John 15:1-3 - The Vine and the Branches

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  • The fifteenth chapter of John is one of the most important chapters in all the Bible.  However it is at the same time a very difficult chapter because of some interpretive problems.  This classic chapter contains one of the most meaningful allegories in the Bible.  It is another one of those great "I am" passages recorded by John that points to the deity of Jesus Christ.  The foundational principles for living the Christian life--abiding in Christ and bearing fruit--are recorded in this chapter and explain in the New Testament epistles.

A.                 Presenting the Problem.

Let’s begin with the basic interpretation of this allegory of a vine, its branches and the one who cares for the vine: 

1.                  The key to the passage is the identification of the branches.

a)                  There are two groups of branches in the passage:

(1)                 Ones that bear fruit (v.2, 8), and ones that do not (v.2, 6).
(2)                 The branches that bear fruit are obviously Christians.  The branches that do not bear fruit are not easily identified.  Are they Christians or non-Christians?
(3)                 If they are Christians, why are they thrown into the fire and burned?  Does that mean Christians can lose their salvation and perish, or that they are chastised for not bearing fruit?  I believe the Word of God clearly identifies the fruitless branches, as we will see when we compare other passages with John 15.

b)                  The context:

(1)                 The events recorded in John 15 takes place on the night before the death of Jesus while He is speaking with His disciples.
(2)                 I believe that the key to understanding the allegory in John 15 is related to the characters in the scene.  The whole fourteenth chapter records that Christ spent His time comforting His disciples before His arrest and crucifixion.
(3)                 Jesus was also aware that Judas, who had already been dismissed from the room, was plotting His betrayal.
(4)                 I believe that Jesus was thinking about all the characters involved in that final night's drama:
(a)                 the eleven disciples and the Father, who loved Him; and Judas, who did not.
(b)                Since Jesus claims to be the vine, and identifies the vinedresser as the Father, it is reasonable to conclude that the branches that bear fruit would be the eleven true disciples and the branches that do not bear fruit refer to Judas and any others who were never true disciples to begin with.

c)                  The cleansing (John 13:10-11):  

(1)                 Jesus was well aware of a distinction among His own disciples regarding their salvation: the contrast between Judas and the eleven.
(2)                 I believe that contrast is carried into the fifteenth chapter, where Jesus talks about the two kinds of branches.
(3)                 Now… although Judas appeared to have been a believer and even had the privileged responsibility of maintaining the funds for the disciples, he was a branch that never bore fruit. God finally removed him from the vine.
(4)                 Some would conclude that Judas lost his salvation, and that if any Christian fails to bear fruit, he also will lose his salvation.

Jesus said "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand." (John 10:28, NKJV)

He says in John chapter 6 that "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out." (John 6:37, NKJV)

And in His prayer to the Father, He said "While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled." (John 17:12, NKJV)

(5)                 Those statements reveal that Jesus was not talking about a true believer who stops bearing fruit and loses his salvation.  Rather, he is talking about a Judas-type of believer who is superficially attached to the vine, but never receives spiritual nourishment from it.
(6)                 Similarly, there are those who may attend church and go through some religious exercises, thinking that their superficial connection to Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation.  But they are not legitimate believers.

B.                The Vine (v.1a).

1.                  “I Am the true vine…”  (v.1a).

a)                  Old Testament illustration of the vine.

(1)                 Israel was identified as God's vine in the Old Testament.  Although faith was necessary for salvation, just being Jewish brought great blessing.
(2)                 However, Israel forfeited God's blessing by its failure to bear fruit.

Listen to Isaiah 5:1-7, " Now let me sing to my Well-beloved A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard On a very fruitful hill.  He dug it up and cleared out its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine.  He built a tower in its midst, And also made a winepress in it; So He expected it to bring forth good grapes, But it brought forth wild grapes.  “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.  What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it?  Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, Did it bring forth wild grapes?  And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will lay it waste; It shall not be pruned or dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds That they rain no rain on it.”  For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.  He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.”  (Isaiah 5:1-7, NKJV)

(3)            The vine had become so much a symbol of Israel that it appeared on coins minted during the Maccabean period, which was between been the Old and New Testaments.
(4)            During the time of Christ, Herod's Temple had a tremendous vine on it overlaid with gold.  Israel had always been God's vine, but it had become unproductive, so a new vine was established.

b)                  New Testament realization of the vine. 

