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Mar 25, 2012

When Is Your Life a Success?

Passage: John 15:1-17

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Road to the Cross

Category: Road to the Cross

Keywords: success, fruitfulness, fulfilling, abiding


This message looks at Jesus' definition of success for every Christian. How does God measure success and how has He designed the Christian life to lead us to full success? What is God's role and what is ours?


Success on the Way to Death

John 15

March 25, 2012


Connection Questions:  Complete the statement, “I will consider myself a success when I die IF….” 


When it comes to the definition of a successful life or even success in life, there is great difference of opinion. 

  • Eighty percent of success is showing up.”- Woody Allen
  • “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”- Winston Churchill
  •  “I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”- Bertolt Brecht
  •  “The definition of success: fall down seven times, stand up eight times.”- Japanese Proverb
  • “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”- Albert Schweitzer
  •  “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”- Thomas Edison
  • “The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success.”- Vince Lombardi


If you were with us last week you remember that we are taking a look at Jesus’ last 24 hours of life.  He was spending it the way he had spent his entire time with his disciples—loving them to the bitter end. 

            Today we’re in the Gospel according to John, chapter 15.  That Last Supper is over.  Jesus had just demonstrated God’s own heart of humility for his children by undertaking the most menial of tasks, foot washing.  Now they have left that Upper Room and are headed for the Garden of Gethsemane.  We suppose that they are passing through some vineyard.  So Jesus takes one final opportunity to make an object lesson about true success for his core disciples. 

            “Success” is not the word Jesus uses.  He talks about “bearing fruit.” But in a very real way, I think that the term “success” encompasses much of what Jesus is referring to as “fruitfulness” in a person’s life.  It will not be the world’s definition of success.  But it will be God’s. 

            Just as a garden is considered a big success when it produces great fruits and vegetables, so God considers his children great successes when our lives bear lots of “fruit” that honors God and blesses people. 


So before we go any further, let’s read this whole passage about fruitfulness. 

Read John 15:1-17


Obviously before we can talk about HOW we achieve fruitfulness or “success” in God’s eyes, we need some sort of picture of what the “fruit” is we are talking about. 

            In vs. 8 Jesus tells us that it “it is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”  Whatever fruit bearing is, it brings glory to God…it shows God off…it displays visible the invisible qualities of God.  When people do that, according to Jesus, that is what “shows” or demonstrates that you are a disciple (follower) of Jesus. 

            So I would like to propose that “fruitfulness” according to God (or “success” if you want to use the contemporary term) is living the Christ-like, Christ-filled, Christ-displaying life in every arena of life in every part of your being (thoughts, actions, character).  Simply put, when what we THINK, what we DO and what we ARE (character) is like Jesus, we’re fruitful.  We’re successful in the eternal sense of the word. 


Let me give you an example of each.

Last week we saw what it was to have the MIND of Christ, to think the THOUGHTS of Christ when it comes to living with each other.  It’s the same thing St. Paul talked about in Phil. 2.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

 6 Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
   by taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself
   by becoming obedient to death—
      even death on a cross!

Humility is part of the mindset of Christ.


How about what we ARE, our character?  The fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 is all about character. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.” That’s who Jesus IS…and it’s who his followers are to BE. 


How about DOING?  What does someone look like who is showing by their ACTIONS what Jesus did and is still doing in this world. 

John 13:12ff--Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

John 14:12-- Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.


So understanding that fruitfulness is a transformation of our whole life—thoughts, actions, attitudes, values, character—let’s now take a look at the PROCESS that produces that sort of fruitfulness in a person’s life.


15:1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”  So if Jesus Christ is the “true vine” then there must be other kinds of “vines,” correct?  This is a really troublesome thing for modern day people who prefer the notion that “all roads lead to God.”  Just as in the chapter before (14:6) Jesus stated that he was “the way and the truth and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father except through me,” so this passage leaves everyone who encounters Christ and his claim on their life with a decision:  will I believe him or not?  Will I accept or reject Christ’s claim over my life?  Those of us who have already agreed to embrace Jesus Christ should never forget that it is not as easy a decision for others to accept these exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. 

            When it comes to what kind of fruit we want our lives to bear, Jesus says, “It matters which vine you want to be “in.””  There are lots of different “vines” you can choose to be “in.”  Billions of people are choosing every moment of every day which “vine” they want to draw their life from.  For some it is the “vine” of self-achievement.  For others the vine of education.  For others the vine of pleasure, entertainment or fun.  For others it is the vine of control or power or prestige.

            But Jesus says he is THE true vine.  And then there is the gardener.  Jesus says it is God the Father who is about the business of caring for those branches who are in the true vine, Jesus Christ. 

