saves us, His Spirit works the work of sanctification in our life, and God will not lose any that He saves. This truth has led me to reexamine John 15:2. It simply can’t mean that God cuts off His people who aren’t as productive as others. Then I discovered something written by Dr. James Montgomery Boice that rocked me back on my heels. He says the Greek word, “????” (airo) has four basic meanings: 1) to lift up or pick up. 2) to lift up figuratively, as in lifting up one’s eyes or voice. 3) to lift up with the added thought of lifting up in order to carry away. 4) to remove. Translators have chosen the fourth meaning, but Dr. Boice says the verse makes better sense if it is translated, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he lifts up…” Dr. Boice says we have to remember that Jesus is speaking about the Gardener’s care of the vine. It would be strange for the Gardener to first lop off the branches. He writes,
But it is not at all strange to emphasize that the gardener first lifts the branches up so that they may be better exposed to the sun and so the fruit will develop properly. (Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of John: Volume 4. pg. 1161.)
What Dr. Boice is saying is backed up by what I’ve learned from Dr. Whalen who has studied ancient Mesopotamian viticulture. He writes,
Given the warm days and cold nights in the south of Israel, and the moisture laden, prevailing westerly winds coming in from the Mediterranean, heavy morning dews in the spring and early summer are common. This predawn moisture fosters the development of mold and fungus in anything that stays in contact with the ground. Knowing all this, the first priority of a Middle Eastern vineyard manager is to keep all parts of the vine from touching the soil. The vinedresser first wedges a substantial rock up against the vineyard trunk, thus lifting the vine. This has the effect of “repositioning” the vine so that the winds and breezes can circulate around its growing branches evaporating any moisture. This “lifting up” keeps mold and fungus from injuring the developing leaves and fruit, and also protects the vine from a variety of crawling critters intent on harming the developing branches. This repositioning of the vine is the vinedresser’s first act of care and takes place before any pruning occurs. (preservingbibletimes.org)
I’m amazed at the tender, nurturing care of the Gardener of our hearts and souls. The vines aren’t able to care for themselves, they can’t lift themselves up to free themselves from the fungus and insects that can destroy them, but the vinedresser can and he does. He tends his vines day in and day out, lifting them up, freeing them from that which can diminish their productivity and even destroy them. He not only lifts them up, he also prunes them. Jesus said,
2 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. (John 15:2 NIVO)
The Gardener’s task is not simply to plant, water, fertilize, and lift up, but also to prune. The Gardener would be negligent if he didn’t prune his vines. He cuts away that which is unproductive, leaves that constantly sprout and shield the tiny fruit from gathering as much sunlight as possible. Little shoots that develop and draw energy that needs to be directed to the production of fruit. It’s a matter of priorities. The vine does not exist for the purpose of the leaves or sprouting endless shoots, but the vine exists for the production of fruit.
There’s something else that we need to see. The Greek word, “???????” (kathairo), which is translated as “prune” in verse two, can also be translated as “to clean.” Even though the vinedresser’s initial work is to get those little vines off of the ground so the moisture doesn’t lead to fungus and so insects can’t as easily feast upon them, his work isn’t finished in lifting them up. The vinedresser must continue to clean them of all that would hinder their productivity.
Probably most of us prune hedges, trees, roses, or some other plant in our yard. It’s not an enjoyable experience for the plant is it? For the grapevine, it’s even more extreme. Ross McCall was 25 years old and a successful advertising executive in London when he decided he would quit his job and join a kibbutz in the Negev Desert in Israel. Ross was partnered with an Arab Bedouin vinedresser so he could learn how to prune the vines. Ross writes,
I learned that inexperienced vinedressers often fail to prune aggressively enough. Convinced they’re sparing the vine, they end up damaging its fruitfulness instead. “You need to clip more, you’re being too gentle,” the Bedouin Arab shouted at me, as he watched my clumsy attempts at pruning. “But I don’t get it,” I said. “If I do that there’s nothing left.” “It looks that way, doesn’t it?” he replied. I was clueless about how best to tend the vines. But I pruned each branch to within an inch of its life, trusting the counterintuitive technique of those who knew how to nurture vineyards. Frequently I don’t know what’s best for my own growth either. But God does. The Good Vinedresser knows His vines, His branches and the conditions they’re growing in. He knows what they need and when. I felt we were being cruel to the branches. In the same way, Christians frequently confuse pruning with punishment. Growing as believers is meant to be good, not just feel good. (Ross McCall, May 4, 2016)
It might appear that the vines are being mangled and ruined, but the vinedresser knows what’s best for the vine in order for it to produce fruit. How many times have we questioned what God was doing in our lives. The experiences of life are more than the experiences of life, they are the Father’s pruning process. One of the best descriptions of the pruning process of the Father is found in Hebrews 12:11-12. Read it with me.
