“I am the True Vine"
Will you open with me to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of St. John: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman.” It is a great help in studying Scriptures to get, if we can, the key of the passage under consideration; and you will very frequently find it at the beginning of a book or at the beginning of a chapter. We get the key to the whole question of fruit-bearing, which is the subject of this chapter, in the first two words: “I am.” It is not what you are, but what He is, that is the all-important thing. “I am.” As another illustration, take the 23d Psalm. What is the key of that Psalm? You get it there again in the first two words: “The Lord.” It is about the Lord. It is not about you; it is about Him. As to what we are-why, we are as changeable as the winds and the clouds; but as to what He is, He is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. The blessing of the 23d Psalm-and that applies to-day-depends upon this: upon what the Lord is, and upon what the Lord does. And the question of fruit-bearing depends, not upon what we are, not where we are. Our surroundings are-I was going to say immaterial. They are not immaterial, because they are what God has ordered and arranged. God puts every man in the very best place for himself and for the world at the time. Young people whose hearts are stirred about missionary work are apt to say: “Well, you know, I am surrounded by very unfavorable circumstances-surrounded by such a set of college companions; or at home the influences are against me. If I could only go to India or China, I could shine for Jesus.” Why, dear friends, a candle that won't shine in one room is very unlikely to shine in another. If you don't shine at home-if your father and mother, your sister and brother, if the very cat and dog in the house are not the better and happier for your being a Christian, it is a question whether you really are one. It isn't our surroundings and circumstances that are the all-important thing; but how far we are linked-how close is the union between our souls and God. What do we know about Him? What is He to us? This is the all-important question. And this beautiful chapter-we are all longing to be fruit-bearers, you know-brings the whole question before us in the first verse, I might almost say in the first words: “I am.” It is just here; and in reading the Bible-if I may still dwell on this subject a little before I read-you will be surprised if your attention has not been drawn to it before, how the Lord renders prominent all through the Bible what He is, and what He is going to do. Take for instance that wonderful chapter, the 36th of Ezekiel, where the Lord says that He is going to take His people out from among the heathen; He is going to bring them back into their own land, and He is going to sprinkle clean water upon them and make them clean; He is going to write His law in their hearts, and He is going to keep them right, as well as put them right. It is what He is all the way through. Take that chapter and read it through, and emphasize the first personal pronoun where it clearly refers to the Lord; and if it doesn't surprise and delight you, it will do less for you than it has done for me. So in reading this chapter-the 15th of John-we have got to lose sight of what we are, and fix our attention upon the true vine, our Saviour, and upon His Father. “I am the I true vine,” he says; “and My Father is the husbandman.”
Notice what the Lord Jesus says here: “I am the true vine.” Of course, this refers to the 15th chapter of Ezekiel, where Israel is spoken of as a vine brought out of Egypt. I wish I had leisure to compare these two chapters together, because the 15th of Ezekiel and the 15th of John are both about a vine-the one about a vine brought out of Egypt, and the other about the true vine. Israel proved a false vine. He bore fruit for himself; not for God. But Christ is the true vine. And then there is another thought about this expression-“I am the true vine.” What is the meaning of the word “true”? It isn't sure; it isn't true as opposed to false; it isn't that the vine-trees that we have in our gardens and from which we pluck clusters of grapes are not real vines-not true vines in one sense; these are vines, while there are worthless ones. But it is “true” in the sense that that which is the substance is opposed to that which is the shadow; just as the tree in the orchard is a true tree, and the copy of it in your picture, or painting, you know, is only after all a picture. The vines in our vineyards are only pictures of something higher and more substantial, that was in the Divine mind before the vine-tree was created. Thus Christ says: “I am the true vine.” Oh, there is a world of meaning in those words! I could dwell upon them nearly all the morning. I used to read this chapter-which was a favorite chapter of mine from the time I was converted, forty years ago-and I always misread it. I will tell you how I read it. I read: “I am the true root”; and I used to say to myself: “That is true. Oh, there is fatness in that root. But how is my poor puny branch going to get fatness out of that root?” I learned, however, that that is not the problem at all. He doesn't say: “I am the true root “; it is, “I am the true vine.” The branch has only to remain in the vine to enjoy everything that is in that vine.
