“Without Me you can do nothing” John 15:5

by Steven Chan

How does one respond to the above statement by Jesus Christ? Someone may challenge that statement by saying that he can do many things without Jesus. One contributor to local news media wrote that she could do many things without Jesus. She mentioned that she was taught that if one prayed to God then one would be blessed and be successful in many things. Then while studying at a top 10 university in the world, she began to question her “tightly constructed” faith, and discovered that she could do well in her exams without needing to pray to God! So, she concluded that there was no need for God. Evidently, for her, what Jesus said was not true. Those who believe the above statement of Jesus are being deceived.

What did Jesus mean by the above statement?

Some bible believers in Christendom are of the view that the statement can mean anything to anyone because they believe that they should let the Holy Spirit directly operate in their minds and enlighten their understanding. They suggest: ‘just pray and let the Holy Spirit reveal the meaning to you’. Whatever the Holy Spirit reveals to you that would be the ‘right’ lesson for you. So, each of them can understand the statement of Jesus differently and yet be okay. So if one were to attend some of their cell group sessions, you will find that they would read the above statement and then go around the cell participants and ask them for their views on what that statement meant. One will note that the facilitator does not usually attempt to challenge the understanding given by the participants. The usual comment by the facilitator was: “that’s an interesting and helpful” insight. But no unequivocal or one correct understanding of the meaning is provided. This is because they don’t believe that anyone has a monopoly of the true understanding of any passage of the Bible. So as the Holy Spirit reveals the meaning of the passage to the respective bible students, each will receive his own understanding of the passage for his personal edification.

Is that how the Bible is to be understood? Is there no “one correct” understanding of any passage of the Bible?

  1. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor 1:10: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” How can bible students “speak the same thing, be of the same mind, and of the same judgement” if they are all entitled to have different understandings on the same passage of Scripture? No wonder the continuation and propagation of denominationalism or ‘division among bible believers’ flourished everywhere – each leader claiming their ‘Holy Spirit-enlightened’ understanding of various passages of the Bible.
  1. Later in the same epistle in 1 Cor 14:33, the apostle Paul wrote: “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” God is not the source/cause of all the confusion in the understanding of His Word. He does not give different understandings of Bible passages to different people. If He did, then there would be confusion and no peace among believers as their understandings may differ and even contradict each other.
  1. In Rom 1:21-22, the Bible warned against the danger of some who became “vain in their imaginations/reasonings/thinking, and their foolish heart was darkened.22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”. One’s reasonings can be wrong/vain/futile.

Religious leaders are not exempt from such a risk. The Bible records for us in Matt 22:23-33, an incident where the religious leaders of the day had a different understanding on the subject of the resurrection, and they came to Jesus to reason with Him and to show that their understanding that there would be no resurrection was the “correct” view:

”The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, 24 saying: “Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. 25 Now there were with us seven brothers. The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother. 26 Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh. 27 Last of all the woman died also. 28 Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her.” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing (or not understanding – NASB) the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. 31 But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 32’I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.”

Jesus said that the Sadducees who were diligent students of the Scriptures were wrong in their understanding of the Scriptures. Jesus did not advocate the idea that each bible student was entitled to his own understandings of any Bible subject. In Matt 16:11-12, Jesus said to His disciples: “How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?–but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees”.

  1. The Bible does not teach that the Holy Spirit directly operates in the minds of men to enlighten them to understand the Bible. If that was true, then Philip need not make that trip from Samaria to Gaza, so that he might teach that Ethiopian eunuch the truth taught in Isaiah – the passage that he was reading while on the chariot. Acts 8:30-35:

”So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth. 33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away, And who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.” 34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him.”

The eunuch said that he could not understand unless someone guided or taught him about the meaning of the passage in Isaiah. It is important to observe that it was the Holy Spirit who told Philip to “go near and overtake this chariot” (Acts 8:29). Why didn’t the Spirit enlighten the eunuch?

Similarly with Apollos who did not have a correct understanding of John’s baptism. The Bible tells us in Acts 18:26: “When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Although Apollos was “mighty in the Scriptures, a man who had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and was fervent in spirit”, he still needed help from Priscilla and Aquila to help him understand the way of God more accurately. The Holy Spirit did not provide Apollos with direct enlightenment of the truth about John’s baptism or the baptism of Jesus. The Bible does not teach direct enlightening of our understanding by the Holy Spirit. If it were true that the Holy Spirit is needed to provide enlightenment for our correct understanding of the Scriptures, then it would be a convenient excuse for man to blame God for their own failure to understand His Word or His Will. But the Bible clearly teaches otherwise. We are required to “study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”( 2 Tim 2:15, KJV)

  1. The apostle Peter warned against those who wrestled/twist the Scriptures to their own destruction: 2 Peter 3:15-17:

”account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation–as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”

There is always the risk of misunderstanding the Scriptures.

How may one have a proper understanding of this passage of scriptures?

One needs to understand the passage within its immediate context.
It has been said that ‘a text taken out of context becomes a pretext’. This means that one can use a text to teach one’s own preconceived or prejudiced idea, something different from what was intended by the writer – if one disregards the context in which the text is located.

So, in the above passage, what did Jesus mean when He said: “without Me, you can do nothing”?

Here’s the entire statement of Jesus as recorded in John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” Read in the entirety of the statement of Jesus, it is evident that Jesus was discussing the “bearing of fruit”. In the wider context of that discussion, Jesus said in John 15:8: “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.” So, Jesus clearly meant that one “can do nothing’ in terms of “bearing fruit” that would “glorify God” if one does not abide in Jesus, and Jesus in him. Those fruit that would glorify God would be the winning of souls (Mark 16:15-16; John 4:34-38; 15:16; Rom 1:13), the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) and fruits of righteousness (2 Cor 9:10-15; Titus 3:14).

So, it does not teach that one can do nothing to succeed in life, or to prosper in life, etc… An incorrect understanding of the above-stated passage can lead one to lose one’s faith as was the case with the writer mentioned earlier.

Another helpful aid in seeking to have a correct understanding of the teaching in a passage is to consider it within the total context of the entirety of God’s Word because God does not contradict Himself and we can have a clearer understanding when we understand God and His overall revealed Will. The Bible says in Psa 119:160: “The sum of Your word is truth” (ASV, NASB).

So, in considering the passage in John 15:5, we should be like the Berean Christians and search the Scriptures to see whether the things that are taught are indeed true and consistent with the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). We read in Psa 37:7: “Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass.” It tells us that a wicked man may prosper in his way. So, John 15:5 does not teach that one cannot be prosperous in this life without Jesus. Psa Ps 37:8-10 teaches: “Do not fret–it only causes harm. 9 For evildoers shall be cut off…10 For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more.” Again in Luke 12:16-21, Jesus taught about the man who was very successful and prosperous but was not rich towards God. So, one can be rich in this world without Jesus. But one cannot possibly hope to bear fruits that glorify God, without Jesus.

The question for us is this: are we abiding in Jesus, and are we allowing Him to abide in us, so that we may be able to bear much fruit, glorifying God and thereby proving to be truly disciples of Jesus?