The Vine and the Branches, 1-17

15:1 “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. 15:2 He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. 15:3 You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. 15:4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.

Verses 9-16 may be regarded as a commentary on verses 1-8 (Carson). Both sections speak of ‘remaining’; of fruitfulness; and of prayer.

Milne points out that the very popularity of this passage amongst expositors leads to the tendency to take it out of context. That context is the post-Easter mission of the disciples, which gives unity to the entire upper-room ministry. The first discourse is focussed on allaying the disciples’ fears, and the second (which begins at this point) lays the foundation for their education in mission. This second discourse (Jn 15:1-16:33) covers three aspects: (a) the cruciality of mission, Jn 15:1-17; (b) the cost of mission, Jn 15:18-16:4; (c) the resources for mission, Jn 16:5-33.

A eucharistic interpretation of the passage is, as Carson says, based on thin evidence (there is no mention of wine, let alone of blood).

“I am the true vine” – This is the 7th and last of our Lord’s great self-declarations.

1. A familiar illustration. The vine was grown all over Palestine. It is a plant which requires a great deal of attention: careful soil preparation and also drastic pruning. A young vine was not allowed to fruit for 3 years. The vine bears both fruit-bearing and non-fruit-bearing branches. The wood is useless; if a branch bears no fruit it is only good for burning.

2. Jesus is the true vine. In the OT, Israel was often likened to a vine, but always to an unfruitful vine, Psa 80:9-16; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Jer 2:21; 12:10ff; Ezek 15:1-8; 17:1-21; 19:10-14; Hos 10:1f. It is by way of contrast, then, that Jesus refers to himself as the ‘true’ vine, one who brings forth good fruit. The ‘replacement’ motif is strong in this Gospel, cf. Jn 2:19-22. ‘Jesus has already, in principle, superceded the temple, the Jewish feasts, Moses, various holy sites; here he supercedes Israel as the very locus of the people of God.’ (Carson) See Psa 80, which brings together the themes of the vine and the son of man.

Milne remarks that the vine was the ‘supreme’ symbol of Israel:

‘A great golden vine trailed over the temple porch, and the coinage minted in Israel during the revolt against Rome (AD 68–70) also bore a vine symbol.’  But ‘Israel has failed God in the long-term role she was called to fulfil, that of being ‘a light for the Gentiles’ (Is. 49:6), to bring God’s salvation ‘to the ends of the earth’. ‘The election of Israel coincides with God’s promise of blessing for the nations’ (H. H. Rowley). Israel, however, was more attracted by the gods of the surrounding nations than by her potential for penetrating them as a missionary. Her centuries-long declension from God’s purpose now reaches its nadir in the rejection and crucifying of the Messiah and the repudiation of the kingship of God (19:15). But God’s purpose, from which Israel turns in final apostasy, does not fall to the ground. It is grasped anew by the one who stands in the midst of Israel, and among the disciples. In contrast to the vine which has destroyed itself by disobedience, Jesus is ‘the true vine’. He is the obedient Son through whose sacrifice and consequent mission the age-old purpose of Israel would find fulfilment, the nations would be reached, and ‘all the families of the earth shall bless themselves’ (Gn. 12:3).’

3. Believers are branches of the vine. If the branches are severed from the vine, they are useless. From the vine comes all their life, energy and fruitfulness.

4. The Father is the gardener. He nurtures, protects, and cultivates. The relationship between the vine and the gardener is consistent with the kind of subordination the Son displays towards the Father, 5:19ff. (Carson)

There are two actions here: the gardener cuts off the fruitless branches, and he prunes those that are fruitful, so that they might become more so. Cf. with the imagery of Heb 12:4-11, where a similarly painful process (a father disciplining his children) is carried out for wise and loving reasons (see esp. Heb 12:10f).

In this verse, Jesus reveals two actions of the vinedresser; one, He does something with the branch that isn’t bearing any fruit at all; two, He does something with the branch that isn’t bearing enough fruit. In the first case, He “takes away”; in the second, He “prunes.” Vines occasionally yield an unproductive, fruitless branch. When that happens, the gardener immediately goes to work, as Merrill Tenney notes in his commentary.

