THE VINE AND THE BRANCHES
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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and 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 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 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. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 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. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
— John 15:1-17, ESV
This text exits the upper room and puts us on the road with Jesus and the eleven. They are heading to the Garden of Gethsemane, situated on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem. It is still Passover, the evening meal is over, and the morning is dangerously close at hand. In a few hours, Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, denied, tried, and crucified.
At night, the Temple Mount is lit up as Jesus and His disciples walk by on their eastward route. The entrance to the sanctuary is especially illuminated, on which a vine of pure gold is wrapped around the columns and above the mantle of the front door. It is God’s vine from God’s vineyard, which in Old Testament imagery represents the nation of Israel.
Christ came, the first time, to fulfill the Old Covenant and inaugurate the New Covenant. He came to embody Israel’s role of suffering servant and fruit-bearing vine. By His own sacrifice as the servant, He is the vine that unites people with God from every race and nation. God is the vine, and the branches are His people, but only after a purging and pruning take place.
The Vine is God in Three Persons
For the seventh of seven times recorded by John, Jesus proclaims, “I Am.” It is a declaration of deity. Jesus claimed in no uncertain terms that He was, is, and always will be Almighty God, the great “I Am.” The two words in English are two words in Greek (ego eimi), one name in Hebrew (YHWH). Jesus is the true and living God who is our bread to live (6:35), light for the world to see (8:12), door to enter salvation (10:7), good shepherd for our souls (10:14), resurrection and life for our bodies (11:25), only way and truth and life (14:6), and connection, eternally, with God (15:1,5).
In the trinitarian context of John, Jesus speaks for the great “I Am” who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The one vine is one God, in three persons. The vine precedes and produces the branches, just as the God comes before and creates the human race. The vine makes the branches in the vine’s own image, some of which fall off the vine while others abide, or remain, or persevere.
It is the God the Father who plants the vine in the world, not as a graven image, but as a living representation of Himself. The purpose of the vine is to give life to the branches, though many will prove to be dead wood. The Father is a sovereign over the vine, choosing which branches will live (vs. 16; Ephesians 1:4), then pruning them by His providence so they will bear fruit. The other, unfruitful branches are purged and burned. The vine is His.
And, the vine is Him. The vinedresser and the vine are one, the eternal Father manifesting Himself in the begotten Son so that the vine can be seen, heard, touched, and connected to the branches. The branches come to the Father through the Son. The branches that live do so because they are rightly connected to the vine and continue to draw their sustenance, strength, and ability to bear fruit from the vine. Non-fruit-bearing branches lack a true connection with the vine, so they wither and die.
The spirit of the vine is the Holy Spirit, who like the Father is invisible, but indispensable to the triunity of God and the propagation of living and health branches. He hovers over the context of this text, which He inspired in the heart and mind of the human author John. The word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, inspired by the Spirit, runs through the vine, connecting branches with the Son, uniting them with the Father, the vine and the branches.
Jesus’ elaboration of the vine and the branches is the closest thing to a parable in the Gospel of John. Parables were His favorite means of using the ordinary in the world to communicate the extraordinary grace and exclusive terms of the kingdom of God. The interpretation of each metaphor is relatively easy to discover. Clearly God, “I Am,” is the vine, and the branches are human beings, the whole of mankind, divided into two starkly different groups.
The Branches are People in Two Groups
In keeping with the plainness of parabolic talk, the vine is God and the branches are people created by God. This encompasses all people of all time, for all mankind has one Creator. The fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man is soteriologically a liberal idea, but anthropologically a biblical one. All humans stem from the vine, but as the branches go through life they are segregated into two distinct groups.
Jesus says less of one group than the other, for He clearly favors one over the other. Yes, God shows favoritism, like Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and the elect over the reprobate. He does not favor based on rich over poor, nor black over white, nor even Jew over Gentile. He favors, or gives grace, to the saved over the lost.
There are things, spoken of by the true vine Himself, that you can clearly see that separate the lost and the saved. In this text they are abiding faith (11 references to “abide” in the text) and abundant fruit (8 references). One produces the other in the good branches, while the bad branches wither and die due to the lack thereof.
Lost people are simply described as “every branch in me that does not bear fruit.” They bear no fruit because they have no faith. This includes people of no faith and people of bad faith. The faithless are obvious, while bad faith can be disguised in the clothing of religion, even the Christian religion, by nominals and hypocrites.
Little more is said of these branches except the obvious and terrible. They produce nothing of lasting value on earth and their eternal destiny is fire. Fire is symbolic, speaking of final judgment, a cessation to matter, an eternity apart from the life and love of God. Imagine the horror of the moment when a person discovers they should have grabbed hold and held on to the vine, to the Lord Jesus Christ, only to learn it is too late.
Much more is said about the living branches. They are gifted with the abiding faith that produces abundant fruit. God makes much of them in this text, for they exhibit lives that make much of God.
Notice the many things the vine does to the true branches. God prunes, or convicts us deeply of our sins, which produces repentance and growth. God cleanses our hearts through regeneration, producing faith and trust. God abides in us through the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God loves with unconditional and sacrificial love. God lays down His life for His sheep, or fruitful branches in this case. God befriends, enmity ceases, peace is permanently granted. This stems from God’s choice, electing His children unto eternal life, and in this life He appoints them to various positions and places in His church. God remains, eternally with us, always our vine, our source of strength in this life, our source of glory in the life to come.
Notice the many things the branches produce when connected to the vine. We bear fruit and then some, exhibiting a growing relationship with Christ throughout life. We abide, remain in Christ and in His church, persevering as saints. We ask and receive, those things which are in keeping with God’s word, God’s will, and God’s glory. We prove to be true disciples by riding the beautiful Johannine cycle of faith, love, and obedience. The faith is in Christ, the love is for God and one another, and the obedience is a glad submissiveness to God’s word. We remain with the God who remains with us, for us, in us, arriving ultimately in the glory of Heaven.
God is profoundly infinite and complex, so Jesus speaks of Him in these simple terms of the vine, so that we may grab hold of Him. When we do, we discover it is He who first grabbed hold of us. Saving faith is a mixture of the invisible grace God gives and the visible good works He produces through us. We cannot look into another person’s heart, but we can see the fruit produced with their hands, their lives, their lifestyles. But Jesus did not give us these words to judge others, but ourselves.
If we want assurance that we are Christians, we must be fruit-bearing branches of Christ. We must take from the vine the nourishment of the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We must bear fruit for the vine, the fruit of love, joy, peace, and making more disciples for Christ. We must profess our faith and practice our faith. “For apart from Me,” Jesus said, “You can do nothing.” But if you have Jesus Christ, the vine, you are a branch who has everything.