“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.
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another."
Though it's now one of my most-beloved (and by far the most annotated) pages in my Bible, I once had a very negative understanding of this passage - one shrouded by the dark shadows of guilt and fear. I looked at the requirement of fruitbearing as a threat (what would happen if I didn't bear enough fruit?), not a loving call to walk with Jesus and allow Him to work through me.
Key to this unfortunate misinterpretation was one central issue, which I have slowly come to recognize as I've studied God's Word for the last half-decade: I had a very limited definition of what “fruit” really was.
In my mind, fruit could only mean evangelism. New converts. Revivals and altar calls, Billy Graham style. Or handing out tracts, or having "intentional" (that word always sounds a bit salesy to me) conversations with the cashier, or preaching on the streetcorners, like John the Baptist. Maybe I was alone in this assumption, but even now, rarely do I hear the word "fruit" mentioned in Christian circles without implications toward sharing the Gospel with unbelievers. It was foreign to me for the first 18 years of my life that it could mean anything else.
But when I actually read the Bible I found (as so often happens) that I was wrong. While evangelism obviously does make up an important part of the reproductive process of Christianity, I can't find any indication that Jesus looks for a mere tally of “decisions for Christ” in our harvest. This is about more than fruit—it is about fruit that will remain.
My fear is that we tend to teach and model evangelism disproportionately, under-representing the vital role of discipleship, so that what we end up with is a whole lot of fragile baby grapes that are never given the tools they need to grow bigger and stronger, and won't even be able to withstand the first frost.
The Apostle Paul, by far one of Christianity's most prolific fruit-bearers, seemed well aware of this hazard, and outlined his goal for the harvest like this:
We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.
Notice that he does begin with the declaration of Jesus Christ, which we would call “evangelism.” We proclaim Him. But the sentence does not end there, because evangelism is not the end goal. A “man complete in Christ” is the goal! Evangelism is only the beginning, and to reach the point of completion, every man must be admonished (warned of the depths of his sin nature so that he can choose life in the righteousness of Christ) and taught with all wisdom (retrained in the Word of God so that he can navigate a hostile world without wavering). This can't be done in a weekend retreat or a single conversation; it takes, without exception, a lifetime.
This process, empowered by God, of taking a baby Christian and tending him to maturity in the faith is the whole purpose of Paul’s life of ministry. It is also the exact pattern of biblical discipleship as shown and spoken by Jesus. Compare Paul’s statement with one of the most familiar discipleship passages in Scripture, the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Go therefore. This short phrase is one of the most-quoted snippets of Scripture in promoting missions, but mistakenly so. Go therefore is not the imperative of the sentence, but rather the qualifier—it answers the “When?” and “Where?” of this command, but does not embody the command itself. This technicality gets a bit muddied in the text’s translation from Greek to English, and might be more accurately phrased “In your going . . .” or “As you go your way . . .”
And make disciples of all the nations. Here, finally, the actual command—and in fact, the only active verb in the sentence—surfaces: make disciples. We have been given the where and when (“in our going”); now is the “What?” and the “Who?” This is where we find the actual task at hand, the fruit-bearing ministry to which we have all been called as followers of Jesus and branches of the Vine. It's not a call to get more people through the door or to get more hands raised during the altar call; it's a call to invest wholeheartedly in the health and growth of another person's soul as a bondslave of Christ.
Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. A two-part answer is given to the remaining question, “How?”, and this is part one - the part that might fall under our common term of evangelism in the church today. This is the “We proclaim Him” that Paul declared in Colossians, and it is more than mere street preaching. It is the demand upon every sinful heart to make a choice. Christianity, by its very nature, is is an ultimatum: a choice between Jesus and the world, between eternal life and spiritual death, between the truth and the lie. Those who choose Christ are asked to publicly reject all else and root themselves henceforth in the Truth of the Triune God.
Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. And here is part two, the essence of discipleship itself: the building up, the training and edifying and carving and shaping of a rough-cut soul into a beautiful temple of the Holy Spirit. The tending and watering and nourishing of a delicate sprout into a healthy fruit-bearing plant. The presenting of “every man complete in Christ” that Paul labored for. And this is by far the piece that demands the most time, energy, perseverance, and focus - which might be why it's the piece that sometimes gets overlooked, or passed off as a job limited to those in full-time ministry, when in reality it's part of the commissioning of us all.
Contrary to what I thought for many years of my life, it takes the whole Great Commission to create a picture of the fruit that the Church was intended to bear. It is the kind of fruit that will remain steadfast and reproduce in like manner through trial and hardship, through cultural rejection and social isolation and family ridicule, and even through the deceptive waters of prosperity and blessing.
The Great Commission isn't summed up in evangelism. Christian fruit isn't measured in how many people we can persuade to pray a prayer. There is so, so much more to this immense calling than just shouting down the world with the Gospel - it's so much bigger, so much harder, so much more beautiful. We're called to abide in Christ and to feed ourselves from His life-blood (apart from which we can do nothing), to allow God to lovingly trim away the things that dilute our effectiveness, to walk in obedience to Him by sacrificially loving one another, and to proclaim His Name with the intent of patiently cultivating the soil of every softened heart with the incredible story of the Word of God.
All of this is part of bearing fruit.
As any farmer can tell you, there is no way to rush the production process, and the imperative tasks aren't the same in all seasons of the year. Sometimes it's the preparation of the soil, sometimes it's the seeding of the earth, sometimes it's the watering of the crops, sometimes it's the harvest. And other times, the only thing to do is wait and rest and trust that God is still at work even while the ground lies dormant.
And I'll say it again: all of it is part of the fruit-bearing.
We, believers, are farmers. And evangelism is just one tiny piece of the vast, patient process of bearing hardy and prolific fruit; both before and after it come times of waiting and tending and weeding - and never giving up.