Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
A PRACTICAL EXPOSITION OF JOHN 13-17.
By Rev. D. J. Burrill, D.D., LL.D.
It is recorded that the disciples "were first called Christians in Antioch." The name was probably given in derision; but it was accepted as a designation of honour. Peter wrote, "If a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name." In one of the prayers of the Clementine Liturgy we find these words: "We give Thee thanks that we are called by the name of Christ, and are thus reckoned as Thine own."
If we look in the Dictionary for a definition, we shall find it given thus: "Christian: a believer in Christ." The poet Alexander Pope, himself an unbeliever, defined a Christian as "the highest style of man." The Karens were accustomed to call Adoniram Judson, their missionary, "Jesus Christ’s man." This approaches very nearly the definition given by Christ Himself in the parable of the Vine and its Branches, in which it is made to appear that a Christian is one who is in vital union with Him.
We have in this parable the biography of a Christian in brief.
First, as to his birth. — This occurs when one accepts Christ. It is a new birth, or "gain-birth," as the early Christians were accustomed to call it. It is a veritable regeneration, a turning "right-about face"; as when Saul of Tarsus, one moment "breathing out slaughter" against the followers of Christ, the next moment heard Christ calling him, and answered, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?"
It is a coming out of the world; as Christ says, "I have chosen you out of the world; wherefore the world hateth you." The Christian is uncompromisingly at odds with the world; inasmuch as he lives not for the things that are seen and temporal, but for the things which are unseen and eternal. In other words, he is in the world, but not of it.
In coming out of the world he comes not only unto Christ but into Him; so that thenceforth he can say, "My life is hid with Christ in God."
It is just as well to understand this matter; since the tendency of present-day religion is to eliminate Christ from Christianity, by reducing it either to a system of theology or a code of benevolent ethics. If Christ’s own definition of Christianity is correct, then He cannot be bowed off the premises in this way. The Christian is related to Christ precisely as the branch is to the vine. The union is absolutely vital: so vital that Christ is everything to him; Alpha and Omega, the beginning of every purpose and the end of every aspiration; first, last, midst, and all in all.
Second, as to his manner of life. — This is elsewhere briefly and comprehensively set forth in the word "follow" — a great word which cannot be too deeply impressed upon us.
The Christian follows Christ as a disciple or pupil. This means, if it means anything, that he believes what his Lord believes, and accepts His teaching as final. He has no philosophy of his own, no theology of his own, no ethics of his own. No matter what the books say, no matter what others think; the word of the divine Teacher is ultimate for him. In his desire to know about the personality of God, the veracity of Scripture, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, or any other problem of the spiritual life, he asks only what his Teacher has to say about it. This ends all controversy for him.
The feet is that when a man has accepted Christ as the only-begotten Son of God, he has resolved the one problem which is the key to all others. For Christ is not merely a Teacher of truth; He is The Truth; so that the quest ends in Him.
And the Christian follows also as a servant. The test is indicated in the words, "If ye do whatsoever I command you." The Christian’s rule of conduct is to do what pleases Christ This is his complete system of ethics. He avoids sin on the one hand, because his Lord hates it; and aspires after holiness on the other, because his Lord enjoins it. To know his Lord’s will is to do it. There is no questioning, no faltering, no further reasoning about it.
He follows Christ, also, as his friend. A great word this! "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known unto you." The one thing in particular which was held in the mutual confidence of the Father and the Son was the Eternal plan for the salvation of the world; and with respect to this matter the Lord takes His disciples into His confidence, into the very innermost place of His pavilion, where He reveals to them this wonderful purpose of God.
Third, as to the business of the Christian. — It is, in simple terms, to lend a hand in carrying out the purpose of God. Christ says that He was sent into the world "to seek and to save the lost'* And He says further, "As the Father has sent me into the world so send I you." The inference is plain; the business of the Christian is to seek and save. It was to this end that Christ Himself "went about doing good." His miracles of healing were merely incidental to His great purpose, which was to deliver men from the shame and bondage of sin.
The business of the Christian, as thus set forth, is indicated in the word "fruit"; on which our Lord in this parable lays the deepest possible emphasis. He iterates and reiterates it; "fruit," "much fruit," "more fruit"; "so shall ye be my disciples." It is greatly to be feared that we have in large measure lost this keynote of our Master’s teaching. We place the grave emphasis on personal character and social benevolence rather than on the winning of souls. * c This ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." To follow Christ is to be continually "doing good as we have opportunity unto all men"; but the objective point of all our doing is to join hands with Christ in bringing the world back to God.
Fourth, as to the Christian's preparation for his business. — The branch is not left to take care of itself; the Father and the Son unite in taking care of it.
The "Father is the husbandman." As such he looks after the fruitfulness of the branches. The question is asked, "Does God send trouble?" As well ask, Does the husbandman enter the vineyard with a pruning-knife? The Master says, "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit he cleanseth (or pruneth) it, that it may bear more fruit." Here is the clue to the mystery of discipline. It is not a misfortune but a privilege — one of the highest privileges of the Christian life. It is an evidence of sonship; as Paul says, "God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? But if ye are without chastening, then are ye bastards and not sons. We have had fathers of our flesh to chasten us and we gave them reverence; shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of our spirits and live? For they indeed chastened us as seemed good to them, but he for our profit"; that is, that we might be better qualified for service. The husbandman cuts back all rank and useless growth, that the branch may bear more fruit for him.
And the Son conspires with the Father in preparing us for service. His work is that of constant communion with us. This is set forth in the word "abide"; which is also deeply emphasised. "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except as it abide in the vine, so neither can ye except ye abide in me. He that abideth in me and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for apart from me ye can do nothing."