(1)                 Now… no longer would a man receive blessing through a covenant relationship to Israel, but through the new vine, who is Christ.

Paul  said that "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving." (Colossians 2:6-7, NKJV)

(2)                 The word "true" (Gk. alethinos) is used here in the sense of "eternal," "heavenly," or "divine," a common usage in Scripture. (That means Christ is the perfect heavenly reality of which Israel was a prophetic picture in the Old Testament.)

c)                  What is your vine?

(1)                 There are many who claim to be Christians but have other vines in their lives from which they seek their resources.  Ask yourself…
(a)                 "How many things do I attach myself to for my well being?  Some people think their vine is their bank account, education, sexual relationships, popularity, skills, connections, possessions, or social relationships.
(b)                Some people even think the church is their vine.  They attach themselves to a system of religion.  Merely attending a church is not necessarily evidence of a vine- branch relationship.
(c)                 Luke 12:13:34; 2 Cor.12:7-10

C.                The Vinedresser (v.1b).

1.                  “My Father is the vinedresser…”  (v.1b).

a)                  The analogy of a farmer.

(1)                 The vinedresser was the one who cared for the vines in a vineyard.  As a farmer, he was responsible to cut off the branches that bore no fruit as well as pruning the branches that were bearing fruit in order that they may bear more fruit. 

2.                  “Every branch that does not bear fruit He takes away…”  (v.2a).

a)                  The Fathers work of punishing (v.2a).

(1)                 Branches that fail to bear fruit are “taken away” (v.2), “withered and thrown into the fire” (v.6).  Now if that refers to a Christian that would mean a Christian could lose his or her salvation. 
(2)                 Boice believes that the ancient Greek verb airo, translated here as “takes away” is more accurately translated “lifts up.”  
(a)                 The idea is that the Father lifts up unproductive vines off of the ground (as is common in vinedressing), that they may get more sun and bear fruit better.
(b)                If that’s that case, then why are the unproductive branches thrown into the fire (v.6)?
(3)                 The fruitless branches refer to people who profess to have a relationship to Jesus Christ--who apparently are in the vine as a follower of Christ--but are like Judas and have never been saved.

Jesus made an interesting statement in Matthew 15:13, speaking of the Pharisees He said "But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  Let them alone.  They are blind leaders of the blind.  And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch."  (Matthew 15:13-14, NKJV)

(4)                 Those plants that are uprooted are the ungodly tares, which God now allows to grow alongside the godly wheat.  

But at the end of the age, the tares will be “gathered up and burned with fire” as God’s angels “will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:40–42).

(5)                 What did Jesus mean by these symbolic words about vine branches being burned?  These words have been interpreted in at least three ways:
(a)                 The “burned” branches are Christians who have lost their salvation.  (But this contradicts many passages (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 10:28-29; Rom. 8:1.)
(b)                The “burned” branches represent Christians who will lose rewards but not salvation at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:15).  (But Jesus spoke here of dead branches; such a branch is thrown away and withers.)
(c)                 The “burned” branches refer to professing Christians who, like Judas, are not genuinely saved and therefore are judged.  Like a dead branch, a person without Christ is spiritually dead and therefore will be punished in eternal fire (Matt.25:46).
(6)                 Luke 13:6-9 The fig tree was often used as a symbol for Israel.  This parable that Jesus gave is a lesson that applies not only to the whole nation but also individual souls. 

!!!! b)                  The lacking requirement.

(1)                 I believe a fruitless branch cannot represent a Christian because there is fruit in every Christian's life.
(2)                 With some Christians you've got to look a long time to find a couple of lingering grapes, but there will be fruit in their lives.  

