BRANCHES FRUITFUL OR BARREN
D. M. PANTON, M. A.
The Lord Jesus discloses the overmastering purpose for which man was made:- "herein is my Father glorified" - in this is the Creator made glorious in having made the human - "that ye BEAR FRUIT" (John 18: 8). As a fruit tree is made only and solely for its fruit, so man is made with no other aim than for his goodness, his moral fruitfulness. And the fruit tree chosen is the most apt of all for this truth. Other timber (such as mahogany or oak) is rare or valuable: the wood of the vine is quite worthless,* nor have its leaves any medical value: its whole reason for existing is its fruit. An evil man has as completely missed the purpose of his creation as does a barren grape-vine: if I am not good for fruit, I am good for nothing. God’s fundamental aim is not even saved souls: it is lives visibly fruiting, for which all creation, all redemption works. "For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS," (Eph. 2: 10).
[* "Shall wood be taken thereof," asks Ezekiel (15: 3), "to make any work? Is it profitable for any work?"]
Now the Lord advances one of His all-exclusive claims which is either an overwhelming truth, or blasphemy, "I am THE TRUE VINE": the genuine Vine, as distinct from the false Vine of Antichrist (Rev. 14: 18);* the real Vine, as distinct from the abortive Vine of Israel (Jer. 2: 21); the actual Vine, which the garden vine was created to picture: "ye are THE BRANCHES" (John 15: 1). There are many vines, but only one grape-vine; and we are not trees, only branches. The Branches are in the Vine, not so as to impart anything to the Vine, but receive everything from it: the Vine is in the Branches, so as to flood them with its own life, but receives no life from them. A trunk can fruit only through its branches; and a branch (as someone has said) is an arm of a vine to hand out grapes. It is a marvellous picture. The Lord Jesus is not only a fruitful tree, where all others are unfruitful; nor is He a tree standing alone, the beauty and the wonder of the world: He is the Trunk out of which alone spring all fruitful lives, the lonely stem that bears the entire holiness of the world, the solitary Root in which are lodged the myriads of the saved. It follows, therefore, that without personal, living, organic, union with the Son of God, a godlike life is utterly and for ever impossible.
[* The Vine of Antichrist is on earth, drawing its bitter juices from this world: while its branches are on earth, our Vine, with its soil and sap, is in Heaven.]
It is an extraordinary tribute to the Lord that He says all the most profoundly unpopular things in the New Testament, and all the most awful, and yet remains sovereign and unchallenged. He continues His picture with as startling a confirmation of our creation for fruit as could be imagined. "Every branch in me" - that is, a saved soul: no other can bear fruit *- "that beareth not fruit, he taketh it away." The purpose with which a vine is created necessarily controls the destiny of the branches; and since a vine is created to grow, not timber, but fruit, a fruitless branch must go. Our fruit does not depend upon ourselves, our fruitfulness does: all the branches are capable of fruit, all are designed for fruit, all receive sap for fruit: yet never was there a fruit tree without a barren bough.** We see in the facts around us exactly what our Lord means by a fruitless branch. Confession of Christ has ceased; no winsomeness of character remains beyond what is possessed by unbelievers; the passions of the world once again grip the heart; all activity for Christ is dead. Not evil fruit, but merely to have no fruit, is to go in hourly jeopardy of our life. The selfishness which is content with a bare salvation has laid only God knows how many [regenerate] believers in a premature grave. ***
[* That the branches are pardoned and saved souls, living
boughs in living stock, is certain from the words in verse 3:- "Ye are clean because of the word which I have spoken unto you." Judas had
already withdrawn. The unregenerate man
is a fruitless fig tree in its owner’s vineyard (Luke 13: 6) - a lost soul in a
redeemed world: or, where
** The Church in Sardis is a vivid example of a miniature vine laden with ‘dead’ boughs, pronounced so by our Lord Himself, dead not in the sense of lifelessness but of fruitfulness, dead not through un-conversion but through lethargy; yet weighed also with branches (Rev. 3: 4) heavy with the ripest fruit.
