Metaphor of the True Vine Part 2
The full meaning of the True Vine metaphor is made somewhat easier to see by slightly realigning of the sequence of verses, putting them into the usual pattern followed by a vinedresser as he tends the vine and its fruit. Studying the verses in the order 1, 3, 4, 5, 2, 6, and 7 fits that traditional sequence of actions. Jesus is the True Vine, His Father is the vinedresser, and believers are branches in the vine.
Here is a short overview of the meaning of the metaphor. Jesus is the True Vine and His Father is the vinedresser. The disciples in particular and believers in general are like branches that have been cleaned of insects and other troublesome parasites. This is true because they believed the Word spoken by Jesus. Believers must abide in Christ as branches abide in a vine if they are to produce the good fruit of righteousness. Apart from Christ, a believer can do nothing (of eternal value). There is a warning about the importance of producing fruit. Branches which fail to produce fruit will be removed by the Vinedresser. Branches bearing fruit will be pruned so they will bear more fruit. Branches failing to abide in the vine wither, are gathered and cast into the fire by the vinedresser.
John 15:1-6 (Rearranged)
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 3Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.4Abide 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. 2 Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 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.
Tending and Pruning Vines
The metaphor emphasizes proper tending and care of the vine as necessary for producing a plentiful crop of good grapes. Growing good grapes begins with selection of proper land and preparing the site carefully. The best sites are on free draining, gentle south-facing slopes that aren’t exposed to strong winds or late frost, and have maximum hours of sunshine and acceptable average temperatures. Vines can thrive on many soil types as long as the soil is free draining and matched to the appropriate root stock. The soil type and site characteristics impact the taste of the wine produced. Vines develop best when only the roots are watered. Water standing on the leaves tends to cause fungus to develop.
For grapes to develop properly they need sunlight and to hang freely off the ground. Vineyard workers go through the vineyard lifting up branches that are touching the ground and providing them support. They also cleanse the branches of insects and other parasites. Later they prune away any growth that would hinder producing good fruit. Some pruning may occur while the vine is green and growing, but the most severe pruning is done when the vine has lost its leaves and is dormant. Even some good wood must be pruned to increase the yield or improve the quality of the fruit. A vine must have a degree of maturity before it can produce good fruit. Typically, vines are not permitted to produce fruit until their fourth or fifth season after planting.
Grapevines bear wonderful fruit but seem to be not much good for anything else. The wood is not suitable for building or making articles for household use. The vine is always gnarled and twisted, and its wood soft. When the vine dries it becomes very brittle. It doesn’t even make good firewood because it burns too fast and doesn’t produce much heat. William Barclay points out that Jewish law required people, at certain times of the year, to bring wood offerings to the temple for use in the fires for sacrifices, but the wood of the vine was not acceptable. It was useless for that purpose. The value of the vine is totally in its ability to produce good fruit.
The Vinedresser protects, purifies (lifts up and cleanses), and prunes the branches. In believers Word of God is used in these functions – like a mirror the Word of God reveals problems – James 1:23-24, like a sword God’s Word cuts to the heart – Hebrews 4:12).
Vine Tending and Spiritual Things
The concepts for caring for the vines can be spiritually interpreted. Just as proper land is the essential foundation for good vines, regeneration and justification are the essential spiritual foundation for developing the fruit of righteousness.
Sanctification begins the process of cleansing away the residue of sin, as well as, pruning things which may be good in themselves but are hindrances to fruitfulness. Forcing a vine to produce fruit too early invariably causes problems. For a new believer to begin producing the fruit of righteousness before developing full commitment and devotion to God is equally dangerous. Success at that early stage can result in pride and conviction that the person has special powers. That can cause the successful new believers to look down on others, considering themselves to be more spiritual and useful to God than other believers.
Another danger is that removing “bad things” and “hindrances” without first having our lives filled with Christ, can lead to an inner vacuum that is available to be filled by something else not Christian at all. We might find ourselves in the position of the man in Christ’s story who threw out one demon but suffered greater loss when the empty space left behind was filled by that demon returning with seven of his friends. Believers must put off sinful old things, but must replace them with new Christlike attributes.