Viticulture… consists mainly of pruning. In pruning a vine, two principles are generally observed: first, all dead wood must be ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood must be cut back drastically. Dead wood harbors insects and disease and may cause the vine to rot, to say nothing of being unproductive and unsightly. Live wood must be trimmed back in order to prevent such heavy growth that the life of the vine goes into the wood rather than into fruit. The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren, bleeding stumps; but in the fall they are filled with luxuriant purple grapes. As the farmer wields the pruning knife on his vines, so God cuts dead wood out from among His saints, and often cuts back the living wood so far that His method seems cruel. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most there often comes the greatest fruitfulness. (Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief)

The vine is essentially a utilitarian plant:

‘The vine lives to give its life-blood. Its flower is small, its fruit abundant, and when that fruit is mature and the vine has become, for a moment, glorious, the treasure of the grapes is torn down and the vine is cut right back to the stem.’ (Temple)

Although today he prunes my twigs with pain,
Yet doth his blood nourish and warm my root:
Tomorrow I shall put forth buds again
And clothe myself with fruit.

Christina Georgina Rossetti

It would be pushing the imagery of this metaphor too far to try to use this verse to decide difficult questions concerning the possibility of the apostasy of those who were once ‘true’ believers. There is a strong vein of teaching within this Gospel that true believers will persevere to the end, Jn 6:37-40; 10:28. It would be more in keeping with the general tenor of the NT to regard the fruitless branches as representing those who had been in some way connected with Christ, but had failed to connect savingly (and therefore fruitfully) with him. An example would be Judas.

Milne warns:

‘Within every disciple community there are probably those who at the last will be exposed as dead branches. Let each one make his or her “calling and election sure”, 2 Pet 1:10.’

“The word” is the ‘teaching’.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you” – No branch has life in itself, or can be fruitful by itself. It is completely dependant on the vine.

‘”Abiding” (remaining) in Christ must not be reduced to a subjective, mystical, inner state. The mark of an abiding heart is not only, or even principally, a sense of inward serenity, but a “conscience clear before God and man” (Acts 24:16).’ (Milne)

15:5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. 15:6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. 15:7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. 15:8 My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.

“I am the vine; you are the branches” – cf. Jn 14:20. ‘The branches derive their life from the vine; the vine produces its fruit through the branches.’ (Carson, on v2)

‘The union with Christ which produces no effect on heart and life is a mere formal union, which is worthless before God. The faith which has not a sanctifying influence on the character is no better than the faith of devils. It is a “dead faith, because it is alone.” It is not the gift of God. It is not the faith of God’s elect. In short, where there is no sanctification of life, there is no real faith in Christ.’ (Ryle, Holiness)

“My words” rhemata – adding up to the sum total of Jesus’ ‘word’ (logos).

The promise is conditional upon remaining in Christ and having his words remain in us. ‘Such a truly obedient believer proves effective in prayer, since all he or she asks for conforms to the word of God.’ (Carson)

“Fruit” – But what is the nature of the fruit? Obedience? Converts? Love? Good deeds? Probably, all of these, but including especially the things that Jesus himself mentions: obedience to Jesus’ commands (v10), experience of Jesus’ joy (vv11), love for one another (v12), and witness to the world (vvv16, 26) (Carson).  Isa 5:7 uses the same imagery to refer to social justice. We think also of Paul’s account of spiritual fruit in Gal 5:22.

Study of ‘me’ in John’s Gospel

  1. To meattraction, Jn 12:32
  2. Against metreason, Jn 13:18
  3. Through meaccess, Jn 14:6
  4. Without mefailure, Jn 15:5
  5. In mepeace, Jn 16:33
  6. With meglory, Jn 17:24

(Picking, 1,000 Subjects, slightly adapted)

Fruitfulness is honouring to God. Cf. Mt 5:16; Phil 1:2. ‘If your religion does not change you, then you should change your religion.’ (Elbert Hubbard)

15:9 “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love.

