November 17: John 15:16 (4)

John 15:16, continued

“(It was) not you (who) gathered me out, but I (who) gathered you out; and I set you (so) that you should lead (yourself) under and should bear fruit, and (that) your fruit should remain, (so) that, whatever you would ask (of) the Father in my name, He should give to you.”

“and (that you) should bear fruit, and (that) your fruit should remain”
kai\ karpo\n fe/rhte kai\ o( karpo\$ u(mw=n me/nh|

Picking up on our discussion from the previous note, the idiom of bearing fruit (vb fe/rw + obj karpo/$), as it applies to the disciple of Jesus, refers principally to the fulfilling of the mission given to the disciple. As I discussed, in the Gospel context, this means the continuation (and extension) of Jesus’ own mission—the mission of the Son, for which the Father sent him from heaven (to earth). Within the framework of the Johannine theology, this mission is rooted in the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that Jesus has given to disciples/believers, which itself follows the duty that the Father gave to the Son. The two-fold duty is: (1) to guard the word(s) of Jesus (“remain in my word”, 8:31; 15:7), and (2) to show love to one another, following the example of Jesus (“remain in my love”, 15:9-10).

In the qualifying phrase that follows, here in v. 16, Jesus adds the purpose that the fruit the disciple ‘bears’ should remain (vb me/nw). This important Johannine keyword has been discussed repeatedly in prior notes; it is especially prominent in the Vine-passage (15:1-17), where it occurs 11 times (vv. 4-7, 9-10, 16). It defines the believer’s fundamental identity, as belonging to the Son (Jesus), and of being/staying in union with him. The verb, with its basic meaning “remain, abide, stay”, carries both the sense of residing and of enduring.

The Johannine use of the verb entails both sides of the believer’s relationship with the Son: the believer remains in the Son, and the Son remains in the believer. This aspect of reciprocity is very much emphasized in the Vine illustration—see esp. the formulations in vv. 4 and 7:

    • “You must remain in me, and I in you” (v. 4)
    • “If you should remain in me, and my words remain in you” (v. 7)

But what does it mean for the believer’s fruit to remain? There are two references elsewhere in the Gospel that may shed some light on this question. The first is the statement by Jesus in 4:36:

“The (one) harvesting receives a wage, and gathers together fruit unto (the) life of the Age [i.e., eternal life], (so) that the (one) sowing and the (one) harvesting might rejoice as one.”

This verse was examined in an earlier note, where I pointed out the eschatological background and orientation of these harvest illustrations in the New Testament. The time of harvesting, indeed, serves as a natural image for the end of the current Age. The expression “into/unto the Age” refers to this eschatological perspective (viz., the ushering in of the coming New Age), while the related expression “(the) life of the Age” ([h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh/) refers to the Divine/blessed life that the righteous will experience in the Age to Come.

The Gospel of John retains this eschatological point of reference, but gives to it a deeper theological and spiritual meaning. Now, the “life of the Age”, or simply the shorthand term “life” (zwh/), refers to the life (and life-giving power) that God Himself possesses, and which is communicated to believers through the Son (Jesus). The Son possesses the same life that belongs to God the Father, it being given to him by the Father (cf. 3:34f; 5:26; 6:57); the Son, in turn, is able to give the life to believers. This happens even in the present, prior to the end-time Judgment—the one who trusts in Jesus has already passed through the Judgment, and now holds eternal life (see esp. 5:24).

The passage 4:31-38 shares with 15:16 (and with the Last Discourse as a whole) the theme of the disciples (believers) sharing in the mission of Jesus, and continuing it. Through the proclamation of the Gospel message, and by following the teaching and example of Jesus, believers serve as a witness to who Jesus is—viz., the Son sent by God the Father, who makes the Father known. The Gospel is rooted in Jesus’ own words (in the Discourses, etc) regarding his identity, and by the witness of the earliest disciples (and subsequently, by other believers) that confirms his word. Believers who are faithful to this witness thus “remain in his word”. It is a message—the word of Jesus—that leads to eternal life for those who trust in it.

The second reference of note is the opening declaration of the Bread of Life Discourse (chap. 6):

“You must not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food th(at is) remaining [me/nousan] unto (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man shall give to you” (v. 27)

The motif of ‘food that remains’ is clearly parallel to that of ‘fruit that remains’. Thus, there is good reason to conclude that this abiding fruit, like the abiding food, refers to the eternal life that the Son (Jesus) gives to believers. This life is possessed (“held”) by believers even in the present, but only if one remains in the Son will this life remain.

It is possible, I think, to isolate three distinct strands of meaning that inform the motif of bearing “fruit that remains” in v. 16:

    • It is an extension of the broader concept of the believer remaining in Jesus, and Jesus in the believer. Through this abiding union with the Son, believers are also united with the Father, realizing their/our identity as His offspring (1:12-13, etc).
    • In particular, it refers to the eternal life from the Father that is granted to believers through the Son, being communicated by the Spirit.
    • It also relates to the discipleship-theme of believers’ role in continuing the ministry of Jesus—witnessing to the message (the words and example) of Jesus that leads to eternal life for all who trust in him.