Monday, April 11, 2005

Q-and-A: What Does It Mean to Abide in Christ?

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 Fatther 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. 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.


B said...

Thanks for a great post explaining and demonstrating a simple (but not simplistic) way to do a deeper Bible study than "what do you think this means for your life?"

BTW, where did you do your M.Div?

Derek Simmons said...

Many heart-felt thanks, Mark for your "excursus." It was very helpful. It emphasized that in order to abide in His Word--or to have His Word abide in me--I'd better equip myself as best I can, amply aided by the Holy Spirit, by learning His Word Written and making it an integral part of me. It saddens me when I read as I did earlier today about how little how many Christians know about His Word. [See:
Compliant but Confused
Unpacking some myths about today's teens.
by Andy Crouch | posted 04/12/2005 09:30 a.m. at

It is definitely worth a read. I have excerpted a couple of paragraphs below. I am genuinely interested in your take on whether these excerpts generally describe youths in your church, and if not, why--in your opinion--not.

".......In spite of their generally positive attitude toward religion, almost no teenagers, from any religious background, can articulate the most basic beliefs of their faith........"

".........And it's not that teens are generally inarticulate—when the researchers asked them about pop culture or sexually transmitted diseases, they could give sophisticated answers. They could talk about Will & Grace, but not grace..........."

"...........So what is the religion that teens hold in such high regard? Smith and Denton sum it up as "moralistic therapeutic deism"—the belief that religion is about doing good and being happy, watched over by a distant and benign Creator whose purpose is largely to help us feel better about ourselves.

And where do teenagers learn this faith that so closely reflects the American therapeutic culture, and so poorly reflects the Christian gospel? The evidence is overwhelming: There is no generation gap, and they love church. So they learned it from their parents—they learned it from their churches. Even their conservative Protestant churches............"

Hard to abide in a Person you don't know.

Your Brother in Christ,