The fruit of salvation is good works, Paul said "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”  (Ephesians 2:10, NKJV)

We know that we are not saved by our works, but our works are a product or evidence of our salvation "Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead…”  "Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?”  (James 2:17, 22, NKJV)

The attitudes and actions of a person reveal whether an individual is a believer or not "You will know them by their fruits.  Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit…"  "Therefore by their fruits you will know them." (Matthew 7:16-17, 20)

"When [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance," (Matthew 3:7-8, NKJV)

Paul says in Romans 6 "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?  For the end of those things is death.  But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life" (Romans 6:20-22, NKJV)

c)                  The relationship by appearance only.

(1)                 There are two words in verse 2 that seem to contradict what I've just said: "in Me.”  That sounds like the people who don't bear fruit are Christians because of their association with Christ.  But the words “in Me” are not the same as, Paul would say, “in Christ.”  Let’s look at some Scriptures to prove otherwise:

Some relationships to Christ are in appearance only "Therefore take heed how you hear.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him (Luke 8:18, NKJV)

Paul pictured Israel as an olive tree.  However some of the branches of that tree weren't saved.  God broke off the branches that weren't connected to the tree and deriving their life from it.  Verse 20 says, "Because of unbelief they were broken off." (Romans 11:20, NKJV)

An individual can apparently seem connected to Jesus Christ , but, in fact, not be connected at all "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us." (1 John 2:19)

If you come to church merely out of a superficial allegiance to Jesus Christ, heed Paul's warning: "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!  Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?"  (2 Corinthians 13:5, NASB95)

(2)                 Mark 11:11-14 The cursed fig tree.  Jesus cursed the barren fig tree was because he wanted it to become a visual parable of what was happening to Israel.
(a)                 Three years earlier, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he had made a whip out of cords and cleansed the Temple.  Yesterday, he had made his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  He had received the hallelujahs of the people, wept over the city, and then, as verse 11 says, “went to the temple … looked around at everything,” and “went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”  The Temple was doing “business as usual.” Jesus was deeply grieved by this.
(b)                The fact that this particular fig tree had luxuriant plant life, but bore no fruit portrayed exactly what Jesus had seen in Jerusalem.  Israel was a barren fig tree, and the leaves only covered its nakedness.  The magnificence of the Temple and its ceremonies hid the fact that Israel had not brought forth the fruit of righteousness demanded by God.
(c)                 The fig tree was meant to be a visual parable to Israel, and later to the Church (us). Just because we look good, because our leaves are large and shiny, does not mean that we are bearing fruit pleasing to God.

3.                  “Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit…”  (v.2b).

a)                  The Fathers work of pruning (v.2b). 

(1)                 The second work of the Father is to “prune every branch that bears fruit” and every believer in Christ gets purged because “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines   That phrase refers to the true Christian’s.  The Father has some work to do on Christian’s also.  But it's not a final work; it's the continuing work of purging.
(a)                 The word “prune” means "to cleanse," “to be without stain or spot,” or "to prune.”  Although it was used in only one other place in the New Testament, extra-biblical Greek literature used it to refer to cleansing corn (separating the corn from the waste material), and cleansing the soil of weeds before planting a crop.
(b)                Many Christians pray that God will make them more fruitful, but they do not enjoy the pruning process that follows!

The Psalmist said that "Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word."  (Psalm 119:67, NASB95)

b)                  The Fathers intention and method’s of pruning.

(1)                 The Father wants us to operate at maximum capacity and in order to do that He is going to remove things like sin or worldly distractions that would hinder our fruit-bearing. 
(2)                 Hindrances to the fruit-bearing process:
(a)                 “Self… you” focusing on self is definitely something that will hinder fruit.

There is an interesting passage in John 12, Jesus told Andrew and Philip that "The Son of Man should be glorified… unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.  He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also.  If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor." (John 12:23-26, NKJV)

John said, in chapter 3 that “He [speaking of Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  If you want more of Jesus in your life, producing much fruit, you must die. 

