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The Abiding Life


Grapevine

by Dennis Pollock

From my earliest days as a Christian I have always yearned for a fruitful life. I couldn't possibly guess how many times I have prayed that simple three-word prayer, "Lord, use me!", but it has been many. As I prayed and read the Scriptures I eventually zeroed in on the fifteenth chapter of John, where Jesus gives us the command to abide in Him, and makes amazing promises to those who do.

Contrary to what some have implied, abiding in Jesus does not guarantee that we will be rich or that we will have a life free from pain and problems (see the apostle Paul's life). Jesus does, however, guarantee that abiders will amass a record of answered prayers, they will bear much fruit, and the Father will be glorified through their lives. There are many definitions of success in the world, but none can match the purpose for which Jesus chooses His disciples: "You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain…" (John 15:16). And this purpose is only accomplished through the life of abiding. 

The Greek word translated abide means "continuing, dwelling, enduring, remaining, standing, tarrying." Many Bible versions use the word "remain." The specifics of just how this is accomplished are not always agreed upon by ministers, but clearly Jesus is encouraging us to live in a place of fellowship with and trust in Him. His command to abide infers the possibility and even tendency of believers to somehow stray from Him and His presence once we have arrived. It is pointless to command someone to stay if it is impossible for him to stray. Thus Jesus commands us to abide.

The promise of answered prayer could not be spoken in plainer terms: "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you" (John 15:7). Many might prefer that Jesus had been a little more careful with His language here. Perhaps He should have put an asterisk beside it and said at the bottom of the page: "Of course you can't really ask what you like, I just meant you could ask what your Father desires." But there is no asterisk and the language is radical – abide in Jesus, and ask what you like. Our Lord seems to feel the safeguard is in the abiding. Anyone in that abiding relationship with Him can be trusted to yearn with holy desires and to pray holy prayers. And such petitions will be granted. 

Vine & Branches 

The illustration Jesus uses to describe the abiding relationship is the connection between a grapevine and its branches. He tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." Grapes are always produced on the branches, but the branches are entirely dependent upon the vine. Separate a branch from its vine and death and withering are inevitable. Jesus is telling us here that a continual relationship with Him is absolutely imperative if we are to enjoy the divine life that produces good fruit and brings blessings to others.

So far, so good. No evangelical Christian would argue these points. But what does the abiding life look like? How is it accomplished? What should we do and what can we expect? As I see it there are only two reasons Christians don't become abiders. One reason is that they don't truly see or believe the benefits promised. A lifetime of fruitfulness and answered prayer is worth any sacrifice or lifestyle change required. If we really believed Jesus' words we would pursue the abiding life with all our heart. The other reason is that many believers have such a vague notion of abiding that they hardly know where to start. Is it even possible? Or is Jesus simply holding out an ideal that no one will ever live up to?

I have to believe abiding is possible. None of us will do it perfectly, of course, but we can do it. It would have been cruel as well as meaningless for Jesus to have held out this lifestyle if in fact we are totally incapable of achieving it. The key to understanding and walking in this life is found in the varied illustrations the Bible uses. With the vine / branches illustration we see the necessity of divine life in the believer. I have come to believe this illustration is far more literal than I first realized. Of course Jesus isn't literally a vine and we aren't literally branches, but the drawing on the life of God is quite literal. In another place Jesus tells us that those who believe in Him will experience "rivers of living water" flowing in and through them. The Holy Spirit produces streams of divine life in us, and this life is activated through a continual faith walk with Jesus Christ. As we shall see, the word of God plays a major role in all of this

Amazingly we can find the abiding concept even in the Old Testament. Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in Psalm 1, where David declares a blessing on the following man:

… his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper (Psalm 1:2,3). 

Anyone familiar with John 15 should be immediately struck by the similarities. No doubt Jesus had read this Psalm and may well have been thinking about it when He gave His parable of the vine and branches. In this Psalm we also see the concept of a plant drawing on a source of life, flourishing, and producing fruit. In John 15 we are told that whatever they ask will be granted; in Psalm 1 that whatever they do will prosper. The major difference between the two promises is the condition for fulfillment. In Psalms the condition is meditating in God's law (or word) day and night but in John 15 the condition is abiding in Jesus. These are not contradictions – they are two ways of expressing the same thing.

