At the outset, we need to make a very basic observation about this statement: like all of God's statements, we need to realize that either it is absolutely true, or it's a lie. (The Bible does record lies, but they're told by characters other than God Himself.) When God makes a statement, be it a warning, a promise, or a revelation of Himself, we must face the fact that He's either telling the literal truth, or He's lying. So, when Jesus makes the claim "Without Me, ye can do nothing," He means exactly what He says - - - and the implications are staggering.
As always, we need to get the statement in context: I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:1-5).
This passage, and indeed the entire chapter, describes one of the most important principles of the Christian life, and has been the subject of countless devotionals, sermons, books, and at least one entire ministry. The obvious application is the fact that no Christian can be a spiritual success, or bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 5:9), apart from the direct enabling of Jesus Christ. But instead of attempting to cover this great principle in a single post, it might be profitable to concentrate on a single snippet of Jesus' discourse: the words "Without Me, ye can do nothing." Those six simple words are enough to occupy our minds for quite awhile - - - and they apply not only to Christians, who have received Christ according to John 1:12, but to unbelievers as well. Jesus' statement, in one way or another, applies to every atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or Existentialist who ever lived. ...
Every born-again Christian knows that nothing of eternal value can be accomplished without Christ's power. Even after we've received Jesus Christ by an act of the will, as He commanded in John 3:3-7, we're still subject to the earthly limitations and tendencies with which we were born the first time. As Paul said in Romans 7:18: For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. God expects us to read and study His word faithfully, but we're distracted by a thousand other things, and we make excuses, and procrastinate; in fact, most Western Christians have never read the Bible straight through, as you'd read any other book, a single time. The number of Christians who actually dig in and study the scriptures, verse by verse, is disgracefully small. We believe the Bible; we even have affectionate feelings for the Bible, and sometimes we enjoy reading articles and books about the Bible. But Bible study itself? That's a different matter; to be blunt, most Western Christians simply will not do it. They'll do almost anything else with their mind, and their attention. Because, as Jesus observed of the drowsy disciples, the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). And when we do actually make time for God's word, we become too easily confused, or lack spiritual understanding, because we're still in the same weak body of flesh (including our brain) with which we were born. For most Christians, Bible reading is a chore and a duty. But when we turn ourselves over to Jesus, and acknowledge our reliance on Him, and ask Him to be our Teacher and Guide, He shows us such marvelous things in his words as can scarcely be described. After all, He promised that He would. Speaking of the Holy Spirit: And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you (John 16:8-15). But we can't get it by ourselves. Because "without Me, ye can do nothing."
Do you want to maintain a good, healthy prayer life with God, keeping the lines of communication open, able to talk with Him at any time? If you're like most Christians, you do; but that's not easy, either. Prayer takes focus and discipline; and our minds are constantly distracted, or drift off to other areas; and, very often, the Enemy invades our times of prayer with doubts and discouragements and filthy, obscene thoughts. Prayer, real, mature prayer, is all but impossible for us: when was the last time that you spent a solid hour praying, alone, without being distracted? (Please don't ask me the same question!) Unless Jesus helps us, we can't enjoy His word, or pray, or do any of the other things a Christian is called upon to do; because "without Me, ye can do nothing."
But I said at the beginning that this principle doesn't apply to Christians alone. It applies to all mankind, in one way or another: because Jesus Christ created mankind, whether men acknowledge Him or not. Speaking of Jesus Christ, Paul says, firmly and unapologetically: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist (Colossians 1:16-17). You may be a Hindu or a Jain or a jeering, smirking atheist, but you are a creature of God, of Jesus Christ. And not only were you created by Him, you actually "consist" by His grace and power: Jesus Christ literally holds this universe together, moment by moment, by His power. If He stopped, the universe - - - and you - - - would simply cease to be, except in either Heaven or Hell.
Please don't waste your time and mine by talking about "man's unbounded ability," "man's creative genius," or the great accomplishments of this or that "self-made man." I know all about it. I don't sneer at accomplishment, or success; I have respect for every drop of honest sweat, or every positive new insight, that ever decorated a man's life. Whether it's an astronaut or a great athlete or simply the man who gets up every morning, for decades, working at a job he frequently dislikes, to provide for himself and his family, I have no desire to belittle them at all. But let's face facts: there's no such thing as a "self-made man" or woman, no matter how arduous one's journey has been. At various points, there were helpers along the way: if not good parents, then teachers and coaches and friends and co-workers who enabled you to do what you've done. (As someone has said, a "self-made man" would be a perfect example of unskilled labor.) We know you're wonderful, but those people deserve part of the credit too, don't they?
But even behind these people, there's Jesus. Even the unbeliever lives and moves and breathes because of Jesus' patience and longsuffering and power. You heart keeps beating because God wills it so. You avoid being wiped out in an automobile accident because God wills it so. You couldn't even get out the door in the morning, to go to work or school, without God's help. Paul was not addressing Christians, but Greek philosophers, when he said of God, in him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). That's a very humbling fact, but it's a fact nonetheless.
This was borne in on me very practically a few years ago when I woke up one morning, having gone to bed thinking that I was perfectly healthy, and was virtually paralyzed: I could move my head and my hands, but I couldn't sit up in bed; I couldn't even turn off the alarm clock. When friends got me to the hospital, I was diagnosed with with a very rare disorder called hypokalemia: to put it simply, most of the potassium had been leached out of my system, and my muscles were failing. The doctor said that, in the next 24 hours, without treatment, the next muscle to fail would have been my heart. After a few days of hospital treatment, I was fine; but for several days, I didn't even have the strength to turn over in bed or pick up my Bible. ....
That was a very small example of what your life and mine would be like without Jesus Christ. It's not just that we'd be second-rate Christians; it's not a "spiritual" thing at all, except insofar as spiritual reality is the ultimate reality. This is very practical. Because Jesus meant exactly what He said: "Without Me, ye can do nothing." Not even breathe. ....
If we had the proper view of Jesus, something approaching an accurate understanding of Who He is, this wouldn't be so surprising. And, taken by itself, it could be discouraging: the Enemy would distort Jesus' statement, and make us feel hopeless. But there's a corollary to "Without Me, ye can do nothing" .... and the Christian will find encouragement, and victory, and joy in meditating upon it.
Two more very simple verses, to be taken together with our original quotation. Jesus also said, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). And Paul brought it down to the individual level, with a promise from God that any Christian can claim, at any time: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Philippians 4:13).
That verse, Phil. 4:13, was embroidered on Evander Holyfield's boxing trunks, the night that he came back from heart disease to defeat Mike Tyson. But astounding the world, even in such a dramatic manner, is a very minor example of what Jesus Christ can do in the life of a man or woman who knows Him, and trusts Him, and believes His word. Because Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!