“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. (John 15:1-3)
Compared to the other three gospels, John, in his gospel, spends much more time and ink documenting the teaching of Jesus. As we have seen and will continue to see, so much of the gospel of John is paragraph’s upon paragraph’s of Jesus’ teaching or discourses. One of the things that we often fail to recognize in Jesus’ teaching, yet has been so apparent in John, is the way that Jesus uses the Old Testament. Like, we don’t even realize Jesus is using the Old Testament so many times when we just read through something in the gospels. Jesus’ knowledge of the Old Testament was incredible, obviously. And the most amazing thing is that Jesus was the perfect interpreter of the Old Testament. So when Jesus uses the Old Testament or references it, He always did so perfectly. Indeed He Himself is what the Old Testament is about (as we saw back in chapter 5, when He said, Moses wrote about me).
But did you know that right here in John 15:1, Jesus is using the Old Testament Scripture in a very similar way as He did there in chapter 5? You may not see it at first, but it’s right there, the first thing Jesus says, “I am the true vine…” If you really know your Old Testament, you’re going, “Oh yeah, that’s amazing.” If you don’t know what I am talking about, don’t worry, you will; and don’t feel bad, we are all learning our Bibles better together, and many of us were raised on a squishy evangelicalism with no Old Testament. When we read that Jesus said, “I am the true vine,” we may not immediately see the significance of what Jesus is saying, but by God’s grace, I pray we will by the end of Church today. But the disciples, and any Jew who were to hear of this or later read it, would have understood the significance of what Jesus was saying and would have either been amazed, or really angry.
So to understand the significance of Jesus saying that He is the True Vine, we have to understand that the Bible is filled with imagery and symbolism. The imagery and symbolism of the Bible is not random, or merely extracted from the culture which it was written in. It is all intentional and has important purposes throughout Bible, in telling the story of the Bible. Here’s what I mean: many of us probably think that when Jesus says “I am the true vine,” that He is simply making an analogy based on something the agricultural society of his day would understand. You know, the first century people were very familiar with how vineyards worked and Jesus is just making an analogy based on their culture – that’s often what we think. But an important rule of Biblical interpretation is that before we go to the cultural context, we need to go to all of the Biblical context. Obviously we look at the surrounding verse, the whole chapter, the whole book, the whole testament, and out to the whole Bible. And if we do that we will find that Jesus is not merely making an analogy based upon the agricultural society of the day; He is making a reference to the Old Testament, and He is saying, “I am the fulfillment of it.”
Jesus is the True Vine
In the Old Testament the vine is a common symbol for Israel, the covenant people of God, and indeed in many of these instances they are shown to be a fruitless vine. Psalm 80:9-16,
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
11 It sent out its branches to the sea
and its shoots to the River.[a]
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts!
Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted,
and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
16 They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
Jeremiah 2:21, “Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?”
10 Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard[a]
planted by the water,
fruitful and full of branches
by reason of abundant water.
11 Its strong stems became
it towered aloft
among the thick boughs;[b]
it was seen in its height
with the mass of its branches.
12 But the vine was plucked up in fury,
cast down to the ground;
the east wind dried up its fruit;
they were stripped off and withered.
As for its strong stem,
fire consumed it.
13 Now it is planted in the wilderness,
in a dry and thirsty land.
14 And fire has gone out from the stem of its shoots,
has consumed its fruit,
so that there remains in it no strong stem,
no scepter for ruling.
This is a lamentation and has become a lamentation.
Hosea 10:1-2, “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars. Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.”
These are but a small handful of the references, and many other references to Israel as a vineyard.
So if Israel is called a vine and in many instances a fruitless vine to be destroyed, what is Jesus saying then? He’s saying, “I am the true Israel. Israel failed to be true and bear fruit, but I come to be the true vine, the faithful and fruitful vine.” Israel in the Old Testament was supposed to be this great nation that was faithful to the covenant and thus would be a great source of life and blessing to the nations, like the reign of Solomon, it should’ve been on end – giving life and riches and blessing to the world. But that obviously did not last long. They did not remain faithful to their God, they broke the covenant, and rebelled, and went after other gods. Instead of a fruitful vine, they became a dead fruitless branch. Israel indeed was a vine, but Jesus is the True Vine. I said that one of the reactions this would’ve brought to the Jewish readers would’ve been anger. Imagine a Pharisee hearing this and being told that now this Jesus is the True Vine, and we must be connected to Him, if we are to bear fruit, because their nation and religion was dead and fruitless.
