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THE TRUE VINE
By Jack Gray
Apartment 18T/ 66 Avonleigh Rd
Green Bay Auckland 0604 N.Z.
In John's Gospel the chapters 13-17
are holy ground. There are unfathomable depths of truth in every
part of these majestic passages. They have continuously over the
centuries been yielding refreshing water of life to all who will
immerse themselves in them by prayerful meditation and openness
to the Holy Spirit's teaching. In a recent encounter with them the
Lord graciously granted me new light and truth which have rejoiced
my spirit, encouraged my heart and stimulated me to write this message.
Jesus Prepares the Way for His Church
These five chapters contain the final teachings of Jesus before
He went the way of the Cross and the resurrection. The Master's
words had been indelibly etched into the heart of the beloved disciple
who recorded them. They were a distillation and concentration of
all that He had been imparting to them, and were preparatory for
what was to come in the establishment of the Church. Right at the
very centre of these chapters is a revelation straight from the
heart of Jesus concerning the true nature of the Church that was
about to be birthed. Here are the simple limpid statements in which
that disclosure of essential truth was made: "I am the true
vine, and my Father is the husbandman." "I am the vine,
you are the branches.", and "Abide in me, and I in you."
For those who long to know Church as God intends it to be, for those
"in whose hearts are the highways to Zion" (Ps.84:5) these
words are truly spirit and life. The remainder of Jesus' teaching
both in word and example which these chapters contain all revolve
around this central core.
Two Vines-- The Degenerate and the True
"I am the true vine." or more literally, "I am the
vine, the true." For those first Jewish disciples to whom He
was speaking the figure of the vine would have been a familiar one.
The vine was, in the prophetic scriptures, a symbol of the people
of God, Israel. But the tragedy, revealed by the prophets, was that
the vine had become degenerate. It was producing wild grapes. The
relevant scriptures are Psalm 80:8-13, Isaiah
5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21 and Hosea 10:1-2 which should all be
read. The story of Israel in terms of the vine was that she had
been brought out of Egypt, she had been a choice vine of wholly
pure seed, she had been planted with every care for her life and
growth, but she had failed to produce the fruit that the Lord looked
Now Jesus was making the amazing claim to be the true vine, replacing
that degenerate plant that had failed to fulfill God's purpose.
Through and in Him God would raise up a people who would bring forth
much fruit for His glory. The true vine was Jesus and those who
belong to Him in organic union." I am the vine, you are the
branches." When the truth of that simple sentence begins to
dawn upon our hearts it will utterly revolutionize our conceptions
of Church. It is a death blow to all institutional Christendom.
As individuals are incorporated into Christ, as they abide in Him
and He in them, so they become, as branches, integrally part of
the Vine. The life flowing in the branches is the life of the Lord
Jesus. The branches have no autonomy, no vitality apart from Him.
Severed from Him they can produce nothing. The Lord Jesus is the
root stem branches leaves and fruit of the Vine. His life pervades
every part. Of the Church it is true that "Christ is all and
in all" (Colossians 3:11), and
that it is "the fullness of Him who fills all in all."
(Ephesians 1:23) These truths are staggering.
The Church is Christ in living union with His people.
My Father is the Husbandman
Of this Church, Jesus said, "My Father is the husbandman."
The vine is the Father's vine and He cares for it. Isaiah had expressed
this reality centuries before when he prophesied, "In that
day: a pleasant vineyard, sing of it! I the LORD, am its keeper;
every moment I water it. Lest anyone harm it I guard it night and
day." (Isaiah 27:2-3). It is of
the utmost significance that the predominant New Testament designation
of the Church is "the Church of God." (
Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 10:32, 11:22, 15:9, 2 Corinthians
1:1, Galatians 1:13, 1 Timothy 3:15 )
As I have meditated on and prayed over these things I find myself
asking two questions;
1) Why have we not seen these great things concerning the true nature
of the Church and all that they imply?
2) How have we arrived at the present state of Christendom, with
its myriad sects divisions, denominations, ministries, missions,
all humanly organised and institutionalised ?
Parallels between Israel & The Church
In answer to the second question it seems to me that there are tragic
parallels between the history of Israel and the history of Christendom.
