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John 15:1-16:15

Roger Hahn

The second major division of Jesus' Last Discourse is found in John 15 and 16. It continues Jesus' goal of preparing the disciples for his soon death and departure. The fact of Jesus' departure is left behind and the teaching focuses on the way the disciples are to live after Jesus is gone. This means that both their relationship to each other and to the world will be explored. The function of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, is further described. This second part of the Last Discourse can be divided this way: John 15:1-17 dealing with the Vine and the Branches, John 15:18-16:4a describing the world's hatred for Jesus and the disciples, John 16:4b-15 returning to the the theme of Jesus' departure and the Paraclete, and finally John 16:16-33 focusing on the joy and understanding that Jesus' return will bring to the disciples.

John 15:1-17 - The Vine and the Branches

John 14 ended with Jesus saying, Arise, let us go from here. However, nothing further is said about Jesus and the disciples leaving until John 18:1. The very next verse, John 15:1, resumes the teaching of Jesus as if there had been no interruption. It is clear that a new subject begins with verse 18. It is not clear how verses 1-17 should be outlined. Most scholars treat them as a unit of thought though some view verses 1-11 as one unit and verses 12-17 as another. There are many ways verses 1-17 have been outlined. For this lesson we will follow Raymond Brown's division in verses 1-6 presenting the figure of the Vine and verses 7-17 making the application.

John 15:1-6 - The Illustration of the Vine

Jesus describes himself in verse 1 as the true vine. This introduces a series of illustrations about the Christian life from the vine metaphor. These observations about the vine and Christian life continue through verse 6. At that point Jesus takes the point of "abiding" and develops several applications, each flowing out of the last one, in verses 7-17.

Jesus' use of the vine as an illustration is both similar to and different from other material in the Bible. Matthew 20:1-16; 21:28-32; 21:33-41; Mark 12:1-9; and Luke 20:9-16 all contain parables (by Jesus) in which the vineyard represents Israel or part of Judaism. Fruit is expected of the vine, Israel, but when fruit does not come, judgment does. This was similar to Isaiah 5:1-7 and the use of the vineyard as a symbol for Israel (see Lectionary Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7).

Other Old Testament passages also used the illustration. Jesus' statement that he was the true vine seems different. First, Jesus is identified as the vine instead of the vineyard. However, the Greek word used for vine here is now used in modern Greek for vineyard. The Greek word usually translated "branches" in the following verses is now used in modern Greek for vines. The evidence for how the words were used in Jesus' time is mixed. Certain parts of the comparison work best with the traditional English translation - vine and branches - and we will follow that tradition. However, the difference between Jesus as the vine and Israel as the vineyard is not primarily in the vine versus vineyard distinction.

Much more important is the fact that Jesus states that he is the true vine. Several observations are in order. First, this is another ego eimi, I AM, statement. The I AM was a way Jesus had of drawing the connection between himself and the great I AM WHO I AM, the LORD of the Old Testament (see "I am" in John's Gospel).

It is also significant that Jesus identifies himself as the vine rather than following the traditional vineyard association with Israel. There are probably several different ways to look at this. One is to say that Jesus himself has replaced Israel in God's plan of salvation history. Certainly there is much in John that would fit into such an interpretation. Another way of understanding it, however, would be to understand that if Israel was the vine and Jesus claimed to be the true vine, he was claiming to be the true Israel. This is consistent with several passages in the New Testament. Rather than rejecting Judaism, the earliest Christians simply re-defined Judaism in Christian terms. Jesus was the true Israel and Jesus' followers were the true Israelites.

The context of the saying, I am the true vine, at the supper has also led to another suggestion. In Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; and Luke 22:18 as part of the Last Supper Jesus said, "I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the Kingdom of God." Some scholars believe that Jesus' statements about the vine in John 15 arose as part of his interpretation of the meaning of the cup at the Last/Lord's Supper. Starting with this assumption a few scholars have drawn the conclusion that John thought Jesus instituted the Eucharist (Lord's Supper) as a replacement for all the Jewish feasts - Passover, Tabernacles, and Dedication. John 15 did come to be associated with the Eucharist early in church history, but Jesus himself does not make any specific connections here in John 15.