One of the great prophecies of the Messiah in Isaiah 11:1 says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”
Hear what D. A. Carson notes, “Most remarkable is the fact that whenever historic Israel is referred to under this figure it is the vine’s failure to produce good fruit that is emphasized, along with the corresponding threat of God’s judgment on the nation. Now, in contrast to such failure, Jesus claims, ‘I am the true vine,’ i.e. the one to whom Israel pointed, the one that brings forth good fruit. Jesus has already, in principle, superseded the temple, the Jewish feasts, Moses, various holy sites; here he supersedes Israel as the very locus of the people of God.” Just as Carson is hinting at here, this is one of the things that John has done in his gospel, he has gone through this different Old Testament images and has shown Jesus to be the true version of it. In chapter 2 Jesus said “destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up again.” And He was talking about His body, showing Himself to be the true temple of God. In John 4 Jesus is the true and living water. In John 5 Jesus is the true sabbath, and the true content of Moses’ writing. In John 6 Jesus is the true bread of heaven and the true bread of life. In John 8 Jesus is the true light of the world, and He is greater than Abraham, as He said, “before Abraham was, I am.” In John 10 Jesus is the true Good Shepherd and the true door of the sheep. In John 11 Jesus is the true resurrection and the life. And now in chapter 15 Jesus is the True Vine, the True Israel.
Hear also what Herman Ridderbos notes, “The main thing… is that Jesus, by calling himself the true vine and, in immediate association therewith, his Father the planter and keeper of the vineyard, applies to himself this redemptive-historical description of the people of God. He thus becomes the one who represents or embodies the people.”
The true vine, then, is not the apostate people, but Jesus himself, and those who are incorporated in him. Jesus has always been the true vine, and the true remnant of believing Israel has always been attached to the true vine, by faith, believing the promises, looking forward to Him.
If we are to have life, there is no other life to be found than in Christ and being united to Him by faith. If any Jew is to come to have eternal life, there is no other, nor will there ever be another way for them to be saved than by being united to Christ, the true vine, by faith. As the True Vine Jesus stood in the place where Israel and man failed to stand faithful. He bears the fruit Israel and man could not ever bear. And He gives a life they could never attain apart from Him. If you do not believe in Christ, you may not be a Jew sitting here today, but you could be committing the same sin that many of them have – believing you can have life apart from the True Vine, Jesus Christ.
The Father is the Vinedresser
So Jesus properly interprets this thematic element of the Old Testament by applying it to Himself, showing Himself to be the true substance of it, saying, “I am the true vine,” then He says, “and my Father is the vinedresser.” So Christ the Son is the vine, and God the Father is the vinedresser, or the gardener. And in verse 2 we see the work of the gardener is to take away every branch not bearing fruit, and to prune those that do bear fruit, so that they may bear more fruit.
From this we see a major element of God’s work and activity in the world. God’s mission in the world is to have a vine producing much fruit. Let us not take it for granted that God the Father is indeed active in the world. He is busy taking away and pruning. He is busy gardening the earth, that it may be full of good fruit. God has not left the earth to its own demise, nor has he left history to be won by the pagans and ruled by the devil. Neither has He left His people in His Church to their own strength and power. God is at work as a gardener seeking to cultivate the ground that it brings forth the best produce. This extends the Biblical imagery a bit wider for us. Gardens and gardening is a major biblical theme. It is the setting for the vine. But where else do we see gardens in the Bible?
When God created the earth, He made a garden to be the center of the earth. This is where God Himself would walk. God then made man and put man in the garden, to work the garden. The first man that God made, He made to be a gardener. Genesis 2:8, “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Then Genesis 2:15, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it…” So God makes man be a gardener, and in John 15 Jesus says that the Father is the vinedresser, or as some translations put it, “my Father is the gardener.” One of things we see here is that both in creation and in the new creation, gardening is necessary for growth and fruitfulness.
God is a gardener. Adam was supposed to be a gardener. His commission was to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. This was Adam’s job in the garden, to make it fruitful and productive that it fills the earth. In every way Adam was to be fruitful and productive. Adam failed. But God will not let His mission fail. When Adam failed to be a faithful and fruitful gardener, God did not scrap His garden plans, toss it out, and came up with a plan B. God still cares about this mission and is concerned with it’s completion and is working toward that end. God is not a failure. Adam was, but God is not. So God is doing it through the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, the True Vine. God is a successful gardener. Through His Son, the True Vine, true and good fruit is brought forth and the Father prunes those fruit bearing branches to bring forth more fruit, and casts out the ones that do not. If in union with Christ we are fruit bearing branches in God’s garden that He is active in cultivating.
This is God’s purpose in the world and it always has been. Isaiah 27:6 prophecies Christ and His work, saying, “In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” It is God’s desire that He plant Jesus Christ in the ground, and He rises up out of the ground as the True Vine which brings forth much fruit that fill the whole earth. And of course this fruit is love and obedience, and productiveness and good works, and of course the fruit of the Spirit. God is working His garden that it fill the earth with His praises, with the knowledge of His glory through Christ the Son.
If this is God’s mission in the world, and He is active in working to bring it about, do you think He will fail and let the world go to pot and allow the church to be an unfruitful barren vine, a disgraced and shamed institution in history? May it never be! History is God pruning His church, not for the purpose of making a really tiny remnant, with just a little fruit for a small harvest at the last day, but in order that it produces much fruit, with a great harvest to show when all is said and done