There are few occupations on earth that are more single-minded than that of the vine grower. His or her only purpose in life is to produce the maximum crop of the highest quality grapes. Nothing else is permitted to get in the way. Everything else is sacrificed for the sake of fruit. A fruitless vine is a useless vine – a visual aid for failure, for missing the point, for lack of purpose and for utter futility.
Jesus applied this so-obvious metaphor to himself and his Father’s Kingdom. “I am the True Vine and my Father is the gardener” (v1). Jesus is not merely a large and fruitful branch that is part of the ‘vine’ of God’s kingdom – he is the whole thing – the whole vine! More than that: he is the True vine. Was there a counterfeit one then? Yes. Look at Psalm 80:8-16, Isaiah 5:1-7, and Jeremiah 2:21-22. Israel was the false vine, the fruitless one, the one that denied its owner any benefit. So the Father sent his own Son to do a proper job and at last to provide fruit that will last for eternity.
We are the branches. There are apparently two types: dead ones and living ones. The dead ones produce no fruit at all – that is the principal evidence that they are dead. “Each tree is recognised by its own fruit” said Jesus in Luke 6:44. It doesn’t matter if you have joined a lively church, been baptised, come to all the meetings, and sing the hymns: if no fruit – then no life! “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).
The living ones do indeed bear fruit, since they have the indwelling Holy Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Galatians 5:22). “Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth” (clearly Paul knew all about photosynthesis!) (Ephesians 5:9). But the Father is still not satisfied, and he wants more fruit – better quality fruit. This fruit is revealed as Christ-like attitudes, as sacrificial living, as unconditional love, and as the production of disciples who have the same kind of fruit. Anything, in fact, that is good for all eternity. So the heavenly Vine Grower appears to treat the good branches in nearly the same way that he treated the dead ones: he reaches for his pruning knife!
But he does not cut us off from the vine; instead, he ‘cleans’ us, removing every part of us that inhibits fruitful growth or which sucks the energy away from grape production. This is a painful process and may involve circumstances that we simply don’t understand; methods that seem counter-intuitive to us. “Why did God allow that?” “Why was that necessary in God’s plan for us?” These kinds of question rarely elicit an answer. The sharp end of that pruning knife is clearly “…the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3), but the handle could be any kind of circumstance, suffering, or persecution. It was Spurgeon who commented: “Affliction is the handle of the knife. Affliction is the grindstone that sharpens the knife. But the knife is the Word. Affliction makes us ready to feel the Word of God”.
So it all depends on our attitude. James advises us: “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”. (James 1:2-4). As we submit our wounds to the surgeon’s knife, we become cleansed, renewed and doubly fruitful.
15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing”. Do an experiment in the garden: break off a branch from a bush and see how well it flourishes after that! Not a lot! Only the nourishing sap of the parent plant can keep each individual branch alive and growing. The analogy is perfect! If we want to be fruitful, then we just need maintain a close connection with the Living One, of whom we are part. We need to be as single-minded about this, as the Father is single-minded about fruit!
And we can ask for anything we wish if we stick that closely. If you want to be joyful, then do the same thing. If you want to live as his friend, then do the same thing… listen to what he tells you, since he shares his deepest secrets with his friends. Remember, that (15:16) we did not choose Him as a friend, but he chose us – God’s sovereignty at work powerfully here – and our friendship is not for self-indulgence, but to make our lives effective and fruitful, propagating the vine so that it grows even larger. Our relationship with him is crucial, but so is the need to love one another – unconditionally!
Don’t panic if you are persecuted: they did so to Him, so they won’t spare you! It’s normal. We don’t belong to this world order. Therefore, it is to be expected. But your persecutors have no good reason for their evil actions. In fact (16:20), they will think they are doing God a favour if they kill you. They thought that when they killed Jesus! But our relationship is with the One who has overcome the world – so don’t ever fear!
Finally, in John15:26-27: Christ requires two witnesses to his saving power: The Holy Spirit and us. “Every matter is established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” – Deuteronomy 19:15.