One other general remark should be made about the Vine. Jesus described himself as the Vine, not as the stalk. Many expositions of this passage focus on the branches, which represent the disciples. The assumption is that Jesus is the stalk through which water and nutrients flow from the roots. If a branch is detached from the stalk, it dies. However, Jesus described himself as the Vine - the whole thing. Branches, stalk, roots, and all are Jesus. This is a communal picture of our life in Christ. Branches live as they are part of the vine. The point of connection is not important; being connected is. Understood this way, Jesus' picture is similar to Paul's concept of the church as the body of Christ.

If the point that Jesus is the Vine and not just the stalk is true, then one of the important meanings is that Jesus is the source of life for all the branches. Only by abiding in him, the Vine, do the branches live. But, how do you know if a branch is alive? Jesus assumes that alive branches produce fruit. If a branch does not produce fruit, God the Father, removes that branch from the Vine.

The meaning of bearing fruit also has been interpreted in several ways. The concept of fruit as the product of a reproductive process leads to the idea that bearing fruit means bringing other persons to Christ. While John is very interested in bringing people to faith, that evangelistic or missionary interpretation of bearing fruit was probably not in mind in these verses.

In terms of the illustration, new believers would be new branches, not the fruit of a branch. Many scholars have interpreted the fruit in terms of Christian virtues, primarily on the strength of Galatians 5:22-23. No hints that Jesus had this in mind appear in John 15:1-6.

However, when the Old Testament used the vineyard illustration of Israel, fruit consisted of righteousness and justice (see Isaiah 5 and the Lectionary Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7). When the idea of fruit as new believers and fruit as righteous virtues are contrasted with each other we miss an important point. Jesus did not define the fruit in this passage. It was supposed to be obvious.

Fruit is the product of a healthy, live branch. The lives of believers who are connected to Christ produce fruit. It will mean the growth of Christlikeness. That will mean lives that will attract others. Neither Jesus, nor the early church, separated the work of God in a person from the work of God through a person. Branches (believers) who "abide" in Christ will produce fruit that is recognizable as fruit. That is just what alive branches do. Our problem arises when we want to define fruit so we can produce it to prove that we abide in Christ. The order should be reversed. We should see to it that we abide in Christ. When that happens we will bear fruit.

A branch that does not bear fruit will be taken away. Branches that are bearing fruit will be cleansed. There is a double play on words in Greek in verse 2. The word "take away or remove" is spelled airei while the word "pruned" is spelled kathairei. There is no satisfactory way to show that play on words in English.

The second play occurs with the word "prune." Kathairei is used both in agriculture for pruning and in religious contexts for purification or cleansing. Though the illustration of the vine demands the translation "prunes" John no doubt chose the word kathairei to translate Jesus' teaching with cleansing in mind. Most translations of verse 3 assume that. Jesus says, "You are already clean." The word "clean" is katharoi, which is a cognate form of kathairei. The disciples are already "pruned" but when applied to disciples "cleansed or clean" makes better sense.

According to verse 2 cleansing is a process that is regular and repeated for fruit-bearing disciples. Verse 3 declares that the twelve disciples had already been cleansed by means of Jesus' teaching. This is an echo of John 13:10. Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is that the cleansing and pruning of Jesus' teaching had already removed the disciples from the world and placed them in the vine. In the days and years ahead further cleansing and pruning would make them more fruitful. That periodic purifying would also be accomplished by the teaching of Jesus. John would have understood that in the context of the Paraclete teachings in the Last Discourse.

From time to time the Holy Spirit will remind us of some teaching of Jesus and apply it to an area of life that needs changed. We are often not even aware of the problem in our life or at least we have never seen the connection between it and Jesus' teaching. But the Holy Spirit faithfully attempts to "cleanse" out pieces of our lives that are not Christlike on a regular and on-going basis. That does not deny the fundamental cleansing that had already taken place in our lives. It simply recognizes that abiding in the Vine requires regular attention and discipline.

Verses 4 and 5 emphasize the point that no believer can continue to exist in isolation from Christ. This works in two ways. Unless a believer abides in Christ s/he will bear no fruit (and according to verses 2 and 6 will be removed and burned). The life of discipleship is a life of "abiding" in Christ. That word speaks of staying, dwelling, remaining. It is not a static condition but an ongoing relationship. It means finding our life and sustenance in Christ. When something else - our work, our mate, our hobby - "keeps us going" we are not abiding in Christ. Thus the intimate, dependent personal union with Christ is necessary for the believer to exist.

