“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” John 15:12, GNB (Good News Bible)
This is the 13th memory verses that I will use as a guide/focal point to writing these articles. The “Table of Contents” is available in the series introductory article.
Immediate Literary Context
The passage that provides the immediate literary context is John 15:1-17, which is a passage titled The Vine and the Branches.
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 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.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
The key memory verse, highlighted in bold, is also repeated in the concluding verse 17, and this in itself should demonstrate that it is the central message from this passage.
This passage in chapter 15 is also contextualised in build upon key messages shared by Jesus earlier from chapters 13 & 14. In chapter 13, Jesus had taught the disciples the importance of being cleansed (13:10-11). In chapter 14, He had also spoken of the imminent communion and fellowship of intimacy with Him and the Father (14:20-23). The commandment to love was also mentioned first in John 13:34-35. Chapter 15 expands each of these topics in more depth, beginning with the analogy of the vine (verses 1-6). From verse 7 onwards, Jesus explains the analogy to the disciples, providing clearer examples for application. It is interesting to note that Jesus’ declaration of “I am the there true vine” is the final time he utilises that style of speech; and it is quite intentional that he echoes YHWH from the Old Testament in the style of “I am…”. Whereas the previous sayings of Jesus focused on Him as the giver of life, along with an invitation to believe and follow, here in chapter 15, Jesus is focusing his attention on the next stage; his audience is that of believers; those who have already responded previously and are currently following him. Therefore, the focus and emphasis is to remain in him.
This passage also slightly differs from Jesus usual use of parables and stories to convey his message. When we consider what he is saying, it is more correct to call this an extended metaphor or allegory where every detail is jam packed with significance. The central intent of the imagery is clear and unambiguous: the intimate union of believers with Jesus. The disciple’s very lives depend on this union with Jesus. As branches, believers either bear fruit and are pruned to bear more fruit or do not bear fruit and are thrown away and burned. The visualisation of a vine, and the closely associated term vineyard, were commonly used throughout the Mediterranean world. Most significant for this passage is the frequent use and alignment back to the Old Testament. The traditional use of vineyard in Judaism was symbolic of Israel as a nation. Isaiah has an extended use of this image in his “Song of the Vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1-7).
The image of the vineyard frequently shifted to the vine, as here in John. Based on the writings of Josephus in his work Antiquities of the Jews, on the temple there was a “golden vine with grape clusters hanging from it, a marvel of size and artistry”, and the vine was used to represent Jerusalem on coins made during the first Jewish revolt (A.D. 66-70), so the vine was clearly a symbol of Israel. Furthermore, even the notion of a true vine shows up in the Old Testament – Jeremiah 2:21:
“I planted you as a fruitful vine, entirely true. How have you become a wild vine, turned to bitterness”.
Here, as also in Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, God, the gardener, cared for his vineyard but got sour grapes. Consequently he will destroy the vineyard. This theme of judgment accompanies virtually every use of vineyard imagery in the Old Testament.
Thus, when Jesus refers to himself as the true vine (verse 1) he was taking an image for Israel and applying it to himself. Jesus himself is the true Israel. This claim corresponds to his break with the temple at the end of John 8 and his forming a renewed people that began in chapter 9 and came clearly to the forefront in chapter 10. Israel’s place as the people of God is now taken by Jesus and his disciples, the vine and its branches. This is not a rejection of Judaism as such, but its fulfillment in its Messiah. The identification of the people of God with a particular nation is now replaced with a particular man who incorporates in himself the new people of God composed of Jews and non-Jews. Israel as the vine of God planted in the Promised Land is now replaced by Jesus, the true vine, and thus the people of God are no longer associated with a physical territory. Jesus’ significance has been included throughout the Gospel in his use of the term Son of Man, so it is perhaps significant that the image of the vine and that of the Son of Man are identified together in Psalm 80:14b-16:
Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.
Given this strong association of the vine with Israel, when Jesus refers to himself as the vine that is true he signals a contrast between himself and the official Judaism as represented in the Jewish leaders who have rejected him and thus cut themselves off from him and his Father. The role of the Father as the gardener (verse 1) continues the theme of Jesus’ dependence on and subordination to the Father and also emphasises again the contrast between Jesus’ relationship with God and that of his opponents. The specific focus, however, is on the branches, who are in intimate contact with Jesus (verse 2). There is no real parallel to this specific use of the image of the vine and the branches elsewhere. This passage, then, uses imagery that speaks of Jesus’ identity over against official Judaism, but it uses the imagery to address issues within the new community rather than between the community and their Jewish opponents.
