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Life in the Vine: Notes on John 15:1-17

Study notes ▪ 2016
Tags: John 15:1-17; Spiritual life; God; Jesus Christ; Viticulture; Fellowship; Love; Spiritual fruit; Kathairo (Greek word); Airo (Greek word); Ballo (Greek word); Meno (Greek word)
Related Resources: Christ’s New CommandmentA Survey of John’s EpistlesGrowth: A New Testament Overview


Introduction

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus communicated passionately with his disciples about their ongoing need to remain connected to him. He did so using the imagery of the vine and the branches (John 15:1ff). Such language would have been very familiar to his audience due to the centrality of viticulture (i.e., grape cultivation) to life in first-century Israel (Matthews; Akpunonu 3-18).

Those of us who live in areas where viticulture is less than prominent cannot readily understand the depth of what Jesus taught. Therefore, we must make special effort to comprehend the physical realities that underlie the spiritual truths of which he spoke. Matthews explains:

[W]hen the biblical writers and prophets draw on the vine image there is an expectation that their audience is both familiar with the various aspects of viticulture and capable of making the connections alluded to by the speaker. Obviously, if one has never worked in a vineyard, never seen the cultivation process, and never experienced the tasks associated with wine making, then metaphors based on familiarity can never achieve their full effect. (23)

Text (ESV)

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.

The Vineyard Metaphor

Jesus used the metaphor of a vineyard to convey truth about believers’ relationship with him and his Father. Implicit within the image of a vineyard are a few fundamental realities:

  • Purpose: A vineyard exists for the purpose of producing fruit—specifically, fruit in abundance and of high quality.
  • Connection: Grapes can only grow if the branches to which they are attached remain vitally connected to the vine.
  • Effort: A healthy, productive vineyard is the outcome of deliberate effort. A harvest of delicious grapes attests to the diligence of those who maintain the vines (cf. Prov. 24:30-34).
John 15:1-17 details the meaning of three specific elements of the vineyard, as summarized in the table that follows.

Physical Element  Spiritual Counterpart Reference
The (True) Vine Jesus Christ 
vv. 1, 5
The Vinedresser God the Father v. 1
The Branches Disciples v. 5

In choosing the vineyard metaphor, therefore, Jesus communicated three essential truths. First, the Father and the Son earnestly desire to see disciples producing spiritual fruit (vv. 8, 16). Second, disciples can only achieve fruitfulness to the extent that they are properly related to Jesus Christ (vv. 4-5). Third, the Father actively works in disciples’ lives to make them spiritually productive (v. 2).

Old Testament Foundations

The vineyard motif in John 15 is not unprecedented. On the contrary, it draws heavily on Old Testament foundations. According to Rodney Whitacre, “Vine (gepen) is used many times in the OT to represent Israel …, as is the associated image of the vineyard (kerem …). The vine/vineyard is the people of God, planted and cultivated by God for his delight and the produce it should yield” (867).

God established Israel with deliberate action as if he were preparing land and planting a vine there (Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:1-2). He intended for the nation to accomplish his purposes in much the same way that a well maintained vineyard produces delicious fruit for its owner (Isa. 5:3-4).

Yahweh subsequently conceded the vineyard’s fruit to his enemies (Jer. 6:9) and allowed it to go to waste (Ps. 80:8-16). The prophets made it clear that God’s failure to act on Israel’s behalf was a reaction to the nation’s unrighteousness (Hos. 10:1-2)—the spiritual equivalent of turning into a wild vine (Isa. 5:5-7; Jer. 2:21) or failing to yield fruit altogether (Jer. 8:13). God’s judgment on Israel was ultimately the consequence of its leaders’ failure to take care of the vineyard (Jer. 12:10-13; Isa. 3:14).

