Jesus: The True Vine
As Jesus and his disciples walked from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed and arrested, they walked past the temple. Mounted on the exterior wall of the temple was a huge representation of a vine and branches and clusters of grapes made of gold. Some of the grapes on the temple wall were as tall as Jesus or any of his disciples. Many wealthy individuals in Judea took pride in having paid for one of the grapes or even for an entire cluster of grapes. As they walk past this golden depiction of a fruitful grape vine, Jesus says to them, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15:1), and he says to them, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit; because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
According to Jesus’ words in John 15:1-8, our fruitfulness in life depends on three things: Our ongoing, intimate connection to Jesus, his lifting us up, and his pruning of us.
Ongoing, intimate connection: In verse 4, Jesus states, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
Learning to abide in a new environment can be challenging. I discovered this truth as a young child. The first years of my life were spent learning how to abide on dry land. I learned to crawl, then to walk, and eventually to run. But one thing was consistent: There was always something solid beneath me that I could plant myself on, that would hold me up. When I started taking swimming lesson, I discovered quickly the problem with water: It isn’t solid. It didn’t hold me up. When I put my feet down in the water, they kept going down…and I kept going down. The second thing I learned quickly is that when you do down under water you can’t breathe. That new world at the deep end of a swimming pool was very uncomfortable to me, and I did not make an easy adjustment to “abiding” in water. I clung desperately to the old world by clinging to the edge of the pool. I was not willing to let go of that edge and simply immerse myself in a foreign world of water.
Eventually, though, I learned various ways of kicking, and I learned what to do with my arms, and I learned how to breathe without taking in massive amounts of water. Over time, I learned how to make myself at home in the water. With practice and with time, we can learn to abide in Christ, but we need to practicing living his way rather than clinging to old ways of living.
Jesus’ lifting us up: In verses 2-3 Jesus says, “He lifts up every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.”
The Greek word airo, in verse 2, often translated as “removes,” is best translated as “lifts up,” as it is translated in Matthew 14:20 when describing 12 baskets of leftovers picked up after Jesus fed a multitude, and as it is translated in Matthew 27:32 when describing Simon of Cyrene lifting up Jesus’ cross. In his book Secrets of the Vine, Bruce Wilkinson tells of what he learned from a conversation with a northern California grape grower: “‘New branches have a natural tendency to trail down and grow along the ground,’ he explained. ‘But they don’t bear fruit down there. When branches grow along the ground, the leaves get coated in dust. When it rains, they get muddy and mildewed. The branch becomes sick and useless.’
“‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘Cut it off and throw it away?’
“‘Oh no!’ he exclaimed. ‘The branch is much too valuable for that. We go through the vineyard with a bucket of water looking for those branches. We lift them up and wash them off.’ He demonstrated for me with dark, callused hands. ‘Then we wrap them around the trellis or tie them up. Pretty soon they’re thriving.’ As he talked, I could picture Jesus’ own hand motions when he taught in the vineyard that night. He was showing how the Father makes sure his crop comes in full and sweet. When the branches fall into the dirt, God doesn’t throw them away or abandon them. He lifts them up, cleans them off, and helps them flourish again.”
Jesus’ pruning: In verse 2, Jesus says, “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Pruning is the process of cutting limbs from a plant that keep it healthy and productive. Sometimes we become aware of a problem area in our lives, and we ask God to cut it out of us. But God sees into our souls better than we see ourselves, and God determines what all needs to be cut out of us. Roger Palms writes, “If you open your life to God, he won’t stop with one unsightly branch; he knows what attractive is, and he intends to make us beautiful. Don’t try to tell him, ‘This is the only problem branch,’ because he’s likely to say, ‘That’s minor. The bigger problem is this branch over here.’ The decision for each of us to make is not what will I have God trim out of my life; rather, the decision is whether I will allow God to make me as fruitful as he alone can, because only he understand fruitfulness. Once we open the garden gate and invite the vinedresser in, nothing is going to stay the same.”
Worship: A Sanctuary and a Refreshment
Psalm 84 begins like a love song, reminding me of Soul and Inspiration by the Righteous Brothers:
You’re my soul and my heart’s inspiration.