            That ought to be a relief to us.  When you plant a garden or tend a vineyard, who works the hardest, the gardener or the plants?  J 

ILL:  Despite what the weather has been like this last week, the reality is that, here in the Northwest, we’re finishing the pruning season for trees and moving into the planting season for flowers and vegetables.  Since we raise fruit trees, flowers and a vegetable garden in our family, pretty soon you’ll be hearing me complain about a whole new set of aches and pains after working in the garden all Saturday planting, protecting and caring for this year’s garden. 

For all the nights I’ve fallen into bed exhausted on a Saturday night by the hard work of putting in and taking care of a garden, I have never heard a single moan, a single sigh or a single whimper out of my fruit trees and garden plants.  I’m the one who does all the hard work.  They just sit there! 


Sometimes I think we try to work at making ourselves grow too much.  Yes, there is a lot of work to this thing called growing up in Christ.  But when we get to heaven, I think we’re going to see that the really heavy lifting was done by God the Father.  He makes all the important pruning and training and protecting and shaping decisions about our lives.  He knows just how far to bend us, where to cut us back, how much darkness and light we need to be the most fruitful possible. The proper response to Jesus statement in vs. 1 is, “Ahhhhh.  I really can relax in many ways in the wisdom of the Gardner.” 

Having just said that, vs. 2 doesn’t look like such a nice verse.  “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” 

There is a lot of difference of opinion among biblical scholars as to just what this verse is saying.  But it all boils down to one of two options:

1.)  Either the translation “cuts off” is correct and Jesus is talking about people who are exposed to the Gospel of Christ yet never choose to really look to Jesus for their life and life eternal


2.)  The translation “cuts off” is not the best translation and a better rendering (and completely acceptable one in the Greek) is that the Gardner “lifts up” every branch in Christ that doesn’t bear fruit. 

Without getting into the very detailed argument, I’m opting for the second option  If you know grape vines, you know they must be tied up and trained up some sort of trellis or else they will just sort of flop around in the dirt, get muddy, their blossoms will not set and there will not be any fruit.  If our job is simply to remain in Christ, the vine, then it seems a bit out of order that the Father is going around hacking off anyone who doesn’t have a certain level of fruitfulness.  In that case, this verse would not be much of an encouragement to disciples who where just about to run in fear when Jesus was arrested in a few hours and even deny they knew him with swearing like Peter would do before the night was over. 

ILL:  Planting a grape arbor in our back yard so Sandy could harvest grape leaves for Assyrian stuffed grape leaves and we could enjoy grapes in the fall.  (Don’t worry.  We don’t stomp them and turn them into wine like her Assyrian daddy did when she was little.)


So, if we are asking, “What is God’s route to fruitfulness/success in this life in Jesus Christ,” we have our first answer here:

1.  Fruitfulness starts with the Father’s care for us in picking us up off the dirt and training us up into the light.

            I can tell you as a gardener, plants sometimes have a mind of their own!  Have you ever tried to train a grape vine to stay on the arbor?  Ever tried to get climbing peas or beans to go up a pole or wire? At least with grapes, you have to use some fasteners (string, ties, etc.) to get them to go where they should go…where the sun is and where they will be the most fruitful. 

            God can use all kinds of experiences in our lives to do that.  He can use people who are in authority over us like bosses and teachers and parents and spouses and…and…and.  He can use life experiences that we just can’t run away from, things that discipline us like finances or health or work problems to get us looking to the Son of God more and more rather than what we think we need down somewhere in the mud of the easy life of this world, the life of no discipline and no training. 

APP:  When life ties you to some trellis not of your choosing, don’t fight and whine; thank God you have a Father who is the Gardner.


2.  Fruitfulness involves PRUNING by the Father.  Now this is another level of pain, right?  It’s one thing to be “lifted up”, dusted off and tied along the trellis; it’s another to feel the pruning shears of God cutting back on things in our life that are just a bunch of excess foliage. 

It is important to recognize that there are two different types of pruning: the spring pruning, which takes place here, is for cleaning purposes. The fall pruning that takes place after the grapes have been harvested will be discussed in 15:6. They are not synonymous. The word for “pruning” used here is kathairo, from which we get the English word “catharsis.” It means to cleanse. As it relates to viticulture (the cultivation of grapes), it describes cleansing the branch of insects, diseases, and parasites.

This would have been the ancient equivalent of using insecticides, as is done today. This pruning also includes cleaning or pinching off little “sucker shoots” from the branch—sprigs that draw away resources from the production of big, juicy grapes. Left to itself, the branch will favor more leafy growth over more fruit, so the vinedresser has to prune or clean away unnecessary shoots and extraneous growth to promote even greater fruitfulness.