*** This proves that to be ‘in Christ’ is not, by itself, sufficient for the fruit expected. A fruitful bough is a helpless recipient, but it is also an active co-operator. The overwhelming answer to the barren branch who so constantly attributes his fruitlessness to his fellow-boughs is that while other branches can entangle us, and impede our fruitfulness, we can wither only from the trunk.* To the disappearance of the bough the Epistles give their parallel: - "for this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep" (1 Cor. 11: 30). [*The withering begins when the Holy Spirit withdraws Himself from the believer, because of his/her wilful sin and disobedience, (Acts 5: 32.) ] ]
The Lord next lays bare the whole philosophy of Christian suffering. It is said that among trees none is so great a sufferer as the vine. "Every branch that beareth fruit, he CLEANSETH it" - the trunk, we observe, needs no cleansing - "that it may bear more fruit": cleansed already (ver. 3), each branch ever needs cleansing again. It is an amazingly comforting truth. Every slash of the knife is a proof of prior fruitfulness. The tendency, the constant danger, of a fruit tree is to run to leaf, to exhaust itself in wood and folage: therefore, shoots just below the little cluster that will one day be grapes, and secondary growths or ‘laterals’ that spring out of each ‘eye’ of the young stem, have to be pinched off, that all the sap may concentrate in fruit. So God ‘stops’ His people: He breaks plans, quenches hopes, cuts off ambitions, denies comforts: nevertheless every surgery, every mutilation of the living bough, is a deliberate design for richer, riper clusters of holiness. *
[* "Afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them which are exercised thereby," that is, pruned (Heb. 12: 11).]
So the Lord now unfolds the underlying principle of all fruiting life. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me: for apart from me ye can do nothing." That is, fruit is Christlikeness, for it is the sap passing from the trunk into the branch: Christ’s goodness pushes its way into us, as a vine reproduces itself in its branch. Christ’s is the solitary model life of all history, and He alone can make it fruit again in us. "I live, yet not I, but Christ LIVETH IN ME" (Gal. 2: 20). All I have to do to bear fruit is to abide in utter helplessness in Him, yet in active co-operation, as a branch does, and the increase in clusters will be automatic with the continued communion. "He that abideth in me, and I in him,* the same beareth MUCH FRUIT." A bough constantly charged with the [Holy] Spirit’s sap gushing through its veins uninterruptedly inevitably fruits at last in grapes of Eshcol hugeness, one cluster of which was all the load two men could bear (Num. 13: 23): "established in EVERY GOOD WORD AND WORK" (2 Thess 2: 17).
[* Or, as it has been beautifully translated, "maketh his home in me, and I make my home in him."]
But now the Saviour, in sharp and awful contrast, unveils, not mere present death (as in ver. 2), but judgment beyond death. "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burning." That the first two verbs are in the past, and the last three in the present seems to show that our Lord is speaking as though from the view-point of the Judgment Seat. There seems to be a distinction between the barren and the withered bough. (1) "He [the Husbandman] taketh it away," for only He has the power of death mysterious, inexplicable; (2) "they [the excommunicating Church, or the judgment Angels, or both] gather and cast": as the incestuous brother was to be handed over to Satan, "that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5: 5): or as the unforgiving servant is handed "to the tormentors" (Matt. 18: 34), until his debt is paid. Once more the facts around us exactly correspond. The want of ‘abiding’ produces sin for which the branch is ‘cast out’: withering follows: that is, all prayer ceases; conscious fellowship with Christ ends; the very expression of a Christian dies out of the face; the branch becomes utterly aloof from all fellow-branches. In the barren branch fruit does not occur: in the withered branch fruit is impossible. To this dread utterance of the Lord, more dread for us [His redeemed people] than anything that ever fell from His lips, there is one blessed restriction, and a restriction never stated of the lost. It is critically important to observe that the only occasion on which Christ ever threatens a believer, directly and in literal language, with Hell [Gk. ‘Gehenna’ (Matt. 5: 22) - and that only contingently, "in danger of the Gehenna of fire," and only for the gravest sin, namely, denouncing a brother-believer as ‘moreh’* - is most remarkably the unique passage that for ever limits a believer’s punishment. In no case is it eternal Gehenna. ** "Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, TILL THOU HAVE PAID THE LAST FARTHING" (Matt. 5: 26). ***
[* A ‘rebel’ against God, the very word for the use of which (Num. 20: 10) Moses lost the Promised Land. The unbeliever is not in danger of Gehenna, nor in danger of it should he commit a particular sin, but he is already certain of it, both as born in sin and as a sinner by lifelong practice.
** Strictly speaking, the ‘fire’ - as a constituent part of the parabolic picture - must be, as all parts of the parable, figurative. The Great Tribulation is depicted as an oven (Mal. 4: 1), a furnace (Isa. 31: 9), a fury of fire (Nah. 1: 6); and every illuminating is the parallel destiny of the de-savoured salt, which is "cast out and trodden underfoot of men" (Matt. 5: 13). The figure of the burning Tares (Matt. 13: 40), on the other hand, is explained (ver. 42) in literal language: - "the angels shall cast them [not ‘tares,’ but ‘them that do iniquity’] into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Nevertheless, in face of Matt. 5: 22 it is impossible to deny that the fire may be literal in the burning branch.