Secondly, it is important to remember that Christ is the [whole] vine and the believer is a branch. Here the understanding is communal. A vine does not exist with one branch, but many. To abide in Christ is also to abide in [the body of] Christ, the church. Abiding does not happen in Lone Ranger fashion. Our participation in Christ through the life of his Body, the church, nurtures us as a branch. Certainly, isolated from [the body of] Christ none of the branches can do anything to significantly impact the world with Christ.

John 15:7-17 - Results of Abiding in Christ

The concept of abiding in Christ was the central focus of the illustration of the Vine in verses 1-6. "Abide" becomes the key word to trigger a series of observations on the Jesus' part about the results of abiding in Christ for the Christian life in verses 7-17.

Verse 7 begins by noting the mutual relationship that abiding entails. If you abide in me and my words abide in you. The words of Jesus represent Christ himself. His words reveal the Father, and his words and Jesus are virtually interchangeable. Jesus himself is the incarnate Word, revealing the Father. Unless we are as open to Christ abiding in us as we are to us abiding in him no "abiding" will take place. However, if the mutual indwelling of Christ in us (see Galatians 2:20) and us in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17) occurs, several results follow.

First, abiding means that we can ask what we will and God will do it for us. The condition for receiving what we ask is similar to the condition of asking in Christ's name as mentioned in John 14:14. If one truly abides in Christ and Christ abides in him or her, the asking will not be contrary to the will and nature of Christ. If that mutual indwelling is taking place it means that we have really become a part of God's team. Our desire is the goal of the team and God's resources are ready to accomplish that team goal. It is a special treat for us to be able to bring up the suggestion.

Verse 8 declares that God the Father is glorified by the mutual abiding. Of course, that was His will in sending Christ. As disciples fulfill His will and continue the work of Christ, God achieves the greatest glory He desired. That mutual abiding causes the disciples to bear fruit - it is the fruit of Christlikeness - and that authenticates discipleship. The real goal of Jesus' as teacher and disciples as disciple is not information but formation of the disciple into Christlikeness. When it happens the discipling process has worked.

The whole Book of Glory (John 13-20) unveils Jesus' love for his disciples. If a disciple becomes Christlike s/he will love the other disciples. Thus love for one another (see John 13:35) and Christlikeness are both the same way of proving discipleship. Thus the idea of becoming true disciples in the last part of verse 8 leads naturally into discussion of the mutual love between Father, Son, and disciples in verse 9.

The construction of the Greek verbs indicates that John sees a great act of love flowing from the Father to the Son and a great act of love flowing from Christ to the disciples. That second great act of love obviously refers to the coming crucifixion. Most other passages in John that speak of the Father's love for the Son use a continuous tense verb - the Father continually loves the Son (see John 3:35; 5:20; and 10:17). The reference here to a single act of love from the Father to the Son may refer to something before Creation. However, in John it is more likely to refer to the whole event of the Incarnation. God sent Jesus to accomplish His (God's) will of saving the world. That was a great expression of love to Jesus to make him so central a part of the Divine plan. Likewise, it is a great expression of love to us when God allows us to participate in His world of reconciling the world to Himself (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

In that context Jesus commands, Abide in my love. It should not be difficult to abide in the love of Christ when that love finds its ultimate expression in the cross. However, verse 10 shows why it is difficult. Abiding in Christ's love is not just a matter of enjoying the benefits of the cross; it also involves taking the cross. Abiding in love means keeping commandments. As Barrett states, "Love and obedience are mutually dependent. Love arises out of obedience, obedience out of love." The proof that Jesus was abiding in the Father's love was his obedience to the cross. The proof of abiding will be obedience to whatever commands Christ may give - including the command to cross bearing (see Luke 14:26-27).

Another result of mutual abiding is mentioned in verse 11, joy. Brown notes, "Joy is presented as flowing from the obedience and love of which Jesus has spoken. Jesus' own joy springs from his union with the Father, which finds expression in obedience and love. The obedience and love to which in turn Jesus calls his disciples both constitute and witness their union with him; and it is this union that will be the source of their joy." Jesus will return to a fuller discussion of joy in John 16:20-24. The first joy-producing commandment to be obeyed is that Jesus' followers love one another as verse 12 points out. This command was already given in John 13:34, but here Jesus reminds his disciples that obedience to the love command is the basis of their joy.