The proper sequence for producing righteous fruit is to first draw near to God. Then cleansing begins, sinful residues of harmful things and hindrances are removed. That cleansing is accomplished through the power of the Word of God which we are to keep constantly before our mind. Psalm 119:9 “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” As Jesus said to His disciples in John 15:3, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.”
The True Vine
Jesus is the True Vine. Believers are “in Him” as branches are in a vine. Vines are expected to produce good fruit. It is the branches that produce the fruit, but they can only do so because they are an integral part of the vine. Their life comes from the vine. Their ability to produce
fruit comes from the vine. Believers produce fruit only when they faithfully abide in Christ.
Vines are not permitted to produce fruit until they develop sufficient maturity – typically four or five seasons. A newly regenerated person (a new branch in the vine) needs to experience the progress of the new life transformation of their inner being to the point where they have the inner strength to reach out to other people. Ultimately, each branch is to be such that the fruit of the Spirit is progressively developed within them. Galatians 5:22: “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The foundation of the fruit of the spirit provides the strength Christ uses as He works through us to produce fruit in others. Actions of love arising from the internal fruit of the spirit leads to fruitful outward actions including teaching, evangelism, mercy and other ministries.
Abiding In Christ
“What does it mean to “abide” in Christ?” Perhaps, the first thing to be noticed is that “abiding” pertains to those who are already Christians. We see this in that Jesus has already declared that He is the Vine and believers are “in Him” as branches. Through His enabling, those being saved believe in Him as the Son of God, believe in Him as Savior, and recognize Him as Savior, committing themselves to Him as Lord of their lives. There then is a distinction between “being in Christ” and “abiding in Christ.” What is it?
We become spiritually “in Christ” when the Holy Spirit works faith in us, thereby uniting us to Christ in effectual calling. At that point we are believers and “in Christ.” What does it mean to “abide in Christ?” The Apostle John clarifies this point in 1 John 3:24: Speaking of Jesus, John says, “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” Obedience is the condition for abiding. When we are obeying Christ’s commandments we are abiding in Him. When the Holy Spirit gives sinners faith, He unites them to Christ so that they are safe “in Christ.” But to abide in Christ, a believer must actively obey Christ. How do we know Christ abides in us? We know by the Holy Spirit who indwells us as He unites us to Christ.
Abiding is achieved and maintained by the conscious obedient decisions we make in living our life. We are “in Christ” by God’s grace. To develop the “in Christ” relationship, believers must make choices that cooperate with the gracious work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Examples include: (1.) Choosing to study God’s Word to learn what He has revealed about Himself and what duties He requires of us. (2.) Praising, thanking, and talking to Him in prayer. (3.) In obedience sharing one another’s burdens. (4.) Confessing faults. (5.) Fellowship with one another in which we help each other, learn about, and see Christ in one another. Obedience to Christ is abiding in Christ. Abiding in Christ will yield a fruitful life (our character will be transformed into a likeness of Christ and we will be used by the Holy Spirit to produce fruit in the lives of others). Obedience first! Note, that abiding through obedience means everyone of any age, of any economic or social position, good health or bad can abide in Christ and live a fruitful life.
The Fruit God Desires
What is the fruit that Jesus expects believers to produce? First thoughts are probably of outward acts like evangelism and charity. Outward acts are certainly included, but Jesus seems first to be focused on the fruit of inward righteousness. I am convinced that the fruit Jesus expects us to produce begins with the fruit of the Spirit in our own heart. We are to focus on becoming Christlike in character through our cooperation with what the Holy Spirit is doing in our life. As we become Christlike, we will inevitably produce the outward fruit of righteousness. Our inner being controls the flow thoughts, words, and actions. The Holy Spirit works to develop the fruit of the spirit within us. Galatians 5:22:“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control.” Our part is to recognize the Spirit’s work and cooperate with Him. When we possess and actively use these Christ-like qualities, the Holy Spirit will use our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to produce fruit in the lives of others. Identifying the fruit Jesus expects us to produce as the fruit of the Spirit in our own heart makes sense of the statement “apart from me you can do nothing.” It also seems to put thing in the right order – transformation in our own heart before producing fruit in the lives of others.
