Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: August, 2019

THE VINE AND THE BRANCHES – I

 

As the Passover mean came to a close, Jesus said to His disciples, “Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:31; NKJV).  And then in Chapter 19, verse 1 we are told “When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered.”  Where exactly along the way the discussion recorded in chapters 15 and 16, and the prayer in chapter 17, took place is anyone’s guess.  But Jesus was certainly aware that He was now literally on His way to His arrest and crucifixion.  The tone of the discussion changes.  Whereas in the Upper Room there was give-and-take, now the discussion takes the form of an extended monologue.  The fact that He was about to depart has now been established; He now focuses on their responsibilities and privileges going forward.

Jesus begins this part of the discussion by telling them a parable (John 15:1-8).  “I am the true vine,” He tells them, “and My Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (vv. 1,2).  Here we see two different types of branches: those that do not bear fruit and those that do.  The branches that do not bear fruit “He takes away.”  The ones that do bear fruit “He prunes.”

But whom do these two types of branches represent?  Is Jesus saying that it is possible to be a genuine believer and to lose his salvation?

It must be kept in mind when interpreting a parable like this that Jesus is typically making one or two main points, but that analogy must not be pressed too far as to the details.  The main point that Jesus is making in this parable is the importance of maintaining a close relationship with Him.  The details are incidental.

The best answer here seems to be that the branches of the vine are professing Christians, but not necessarily genuinely born-again ones.  They have made professions of faith; they have been baptized; they are recognized members of the visible church.  But not all are vitally connected to Christ through a genuine experience of the new birth, and as a result these show literal evidence of spiritual life.  They are content to go through the motions.  They show up for church most Sundays.  The put money in the offering plate.  They sit patiently and listen to the sermon.  But their heart is somewhere else.

These, then, Jesus says, the Father “takes away.”  Sometimes they fall away of their own accord.  Sometimes they are excommunicated by the church.  In the end they face the judgment seat of Christ who says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).  What a terrifying prospect!

But then there are other branches as well, ones that do bear fruit.  Of these Jesus says that the Father “prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”   Here it is evident that He is speaking of genuinely born-again Christians, in contrast to the nominal professing Christian, for He goes on to say in the next verse, “You are already clean because of the world which I have spoken to you” (John 15:8).  In the process of hearing the gospel and responding to it they have been inwardly regenerated – they have a new heart and a desire to serve Christ.  The have put the things of the old life behind them.  Yet the Father still “cleans” and “prunes” them.  Even as born-again Christians there are things that come into our lives that come between us and Christ and interfere with our spiritual growth.  This is especially true when things are going well for us outwardly.  We become preoccupied with the things of this life and let our relationship with Christ languish.  But God is a wise and caring “vinedresser,” and His concern is that we “bear more fruit”; and to that end He prunes us – He disciplines us, subjects us to trials and difficulties, but all that we might be more fruitful and blessed in the work of the kingdom.

Sometimes when we are in the midst of trials and difficulties, and God does not seem to be answering our prayers for deliverance, we must keep in mind that God has His own purposes in what He brings our way, and that His divine purpose includes our sanctification and usefulness in the kingdom.  In such circumstances we must learn to submit to His will and patiently learn the lesson He has for us.  He will eventually bring us through the trial, and we will be the better for having gone through it!

THE APPROACHING ORDEAL

 

Having promised His disciples His peace, He told them, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27; NKJV).  He then reinforces this exhortation by reminding them of what He had told them earlier: that He was going away and coming back for them (v. 28; cf. 13:33,36; 14:2-4); and He points out that “If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.”  What was about to happen to Jesus would be a horrible ordeal; but in the end it would result in His being reunited with His Father, which for Jesus would have meant more than everything in this world.  If the disciples, then, genuinely loved Christ, they would have rejoiced at the prospect because the good that Jesus would experience would far outweigh the loss that they would be suffering, and if they truly loved Him they would be at least as concerned for His welfare as their own.

Then Jesus goes on to say, “And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe” (v. 29).  This is an important point that He makes here.  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  The Jews expected the Messiah to reign.  If Jesus, then, were really the Messiah, how could He get killed by the Romans?  Would that not be proof positive that He was not the Messiah? – That He was simply a helpless human being subject to circumstances beyond His control?

The answer is that Jesus knew in advance what would happen to Him and made no attempt to avoid it, because it was all a part of God’s foreordained plan.  What was about to happen would happen precisely because that was God’s plan for the Messiah, and the fact that Jesus would be killed by the Romans does not in any way detract from the fact that He was the Messiah.  The fact that He could tell His disciples in advance would only underscore the fact that He was really in control of the situation and that He submitted to it voluntarily.

