Today I’m launching my campaign to have the phrase “the great commission” reassigned to John 15 v16. The commission to, “go and bear fruit” captures the many nuances of how followers of Christ are to live in the world and avoids the baggage that has been laid onto interpretations of Matthew 28.
Bearing fruit is rooted in relationship with God. John 15 is an extended picture based on the vine which describes disciples’ relationship with Christ. In the second part of the chapter Jesus goes onto speak about his love for the disciples and the Father’s love for him as well as encouraging them to remain in his love. Jesus tells them so they will be filled with joy as well as instructing them to love one another.
These relationships of love and friendship also result in obedience as Jesus obeys his Father and the disciples are called to follow Christ’s commands. But there are no echoes of conquest, here. No authority over land or people being assumed, rather fruit as a consequence of love in action. Jesus obeys the father and remains in his love through choice, not coercion; the implication is that the disciples should likewise obey his commands through choice.
Of course, the commission is to “go and bear fruit” with the emphasis is clearly on the bearing fruit and not the going (in Matthew 28 the emphasis is also on the making disciples rather than the going but this has often been lost). As John Chrysostom suggests, using the image of the vine, the commission is to extend yourselves, extending your branches through all the world. This is a commission, the disciples are sent, but they are appointed to bear fruit.
What counts as fruit is left undefined, but certainly includes a harvest of eternal life, as well as the life of God. In chapter 17 when Jesus prays for the disciples, he also prays for those who will believe in him through their (the disciples) message (17:20). Yet the image is broader than preaching and any narrow understanding of salvation.
The image of the vineyard and vine isn’t new, nor did it start with Jesus. The Old Testament has many references which include it. For example, Isaiah 5, where the vineyard is shown as having everything going for it, fertile soil, careful preparation by the gardener, the planting of the highest quality vines. And yet, despite the care lavished on it, the vineyard failed to be fruitful and only produced bad, stinky, fruit. The anticipated fruit of justice and righteousness is instead bloodshed and distress.
Notions of fruitfulness go all the way back to Genesis 1 and God’s creation command to be fruitful and increase in number. A promise of fruitfulness is spoken to Noah and Abraham, before being taken up by the prophets where it is used in reference to vines and the land rather than simple numerical growth. Again this suggests that bearing fruit has something to do with justice as well as conversion, ethics as well as raised hands.
Finally, returning to John 15 again can see how bearing fruit is a corporate act, rooted in the branches of a the vine. Branches of a vine do not act independently but are connected to the vine to make up the whole, following Jesus commands they love each other and only bear fruit as a community together.
This great commission to go and bear fruit is hopeful and multi-layered. The followers of Jesus living out their love of God, sharing the message of salvation and the life of God. With its anchors in the Old Testament, it grounds mission in the wide sweep of God’s plans and purpose for his people, with notes of justice and right living, with images that come from being part of the created order that humanity is called to steward. It is centred on Jesus as the vine and the life of God which flows from this; our involved is never separated from Jesus.
In a world grappling with climate change, pandemics, injustice and migration the call to bear fruit captures God’s call to us in ways that resonate afresh; grounded in creation awareness, community connected, character and justice orientated. These are the areas where we can be fruitful and live for Christ.
Of course, bearing fruit includes making disciples. Loving God includes obedience to God’s ways and learning the way of Christ. Bearing fruit implies we extend ourselves but also that we are planted and grounded. Growing vines is a long term goal, bearing fruit isn’t a quick fix. While vines can be transported and transplanted in different cultures, they are more likely to be indigenous to an area.
For all these reasons and more, John 15v16 is truly the great commission. The call to go and bear fruit is perhaps the key mission text for our time.