Israel, planted as a choice vine, wholly of pure seed (Jeremiah
2:21) became degenerate, rank and unfruitful. The true vine, Christ
in organic union with His people, has never become degenerate and
it would be blasphemous even to suggest that. But alongside the
true vine there has grown up a wild vine, rank and luxuriant like
that described by the prophet Hosea in chapter
10:1-2; "Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its
fruit. The more his fruit increased the more altars he built; as
his country improved he improved his pillars." Is that not
a picture of Christendom? In all the preparations the Lord made
for the Church there is never a mention of institution, organizational
plan, hierarchical authority-structures, financial planning, church
buildings, headquarters or offices There was no instruction concerning
services, liturgy, praise and worship, clergy and laity or religious
rituals. But now every one of these things characterises the church
as the world sees it, and as most Christians know it. Look at the
massive institutionalism and ecclesiastical bureaucracy of Rome,
the Anglican church and the ever proliferating denominations, streams
and "ministries" in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Listen to the call for bigger and better buildings, the constant
begging for money to finance this one and that one's "vision."
Oh Hosea, you should be living in this hour!
The Lord Jesus gave us a parable of a vineyard hijacked by the husbandmen
who had been hired to care for it in the owner's absence (Matthew
21:33-43) This too is reflected in church history. The true
Church the vine of which Jesus spoke has only one Husbandman, the
Father. Now a multitude of husbandmen tend the churches, often with
motives alien to the teachings and example of the Lord Jesus. I
hate to be critical. But in the light of the revelation of the true
vine what can one say?
A Remnant of the True
When the Lord Jesus came Israel was a degenerate vine, as we have
seen. It was the leaders of the religious system, the wicked husbandmen,
and the hijackers, who conspired to put Him to death. But there
was a remnant of the vine of pure seed still existing in people
like Zechariah & Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, people who were
looking for the coming of the Messiah and "the consolation
of Israel." So too the true-vine-Church has persisted through
the centuries alongside the rank vine of Christendom. Now, it may
be, God's time has come for the burgeoning again of the true vine.
Psalm 80 is a word for this hour with its thrice repeated cry and
plea, "Restore us O God: let Thy face shine, that we may be
saved." As I have contact with more and more fellow believers
who are distressed and disillusioned with current church life and
structures and are longing for a better way, I am encouraged by
the words of another Psalm, 102. "Thou
O Lord art enthroned for ever; Thy name endures to all generations.
Thou wilt arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favour
her; the appointed time has come. For Thy servants hold her stones
dear, and have pity on her dust." (vs.12-14)
How may we enter into the experience of life in the true vine? How
may this living organism, wholly vitalized by the Lord Jesus be
rediscovered and restored? We will only make this rediscovery when
we are willing to let go of the other, the humanly organized and
the institutional. While our hands are full of that other we cannot
receive the true. We need to come to zero point! "Apart from
Me you can do nothing."
The Distinctive Marks of True-Vine Church
The true-vine Church, wholly after Jesus' heart, was planted on
the day of Pentecost. In the teachings of Jesus recorded in
John 13-17 all the characteristics of that true Church had
been foreshadowed. Let me try, although the task is daunting, to
indicate in broad terms the distinctive features of the Church which
the Lord Jesus had in mind when He spoke of the true vine and the
1) Humble Servant Leadership.
2) First, in chapter 13 we have manifested by word and action the
kind of leadership which the Lord Jesus intended for His Father's
Church. There we see Him, in the full consciousness of who He was,
the Divine only Son of the Father, kneeling before the disciples
and washing their feet. "You call me Teacher and Lord; and
you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher have
washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."
By that action and in these words our Lord laid the axe to the root
of the tree of worldly concepts of leadership. The leadership in
the Church which He intended to build would be in stark contrast
to leadership as exercised in the world. I have written more fully
elsewhere of the characteristics of true-vine-Church leadership.
Here I would simply draw attention to the passage in Peter's first
Epistle ch.5:1-5 which shows how well this apostle had learned Christ.
I quote in full.