Verses 1-8 have supplied the metaphor, verses 9-16 provide the explanation.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” – Here our Lord adds a depth of meaning that the metaphor itself could not hold.

As the Father’s love for the Son is without change, without measure, and without end, so is the Saviour’s love for his own.

‘As the Father has loved me…’

‘According to our Lord’s own testimony in John’s gospel, God’s fatherly relation to him implied four things.

First, it implied authority. The Father commands and disposes; the initiative which he calls his Son to exercise is the initiative of resolute obedience to his Father’s will, Jn 6:38; 17:4; 5:19; 4:34.

Second, fatherhood implied affection, Jn 5:20; 15:9f.

Third, fatherhood implied fellowship, Jn 5:20; 15:9f.

Fourth, fatherhood implied honour. God wills to exalt the Son, Jn 17:1; 5:22f.

All this extends to God’s adopted children. In, through, and under Jesus Christ their Lord, they are ruled, loved, companied with, and honoured by their heavenly Father. As Jesus obeyed God, so must they, 1 Jn 5:1,3. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

15:10 If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.

Here we learn what it means to ‘remain’ in Jesus’ love. It means the kind of obedience to his commands that he had for his Father’s commands, cf. Jn 8:29.

‘These two verses [9f] do not impose on the believer an absolute alternative, perfect obedience or utter apostasy; rather they set up the only ultimate standard, the standard of Jesus himself. The practical tensions between this supreme standard and the faulty steps of obedience practised by Jesus’ followers are more fully explored in 1 John.’ (Carson)

15:11 I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.

Jesus speaks of ‘my peace’, Jn 14:27; ‘my love’, Jn 15:10, and now ‘my joy’. Contrary to what we might think or expect, there is joy in obedience.

The implication here is that joy is at best fleeting and partial, until we come to know and love God in Christ. ‘The Son does not give his disciples his joy as a discrete package; he shares his joy insofar as they share his obedience.’ (Carson)

‘Here joy enters into the saints; in heaven, “they enter into joy.” (Thomas Watson)

‘Christ takes no more delight to dwell in a sad heart, than we do to live in a dark house.’ (Gurnall)

‘When unbelievers see Christians sad as they hold the cup of salvation in their hands, they suspect the wine is not so good as preachers say it is.  If traders to the Indies returned poorer than they were when they began, it would be hard to convince others to venture to that place regardless of how many golden mountains might tower there.  Christian, do not give unbelievers reason to imagine, by seeing you limping through the race, that they must forfeit happiness if they become Christians and spend the rest of their lives in a house of mourning, with a team of losers.’ (Gurnall)

15:12 My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you. 15:13 No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends. 15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15:15 I no longer call you slaves, because the slave does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I heard from my Father.

“Love one another as I have loved you” – Jesus’ love for us is the ultimate standard and test of our love for one another, cf. 1 Jn 3:16.

There is, of course, an even deeper meaning here than the disciples could have realised. The Holy Spirit would remind them of it in due course, 14:26.

‘Because John does not normally distinguish the two most common roots for “to love” (agapao and phileo), we are probably justified in rending this “that one lay down his life for those he loves” (cf. 10:15.).’ (Carson)

‘This obedience is not what makes them his friends; it is what characterises his friends.’ (Carson)

If Jesus’ disciples are called to a life of obedience, what distinguishes them from servants (douloi – slaves)? The answer given in this verse is that the mind of God is revealed to them. The two OT characters who are caled “friends of God” – Abraham and Moses – ‘enjoyed extraordinary access to the mind of God’. (Carson)

‘An absolute potentate demands obedience in all his subjects. His slaves, however, are simply told what to do, while his friends are informed of his thinking, enjoy his confidence and learn to obey with a sense of privilege and with full understanding of their master’s heart. So also here: Jesus’ absolute right to command is in no way diminished, but he takes pains to inform his friends of his motives, plans, purposes.’ (Carson)

15:16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that remains, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. 15:17 This I command you—to love one another.

