Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

201. The True Vine (John 15:1-17)

In that solemn moment when he had given the disciples wine to drink in his name, Jesus had spoken words the remembering of which needed no aid from the promised Paraclete; every syllable was etched in their memory for life: "This is my blood of the New Covenant... I will not henceforth drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

Whilst they were still in the upper room, or perhaps as they were making their way to Gethsemane, the Lord took their minds once again to that vivid symbolism and its further implications: "I am the True Vine, and my Father is the husbandman." But there was no Israelite who was not fully aware that his nation, the chosen of heaven, was God's vine. All knew, and took pride in, the splendid word-picture in Psalm 80-Israel as God's vine, brought out of Egypt, and planted and nurtured in a land of good soil and sunny hillsides (v.8-11).

The Old Testament Vine

The figure was expanded by Isaiah as he sang the Song of the Beloved and his vineyard (5 :1-7). Fruitful soil, every protection, devoted and patient attention-yet all it produced was "wild grapes". Alas, there was nothing else for it-if the vine must go wild, then let it, give it some "excuse" for its perverse unfruitfulness, let the fence go to pieces, give this vineyard over to the trampling of wild beasts, steer the blessing of heaven's rain clouds to some more deserving country, bake the soil hard under a sky of brass, and give the entire place over to briars and thorns. This is the fate of "the men of Judah, God's pleasant plant." And the men of Judah read their Scripture, understood its plain message, shook their heads about the waywardness of their fathers—and blithely went about their own special brand of apostasy.

Jeremiah took up the threnody: "I planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed; how then art thou turned info the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?" (2 :21).

There is no such plaintive expostulation in Ezekiel's variation on this theme. He is all biting satire and burning censure: This vine of Israel-what good is it to anyone? No one would dream of making it into furniture. It is useless even for such a simple purpose as making tools of any sort, or a peg to hang up a water jar, useless as a staff to aid one's walking, almost useless as fuel, it burns so badly. Good for one thing only, to produce wine to make glad the heart of man. Yet Israel gave no pleasure to its Owner. So, away with it!

Jesus had condensed these withering prophetic reprobations into his own parable of the labourers in the vineyard—the husbandmen punished, and the vineyard let out to others.

Now, a new Vine, a new Covenant, a new Israel, receiving all the sedulous care and attention which had formerly been lavished on "the vine out of Egypt." "My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away." The allusion to Judas going out into the night seems obvious enough. But such a conclusion is not certain. The Greek word certainly means "take away;" but in many places it also carries the idea of "lift up, take up." So there is no sure ground here for the drastic action of excommunication which some would take with those of fainting faith or waning zeal. In any case, even if the words mean excision this is for the husbandman to apply his skill to-"and my Father is the husbandman."

All branches, fruitful or otherwise, receive His assiduous attention: "Every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit." No need to say "in me" this time, for this is obvious.

"He taketh away"

Since "bear fruit" seems to refer to converts, "lift up" rather than "takeaway" is probably the correct reading (Mt.12 :12).

Mistakenly, the word "purgeth" has often been taken to signify pruning. The word means "cleanseth" (cp. Heb.10 :2-same word). Here it alludes to the common practice of scrubbing the vine stems with soap and water in order to rid them of a damaging fungus. Thus Jeremiah with reference to the "strange vine" of Israel: "Though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me" (2:22).

Jesus had already applied this process to his disciples, and would continue to do so: "Now ye are clean (13 :10) because of the word which I have spoken unto you." He was surely alluding to an instruction in the Law of Moses that newly-planted "trees for food" were to be reckoned as "uncircumcised" and the fruit not to be eaten during the first three years. "But in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy to praise the Lord withal" (Lev.19 :23,24). Their three years of discipleship were now more than expired. Soon there would be fruit in plenty-"holy to praise the Lord withal"-but only through the vigorous life of Christ in them: "Abide ye in me, and I (will abide) in you (cp.v.7; contrast 5 :38). As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me." Failure to learn this lesson has meant tragedy for many. "Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me" (Mt. 11:5). In times of spiritual stress, the very worst thing a man can do is to loosen his connection with the ecclesia which makes him a branch of the True Vine. Yet, not infrequently, this is the first reaction to a bad situation.