(b)                False Teachers – if you learn false doctrine, then you will practice false doctrine and thus not producing the fruit that God desires.

Speaking about false teachers, Jude says "When these men join you at the love feasts of the church, they are evil smears among you, laughing and carrying on, gorging and stuffing themselves without a thought for others.  They are like clouds blowing over dry land without giving rain, promising much, but producing nothing.  They are like fruit trees without any fruit at picking time.  They are not only dead, but doubly dead, for they have been pulled out, roots and all, to be burned."  (Jude 12, The Living Bible)

(c)                 Worldliness and covetousness and deceitfulness of riches – Jesus warned about these areas robbing us of producing fruit in ones life:

Teaching about seed being sown on four different kinds of soils, some of the seed "fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them…" and He goes on to say that "He who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful." (Matthew 13:7, 22)

(d)                Not Abiding in the Vine –
(3)                 Suffering is one of the best methods of purging.  Suffering can identify what is not necessary in our lives and needs to be removed.
(4)                 Other ways of pruning may be in the form of…sickness, hardship, loss of material goods, slander and persecution, loss of loved ones, grief in relationships, or war.

We are purged by God that we might partake of His holiness, Hebrews says "It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline…?”  "For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness."  (Hebrews 12:7, 10, NASB95)

When David confessed his sin to God, he said "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin…"  "Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  Make me to hear joy and gladness, Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.”  Psalm 51:2, 7-8)

(5)                 Again, remember that we are purged by God that we might partake of His holiness. The divine pruning knife may hurt a little bit, but it is worth it.

c)                  The results of pruning.

(1)                 Before we were transformed, the fruit that we produced was “fruit to death”

Paul asked the question "What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?  For the end of those things is death…"  "For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death."  (Romans 6:21; 7:5, NKJV)

However, Paul goes on to say "But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life."  (Romans 6:22, NKJV)… Why? Because we have “been set free from sin, and became slaves of righteousness’  (v.18),   

4.                  “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you…”  (v.3).

a)                  The Father’s instrument of pruning.

(1)                 The divine pruning instrument is the Word of God.  Have you ever noticed how much more sensitive you are to the Word of God when you're in trouble?
(a)                 The Spirit of God applies Scripture to your heart in adversity.  
(b)                Trouble opens our eyes to receive the divine surgery performed by the Word.  
(c)                 A trial puts pressure on us and helps us to develop spiritual muscles, but the Word is "the two-edged sword" that does the cutting (Heb. 4:12).  

For the word of God “is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."  (Hebrews 4:12, NASB95)

Spurgeon, the great nineteenth century English preacher, said this: "It is the Word that prunes the Christian, it is the truth that purges him, the Scripture made living and powerful by the Holy Spirit--effectually cleanses the Christian.  Affliction is the handle of the knife-- affliction is the grindstone that sharpens the Word--affliction is the dresser that removes our soft garments and lays bear the diseased flesh, so that the surgeon's knife may get at it-- affliction merely makes us ready to feel the Word--but the true pruner is the Word, in the hand of the Great Vinedresser."

(2)                 When Jesus told those disciples who were the true branches that they had been cleansed through the Word, He was indicating that their initial salvation came through the Word.
(3)                 Similarly, their continual pruning would be done by the Word as well.  When you're being afflicted you focus more on the Word and see how it applies to you.  As you experience affliction, the Word cuts away hindrances to your spiritual growth.
(4)                 Since you've become a Christian, have you gravitated toward trusting more in your education, career, abilities, relationships, popularity, bank account, or possessions than in the Lord? 
(a)                 Although most of those things are important, our security needs to be in the Lord (Luke 12:13-34; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; and Philippians 4:10-19).
(b)                The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).  Pray that you might reflect Job's proper perspective when a loss occurs in your life.  Although you might experience sadness because of the loss, an undergirding of trust in the sufficiency of the Lord will carry you through.

Eph 5:26; John 15:16

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