“Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
The school where my boys go has an incredible front yard. It’s gigantic, for one. Even more important for me, though, are its trees. It has several humongous, mature, beautiful oak trees scattered across its expanse. When they all bloom in the spring, they are exquisite to behold. Big, old trees are one of my favorite things, and these are among the best I’ve seen anywhere. Over the last few weeks, though, some tree guys came and butchered them. They cut the end off of all the branches. Now, instead of being perfectly formed specimens, they’re all gnarly skeletons of what they once were. Yet as much as I hate to see them lose their perfect form even for a little while, this was something that needed to be done. It was actually an illustration of something Jesus said here. Let’s talk about it.
It’s funny to me how the timing on things works out. I preached on this very passage just this past Sunday, and that sermon is what went live yesterday. I didn’t ever plan for this post to go up the day after I preached on it, but here it is all the same. I’m actually glad for the timing working out this way, though, because it gives me the opportunity to explore an aspect of what Jesus said here to which I gave no attention at all in my sermon.
These verses are usually used to encourage believers to stay connected to Jesus generally. I looked at them through the lens of why staying plugged in to Him matters so much. Here at the beginning, though, Jesus says a couple more things that should definitely get our attention, and which don’t have anything to do with the other two emphases.
After identifying Himself as the vine to which we must stay connected if we hope to grow and have flourishing lives, He observes that the Father is the gardener. That is, He is the one who takes care of the branches to make sure they can bear fruit. In order to do that, Jesus says there are two things He does that seem wildly counterintuitive to bearing fruit – especially if you happen to be one of the branches. And yet both are entirely necessary.
The first thing the Gardener does is to remove any branch that doesn’t bear fruit. If you’ll give this verse a few minutes of thought, it is a pretty disturbing idea. If someone’s life is not bearing the fruit of the kingdom of God – that is, it is not showing any signs of things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control – it is going to be removed.
The obvious question to which this demands an answer is what does it mean to be removed? Is God killing people whose lives aren’t connected to Jesus? Does this mean you can lose your salvation if you aren’t doing certain things? What’s going on here?
Well, I don’t think either of those first two things are true. I don’t think God kills anybody whose life is not fruitful, and I do not at all believe someone can lose their salvation. Someone who has truly connected her life to Jesus is going to begin bearing fruit because the Holy Spirit will be dwelling inside her, and when the Holy Spirit is dwelling inside of you, you can’t help but to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Now, someone might try to point to various instances of judgment in the Old Testament as evidence of God’s killing people, but I don’t think they have a good case to make. We can talk about why another time, or even in the comments section if you’d like.
What I think Jesus is talking about here is a person’s eternal destiny. Those folks who have separated themselves from Him will eventually be removed entirely. That’s what Jesus is getting at a few verses later when He repeats this point a bit more directly. There are two different types of unbelievers in view here. The first are those who are unsaved and proud of it. They have no intention of connecting to Jesus and have fooled themselves into believing they are perfectly content doing life their own way instead of Jesus’ way. When the time for judgment comes, these folks will face it on their own and it won’t be pretty. The other type of unbeliever is the one who has hidden himself in the church. He is not just attending on occasion, but is actually investing himself in the church’s ministries and operations. He is serving on various committees, giving time, talent, and treasure to different missions efforts, and generally presenting himself as an upstanding church member. The trouble is, it’s all an act. It’s a show. He doesn’t really believe it. These kinds of folks aren’t quite so common as they were in previous generations when there was a great deal of cultural respectability that came from being a known and active member of a prominent local church, but they still exist. They may be doing a great deal of things, but their lives aren’t bearing fruit. And when the day of judgment arrives, they are going to be exposed for what they really are, and removed from the vine.
The next thing the Gardener does is to prune the branches that are bearing fruit so they can bear even more. If you would count yourself a committed follower of Jesus, this should get your attention even more fully than the first part. What happens when a bush or plant or tree is pruned? Well, it winds up looking like the oak trees in the front yard of my boys’ school. Whereas they were once majestic and impressive to behold, now they look cold and ugly. When you prune something, you take branches that by all appearances are perfectly healthy, and you cut them off. The careful gardener knows that you don’t just take any branches off, though. You look closely at which branches are bearing fruit and which are not. The ones that are bearing fruit you leave in place. It is only the branches that aren’t bearing fruit that you remove.
Why do this? Because the bush only has so many resources to commit to bearing fruit. These resources are shared fairly evenly with all of the available branches whether they are bearing fruit or not. When there are multiple branches on the bush that are not bearing fruit, what they are doing is taking up resources that could be more fully committed to actually bearing fruit, and essentially wasting them on looking pretty. The unfruitful branch may look healthy and lush, but in not bearing fruit, it is not fulfilling its intended purpose. It is not fulfilling its intended purpose and it is making it so that those parts of the bush that are fulfilling their purpose aren’t able to do so as fully as they otherwise could. So, the gardener takes off those pretty, but unfruitful branches so the bush can bear even more fruit than it was before.
What this means in our lives is that places where we are not bearing the fruit of the kingdom of God are places our heavenly Father is looking to remove from our lives so that we can produce even more fruit in those places of our lives that are productive. And, just like the wise gardener knows he must remove some branches that look healthy by all external measures, our heavenly Father is going to be looking to remove some things from our lives that seem like they are good and healthy. They aren’t riddled with sin. They bear all the hallmarks of righteousness even. But they aren’t fruitful, and so they have to go.
Now, let’s be honest about this process: It’s painful. It is probably going to hurt a lot. There’s a good chance you have a lot invested in these unfruitful parts of your life. You may have even thought they were fruitful. At the very least, you have convinced yourself they are necessary parts of who you are. And now God is taking them away. It takes a lot of trust in our heavenly Father to be able to continue to pursue Him in the face of His loving efforts at pruning our lives so that we can be even more fruitful for His kingdom than we were before. But if we’ll do it, we can’t even imagine how much more we will be able to be a part of accomplishing for His kingdom than we were doing before He started His work. Let us lean into His work, even when it hurts, trusting that He has bigger and better things planned for us than we do for ourselves.