*** The same restriction, even more manifestly, must rule the indirect warnings of Gehenna: - Matt. 18: 8; Luke 12: 4, 5; Heb. 6: 4; 10: 27; Rev. 2: 11; 20: 5. So the every debt is finite - is discharged. The unbeliever, sinning eternally, never discharges his debt, for he never ceases incurring it.]
Out of this pregnant picture the Lord next draws forth our capacity for absolutely limitless service. "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you." These words reveal how grave is the teaching that all our Lord’s words, as ‘Jewish,’ are not for His Church, nor for this dispensation at all: on the contrary, His words remaining in our minds and conduct are made one criterion of the branch’s surviving life, and a chief foundation of all effectual prayer. Momentous IS THE RESPONSIBILITY JESUS CASTS UPON US of maintaining the vital touch: twelve times is the word ‘abide’ used, nearly always in the imperative; and so priceless is the abiding that our Lord closes by offering it a blank cheque. The indwelling ‘words’ so shape the ‘asking’ that the constant ‘doing’ is an ocean without a shore.
So the Lord closes, as He began, with the deep fundamental of creation. "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; and so shall ye be my disciples." The richer and more abundant the crop, the greater the glory to the Vinedresser. For every man can be a branch, every man can fit into Christ as a branch sinks into a tree. And it is exquisitely beautiful that in a "graft" - and we are not born in Christ - the fruit belongs to the genus of the trunk,* but to the species of the branch: so we become organically one with Christ and His goodness, but our personality is not destroyed - on the contrary, the fruit peculiar to ourself is perfected.** And this is the crowning glory of the Creator. The creation of the worlds was so exquisite that "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38: 7); but the human, in its godlike possibilities, is far more wonderful a creation; and a sinner, made into a character utterly lovable, and fruitful in all goodness, is the most wonderful work of God the universe will ever know.***
[* Or it will not ‘graft’: it is into the human Christ that we are planted, but into a Christ possessed of all the sap of the Divine.]
** The destiny of the perpetually barren fig-tree stands out in sharp and awful contrast. For it is a dread fact that valueless timber always has one use at last. "Every tree" - for there is no exception - "that bringeth forth not good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 7: 19).
*** The grape crowns the summer and autumn - (THE KINGDOM: Luke 21: 30, 31), - even as the almond - (‘weakefulness’: rapture and resurrection) - opens, after the long, dark, frigid winter, the spring.]
[Keep in mind: He cuts off every branch in Him that bears no fruit: and without the indwelling Holy Spirit in our lives, we cannot bear fruit. Our obedience to Christ is vitally important.]
Ye say, we do not understand the speech of strange nations. What? Shall the kings of the earth find interpreters for their embassies to foreign lands and shall the King of kings find none? Ye are anxious as to your support. Know ye not that the holy Paul earned his living with the same hands which he after laid upon his converts? Ye say, that no miracles stand at your disposal as they did at that of the apostles. But the mightiest miracles are a holy life, a heroic patience [perseverance], an unshakable love, and that certain hope of final victory in gentleness which wins the wildest heathen. Ye shrink from dangers, but the princes of this world find soldiers in thousands willing to lay down their lives and SHALL THE PRINCE OF LIFE WAIT IN VAIN?
We cannot escape the suffering if we are to share His Throne and His Reign over the earth - "if we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him" (2 Tim. 2: 12). He has chosen us TO STAND WITH HIM IN THESE LAST AND TERRIBLE DAYS.
[The Lord is coming! The Word
testifies it (Acts 1: 11); the Holy Spirit has spoken it (Rev. 22: 17); holy
men of God have written about it in their Epistles; the Church has for centuries been looking for it; Saints are longing for it; the redeemed in Hades (Rev. 6: 9-11) know it is a fact, that Jesus is
coming again to earth to rule in righteousness and peace. Only the Churches today do not seem to know
it, and from amongst those who do, many have ceased talking about it; while
others are on the brink of becoming apostates by turning away from this
truth! Will they be "considered worthy of
taking part in that age"? (Luke
20: 35, N.I.V.). "Hold on to what you have," – (i.e., your faith in
the "age" to come, and
in the conditional promises of God) - "so that no one will take your crown."
– (That is, your right to rule with Christ during the millennium).
"Him who overcomes" –
(here is our hope from the Word of God, calling all
backsliders to repent and to be restored and given grace and strength to
win the prize at last.) “I will make a pillar in the temple of my God” ... “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to
the churches” (Rev. 3: 11-13). “Let us,
therefore, make every effort to enter that rest,
- (i.e., the ‘Sabbath Rest.’) -
so that no one will fall by following their (