Jermaine Wilson experienced tremendous transformation. He grew up in Leavenworth, Kanson and started to sell drugs out of his childhood apartment at an early age. He was eventually incarcerated at the maximum-security wing at Lansing Correctional, a state prison in Kansas where he had a realization. “If I don’t change,” he thought, “I’m either going to spend the rest of my life in prison or dead in a casket.” In a strange turn of events, Jermaine is now the mayor of Leavenworth, according to a story that air on CBS earlier this year. Jermaine credits the transformation to God, education, and volunteer work. After prison, he started serving his community and got his felony record expunged, paving the way for a political run.
Jesus used a parable of the vine and the branches to teach us about spiritual transformation in John 15:1-17. Like Jermaine Wilson, the disciples experienced a transformation while they followed Jesus. In one sense, they become disciples the moment they said, “yes” to Jesus. In another very real sense, they didn’t become disciples until they put their faith in the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:29)
The parable of the vine and the branches invites the question, “When does an unbeliever become a disciple?” This metaphor and the explanation follows gives us three marks of a disciple. Notice that these marks are dynamic, not static, meaning they grow and develop over time.
1. Disciples build a friendship with Jesus.
Social media has changed the way we view friendship. It used to be that you had to be physically present with someone to make a friend, but now you can become friends with people all over the world with the click of a button. Social media can increase our ability to communicate, but it can’t increase our capacity to care.
A friendship with Jesus is based on trust and affection. Friends depend on each other because they have a two-way bond. Jesus calls us to “abide in me and I in you” (v. 4). We are branches and branches can do nothing by themselves, they are just sticks (v. 5).
Friends are better than servants because they care for each other. Jesus considers us friends because he gave his life for us (v. 13). He also reveals God’s Word and will to us (v. 15).
It takes time to build a friendship with Jesus. It takes up to three years to grow grapes on a vine. After the vine and branches are established, grapes grow like the life of the vine moves into them. Jesus could have downloaded everything he wanted his disciples to directly into their brain the moment he called them, but he didn’t because he wanted to develop a relationship with them.
2. Disciples bear fruit that lasts.
Spiritual fruit is the Word of God put into practice. In a broad sense, it’s every act done in obedience to Christ. Spiritual fruit is every display of Christ-like character, ever prayer prayed in accordance with God’s will, and every deed done to bring unbelievers to faith in Christ. The beauty of the vineyard is in the sheer magnitude of grapes produced, not just one particular grape. In a narrow sense, its ever act of love done for another believer (more about that in a moment).
God prunes us to make us more fruitful. The vinedresser removes all the old growth to make room for new growth and fruit. God uses His Word to prune and clean us (v. 3). He works to remove things in our lives that get in the way of our fruitfulness. Those things might be sinful habits, misplaced priorities, or even harmful relationships.
People who don’t bear fruit aren’t disciples, they’re imposters (v.6). True spiritual fruit remains to the end. Anyone can do something that looks spiritual on the outside. Only the deeds done in the power of God will make a lasting impact.
3. Disciples demonstrate love for other believers.
Spiritual fruit has a broad and a narrow definition (see the previous point). Demonstrating love for other believers is a prominent mark of a disciple because grows out of the first and second Greatest Commands revealed by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40. The first command is assumed in this passage while the second command is reinforced (v. 9).
We must follow Jesus’ example in demonstrating love for others. Jesus laid down his life for the ones he loved – his friends. We must show love to everyone we meet as our “neighbor,” but we have a special responsibility to love our fellow disciples.
Our special relationship with Christ must not become a source of pride. He chose us, we did not choose him (v. 16). Back to the parable, he planted us we did not plant ourselves.
In summary, an unbeliever becomes a true disciple when he or she builds a friendship with Jesus, bears fruit that lasts, and demonstrates love for other believers. These activities cannot be accomplished without the transforming power of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Have you tapped into that power?