In a variation on the theme, Ezekiel likened Jerusalem’s inhabitants to a vine whose “wood” is useful for nothing—destined only for burning (Ezek. 15:1-8). Similarly, he pronounced a lamentation for Israel’s princes, referring to their “mother” as a fruitful vine that was uprooted and planted in a wilderness (19:1, 10-14). Nevertheless, Isaiah looked forward to a time of restoration when Yahweh would once again care for his vineyard (Isa. 27:2-6). Likewise, Hosea called Israel to a repentance that would lead to restored fruitfulness (Hos. 14:4-7).

The Work of the Vinedresser

John 15 describes the relationship between the Vinedresser (God the Father) and the branches in terms of three verbs:

  • καθαίρει: “he prunes” (v. 2)
  • αἴρει: “he takes away” (v. 2)
  • ἐβλήθη: “he is thrown away” (v. 6)
The first two occur in the active voice, referring directly to the Vinedresser’s work. The third occurs in the passive voice, indicating the effect of the action on the branches that do not abide in the Vine.

Pruning

According to verse 2, the heavenly Vinedresser treats fruit-bearing branches in such a way as to make them more fruitful. The ESV, like most English versions (NET, NIV, NASB, NLT, MSG, NKJV, and NRSV) translates the verb καθαίρει as “prunes.” The BBE (“makes clean”) reflects the verb’s more generic sense. While the BBE’s rendering does not clearly convey the act of pruning, it implies the connection with the following verse, which states that the disciples are “clean” (καθαροί) through Christ’s word (cf. 13:10). Gary Derickson, a horticulturalist-turned-biblical-scholar, comments: “Since καθαίρει was the legitimate viticultural term describing the process of removing suckers from a fruiting branch [i.e., during the spring growing season], it should be understood that way” (48).

Lifting

Preceding the reference to pruning in verse 2 is the occurrence of the verb αἴρει, which the ESV translates as “he takes away.” Interestingly, although two senses of αἴρω—lifting up and carrying off—are clearly attested (Jeremias), English translations of John 15:2 consistently take the verb in the latter sense. Various other versions concur with the ESV’s “he takes away” (NET, NASB, BBE, and NKJV); similar renderings include “cuts off” (NIV, NLT, and MSG) and “removes” (NRSV). R. K. Harrison is in the apparent minority of interpreters who conclude that αἴρει carries the other sense in verse 2: “Fallen vines were lifted … into position with meticulous care and allowed to heal” (986).

Derickson makes an argument from ancient horticulture to support the minority view:

It would be better to see Jesus indicating what actually occurred during the spring, namely, certain nonfruiting branches were tied to the trellises along with the fruiting branches while the side shoots of the fruiting branches were being “cleaned up.” The nonfruiting branches were allowed to grow with full vigor and without the removal of any side growth or leaves, since the more extensive their growth the greater the diameter of their stem where it connected to the vine, giving greater ability to produce more fruit the following season. Removing the nonfruiting branches from the ground and placing them on the trellis would allow the rows of plants to benefit from unhindered aeration, considered an essential element to proper fruit development. To see αἴρει as removal (judgment or discipline) is to contradict the actual practice of the time. (49)

Extending Derickson’s argument, Thomas Constable postulates that “Jesus was teaching that the Father gives special support to believers who are not yet bearing fruit. In viticulture this involves lifting the branch off the ground so it will not send secondary roots down into the ground that will prove unhealthful. Lifting the branch off the ground onto a pole or trellis also enables air to dry the branch and prevent it from getting moldy and becoming diseased” (note on John 15:2).

Removing

The Vinedresser’s third action vis-à-vis the branches, found in verse 6, is removal (“thrown away” in ESV, NIV, NASB, NLT, and NRSV; “thrown out” in NET; “cast out” in NKJV). Interpreters have attached a variety of meanings to Jesus’ use of the verb ἐβλήθη, particularly in light of the remark that branches are thrown into the fire. Derickson notes three common views of the discarded branches: “Christians who lose their salvation, … professing ‘Christians’ who never had salvation, or … unfruitful Christians who are cared for by God and then eventually are disciplined by means of death” (35).