Jesus now tells them, ominously, that “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (v. 30).  He recognized that the fateful hour had now come.  He also recognized that there was more to it than just a human social and political dynamic – what ultimately lay behind it was that “the ruler of this world was coming.”  This, of course, is a reference to Satan himself, who has been the archenemy of God all along, and has made every effort to frustrate the plan of redemption.  Satan knows who Jesus is, and wants to put an end to it all right at that moment, before, he thinks, it is too late.  He will be the real driving force behind Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.

But, Jesus says, “he has nothing in Me.”  Even though Jesus will go through the charade of a trial and an execution, He is perfectly innocent.  No one can point to any crime that He has actually committed.  In fact, He is perfectly sinless, the very model, ethically, of what every human being should be.

And then Jesus concludes this section by saying, “But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do” (v. 31).  Why would Jesus subject Himself to such a horrible ordeal?  Because He loved the Father and the Father ordered Him to do it.  What an amazing example of humble and self-sacrificing love!  He was willing to sacrifice His honor, His reputation, His very life, simply because this is what God the Father wanted Him to do.  What an example of humble submission to the Father’s will!

And what a lesson there is for all of us.  Our natural inclination is to be self-centered and act in our won self-interest.  Half of the time we really do not care about others, let alone make personal sacrifices for them.  And yet what God requires of us is that we love Him with all of our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.  And that, in turn, requires a willingness to sacrifice self.  If Christ was willing to do that for us, should we not be willing to do it for each other?  We are left without excuse!

Jesus then says, “Arise, let us go from here” (v. 31).  As He and the disciples left the upper room and walked through the streets of Jerusalem on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was conscious that He was now on His way to His execution.  The awful moment had finally come.

WOODSTOCK: THE DEATH OF A CIVILIZATION

woodstock_redmond_cocker

Joe Cocker at Woodstock

This weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock rock festival, a significant turning point in American culture.  In many ways it represented the collapse of what was left of Western Civilization in America.

The festival took place on a farm near the little town of Bethel, NY in the Catskill Mountain region.  The organizers of the event aimed simply at putting on a rock concert highlighting some of the biggest names of the day – Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, and Creedance Clearwater Revival, among others.  They expected maybe 50,000 people or so would show up.  Instead, nearly 400,000 arrived.  Facilities were overwhelmed and it was a logistical nightmare.

The local police were unprepared, and so a spontaneous community was created.  It was a Hippie love-in, a Counter-Culture “happening” on an unprecedented scale, and traditional norms were thrown to the wind.  It was a celebration of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

What caused such an extraordinary event?  There were several factors that led up to it.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s demonstrated the presence of racial injustice in America.  And then came the Viet Nam War, an ill-conceived foreign adventure that sparked massive protest demonstrations back home.  All of this gave “the Movement,” the New Left, with a program of radical social reform.

Political tensions reached a boiling point during the summer of 1968.  That August the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago.  The incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to run for reelection, and his heir-apparent was Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey.  He, in turn, was challenged by Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, but Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year.  The anti-war movement rallied behind McCarthy.  Nevertheless Humphrey won the nomination and was then defeated in the general election by Richard M. Nixon.

A profound sense of disillusionment set in.  Many young people became convinced that the “Establishment” and the “System” were hopelessly corrupt and beyond reform.  The only alternative, as far as they could see, was to “drop out” and pursue a vision of one’s own personal freedom and happiness.  It all came to a head the following summer at Woodstock.

There were undoubtedly serious problems in American society that needed to be addressed.  America was not a perfect nation, and never was – the Civil War was a lasting monument to that fact.  But by the 1960’s America had become much more secular in its outlook.  Earlier protests movements – the Abolitionist Movement of the mid-Nineteenth Century, the Progressive Movement of the early Twentieth – saw themselves as operating within a more-or-less Christian framework, and often used religious rhetoric to promote their causes.  (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .”

But America in the 1960’s was different.  Prayer and Bible reading had been removed from the public schools, unprecedented numbers of college-age people were attending thoroughly secularized state universities, and even the mainline Protestant denominations had ceased to accept the authority of Scripture unconditionally.  And the New Left had been at least partially influenced by Marxism.

But this meant that there was no clearly defined moral framework in which to discuss the issues.  On the one hand the “Establishment” had difficulty producing a rational defense of traditional norms and values; and, on the other hand, the “Movement” had no clear sense of moral direction either. Young people simply rebelled against the standards and norms of their elders, but without having a clearly defined alternative.  It became a matter of experimentation – if it feels good, do it.  It was long hair, free love, acid trips and communal living.