You’re all I’ve got to get me by.
You’re my soul and my heart’s inspiration.
Without you, baby, what good am I?
Or of I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner:
I wanna know what love is;
I want you to show me.
I want to know what love is;
I know you can show me.
The difference between these love songs and Psalm 84 is that the object of the psalmist’s desire is God, and the way the psalmist expects to embrace that love is in the place of worship:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
As Psalm 84 continues, the psalmist paints two beautiful pictures of what we can hope to find in the place of worship: Sanctuary and Refreshment.
The picture of sanctuary is presented in verses 3-4:
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may lay her young at your altar. O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
So much happens in life to displace us, dislodge us, and disturb us. We encounter so many troubles that tear away at our feelings of security and wellbeing. But the psalmist finds the place of worship to be the place of sanctuary.
Catherine Marshall tells the story of a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists submitted their efforts. The king looked at all the pictures, but there were only two that captured his interest, and he had to choose between them. One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought it was a perfect expression of peace.
The other picture had mountains as well, but these mountains were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush, growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush, a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest—in perfect peace.
The king awarded the prize to the second picture explaining, “Because peace does not always mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things, and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”
Psalm 84 tells us that we can find such peace in the sanctuary of worship.
The picture of refreshment is offered in verses 5-7:
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
There was no actual “Valley of Baca” in Israel. The “Valley of Baca” was a symbolic term, meaning the “Valley of Weeping” or the “Valley of Tears.” The psalmist was portraying what it is like for us when we muddle our way through times of deep sorrow and difficulty. We feel drained and depleted. If it gets bad enough, we feel that we cannot go on. We despair and give up. In the midst of such a desert, the psalmist offers an oasis. Psalm 84 tells us that for the person struggling through the “Valley of Tears,” turning aside to the place of worship is like finding springs of water or finding pools provided by the early rain. Nancy Spiegelberg once wrote, “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to You with my empty cup, uncertain but asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known You better, I’d have come running with a bucket” (Decision magazine, November, 1974). Psalm 84 invites us to come running to the place of worship with a bucket to take in God’s refreshment.
Thus, the psalm concludes,
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trust in you.
Jesus: The Way, Truth & Life
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that he was going to his father’s house to prepare a room for them. Jesus concluded his remarks about this house by telling his disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas was confused by this. For three years Thomas had walked the roads of Palestine with Jesus. They had traveled through Galilee, Judea and even Samaria together. That had walked from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem. But not once had Jesus taken them to the house he described in John 14:1-3. Thomas doesn’t know where it is, so he asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas asks Jesus to spell out for him a set of directions. But Jesus answers Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“I am the way”: Jesus did not give to Thomas a set of directions. They would have been useless. He didn’t give Thomas a map. He gave to Thomas a person—himself. He didn’t tell Thomas how to get there. He told who would get him there.
Jesus’ identification of himself as “the way” is significant. If Jesus had given Thomas a set of directions, we could conclude that the key to the Christian life would have to do with finding out where to go and what to do. The Christian life would then have to do with charts and formulas. But by telling Thomas, “I am the way,” Jesus is making it clear that the key to the Christian life has to do with the relationship we are growing with Jesus Christ.
Where do you want to get to in the Christian life? Do you want to get to the peace of Jesus Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit, the strength of God? Jesus does not give you a set of directions for how to get there. He invites you to himself. These qualities do not grow in us as a result of following any particular plan; they grow in us as a result of a deepening relationship with the One who is “the way.”
“I am…the truth”: William Barclay comments, “There is one all-important thing about moral truth. A man’s character does not really affect his teaching of geometry or astronomy or Latin verbs. But if a person proposes to teach moral truth, his character makes all the difference in the world. An adulterer who teaches the necessity of purity, a grasping person who teaches the value of generosity, a domineering person who teaches the beauty of humility, an irascible creature who teaches the beauty of serenity, an embittered person who teaches the beauty of love, is bound to be ineffective. Moral truth cannot be conveyed solely in words; it must be conveyed in example.”
