Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we open with the first reading from the Book of Acts in which we see the newly converted Saul of Tarsus testifying to the Jews in Jerusalem who then try to kill him. Then we cover the second reading from First John in which we learn about the heart of the child of God. Then we conclude with the Gospel lesson from John 15 in which Jesus shares an analogy of the believer being a branch of the true vine of Jesus with God as the vinedresser.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading is from the Book of Acts. The context is just after the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Christianity, who is now called Paul. The chapter opened with Saul viciously attacking the church and after visiting the high priest, “asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). As Saul was on the way to Damascus, he experienced the Lord Jesus in a voice from heaven (v. 5) as well as a light flashing from heaven (v. 3). Next, Saul found himself to be blind and was led by the hand into Damascus (v. 8) to await further instruction from the Lord (v. 6). Once in Damascus he was still blind and didn’t eat or drink for three days (v. 9). At this point God directed a disciple of Jesus named Ananias to go meet with Saul even though he had heard about his treachery against the followers of Jesus (vv. 10 – 16). Ananias did as God directed and laid his hands upon his “enemy” Saul for healing.
It is instructive for us to include the verses in Acts 9 leading up to today’s reading in order to better understand the full context. Here we encounter a humbled and blind Saul fresh from his encounter with the Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road.
Acts 9:18-21 NAS95 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened. Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?"
As we move to the reading for today, Saul had continued staying in Damascus and testifying about the truth of the Lord Jesus as the Messiah (v. 22). This provoked the Jews to hatch a plot to kill him, so the believers snuck him out by lowering him down from the city wall in a basket (v.25).
Acts 9:26-31 NAS95 26 When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. 30 But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. 31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
This was the first occasion that the Jerusalem church met the newly converted Saul. In spite of their fear of him, the disciples listened to Barnabas’ testimony about him. Saul then went on with his business of ministering to the Jews. They didn’t receive his message very well since they began to attempt to kill him (v. 29). Thankfully, the disciples heard about it and moved him to Caesarea, then sent him back to his home town of Tarsus. Interestingly, once Saul departed from the region the church enjoyed a time of peace and continued to grow (v. 31).
What can we take away from the reading? Imagine how Saul must have felt when, just a short time before he would have been openly received by the Hellenistic Jews, yet now they tried to kill him. This was all because of his newfound relationship with Jesus Christ Whom he encountered on the Damascus Road. As believers, we should expect that those people who we knew us before we came to believe in the Lord Jesus may not warmly receive our new beliefs. This certainly shouldn’t keep us from sharing it with them, to the extent that they are open to it. Jesus warned that “in this world we will have trouble” (John 16:33).
Introduction to the Second Reading:
The second reading is from the Letter of First John. The context is John’s teaching on the characteristics of the child of God, meaning true believers in Jesus Christ. John opened the chapter by saying, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him” (v. 1). The world is at odds with the children of God, because unbelievers are by nature children of the father of this world, the devil (John 8:44).
1 John 3:18-24 NAS95 18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. 19 We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him 20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight. 23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
In this reading, John is describing the nature of godly love of a believer. This type of love results in action motivated by the truth of the Gospel message (v. 18, “in deed and truth”). The clear conscience of a believer testifies that they are walking in the truth because God, who knows all things, testifies through their conscience (v. 21). The true child of God is in good standing with Him such that when they pray God hears and answers them (v. 22a). The author of Hebrews said about this, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” Hebrews 4:16). Finally, John said, “The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him” (v. 24a). This means that God hears our prayers because of our special relationship with Jesus Who gave us a new spiritual heart at the moment we believed (John 3:3, “born from above”). God doesn’t hear us just because we keep His commandments, but because of this special relationship that is founded upon abiding love. The love that believers express is something that God modeled when He sent Jesus Christ to die on our behalf. The believer benefits from what is called the “double imputation.” This means that our sins were imputed to Christ (the first imputation), and the righteousness of Christ was then imputed to us (the second imputation).
The application of John’s message is that godly people act like it by expressions of deeds motivated by the truth of God. They model the love of God that was imputed to them through Jesus’ death and resurrection. They do so with a clear conscience since God testifies in their heart that they are indeed a child of God. On the other hand the person that is not yet in right standing with God through the only way possible, belief in the Lord Jesus, will have their conscience pricked by the testimony of the Gospel. Others who are unresponsive to the Gospel have had their conscience’s seared, and turn away from the good news (1 Timothy 4:2). If our conscience is grounded in the truth, it can tell us a lot about our heart’s true status with God.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The Gospel reading is from John 15. The context is Jesus’ parting instructions to His disciples before the events that happened during the last week of His earthly ministry. The reading today includes several uses of the phrase “I am” which Jesus’ disciples would have understood as a strong statement of His divinity. In chapter 8 Jesus had told the Pharisees, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). They rejected His claim of being equal with God (John 10:30, “I and the Father are One”). In this reading, the disciples are privileged hearers of Jesus’ instruction into some deeper truths about God.
John 15:1-8 NAS95 1 "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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. 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”
There are several key points that Jesus is making in this reading. First, Jesus is the true vine. A vine is the life-giving conduit to the branches. Jesus makes this parallel to emphasize that life is only found through a relationship with Him. Second, He states that the Father is the “vinedresser” (v. 1), meaning that He is the person Who planted and cultivated the vineyard. The Father is the Person who sovereignly nurtures the growth and productivity of each person who is connected to the vine. Third, the Father takes an active rule in the pruning process in the lives of believers. This is done through His love with the goal of producing more fruit. A key word that is repeated throughout this passage is the word “abide.” We don’t tend to use that word very much in English, but in this context it means to remain, dwell, or live in Jesus. Fruit bearing is evidence of our right relationship with Jesus, and this glorifies the Father. We tend to think of fruit as good deeds or proper choices, but Scripture actually gives us an indication of the type of fruit that should be the evidence of God at work in our lives. Paul said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). Bearing this type of fruit definitely takes a work of God’s Spirit in us, which goes beyond the outward appearance of good deeds and requires a changed heart.
How does one abide in Christ’s love? Jesus actually answers that later in verse 10. “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.” Jesus summed up the commandments in Matthew’s Gospel when he answered the question about the greatest commandment. He said, “’YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Therefore, we find out that we can’t keep the law just by keeping the law, because the law is to love. One reason Jesus correlates keeping God’s commandments and loving Him is because it takes a trusting relationship to obey God and to keep His commands from the heart. To do things God’s way does not come naturally to us. The only way we can truly keep His commandments is by being deeply connected and dependent upon Jesus.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
1. How have you experienced rejection or hardship as a result of your faith in Jesus Christ? How does reading about Paul’s opposition encourage you to persist in your pursuit of spiritual things?
2. The second and third readings dealt with abiding in Christ and keeping His commandments. Is there a way to be “obedient” without abiding in Christ? Why do you think Jesus made such a strong connection between abiding, obedience, and bearing much fruit?
3. Why it is important for the vinedresser to prune the branches? Have you or are you experiencing any type of pruning that this passage can help you to understand God’s ways and love for you during this time?