Jesus frequently used nature as a teaching device. The best known examples may be his charge to “consider the lilies” and “consider the birds.” Both Matthew and Luke record these words of Jesus intended to elicit faith and combat worry in our lives. In the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel we find another one of Jesus’ references to nature. Here he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (v. 5) Jesus used this illustration from the natural world to explain a number of vital truths.
In verse 4 Christ noted the obvious—“No branch can bear fruit by itself.” If a branch from an apple tree is cut off it will no longer be able to produce apples. It has to remain connected in order to live and bring forth fruit. In the same way, Jesus insisted, his followers must “remain” or “abide” in him. He said, “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (v. 4) In verses 4-10 Jesus used the word “remain” ten times. He wanted to make sure that his disciples did not miss the point that staying connected to him was critical. We simply cannot live the Christian life in our own power or strength. We have got to stay attached to Christ.
Jesus’ call to “remain” in him implies a close communion or fellowship with himself. This communion brings us much joy and peace. Its purpose, however, goes far beyond this. This communion is also the source of our strength and enables us to fulfill our purpose of bearing fruit. Jesus said, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (v. 6) In v. 8 he adds that by producing fruit we bring glory to God and reveal ourselves to be his disciples.
There can be no denying that Christians are called to bear fruit but in this passage we are never explicitly told what that “fruit” is. Over the years I have heard numerous suggestions offered. Some say the fruit of a Christian is another Christian. Others point to the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned by Paul in Galatians 5. Both suggestions may be implied but it seems to me that in this context what Jesus was referring to was love. In the latter part of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks often about the priority of love and calls repeatedly for his followers to love one another in the same way that he has loved them. By pointing to the example of vines and branches Jesus let it be known that the only way we will ever be able to love in this way is if we stay connected to him. My own personal experience validates this. I know all too well that I cannot love as I should on my own. I need help.
I am convinced that each of our lives do, indeed, have purpose and meaning. I also believe that this purpose involves making a difference in our world through acts of selfless love and compassion. When I see an apple tree, or any other fruit hanging from its branches, I am reminded that if I am going to love the world and those who inhabit it I will, likewise, have to remain attached or connected to the ultimate source of love—my Lord and Savior.
(I took the pictures above this morning at one of my friend’s home here in Pikeville.)
In the study on the Gospel of John I’m leading at church we recently spent some time examining a miracle where Jesus healed a man who had been lame thirty-eight years. After Jesus did this he got into trouble with the local religious leaders because he healed the man on the Sabbath. By this time in Jewish history there were all kinds of restrictions on what a person could and could not do on the Sabbath. Because of its place in the Ten Commandments the Sabbath was considered very special by the Jews and they sought to protect it by coming up with various restrictions about Sabbath observance.
Jesus’ response to the religious leaders who were denouncing him is interesting. He told them “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” (John 5:17) Jesus’ words about his Father always being at work are important. One reason the Sabbath was considered so important to the Jews is that God “rested” on the seventh day of Creation. Although some thought God was still resting, many of the Jewish rabbis believed that God was still at work and that He even did some of His work on the Sabbath. Acts of healing and compassion were examples of God’s Sabbath Day activity. Jesus affirmed this understanding and said that the miracle he had just performed was simply an extension of His Father’s work.
I think one of the important lessons we can take from this passage is that the God of Creation is still very much at work in the world today and that Christ, His Son, is as well. We are reminded here that Creation is not a finished product; it is a work in progress. John Muir recognized this. He once wrote: “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.”
Perhaps our sense of wonder and amazement might be renewed if we realized each day that we are witnesses to God’s ongoing work of Creation. Perhaps it would awaken our sense of gratitude for the gift of each new day. Perhaps it would make us better aware of our calling to be partners with the Father and Son in caring for the earth. It’s certainly something to think about…
(I took the two images above in Yellowstone National Park last February.)
During Vespers tonight I’ll be leading a study on the third chapter of John’s Gospel. Here we’ll confront perhaps the most familiar passage in the Bible—John 3:16. It seems quite appropriate to be looking at this particular verse at Christmas time. Here John affirms, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” At Christmas we celebrate God’s love and the incredible gift of His Son.
While doing some research for tonight’s study I learned that the Greek word used for “world” in this verse has an interesting background. Apparently the word originally denoted an ornament. In his commentary on the Gospel of John Leon Morris writes, “The universe with all its harmonious relationships is the outstanding ornament, and thus the term came to be used of the universe at large.”
Some biblical scholars question whether the use of the word “world” in John 3:16 includes the planet earth; they claim that it refers only to human beings. I see no reason why God’s redeeming love would not include the entire cosmos as well. In Romans 8 the apostle Paul speaks of “the hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (v. 21) God’s gift of His Son was intended for all the world, not just humans; His saving love is extended to all of Creation.