11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. (Hebrews 12:11-12 NIVO)
Discipline and pruning are one and the same thing. You’ve probably been watching the Olympics and been so excited about sports and athletes that you only watch every four years. I love watching the athletes compete, but I love their stories even more. Some of you probably heard that Katie Ledecky wakes up every morning at 4 am for a two hour swim that begins at 5 am. That’s just the first work-out of the day for Katie. She didn’t decide last year that she’d like to go to the Olympics. She began swimming when she was six years old. By the time she was ten years old she was practicing early mornings 5-6 days a week and swimming between 12-15 miles per week. At twelve years of age she was swimming 6-7 times a week and putting in 20-24 miles per week. At fifteen years of age Katie was in the pool 8-9 times a week and she was swimming 36-42 miles every week. Katie, did it hurt? “You bet!” Katie did you have to make sacrifices? “You bet!” Katie did you have to cut loose a lot of the things that kids your age enjoyed and were involved in? “You bet!” Were the sacrifices, pruning the things out of her life that didn’t figure into her being “fruitful” in the pool, worth it? Just look at her smile!
We love the stories of the sacrifices, the setbacks, comebacks, and the struggles that our athletes make to finally do what they’ve always dreamed of doing. Their pruning is not our problem is it? It is our pruning that causes us great distress and sorrow. God is pruning you and me and He has two main tools in His tool kit to accomplish His purpose in your life and mine. His first tool is His Word.
12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NIVO)
I can read God’s Word and become convicted of my thought-life, attitudes that I have towards others, the way I live my daily life that I learn from His Word are not pleasing to Him, and on and on the list goes. God’s Word is a powerful instrument of pruning. I could give you so many examples of how God has used His Word to prune me and as painful as it sometimes is, I know that it is to mold me and shape me into the image of His Son.
There is another tool that God uses to prune us and it is the experiences we have in life. The hardships of life are one of God’s greatest instruments of pruning. The Apostle Paul understood this and he understood what his hardships were accomplishing in his life. Turn with me to 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 and let’s read together. Paul writes,
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NIVO)
We don’t know the details of what Paul was going through, but we do know that it was so bad he thought he was going to die. As painful as the experience was Paul never lost sight of Who was in control of his life and circumstances. Because of that Paul knew that everything he experienced was to diminish his dependence on himself and others and focus his dependence on God in every experience of life. Paul said, “…This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God…”
Don’t draw back from the Father’s pruning in your life. God’s design for you and me is that we be fruitful. What does it mean to be fruitful? Well, we’ll talk more about that next week, but let me share with you a verse that sums it up. Turn with me to Galatians 5:22-23.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIVO)
The fruit of the Spirit finds its fullest expression in the life of Jesus and God wants to cut away and clean up everything in my life and your life that will hinder us from becoming like Jesus. Attitudes, behaviors, habits, or beliefs that produce bitter fruit, He’s going to prune us to change that. The Gardener uses His Word and He works through our circumstances, even the most painful circumstances of our life, to prune us, train us, and mold us into the people He has made us to be.
This will make absolutely no sense to you if you seek to live your life apart from the Vine and the Gardener. We desperately need the Gardener or we will not only be unfruitful, but we will never see purpose in the painful times of life apart from the counsel of His Word. If you are here this morning and you’ve never surrendered your life to Jesus then I want to invite you to cry out to Him right now.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
Oklahoma City, OK. 73114
August 14, 2016