Apart From Me You Can Do Nothing
What does Jesus mean when He gives the warning, “apart from me you can do nothing”? At first thought, this statement doesn’t seem to make sense. Everything unbelievers do is done apart from Christ. Moreover, in God’s common grace, “good things” can be done apart from Christ. Kindness and generosity are often found in unbelievers. On the other hand, it is also true that believers can and often do disobedient things including being unkind and ungenerous.
So what does Jesus mean? Unbelievers and believers can, in a sense, apart from Christ earn good grades, make a living, raise a family, and practice generosity. What I think Jesus means is that, only with a connection to Him, a connection as close as that between a vine and its branches, can a person become like Christ in holy character (a true image of God). Only by being holy as God is holy can anyone live in His presence. The fruit of Christ-likeness develops in our inner being, enabled by the “sap” of Christ, the True Vine flowing in them. Believers are totally dependent on their living connection to Christ (Union) and can do nothing of eternal value without Him!
Out of zeal for Christ it is possible to attempt to do things for Him in our own strength. Such effort will inevitably fail to produce righteous fruit. Success in pleasing Christ requires Christians to carefully, faithfully, and obediently abide in Christ so that their actions are not apart from Him. What about unbelievers, those who don’t have Christ at all? They may have great success from the world’s perspective, but their efforts will produce nothing of eternal value for they strive apart from Christ.
Failing to Abide and Be Fruitful
In verses 2 and 6 there is warning. Branches failing to produce fruit will be removed by the Vinedresser. Branches bearing fruit will be pruned so that they can bear more fruit. Branches failing to abide in the vine wither, are gathered and cast into the fire by the vinedresser.
Verse 6 represents a potential problem for all who believe salvation, once given by God’s grace, cannot be taken away. Jesus says, 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.” What are we to make of this? Is it possible that it means a believer can lose their salvation and end up in hell? My answer is no! One possible interpretation is the reference is to people who are believers in name only. For the most part, this interpretation was the view of Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon, and the Puritans. The impetus for the belief is from Scripture. Judas had been removed physically from the vine shortly before Jesus presented the metaphor. If it fails to abide in Christ, a branch withers and is thrown into the fire.
Another interpretation is that somehow this verse is a reference to a true believer, one who is justified in Christ, but whose life is not abiding in Christ. In 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of such a person who is saved but only as through fire and the person’s works are burned up. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Arthur W. Pink points out Lot as example. He was out of fellowship with the Lord, ceased to bear fruit to God’s glory, and his dead works were all burned up in Sodom; yet he himself was saved!
I am not sure which interpretation is correct, but I am confident that any interpretation is wrong if it requires a believer to be thrown out of God’s hand by God Himself.
Brief Summary of John 15:1-6
Jesus is the True Vine. His Father is the Vinedresser. Believers are the branches. Believers abide in Christ by obeying Him. Believers know Christ abides in them by the Spirit whom He sent (1 John 3:24). The Vinedresser protects, purifies (lifts up and cleanses), and prunes the branches. The Word of God is used in these functions. Like a mirror God’s Word reveals problems in our person (James 1:23-24). Like a sword it cuts to the heart (Hebrews 4:13).
The overarching purpose of the vine is to produce fruit. The Vine does that by producing branches and the branches bear the fruit. The Vine gives life to the branches. The branches use that life to bear fruit. The flow of life from vine to branch requires the branches to be attached to the Vine. Branches in the vine are in a vital life-giving union with the vine. Through obedience (1 John 3:24), branches abide in the Vine.
Through obeying Christ’s commands, we will abide in Him. He says that by abiding in Him our prayers will be answered, and we will produce abundant fruit. If, by disobedience, we fail to abide in Christ we may escape damnation, but it will be as through fire and all works done apart from Christ will be burned up (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).