So what is the foundation of lasting joy in our lives? The Scriptures give us a strategy for finding that kind of happiness in an unexpected place. But first, understand a little background. In the ancient Near Eastern world where the events described in the Bible occurred, the most common symbol of happiness and joy was the grape vine. We see this fact in the psalmist’s comment regarding “wine that gladdens human hearts” (Psalm 104:15) and in many other scriptures such as this one: “The vine is dried up … Surely the people’s joy is withered away” (Joel 1:12).
Of course, this connection was based on the temporary physical feeling of pleasure obtained from drinking wine, so what does the symbolism of happiness connected with the vine have to do with true, deeper, and lasting happiness? We find the answer in the words of Jesus himself when he told his disciples “I am the true vine …” (John 15:1). Of course, these words were spoken in the direct context of our abiding in him like branches staying firmly attached to the vine (John 15:2-8), but we should not forget that the most common symbolic use of the vine in religious and philosophical teaching of that time was one of its connection with happiness and joy.
When we remember this background fact, the next words of Jesus suddenly become much more alive to us: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (vs. 11, emphasis added). When we keep the basic symbolic meaning of the vine in mind it seems more than coincidence that Jesus points to himself as the true vine and then tells us he makes this connection so we may have true happiness or joy.
But Jesus did not just tell us these things as abstract principles – he explained his words in terms of a direct strategy for happiness that we can and should apply in our lives. Notice that the setting for his statement on our complete happiness gives us that strategy:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9-12).
Do you see it? The strategy we are given for happiness is as clear as any strategy given anywhere in the words of Christ – our happiness will be like his if our love is like his. The profound thing about this strategy is that it is not based on chasing happiness or on trying to achieve joy through things we get or receive – it is based on the degree to which we reverse that process and work in the other direction through outgoing love. Love, Christ tells us, is not just the fulfilling of the law (Matthew 22:36-40), it is also the cause of happiness – in our lives and in the lives of others.
In that sense, the “fruit of the vine” Christ commanded us to receive on the last evening of his life is not only symbolic of his shed blood (Matthew 26:28) – which is its primary symbolism in the context of the Lord's Supper, of course – but also, in a smaller yet no less real way, the fruit of the vine is symbolically the “fruit” of living the way Christ lived. That “fruit” is happiness, and the strategy to produce it is love.