Jesus sets himself forward as the living example of integrity and of the fullness of life. By declaring himself “the truth,” he is telling us, in essence: “Do you want to know how to live with integrity? Look to me. Come to me. Follow in my ways.”
“I am…the life”: Before the Second World War, a grave in Germany had been sealed with a granite slab and bound with strong chains. To make a statement about the permanence of death, an atheist had inscribed upon the slab this message: “Not to be opened throughout eternity.” But, somehow, a little acorn had fallen into a crack, and its outer shell had ‘died.’ Years later, everyone who passed by could see a great oak tree growing up out of that crack, having broken apart the granite slab. The arrogant words upon the slab still declared, “Not to be opened throughout eternity,” but a ‘resurrected’ acorn had proven it wrong.
Jesus is “the life.” He is the one who gave himself unto death in order to overcome for us the power of the grave. When we come to Jesus, we come to life, and the conclusion of our residency on this earth is not actually the end of life, but the beginning of deeper and fuller life in heaven. The final earthly words of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace were, “I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon!”
A Psalm in Silence
Psalm 83 is written amidst deep distress. Verses 6-8 present a scene in which the surrounding nations have hemmed Israel in, conspiring against her. The psalmist fears their attack and the devastation that would follow. Thus the psalm begins with a plea, “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!”
Reflecting on the anguish of Psalm 83, D.P. Myers writes, “I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I felt the same way. With a major problem pressing down upon me, I looked around to friends and companions but found no real respite from my troubles. My sleep, which is often a familiar escape, became troubled as the pressure caused me to wake, realizing I had no safe place to go for sanctuary. I think this is why Asaph begins Psalm 83 with a plea that God does not stay silent. For at this time, the people looked at their present circumstances and saw their promised land crumbling and being dismantled piece by piece, they looked to their past and saw the depravity that had taken hold of their land, and they looked to their future and all they could find was silence. They…longed to hear God’s voice once again. They longed…to be held safely in the arms of one who has everything under control.”
Have you ever found yourself in a similar predicament? Have you ever cried out to God in desperation but found, in return, silence?
In such silence it feels like our soul is suffocating. But perhaps our experience of silence is not as much an indicator of God’s absence as it is an opportunity for God’s teaching.
In an article entitled “All the Right Moves” in Fast Company (May 1999), chess master Bruce Pandolfini shared, “My lessons consist of a lot of silence. I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking…. I let my students think. If I do ask a question [‘why are you making that move?’] and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question—and wait. I never give the answer. Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence. Some of the most effective communication—between student and teacher, between master players—takes place during silent periods.”
Perhaps some of the richest communication between God and us takes place when it seems to us that God is silent. Indeed, verse 9 suggests that while the psalmist struggled with the silence of God, his mind recalled how God used Gideon and just 300 soldiers with trumpets and torches to rout the armies of the Midianites and Amalekites who had been “along the valley as thick as locusts” (Judges 7) and how God used Deborah to achieve victory over the army of Sisera and Jabin (Judges 4). The psalmist’s soul begins to settle into the confidence that the God who protected them in the past will continue to protect them. Thus, the psalm, that begins in despondency over God’s silence, concludes with confidence: “Let them know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.”
Jesus: The Good Shepherd
Most of what I know about the heart of a shepherd came from knowing Wayne & Carol Reissman. They owned no sheep. They had just a small Boston terrier named Rodney, measuring about 9 inches in height and 15 inches in length, who was generally decked out in a spiked collar, which I thought to be comical on such a small and gentle pet. But it was in Wayne and Carol that I encountered the hearts of a shepherd.
Next door to Wayne & Carol’s home lived two Pit Bulls. One day the Pit Bulls broke through the fence separating the two yards. One of the big dogs dug her teeth into Rodney’s neck, but the spiked collar Rodney was wearing prevented the attacker from clamping her teeth shut around Rodney’s neck and killing him. Still, she kept Rodney in her mouth and shook him about like a rag doll.
As their pet yelped in fear and pain, Wayne and Carol ran into the yard. Wayne stuck his hands into the Pit Bull’s mouth and pulled the jaw open, enabling Carol to grab Rodney then flee for the house, with the other dog in pursuit.