The theme of love and obedience continue through verses 13-16. The supreme example of love is for a friend is to lay down one's own life for them. Barrett points out that verse 13, "does not claim that love for friends is better than love for enemies; only that there is nothing greater you can do for your friends than die for them."

When verse 14 begins, You are my friends, it is clear that Jesus is not just speaking in generalities. He is referring to his own death as the greatest expression of love he can provide to the disciples. But the condition of the friendship is still obedience to Christ's commands.

Verse 15 describes the disciples as friends rather than slaves. The difference between friend and slave is not at the point of obedience - both must obey. Rather, a master does not explain the "whys" to his slaves, but he does to his friends. The whole Last Discourse and especially the following section are part of Jesus' explanation of "why" to his disciples. He is treating them as friends. Verse 16 notes that the whole relationship between Jesus and any disciple arises from Christ's initiative. We did not choose him; he chose us. The agenda of discipleship is the will of God revealed in Christ not our will.

John 15:18-16:4a - The World's Hatred

In sharp, painful contrast to the environment of abiding in Christ and his love is the hatred the world will express toward the disciples in the days ahead. As a part of helping "friends" to understand that, Jesus presents the material of this section. The Greek construction, "If the world hates you," does not express doubt. It could be better translated, "Since the world hates you." There is no question but that the world will hate disciples since it hated Jesus first. Barrett makes the interesting comment that Jesus is speaking of real and powerful hatred here, not the frequent Semitic expression of loving less. The growing opposition of the Jews expressed hatred toward Jesus. The crucifixion - accomplished by both Jews and Romans - is the supreme expression of the world's hatred of Christ.

Commitment to Christ means that the believer no longer belongs to the world. Jesus' comment that the world loves its own is an overstatement (though John does not use agape here). Its converse is very true; the world hates those who do not belong to the world. These comments of verse 19 do not mean that disciples are to become withdrawn from society. John 17:11 and 14 will clarify that they are in the world but not of the world.

Again the model is Jesus. He was thoroughly involved in the world in ministry, but never accepted or reflected worldly values. His ministry in the world was a silent condemnation of the world's sin, and the world hated and persecuted him for it. Verses 20-22 state that a Christlike disciple should expect no less for himself or herself.

Verses 23-25 point out that hatred of Christ (and hatred of a disciple is hatred of Christ) is hatred of God the Father. As a result the disciples should not be distraught in the future when they face opposition. It is God who is being opposed; they have simply been granted the privilege of sharing with God the world's reaction to Him (see Philippians 1:29).

The believer is not a passive victim of all this opposition. Jesus will send the Paraclete from the Father (who is being hated and opposed) to witness to Christ. The ultimate responsibility of the believer in all this is to bear witness to Christ (verse 27), but that witness is a work shared by the Paraclete (verse 26). One of the most powerful resources for the believer in the midst of persecution and difficulty is the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Paraclete represents Jesus' presence in the believer, and when the world strikes out against a believer it is striking out against Christ.

John 16:1 gives a further statement of Jesus' purpose in telling the disciples about the hatred of the world. Translations vary, but the purpose is that the disciples not be shaken from their faith. The English word "scandalize" comes from the Greek word used and some commentaries say Jesus has said these things lest the disciples be scandalized. However, contemporary English uses "scandalized" in a different way than the Greek did. A "scandal" in Greek was something that would trip a person and cause them to fall. Thus the NASB and NRSV translate, "that you may be kept from stumbling."

Just hours from the cross Jesus was patiently teaching his disciples about the meaning of the world's hatred so they wouldn’t stumble and give up their faith in him. Verse 4a states his hope that when persecution came the disciples would remember and respond in faithful obedience to God's will for them.

Verse 2 makes the final reference in the gospel of John to believers being put out of the synagogues. The expression first appeared in John 9:22 and was mentioned in 12:42. In fact, the persecution will become so intense that killing believers will be seen as an act of worship to God. That was how the Jews understood the crucifixion of Jesus and, unfortunately, very soon in the history of the church, the disciples experienced that same degree of hatred.