Some of us are very foolish indeed. We are like the younger son who wanted his father to divide his substance and give him a good share, and let him go a long way off and enjoy it. You know what he came to. The same result would befall us if we did the same thing. But the Lord is too wise. He won't divide His substance. He won't let you go a long way off and enjoy it. You would soon come to grief, and want to come back to your Father's house. The Lord Jesus says: “I am the true vine.” Why that is the root, and the rootlets, and the stem, and the trunk, and the vine, and the branches, and the leaves, and the flowers, and the fruit. It is all one vine, and there is nothing outside of it. And if you want fruit-bearing, there is no fruit-bearing outside of the living Christ. You can do nothing of yourself. You can bear no fruit of yourself. If you attempt to sever yourself from the vine, and think you will strike out a root for yourself, you will be disappointed. You know, young vines don't bear fruit, and the object isn't to fill the vineyard with new roots. There is a vine in the gardens at Kew, that bears an enormous amount of fruit -I should be afraid to tell you how much it bears- several hundredweight. It is all one vine. If you were to cut one of the branches off, you wouldn't find it would be fruitful like the original vine. It would require years of growth and development to reach that stage. And we are not intended for growth and development separate from Jesus, but just as members of the true vine to enjoy our all in Him.
Now suppose that I should take a piece of cord and tie it around my finger here, and say: “Whatever becomes of the rest of my blood, I am going to secure a fingerful for this finger.” Do you think the finger would thrive? Why, it would turn black, and it would swell, and it would ache, until I would be glad to get the cord off again. If I kept it on too long it would spoil the finger forever. God doesn't give a little share of life to you and to me. It requires all the blood of the whole body to keep this one finger. The heart is pumping it in and the veins are bringing it out, and all the life in my body is at the disposal of that finger to keep it in healthy condition. And the finger is expected to co-operate with the rest of the body, toward the building up of the whole frame. So there is the whole Christ-life in the believer. We don't come to Him and ask Him to give us life, for that we have already. If we are not in Christ we have no life at all. If we are in Him He is our life. “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him”-be manifested with Him-“in glory.” “I am the vine”-the whole vine.
Well, this is very good. To be branches of that vine is indeed a source of rejoicing. But a great deal depends upon the culture of the vine. You see, the branches of the vine cannot go walking, and seek the sunshiny places; or if the sun is very hot, seek the shady places. It can't go around to inspect and see if the soil is fat, and decide that it will live here or there. They are united to the vine; and as to their particular position, that altogether depends upon the skill of the cultivator. If you underprune a vine, it won't bear fruit as it should; and if you overprune it, you will prevent its proper development. And here is an important thing to bear in mind: It isn't the sap that comes out of the root that builds up the vine. The sap that comes out of the root is a very thin saline fluid, with no carbon in it, or next to none. There is nothing in it at all to build up. But it circulates, and presses up until it reaches the branches, and then it goes into the twigs, and then into the leaves; and there it gives out in the sunshine a good deal of its own fluid, and while it is giving out it is taking in. There is no taking in without giving out. If you think you can stop giving out you will soon cease to be able to take in, and then you will have no healthy life. While the sap is in the leaves it is taking in carbon from the atmosphere; and a rich, nourishing, thick sap then comes back through the twigs and the branches, and all the growth is in the return circulation. There are some people, indeed, who are very, very greedy. They are spiritual misers. They come to conventions like this, and hear sermons, and try to get all the benefit out of them they can for themselves, but never think of giving it out again to others. The natural result very soon follows. Their digestion becomes clogged. They are not lightsome, and not happy. The circulation isn't keeping up. If they would only go back and give out what they have gained, the return circulation would make them so much the happier and richer. The whole vine would grow and thrive. It is only as we give that we get. Suppose you should see a stream running here down the mountainside, and you should build a pond or tank to hold it, and keep it from running away. Could you keep it there as living water? As soon as you keep it there it ceases to be living water, and begins to putrefy. You know that is how it is with the Dead Sea in Palestine. The water is all the time running in, but it doesn't run out again, or improve the surrounding country at all. There is a day coming when there will be a channel made-when the water will burst right through to the Gulf of Akabah. Then the water of the Dead Sea will become alive, and there will be plenty of living fishes there, and a totally different state of things brought about. Let us not be satisfied with merely taking in for selfish purposes, but let there be an equivalent giving out. This is one of the truths taught us by this most precious verse: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the husbandman.”
“Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit, He taketh it away; and every branch that beareth fruit, He cleanseth it, that it may bear more fruit.” I am reading from the Revised Version; and there is an advantage here in the Revised Version, because it renders the same word the same way in this and in the next verse: “Already ye are clean, because of the word which I have spoken unto you.” Perhaps some of us have read that verse in the old version, “He purgeth it”; and we have thought of the sharp pruning-knife, and rather dreaded the operation of it. We have thought it meant, perhaps, the cutting away of the right hand, or the removal of our dearest friends; and we have been afraid to submit ourselves to the Lord lest His discipline should be sharper and harder than we are able to bear. Why; He knows what we are able to bear better than we do, a good deal; and He has a good deal more love to us than we have to ourselves. It is safe to trust Him unreservedly. The word used here is just the word that we get in the next verse, and so that explains what is meant here: “He cleanseth every branch, that it may bring forth more fruit.”
Then He says that those disciples to whom He was speaking were already clean. They were cleansed because of the word which Christ had spoken to them. Many of you are intending to be preachers of the Word. Be careful students of the Bible. Get to know it thoroughly. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” Don't study the Bible to find texts to preach upon, or chapters to expound; but study it to find something that will feed your own heart. If you do this, you will find it a most delightful book, and when it is a delight to you, God will enable you to make it a delight to others. Let us go to the Bible to feed ourselves, and not to feed other people, and then we will understand how to feed other people so much the better. Let us first take the learners' class, and then we will be able to teach. Let us be learners, and keep in the learners' class our whole life long, and look up to the gracious Spirit, who delights to expound to us the Word, asking Him to give to our own souls a fresh blessing, that we may bless God and serve our generation; then we shall not be badly equipped as teachers and expounders of God's holy Word.
Now, it is by this word that the disciples to whom Christ spoke were clean. “Already ye are clean”-ye are cleansed-“because of the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me, and I in you.” Oh, precious words! What a privilege thus to be allowed to abide in Him! And what a blessed thing it is to be commanded to abide in Him! May we all obey! May our Bible-reading this morning give us some intelligence on this subject of abiding! Oh, how many years I was in the dark on this subject. I longed to abide in Christ; but I didn't know what abiding was. I confounded it altogether; and such is the perversity of human nature that I read this verse many thousand times and never for a moment saw what it meant. Now, I believe most thoroughly in the inspiration of the Scriptures. I put them to the test and they don't fail me, and I have good reason to believe. I use my Bible as I use my checkbook in the bank-only with this difference: I have to tear a leaf out every time I cash a check, and can't use it a second time; but in taking from this book I can leave the leaf in, and use it again and again. It is a sort of circulating letter, you know; you never come to the end of it. I believe most thoroughly in the verbal inspiration of Scripture. If you put it under a microscope you will see as much proof of its Divine origin as in the structure of a leaf. I am not going to give you any theory as to how it was brought about; but here is the book, verbally inspired, and you may rest upon every word that God speaks through it. Now-“Abide in Me.” I used to read this, and I will tell what I used to get out of it. Instead of thinking what the word “abide” really meant, I thought it was a sort of handover-hand climbing-climbing up a rope, or a pole, after the manner of an athlete. I used to feel that I hadn't managed this climbing. I thought abiding in Christ was to become one of a sort of spiritual aristocracy, which very few people ever could attain or reach to. “Abide in Me, and I in you.” The Greek word that is used here you will find rendered in similar passages by the word “to dwell,” or by the word “to remain”; and that just gives us the meaning of the word “abiding.”