What does this pruning represent in the life of a believer? I believe the bugs, diseases, and unwanted and fruitless leafy sprigs represent things like bad habits, wrong thinking, unimportant activities, and lesser priorities—anything that distracts us from being completely fruitful, anything that hinders us from loving others to the fullest, the way Christ loved us.

Maybe you’re too busy. In fact, maybe your busyness is veiled selfishness. Maybe you’re packing your schedule with socially acceptable things that make you look good or feel good, all the while avoiding the harder work of loving others who are difficult to love, like your spouse or your children, or fellow believers in God’s family. Maybe your busyness must be pruned.

Maybe you’ve got a secret; you’ve been nursing a secret sin. Maybe it involves substance abuse, or compulsive spending, or pornography or electronic media or games. Maybe it needs to be removed from your life and so God keeps bringing exposure and frustration in your life over that.

Maybe it’s a selfish drive for control in your marriage or at your work. Perhaps it’s neglect of leadership or running from conflict. Maybe it’s excessive time spent on things that count for nothing like empty reading or TV or movies or just hanging out with friends with no intention or purpose. Maybe it’s laziness or a bad attitude. The Vinedresser may want to prune any number of things from your life.

Whatever it may be, God promises to do continual pruning in our lives.  That’s why challenges and problems and trials never end this side of heaven.  God cars too much to let us ruin our fruitfulness with lives lived out of balance and void of fruit.

Vs. 3 gives us another facet of God’s growth route for His children: 

3.  Fruitfulness involves the Word of God as the instrument which God employs to cleanse the branches (15:3; cf. also 17:17).

Put in different terms, the Word is the super-sharp cutting instrument by which God prunes us. The letter to the Hebrews 4:12 echoes this when it says, “For the word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” 

            The word of God will either drive us completely away from the Lord Jesus Christ…or it will draw us closer to His heart and desire for our lives.  That’s why falling away from reading or studying or listening to the Word of God is a sure recipe for fruitlessness.  The Word of God calls us up short on things we’d rather not hear about at the moment, thank you. 

ILL:  Reading Mt. 5:23, 24 one day.  “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” 

God brought a particular man to mind (Paul) who I hadn’t talked with for some time but who was in the church.  The thought just crossed my mind, “I wonder if I’ve offended him in some way.” So I invited him to coffee.  We chit-chatted for a little bit and then I ask, “Paul, I don’t know if I’m way off track here or not but I’ve been wondering, have I done anything that has offended you or caused a rift between us?”  Little by little the truth came out and I got an opportunity to make right a wrong I had caused this man. 


It’s a lot easier, cheaper and less time-consuming to not read the word, not be convicted by the word and not have to go work tough things out because the word is slicing away at things in our life.  But we won’t get to fruitfulness on that train.  Fruitfulness in Christ only comes when the Word of God is washing, cleansing and clipping things in our lives that need change. 


4.  Fruitfulness involves a continual choice of our will to make Jesus Christ our primary and permanent dwelling/abiding place. 

Read 15:4-7

I say “dwelling place” or place where you “stay” because that is the Old Testament term that is often used for this word “remain” or “abide” (meno) that John uses here.  Listen to how it is used in the Greek O.T. (LXX). 

  • Psalm 90:1--A Prayer of Moses the man of God. “LORD, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.” 
  • Psalm 91:1, 9-10--1 He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. … 9 Because you have made the LORD, who is my refuge, Even the Most High, your dwelling place, 10 No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling.
  • Psalm 61:3--For You have been a shelter for me, A strong tower from the enemy.


What, then, does it mean to “make the Lord Jesus our permanent dwelling place”? Let’s simplify this definition, and say that Jesus is instructing us to make Him our “home” as He makes His “home” in us. Think about what “home” means to us:

  • Home is where your heart is; it is where you want to be (especially during holidays).
  • Home is the place to which you return, the place to which you are eager to get back to (even when you’ve been on vacation).
  • Home is where you feel comfortable, and can really be yourself.
  • Home is a place of safety and security.
  • Home is where you bring your friends when you wish to have fellowship with them.
  • Home is our base of operations; it is at the center of what we do.
  • Home is where you find your strength for life; it is where you eat and sleep.
  • Home is where the people and the things we love the most are found.

This is what Jesus Christ is to every one of us who desires to “abide” in Him.  He is “home” for every longing of our soul and every challenge in our lives.  He’s where we go to get well when we’re sick, to relax when we’re tired, to enjoy the fruits of our labors with the people we love. 


Vs. 6 simply describes what happens to people who don’t have that personal connection with God through Jesus Christ.  “If anyone does not remain in my, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”  That is God’s description of life outside of Christ—withered, lifeless, disconnected from God, the source of all life.  It doesn’t mean they don’t do good things that may bless others or have a good time at life.  But in terms of living a life that lasts for eternity, it’s not there.  It will burn up and blow away in the wind without the connection God intends to him. 