In this "abiding" we have the true conception of prayer. I say nothing against the stated acts of prayer; but urge rather that spirit of prayer which gives its only value and significance to the occasional bending of the knees. We are enjoined to "pray without ceasing," that is, to be in constant communion with Christ; not only when we bow at the mercy-seat, but every hour of the day.
Is it possible thus to abide in Christ? The man who leaves his home in the morning seems to part company with his wife, but does he? In his shop or office he is so absorbed in secular cares that perhaps he never thinks of her; yet there is never a moment of the day when he and the elect lady are not one; so vitally one that the indwelling assurance of her love is the inspiration of everything he does. So the Christian may not always be thinking of Christ; but deep down in his sub-consciousness there is the joy in His presence. The promise holds good: "Lo, I am with you alway: I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." And this, consciously or unconsciously, is the great dynamic of the Christian’s life.
It is to those who thus continue in prayer without ceasing that the promise applies, "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you." This promise is absolutely unlimited; but it is conditioned on our abiding in Him. The man who supposes that he can kneel down and make his requests and then cut loose and go as he pleases, has no claim whatever on that promise; but he who abides in fraternal relation with Christ and filial relation with God, may literally ask what he will with an assurance that it shall be given unto him.
And closely allied with this communion of the believer with Christ, as a preparation for service, is his communion with other believers. The branches are one in the vine. There is, therefore, no break in the continuity of the parable when Christ says, "These things I command you, that ye love one another." A Christian will naturally incline towards those of his own household, even as birds of a feather flock together. He is bound to them by a singular tie. He calls them "brethren" because he is brought into spiritual kinship with them by Christ, who is the elder brother of them all.
It is in this connection that Christ lays down the new commandment, "that ye love one another, even as I have loved you." Let us ask again, Why should this be called a "new commandment"? Wherein does it differ from the old commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"; or from the Golden Rule, "Do as ye would be done by"? In this, that the disciples are to love one another not as they love themselves, but "even as Christ loved them." There is a vast difference here. Self is wholly ruled out of the reckoning in this case. Christ’s love was a self-denying, self-forgetful, self-sacrificing love; so must theirs be. To realise this is to grow strong in the fellowship of the Church, which is "the body of Christ." Herein lies the secret of the communion of saints. The more closely we commune with Christ, the more devoutly and intensely do we love His people; even as the branches draw nearer to each other as they approach the vine. And all this is preparatory and conducive to fruit-bearing, that is, faithful service as "fishers of men."
Fifth, as to the Christian's destiny. — He is saved, as a matter of course. So much is taken for granted. The branch is in no possible danger while it abides in the vine. Let no true Christian worry about his salvation. The branch is not expected to prune itself, or cultivate itself, or preserve its own life. The Vine looks after that. Just here is the difference between Bunyan’s Christian and Christ’s Christian. The pilgrim who set out from the City of Destruction was deeply concerned about his own welfare. He was constantly getting into trouble in the Slough of Despond and under the shadow of Doubting Castle, and all the while keeping his eye on the far-off Celestial City in a more or less desperate hope of reaching it. But Christ’s Christian is a self-forgetful man, so busily engaged in doing for others that he must needs content himself with the assurance of faith. It is enough that he can say, "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day."
The one thing about which this Christian busies himself is fruit. He follows his Lord in self-denying service in the behalf of men. He sees his friends and associates groping in the dark, like blind men feeling their way along the wall, and he brings them to Jesus that they may find everlasting life. These are the clusters of this fruitful branch. The true Christian, like his Master, has a burning passion for souls.
He hopes some day to win the commendation, "Well done, good servant: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." What is this "joy of the Lord"? It is the joy of beholding "the fruit of the travail of his soul," a multitude saved by his vicarious pain. This was in the mind of Jesus when He said, "These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full." The eternal joy of the Christian will be in the realisation of the promise, "They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever." This is the consummation and final success of life. For as Jesus said, "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit"; and it is a true saying, "The chief end of man is to glorify God."
Finally, as to the Christian's death. — Not a word is said about it! The fruitful branch shall abide for ever in the vine. The Christian never dies.
But what of the unfruitful branch? "It is cast forth, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." The reference here is not to final punishment, but to the removal of the unprofitable. They are disposed of like the dead leaves of autumn. Their doom is eternal unprofitableness; as Jesus said of the fig-tree that put forth professional leaves but bore no figs, "No man eat fruit of thee for ever." Oh, dreadful fate !
But the fruitful branch is never severed from the vine. Death to the Christian is merely an episode in life. He closes his eyes, opens them, and goes living right on. He that has borne fruit shall continue to bear fruit, more fruit, for ever! His death is promotion. He has served an apprenticeship here which fits him for higher tasks further on. This is his "penny at evening." This is everlasting life: to be living eternally to the glory of God !
Is this too high a standard of the Christian life? It is, alas! so high that all fall short of it. There is not one who must not say, "I count not myself to have apprehended"; but blessed is he who can add, "This one thing I do: I stretch forth unto the things which are before, and press toward the mark !"
In this parable an ideal is presented; and the best we can say for ourselves is that we aspire toward it. If we are blamed by those who are not Christians for falling short, let me remind them of the words that were written by the painter Apollodorus above his pictures in the pagan temples: "’Tis no hard thing to reprehend me; but let the men that blame me mend me." It is not an easy thing to live a Christian life. Let them try it.
But, oh, it is sublime to aim so high. We are not what we ought to be; we are not what we mean to be; but by the grace of God we are what we are. And blessed be His name, we have all eternity before us! The Master said, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify God." If we here reflect too dimly the light that shines so splendidly in our Saviour’s face, we find comfort in the hope that in the passing aeons of eternity our path shall be as the light which shineth more and more unto the perfect day.