"Come now; let us leave.
The Vine and the Branches
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
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. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Good teachers can present information to people in an interesting way so that they can understand the material and try to grasp it and absorb it into their existing framework of understanding. Great teachers can go beyond that, though. They can take things that their students already know from their existing framework, things they already understand, and are intimately familiar with and use those things to teach them new things. They bring forth the common image of an event or item with which everyone is already familiar and then make changes to the familiar image. In that way, they use something known and show how the new concept fits into that framework but also how it is better or different. That’s the kind of teaching that people can grab hold of and immediately put into their existing model of understanding. They can almost instantly grasp the implications of that kind of teaching. That’s why the best teachers can use examples from the "real world" to teach the concepts they want to get across.
No teacher has ever been better at that concept than Jesus. Nearly every teaching, every story he told, used ideas, concepts, and events that all of his hearers easily understood. The Father was like a landowner, while the Jews were like workers in the field. The Kingdom of God was like a treasure found in a field. Faith was like a planted mustard seed, and on and on he went. Jesus used things they knew as vehicles to explain difficult new concepts. The community that he is forming around himself after he leaves was no different. Jesus used something that they all knew to make his point. Vines were everywhere in ancient Israel, but more than that, the Old Testament had frequently used the concept of a vine to explain Israel’s relationship with God. Jesus would use the familiar concept of how vines worked along with the common imagery of Israel being God’s vine to teach his disciples about the new creation.
In Jeremiah 2:21, the Lord tells Israel that "I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?" Throughout the Old Testament the imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard, planted by him is used (Isa. 27:2-6; Ps. 80:8-16; Jer. 2:21; 6:9; 12:10-13; Ezek. 15:1-8; 17:5-10; 19:10-14; Hos. 10:1-2; 14:7). Perhaps the most poignant of those references, and one which Jesus seems to be using as a clear and primary backdrop to his words here is Isaiah 5. Isaiah speaks for God saying that He will sing "a song about his vineyard," which is made clear in verse 7 that the vineyard is Israel. God prepared and planted his vineyard and watched it carefully, tending it so that it would produce fruit, which is the whole purpose of a vineyard. When he looked for a "crop of good grapes," though all he found was "bad fruit." The Lord asks "what more have been done" for His vineyard beyond what He has done and declares that Israel will be made a wasteland because of their lack of fruit. In the context of this passage, it is clear that the fruit God was looking for was obedience to His Covenant, His word. He desired Israel to be faithful and keep up her end of the Covenant, but they failed again and again, producing only the bad fruit of disobedience to God’s Covenant. They were found to be completely incapable of bearing good fruit, yet in passages like Isaiah 27:6, the text looks forward to a time when "In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit." This begs the question of how Isaiah can speak both of Israel being made a wasteland for disobeying the Covenant and there being a time when Israel would finally bear fruit and obey God’s Word, living up to the calling to keep His Covenant.
As Jesus spends his last night with his faithful disciples, he will explain that mystery in a way that no one could have expected. As he finishes up his previous teaching, Jesus calls his disciples to leave with him. It doesn’t take much imagination to speculate that as they left and walked toward the Garden, Jesus stopped at one of the many vines growing in Jerusalem and taught them an important point.
Israel had failed to keep God’s Covenant, and now their vocation had passed on to God’s true representative, His true son. He was the true vine, planted and cared for by the Father, the gardener. (This is the last of John’s seven "I am" sayings in his Gospel). Israel as a nation would be made a wasteland very soon (a prophecy that was fulfilled in 70 AD) and Jesus was boldly declaring that he was the authentic Israel, who had done the Father’s will and would act as the representative for God’s people. He alone would be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 that would be crushed for the sin of the world.
This imagery is monumentally important to fully grasp. Jesus alone is the true Israel that will experience all that God had promised for his people including resurrection and entrance into the age to come. He is the vine and anyone who would be part of God’s people must enter into that vine as one of the branches. This is the central point that Jesus is teaching his disciples. To be the people of God, they must enter into his life. It is only through his life that people will be able to bear fruit and do the will of God. Only by entering into the life of Christ and living according to the teaching and guidance of the Spirit can we uphold God’s Covenant. It will all be the Father’s work through the life of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit not anything that we do on our own strength.
Some have asserted or imagined that "bearing fruit" here has to do with evangelism, but that is nowhere in sight in this passage, other than the fact that faithfully bearing witness to the Gospel is one component of many in the life of Christ. Jesus is hardly threatening his followers with the idea that they must make more disciples or be in danger of being cast out. Far from anything like that, Jesus is promising that those who enter into his life, will be transformed into his image (cf. Col 3:10) and be given the resources to remain in Christ and bear the fruit that God has always looked for. Bearing fruit, though, is God’s work through the life of Christ, not our own.
As comforting as that is, they shouldn’t imagine that that means that life will be wonderful from this point on out. As they all knew, vines needed to be pruned so that the growth they experience is productive and in the right direction. They should not be surprised that there will be much pruning throughout their lives, transforming them ever closer to the image of the King. Jesus wants to encourage them as well though, so he reminds them that they have already started that process. They are already clean, a word that means much the same thing as "prune." They have gone through much testing and produced good fruit already because they have accepted Jesus’ word, his logos.
Yet, there will always be some who seem to be part of the vineyard but who have not genuinely accepted the life of Christ as their own. Jesus is, perhaps, referring specifically to Judas Iscariot at this point, but there will always be those who do not bear fruit. If the life of Christ is not visible in one’s life (cf. Gal. 5:22-25) then there has to be question whether they are truly part of the true vine. Those that do not surrender their own life and live the one that will bear fruit will be cut off and thrown into the fire, says Jesus, using imagery that comes from Ezekiel 15:3-5.
The great and wonderful mystery in all of this is the call to remain in Christ. If we do, he promises that we will bear much fruit (v. 5) and that his logos will remain in us (v. 7). Then we will be slowly transformed so that our desires and will are directed by his and whatever we ask will be done. It is not that Jesus will turn into a divine Santa Claus, but that we will be transformed so that the things we ask for will be things consistent with the life of Christ. The question is, though, how do we remain in him? Certainly we must remain people of prayer, the Word, and worship in ways that genuinely connect us with the will of God. And certainly we need to follow the Scriptures in the constant trek of dying to self or putting off the old, and to live the life of Christ by putting on the new (cf. Eph. 4:20-31). But an equally vital aspect of remaining in Christ is to remain in the community, the body of Christ, that he has formed in his life. The only way to genuinely fulfill all that God has called us to in the life of Christ is to live in a community of those committed to living the life of the new creation and will call us to do the same. We need the other branches to truly remain in the vine but that does not mean that we rely on their strength or ability because they are only there through the power of the Spirit themselves.
How comforting is it to know that bearing fruit in the life of Christ rests solely on us staying their and allowing the Spirit to produce that fruit rather than through any effort or ability of our own? Spend some time today praising God for allowing you to be a part of the vine and to bear fruit in Christ.