John 15:8 offers a succinct word about the legitimacy of discipleship. Jesus says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” But what is the fruit of discipleship—the fruit of which Jesus speaks? Is it having all kinds of knowledge about spiritual and/or theological things? Is it adding knots to one’s evangelistic belt? Is it hosting the latest, greatest, biggest, shiniest event that draws in the masses? Is it scripting some program that testifies to the collective training and experience of the pastors?
Actually, it is none of these things. Noteworthy it is that John 15:8 is tucked ever-so-neatly between Jesus’ reflections on genuine love as recorded in John 13 and in the later part of John 15. It is also noteworthy that prefacing Jesus’ thoughts on bearing much fruit is a pericope regarding the Holy Spirit and his role in our lives. These things taken together surely bring to our minds the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22-23, where he famously talks about spiritual fruit. Consider his words in their broader context:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:16-23)
Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-Control. These things together—and the singular “fruit of the Spirit” testifies that these things must be together as one package—represent the proof of being a disciple of which Jesus speaks in John 15:8. One must instantly notice that each one has a transcendent quality, and reflects an inner-work of God—something within the soul of a man or a woman that spills outward. This is in sharp contrast to the more mundane checklist metrics that we too often think are the greatest manifestations of true discipleship—things like knowledge and programs and events and so forth. If one wishes to know whether or not he or she is a mature (or maturing) disciple, then all that one has to do is give due consideration to these nine things, taken as one whole. To be a disciple is to move toward Jesus and take others with you. Displaying this kind of fruit as you move toward Jesus suggests you are a mature disciple who is walking in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some reflections on fruit-bearing are worth considering, taking us back to John 15. Read what the Apostle John penned, quoting Jesus:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8)
Four thoughts instantly come to mind. Think through each one carefully.
Proximity. True fruitfulness only comes about when the branch is in vital relationship with the vine. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” These words of Jesus remind us that the disciple’s primary responsibility is to be exceedingly close to Jesus. Again, being a disciple is to move toward Jesus, taking others with you. Proximity to him is a necessity.
Persistence. Fruit cannot appear instantly. It takes time. It has been said that for healthy grapes to come to fruition there needs to be between 150 and 200 days of sunshine, depending on the climate and other factors. Time to develop is critical. This is a great opportunity to remind us that we are all on a spiritual journey. Some of us are merely exploring what it is to know Christ. Others are new to their faith—beginners. Still others are growing in the Lord, and yet others are much further along, multiplying the life and graces of Christ among those with whom they live life. Fruit that is healthy takes time to grow. There is nothing wrong with this; indeed, it is utterly normal and natural.
Pruning. For the branches of fruit to be healthy, the farmer must regularly dress the vines. He may need to cut away the dead parts that otherwise would hurt the plant. He may need to lift up the branches and spread them out so they can get better sunlight or air. Tending to the health of the plant is vital, and in the spiritual life this is the primary responsibility of the Holy Spirit. That is why it is so important for the disciple to be in-tune with the Holy Spirit’s ministry. As Paul says in Galatians 5:16, we must walk in the Holy Spirit.
Possibilities. In John 15:8 a special verbal structure is used to describe the bearing of fruit. It is known as a subjunctive verb, and this suggests that all kinds of possibilities may be entertained. For the disciple, the one moving toward Jesus and taking others with him or her, it is totally appropriate to dream about or envision just how fruitful he or she would like to be. Each of us disciples ought to cast a vision for the kind of person we wish to be, the kind of meaningful influence we wish to have, and the manner in which our spiritual fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—breathes life into those around us. Think and pray about the possibilities, then aim that way!
Psalm 92:12-15 paints a wonderful portrait of the kind of person you may wish to become. Here is what the psalmist says:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
To grow old, bearing fruit, ever full of sap and green—this is a life-giving portrait of the disciple I wish to be. Once again we see that moving toward Jesus and taking people with us is not about what we do, but who we are—ones who bear rich, loving fruit that may nurture the lives of those around us. By the Spirit’s help, this can be each of us until the day we are called Home.