John 16:4b-15 - Jesus' Departure and the Paraclete

The discussion of the world's hatred always had the crucifixion in the background. Thus it is not surprising that the discourse turns again to the idea of Jesus' departure from the disciples (and from this world). Jesus points out in verse 4b that teaching about the world's hatred and his departure was unnecessary while he was with them. But, in verse 5, he is departing to the Father who sent him. There is a sense of completion or fulfillment. Jesus does not return to the Father until he has accomplished what the Father sent him to do.

The statement in verse 5b, none of you asks me, "Where are you going?", contradicts John 13:36 where Peter asked that very question. However, as often happens in John the point of the question is to prepare for further teaching. The further teaching that unfolds has to do with the Paraclete.

Verse 7 declares that Jesus' departure is actually beneficial for the disciples because otherwise the Paraclete would not come. Lindars notes:

The presence of the Spirit in the Church is the guarantee of the union of the disciples with Christ, who is in heaven. . .. John conceives the chief function of the Spirit to be producing in the disciples the works which Jesus has done in his incarnate life; and the departure of Jesus (i.e. his death) must be accepted by the disciples as an essential element of their response of faith, if they are to be capable of receiving the Spirit.

Verses 8-15 then describe the work that the Spirit-Paraclete will do.

It is important to remember with regard to verse 8 that the Paraclete accomplishes his work by being in believers. The convicting or exposing the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment happens through the disciples. Barrett states that, "The Spirit, not content with defending the believers, takes the offensive against the world. What this amounts to is 'a picture of the Church's evangelistic work in progress.'" The details of how the Spirit accomplishes that conviction are laid out in verses 9-11.

The final role of the Paraclete mentioned in this section is to guide you [the disciples] into all truth. That does not mean that the Spirit is involved in absurd speculation of how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Rather, Jesus has already defined truth in terms of himself in John 14:6. For the Spirit to guide believers into all truth can only mean that he will bring to mind the message and meaning of Jesus as John 14:26 has already declared. That process of taking the truth of Jesus and revealing it to the disciples brings glory to Christ. When the work of the Spirit is cut loose from the work of Christ and the Spirit is glorified instead of Christ, it is no longer a Biblical view of the Holy Spirit being promoted.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and for the Holy Spirit to make the Scripture alive and meaningful to you that day.

First Day: Read the notes on John 15:1-16:15. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that were important to you as you read.

2. Select a truth for which you see a specific personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.

3. Are you abiding in Christ and He in you? Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to bring the results of abiding in Christ into your life.

Second Day: Read John 16:16-33. Now focus in on John 16:16-24.

1. What do you think Jesus meant in verse 16?

2. Describe how verses 20-24 might give further interpretation to John 15:11.

3. What does verse 22 indicate having our joy taken away? What things attack or seem to take away your joy? What can you do to overcome them?

Third Day: Read John 16:16-33. Focus on John 16:25-33.

1. What great promise does Jesus give in verse 27? What are the conditions of the promise?

2. Why does Jesus say that he will not be alone after the disciples leave him alone? What lesson is there for us in times when we feel that the church has abandoned and forgotten us?

3. What do you think Jesus meant when he said that he had overcome the world? How does his victory provide peace for you?

Fourth Day: Read John 17:1-26. Now focus on John 17:1-8.

1. What do you think are the three most important words in verses 1-8?

2. How does verse 3 define eternal life? How does this definition fit with what you think of when you see the words, "eternal life?" Do you need to enlarge your understanding of eternal life?

3. What does Jesus say that disciples know or understand in verses 7-8? Do you feel that you adequately understand those things? Write a brief prayer asking God to help you grow in your knowledge and understanding.

Fifth Day: Read John 17:1-26. Focus on John 17:9-19.

1. What things does Jesus ask the Father to do for his disciples in verses 9-19?

2. Explain how a believer is in the world (verse 11) but not of the world (verse 14). How does that truth apply in your life?

3. How do you think verse 18 is related to Jesus' prayer in verses 17 and 19 that believers be sanctified in the truth? What does the Holy Spirit suggest needs to happen in your life to fulfill verses 17-19?

Sixth Day: Read John 17:1-26. Now focus in on John 17:20-26.

1. What new group does Jesus pray for in verses 20-26?

2. What petitions does Jesus ask from the Father in these verses? What would have to change in our world for these petitions to come true? What would have to change in your life?

3. What role does love play in verses 23-26? What can you do so the world will know that God loves them?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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