The new community has been established and now must bear fruit for God, in contrast to Israel and its fruitlessness. As among the people of Israel, so among Jesus’ disciples, there are those who bear fruit and those who do not (verse 2). What is this fruit? Some scholars suggest Jesus is referring to the fruit that comes from bearing witness to Jesus, that is, converts, the fruit of evangelism. At least twice in John the image of bearing fruit is used with something like this meaning (4:35-38 and 12:24). Other schools of thought interpret this fruit as being the ethical virtues characteristic of the Christian life. But something more basic, something that underlies both missionary work and ethical virtues, seems to be intended. The development of the image in verses 7-17 suggests that bearing fruit refers to the possession of the divine life itself and especially the chief characteristics of that life, knowledge of God (verse 15) and love (verses 9-14). Jesus says when they bear much fruit they demonstrate that they are his disciples (verse 8), and elsewhere he states love the evidence that one is a disciple (13:35; 14:21, 23) and is in union with God and with one another (17:21-23). Thus, the image of fruit symbolises that which is at the heart of both Christian witness and ethics–union with God.
The primary expression of this fruit that Jesus speaks of here is the love within the Christian community. The fruit that remains is thus the love that flows from, and bears witness to, life in union with God. This love has come into the world in Jesus and now is to remain in the world in the community of his disciples. This divine love manifested within the church will bear witness to Jesus before the world, which will enable some to find eternal life and will also reveal the judgment of those who reject it.
The result of such fruit bearing, of living in union with God and sharing in his love, will be answered prayer (verse 16). Prayer in Jesus’ name is prayer that is in union with him and in keeping with his character and his purposes. Thus, while the disciples themselves must go and bear fruit or risk being cut off (verse 6), they have the assurance that Jesus has chosen and appointed them for this activity and that the Father will answer their prayers. These assurances correspond to the fact that apart from Jesus the disciples can do nothing (verse 5). A person’s sharing in the divine life begins and continues only by God’s gracious activity. The grace of God that has characterised Jesus’ life and ministry will continue to characterize the life and ministry of his disciples.
The reference to Jesus’ command in the final verse (verse 17) picks up the reference both to Jesus’ words (verse 7) and to his command (verse 12), thus tying the unit together. Obedience to Jesus’ command is the evidence that we love him (verses 9-10), and the content of his command turns out to be love. This final reference to love for one another ties together this passage and provides a striking contrast to what immediately is to follow – Jesus’ description of the world’s hatred of the disciples. Jesus has been speaking of the enormous blessings of knowing and loving God in a community of love. However, the church is not to be an isolated hothouse, but a garden in the midst of the world.
Wider Literary Context
Since this memory verse is also from the Gospel of Mark, the same commentary and article content from Memory Verse #10: John 13:34 applies.
The challenge here for application is to remain in Jesus; to have that union with God. As Jesus highlights in the relationship with the disciples (and us), He chose us to be bearers of His truth and love. Whilst he considers us friends, we still are not equals; we have intimacy with him as our Lord. We depend on Jesus for everything, starting with our very life – “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) – and including our reconciliation with God through Him (Romans 5:10). No one can serve God effectively until he is connected with Jesus Christ by faith. Jesus is our only connection with the God who gave life and who produces in us a fruitful life of righteousness and service.
As discussed as part of the contextual analysis, there are many ways to understand “bearing fruit” – evangelism and the characteristics/values exhibited by believers. Instead of arguing one over the other, perhaps a safe approach is toe pursue all of them. After all, they are all interconnected. If we live a life as a believer, being true to the Word and demonstrate love, peace, grace, joy and other fruits of the Spirit, people will be attracted to our behaviour and lifestyle. In this way, our consistency in attitude and belief should help point people to Jesus and His Way. What good would it be to go out and evangelise but not live a life consistent with Jesus’ teachings of loving one another.
The greatest challenge is translating and putting into practice the art of loving one another. Jesus does back up his commandment in verse 13 with the extreme example – of us laying down our lives for our friends. Now, to be clear, Jesus is not promoting martyrdom, but his point is that we need to be willing to be selfless, to the point of laying down our lives for one another. Just as was taught in previous passages, to be first we need to be last and serve others.