Jesus did not say: "I am the stem," but: "I am the vine", the entire living organic unit, of which his disciples are the branches. "He that abideth in me, so that I also abide in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing." That final word can hardly receive too much emphasis. Salt which loses its saltness is "fit for nothing" (Mt.5 :13)." A man can receive nothing, except it be given him of the Father" (Jn.3 :27). Paul's description of unregenerate or back-sliding human nature is very blunt: "without strength . . . ungodly . .. sinners . . . enemies;" but the obverse of the picture is given by a five-fold "much more": "justified ... reconciled ... the grace of God... abundance of grace, the gift of righteousness.. grace abounding unto eternal life" (Rom.5 :6-10,15,17,20,21)-all these are assured when a man is truly a part of the True Vine.

"Cast forth"

Jesus developed the contrast yet further. "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as the (fruitless) branch, and is caused to wither (the verb is Gk. passive).

Here is a truth which is not to be ignored. If a man would have spiritual health, he must remain as an integral part of the Christ Vine. So he must make his own personal decision accordingly.

Alas, it is every bit as important for the ecclesia to recognize this truth also. What tragedies there have been because of coo! severance made of individuals almost desperately eager for continued fellowship, yet this has been disallowed. How many hitherto fruitful branches have been "made to wither" by drastic unsought cutting off! Preservation of unity with the main stock is always to be sought at almost any cost, for nothing is more important, more fundamental. "There is one Body."

The outcome of severance, Jesus went on, is that "(men) gather them, and cast them into the fire,, and they are burned." The text has no subject for the verb "gather". AV has supplied the general term "men", and there is some support for this in the Isaiah parable (27:11). Alternatively, one may read an even less definite: "they gather them" with possible reference to angels in the Day of Judgment.

The context—"he is cast forth" from the Vine-suggests the former of these ideas (as AV). In which case Jesus is warning against being over-ready to exclude from fellowship because of the greatly intensified danger that "men", worldly men, will gather those cut off and ensure their destruction with worldliness. How often, and how readily, this happens! And what a responsibility then on those who do the casting forth!

On the other hand, faithful abiding in Christ brings matchless privileges: "Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you." Of course, the words are not to be taken without any qualification, as though the Lord were presenting his disciple with a blank cheque on the Bank of Heaven, somewhat after the fashion of Grimm's fairy offering the young hero fulfilment of three wishes.

The same apparently absolute promise comes in five other places, yet in each instance the context provides an implied qualifying clause of some kind: "ye shall ask what ye will" for the benefit of others under your spiritual care or guidance, usually those to whom the gospel is being preached (14 :12-14-see Study 198 and 15 :16; in 1 Jn.3 :22 and 5 :14 it is the forgiveness of sins, as the context makes clear).

So also here: "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit (v.16: that ye should go forth and bring forth fruit); so shall ye become my disciples." If this is the Lord's definition of a disciple, then here is a touchstone for testing the quality of one's faith. The man who truly has Christ as Lord will not be restrained from talking about him. There will be an irrepressible urge to share out the love of Christ, "that they might be trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord (the True Vine), that he might be glorified" (ls.61 :3)-glorified in his Servant the New Israel (49:3).

"Abide in my love"

And since the essential bond of the Covenant between preacher and learner, between Master and disciple, is necessarily the Breaking of Bread, just instituted, Jesus went on to re-affirm (vv.9-14) the supreme value of this memorial rite, the Love Feast: "As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments* ye shall abide in

my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love" (cp. Dt.9:7). What man, except Jesus, could say such a thing as this without complete loss of character? But in his mouth the words are unselfconsciously and obviously true, this matchless, faultless Son of God!

"These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled." In the New Testament by far the most common use of this word "joy" is to describe the joy of fellowship, which is essentially the highest joy of human experience. And since "fulfilled' nearly always suggests the fulfilment of a promise or prophecy, it seems likely that Jesus was alluding to his words at the supper table: "I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of the fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

He continued to commend the Love Feast unto them, as the focus of all their worship, devotion and fellowship: "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, just as (Gk. kathos] I have loved you. This past tense is altogether out of place until the "Love Feast" context is recognized. Then it presents no difficulty. And the next verse could hardly be more appropriate: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." He meant, of course, his own impending self- sacrifice on behalf of his disciples, as his next words plainly imply: "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you." Taken absolutely, and without any qualifications, this definition excludes every man who ever lived, and Christ died in vain. But when read with specific reference to the Agape, which is and must always be the hall-mark of the follower of Christ, there is no difficulty.


