Three trees are used in the NT to illustrate divine teaching—the olive, the fig, and the vine. The olive tree is taken up by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 11: 16–24 to demonstrate how the Gentiles enter into the promises made to Abraham. The Jews by natural birth belonged to the root of the tree, and Israel appeared as “a green olive–tree, fair, of goodly fruit” (Jer. 11: 16), though in the course of time the nation’s branches would be “broken out through unbelief” (Rom. 11: 20). The Gentiles had no such connection to the root and, like branches of “a wild olive tree”, needed to be grafted in so that they might “become a fellow–partaker” (v17). The fig tree is taken up by the Lord in Luke 13: 6–9 to illustrate the folly of mere outward profession. A fig tree might have plenty of leaves, and yet be destitute of fruit. As we learn on some of the earliest pages of Scripture, sewing fig–leaves together (see Gen. 3: 7) may give us respectability in our own eyes, but it leaves us naked before God. This leaves the vine to be considered.
The teaching on the vine forms part of the Lord’s final ministry to His disciples before He went to the cross. He had already set out the necessity of feet–washing, given them a new commandment that they love one another, spoken of preparing them a place in the Father’s house, and revealed that another Comforter would be sent (John 13: 4–17, 34; 14: 2, 3, 16). All this, and more, were essential in the new order of things into which they were to be introduced during His absence. The teaching of the vine therefore forms an equally important part of what is needed in the current day—and how it is needed! If one could characterise Western Christianity today it is Corinthian—low on morality and high on spiritual manifestations. Yet the teaching of the vine is that everything depends on abiding in Christ—recorded for us, significantly, by one who leant “on the breast of Jesus” (John 13: 25). “Without me” the Lord says, “ye can do nothing” (John 15: 5).
Israel, God’s Vine
Scripture tells us that the vine is not fit for anything but bringing “forth grapes” (Is. 5: 2). As the prophet asks, “shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will [men] take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon? Behold, it is given to the fire for fuel” (Ezek. 15: 3, 4). Now Israel in the OT is likened to a vine: “For the vineyard of Jehovah of hosts is the house of Israel … Thou broughtest a vine out of Egypt; thou didst cast out the nations, and plant it” (Is. 5: 7; Ps. 80: 8). Yet the nation soon forgot their calling and brought “forth wild grapes” (Is. 5: 4). Israel became “an unpruned vine” who produced “fruit unto himself” (Hos. 10: 1), and though planted as “a noble vine”, turned “into the degenerate shoots of a strange vine” (Jer. 2: 21). Judgment was to swiftly follow (see Ps. 80: 12, 13; Is. 5: 5, 6; Joel 1: 7). Similar teaching is found in the parable of the vineyard (see Luke 20: 9–19), but though this clearly has links to the passage in Is. 5: 1–7, the emphasis is now on the husbandmen rather than the vine. This seems to make the condemnation much more personal, and the priests, as the responsible element in the Lord’s day, felt the edge of His words.
In the light of these things, it is no wonder that the Psalmist is dismayed: “O God of hosts, return, we beseech thee; look down from the heavens, and behold, and visit this vine. Even the stock which thy right hand hath planted, and the young plant thou madest strong for thyself. It is burned with fire, it is cut down” (Ps. 80: 14–16). To this plea a remarkable answer is given: “Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou hast made strong for thyself” (v17). The imagery is clearly millennial—a branch of the vine typified the royal house, from which eventually King David’s greater Son would come, delivering the people and setting up the kingdom in glory and power. The Lord Jesus is that Man.
This, however, is not the teaching of John 15. There the Lord presents Himself not as Messiah, the Man of God’s right hand—a Branch (see Jer. 33: 15)—but as the true vine—the stem and root. In this context, it was the disciples that were the branches, while He was “the true vine”, and His Father “the husbandman” (John 15: 1).
