I cannot think of a time I have said used the language of abiding or remaining to describe a friendship. I’ve never told my wife that one of us is a vine and the other a branch. It’s funny language that seems to be almost redundant, unnecessary. Why would Jesus, in the moments before His arrest and death, talk this way?
Maybe because he was going to the Father.
Maybe because he knew the real temptation the Twelve would have to walk away from all they had known in the past three years with him.
Or maybe because Jesus knew that the only way his disciples would have life and bear fruit would be in their attachment to him, not to anything else, including the Judaism they had grown up in.
John 15:1-4 says,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
Jesus begins by saying He is the “true vine.” Why? In the Old Testament, Israel was called a vine. Vines were on some of its coins, too. In every instance in the Old Testament, Israel as vine meant Israel was being judged by God. For example, in Hosea 10:1-2, God says, “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones. Their heart is deceitful, and now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will demolish their altars and destroy their sacred stones.”
Thus, when Jesus calls himself the true vine, he is saying that he can do what Israel failed to do: produce fruit out of a faithful relationship with God. And those who are connected to him will do the same. This connection with Jesus produces eternal life in his “branches,” in us, and it is this eternal kind of life being lived now that results in fruit.
Jesus says these words on the night of his betrayal. They are some of his last words to his disciples who would, after seeing his suffering and death, be tempted to at the very least question how this metaphor works. How do you remain in a dead Messiah? How do you stay connected to your dead Master? And what if the remaining, abiding relationship you have with him results in your own suffering and death?
Paul’s words of being found in him speak to this. Philippians 3:8-12 says,
8What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
How does God change us if we do not have an idea of the end goal of the Christian life? It’s one thing to experience conversion and to have the assurance that God is your God and you will one day live with Him in eternity. But it’s quite another to feel like you’ve got a grip on where He’s directing you in this life, right here and right now.
Scripture speaks of the goal with a Greek word telos. Here are a few passages where it occurs, though not
- Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
- 1 Corinthians 13:9-13: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
- Ephesians 4:11-13: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
- Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
- Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
- James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
- 1 Peter 1:7-9: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
- 1 John 2:5-6: “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
From these passages of Scripture, we can list several things that could be part of the goal of the Christian life. It refers to being “mature” as a result of persevering through suffering, being “mature” as the result of hearing Christ taught, being perfect as God is perfect, the opposite of something that is partial, completeness, and refers to salvation as the end result of faith.
N.T. Wright looks at the Bible and says that the goal of the Christian life is this:
- The goal is the new heaven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world’s rulers and priests.
- This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
- Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world (After You Believe, p. 67).
It is interesting that the NT authors never use telos to describe the picture of the goal from Revelation. And yet the concept of a new humanity capable of living in the new heavens and new earth makes sense. If we agree with Wright, then the assumption is that our maturity here and now is something we’ll need there and then. We are practicing what it looks like to be the new world’s priests and rulers.
This vision of the goal of life encompasses what on one hand many Christians look forward to–eternal life with God–as well as what many other Christians strive for today–the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
How would you define the goal of the Christian life? What do you think God wants you to be/become?