The Vine and the branches
Jesus uses an easily understood metaphor to describe the relationship between his disciples and himself. He warns of opposition, too.
Jesus uses an easily understood metaphor to describe the relationship between his disciples and himself. He warns of opposition, too.
Hello welcome to Series 12 and Episode 15. This is a metaphor that Jesus gives about the vine and the branches. He tells the story of a vine and explains some important realities for his disciples. We're in John 15: 1 - 25.
Introduction and Recap
If you have been following Series 12, you will know that we are now in the middle of the events of the Last Supper. The Last Supper is on Thursday of the last week of Jesus' life. An incredible amount has happened that leads to this point and the very significant events of the next 24 hours are going to be absolutely critical. Jesus is going to be arrested, tried, executed and then buried very quickly. Let us wind the clock back a little and remind ourselves of the broader context of this final week of Jesus' life. In earlier series, we pointed out the fact that Jesus made a very determined effort to head for Jerusalem for this final series of events in his life. He knew intuitively, by divine revelation and understanding of the future, that it was going to be necessary for him to come into final confrontation with the Jewish religious leaders, which would lead to his execution. Ultimately, he warned his disciples of this and he came to Jerusalem on this occasion very clearly set on bringing that confrontation out into the open. In Series 11, we looked at the events of Palm Sunday, the day in which Jesus came into Jerusalem, with a mighty crowd around him, proclaiming him as the Messiah shortly after he raised Lazarus from the dead, in nearby Bethany - a village just a few kilometres away. There was a huge sense of excitement with a big crowd in Jerusalem because it was the feast of Passover, one of their major religious feasts.
The events of that week followed on very dramatically each day. Monday, he was in the Temple confronting the market traders who were working for the priestly authorities in the Sanhedrin and corrupting the Temple with their materialism and monopoly trading. Then on Tuesday, he was in the Temple again debating with the religious authorities and left with his disciples, giving them very clear teaching about the judgement that was coming on Israel and about his future Second Coming. We saw that at the beginning of Series 12, when we studied extensively in Matthew 24 and 25. The story then moves on to the Wednesday, where another decisive moment happens. Jesus is in nearby Bethany, which appears to be the town that he uses as his place while he is in Jerusalem during the week. He goes there every evening, as far as we can tell, and has a meal put on for him in the home of a man called Simon the Leper, where Mary, one of his disciples from Bethany - sister of Lazarus and Martha - anoints Jesus in prophetic preparation for his burial. That particular event triggers the crucial confrontation, because Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' disciples, is present. He criticises Mary's action but we find out that he is already preparing to betray Jesus. He leaves that event, goes to the religious authorities in Jerusalem and offers to betray Jesus by leading them to Jesus' location at some discrete time, away from the crowds. They offer him money and he leaves them, having agreed with them firmly that he would be back soon to betray Jesus. Events are bound to accelerate once Judas has made that decision.
That led us to the Last Supper, which we have been looking at in the last six episodes. We have seen the gathering together of the disciples to celebrate this meal, which was a Passover meal - a traditional family meal. We saw Jesus, towards the beginning of the meal, dramatically taking the form of a servant and washing his disciples' feet, as a symbolic gesture of his love for them, and telling them something about the nature of leadership and service to other people. Then, we saw in Luke 22, how Jesus took the bread and the wine from that meal and created a symbolic event - a symbolic meal which he asked them to repeat regularly in the life of the Church, to institutionalise this as something that is part of Church life, which we call now the Lord's Supper, Communion or the Eucharist. This event is to remember Jesus' death, using the symbols of bread and wine for his body and his literal physical blood shed for us. Jesus then went on to teach about servant leadership in the Kingdom.
We saw Judas departing in the middle of the meal, leaving very unexpectedly. He was heading straight to the religious authorities to tell them of Jesus' movements that evening, and to tell them where they are likely to find him a little later on in the evening. In the last two episodes, we have been in John's Gospel where we are now and we pointed out the fact that John gives an extended description of Jesus' teaching to his disciples in these critical moments when they're really quite troubled by all the events and all the implications of what was going on. What was happening to Judas? What was going to happen to Jesus? Was he really going to die? Were the authorities going to move against him? Was Jesus going to bring in his Kingdom and turn the tables on them. They were really uncertain as to what was going to happen, so in John 14 in the last two episodes, we have seen Jesus comforting his disciples, explaining the way of salvation, reminding them of their eternal destiny, reassuring them of his love for them, and in the last episode particularly, pointing out that he is going to send the Holy Spirit, although he won't be with them after his death and resurrection. He will depart from this world; he will send the Holy Spirit. The Father and Son will send the Spirit, described as a Spirit of truth and as the advocate in that chapter - the second half of John 14. There has been wonderful teaching to reassure the disciples that the very living presence of God, through the Holy Spirit, is going to be with them continually, once Jesus has departed. Departures and separation are always very difficult emotions for humans to go through. I am sure you have had that experience in your own life and the disciples were beginning to realise they were not going to be with Jesus for very much longer. That evoked a lot of deep emotions.
