Vines and Branches: More than a Metaphor

Reading: John 15:1-11

John 15 and Jesus’ description of Himself and the disciples as a vine and its branches is an amazing picture or metaphor of the relationship between Christ and His people. However, is it more than a metaphor? Does it communicate theological truth that goes beyond simply the beautiful picture it paints? My assertion is that it does; that it is a metaphor which, like a truck, is loaded down with a lot of theological freight which it carries into our lives as believers in Jesus.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…. 5 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.” (John 15:1-5)

In John’s Gospel, when something is called the “true (fill in the blank) it is understood to be a contrast with an alternate, a previous that was not the “true” version. It may have been false, or it may have simply been penultimate, not ultimate; a shadow pointing to a reality. Jesus is the “true light,” whereas John was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light (John 1:8-9). The father seeks “true worshipers,” and the implication is that those who ground their fitness for worship only upon where they worship, or their natural lineage, are not “true worshipers”. Moses gave them bread from heaven, but the Father has given Jesus — “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). In Jesus prayer on the night of His betrayal He refers to “the only true God” (John 17:3), implying that others are false.

It is reasonable to expect, then, that when Jesus says he is “the true vine,” that there is a previous vine, a penultimate vine, that pointed to this ultimate vine. For those familiar with the Old Testament, this metaphor is loaded with connections. The Father being the gardener certainly reminds us of the garden in Genesis wherein the first gardener was God himself. Jesus is truly the tree of life that gives life to every man and that too may be alluded to here. However, the vineyard metaphor was used in the Old Testament as a picture for Israel.

I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. … 4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? 5 Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled….

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-7)

The similarities with John 15 and Isaiah 5 are more than coincidence. Both speak of the importance of bearing fruit and the consequences of not bearing fruit. Both speak of the Father (“the One I love”) doing the work of gardening. Isaiah 5:7 brings into focus the meaning of Jesus’ self-description as “the true vine.” “The nation of Israel” is “the vineyard of the Lord”; “the people of Judah,” are “the vines he delighted in.” Jesus, having gone into the wilderness and passed the tests that Israel failed is the one in whom the Father delights (Matthew 3:17ff; Luke 3:22; 4:1ff). Jesus is the true vine — the One the Father delighted in. Those connected to Jesus through faith are the branches. Jesus, and all who are connected to Him are the Israel of God, the people of Judah — the “true Israel,” we could say, just as Jesus is the “true Vine.” Just as it was required of Israel to bear fruit, so it is required of us to bear the fruit of justice and righteousness, rather than injustice or bloodshed, and distress or oppression.

The picture of Jesus and his followers as the true vine and its branches is a beautiful metaphor, and much more than a metaphor. It identifies Jesus, and all who are joined to Him as God’s vineyard, the people of Judah, the people whom the promises of the prophets spoke of (1 Peter 1:10-12). And because of this, it calls us to bear the fruit of righteousness which they failed to produce, bringing about God’s justice and righteousness amongst the nations (Romans 8:4).

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Jerry

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