“I…appointed you to go and bear fruit” – This is the language of mission, and the fruit therefore is (or includes) new converts. The love which joins Jesus and his followers is not a comfortable, exclusive huddle, but one which, by its own nature, seeks to draw others into its orb. (Carson)

“that will last” – ‘remain’ – recalling the language of the earlier part of the chapter.

“Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” – or, rather, “That the Father may give you…” The means of fruitfulness is prayer in Jesus’ name.

‘A father took his children to the fair one day. He bought a whole roll of tickets for the various rides. As each of the children approached a ride, they would hold our a hand to get a ticket from their father. At one ride, after all his children had received tickets, a boy whom the father had never seen before came up and held out his hand, obviously expecting a ticket. The father ignored the boy. He wasn’t about to give ticket to a stranger. Upon seeing this, the man’s son Stephen turned and said to his Dad, “It’s OK, Dad, this is my friend. I told him you would give him a ticket.” And the father gave the boy a ticket in Stephen’s name. That boy had no right to a ticket, but since his son had said he would do it, the father honoured the name of his son by giving that stange boy a ticket.’ (Adapted from Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 274f.)

The World’s Hatred, 18-27

15:18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 15:19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you.

Carson suggests that the tension between Christ’s followers and the world is, according to this passage, due to theological reasons rather than sociological ones.  And yet sociological implications will follow.  He adds that, from an evangelistic perspective, this passage demands a decision, for the issues at stake are urgent and important.  And this is a costly decision, cf. Lk 9:57-62; 14:25-33.  ‘To warn prospective disciples of these unyielding realities serves to discourage spurious conversions and to foster true ones.’

Christ’s followers are not to be surprised when they experience opposition and persecution, cf. 1 Jn 3:13.

The world – In John’s writings, this term can be used for the created order (Jn 1:10), or more narrowly for the human race apart from God, as here.  Carson speaks for the majority when he says that the term refers to ‘the created moral order in active rebellion against God.’  Kruse thinks that ‘in this context, the “world” stands for those among the Jewish leadership who were antagonistic towards Jesus.’

It hated me first – Why did the world hate Jesus?  The reason given in Jn 7:7 is that he testified that its deeds are evil.  If Christians find that they are hated, it will be because they are associated with Christ, and because they share in his ministry of exposing evil.  They are, therefore, in good company, knowing ‘the fellowship of his sufferings’.

‘The friendship of the world they were not to expect, but they were not to be deterred from their work by its hatred. They had seen the example of Jesus. No opposition of the proud, the wealthy, the learned, or the men of power, no persecution or gibes, had deterred him from his work. Remembering this, and having his example steadily in the eye, they were to labour not less because wicked men should oppose and deride them. It is enough for the disciple to be as his Master, and the servant as his Lord, Mt 10:25.’ (Barnes)

‘Note the progress in the world’s opposition: hatred (John 15:18-19), persecution (John 15:20), excommunication, and even death (John 16:2). You can trace these stages of resistance as you read the Book of Acts. (Wiersbe)

The world cannot tolerate Christ’s unique claims, his free offer of salvation, his high standards. He rejects the pluralism of the world, he undermines the self-righteousness of the world, he challenges the self-indulgence of the world. (Stott)

We, too, once belonged to the world.  But not any longer.  ‘Former rebels who have by the grace of the king been won back to loving allegiance to their rightful monarch are not likely to prove popular with those who persist in rebellion.’ (Carson)

The believer’s relationship with the world is one of tension.  We once belonged to the world, but no longer do so.  Yet we are not to withdraw from the world: we are sent back into the world in order to seek its salvation, but can expect to meet opposition and persecution.