When Wayne told me what had happened, I asked whether he was terrified when he wrestled hand-to-mouth with that Pit Bull. Wayne told me that he didn’t have time to be afraid; he just knew that he had to rescue his beloved Boston terrier.
That’s what love does. That’s what a good shepherd does.
Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf [or Pit Bull] coming and leaves the sheep [or the Boston terrier] and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:11-15)
The other quality that defines a good shepherd is the shepherd’s knowledge of each sheep and each sheep’s knowledge of the shepherd. Many years ago, Paul Harvey shared this story: “Cattle-rustling is a major problem in Uganda. The Ugandan army daily attempts to reunite cattle with their owners. The biggest difficulty lies in proving ownership. One elderly lady settled the issue in a remarkable way. She stood before the herd and called her cows by name. As each cow heard that voice calling her name, she lifted her head and then followed the old woman. As far as the army was concerned, it was as strong a proof of ownership as one could find.”
Those cattle knew her voice and responded to her voice because she called to them every day and throughout the day. Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Jesus knows us, and he calls out to us every day and throughout the day. The question is whether we will listen to him enough to begin to recognize his voice and be ready to respond to his call.
Do Not Merely Ask Why Evil Exists
Do you ever ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Or, “Why does God allow evil in the world?”
In Psalm 82, it is as if God takes those questions and throws them back at the pantheon of spiritual forces in the universe or, as some scholars suggest, at a collection of national leaders (who are referred to here as “gods” in that they hold authority of other human beings and wield a civil authority that is feared as though they are gods): “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’”
Though Psalm 82 does not go on to answer the questions about why God allows evil to permeate this world and ruin people’s lives, Psalm 82 reveals the truth that God is deeply concerned about justice for the downtrodden and that God throws the responsibility for justice in the world back on us. In verses 3-4, God commands us: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Throughout Israel’s life as a nation, God has called upon his people to strive for justice and to care for one another. Brennan Breed shares, “Ancient Israel stood out among its ancient Near Eastern neighbors precisely because its legal traditions assume that the entire community is responsible for the welfare of the poor and the vulnerable. In the epilogue of the Code of Hammurabi, the king of Babylon pledges to take care of the widow and the orphan—yet those vulnerable people are not protected by the body of the law code itself. In the Law of Moses, by contrast, the widow and orphan are explicitly protected by legislation (Exodus 22:22) and given economic provision in the law code (Leviticus 19;9-10; Deuteronomy 24:17-21). Moses also mentions “the poor” (Exodus 22:25; 23:6, 11) and “the aliens” (Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:14), classes of people not even considered in any other ancient Near Eastern law code. While ancient Babylonians certainly considered it a nice thing to take care of vulnerable people, they never legislated it. For them, taking care of the vulnerable was a matter of personal responsibility, and the community should be left out of it. Israel’s biblical texts, on the other hand, legislate communal provisions for the vulnerable. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God and the entire community of Israel enter into a legally binding agreement—a covenant…. And in it, Moses says to the community of ancient Israel: ‘I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land”’ (Deuteronomy 15:11). The ‘you’ mentioned in this passage is the entire community of Israel, and this is a stipulation of a legally binding communal contract.”
The message of Psalm 82 is this: Don’t just ask why evil is rampant in this world; do something about it. Do our part to bring about justice. Do our part to care for those around us who are in need.
Jesus: The Gate
John 10:10 concludes with a wonderful promise from Jesus to us: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly!”
Who would not want to be the recipient of such a tremendous promise? But the question is: How do we get it?
A few verses earlier, Jesus speaks of a gate. Imagine, therefore, is a gate that leads to the abundance of life. But how are we to recognize this gate so that we can go through it? As we wander about looking for this gate, we come upon a richly decorated gate called “The Happiness Gate.” The writing on the gate tells us: “Spoil yourself;” “Have it your way;” “Get what you deserve;” “Get what you want;” “Look out for Number 1!” Surely this has got to be the way to the abundance of life, so we run through this gate enthusiastically. But as we travel down this path, all we seem to find are anxiousness, envy and disappointment. We never seem to find ourselves getting anywhere close to the abundance of life.
