"I AM the True Vine"
by Rev. Mark A. Barber
15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Today, we will look at the last of the I AM statements in the Gospel of John. There are seven of them with a predicate adjective, the bread of life, light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, and this one. In addition there is an I AM statement in John 8 without a predicate. The I AM in each case is very emphatic and is structured to resemble the I AM that I AM in Exodus 3:14 as the name of Yahweh. John equates Jesus to the Yahweh of the New Testament. Here he calls Himself, the True Vine. Let’s explore the text further.
When we look at John 15, we come to a break in the farewell discourse at the end of chapter 14 which some consider awkward. There Jesus commands them to rise from the table and depart. Some think this was just to get up from the dinner couches where they had reclined on, and others see chapters 15-17 being said on the way to Gethsemane. Others have different views, but it seems that the idea that they started the journey to Gethsemane seems the most likely, Perhaps, grape vines or grape vine ornaments such as decorated the Temple would be seen. Rabbi’s often used objects in their lessons. Jesus as a rabbi may have pointed to these and compared Himself to it. This is an interesting speculation, but the interpretation of the text does not depend on it. The break in the text does not change the interpretation either. What Jesus begins to say on chapter 14 continues here in chapter 15.
What does it mean when Jesus says He is the true vine? The wording literally reads, I AM the Vine, the True One. This is a little stilted in English, but the way it is said in Greek it puts special emphasis on the word “true.” If something is true, then its opposite is false. This means that there are other claims being made about the vine which were false. Jesus in this allegory is not saying that natural grape vines are false vines. They are truly grape vines. But the comparison isn’t being made between Jesus and grape vines but of a false vision of Israel. The Old Testament often compares Israel to a grape vine. In many case such as in Isaiah 5:1-2, it is in a negative way. The vineyard which Yahweh planted was supposed to yield sweet grapes. But the grapes went wild and sour. Israel had become false to Yahweh.
Jesus here emphatically states that He alone is the true vine which produces true sweet fruit, and not the bitter fruit of Judaism. The religious leaders of Israel had become utterly corrupt and bore false fruit. True fruit can only come through being connected to Jesus. Here the Father is said to be the gardener who tends the true vine and does what is necessary to produce fruit. Jesus then goes on to describe what the vinedresser does to the branches to produce fruit. The first thing he does is tend to the branches which are not producing any fruit. The verb here, airo, can mean to cut off, but it can also mean to take up. Most commentators hold that it means that fruitless branches are cut off and are the withered branches which are later burned. But Boice makes an interesting comment here that it should be taken “lift up” as in getting a branch which is lying on the ground and tying it up on the trellis. In another parable of Jesus about the fruitless fig tree, it was going to be cut down, but the caretaker said to give it another year. Let’s fertilize it and give it special care. If it does not then produce fruit, then cut it down. This seems good here. God does not give up so easily on his people. He will first do what He can with the fruitless branches.
What makes this interpretation more likely is the words “in me” The “me is the emphatic form “emoi” and is made more emphatic by placing it forward in the Greek sentence. Literally, it reads “Any branch in ME not bearing, He lifts up. The phrase “in Me” or “in Him” are descriptors of the Christian. Does this mean that the Christian who doesn’t bear fruit loses his/her salvation and is cut off, withers, dies, and is thrown into the fire? This is certainly a frightening thought. But if a person is truly a Christian, they will bear fruit. It might take a lot of work and encouragement, and even being pruned. But the Christian by nature will produce fruit because he/she is attached to the true vine.
The next thing the vinedresser does is to take branches that are producing some fruit and cut off some of the leaves so that the sap which comes up from the roots might be used to produce more fruit. This is a well known practice of those who work with grapes. One wants just enough leaves to produce sugar by photosynthesis. This is needed by the fruit. But if the sugar goes to producing more branchlets and leaves, then the strength of the plant is being directed away from the fruit. So the vinedresser prunes the branches so that more fruit can be produced.
Jesus goes on to say that these 11, Judas already having left to betray Jesus, were already cleansed through the words Jesus had spoken to them. This indicates that the Word of God acts to discipline the believer to produce more fruit. The reminder of the words of Jesus, who as God the Son spoke in the Old Testament as well, comes from the Holy Spirit whose role Jesus had just explained to the disciples.