‘The world system functions on the basis of conformity. As long as a person follows the fads and fashions and accepts the values of the world, he or she will “get along.” But the Christian refuses to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). The believer is a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) and no longer wants to live the “old life” (1 Peter 4:1-4). We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13-16), but a dark world does not want light and a decaying world does not want salt! In other words, the believer is not just “out of step”; he is out of place! (See John 17:14, 16, and 1 John 4:5.).’ (Wiersbe)

“That is why the world hates you” – ‘This placed the disciples in a situation of tension (and it is the same for believers today.  On the one hand, they were called upon to love the world and to seek its salvation, but the world rejected and persecuted them.  The temptation might be to withdraw from contact with the world into a Christian ghetto, but this they could not do, because Jesus had sent them into the world to share the good news with its people, Jn 4:38; 17:18; 20:21.’ (Kruse)

15:20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too.

“The words I spoke to you” – recorded in Jn 13:16.  Just as it is fitting for the servant to adopt Christ’s attitude of humble service, so too it is fitting that the servant should receive the same treatment as Christ from the world.

“No servant is greater than his master” – Milne quotes Samuel Rutherford in support of the assertion that ‘being identified with Jesus makes opposition inevitable’:- ‘God has called you to Christ’s side, and the wind is not in Christ’s face in this land; and since you are with him you cannot expect the sheltered or the sunny side of the hill.’

Milne adds: ‘Jesus is implying that the opposition comes not because people do not recognise Christ in us but precisely because, intuitively, they do.  The world still crucifies Jesus.’

“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” – We are identified with Christ.  ‘This principle is seen in some of the other images of the relationship between Christ and His own. He is the Shepherd and we are the sheep; and when they attack the Shepherd, it affects the sheep (Matt. 26:31). He is the Master (Teacher) and we are the disciples, the learners. But it is encouraging to know that when God’s people are persecuted, our Lord enters into their suffering, for He is the Head of the body and we are the members. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” (Acts 9:4) Anything that the enemy can do to us has already been done to Jesus Christ, and He is “with us” as we suffer.’ (Wiersbe)

‘Jesus taught us to expect rejection. Rejection may be difficult to take, but if we never experience it, we may be hiding our Christianity from others. If we profess Christ and are warmly embraced by the world, we should reexamine our commitment and life-style. If we remain silent about our faith in order to gain acceptance by the world, we have made a poor trade. In fact, we are being dishonest in two ways: We deny the faith we claim as central in our lives, and we deceive those whose acceptance we want by not revealing our Christian faith. The Scriptures warn us, “Friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (James 4:4 niv; see also 2 Timothy 3:10-12; 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1; 4:5-6).’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

We see here an aspect of ‘the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings’ (Phil 3:10.  ‘The implacable hatred of the world for the friends of Jesus is the sign of the verity of that friendship.’ (Hoskyns)  Further, Acts 9:4 clarifies that ‘the persecution of Christians is not only patterned after the persecution of Jesus, but the persecution of Christians is the persecution of Jesus.’ (R. Brown)

15:21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me.

“They will treat you this way because of my name”

15:22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. But they no longer have any excuse for their sin.

“They would not be guilty of sin” – ‘Rejection of Jesus’ words (Jn 15:22) and works (Jn 15:24) is…the rejection of the clearest light, the fullest revelation; and therefore it incurs the most central, deep-stained guilt.’ (Carson)

“They have no excuse for their sin” – ‘They had seen His works and heard His word, but they would not admit the truth. All of the evidence had been presented, but they were not honest enough to receive it and act on it.  This statement is parallel to what Jesus told the Pharisees after He had healed the blind man (John 9:39-41). They had to admit that Jesus had healed the man born blind, but they would not follow the evidence to its logical conclusion and put their trust in Him. Jesus told them that they were the ones who were blind! But since they admitted that they had seen a miracle, this made their sin even worse. They were not sinning in ignorance; they were sinning against a flood of light. Why? Because that light revealed their own sin and they did not want to face their sin honestly. Their attitude was similar to that described in 2 Peter 3:5-“For this they willingly are ignorant”.’

