“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Jesus had spoken of a Kingdom in many figures: a field, fishing, a pearl of great price, a Master entrusting His servants with a stewardship. As He was about to leave His disciples He used a new old illustration: not a full vineyard, but a vine (John 15:1-8).
In John 13:31-16:33 speaks to the eleven disciples; Judas Iscariot has gone off to betray Him, and after the prayer of John 17 Jesus will be betrayed, tried, and crucified in John 18:1-19:37. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke move fairly quickly from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:30-36, Mark 14:26-32, and Luke 22:23-39, John spends what would later be delineated into over three chapters on the extended discourse between these events. Throughout Jesus is preparing His disciples so that they might be able to endure and stand through the ups and downs of His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 14:1, 16:1). Jesus, after all, understands perfectly what is about to take place. His disciples have no idea; they will be left to grapple with His death without Him being present physically, and thus Jesus does well to leave them with words of encouragement and exhortation.
Right in the middle of this discourse Jesus introduces the illustration of the vine: He is the vine, His Father the vinedresser, and His disciples the branches (John 15:1, 4). He had previously “updated” Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5:1-7 in Matthew 21:33-44 and in parallel accounts, yet the vineyard there is Israel. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a householder hiring workers to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16; even there the vineyard is incidental, setting up the lesson about receiving what is promised and that the last shall be first and the first last. Here in John 15:1-8 Jesus focuses on a single vine is able to explain through it the relationship between the Son, the Father, and disciples.
The disciples would have understood the basics of grape vines and their maintenance. Grape vines do have roots but one sees the vine and its branches. The branches maintain their health through their connection to the vine from which it can draw water and other nutrients originating in the roots and the soil. A healthy branch bears fruit: grape clusters. The sign of an unhealthy branch is a lack of fruit, and the solution is to prune the vine to get rid of all the dead branches. And so it is in the illustration of the vine: disciples draw strength and sustenance through Jesus the Vine; when connected to Jesus the Vine they can bear fruit; apart from Jesus the Vine they can do nothing; if they do not bear fruit the Father the Vinedresser will prune them and throw them into the fire (John 15:1-8).
Jesus’ main point in the illustration is to emphasize the disciples’ need to bear fruit and to understand how they will be able to bear fruit: through abiding in Him (John 15:3-4, 8). We do well to heed both messages.
This is not the first illustration Jesus has used to emphasize the need for Christians to be obedient and to manifest the fruit of righteousness; Matthew 5:13-16 and 25:14-30 come to mind, among others. It is unfortunate that many in the religious world have settled for cheap grace, the belief that God will save no matter what, and have ignored Jesus’ many warnings about the fate of the unproductive in His midst. Their fate is never left in ambiguity: Jesus denies He ever knew them (Matthew 7:21-23); they are cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:14-30), and here in John 15:6 unproductive branches are gathered and burned, reminiscent of the Gehenna of fire (e.g. Matthew 5:29-30). Thus we must bear fruit for the Lord: we must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24), do good (Galatians 6:10), proclaim Jesus crucified and risen (Matthew 28:18-20), and remain faithful unto death (Matthew 10:22). Such obedience and faithfulness is not “optional”!
Yet it can be very easy to so emphasize obedience and righteousness that we forget Who is empowering the endeavor. As branches we are to bear fruit for the Lord, but we can do so only when connected and sustained by the Vine, the Lord Jesus. Jesus is very blunt about this in John 15:5: apart from Him we can do nothing. Apart from Jesus we proved disobedient, sinful, children of wrath, living in licentiousness and lusts, hated by others and hating in turn (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). In Christ we were rescued from our hopeless condition and reconciled to the Father (Romans 5:6-11). But we must not imagine that once we are “in Christ” we are then left out “on our own” to do His work. Instead we work and are profitable because we remain in Him and are sustained in Him (Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:4-8). Through the sustenance and strength from our Vine God can work through us beyond all we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:14-21). Let none be deceived: as branches bear fruit but not without the nourishment which comes through the vine, so believers obey and seek righteousness but can only do so through the strength that God supplies. On our own we can do nothing; we can imagine that we can do great things, and try to build great towers of Babel, maybe even adorn such towers with religious and spiritual sentiments, but they cannot succeed and will someday be exposed for what they really are. Every plant not planted by the Father will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13); so it shall be with every religious institution and personal belief system not grounded and empowered by God and the Lord Jesus (cf. Matthew 7:24-27).
Thus asking God to bless or prosper our work is really vain; we do better to ask God to direct us to His work and for Him to bless, strengthen, and sustain it. We are but the branches, responsible for taking the nourishment given by the vine and producing fruit; let us therefore glorify God through the Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him through the strength that He supplies!
Ethan R. Longhenry