The Vine and Its Branches
Read: John 15:1-17
This section of John 15 holds a rather unusual parable. Other parables involve a vineyard (Matt. 20:1; 21:33), but this is the only one about a vine, its branches, and a husbandman. Moreover, Christ doesn’t first tell the parable and then give the interpretation. Instead, He begins with Himself (“I am the vine”) and then unfolds who He is under the emblem of a vine.
The parable of the vine falls within what is often referred to as the “Farewell Address of Christ” (John 14-17). Christ knew what was coming (see 13:21); He knew that He would be betrayed and handed over to death. Several times throughout the Gospel of John we hear that Christ’s hour had not yet come (2:4; 7:30; 8:20). But, in the farewell discourse, Christ notes, “The hour is come” (17:1). The time of His earthly ministry had finally come to a close. The moment all history pointed towards had arrived.
Throughout this farewell address, Christ furnishes His church with comforts, exhortations, promises, and warnings to enable His people to be what they are called to be after He returns to His Father. In chapter 15, Christ’s chief instruction to His people is to abide in Him. This phrase occurs ten times in verse 4-10. As an example of this concept, Christ paints the picture of a vine and its branches.
In Mediterranean life, the fig tree, the olive tree, and the vine were the most widely planted. The vine was known to be the most difficult plant to care for; pruning had to be done carefully and intentionally to protect the vine and help it to produce fruit. So the vine was a familiar picture to use among John’s readers.1
Vines were a common theme throughout the Old and New Testaments (see Isa. 5; Ps. 80; Jer. 2; Ezek. 17). Notably, every time the Lord uses the comparison of His people to a vine or vineyard in the Old Testament, it is to accuse them of failing to be what He had reason to expect them to be. Yet Christ makes clear here in John how His people bring forth fruit: through communion with Christ, the true Vine.
Christ is instructing His people how they can and will bear fruit. The way He works out the parable suggests various points:
First, fruit bearing takes place because of the vitality of the vine
Christ states the principle this way: “Without me ye can do nothing” (v. 5). God’s people need to draw life and strength from Him, just like a branch would from a vine. The Vine is the mainspring of every blessing and fruit in God’s people’s lives. They are neither vines by themselves nor branches of some institution or organization. They belong to Christ as branches do to the vine. Notice how Christ emphasizes that He is the true or genuine Vine. Certain people or entities might be known as vines, look like vines; yet they are ultimately not worthy of the name “vine.”
Second, fruit bearing is the work of the triune God
Christ doesn’t mention the Spirit directly in this passage, but the surrounding chapters reveal that the Father and the Son send Him to work His grace in believers (14:17; 15:26; 16:13). Christ does explicitly point to the Father: “My Father is the husbandman” (15:1). The Father oversees it all, ensuring that fruit is born to His glory (see 15:8).
Third, fruit bearing takes place through abiding in Christ
Abiding in Christ requires a living relationship with Him. Through this relationship, life flows from Christ to His people. The very idea that spiritually dead sinners can be put into vital union with Christ is a great mystery! This way of saving sinners could only have originated within the Godhead.
Christ expands on what it means to abide in Him. First, it involves an intricate and revolving process where Christ communicates His love to His people (vv. 7, 9) and they petition Him in return (v. 7), which He answers in love. Second, it includes receiving His love and showing it forth in accord with His commands (vv. 9-13). The love He is speaking of is self-sacrificing (v. 13); the vine is not there for its own sake, and neither are the branches. The vine bestows its energy and life to the branches, and the branches in turn receive this life for the sake of fruit, which relates to our next main point.
Fourth, fruit bearing is increased through pruning
Grape farmers attest to the fact that a wild-growing vine will at best produce small and sparse clusters. A rich harvest depends greatly on the skill of the pruner. The pruner is not concerned about the “comfort” of the vine, but the abundance of the harvest. He of course aims at dead or diseased sections of the vine, but also at healthy canes and beautiful foliage; the natural tendency of the branches is to use the sap of the vine to grow an ostentatious bush-like canopy. The farmer, however, is after fruit. So he cuts as much as is necessary to produce the greatest harvest over the longest period of time, channeling the photosynthesis, sap production, and whatever energies the vine exerts into fruit production. Christ Himself says, “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit” (v. 8).
Fifth, the absence of fruit-bearing results in removal from the vine
Christ says, “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he taketh away” (v. 2). Christ is not teaching that believers can lose their salvation. However, someone can seem externally to be united to Christ without being genuinely so. Though the branches seem to be joined to Christ, the absence of fruit proves that the life of Christ is not flowing in these branches. God, the husbandman, perfectly discerns this and cuts even the external connection with Christ and casts such a nominal Christian into hell. Christ explains it this way: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (v. 6).
It is no surprise that we have already covered quite a bit concerning the Savior, since Christ is the very substance of this parable. But two more aspects in this parable need to be mentioned.
First, Christ purifies His people through His Word. “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (v. 3). Matthew Henry points out an allusion here to the Levitical law that the Israelites were to consider the fruit of their first three years in Canaan unclean (Lev. 19:23-24). Exactly three years had passed since the Lord had called these disciples and had instructed them, and Christ’s Word still remains the agent where He washes and cleanses His people (Eph. 5:26).
Second, Christ mediates between His Father and His people. The parable of the vine and the branches still needs to be kept in view. Not without reason Christ said that His Father is the Husbandman (v. 1). The picture is this: the husbandman bestows much labor for the sake of the vine. He loves it, and the vine loves its branches. The vine actually offers its vitality to the branches, and those branches in turn circulate the vitality in a way that brings glory to the vine – and ultimately to the husbandman. Christ is the center on which it all turns as He, the Vine, mediates between His Father and His people.
This parable of Jesus is as convicting as it is enlightening. Jesus’ words are both compassionate and soul searching. One cannot help but read this passage and be convicted by its many applications.
- Do we trace all good back to the strength and life of Christ, the Vine? Do we realize that without Him we can do nothing?
- Have we been truly united to Christ, not just formally? Does our union with Christ extend beyond the surface connection – beyond church membership or outwardly keeping up appearances? Have we given up on all false vines, and are we clinging by faith to the only true Vine? What does the Husbandman see when He looks at our branch?
- Do we submit to the pruning knife of the Lord in our life? Or are we too invested in our sense of comfort? Do we prefer leaves that soak up the sun rather than God-glorifying fruit?
- If we are truly His, do we abide in Christ, in His Word, and in His love? Communion with Christ is a reality, but also a calling. Do we exercise constant dependency upon Him? Does our heart go after Him in prayer in order to receive from Him in provision?
- Whenever Christ speaks about Himself, as He does in this parable, He always seems to bring in the Father. Why do you think He does that?
- This parable does not refer to being grafted into Him as we find it elsewhere (e.g., Rom. 11). Yet it is clear that not every branch is in Christ the same way. Explain the significance of this truth.
- What binds Christ and believers together (see especially John 15:7-12)?
- Does the picture of the Vine and its branches also carry over in terms of the seasons in the life of the vine – spring, summer, fall, winter?
- Explain verse 11 in terms of the picture of the Vine and the branches. What is this joy of which Christ is speaking?