We’re told that “the word of God is living and active,” that it can cut through the complexities of our inner being and reveal “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This makes the Bible, the Holy Spirit-inspired, authoritative repository of the words of God, a place of encounter with the living God. Much of the time, Bible reading isn’t a dramatic experience. But there are times when the Word reveals himself in the word in such an extraordinary way, we are consciously never the same.
Let me share a powerful encounter with Jesus I had one summer morning in Manila, just before my twentieth birthday. I was having my morning devotions when he awakened me to the doctrine of election, though I had no clue yet what Calvinism was. He also called me to a life of pursuing my greatest joy in him, though I had no idea what Christian Hedonism was. What happened that morning, 36 years ago, has altered the course of my life.
Encounter with Jesus
I was in the Philippines participating in a six-month Discipleship Training School operated by Youth With A Mission (YWAM). During a teaching session the previous evening, a guest teacher had strongly asserted that all Christians who wished to be fruitful and effective in their service of Christ needed to acquire and exercise a certain spiritual gift. If they didn’t, their lives and ministries would suffer for it.
This deeply troubled me, partly because I hadn’t acquired this gift, and partly because I hadn’t seen this emphasis in Scripture. I also knew Christians who both did and didn’t exercise this gift, and I didn’t observe any such correlation in their fruitfulness. But what if I were wrong? What if my misgivings were signs of resisting the Holy Spirit?
So, that morning I came to my devotions earnestly praying that God would give me understanding. I opened my Bible to the day’s reading, which happened to be chapter 15 of John’s Gospel.
Suddenly, as I began to read, it seemed as if Jesus were right there. The first 17 verses leaped off the page. The Lord’s words became intensely living and active as the Holy Spirit illumined them to me. And I heard Jesus himself strongly assert what all Christians most need to be fruitful and effective: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). His message for me that morning was clear: a fruitful life didn’t require a certain spiritual gift; it required trusting Jesus. Peace washed over me.
He Chose First
When I reached verse 16, what Jesus said about took my breath away. This, even more than verse 5, reformed my understanding of what makes a Christian fruitful and effective:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16)
I wasn’t raised in a church that taught Reformed theology. Up to that point, I had given little thought to the doctrine of election, so I didn’t really understand it. My immature, arrogant impression was that it was one of those peripheral, controversial doctrines that people with too much time, and too little concern for lost and hurting souls, liked to debate.
“The faith required to abide is not my own doing; it is itself a gift from God.”
That all changed as I sat awestruck, staring at those words: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” They weren’t the words of some teacher with a misguided, exaggerated theological conviction. Nor of John Calvin. Nor even of the authoritative, but oft-debated, sophisticated arguments of the apostle Paul. They were the crystalline, simple, forthright, understandable words of Jesus himself: I chose you.
As they sank in, the renewal of my mind began a transformation in me (Romans 12:2). My life was reframed. When, at age 11, I responded to a gospel invitation at Camp Shamineau, I hadn’t chosen Jesus; Jesus had chosen me. The immense implication began to dawn: if that were true, then God had been far more providentially involved than I had understood leading up to that moment in Manila as I lingered over John 15. It was devastating, it was humbling, and it was precious and glorious beyond words. Jesus had chosen me.
And this filled me with hope as I looked to the future.
He Appointed Fruit
My hope came from what Jesus said next: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go . . .” I saw that when Jesus chooses his disciples, he appoints them to “good works, which God prepared [for them] beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10). I didn’t yet know what future labors the Lord had appointed for me, but it filled me with hope to realize I didn’t bear the primary weight of figuring it all out. The Lord who chose me was fully able to direct me into what he had appointed for me.
But that wasn’t all. Jesus went further: “I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” My awe and hope increased as I saw that my fruitfulness ultimately depended, not on any specific spiritual gift, nor even on my faith in Christ, but on Jesus himself. The God who chose me to be his disciple and appointed me to my present and future kingdom labors would also make me fruitful in those labors — including the labors of my prayers: “. . . so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
Over time, John 15:16 became a kind of lens through which I viewed what Jesus said earlier in the chapter about the Vine and the branches (John 15:1–8). He described the mysterious interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in action. The power for me (a branch) to bear fruit comes solely from abiding in Jesus (the Vine). Therefore, I must undertake my responsibility to do the work of abiding (exercising trust in Jesus in everything). And yet, ultimately, the very power to carry out my responsibility comes from the sovereign Vine, who chose me as a branch and appointed my place in the Vine so that I would abide and be fruitful. For the faith required to abide is not my own doing; it is itself a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8).
That Your Joy May Be Full
One more verse illuminated the whole section I read that morning as if in a warm light. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Jesus wanted me to be full of joy. More than that, he wanted me to be full of his joy! More than that, he was actually pursuing my experience of his joy in me by speaking the things he was saying.
The whole experience that morning was overwhelming, and I couldn’t take it all in. I’m recounting here in words clearer than I could have articulated then. Jesus was awakening me to these things that morning, and my understanding increased over time.
“Those who trust Jesus with everything will know the greatest love, the fullest joy, and the most abundant fruit.”
For example, I didn’t begin reflecting deeply on what Jesus meant by his joy making my joy full until three years later when I was introduced to John Piper’s teaching on Christian Hedonism. Then Jesus’s promise that those who trust him with everything will know the greatest love (John 15:9–14), the fullest joy (John 15:11), and the most abundant fruit (John 15:1–8) began to open up to me in deeper ways. And the more I understood, the more I wanted that life. Because that life was in essence the life (John 14:6). And I wanted him.
That steamy summer morning in Manila, what I wanted from Jesus was clarity regarding a troubling teaching. But what he wanted to give me was a revelation of himself through his words that would awaken me to his sovereignty over my salvation, plant the seeds of Christian Hedonism, and set my course for a future appointment. And he did that in under an hour.
I wish all my devotions were like that. Very few have been. Most have been quite ordinary. Jesus seems to prefer giving us what we need mainly through the cumulative effect of our daily, faithful seeking him in Scripture. But those few extraordinary times I’ve encountered the living and active Word of God in the written word have transformed my life.
I share this story to encourage us all to keep seeking the Word in the word. Jesus knows what we need when we need it. And when the need is right and the time is ripe, he who chose us, appointed us, and makes us fruitful will come and do more than we could ask or think. And life will never be the same.