‘Let us settle it down as a first principles in our religion, that religious principles are in a certain sense very dangerous things.  If they do not help us toward heaven, they will only sink us deeper into hell.  They add to our responsibility.  “To whomsoever much is given , of him shall much be required,” Lk 12:48.  He that dwells in a land of open Bibles and preached gospel, and yet dreams that he will stand in the judgment day on the same level with an untaught Chinese, is fearfully deceived.  He will find t his own cost, expect he repents, that his judgment will be according to his light.’ (Ryle)

15:23 The one who hates me hates my Father too.

Jesus’ words are God’s words, Jn 5:19ff; his works are God’s works, Jn 4:34; in him God is made visible, Jn 14:9; he communicates and interprets God to us, Jn 1:18.  To hate Jesus is to hate God, Jn 15:23ff; to accept him is to accept God, Jn 13:20.

15:24 If I had not performed among them the miraculous deeds that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen the deeds and have hated both me and my Father.

“If I had not done among them what no one else did…” – In comparison to the miracles of Moses and the prophets, those of Jesus were more numerous, of a different kind (think of the raising of Lazarus) and were done by his own power.

“These miracles” – better, ‘works’ (Morris and others).  The expression includes Jesus’ miracles, but encompasses his whole life.

The world rejected Jesus words (v22) and works (v24).  ‘If we are living consistent lives our “works” and “words” will regularly contradict the lifestyles of those around us.  By our code of practice in the workplace, by our attitudes to work, by our personal ethical standards, by our life-goals and values, we shall inevitably, without consciously setting out to do so, expose the unfruitful works of darkness, Eph 5:11.  Like our Master, the integrity of our speech, our unwillingness to spread slander, our words of kindness and forgiveness, will at times provoke opposition.  Shakespeare’s Iago says of Cassio, “He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”  It can be a short step from that to hatred.’

15:25 Now this happened to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without reason.’

“But this – this hateful rejection – is to fulfill what is written” – and therefore does not frustrate God’s redemptive purposes.

“Their Law” – John refers to it like this, ‘not so much that he may dissociate himself from it…but rather in order to rivet upon the Jews those scriptures in which they boast themselves so proudly, and then to prove those same scriptures prophetic of their apostasy.’ (Hoskyns)

‘They hated me without a cause’ – Quoting from Psa 35:19 or (more likely) Psa 69:4.

‘Thus the hatred of the world against Jesus is not only unjustified (it is “without reason”), but those who hate are condemned out of their own Bible.’ (Carson)

15:26 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me, 15:27 and you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

After Jesus has gone away (see Jn 14) the Spirit of truth will testify about him, and the world will continue to hate him on that account.

“The Advocate…whom I will send you from the Father” – ‘The spirit comes not in his own name to us, (though, if so, he deserves a dear welcome for his own sake, and for the benefits we receive by him, which are inestimable,) but he comes to us in the name, and in the love, both of the Father, and the Son. As one authorised and delegated by them; bringing his credentials under both their hands and seals, John 15:26. “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send to you from the Father:” Mark, I will send him from the Father; and in John 14:26. the Father is said to “send him in Christ’s name.” So that he is the messenger that comes from both these great and holy persons. And if you have any love for the God that made you, any kindness for the Christ that died for you, show it by your obedience to the Spirit that comes from them both and in both their names to us, and who will be both offended and grieved, if you grieve him. O therefore give him an entertainment worthy of one that comes to you in the name of the Lord. In the Father’s name, and in the Son’s name.’ (Flavel, The Fountain of Life)

“The Spirit…who goes out from the Father”

'The Spirit...who goes out from the Father'

John 15:26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.”

A long doctrinal debate about the ‘procession of the Holy Spirit’ has centred on this expression.  The idea of the Holy .Spirit’s ‘procession’ from the Father was understood in ontological terms.  To the basic formula the Western church added the ‘filioque’ (‘and the Son’) clause, and this was a point of division between the Eastern and Western branches of the church.  But the context suggests a missional, rather than an ontological, meaning.  Nevertheless, we cannot escape a very high doctrine of the Spirit here (noting also the personal pronoun ‘he’) to go alongside the very high Christology of the Fourth Gospel.  As Carson points out, ‘the elements of a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity crop up repeatedly in the Fourth Gospel.’