Vines and Vineyards
Jesus moves on and uses this metaphor of the vine, to help his disciples understand how their relationship with him is going to be really lived out in the time after he has gone. This metaphor, or this story, is a vivid way of describing how God is going to work with them in times to come. Let's read John 15: 1 - 8,
‘“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”’John 15:1-8, NIV
Jesus takes the metaphor of the vine. Before we go into the details of it, let us think of the significance of that to a Jewish audience at the time. Vines and vineyards were central to the agricultural life of the Middle East in those days, and central to the agricultural life of Israel. It was a major form of agriculture; wine was widely drunk and used in social life and they could be very profitable. Vines and vineyards appear in Jesus' teaching, particularly his parables, for example the parables of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20. You will notice a number of parables are centred around a vineyard, the workers in the vineyards, the owner of the vineyard, and what happens in that situation. Sometimes the Old Testament describes the Jewish people as God's vine and so there's a connection between Israel and the vine, or even a vineyard in the Jewish Scriptures. These are useful points of background.
A particular thing to notice, is something that many of us will be aware of anyway, that for vines to be productive they have to be pruned and looked after very carefully. They are prone to grow, in the appropriate good growing conditions, very fast and to multiply branches, and so pruning is important. Pruning is important because it directs the energy of the plants towards the development of the grapes, rather than the reproduction of foliage and branches. That is a critical point and it is true of many other plants. I think of my own garden at the moment. I am speaking and recording this in the summer here in the UK, and I am pruning plants that are climbers that are growing along the fence in my garden every week. If I don't prune the shoots that keep coming in all sorts of different places, then I can't get the plant to develop along the fence in the way that I want. That is a very vivid image in my mind, and many of us will be familiar with growing horticulture, growing vines and so on, and you will be aware of this. The issue of pruning is very important and would be well understood by those who are listening.
The Meaning of the Metaphor
What about the metaphor of the vine? Jesus explains it very clearly here. In this metaphor, he is the vine. He is the source of life and the disciples are the branches that develop from the vine. His Father, God the Father, is described as the gardener, who is looking after the vines and cultivating them. The gardener wants the branches to be fruitful, and in order to be fruitful they must be focusing on the development of the fruit, the grapes. In order to do that, the branches have to be pruned, or cleaned up, regularly in order to be really productive towards the production of grapes and ultimately the production of wine. The gardener's activities are described here in two ways. He is pruning the healthy branches but the unproductive branches are being cut out altogether. We can deduce from this that the true branches, the productive branches, are the disciples and all who follow them - other disciples in other ages like you and me. We are being pruned. The unproductive branches probably represent nominal Christians, people who nominally follow Jesus. They don't actually have any living faith in their heart and they are at risk of being cut out altogether.
It is interesting that that should be stated by Jesus so soon after Judas Iscariot has just left the group of twelve. He has literally left and what happens to Judas is that, having betrayed Jesus, he subsequently has a tremendous fit of remorse. He realises he has done a terrible thing. He returns the coins that he has been given to the authorities and he commits suicide. That branch has been cut out; it is unproductive. It is nominal, not really functioning as a branch should do. It is not productive. The key theme of this passage is for the branch to be focused on the vine because the branch gets its life from the vine. Bearing in mind this is just a metaphor - a symbolic story - it is giving us general truths but making a vivid image in mind of how our Christian life actually functions. Our life depends on Christ, the branch depends on the vine. Christ made our salvation. We depend on him; we should be seeking to obey him and to follow him, so the branch is trying to stay connected to the vine. The Father will prune us. He will bring circumstances in our lives that shape us; sometimes difficult circumstances, complex, painful circumstances will shape us and guide us to be productive. That is really what the metaphor is telling us.
Remaining in Jesus
Verses 9 - 17 is a bit of commentary on what has already been said.
‘“As the Father has loved me, so I have 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 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. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I've called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last - and so whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other.”’John 15:9-17, NIV
The question arises, what does remaining in Jesus actually mean? Some Bible translations in English use a more traditional word ‘abiding’ in Jesus. What does remaining in Jesus actually mean? Let's try and turn the metaphor into a practical reality for you and me. Verse 7 gives us the beginning of the answer. ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you’ - ‘my words remain in you’ - that is interesting. Remaining in Jesus involves a really close connection with his teaching - literally his words. That is a way to be fruitful. I believe that passionately because I believe that in our discipleship, there is nothing more important to us than to be fully connected to everything that Jesus said and taught. His teaching is very diverse - sometimes complex and very challenging, sometimes incredibly straightforward - but it is life-transforming. It is what turns us into disciples rather than mere observers of Christianity - or merely nominal believers, or people who sit in churches, or people who think about religion or philosophy. Disciples are followers and his words have to remain in us. It is my observation that many people in churches, many Christians don't know a great deal about Jesus' teaching. They have heard it from a distance but have not always studied it closely or sought to follow it. His words need to remain in us in order for us to be fruitful.
