This morning, people do not desire discomfort or unpleasantness. Perhaps more than at any other time in human history, comforts abound and are more sought after than ever before. However, there is no escape that life is full of suffering and turmoil. Due to the entrance of sin in this old world, things die and will continue to die. (Romans 5:12) To the disciple of Christ, there will not be constant ups, even if we live as we should, for the toils of life continue day after day. Yet, too many times, people like to hedge all outward circumstances into one or perhaps two different buckets. Quite often, the outward circumstances can betray us into thinking that something is afoot that is really not there and vice versa. Sometimes, good times are brought on by good living and bad times are brought on for bad living. It is a mistake to think that outwardly good or bad times is necessarily a product of certain kinds of living.
When reading the Bible, it is an absolute necessity to understand whether the passage is meant to indicate a manner of life and direction for that life or a declaration of a state that has already been laid. Sometimes writers and commentators will refer to these types of distinctions as positional vs. conditional, eternal vs. timely, or even sonship vs. discipleship. Texts and passages that deal with declarations of state of being are classified as positional, eternal, and sonship passages, while those that deal with directions and instructions for ways of life are classified as conditional, timely, and discipleship lessons. When someone finally sees this type of distinction in Scripture and further is able to detect keys phrases and thoughts that indicate which is which, it saves a lot of head-scratching and confusion for the remainder of his time in study and devotion to God's word.
The verse before us undeniably falls into the realm of discipleship, conditional, and timely. With all the exhortations to obedience within Christ's discourse about the vine and branches, none of that would make sense in an eternal plane where nothing we have or will ever do can affect that great change and salvation necessary for us to be in heaven's pure world. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Actions must be preceded by life, and therefore, the actions being commanded presuppose that life already exists in those that are being addressed. Furthermore, Christ Himself says later in verse 8 that by doing what He here commanded they would be His "disciples." This is not how they became sons, but it is how they proved discipleship. Now that we have this foundation fixed firmly before us, let us attempt to peel back the tapestry of this verse to glimpse some very important and real truths that touch us quite often.
Christ teaches in this lesson that non-fruit bearing branches are taken away. Though not pleasant to consider, there is a very present reality that children of God simply do not bear forth the kind of fruit that they should in consistent, perpetual glory to Almighty God. As such, they get taken away from the vine since their presence hinders other branches that are feverishly trying to bear fruit. A good example of this in Biblical times is natural/national Israel. They were presented personally with the Saviour. He came unto them, and He died among them. After His resurrection, His gospel was preached unto them. They had all the prophecies and Scriptures of old to draw from. Yet, as Paul lines out in very illustrious detail in Romans 11, they were plucked out of the tree, and the Gentiles – though a wild olive branch – were graffed in contrary to nature to partake in the fatness of the Lord's goodness. Since the Jews were not bringing forth the fruit, they were taken away completely from the vine and left in darkness and blindness.
Now, it behooves us to once again state that the Jews' national blindness is not indicative of eternal damnation. Rather, it was a manifest token of God's judgment to take non-fruit bearing branches away for disobedience and lack of discipleship. For someone to claim understanding of one's eternal state by what they see as outward circumstances is akin to Job's miserable comforters claiming to know some fault of his without Divine revelation. Furthermore, the attempt is a blasphemous claim to know what God knows to the last degree and letter. (II Timothy 2:19) Even if someone's faith is overthrown and the dried-up branches are taken away, God still is the final authority on who is His and who is not. One final thought before moving along is this: there is a difference – a big difference – in saying that one believes someone is elect vs. saying someone is non-elect. For example, a non-elect person will never exhibit the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit, nor will they ever have heart-felt rejoicings and pricks when experiencing the power of the gospel. So, when someone exhibits what appears to be any of those things, I have no discomfort in saying, "From what I see, I believe so-and-so is a child of God." When I do not see these things in someone, all I can really say is, "To my best evidence, I simply do not know."
Now, one of the biggest misconceptions by sincere individuals today is that when serving the Lord as we should, there will not be any problems. In other words, the righteous get a measure of goodness and prosperity for their faithfulness. While it is true that such does sometimes happen (many of the saints in Scripture were blessed with natural goods by the Lord), it is not always the case nor at all seasons. Some saints – like Job – were stripped of their goods and natural blessings even when upholding the righteous conduct that he had before. Sometimes, God's faithful find themselves upon difficult circumstances, and they might even foolishly wonder, "What happened to the God that I serve?" The early disciples were not immune to this line of thinking either as they were found on the day of His resurrection walking and talking with abject sorrow about the recent events surrounding their Lord. (Luke 24)
While not all outward circumstances are equal – no matter how similar they seem – sometimes the Lord removes things from the fruit bearing disciples in order to bear more fruit. This does not mean that God is in every action, event, etc. that happens in our lives, but I would suspect that His hand is in much more than we will ever realize this side of home and eternal glory. Quite possibly, His hand has overshadowed me from things that would have taken my life or rendered me permanently handicapped more often than I have ever seen or been made to realize. However, I can also see places and periods of my life where things that I really, really wanted were taken away from me. These were not necessarily wicked, carnal things but looking back, those things would have hindered my growth and fruit bearing later in life in the kingdom.
One related story should suffice to make the point. When my natural father was a young man, he had begun to exercise in the ministry and knew that it would be the driving force and defining aspect in his life. His father owned a rather lucrative business that was doing quite well, and he had handpicked Dad as his successor and heir apparent to the helm of the company after him. Such an enterprise would have made my father a much wealthier man than he ever lived to become (and I am convinced from his business savvy that he would have been quite successful at running Grandpa's company). However, he turned the offer down without hesitation with the knowledge that he could not run the company and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ as he needed to. There is nothing wrong or sinful with running a company, but though Dad was bearing forth fruit already, things were pruned away so that more fruit would be borne.
I am quite sure that there was some natural sense of loss when he made that decision, though he never talked about it. The flesh never enjoys losing some comfort or good thing that will benefit it. However, there are times when the Lord removes things from our lives that are not necessarily evil, but their presence will hinder further growth and fruit production. Consider a tree growing up with plenty of access to sunlight as opposed to one that grows under the canopy of other trees. The tree with access to the sunlight will not only grow faster than the shaded one, but it will begin to bring forth fruit much, much earlier. There is nothing wrong with other trees, and many times, trees grow very successfully together. However, the more access you have to Sonlight, the more purged you become to bring forth even more fruit to God.
Brethren, I have never enjoyed losing comforts and natural blessings in this old world, but one thing that pain does do is powerfully reinforce just how much I need Him. Whether as individuals, families, churches, countries, or whatever the group or case may be, we cannot paint outward circumstances equally. However, when in times of pruning, we definitely can be made to see Him clearer than before. One of the reasons that I love talking to the aged is because their view of heaven seems so much clearer than mine. As one who naturally would seem to have a lot of vitality left, it is heart-warming to hear those talk about a place we both call home but they feel to be going very shortly. Why do the aged seem to feel that urge more strongly than the young? When the trappings of youth have left and the pleasures of life have waxed cold, the sight of the Master in His throneroom becomes more bright and refulgent than before. May our pruning be met with delight at seeing Him clearer – things are taken away between us and Him – and thereby bringing forth even more fruit in His service.