A.A. Hodge (Outlines of Theology) says that apart from this one phrase, ‘the Scriptures apply precisely the same predicates to the relation of the Spirit to the Son that they do to his relation to the Father.’

It is well known that the Eastern and Western churches split over two issues: papal authority and the filioque clause.

The Nicene Creed (325) had originally read:

‘I believe… in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified.’

This is recited unchanged by the east to this day.  But the Western church added ‘and from the Son’ (in Latin, Filioque), so that the Creed now reads ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’.  The extra clause is thought to have been added to counter the claims of Arianism.  But it was supported by the teachings of Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine.  It seems to date from the local Council of Toledo (589) and was officially endorsed in in 1017.

The addition was problemmatic to the Eastern Church for two reasons: firstly, it threatened the unity of the church, because it had not been agreed at an ecumenical council; secondly, most Orthodox believe that it does not represent the truth.

According to the Orthodox Study Bible:

‘With respect to God’s working salvation in the world, the Son sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. With respect to the divine nature, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father alone. In other words, the Holy Spirit receives His eternal existence only from the Father. In conformity with Christ’s words, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed confesses belief “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” While the Son is begotten of the Father alone, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone; the source, the Fountainhead, of both Persons is the Father.’

Feinberg (No One Like Him) quotes Alister McGrath, who articulates the Eastern way of thinking as follows:

‘Within this context, it is unthinkable that the Holy Spirit should proceed from the Father and Son. Why? Because it would totally compromise the principle of the Father as the sole origin and source of all divinity. It would amount to affirming that there were two sources of divinity within the one Godhead, with all the internal contradictions and tensions that this would generate. If the Son were to share in the exclusive ability of the Father to be the source of all divinity, this ability would no longer be exclusive. For this reason, the Greek church regarded the western idea of a “double procession” of the Spirit with something approaching stark disbelief.’

So far as this particular verse is concerned, the Spirit is said to ‘proceed’ only from the Father.  But, acceptance of this clause safeguards Nicene orthodoxy regarding the consubstatiality of the Father and the Son.  Moreover, this verse does state that both the Father and the Son send the Spirit, so it is reasonable to infer that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son.  If this were not so, how could it be that Scripture can speak of ‘the Spirit of Christ’ (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; Phil 1:19)? (Bromiley, EDT, art. ‘Filioque’)

Fee (God’s Empowering Presence) notes that the new Testament speaks more of ‘the Spirit of God’ than of ‘the Spririt of Christ’.  Moreover,

‘God is invariably the subject of the verb when Paul speaks of human reception of the Spirit. Thus God “sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal 4:6), or “gives” us his Spirit (1 Thes 4:8; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Gal 3:5; Rom 5:5; Eph 1:17), an understanding that in Paul’s case is surely determined by his OT roots, where God “fills with” (Exod 31:3) or “pours out” his Spirit (Joel 2:28), and the “Spirit of God” comes on people for all sorts of extraordinary (“charismatic”) activities (e.g., Num 24:2; Judges 3:10).’

Donald MacLeod (The Person of Christ) suggests that it is very difficult, on the Eastern view, to maintain that the Son is equal to the Father.  John of Damascus, for example, writes in terms that are ‘fatal to the co-equal deity of the Son’:

‘For the Father is without cause and unborn; for he is derived from nothing, but derives from himself his being, nor does he derive a single quality from another. Rather he is himself the beginning and cause of the existence of all things in a definite and natural manner. But the Son is derived from the Father after the manner of generation, and the Holy Spirit likewise is derived from the Father, yet not after the manner of generation, but after that of procession.… All then that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being: and unless the Father is, neither the Son nor the Spirit is.’