Because the word of God is ultimately a revelation of Jesus, the primary means by which we abide is to meditate in the word, rejoicing in the discovery of Jesus as we find Him throughout the Scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments. In speaking about the abiding life Jesus makes it clear that the word of God is to play a major role in this abiding: "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you." Elsewhere Jesus says, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed." There is no abiding apart from the word of God.

RiverIn the Psalms passage we see that it is the continual meditation on the words of God that draws the life-giving waters and produces a life of fruitfulness and spiritual prosperity. I discovered this in my own life many years ago. As a young man in my twenties, I was eager to experience more of the Holy Spirit. I went to a pastor I respected and asked his advice. He suggested I read the Bible aloud. As I incorporated this practice into my life, I began to feel new and unusual sensations. I began to have a conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit, and this feeling seemed to be very much associated with the oral reading of the word of God. 

It was not that I hadn't felt the presence of God before, but usually it had been in a powerful church service or a specially blessed time of prayer. But now I found I could sit down, start to read aloud, and regardless of how "dry" I had been feeling, that presence would normally come upon me. As I thought about the Psalm 1 promise I concluded that this idea of being a tree drawing on rivers of life was what was happening. This flow of divine life was more than a metaphor; it was literally occurring as I read the word and focused my attention on the Lord Jesus. 

Day & Night 

Another vital aspect of the abiding life is the "day and night" business. We find the same terminology used when God instructs Joshua in how he can find "good success" as a leader of Israel: "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night (sound familiar?)… (Joshua 1:8).

As I gave more and more attention to abiding I began to realize that day and night does not meanmornings. From my earliest years as a Christian I made an effort to have a devotional life – to read the Scriptures each day and to pray. But often this consisted of a time in the morning and nothing more. This is certainly superior to no devotional life at all, but it is not enough. Too often we have our morning prayer time, read some Scriptures, and then say to God, "Well, Lord, it has been wonderful. But now I have to go out into the real world, so I won't have much time for you the rest of the day. But I want you to know that I'll be back here to see you again tomorrow – same time, same place." And then we go out into our day and forget about God almost entirely. We never speak another word in prayer or read another verse throughout the day. Next morning we are back at our post to have some time with God again.

well pumpWhen I was a child I was often taken by my parents to visit my Grandmother in Sabula, Iowa, where she lived in a small house with a pump that sat over a well in the back yard. I used to love to draw water out of that well with the pump, but it was not so easy. A can of water was kept nearby to "prime the pump", and you had to carefully pour the water down the pipe while pumping furiously. If you were lucky the water would soon come gushing out, but sometimes you had to pump and pump and find some more water to prime again, until finally the water appeared. But once the flow of water started the rest was easy. You could pump very lightly and get rushing streams of water for as long as you desired.

The principles involved here are flow and inertia. When the water had settled down in the well it was a bit of a chore to get it up to the top and flowing, but once the flow started it was simple to keep it going! In the illustrations God uses to describe the abiding life, along with His exhortations to spend time in His word day and night, He is making it plain that He wants the waters of life to continually flow in our lives. Too often we get a little flow started and then through neglect of Christ and His word allow the waters to settle back down again. For this reason Paul tells us to "be (continually) filled with the Holy Spirit."

Our God is too big to limit to mornings only! He wants to be remembered throughout our day in prayer and in times in His word. Of course we can't read the Bible all day long, but most of us can find a few minutes at various points in our day to read a couple of chapters in the Scriptures and breathe some words of thanksgiving and petition to the Father.

Jeremiah speaks of this life as well, declaring that the man who trusts in the Lord "shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit" (Jeremiah 17:8). To fellowship with Jesus, to meditate on His word, and to trust in Him – all these are mixed and mingled in the abider's life. The results are guaranteed by the promise of the Living God – you will be exceedingly fruitful and you will never know spiritual drought. And when you make petitions of the Father they will be granted.

 Best of all, the Father will be glorified.




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