"So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a
witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the
glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God which is among
you, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but
eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being
examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested
you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. Likewise you that are
younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you
with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud, but
gives grace to the humble'.
Now put John 13 and this from Peter
alongside much of modern churchdom. Look at the ecclesiastical pomp
and show, the dressed up prelates archbishops, cardinals and all
the array of multi-titled clergy. Listen to the broken hearts of
believers crushed by authoritarianism, and see the all-too-frequent
grasping for shameful gain. Think of the expensive lifestyles of
jet-set religious executives. Where does it all come from, certainly
not from the true vine? I cannot but agree with George MacDonald
when he says in his novel, "A Daughter's Devotion", "Church
talk and church ways and church ceremonies ..... and church worldliness
generally has obscured Him (Jesus Christ) for hundreds of years,
and will yet obscure Him for hundreds more, until He comes to remove
the scales from the eyes of His own church-bound sons and daughters.
In the true-vine-Church those with leadership function will be stamped
with humility. There will be no striving for position or pre-eminence,
no ambition to be the greatest. As the Lord Jesus gave an example
to these first disciples of glad self-emptying servanthood, so will
true leaders be exemplary in willingness to serve even in the most
menial of roles.
3) The Absolute Uniqueness and Exclusiveness of Christ.
4) In chapter 14 there is recorded the claim of the Lord Jesus which
sets Him apart as wholly and absolutely unique. "I am the way,
and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me."
This is the unshakeable, non-negotiable foundational confession
of the true-vine Church. "For no other foundation can any one
lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians
3:11) It is popular today to believe that there are many ways to
God. Many are prepared to honour the Lord Jesus, but fall far short
of according Him the exclusive role as the only Saviour and the
only one who can lead us into the true knowledge of God. Also, inextricably
linked with that exclusive claim is the assertion of the Divine
nature of the Lord, "He who has seen me has seen the Father.",
and "I am in the Father and the Father in me." He who
is fully man and fully God is the only one who can impart the life
that enjoys fellowship with the Father.
I have two press cuttings from the "N.Z. Herald" newspaper
which illustrate the trend, at least in main line churches, to erode
this recognition of the uniqueness and exclusiveness of Christ.
Dean Rymer of Auckland reported that, at a conference he attended
in Istanbul, "The dynamic Jesuit Francis Xavier D'Sa, told
the conference he incorporated many Hindu principles in his Roman
Catholic teaching. He said God had revealed Himself to all religions
in different ways. It was like a mountain which could be viewed
differently from all sides." (11/7/88) On 6th June 1988 in
the same paper was the headline, "Christ Focus Too Great Says
Priest." This priest, Father Matthew Fox said among other things,
"Christianity is one of many wells, such as Buddhism or Taoism,
which plummet the depths and reach God." The degenerate vine
rank in growth and producing wild grapes is a reality now, just
as in Hosea's day!
In contrast take note of Peter's uncompromising stance when he was
examined before the supreme council of Judaism in Jerusalem, following
the amazing healing of the lame man recorded in Acts 3. "There
is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven
given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts
4:12) Or consider Paul's statement in 1Timothy 2:5, "There
is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ
Jesus." Such was the unwavering essential testimony of the
early Church living in the fresh reality of her union with the Lord
Jesus in the true vine.
Here we enter the holy of holies concerning the true vine; fellowship
and union with the Triune God. No words of mine can convey the glory
and mystery of this. I simply would urge each reader to take time
to go quietly before God, considering particularly John
14:15-24 and John 17:20-26, and
ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of the heart to know the
realities which these incomparable words of the Lord reveal. The
fellowship of the true-vine Church is nothing less than being taken
up into the love relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
"I in them and Thou in me that they may become perfectly one."
(John 17:23) "In that day you will
know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you." That
is Jesus' description of fellowship, and throughout the New Testament
that is the supreme revelation of fellowship. It is when we truly
experience this amazing calling to be sharers in the Divine and
perfect love of heaven, the love which eternally flows between Father,
Son and Spirit that "sincere love of the brethren, and loving
one another earnestly from the heart" (1Peter
1:23) will flourish. Fellowship, as Jesus revealed it has
nothing to do with attending services or meetings, but everything
to do with deep love relationships, primarily with heaven, and secondarily
with each other. Where the divine-human relationship is known and
experienced, the believer-to-believer bonding of love will surely
follow. "We love, because He first loved us."