Graham Cole (He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit) suggests that there may be something more than a robust Trinitarian theology at stake here:

‘Increasingly there are contemporary voices advocating the dropping of filioque theology with the world of other religions in mind. The issue becomes: If the Spirit of God proceeds from the Father only, then there may be a theological argument that this same Spirit may relate adherents of other faiths to the Father without the need of Christology.’

Grudem (Systematic Theology), while considering the debate to be over a rather obscure point of doctrine, nevertheless suggests that

‘the Eastern formulation (without the addition of filioque) runs the danger of suggesting an unnatural distance between the Son and the Holy Spirit, leading to the possibility that even in personal worship an emphasis on more mystical, Spirit-inspired experience might be pursued to the neglect of an accompanying rationally understandable adoration of Christ as Lord.’

This does not on its own justify the retention of the filioque clause, but it does suggest that the debate may not be quite so arcane as some suppose.

“The Spirit of truth” – See Jn 14:17.

“The Counsellor…will testify about me” – ‘When Christ is taken from the earth, the Spirit will continually bear witness concerning him.  The passage strengthens the conviction that the word translated “comforter” has legal significance.  The Spirit, so to speak, conducts Christ’s case for him before the world.’ (Morris)

The witness of the Spirit to Christ is primary; ours is secondary, v26.  He is the senior partner in this work.  ‘Not only can he sustain us in the face of opposition, but he can work in the heart even of persecutors like Saul of Tarsus, and turn them to Christ.  He can do it even if our witness, like that of Stephen, has apparently been fruitless and ineffectual, Acts 7:54-58; 22:20.’ (Milne)

‘There is a responsibility resting on all Christians to bear their witness to the facts of saving grace.  They cannot evade this.  But the really significant witness is that of the Holy Spirit, for he alone can bring home to the hearts of men the truth and the significance of all this.’ (Morris)

A telescope is not so much to be looked at, as to be looked through. So it is with the Holy Spirit.

‘Christian experience is experience of God: Father, Son and Holy Sprit.  There really is no such thing as “an experience of the Holy Spirit” from which the Father and the Son are excluded.  In any case, the Holy Spirit is a reticent Spirit.  He does not willingly draw attention to himself.  Rather he prompts us to pray “Abba! Father!” and thus witnesses to our filial relationship to God.  And above all he glorifies Christ.  He turns the bright beams of his searchlight upon the face of Jesus Christ.  He is never more satisfied than when the believer is engrossed in Jesus Christ.’ (Stott, Baptism and Fullness, 69)

Right doctrine, wrong argument

Most commentators remark that the personality of the Holy Spirit is demonstrable grammatically in this verse (and also in Jn 14:26 and Jn 16:13f).  The argument is that the word πνεῦμα (‘Spirit’) is neuter, and yet the masculine pronoun ἐκεῖνος (‘he’) is attached to it.  Naselli and Gons, however, challenge this near-consensus: ‘The common argument is invalid because the antecedent of the masculine ἐκεῖνος is not the neuter πνεῦμα but the masculine παράκλητος. (See the propositional displays in tables 2–4, which highlight the masculine pronouns that agree with παράκλητος and underline the two neuter pronouns that agree with πνεῦμα.) Of course, we agree that the Holy Spirit is a person, and the three passages in John 14–16 are good places to advance that argument. But the basis of that argument is not a grammaticaltheological connection between ἐκεῖνος and πνεῦμα. Rather, its basis is contextual, including the nature of a παράκλητος and how Jesus speaks about the personal function of the πνεῦμα.’ Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 16 (2011): 65–89.

v27 The role of the first disciples as eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry is emphasised here.

In a secondary sense, of course, Christians today testify to Jesus.  However, we should not understand Christian testimony as being primarily about our experience, but about the words and works of Jesus as witnessed by those first disciples.  It is not just that believers testify in addition to the Spirit, but that they testify in the power of the Spirit, Acts 5:32.

‘This witness must always be about Jesus: it brings before the world the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, in his word, his works, his death and resurrection, with all its potential for both blessing and judgment.’ (Carson)