In the end the “Movement” led to tragedy.  There were drug overdoses and violence.  Women felt that they had been sexually abused, and dangerous cult leaders emerged.  As the Viet Nam War wound down and college graduates were faced with the challenge of earning a living, the Hippie movement largely faded away.  Many Hippies became Yuppies – Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals.

But the legacy of the Counter-Culture did not entirely disappear.  The Sexual Revolution permanent changed the way many Americans think about sex.  Radical Feminism has made a major impact on American society.  Public discourse had degenerated into identity politics, and in intellectual circles there is widespread skepticism then universal truths and moral absolutes even exist.

The underlying cause of all of this is secularism, the refusal to acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being whose moral law is normative.  In the end it became impossible to establish firm, binding moral norms, and social chaos was the result.  Life became a matter of power politics – might makes right, and to the victor go the spoils.

What has disappeared is Western Civilization, an advanced human society founded on certain core principles – the belief that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being, and that there are certain universal standards of justice, compassion and humanity that are binding on all.

The Counter Culture of the late ‘60’s threw all of this overboard and essentially had nothing coherent to replace it.

THE PEACE OF CHRIST

 

We often face trials and difficulties in life, and they are often painful to go through.  But nothing can even begin to compare with what Christ Himself was about to endure.  Jesus was conscious of the fact that within a matter of hours He would be arrested, tried and executed.  What is especially remarkable about this is that He made no effort to escape it.   He consciously walked into the trap set for Him, because He knew that it served a higher purpose.  Nevertheless it was a trauma for both Him and His disciples.  Herein lies a lesson or us all.

Jesus begins by reassuring His disciples.  “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27; NKJV).  What is this peace?  Jesus was no doubt speaking in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and the common language of Palestine in that day.  Very likely the word for “peace” that Jesus used was a variation of the Hebrew word shalom which means a little more than our common English word “peace.”  The noun shalom is derived from the verb shalem, which means to “be complete or sound.”  Thus the noun shalom means completeness or soundness, and by extension, peace, quiet, tranquility, or contentment.  It is that sense of peace and contentment that comes from being at rest with yourself and others around you.  It is a peace of mind that comes from a sense of wholeness.

But what Jesus is referring to in this passage is a “peace” that He would “leave” with them, a peace that He would give to them.  The apostle Paul describes this peace in Phil. 4:7: “. . .and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”  It is an inward peace, the opposite of being “anxious” (v. 6), and it comes in response to prayer.  It is a calm assurance that we have been reconciled to God (Rom. 5:1), that God is in control (Eph. 1:11), and that all things work together for good (Rom. 8:28).

Paul says that this peace “surpasses all understanding.”  In a sense it defies comprehension.  Outwardly, all is turmoil and chaos; and yet inwardly we are calm and at rest.  Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said “You cannot understand this peace, you cannot imagine it, you cannot even believe it is a sense, and yet it is happening and you are experiencing it and enjoying it” (Spiritual Depression, p. 270).

Furthermore Paul says that this peace “will guard your hearts and minds.”  It stands like a sentry at the door of your heart and keeps out all the stress and turmoil.  But the condition of all this, as we said above, is prayer: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God . . .” (v. 6).

Jesus says, regarding this peace, “not as the world gives do I give to you.”  The world claims to give peace – the whole purpose of government is to make us secure in our persons and property. There is a wealth of advice on how to achieve economic security.  And yet outward prosperity is no guarantee of inward peace, and the wealthy are oftentimes just as unhappy as the poor.  And so the world offers something to soothe the pain – food, alcohol, drugs – and, if we are sophisticated enough, the psychiatrist who will prescribe the drugs for us.  But what all of these amount to is a chemical solution to a deeper, underlying problem.  They make us feel better but leave the underlying cause of our anxiety unresolved.  As soon as the medication wears off we are faced with the same circumstances that caused the problem in the first place.

The peace which Christ gives stands in sharp contrast with this.  It looks to God and strives to bring everything into harmony with His created order.  It assures that even in the trials and difficulties of this life God has a larger purpose, and in the end the believer will be richly rewarded for the sacrifices he was called upon to make in this life.  “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18; cf. vv. 19-25; II Cor. 4:16-5:8; I Pet. 1:3-9).  And so Jesus tells His disciples, even in spite of what was about to happen to Him and to them, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

God never promises to keep us form trials and difficulties in life – far from it.  As we shall see later, Jesus forewarned us that the world would hate us (cf. 15:18-21).  But what He has promised us is His peace, an inward peace that will enable us to face the trials that come our way with calm assurance.  It is ours to have if we will only cling to Him.

“You will keep him in perfect peace,

Whose mind is stayed on You,

Because he trusts in You.

Trust in the Lord forever,

For in Yah, the Lord, is everlasting strength.”

Isa. 26:3,4