4) The All-sufficient Life-Provider in the True-vine Church
The Holy Spirit
We have seen that in these last teachings of the Lord Jesus before
the Cross and resurrection He was preparing His disciples for the
establishment of the Church. Those who were His called-out ones,
the "ekklesia", were to be incorporated in Him, sharing
His life and bearing fruit for the glory of the Father. It is in
this context that the Lord Jesus reveals the means by which all
this will be accomplished. It will be by the sending from heaven
of One who will fully represent His Father and Himself, the living
and life-giving Holy Spirit. The resources of this soon-to-be-manifest
Church were to be wholly from heaven. Its power and authority were
not to be derived from human abilities, personalities, organizational
structures or political influence, but from this Spirit-person entering
each believer and bringing the very presence of Christ Jesus and
His Father into every heart. Glorious mystery! Not to be grasped
by the intellect or perceived by human wisdom, but to be received
by childlike faith. The words of Jesus Himself concerning this Comforter,
Helper, Advocate are to be read and pondered in holy wonderment
and taken deep into our hearts. They need no exposition from me.
I urge you to spend time with the rich promises of
John 14:15-26, 15:26-27, 16:7-15.
Then turn to the record in "The Acts" and see how utterly
true and reliable these pledges from the Lord Jesus proved to be.
The Epistles throw further light on the total adequacy in the Holy
Spirit as the all-inclusive resource of life and power for the Church.
Everything for that early Church came down from her exalted Head
in heaven by the Holy Spirit. Those first believers lived in the
Spirit, walked by the Spirit, prayed in the Spirit, were led by
the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit. The Lord Jesus through the
Holy Spirit was in complete command and through the Spirit all the
resources of heaven were made available. Of that first Church, the
words of Adolphe Monod were true, "All in Christ; by the Holy
Spirit; for the glory of God. All else is nothing." That is
the true-vine Church.
Where can we find a church like that today? The churches of Christendom
have become degenerate vines, depending for their life and growth,
not on humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit, but leaning heavily
on planning, organized programs. management skills, entrepreneurial
drive, entertainment and a host of other worldly-wise schemes. The
fresh spontaneity of energetic life infused by the Spirit is hard
to find. The early Christians were used by the Lord Jesus under
the direction of the Holy Spirit to further His divine purposes.
Today's churches want to use the Holy Spirit to bless their plans.
In the prayer of Jesus in John 17, Jesus
asked His Father concerning those first apostles, "Holy Father,
keep them in Thy name, which thou hast given me that they may be
one, even as we are one." Then, interceding for all believers
yet to be born into His kingdom, He prayed, "That they all
may be one; even as Thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee, that
they also may be in us, so that the world may believe Thou hast
sent me. The glory which Thou hast given me, I have given to them,
that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me,
that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that
Thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved me."
That for which Jesus prayed was fulfilled at Pentecost and in subsequent
days. "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart
and soul." (Acts 4:32) This was
what Paul later wrote of as "The unity of the Spirit."
The degenerate luxuriant vine of Christendom makes a mockery of
this prayer of our Lord. The passing centuries have witnessed ever
multiplying divisions and the proliferation of sects and denominations
Aware, to some degree, of their guilt there are many initiatives
towards so called unity: the ecumenical movement, of which the World
Council of Churches is the supreme example, cooperation between
denominations for evangelism (to be followed by competition for
the converts!), shared theological colleges etc. But all of these
fail to address the true nature of the unity for which the Lord
Jesus so urgently prayed. The unity of the Spirit is not the organizational
unity of ecclesiastical mergers, but a divine gift received by those
who are incorporated into Christ in the life of the one true vine.
"Therefore let us go forth to Him outside the camp, and bear
the abuse he endured.
6) Knowing God and His Son, Jesus Christ.
