Abiding: A Word Study

John 15:1-10 (NASB)

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.

Reflections on Abiding

One of the first things to notice in Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1-10 is just how many times Jesus uses the word abide in these ten verses. The simple answer is ten times, although there are also two implied uses (in verses 4 and 5). Jesus repeats words when he wants to emphasize them. The word abide is the most often used word in this paragraph. The word “fruit” is used six times, also strongly emphasized by Jesus. One of the expectations of our life with Jesus is that we will bear fruit, and become fruitful. The fruitful way of life in Jesus is also found tucked away among the branches of this amazing paragraph: the fruit of love, the fruit of prayer, the fruit of joy. The only way to become fruitful though is to abide in Jesus. Let’s look at this word through a variety of perspectives to better understand what Jesus is teaching us.

First, let’s look at this word from the perspective of language. The original word Jesus uses in John 15:4, in Greek, is μείνατε (meinate). This command comes from the root verb, μένω (“meno”, in present indicative active, 1st person singular, “I abide”). This Greek verb is most often translated into English as “abide” (NKJV, NASB, NRSV) or “remain” (NIV, NET, NLT). Because I am writing this essay from Germany, and leading a Home Group Bible Study on John 15, I must include the German translation of this verb, bleiben.

Second, let’s look at the meaning of this verb. What is Jesus teaching us when he uses this verb? Jesus helps us better understand this key aspect of the spiritual life by drawing a picture of a vineyard. In this picture, he is the vine, our heavenly Father is the owner of the vineyard, and we are branches coming off the vine. Here in Germany, while I write this essay, I am literally surrounded by vineyards. The small town of Boztingen, Germany has a thousand acres of terraced vineyards surrounding it, on the hillsides behind the town. The past two days, I’ve gone up into those vineyards to help our friends harvest their grapes. In those two days, we’ve harvested over two tons of fruit.

Looking at this verb from an agricultural perspective, plants only grow if they are rooted. Branches only bear fruit if they are connected to the main trunk or stalk of the plant. Transplant a plant too often, and it will fail to thrive or bear fruit. Every gardener knows these basic truths. Let’s get a bit more specific and look at this verb from a viticultural perspective, that is through the eyes of someone who grows grapes in a vineyard as our friends have done for several generations. To ‘abide’, is to remain connected, branch to vine, vine to earth. When you look at at a 30 year old vine trunk, you will see a twisted, gnarled piece of gray-wood coming up out of the ground, coming up to the vine-head, which stands usually about thigh-high. Within that vine trunk flows all the moisture and sap and nutrients, coming up from the earth, through the vine, into the branches through the internal structures of the vine (xylem and phloem). Without the flow of this moisture and these nutrients, there will be no fruit. The branch cannot bear fruit of itself. It must be connected, or abide in the vine.

Looking at this verb through the metaphor of relationship, Jesus is describing friendship rather than superficial acquaintance. Friends abide with one another through spending quality time together, through trust, sharing of intimate parts of our hearts with one another, through commitment, involvement, and longer term sharing of life. So much of our life with others today is marked with brief encounters, occasional short connections, with very little involvement or commitment. Jesus is not talking about a Facebook kind of “friend” in this passage, but rather someone who really knows you, spends time with you, connects with, is committed to loving you in spite of the ugly or unpleasant aspects of your life.

If you look at this same verb from the perspective of a house and house-dwellers, this verb describes a permanent resident rather than a short-term guest. A guest comes to visit but not to stay. A permanent resident stays, abides or remains in the house. We came to live in the same home as our friends for two weeks here in Germany. We are abiding with our friends for these two weeks. In this home where I currently write, three generations of one family live together. What is amazing is that the great-grandparents of the elderly couple in this home also lived in this same neighborhood a century ago. This family goes back more than six generations, living here, in this specific neighborhood of Botzingen, Germany, generation after generation, with three and sometimes four generations living in the same house together. This way of living is seldom found in USA anymore. This is a deeper way of thinking about the verb “abide” or “remain”. This verb calls up a picture of long-term stability with others in place. I like to think of this verb as a vow made by a married couple, who promise “love and faithfulness until death do us part”.

