In John 15, Jesus used the metaphor of a Vine and its branches to illustrate the relationship that true Christians have with Him. He said that we can do nothing apart from Him, just as a branch that is separated from its vine cannot produce any fruit.
How can we tell that a grapevine is indeed a grapevine? There are a lot of possible ways. We might get a clue from the climate in which we live. If we are in an area where grapes do not grow, then we can be reasonably certain that a vine we find growing wild is not a grapevine. But if we live in an area where grapes are produced, there is at least the possibility. If we are very knowledgeable about grapes, we might examine any number of features. The leaves, the roots, the texture of the vine, the way it grows and hangs could all give clues to an expert as to whether a certain vine is in fact a grapevine. Perhaps, if we are the investigative sort of person, we could do some local research, and we might find out that grapevines have grown on this particular plot of land for years. Or, if we are learned in biochemistry, we might do a chemical analysis to determine whether the vine is indeed a grapevine.
Of course, there is one other outstanding possibility that doesn’t require any special skills or education on our part. You don’t have to be very intelligent or knowledgeable to determine that a given vine is a grapevine if you can see that it has grapes growing on it. Seeing the vine actually producing grapes brings an immediate realization that renders moot all the other possible investigations, examinations and tests.
Christ says that He is the Vine, and we are the branches. I suppose there are all kinds of theological, religious and social tests that one could apply to determine whether a person is in fact a real Christian. But Jesus defines a real Christian as one who is connected to Him as the Vine. All those possible tests might give us a clue, but the one determining factor that proves the matter beyond doubt is whether we are producing fruit as Jesus’ disciple. There are several marks that identify us unquestionably as belonging to Jesus. These are the marks of grace, baptism, obedience, spiritual fruit and love. Although spiritual fruit is listed as one of the marks, the last four marks are really forms and outward expressions of our real Christianity, so at least in a sense, they are kinds of fruit in our lives.
Now grace is a bit different than the others. Baptism, obedience, spiritual fruit and love are things that can be seen on the outside, and they are things that result from God’s grace operating in our lives. Grace, really, is what allows us to become connected to the Vine and enables us to remain connected. Grace makes all the rest possible. Everything about us that marks us as believers is possible only because God has extended His grace to us. We don’t really even produce the outward expression of God’s grace: He does it by working in us. “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12, 13). When we see grapes, we don’t call them the fruit of the branch, but the fruit of the vine.
And that’s why the cost of discipleship is so high. God demands it all; everything we are and everything we have. We have to turn it all over to Him. He takes everything so that He can give us everything. Because without Him – apart from Him – we are nothing and we can produce nothing. We are like branches without a vine.
I’ve never seen a branch that had other interests apart from its vine. I suspect that such a thing does not and could not exist. I’ve never heard of a branch being loyal to two vines at once or devoting only part of its time to its vine. The branch and the vine are one; the branch’s very existence depends on its connection to the vine. It exists only as an extension of the vine.
We exist only as an extension of the Vine. It’s true that there are other things in our lives besides pure service to Christ, but if we are true believers, these things are also part of our service to Him. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Everything we do can be to God’s glory if we do it for Him first. We may have to work for an employer to pay our bills, but Paul tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23, 24).
We have received of God’s grace. We are connected to the Vine. We have counted the cost of discipleship and we have taken up the Cross to follow Christ. We begin to reflect His nature. We produce fruit, not because of our own effort, but because God has given us a new nature and is working within us to make us more like Him. The fruit in our lives is a natural expression of what we have become and are becoming. We begin to follow Jesus as our example. And as God develops our Christian personality within us, we accept the obligations of discipleship, imperfectly at first, but more fully as God continues to make us what we ought to be. Humility, submission to God, patience, generosity - all of these begin to appear in our lives to a greater and greater degree as God conforms us to the character of Christ.
And the process continues until the day of our glorification, when our greatest hope will be realized. We continue to grow and purify ourselves in anticipation of that day: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2, 3)”.