I am not a very strong man-I may not be able to pull myself hand-over-hand up to the ceiling here; but if I am sitting in a chair, it doesn't take a great deal of strength to remain there. Christ says: “I am the vine; ye are the branches.” You see where you are; and you can't get into a better place, and you are never out of it. There is an all-important point. We have Christ Jesus all the time. “Abide in Me, and I in you.” I never saw this until God was pleased to show it to me when I was very, very needy-hungry and thirsty for the truth. One afternoon in an inland city in China, feeling almost in spiritual despair, I was reading my Greek Testament; and in the 6th chapter of St. John's Gospel, reading in course, I came across a verse which struck me as it had never done before. I was reading from the 52d verse onward, and if you will just turn to that passage, perhaps the train of thought that was such a help to me may help some one else here. In the 56th verse: “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, abideth in Me and I in him.” I had read the verse in the Authorized Version, “dwelleth in Me, and I in him,” a hundred times; and never connected it in mind with this 15th chapter, where the word happens to be rendered in that version, “abide in Me.” But of course, reading it in the original, my mind was carried on by the verb from the 6th to the 15th chapter, and I saw at once-why! here is a little light on this great and difficult problem. I have evidently been making a mistake about this subject of “abiding in Christ.” I had thought that abiding in Christ meant keeping our hearts so fixed upon Christ-so constantly meditating upon Him and dwelling in Him-that we never lost the consciousness of His presence. I thought we were continually, so to speak, to realize His presence, and continually to look to Him for blessing and help and guidance.
Now, what I thought was abiding I have since seen was feeding upon Christ. Feeding is a voluntary act. We go to the table and sit down, and partake of what is there. That is a voluntary act. But the man who wanted to feed all the day, and wanted to feed all the night, too, wouldn't be a desirable member of any community. This was what I was trying to do, and because I couldn't manage it, I would get into a sort of almost religious dyspepsia. I had a little hospital and dispensary work that kept me busy. Perhaps a man would be brought into the place with an artery cut and in imminent danger. Within half an hour the question whether he would live or die would be settled, and one's whole attention would be wrapped up in the patient, and one wouldn't think of a thing else until the result was known; and then the thought would steal over me, “Why, for two hours I haven't thought about Jesus”- and I would go off into my closet almost in despair and confess this sin. I was in very great distress indeed. I wanted to be feeding at the table all the time. Now, if a man has two or three square meals every day, and perhaps a lunch or two between, he ought to be able to go to work. Abiding in Jesus isn't fixing our attention on Christ, but it is being one with Him. And it doesn't make any difference what we are doing, or whether we are asleep or awake. A man is abiding just as much when he is sleeping for Jesus as when he is awake and working for Jesus. Oh, it is a very sweet thing to have one's mind just resting there.
About ten years ago the Lord gave me a very great blessing. I had a little girlie who had a crib by my bedside, and about six o'clock in the morning her nurse came tapping at the door to give this little one her bath. And we missionaries who are so much separated from our children do so delight when we are with them. It is such a treat. It is an ordinary enjoyment to most of you, but it is a very great treat to us, I can tell you. I saw my little girlie asleep, and I gave her a little kiss. She woke up and put her arms around my neck, and as she looked up to me, I just looked up to God and said: “O Lord, wake me up morning by morning with a kiss of love. Let that kiss be the first thing every morning.” That was fully ten years ago, and He hasn't forgotten it since. It is a wonderful “good-morning.” I am so glad that my love for my little girl just led me to make that prayer in that way. When you ask for a thing, look for it. We so frequently ask for things and don't expect to get them, and of course we are like Mr. Spurgeon's student. One of Spurgeon's students said to him: “I am afraid I have mistaken my calling, and that the ministry really isn't my proper work.” “Why,” said Spurgeon; “what is the reason you have come to that conclusion?” “Well; I have been working in such a place for such and such a time, and I don't seem to have accomplished much.” “Why, man alive! You didn't expect that every time you preached a sermon somebody would be converted, did you?” “No; of course I didn't expect that.” “Well, you don't get it then.” Expect results and you will find them.