1 SAMUEL 15, 16 and 17
It seems almost as though God gave Saul a second chance; he told him to go ahead and punish the Amalekites in battle and that Saul needed to make sure that every living thing was destroyed – “devoted” to the Lord. All started well and the battle was easily won, yet Saul failed to obey the simple command and the best of the livestock was kept back, and also the enemy king was simply taken prisoner. God was angry! Samuel was angry! Saul was pleased with himself. “I’ve carried out the Lord’s instructions”, he beamed at Samuel. “Oh… we did keep a few back – but only to sacrifice them to the Lord”.
This kind of person is most frustrating and irritating; whatever they do, they will always justify themselves and their actions, never taking responsibility whilst there is a chance of ‘getting away with it’. Saul must have known that God saw through his heart and his motives – yet he persisted in trying to wriggle out of admitting his culpability. It is hard to warm to a person like that! Samuel dismissed Saul’s feeble excuses with that well-known phrase: “To obey is better than sacrifice” and “Rebellion is like the sin of divination”. There is little point in us today being pious in our worship of the Lord, being full of devotion in lively praise celebrations – if we are disobeying God’s commands. Are we showing hatred for our brother in Christ? Are we disrespecting our leadership? Are we robbing God by failing to give a proportion of our income to the church? Are we holding grudges or failing to confess or forgive? In which case, our passionate praise and worship meetings are a waste of our time and of God’s. As we see in the 1 Samuel passage, God does not take kindly to being robbed!
Eventually – and too late – Saul came to his senses and admitted that he had sinned, and it was out of his fear of his men’s reaction. But no forgiveness was available by then. There are periods of time when God grants us repentance, but we do not have the right to pick and choose when to repent; the door of opportunity may quickly close.
In the next chapter, God moves on rapidly to choose the next king: David, a man after his own heart. The name ‘David’ means ‘beloved’, and it is very clear that God’s feelings towards him were consistent with the name. To be a man after God’s own heart is not a sentimental thing, but rather it indicates a fully developed faith and trust in the One who can do everything. After David was anointed by Samuel, his faith, boldness, and expectations of how the Lord would act on his behalf were second to none. Saul, on the other hand had lost that Spirit of boldness and had become morose, depressed, faithless and risk averse – in fact, paranoid! David’s prophetic music helped keep the evil spirits around Saul at bay for a time, but Saul was finished as a man of God and a leader of men. David was rapidly on the way to being the hero of heroes.
Goliath was a freak! Three metres tall and with muscles in proportion; a trained killer from an early age, and with not a scar on his body. His armour weighed the equivalent of a small woman and the point of his spear weighed 7Kg. It must have seemed like attacking a Tyrannosaur! David joined the battle line, bringing provisions for his brothers, who made fun of him and misunderstood his faith for arrogance. But already, David was zealous for the Lord’s reputation and was himself offended at this giant’s mocking of Israel.
Twice, David calls Goliath an “uncircumcised Philistine”; this was not a term of abuse, but rather a description of the man’s covenant status. In other words, David was pointing out, Goliath was not covered by the protection of God’s covenant that Israel enjoyed; therefore, Goliath was vulnerable and could be killed by a man who trusted in the Lord. David also recollected that he had killed bears and lions with his bare hands because he trusted in God. It was also important that David declared his faith aloud, in the hearing of others: “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel… This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands…”.
David was a dead shot with the sling, and he loaded one of the five smooth spherical stones – probably the size of cricket balls and each weighing about the same as a jar of jam – and whipped it through the air towards Goliath. A trained ‘slinger’ in those days could send stones down at 90-100 miles per hour, turning the slingshot into a deadly weapon. David, with God’s help, did precisely this and the fast accurate delivery sank deep into Goliath’s forehead, causing him to fall down – either dead or unconscious. David picked up his enemy’s fallen sword and finished the job. Having vanquished the leader of the enemy forces, it was an easier task to pursue and kill the rest. Strangely, the incredulous King Saul did not seem to recognize in David the young harpist who had ministered to him regularly at his palace; but then the entire scene had been completely incredible – except to the one man there with genuine faith!
David is already a prototype of Jesus. He was ignored and misunderstood by his own brothers. He neutralized the power of the leader of the enemy army (Satan) and the other Israelites were then able to deal with the lesser powers of the enemy. He was born in Bethlehem too. We will follow his adventures with great interest and anticipation.