Friday, May 12, 2006

Instead of a Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 15:1-8

Regular readers of this blog know that I usually do between one and three "passes" at the Biblical text around which our congregation's weekend worship celebrations will be built. But this week, for some reason, I just didn't find the time to fit time in for these updates on my study notes based on the texts.

So, here instead, is a re-run of sorts: My response to a reader question which first appeared on the blog on April 11 of last year. I think that it will help prepare anyone who's going to be worshiping at a church that uses this text this weekend. (That should be most of the churches of the world, by the way.) The text is John 15:1-8. Here's a link to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) rendering of the text. Here's one to that of The Message.
Last week, commenting on the first of what has so far been a two-part series called, Fasting from Prayer?, a reader asked if I would explain part of a passage from the New Testament that I cited there. The place that the reader wondered about quotes Jesus as saying:

"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." [John 15:7]

What, Derek wondered, does it mean to abide in Jesus?

I'll see if I can answer that question adequately.

First of all, one of the most important things you can do in trying to understand a Biblical passage is to consider its immediate context. It's important to pay attention to what precedes and what follows a particular passage.

Next, you should try to consider the overall theological emphases, literary conventions, and thought patterns in a particular book of the Bible. God inspires Scripture, but He delivers it through individual people with certain characteristics and unique personalities. The writings of John, for example, are very different from those of Paul, even though they both talk about Jesus and commend the same basic theology.

And of course, an overall understanding of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, can be helpful. For example, if someone suggested that a particular passage demonstrated that God was a frilled lizard, a knowledge of the Bible would prepare you to refute such notions promoted by an interpretation of just one verse.

Let's apply these three principles to Jesus' words in John 15:7. What does He mean by calling on us to "abide" in His words?

The immediate context is a passage of Scripture, part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. It begins with Jesus saying, "I am the true [alternative translation: real] vine, and My Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit..." [John 15:1-2] Jesus spends several more verses developing this theme of His being the vine, His followers being the branches who are meant to bear fruit, and the Father being the vinedresser [alternative translation: gardener].

Father Raymond Brown, author of my favorite commentary on the Gospel of John, points out that what Jesus says in John 15:7 represents a break from His words in the preceding six verses. I'm not certain that I entirely agree. It's true that Jesus changes imagery. But I think that when He tells us to abide in His words, He's really amplifying what precedes the statement. That notion is upheld by the fact that in verse 8, Jesus goes back to talking about His followers as branches whose call is to bear "much fruit."

So, the evidence of the immediate context is that Jesus is creating an analogy between being branches who draw their sustenance and capacity for growth from the vine on the one hand, and being believers who abide in His words (and Whose words abide in them) on the other. Only branches that remain connected to the vine, Jesus, will live and bear fruit; only believers who stay connected to Jesus will live and find their prayers answered. At least, to this point in our consideration, that seems to be what Jesus means.

Next, we look at the overall emphases, themes, and conventions of the Gospel of John. (Because John is also the writer of the letters First, Second, and Third John, and the often-confounding book of Revelation, it's appropriate to look at those books for understanding individual passages in John as well.) To do this for the verse at hand, it's good to look at how certain key words that appear in our passage are routinely used in John's writings.

The first word I'd look at is abide itself. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the root of this word is menein. An equally good English translation might be remain. It comes up repeatedly in John's Gospel. To remain is to faithfully stick with a commitment. Of course, the ultimate example of faithfully remaining is Jesus, Who went to a cross, completing His mission of dying for us. It's in John's Gospel that we find the faithful Jesus saying as He dies, "It is finished," or alternatively, "It is completed."

The call of believers is to remain connected to Jesus, giving their lives to Him. There are good reasons for this. One is that He is the Giver of life. That's the point of John 3:16, the Gospel's most famous passage and the verse that Martin Luther described as "the Gospel [God's good news] in a nutshell." Remaining connected to Jesus gives us the power to live and do things. Jesus tells us, "Without Me, you can do nothing." To try to live or to convince ourselves that by our good deeds we will get life from God is as silly as thinking that a rocket can be launched without fuel. Unless the God we know through Jesus gives us life, we're dead.

