Success in God’s Eyes
James C. Denison
Tom Brady is the quarterback of the New England Patriots and winner of three Super Bowls. But with all his fame and success, when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes he said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.’ Me, I think, God, it’s got to be more than this. I mean this isn’t, this can’t be, what it’s all cracked up to be.” “What’s the answer,” asked the interviewer. “I wish I knew,” Brady replied. “I wish I knew.”
Most of us have experienced a measure of success in our lives and world. Now we want to be significant. We want our lives to count for something. We want our time on earth to matter. We want to know that we’re headed in the right direction, that God is pleased with us, that one day we’ll hear the most joyous words in all of eternity: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
In our summer series we have learned that our church belongs to Jesus: “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Because our church is his, we are his as well–God’s “saints,” his separated ones. He expects us to live like his saints as his new creation. We do this by being “filled” or controlled with the Spirit every day.
Now, how do we know that we’re on track? How do we measure ourselves as the church of Jesus, his saints, his new creation, filled by his Spirit? What results should be obvious if we are living in his word and will? How does he define success for us? How can you know if you are pleasing God today? If you will please God in heaven? If your time is significant in eternity or wasted forever?
Measure success by fruit
Our text begins: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). This seems a strange way for God to describe himself–a spindly, prickly vine growing along the ground or climbing up a fence. But in Jesus’ culture, a “vine” meant far more than we envision.
Throughout the Old Testament, the vine was the symbol for the nation of Israel. For instance, the Psalmist said of God and his people, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River” (Psalm 80:8-11; cf. Isaiah 27:2-6; Hosea 10:1).
This image was so important to the people that they made it their national symbol. They constructed a tall, golden cluster of grapes on the doors of their Temple, and typically referred to themselves as the “vine” of God. Our symbol is the eagle–theirs was the fruit vine.
However, Scripture says that their vine had become decayed and corrupted: “I planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21).
Thus Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” the real, authentic vine of God. His Father is the “gardener,” the One who owns and tends the vine.
God “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” (v. 2).
The fruit vines which are found in Palestine grow rapidly along the ground or trellis. They spread so quickly that plants are typically spaced at least 12 feet apart. A new vine is not allowed to bear fruit for the first three years of its life, and is constantly pruned so that it will grow thicker and stronger.
When the vine matures, it bears two kinds of branches–one that produces fruit, and one that does not. An observer cannot tell them apart until the fruit appears. Then the gardener will cut off the branches which bear no fruit, so they do not take life and energy from those which do.
The discarded branches were good for nothing in Jesus’ day. Their wood was too soft to be used for building material. It did not even make a good fire for cooking or light, as it smoldered and smoked more than it burned. So the fruitless branches were “picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” as trash (v. 6).
Producing fruit-bearing branches was the gardener’s goal, but even they had no value in themselves: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (v. 4). If a fruit-bearing branch were broken off the vine by storms or malice, it would quickly dry up. It retained its value only so long as it remained attached to its vine.
So we find in Jesus the “true” or genuine vine, in contrast to the decayed, withered vine of the nation of Israel. We have learned that three kinds of branches are attached to him.
One is fruitless. It looks good, even beautiful, but produces nothing of value. Profession without practice, words without works, all leaves and no fruit. Has your life born fruit for God? As a tree reproduces by bearing fruit, so the Church reproduces when Christians make Christians. Have you made evangelistic fruit for God? Do you bear spiritual fruit for God, the “fruit of the Spirit”? Do others see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control with consistency in your life (Galatians 5:22-23)? Does your branch bear fruit?
The second branch bore fruit until it broke from the vine. Successful until it became complacent, now self-sufficient and fruitless. When last did you pray first? When last did you surrender your day to the Holy Spirit, asking him to “fill” and control and use your life? Are you consistently connected with the vine through prayer and Scripture, praise and worship, obedience and gratitude? Are you attached to the vine this morning?