C. S. Lewis wrote that the idea that Jesus was only a great moral teacher is simply not true. Jesus made remarkable claims about himself. If Jesus is not what he said about himself, then he was either a lunatic or the very devil. To accept Jesus only as a great moral teacher is to reject him as Savior and Lord. There is no middle way.
Indeed, no man ever spoke like this man.
Theodore J. Hartwig
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
The picture of vine and branches that Jesus paints in John 15:5 (NIV 2011) would be intimately familiar to the 12 disciples celebrating the Passover meal with their Lord in the upper room. Together with figs, olives, honey, wheat, and milk, grapes converted into wine were among the staple foods for people living in the Holy Land. Water that was safe to drink was not as available for them. Normally water had to be obtained from a well at the edge of town and was used most often for washing and purification ceremonies. Wine was safe to drink.
Vineyards and all the work that they required—especially the radical pruning of suckers and unproductive branches—would be a common sight in Jewish gardens and fields. A pitcher and cups for the wine would be on the table as part of the Passover celebration. In speaking of himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches, Jesus as master-teacher used something immediately at hand to visualize his lesson. In their mind’s eye, the disciples could see the cut-off suckers withering on the ground. But they would also visualize the good branches attached to the stout stem of the vine and heavy with bunches of grapes. Their land had good soil for grape production. Remember how the Israelite spies under Moses’ leadership returned from surveying their Promised Land. Two of them were carrying a single cluster of grapes on a pole between them (Numbers 13:23). When his disciples remained with Jesus and he with them, they would bear much fruit in the form of serving him and loving their fellow human beings.
But what can Jesus mean when he declares: “Apart from me you can do nothing”? This sounds like the height of exclusivity and arrogance. Are we helpless without Jesus? Certainly Christians and non-Christian people will pounce on this bold assertion. They assert that Jesus never made such a statement.
Perhaps we can uncover what he meant with a comparison from our personal lives. The comparison will be imperfect yet is not unbiblical. Jesus spoke of himself as the bridegroom, his disciples as the bride. Now think of a Christian husband and wife who are deeply in love. In the strength of their love, these Christian spouses, despite the sin that will mar their marriage, are of one mind and one heart. They want to be with each other, they want to serve each other, they willingly defer to each other and make sacrifices for each other, and they trust each other implicitly. For them, marriage means living together in mutual love. So strong is this bond in the marriage of Christian spouses who are deeply in love with each other!
Now apply this earthly bond to the one between Jesus and his disciples. They are attached to their Lord in a union far deeper and stronger than that between loving Christian husbands and wives. Jesus suffered and died for them so that they could live with him eternally. This love transcends all others. And in this setting, the statement Jesus made about himself as vine and his disciples as branches will have its natural and amazing outcome. Apart from Jesus, his disciples can do nothing. It means that Jesus will be the source, guide, and goal of their entire life and behavior.
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Winged words! As is true of John’s entire gospel, the words of John 11:25,26 (ESV) soar like an eagle. They soar with authority. They soar with grace. They soar with comfort.
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Those words ring with an absolute authority. No other person in all history could say this of himself. But Jesus could say it because he became the trailblazer of all resurrections. His resurrection prepared the way for all other resurrections. Except for him, there would be no resurrection. So there is immense authority in his declaration that he is the resurrection and the life.
His words also soar with pure grace: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Believing in him has happened without the tiniest cooperation on our part. It happened solely by grace, as a gift from God. His Word, speaking the unvarnished truth about sinful human nature, broke down the natural resistance in stubborn human hearts immersed in their own will, intellect, and pride. His Word comes to the rescue of crushed hearts with the sweet fragrance of forgiveness, peace, and love. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world, brings gracious comfort. This gospel takes possession of sinful hearts and creates new people who put their trust in Jesus. Despite all the death in this world, believers rejoice to know they will be with him eternally. All of this story is pure grace.
Jesus concludes with a statement bearing overwhelming comfort: “And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Herewith Jesus wipes out the natural grief that Christians will endure at the death of loved ones. When Lazarus died, Jesus gave this death its once-and-for-all description in life. For believers like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, death is just a sleep. Therefore, Jesus declared that whoever lives and believes in him shall never die, shall not die eternally.
What are we to make of Jesus’ statements? Some liberal and unbelieving commentators assert that Jesus never made these claims about himself. They are either garbled recollections or inventions of his followers written 50 to 100 years later. To any casual reader, such a solution may seem persuasive. But only a persistent skeptic and slave to intellect would stick by this explanation. Jesus’ claims about himself are so unique, so extraordinary, so contrary to normal human experience that they could not have been garbled or dreamed up by his followers. Such “solutions” are simply and frankly unhistorical. These solutions are proposed by people who seek to avoid the claim of all of Scripture that Jesus is no mere human moralist or philosopher. He is the God of heaven come to earth for sinful humans. He became a Jew on earth for a time to claim us as his own and destroy sin and death. So, for us, Jesus must have the last word: “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).
Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
This is the final article in a four-part series about how Jesus describes himself.
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Author:Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 101, Number 12
Issue: December 2014
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