Vines are cultivated for the sole purpose of producing fruit. They do not produce enough wood to make anything. Therefore, branches that are persistently non-productive are destined for burning (Ezek. 15:1-4). Craig Keener states this succinctly: “Dead, fruitless branches of vines are obviously of no use for carpentry; their only possible value is for fuel” (301). Interestingly, Jesus does not directly state that branches that fail to abide in him are cast into the fire; rather, he says that burning is the common fate of unfruitful branches.

Derickson, once again applying his horticultural knowledge, distinguishes the Vinedresser’s action in verse 6 from the spring pruning of verse 2:

Rather than warning of discipline or judgment, verse 6 illustrates uselessness in light of dormant-season pruning. Within the vine-and-branch analogy, the best illustration of the uselessness resulting from a failure to abide could come only from the postharvest pruning. Everything pruned in early spring was either growing from a branch (sprigs and suckers), the branch not being removed, or from an undesired location on the trunk. Only at the end of the season would “branches” be removed, piled up, and burned. … The burning need not describe judgment; it is simply one step in the process being described. It is what happens to pruned materials. Their uselessness, not their destruction, is being emphasized.

In light of the three actions attributed to God the Father, one must conclude that He has a consummate concern for the disciples’ productivity. Knowing that branches can only produce if they abide in the Vine, the Vinedresser takes successive steps to induce them to abide. Nevertheless, if these steps fail to yield the desired result, the disciples’ lives offer no spiritual utility. In Constable’s words, “Fruit-bearing is the normal but not the inevitable consequence of having divine life” (note on John 15:2). As the Vine, Jesus is the source of all spiritual life, but it is incumbent on his followers to abide in him. That is the key message of this passage.

Abiding in the Vine

According to John 15, believers produce abundant spiritual fruit as a result of maintaining fellowship with Christ. The ESV’s “abide,” occurring throughout the passage, renders the Greek μένω, which conveys notions of staying, standing fast, remaining, and enduring (Hauck 581). The text provides important clues as to what this spiritual experience means. First, it is a mutual union. Not only does the believer abide in Christ, but Christ abides in the believer (vv. 4-5, 7). Second, abiding entails attention and obedience to Christ’s teachings. Believers who let Christ’s words abide in them (v. 7; cf. Col. 3:16) will naturally seek to obey his commandments (vv. 9-10). The subjective experience of Christ’s enduring love thus has an objective foundation that is both cognitive and behavioral.

Sustained contact with Christ leads to enduring fruit (v. 16). Aspects of fruitfulness include …

  • intimacy with Christ (vv. 14-15)
  • sacrificial love for fellow believers (vv. 12, 16-17)
  • power in prayer (vv. 7, 16)
  • deep joy (v. 11)

Abundant spiritual fruit glorifies the Father and proves the reality of a believer’s relationship with Christ (v. 8). Notably, the disciple’s relationship with Christ mirrors that of Christ with the Father:

  • Christ loves his followers as the Father loves him (v. 9).
  • Christ kept the Father’s commandments and calls us to relate to him in the same way (v. 10).
  • Christ reveals the Father to his followers even as the Father reveals himself to Christ (v. 15).

Through the Son, the believer can know the experience of the Father’s indwelling presence (John 14:23; note that “home” renders μονὴν, a noun related to μένω). The Appendix provides further analysis of the intimacy and mutuality that characterizes the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the disciples.

The image of the vine conveys a sense of believers’ spiritual connection with Christ and one another. According to Whitacre, “Jesus does not call himself the stalk but rather the vine, that is, the whole plant. Since the disciples are a part of the plant only as they remain in him, this image contributes to a key theme in John that believers are one with God in Christ” (868). Furthermore, the fact that a vine consists of many branches implies that they are vitally interconnected. John Collins emphasizes that Jesus’ use of the vine image draws on Old Testament precedent, thus meaning that he brings to full reality the role previously assigned to Israel. Simply put, “the most natural understanding of John 15:1 is that Jesus embodies Israel’s calling to be the true vine” (48). By sharing in the vine, New Testament believers are organically connected with one another: “When we become part of the church, we join a web of relationships with other members, all of whom are connected to Christ” (49).