The True Vine
In John’s Gospel, Christ is rejected from the beginning (see John 1: 11), and consequently there is no sense in which Israel nationally could any longer bring forth fruit to God. All depended now on vital connection with Christ. This is entirely in keeping with John’s presentation whose purpose in writing was “that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in his name” (John 20: 31). Christ is not merely a fruitful branch where all others were unfruitful. Nor is He the topmost branch above the rest. He is the vine itself. Now the disciples knew how the OT spoke of Israel as the vine, and they would therefore feel the force of what the Lord was saying in a way that we may not. God had turned His face away from the nation—Christ alone was “the true vine” (John 15: 1, my emphasis). Thus those who view Christianity merely as a system of belief have missed the point entirely: Christianity is Christ. It is all about Him, and everything depends upon Him. It is not mere religion, for God Himself is the husbandman, and He must have Christ reproduced in the fruit. Nor is Christ a vine among vines, as ecumenical religious thought would teach: He is the vine. There is no other source of spiritual life.
The vine is a dependent plant and as such reminds us of Christ as Man, the One who never uttered a word or moved a step without a word from His Father: “He wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the instructed” (Is. 50: 4). It is against this significant background that the dependence of the branches on the stem and root is introduced. It is what is implied in the very nature of a branch—apart from Christ we can do nothing (see John 15: 5). Just as Christ brought forth fruit to God as the dependent Man, so those who take His name are to also produce fruit by abiding in the true vine.
Of course there cannot be any breakdown on His part, but we, sadly, often fail in dependence and confidence—hence the Lord’s word “abide in me” (v4). As Christians we come to rely on many things—other people, previous experience, our gifts and abilities, our intellect and knowledge—but such confidence is misplaced. Only as abiding in Christ will we be preserved as truly fruitful. Again, it is easy to mistake being ‘active’ with fruitfulness, but this is only so where Christ is the source of the action, and His glory the result. True service, as epitomised by the Lord, is where every thought, step and deed is because the Father has commanded it.
“[As to] every branch in me not bearing fruit, he takes it away; and [as to] every one bearing fruit, he purges it that it may bring forth more fruit” (John 15: 2). Here we are introduced to the two–fold labour of the divine husbandman. Now anyone in the least acquainted with vine culture knows how much pruning the plant requires in order to bear fruit—not just the cutting away of diseased and dying leaves, but the removal of even healthy shoots as these steal away the vitality. All is to be geared to the one great aim of fruit production, and even what seems fair on the surface must be subordinated to that one objective. As to the branches not bearing fruit, these are to be removed, ruthlessly and without sentiment. As to those bearing fruit, the husbandman will not rest satisfied: these are to be purged in order to bear more. Just as the natural vine needs the constant labour of the earthly husbandman, so the branches of the true vine receive the untiring attention of the Father. The spiritual lessons are simple but profound.
The Fruitless Branches
In the picture that the Lord presents, there is no difference among the branches of the vine except in one feature only: “[As to] every branch in me not bearing fruit, he takes it away” (John 15: 2). The apparent growth of foliage is irrelevant: all that the husbandman is interested in is that the branch bears fruit. If it does not bear fruit, then it will be excised. Thus Judas, as numbered among the Twelve, appeared as a branch in the vine, but proving unfruitful, he was taken away. The branch therefore is outward profession, valuable in as much as it is that which has the apparent potential to bear fruit. Reality, however, is seen in the actual fruit–bearing. Too many say they are ‘Christian’ without displaying the accompanying fruit of Christian character. As the Lord said elsewhere in another context “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7: 16). Here, if there is no fruit, then the sap of the root has never circulated in the branch, and it is to be broken off. With such there never was any living link with Christ.