Another key word in this passage is words. The specific word for words in the Greek here is hremata, the plural form of the word, hrema. It's only one of two words for word in the Gospel of John. The other, which appears near the end of many English words like psychology, geology, ecology, and so on, is logos.

Logos, in fact, is the word for word that John uses in the famous prologue to His Gospel in which He identifies Jesus as the "Word made flesh," God come to earth as a human being. Identifying Jesus in this way allows John to speak to his mixed Jewish and Gentile audience. In the Old Testament thought-world of the Jews, God was the utterer of the creative word that brought life into being: God said it and it happened, according to Genesis. In the thought-world of some Greek philosophy, the word was the impersonal originator of life, the first cause.

But, as Brown points out, John doesn't always use logos in this way. Sometimes, he uses this version of the word for word in the more pedestrian ways associated with the word, hrema.

And both words can sometimes be used to describe the commands of God. In fact, the commandments were commonly called, the ten words.

Brown says that it's no stretch to conceive of Jesus using the idea of Himself as God's Word for the human race and His words, including His commands, "interchangeably." I think he's right.

Finally, all that we've looked at so far seems consistent with the overall picture of God and of human relationships with God that is portrayed in the Bible.

So, what does Jesus mean in John 15:7?

Simply this, I think: The people who live and accomplish things of lasting value are the ones who remain connected to the only source of life that exists, the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Branches are only fruitful for as long as they keep drawing life from the vine. Of course, Jesus' analogy isn't a perfect simile. Branches cannot decide to tear themselves from the vine. God gives us that terrible freedom and people exercise it every day. (I have exercised it myself.) Thank God, we can turn back to Jesus, seeking forgiveness and be reconnected to Him.

I hope that this explanation helps, Derek.

One other thing. Anyone can do such an analysis of Biblical passages. I'm not a Bible scholar by a long shot. There are lots of good Bible concordances and commentaries that will help you do much of what I've just done here, even without your knowing any Greek or Hebrew.


DennisS said...

As I think on this passage (John 15:1-8), it seems there is much which can be said about connections.

We may lament that some get jobs because of their connections, or maybe elected because of connections. Yet, who are we without connections? I think we are basically dead without connections. (And we are dead without the words of Jesus and the love of God.)

A prisoner can generally be cracked by putting them in solitary confinement. Only those with a connection to God have a chance of living any length of time by themself. Most would say that this connection could be labeled hope, or imagination. Yet this passage suggests that the connection, the abiding, the remaining, is best understood as love.

This love may flow through the words of Jesus, but for most it is the death and resurrection where love is seen more clearly. Many summarize this by quoting John 3:16.

It's interesting that the apparent reference to judgment is based upon fruit. Personally, I don't see this as works. There is no mention of the branches, the ones thrown into the fire, as being dead. Instead, they have leaves which make them appear to be alive. Yet, they apparently don't put love into action. Love is flowing from the vine into the non-productive branches, but not from the branches into fruit.

The connection I make with the "fruit" comes from Galatians 5. There we first find a list of fruits of the flesh. These fruits are quite ugly, immoral, egotistical, etc. Then there is a list of fruits of the "Spirit". The first one mentioned is love. (The second is joy, as in 15:11, "that your joy may be complete."

It seems love is the greatest gift, and that we are meant to pass it along (not just hoard it, and merely bask in its warmth). Keep in mind that this follows after John 3:16, with mention of how much God loves us. "I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another" (15:17).

We are to remain in the love of Christ, and bear fruit (which can probably be summed up by "love"). One thing to keep in mind, these references to "you", as in 15:8, "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" - all these are plural. "You all" is more accurate to our understanding the text, than a singular "you".

Do the words/love of Jesus remain in the body of believers, flowing out into loving God and neighbor?

Mark Daniels said...

Excellent comments, Dennis, and I agree with your conclusions about what the "fruit" is here 100%!