Practical Implications

Becoming a new creation through faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) connects us permanently with the source of spiritual life. This is a necessary but insufficient condition of spiritual fruitfulness. Producing spiritual fruit requires discipline on our part, but this discipline is not some sort of work performed in isolation from Christ. On the contrary, we can produce nothing significant apart from him.

Communing with Christ and bearing spiritual fruit replicates the relationship between the Father and the Son. There can be no truer evidence of our union with Christ. This serves not only to assure us of our right standing before God, but also to testify of his love to a lost world.

God did not save us merely so we could escape the consequences of sin, but that we might enjoy the delight of an enduring, fruitful relationship with him. Since he desires so earnestly to accomplish in us the full extent of his redeeming work, he takes definite action to induce fruit-bearing in us. Pruning and lifting may not be pleasant experiences, but they lead to the realization of God’s good purposes, and through this they bring great joy (Heb. 12:11).

Abiding in Christ is not only our privilege, but our responsibility. We can leverage the reality of our life in Christ in practical ways:

  • reflecting on his teachings and obeying them
  • pursuing a relationship with Christ through prayer—something far beyond intellectual knowledge of God or a one-time conversion experience
  • associating with other believers who are also seeking to abide in him

Works Cited

Akpunonu, Peter Damian. The Vine, Israel, and the Church. Peter Lang AG, 2004.

Collins, C. John. “Abiding in the Vine.” Christianity Today, Mar. 2016, pp. 46-49.

Constable, Thomas L. Notes on John. lumina.bible.org/bible/John+15#constablesNotesHolder

Derickson, Gary W. “Viticulture and John 15:1-6.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 153, Jan. 1996, pp. 34-52.

Harrison, Roland K. “Vine.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, fully revised, vol. 4, Eerdmans, 1988, pp. 986-87.

Hauck, Friedrich. “Méno, em-, para-, peri-, prosméno, moné, hypoméno, hypomoné.” Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Eerdmans, 1985, pp. 581-84.

Jeremias, Joachim. “Aíro, epaíro.” Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Eerdmans, 1985, pp. 846-48.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. InterVarsity, 1993.

Matthews, Victor H. “Treading the Winepress: Actual and Metaphorical Viticulture in the Ancient Near East.” Semeia, vol. 86, 1999, pp. 19-32.

Whitacre, Rodney A. “Vine, Fruit of the Vine.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, InterVarsity, 1992, pp. 867-68.

Other Resources

Köstenberger, Andreas J. “John.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Baker Academic/Apollos, 2007, pp. 415-512.

Kynes, William L. “Abiding.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, InterVarsity, 1992, pp. 2-3.

Ryken, Leland, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. InterVarsity, 1998. [See especially the entry entitled “Vine, Vineyard.”]

Appendix: Intimacy and Mutuality between the Father, the Son, and the Disciples in the Gospel of John

God the Father God the Son Faithful Disciples
Loves the Son (5:20; 15:9; 17:26) Loves the disciples (13:34; 15:9, 12) Love one another (13:34-35; 15:12, 17)
Is in the Son, abides/dwells in the Son (14:10-11; 17:21, 23) Abides in the disciples (15:4-5; 17:23, 28)

Is in the Father (14:10-11; 17:21) Abide in the Son, are in the Son (15:4-5; 17:21)

Abides in the Father’s love, keeps his commandments (15:10) Keep the Son’s commandments and abide in his love (15:10)
Shows the Son all that he is doing (5:20) Reveals to the disciples all that the Father tells him (15:15)

Can only do what he sees the Father doing (5:19) Can only do profitable things as they abide in the Son (15:4-5)



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