Now, as to this abiding in Christ: I don't say that to eat or to drink is to abide. It wasn't the act of eating that was the abiding. It doesn't say: “While you eat you are abiding.” It says (such is the meaning of the original): “He who habitually does eat and drink My blood is abiding.” When I realized this, I thought: “There is something tangible. I know I do delight in God's love. When I get a little measure of it I know I turn to it with more enjoyment. I do feed upon Him, however faulty my poor life may be. And whoever does that, He says, is abiding. But am I quite sure that this is the feeding that always follows regeneration? Then I looked back and read: “Except ye eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in yourselves”-“you have no life at all.” “Well,” I thought; “it is quite evident that every true believer has fed upon Him some time or other. This feeding upon Christ is not a privilege or attainment of a spiritual aristocracy-of some very few of God's children; but it is what every one of God's children has done. If I have fed upon Christ I am abiding in Him, and I am to continue to feed in order that I may grow.
“Well, then,” I thought; “there is another difficulty. If that is the case, I have been feeding, and yet all the fruits of abiding have not been found. We are told that if we abide we will have all our prayers answered, and my prayers are not all answered.” I remembered the words in the first Epistle of John: “He that saith he abideth in Him, ought himself so to walk even as He walked.” If I abide in Him I will walk as He walked, and I don't walk that way; and there are other things predicated of those who walk with Christ that I don't find in my life; and yet I have been feeding.” Then I thought: “Well; God may have given us a good deal, and we have used very little of it. There has been a large amount of capital at our disposal, and we have either not known it or not availed ourselves of it.” And I saw that the promises in connection with abiding in Christ were to be claimed by faith, and I just held the Lord to His word. I didn't feel any change taking place in myself, but I said: “Thou dost say that he who does feed is abiding; and I accept that statement. Now, Lord, let the fruits of abiding appear.” Since that day they have appeared as they never appeared before; and I have had a joy in Christ, and a strength, and a delight, and a blessing, to which I was a stranger before. It hasn't been ebbing and flowing as it used to be-coming and going as it used to be; but it has been a deepening joy-constantly deepening. God's Word has been very precious to me as it never was before. It was precious before, but it is far more precious now. God's service is sweeter now than it used to be. It was very often sweet before, but not always; it is always very sweet now, and I get those fruits for which I was seeking. Accept Christ's statement, and claim it for yourself, and see if you are not brought into this enjoyment and blessing.
Now let us, with these thoughts in our minds, turn back again to this 15th chapter from which we have started. “Abide in Me, and I in you.” This is rather a difficult sentence to construe. You know it is sometimes paraphrased: “If ye abide in Me, I will abide in you.” But there is no “if” there. It is just, “Abide in Me, and I in you.” What is the meaning of this expression? I think there is a double meaning in it. If we turn to the 14th chapter we may perhaps find a little illustration that will help us to grasp the meaning. In that chapter the Lord Jesus Christ speaking to Philip says: “Have I been so long time with you, and hast thou not known Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?” There was a mutual indwelling-“I am in the Father, and the Father in Me.” And the idea there, is not at all the idea of the greater containing the less, because you see it is mutual. It isn't mutual that we are in this room. We are in this hall, but the hall is not in us. The hall is bigger than us, and couldn't be in us. That is clearly not the idea. If you were to take a glass of wine and a glass of water, and pour them together, the water would be in the wine, wouldn't it?-and the wine would be in the water. There would be such a thorough commingling that you couldn't get a drop of the water without the wine flavoring it, and you couldn't get a drop of the wine without the water tempering it. The idea is that they are so thoroughly one that they are inseparable; and “Abide in Me, and I in you,” as I understand it, is like one of those algebraic symbols we sometimes use in which we put a compound quantity within brackets and put one figure or mark outside to govern the whole. It is as if Christ said: “You abide in Me, and I in you. Live in the continual recognition of this fact, that we are no longer two, but one; that we are united together; that I am dwelling in you and you are dwelling in Me, and that we are in this way really one.”