In the distance we notice a different gate. This gate is not so richly decorated. Indeed, the sign on this gate says that all who go through this gate are to live lives of obedience, service, humbleness and self-sacrifice. Jesus stands in the center of this gate, saying, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:7-9).
Interestingly, the Greeks had a word for “happiness” (eudaimonia), which never appears in the New Testament. It’s not that the Bible is against happiness. God is the inventor of joy and the source of all true joy, and Jesus declares that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” But the New Testament writers saw no reason to write about a gate (“The Happiness Gate”) that will not lead us to the abundance of life. Rather than wasting time on the subject of happiness, Donald Hagner points out, “The Bible has another vocabulary, a more elevated one, for words such as ‘blessedness’ and ‘joy.’… [I]t designates as blessed the person who knows and fears God, who considers the poor, and does justice and righteousness. Blessedness is for the most part directed away from the self. Blessedness is the product of what God has done and our participation in that.” It is not “The Happiness Gate” that gets us to the abundance of life; it is through the gate that is Jesus that we come to the fullness of life.
Jill Carattini points out, “In the ancient walls of Jerusalem, there was a gate on the north of the city, by which animals were brought in from the countryside for sacrifice. It was called the Sheep Gate. Once inside the city and within the temple courts, there was only one door where the sheep went in, and no lamb ever came back out after entering the temple. They traveled in only one direction, and then there they were sacrificed for the sin of men and women. For first-century hearers of Jesus’ words about sheep, such knowledge added to the shock of his words: ‘I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.’ In the temple filled with sheep on their way toward death, Jesus declared there was a way out: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’”
When we come into the gate that is Jesus, there is death. We surrender our lives to Jesus. But since Jesus took our death—because he became the once-and-for-all sacrifice for us—the surrender of our lives to Jesus turns out not to be death but the abundance of life.
William Barclay sums it up well: “There is no place for a policy of safety first in the Christian life. The one who seeks first ease and comfort and security and the fulfillment of personal ambition may well get all these things—but he will not be a happy man; for he was sent into this world to serve God and his fellowmen. A person can hoard life, if he wishes to do so. But that way he will lose all that makes life valuable to others and worth living for himself…. The way to true happiness is to spend life selflessly, for only thus will we find life, here and hereafter.”
God Is Not Indifferent
In its early setting, Psalm 81 invited pilgrims to Jerusalem to join in the rejoicing of the Feast of Tabernacles: “Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.”
The Feast of Tabernacles was a celebration intended to help the Jewish people remember and honor how God cared for their ancestors when he led them through the desert and provided for them during their forty years in the wilderness. During this week-long festival, people gave thanks for their recently completed harvest, and they lived in homemade shelters (tabernacles or booths) to recall the tents in which their ancestors lived while traveling through the desert. Every seventh year, the priests read aloud the Law of Moses so that people would keep that law in their minds and in their hearts. Psalm 81 stays faithful to the Feast of Tabernacles by recalling how God rescued his people and provided for their needs and gave them his law: “In distress you called, and I rescued you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder [Mt. Sinai]; I tested you at the waters of Meribah…. There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (verses 7 and 9-10).
Yet Psalm 81 grieves the fact that God’s people have not remained faithful to God: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me” (verse 11).
Therefore, Psalm 81 calls us to renew our commitment to God: “Hear, O my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!” (verse 8). And Psalm 81 concludes with the promise that if they return to God, he will restore them: “I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
What grabs my heart in Psalm 81 is the awareness that it is God’s love that calls us to turn away from unfaithfulness and to turn back to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarks, “Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be so compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother [or sister] back from the path of sin.” It is always God’s compassion that calls us to repent when we are going the wrong way.
Joseph Fletcher comments, “The true opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Hate, bad as it is, at least treats the neighbor as a THOU, whereas indifference turns the neighbor into an IT, a thing. This is why we may say that there is actually one thing worse than evil itself, and that is indifference to evil. In human relations the nadir of morality, the lowest point as far as Christian ethics are concerned, is manifest in the phrase, ‘I couldn’t care less.’” Thankfully, God is not indifferent! It is because God loves us so deeply that God calls us to turn away from our sins and to turn back to God.