The true vine Church is made up of those who have been born from
above into eternal life, and eternal life, according to the Lord
Jesus is "That they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus
Christ whom Thou hast sent." (John 17:3)
The personal, relational and experiential knowing of God characterizes
the life of each individual branch of the Vine. Long before, Jeremiah
had foreshadowed this in his prophecy concerning the new covenant
when he declared, "They shall all know me from the least of
them to the greatest, says the Lord." In this knowledge of
the Lord there were to be no human intermediaries. "I will
put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and
I will be their God, and they shall be my people." That was
the promise of God, and it was fulfilled in the true vine Church.
Each believer knowing and hearing from God for himself through the
"one Mediator", the Lord Jesus. Those first Christians
could all echo the cry of Paul's heart, "I count everything
as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus
my Lord.” In contrast the degenerate vine has spawned many
intermediaries. Instead of enjoying direct access "in one Spirit
to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18) people depend on priests, pastors
elders, travelling evangelists to give them access to God. They
are living, not in the New Covenant, but in the bondage of the old,
failing to avail themselves of their inheritance in Christ.
7) The Three-fold Character of Fruitful Branches
Three words concerning the character of living members of the true
permeate these chapters. They are: believe, love and obey. When
Jesus talks of abiding in Him it is to this trinity that He refers.
They are all intimate relational words expressing the bonds which
unite a disciple to His Lord. The belief is not in a creed, a teaching,
a doctrine, but a trust, reliance and dependence on a Person and
this trust is aroused by an encounter with One who is utterly trustworthy,
One who loves to the uttermost. As well as trust this encounter
arouses a responsive love and the love expresses itself in glad
obedience. This triple response of trust, love and obedience ties
the believer into the circle of divine love flowing between Father,
Son and Holy Spirit. It is as Jesus prayed "that the love with
which Thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." (John
17:26b) These things are deep and wonderful beyond expression. As
the ancient hymn writer expressed it:
"But what to those who find? Ah, this
Nor tongue nor pen can show;
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know."
The Hour of Destiny
I am aware that I have dredged only a bucketful of truth from a
great and unlimited ocean, but these are at least some of the marks
of the Church that Jesus had in mind as He shared with His disciples
in this last intimate discourse. What He said was spoken in the
acute awareness that "the hour had come" (John 13:1) the
hour for which He had come into the world. When He had finished
speaking with them He prayed His great intercessory prayer, beginning,
"Father the hour has come." He then moved inexorably towards
the Cross, the resurrection, the ascension and His exaltation, and
the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is through these
climactic events that the true-vine Church came to birth. It is
on the events of that "hour" that the true-vine Church
is founded. It is from the ongoing significance of these that her
life depends. Only the final "Day of the Lord" will surpass
in glory all that was accomplished in that awesome Divinely ordained
The Fullness of God
The first and last words of the chapters we have been considering
concern love. "Jesus, having loved His own who were in the
world, He loved them to the end." John 13:1. And, "I made
known to them Thy name, and I will make it known, that the love
with which Thou has loved me may be in them and I in them."
Thus the true-vine Church is held in the embrace of the love of
God the Father, and of His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. In between,
these chapters are permeated by that love. Take a highlighter and
mark each occurrence of the word "love", and then in meditation
let the meaning of it all be unveiled to your heart by the Spirit.
And may He grant you "power to comprehend with all the saints
what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know
the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled
with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians
3:18) It was such a love-birthed, love-infused and love-empowered
Church that Jesus had in mind, and for which He laid the foundations
in that "hour" of which He spoke.
Earlier I asked the question, "Why have we not seen these great
things concerning the true nature of the Church and all that they
imply?" Is it not that we have persistently read the scriptures
through the coloured spectacles of tradition, that, accepting the
status quo, we have not dared to lay aside the spectacles and come
afresh to the word as if we had never read it before, humbly asking
the Holy Spirit to reveal what it means, and what are its implications
for us now? I am convinced that such a reading of these chapters
will be revolutionary for those who mean business with God concerning
His will for the Church. No longer will they be content with the
institutions, the denominations, and the humanly organized. Instead
their hearts will be captured to know in experience the life of
the true-vine which is Christ in living union with His own.