Jesus ends this teaching about the importance of taking up residence in Him with several gifts from God that accrue to a person who lives life pressing into relationship with Jesus and allowing Him to press his life into them.  Every one of these gifts Jesus is going to model in the remaining hours of his life.  Watch what happens.


1.  The gift of answered prayer, vs. 7“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”

In just a few moments from when Jesus speaks these words, he will be on his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane pouring out his heart to the Father.  His whole life he’s been doing the Father’s will.  He’s been “remaining in” the life of God the Father.  And the Father’s words have been “remaining in” him.  He’s only spoken to others what he heard his Father speak to him first (Jn. 14:24). 

So in the Garden Jesus asked that this “cup” of suffering on the cross might pass from him.  Yet at the same time he found the  deeper desire of his heart being that the Father’s perfect will would be accomplished, even if it meant that horrible suffering on the cross for him.  At the same time he prayed for his disciples…and he prayed for you and me.  You can find that prayer in John 17.  It’s all about Jesus will.  It’s all in accord with the Heavenly Father’s will.  And God granted it and continues to grant it in a measure that is only understood with every advancing century of the Christian church worldwide. 


Pressing into Christ and allowing His life to be pressed into your soul will lead to a dynamic prayer life with the Father.


2.  The gifts of God’s love and joy, vss. 9-11.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

            Jesus is simply telling us that his love will continually pour out on those who remain in the sphere of obedience to his commands.  Disobedience moves us farther and farther away from the love of God.  But like the green zone of one of those huge crop circles in the Central Washington farming district, all you have to do to receive that wonderfully refreshing daily sprinkling of water that is so life giving is to stay in the “obedience zone” of God’s love.  Disobedience to Jesus’ commands transplants us out into the “death zone” of that dry, arid and lifeless soil of life apart from the love of God. 

            And not surprisingly joy is simply one of the fruits that springs up when the love of God abides in us and is lived out to others around us. 

            That very love may lead us to a fair amount of suffering.  Love does that.  It moves us to lay down our life so others can find life.  Jesus knew that his abundant love demonstrated on the cross, painful and agonizing though it was, would eventually bring amazing joy unbounded. 

            The writer of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 12, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

            Contrary to our culture’s belief that seeking your own joy will be fulfilling, God knows that sacrificial loving of others is what brings joy.  Seek to love sacrificially and you will find joy.  Seek joy for joy’s sake and you will lose both joy and love. 

            That’s an important truth for us even as Christians to remember in our self-absorbed culture.  If our lives lack joy, one of the first questions to ask is, “How can I give more energy and life to loving those around me with the self-sacrificing love of Christ in me?”  People who demand that those around them do more and more for them and do so their way are usually very miserable people.  While people who make it their habit to look for ways to sacrificially love more each day are usually the happiest people on earth.  The more we lay down our lives in love, the more we’ll be able to pick up joy in our life.  


3.  The last gift Jesus promises to those who press into Him and let his life press into their hearts is the gift of FRIENDSHIP. 

Vss. 14-15—“You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

Isn’t this the grand difference between taking orders without explanation and sharing friendship as a “band of brothers”?

ILL:  We’ve been watching a series on the 7 month training process a Navy Seal has to endure to even qualify for becoming a Seal.  Those first couple of months, the recruits’ relationship to their training officers is virtually one of master to servant.  You don’t question one word.  And you better follow it to the letter or you and your squad will be paying for it with more physical pain. 

            But after these recruits have learned that complete, instant, absolute obedience is the only way they will survive as a team, the training begins to change.  Teams of men still take orders from their Commanding Officers, but they do so with a deep respect and trust built on months of seeing those Cos work the hardest, go the farthest and suffer the longest for the sake of their team of men.  When you know that your leader has suffered more than you ever will and is always putting his life on the line for you, no challenge seems too much. 

            Abiding in Christ doesn’t mean we will not suffer or die to self over and over again.  On the contrary, it means that we have already decided that the privilege of being part of His amazing forever team is worth any sacrifice, any trial, any endurance test…because He’s always going to be right there with us, laying down His life for us again and again and again. 


That’s why Jesus keeps repeating this one, central command he ends with in vs. 17:  Love each other!

 Love each other in your families.

            Love each other in your marriages.

                        Love each other in your church, in your workplace, in your school.

Love each other when it’s inconvenient.

            Love each other when it’s painful.

                        Love each other when you have nothing left but the love of Christ.


Who is God inviting you to love more deeply than you think you can?

Who is God asking you to lay down more of your life for so that you can take up more of Christ’s life, love and joy?

God is working hard as your own divine Gardner so that your life ends up full of fruitfulness…full of success…in what God knows matters forever.