We also need to appreciate the depth of his love - verse 9
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now remain in my love’.John 15:9, NIV
This is a really interesting addition. Not only is Jesus' teaching important, but the actual nature of his love needs to be appreciated by us. In order to do that, we have to keep reminding ourselves what he did for us and keep giving back our devotion to him in worship. It turns out that worship - the act of worship in whatever form it comes - strengthens our fruitfulness, strengthens our spiritual life, and strengthens our discipleship. We need to appreciate his love.
In verse 10, we need to keep his commandments. To remain in Jesus, we need to engage with his teaching, appreciate his love in worship, and obey his commands to us. One of those commands is a very specific one that emerges here - verse 12 - 13.
‘My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends’.John 15:12-13, NIV
One characteristic of mature discipleship is to have a really great love for fellow Christians and believers. That can be hard. We can fall out and we can disagree with them; we can be in different churches; we can have conflicts; we can find their personalities difficult but we are called to love our fellow believers. The disciples here are described as having become Jesus' friends - they are not servants from a distance. He has told them the inside story of what is going on and he is calling on us to be fruitful.
Verses 18 - 25 is the final section.
‘’”If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they did not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me, hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfil what is written in their law. ‘They hated me without reason.”’John 15:18-25, NIV
Here, Jesus turns to the crucial question of opposition. Jesus has given many positives about the future earlier on. He has promised eternal security in John 14. He has promised the Holy Spirit in John 14. Here in John 15, he has promised fruitfulness in the vine. Now he is warning of the inevitability of opposition. Jesus was persecuted, so his followers will be persecuted. He was opposed; his followers will be opposed. The disciples have been called out of the world - that is they are not part of the world system. They don't share the same values as the world. Don't be surprised if you face opposition. These words are spoken just at the moment where that hatred towards Jesus was reaching a boiling point in his opponents. As he is speaking these words, Judas Iscariot is on his way to, or has arrived at, the meeting point with the religious authorities where their mutual hatred of Jesus is going to lead to drastic intervention and cause him to be killed and executed. These are very poignant and powerful words in the context.
Jesus concludes by quoting a verse from Psalm 69: 4 in verse 25
‘But this is to fulfil what was written in their Law ‘They hated me without reason.’John 15:25, NIV
This text was spoken by David, in Psalm 69, about himself. King David, the great king of the Old Testament era, describes the fact that in his human experience sometimes there was opposition that really had no reason. He was thinking of all sorts of different things that had happened in his life but the primary thing that was probably in his mind is that, when he was a servant working in the courts of the previous king, King Saul became so jealous of him that he became deeply against him. He started hating him and tried to kill him in court: he threw a spear at him one day; tried to assassinate him in his bed; forced him to leave the court and go into the wilderness; and chased him in the wilderness with his army. David said what have I done against Saul? He hated me without reason. (1 Sam 19:10) Just as that was true about David in his day, so it is true of Jesus in his day. Jesus is the Son of David. Prophecies about David are often fulfilled, in a further fulfilment, in the life of Jesus. We call this typological fulfilment of prophecy. There are quite a few examples in the gospels. Here is a good one. Just as Saul and others hated David without reason - he was jealous of him, his anointing, his powers, his popularity, his success, and his calling by God. The religious leaders and many others were jealous of Jesus. They were leaders but he had the power; he had the following; he performed the miracles that they could not perform; and he could teach without having studied in a way that they had studied. Jealousy and anger came in. He was going to displace them, if he was allowed to continue and so they hated him without reason. Jesus warns: sometimes people will oppose Christians for no rational reason at all - just out of some instinctive emotion, or jealousy, or fear. Jesus encourages them that they can be steadfast in all this, and they can get through this.
This can be part of the pruning that God the Father allows in our lives, even through opposition. This point is made very clearly in Hebrews 12, where the Father disciplines his children like a human father disciplines his own sons.
In conclusion, all disciples are called to a life of fruitfulness. That is your calling if you are a follower of Jesus. The question I would ask is how fruitful is your life and how does this passage guide you towards a more fruitful life? All of us will also experience the Father, our Father, pruning our lives, so to speak - shaping our lives - sometimes in ways that we don't like, through circumstances, through our own mistakes, through unexpected oppositions and setbacks. We need to trust our heavenly Father, to obey Jesus, to love him, in all this, whatever happens in life. Verse 11 is a very important and exciting promise.
‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’John 15:11, NIV
It is a joyful thing to be a disciple of Jesus, with all the ups and downs of life that follow. We can draw near to the vine, be fruitful, allow the Father to prune us, face all the difficulties of life, and in the midst of it we find a deep joy because we know this is what we are made to be - followers of Jesus. Can I encourage you to embrace wholeheartedly that life of discipleship, and let this amazing metaphor of the vine and the branches help you in understanding how God is shaping your life today.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Have you felt the pain of departure and separation in your everyday life?
- What are the hallmarks of fruitfulness? How fruitful are you?
- Have you ever experienced God’s pruning? If so, was it a painful experience and did it help to know that God was behind it, or allowing it?
- Pray for those who oppose you.
- Using tagging to help, research the use of the vine as an image in the Old Testament.