Recognizing God’s love for Creation is important. If God loved the world so much He was willing to give His only Son for it, then we too should love the world. This love will include caring for this planet we call home. Like precious ornaments we place on our Christmas trees must be handled carefully the ornament called “the world” must be tenderly cared for and protected. God’s love for the world resulted in its salvation spiritually; our love for the world will help save it in other important ways.
(The junco and cardinal I photographed at my house this week also seem like ornaments on trees.)
The Prologue to John’s Gospel (vs. 1-18) is an incredible passage of Scripture. Last week I noted how John makes his claim here that Jesus (the “Word”) is one with God and is the Creator of all things: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (v. 3) In the next verse John follows this up by saying that Jesus is the source of all life: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” As Leon Morris points out, “It is only because there is life in the Logos that there is life in anything on earth at all. Life does not exist in its own right. It is not even spoken of as made ‘by’ or ‘through’ the Word, but existing ‘in’ Him.”
For Christians it is important to understand that Jesus is the source of both Creation and life. It is because of him that everything exists; it is because of him that everything has meaning. I agree with what William Hull says in his commentary on the Fourth Gospel: “…every person ought to see that God is the powerful and thoughtful creator of the universe in the light of the miracle of life which abounds in human experience.”
If we understood Christ to be the source of all life perhaps we would have a greater respect for life—all of it. Furthermore, understanding that life is not a given but a gift, perhaps we would also have a greater appreciation for life—all of it.
It is because I believe that Jesus is the source of all life I affirm that all creatures and plant species are important. Christ’s desire was for them to have life, just as it was his desire for us to have life. It is also because I believe that Jesus is the source of all life that I feel a kinship with the rest of Creation—I share a common Maker with them and, like them, owe my very existence to him. It is this kinship with the rest of Creation that led Francis of Assisi to refer to various animals as his “brothers and sisters.”
Today I join with the author of the Fourth Gospel in offering praise to Christ for being my Maker and the Source of all life. I encourage you to join in with us.
(Both the whitetail deer and aster images were taken earlier this month in West Virginia.)
This past Thursday I drove up to the Cane Ridge Meeting House near Paris, Kentucky, for a special prayer service. In the first few years of the 1800s a major revival broke out there. This Second Great Awakening was given considerable attention in the recent PBS special, God In America. The denomination in which I serve, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), arose from what took place at Cane Ridge over two hundred years ago.
I got to Cane Ridge early and walked around the grounds while I waited for the others to get there. In the back of the building I found a bench facing three or four very colorful trees. I sat on that bench and began to pray. Soon a strong wind started to blow and scores of beautiful autumn leaves began to scatter about me. Instead of letting this be a disturbance to my time of prayer I allowed the wind and leaves to help guide me in my prayer.
In both the Old and New Testament the words that are used for wind also mean spirit. In his famous encounter with Nicodemus Jesus drew upon this twin meaning. He said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:6-8)
With the wind blowing and the leaves scattering all about me I asked the Holy Spirit to blow in my life and in the life of my church and denomination. I prayed that just as the leaves allowed the wind to carry them wherever it wished that we would allow Him to move us or take us wherever we needed to be.
I truly believe that this was the prayer that God desired to hear from me at Cane Ridge and I am thankful for the guidance I received from elements of God’s Creation to move me in that direction. Does it surprise me that God used nature to guide my prayer? Not at all. No, not at all.
(I took the images above in the Cane Run Lake area after leaving Cane Ridge on Thursday.)
Tonight I will begin teaching a study on the Gospel of John. It has been said of this Gospel that in it a child can wade and an elephant swim. This means it is a book that is at one and the same time simple and complex. Anyone who has ever studied John’s Gospel will know what I mean.
John begins his Gospel not with stories of Jesus’ birth, like Matthew and Luke, but with beautiful words that point to the preexistence of Christ. In words reminiscent of Genesis 1:1-2 he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” Then in verse 3 he boldly proclaims, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” In this incredible text we are told not only that Jesus has always existed but that he was instrumental in the creation of the world.
John emphasized that the Word is responsible for everything that exists. He states this in a positive (“Through him all things were made”) and negative (“without him nothing was made that has been made”) manner. John’s teaching is consistent with what the apostle Paul wrote: “…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1 Cor. 8:6) God the Father and God the Son both play a vital role in Creation.
In John 1:3 there is an interesting change in verb tenses. Biblical scholar Leon Morris notes that “were made” regards Creation in its totality, as one act, but “has been made” conveys the thought of the continuing existence of created things. There are implications that come with the change in verb tenses. Morris says this means “What we see around us did not come into existence apart from the Word, any more than what appeared in the first day of creation.”
To me this is most significant when it comes to “seeing Creation.” It means that all around us Christ is at work in what he has made and is making, and that includes us as well. The story of Creation is not just an ancient one, it is an ongoing story—one that we participate in every day. We can actually witness the Creator’s work in progress! How awesome is that?!
(Both images above were taken this past Saturday at the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky.)