Eating of the Passover, or of the sacrifices of the Lord, was forbidden to strangers, but could include those who were "servants bought for money" (Ex.12 :44,45; Lev.22 :10). The language seems to imply that a slave could be compelled to be circumcised and thus formally qualified for partaking of the feast. But not so with this new Passover. No special qualification of birth or race or social positon, but only the more real bond of a genuine love for Christ, decides a man's right to share in this high blessing: "Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant (slave) knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends." At this new Passover no one is under any legal compulsion or constraint. He may come or go, as he pleases-and as Judas did. Instead there is a greater, more effectual, constraint-that of being a friend of the One who provides the meal and the deliverance which it symbolizes.

"Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?" God had said regarding His impending judgement of iniquitous Sodom. So the Friend of God (Jas.2 :23) was admitted to the counsels of heaven. But now, regarding imputed righteousness (not long-tolerated wickedness) and the sharing of a greater deliverance, friends of Jesus have at least equal privileges: "I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known to you." To some extent this was a declaration of intention, for only a few minutes later the Lord was constrained to add: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but we cannot bear them now." These omissions were made good, no doubt, during the next Forty Days or by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as the Twelve grew to the responsibilities of early church leadership.

It is difficult to be sure whether the ensuing words carry on the allusion to Abraham, or go back to the True Vine. Perhaps both. "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and appointed you, that ye should go forth (as childless Abraham was called out of Ur?) and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit may abide; that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name (as Abraham sought the fulfilment of his hopes in the birth of a seed), he may give it you."

Essentially, these words have to do with the propagation of the good news concerning Christ. This was to be apostles' great task. The influence of their message on the lives of men needing succour from sin was to mean a luscious fruitfulness on the Vine of God. But they could never hope to achieve much of this in their own strength: "Whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he will give it you." Without the wisdom and power of the Spirit of truth, their word — and his—must fall to the ground.

Especially must they remember that the source and spring of all their activity and progress was in Christ. Only "in his name" could they seek the direction and blessing needed on all their endeavours. "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you." This principle of divine action is fundamental. It is hard to believe, harder still to understand, nigh impossible. Yet it must never be forgotten, lest a man think there is any virtue in his "decision" (forsooth!) to belong to Christ. "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you"—the words epitomize divine grace and human helplesssness. "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn.4 :10).

The life of faith, and therefore of fruitfulness, in Christ depends on an adequate recognition of this amazing, unreasonable, and utterly incomprehensible principle (Mt. 25:34; Jn. 6:37, 39, 44, 65; 17:6; 12:39, 40; Acts 13:48; 18:10, 27; 16:14; 2:23, 39; 4:24-28; 1 Pet. l:2,20; Rom. 8:28-30; 9:10,11; Rev. 13:8; 1 Cor. l:26-28; 4:7; 3:5-7; Eph. l:4, 5, 9, 11 ;2 Th. 2:13).

Notes: Jn. 15:1-17

The true vine. Here is one of the best examples of alethinos meaning true in contrast with symbol or type; cp. l:9; 6:32; Heb. 8:2; 9:24.

My Father is the husbandman. No Nicean co-equality here;cp.v.lO. How did the Father tend the Vine (Christ)? How does He? He gives Bread and Wine.
Taketh away. Since "bear fruit" seems to refer to converts, "lift up" rather than "take away" seems to be the correct reading (Mt.13 :12). In the Greek text "take away, purge, clean" present an obvious play on words: airo, kathairo, katharos. So Jesus talked to his disciples in Greek, not Aramaic.
Vine... branches. Cp. the figure of the Body of Christ; 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph.4 :12-16; Col. l :24.
Abide not in me. Note 6 :53; Mt. 11:6, and the example of Thomas in forsaking the fellowship of the apostles (Jn.20:26).

(Men) gather them, for similar impersonal verbs, with probable reference to angels, see Lk.12 :20 mg; 6 :38; and with specific mention of angels: Mt.13 :41,49; 22 :13; 24 :31. In that case, for "burned" see Mt.3 :10; Heb.6:8;Ez.l5:4-7.
In my love, that is, in love for me. Cp. Gk. genitive in 5 :42; 1 Jn.2 :5,15; 3 :17.
Called you friends. On this verse see also Acts 20:37, and especially Ex.33:11 (true of Moses and Joshua-Jesus).

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