Next, let’s look at the immediate context of how this verb is used by Jesus within this paragraph. Notice the phrases surround this word. The phrase “abide in me” is used five times in this paragraph. The phrase “I abide in you” is used twice. The phrase “abide in my love” is also used twice. Every time this word is used, it is followed by the word “in”. In other words, the spiritual life is not merely about resting or staying put or getting quiet or slowing down. According to Jesus, the spiritual life is about abiding in Jesus. Where we abide is just as significant as that we learn to abide. We are commanded to abide in Jesus and to abide in Jesus’ love. Jesus tells us he will abide in us, and that his word will also abide in us. He tells us that we are already clean by the words he has spoken to us. When Jesus’ word abides in us, we are made clean. When Jesus abides in us, and we abide in Jesus, only then will be bear fruit. Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing of lasting fruitfulness.

Finally, I want to look at the various ways Jesus uses this verb in this brief passage of John 15:1-10. The first use is a command, an imperative given to a group of people: μείνατε (aorist imperative active, 2nd person plural). This command is given first in verse 4 and then repeated in verse 9. A command from a Lord is not an option, but an imperative from the One with authority. Jesus speaks. We obey. When Jesus speaks, we are made clean. He speaks a command. Abide in me! Remain in my love! The question we must ask ourselves is not have we read John 15, not have we understood the meaning of the Greek verb meinate, not are we bearing fruit. The question we must ask ourselves is “Am I abiding in Jesus?” Are we abiding in Jesus? Are we obeying Jesus’ loving command? If Jesus commands me to abide in him, then this must be very important, perhaps the most important action of my life. What gets in the way of me not abiding in Jesus? What obstacles or hindrances keep me from abiding more often during the day and night in Jesus and in Jesus’ love? How much of our day or night are we truly abiding in the true vine?

A second way Jesus uses this verb is as a warning: μένῃ (present subjunctive active 2nd person singular). This warning shows us what will happen if we choose to not remain in Jesus. You find this warning in verse 4 and again repeated in verse 6. Jesus is concerned about the alternatives when we choose not to remain, abide, or stay in him. He wants us to see the consequences of our disobedience. When we refuse to abide in Jesus, we become fruitless, we wither, we are cut off, and cast away. Jesus warns us against such devastations in our spiritual life with God.

A third way Jesus used this same verb is as a participle, which is a verb acting like a noun. I like to think of such verbs as descriptions of our identity. The literal translation of the verb in verse 5, μένων, is “the one abiding”. When we abide in Jesus, our innermost identity is transformed, and we become “the one abiding”. Abiding begins to describe our way of living, who we truly are in our inward being.

The fourth way Jesus uses this beautiful verb is found in verse seven is as a promise: μείνητε (aorist subjunctive active 2nd person plural). Jesus tells us the promised result if we learn to abide in him. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jesus provides us promises as well as commands. When we are faithful to follow his command, he is faithful to answer our prayers, and promises to make us even more fruitful. Jesus sees our future better than we see our future. In verse 10, he uses the future tense of this same verb, calling us to a lifetime of abiding in him: μενεῖτε (future indicative active, 2nd person plural). Jesus tells us, “You will abide in my love”. Jesus sees our future, and sees that we will continue to abide in him, and in his love. He believes in our ongoing love relationship with him.

Note that Jesus speaks this verb to us in second person plural. Jesus calls us into an intentional life with other followers of Jesus, to abide together with others who are also seeking to abide together in Jesus. In USA, we too often turn Jesus’ word into a private or individual teaching, as though Jesus is only speaking to “me” alone, rather than to “us” together. In my brief time out in vineyards these past months, I’ve seen vines and branches all intertwined into a great, green community called a vineyard. We’ve moved along rows and rows of vines, reaching into the interwoven tapestry of branches to harvest the beautiful, ripe fruit. Jesus calls us to abide in him together, to allow God our heavenly Father who alone is owner of the vineyard to prune us in our life together, so that Jesus’ great promises will become a living, beautiful reality as we bear fruit in our shared life together in Jesus.