Abiding in Christ is keeping in the consciousness of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ-going forth in service never thinking of what we are in ourselves, but realizing what Christ is in us, and expecting to find Divine resources to operate wherever the Divine Spirit leads us. Now, when this is realized it takes away all anxiety; it takes away all carefulness. There is no fear of failure. The service will not be in vain in the Lord which is carried on in this spirit of realized union with the Lord Jesus Christ. Temptations flee before one who has realized the joy of abiding in Christ. “Ah,” says he; “I have fallen a thousand times before that temptation; but now, thank God, I don't meet it in myself. I am in Christ, and He is in me, and when I meet temptation He carries me through and gives me the victory.” The Lord our God is a mighty one. He will save; and when He wills to save, who is going to hinder Him doing it? It is so blessed to know this union in Christ.
And may I draw your attention again to that passage in the 6th chapter as illustrating by the use of food a deep spiritual truth, because it has been very helpful to me, and may be more to you. What is natural food to the natural body? Let us go to the insignificant life you hold in your hands-a little babe, say a week old. It is not very long; it weighs perhaps seven or eight, or it may be ten pounds; and you say, “What a little darling!” It is very light on your arm, and you look at its little fingers, and they are very puny indeed-they can't grasp anything yet. You look at the little eye; it is very pretty indeed, but it can't see-the eye hasn't learned to see yet. Put anything in the little hand and it lets it drop. That little infant, how weak! How little it is, and yet there is perfect life there. Perfect life, but how immature! Go and see that child three months afterwards, and the little hand can grasp, and the little eye can look with intelligence, and mamma is recognized when she comes along; and it may be when it looks at you, a stranger, the eye is not so bright because it is already beginning to be afraid of strangers. It is beginning to develop. Go and see it three years afterwards, and you see a strong and healthy child, with a great increase of weight. Where has the increase of weight come from? It is all assimilated food-at first milk, then bread, and then other suitable nourishment. This food is something totally distinct from the body of that child-outside of it and separate from it; and yet as it has been taken into the body it has been digested and assimilated, and has become hair, and brains, and flesh, and nerve, and muscle. Through that assimilated food the child is now thinking, seeing, grasping. By continuing to take food it will continue to grow till it becomes a healthy man or a healthy woman. So thoroughly has the food become assimilated and become part and parcel of the man that you can't go and pick that man to pieces and make a babe of him again. No separation can take place. Now, if you are feeding upon Christ-if you are dwelling with Christ, continually feeding upon Him, you will grow up into Him your living Head, and He will become your power and strength, and there will be a blessed union, and there will be no separation.
But I must close. In speaking upon this interesting chapter it is difficult to know where to break off, it would be so easy to dwell all day upon any part of it. Just one word further. Only abide in Christ and you will bear fruit. You can't bear fruit if you are not abiding. Don't imagine that abiding in Christ is a question of a little more or a little less-of being a little more perfect or a little less perfect. “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” You can do any amount of work, but you can bear no fruit. Fruit-bearing is the result of abiding in Christ. Abiding in Christ, your prayers will not some of them be answered, but all of them will be answered. Oh, it is such a blessed thing to know that there is a day coming when every secret thing will be laid bare. In that day when every hidden thing will be revealed, there won't be one single instance brought to light of the prayer of one abiding in Christ that hasn't been answered. Not one single instance! God will fulfill His promises. Don't think about your faith, or you will become despondent; but think about God's faithfulness, and you will not be disappointed. He is faithful. May we abide in Him evermore!—From a talk given at Northfield.