Jesus commands the disciples to remain in the relationship He had established with them. True fruit can only come from the attachment to the true vine. Jesus is not describing the entire process of producing grapes in which the leave on the branches produce sugar which the vine uses to produce fruit. In real life, grape vines require the root, the connecting vine and the roots to work together to produce fruit. Jesus is not interested in bringing forth this idea. Instead He stated the obvious fact that a branch that is cut off from the vine cannot produce any fruit at all. Judas who was a false branch, a parasite, had already chosen to leave and cut Himself off. Within 24 hours, He would be dead, hanging from a cursed tree. The remain “in ME” is emphatic again.
In verse 5, Jesus restates the argument. The I AM statement is abbreviated. “I AM the Vine.” This time he makes explicit that the disciples are the branches. He repeats the command to remain in Him, a theme fount throughout the farewell discourse. He add: “Apart from ME, you cannot do a single thing. The branch that is cut off from the vine withers and dies and is gathered with the other dead branches to be burned. Judas is the example of such a branch.
The relationship between the believer and Jesus is essential. The believer produces not just fruit, but abundant fruit. Believe can because of this relationship make requests of the Father that no one else can. The abundant fruit of the vine displays the glory of the Father which is the ultimate goal of the Christian. As the Westminster Shorted Catechism say that your chief duty is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
The question now comes up, What is the fruit? Some see this as winning souls for Christ. This is often preached. But is the believer the one who gives birth to other believers? Is not every believe born of God, a new branch which springs from the vine. It is certainly our obligation to declare the gospel to every creature. But it isn’t by itself the fruit in my opinion.
One can also see the fruit as the “fruits” of the Spirit such as “love, joy, peace.” Jesus does talk much about “love” in the farewell discourses, including the statement: “by this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you have love, one for another.” He also says: “Greater love has no man than this, that lay down his life for His friends.” Here Jesus refers to the laying down of His own life, but the example extends to us His disciples as well. A grape vine with abundant fruit is a witness to the skill of the vinedresser. In this case, where love abounds between the brethren glorifies God in the eyes of the world. Added to love is joy which is often symbolized by wine, the crushed fruit of the vine. The grapes which attract the eyes are picked and crushed in the process. But the net result is joy. Jesus says He is about to be crushed. This is represented by the bloody sweat he was about to have in Gethsemane in His agonizing prayer, in the place of the olive press, where He would be crushed. He has just drunk the cup of the Lord’s Supper, saying that this was His shed blood for them. Crushing is sorrowful like a woman in labor, but the net result is joy. God is able to bring those so crushed back to life.
So when we look at this passage, we produce the sweet fruit. Do we so love the world as God loves the world, that we are willing to lay down our lives for the gospel if need be, and be crushed? Are we willing to take our cross and follow after Jesus. Even if we are crushed, in the end, in the end there will be joy, Many Christians have paid the ultimate sacrifice in having their blood spilt and their bodies burned by men. Our sacrifice does not save anyone, but it does bear witness to the one who paid the ultimate price for our salvation, Jesus our Lord. The idea of such a costly sacrifice is reflected by our love for each other, and our willingness to lay our lives down for our brothers and sisters. As the vine came back to life, so the branches in Christ will come back to life also. After all, Jesus is also the Resurrection and the Life.”
It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. The more the church is persecuted for the glorious name of Jesus, the more that will be drawn. What precious seed the fruit it! The psalmist says “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.” By dying we will rise to new and everlasting life. How else could death be so precious?
We here in America have not yet suffered to the shedding of blood here, unlike many parts of the words. On Easter Sunday, Christian believers were massacred in Pakistan. But we are quick to complain when terrible things are said against Christians in the press. We are fast to claim our American rights and are interested in preserving out wealth and our homes. If only we were as zealous to glorify God, even if it is at the expense of our earthly safety. It is certainly a possibility that things could deteriorate further in America to where we might have to lay our lives down. I can only hope that the Lord will prepare us for the eventuality as He did His disciples that night. Lord, help us to be willing to glorify you, by the way you have chosen for us. Amen.
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The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission. Sermon contributed by Rev. Mark A. Barber on Apr 18, 2018.
What does it mean when Jesus says He is the true vine?