The Lord reiterates the teaching a little later: “Unless anyone abide in me he is cast out as the branch, and is dried up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15: 6). However, we should observe the change in His language here. In verses 3, 4, and 5, He has been addressing the disciples as true branches of the vine (Judas having gone out). He will address them again as such in verses 7 and 8. But in verse 6, He changes His language from “ye” to “any one”. Scripture, as ever, is precise. Can a real believer fail so badly that he is excised forever from Christ, and cast, at the end, into the fire—a child of God today, a lost soul tomorrow? The language makes this impossible. All eleven disciples failed grievously (see Mark 14: 50), but, as the Lord told them, they had been chosen out of the world, “that ye should go and [that] ye should bear fruit, and [that] your fruit should abide” (John 15: 16). The same applies to all true believers: they bear fruit, and their fruit, as nourished by the sap of the true vine is of lasting value.
Purging the Fruitful
Not only would the Father remove any unfruitful branch, but He purges the fruitful branches in order that they might be even more productive: “[as to] every one bearing fruit, he purges it that it may bring forth more fruit” (v2). The connection is lost in English, but kaqairw, the Greek word for purge, is derived from kaqaroς, the word the Lord uses for clean in v3: “ye are already clean by reason of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15: 3, my emphasis). As far as their sins were concerned, the disciples were already purged or clean, but at the same time there was the need of an ongoing purging with a view to being more fruitful in their walk down here. Those acquainted with vine–culture know how necessary this cleansing is. If the sap is allowed to go into excessive shoot generation, then there will be a correspondingly negative effect on fruit production. Thus the Father, in His wisdom, may see fit to remove many a seemingly harmless distraction in our lives that is nonetheless hindering the production of fruit for Himself. And it may go further, for “whom [the] Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12: 6). The language is very strong, but the inflicted pain (and it is from the Father who loves us) is “for profit” (v10). The point of any trial is not to seek to escape it, but to learn what the Father would teach us in it. Certainly “no chastening at the time seems to be [matter] of joy, but of grief” but it “afterwards yields [the] peaceful fruit of righteousness to those exercised by it” (v11, my emphasis). Too many seem to think that the troubles of life hit them by chance, without ever considering that God is actually forming their character through circumstances for His pleasure. There is no doubt the Lord was here preparing the disciples themselves for what they might be called to pass through when He had left the earth.
Abide in Me
So how can fruitfulness be assured? “Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abide in the vine, thus neither [can] ye unless ye abide in me. I am the Vine, ye [are] the branches. He that abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit” (vs. 4, 5). The branch draws its life, its strength, and its nourishment from the vine, and is entirely dependent on it for all that is needed in order to be fruitful. In the same way, believers are utterly dependent on Christ to bring forth fruit for God. “Without me” says the Lord, “ye can do nothing” (v5). If we abide in Christ, then as the sap of the root and stem flows in the branches, so will Christ abide in us. Our lives will then be in accord with His will in a very practical way: “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will and it shall come to pass to you. In this is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit, and ye shall become disciples of mine” (vs. 7, 8). Of course the eleven already were His disciples, but discipleship is here put on a new and higher footing. With Christ’s words abiding in them, the desire of their hearts would be in unison with the thoughts of the Master, and their prayers would be in accordance with His will. What would be the result? “In this is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit” (v8) and they would thus be proved as disciples of Christ.
Sometimes fruit is thought of only in terms of works. Works are acts. Fruit, however, is more than this. This can be seen in the way that the Lord goes on to speak about love. Love is expressed through its works, but the love itself is something deeper and more profound. “As the Father has loved me, I also have loved you: abide in my love. If ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love, as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (vs. 9, 10). The Lord here speaks of that which He had proved as a man upon earth—His Father’s love as the obedient One walking here for the divine pleasure. He would now have His disciples tread a similar pathway—subject to His commandments and so conscious in the fullest way of Christ’s love and pleasure. The world would be hostile to them, and they would be bereft of His physical presence, but as abiding in His love they would have an inner joy that none could touch: “I have spoken these things to you that my joy may be in you, and your joy be full” (v11). What do we know of these things?
Christianity is the reproduction of Christ down here in His people. Some think only of the Gospel, some only of the Assembly, but both are wrong. I will never be truly effective in the Gospel, and never truly responsive in the Assembly, unless Christ practically abides in me, and I in Him. Entirely given over to the will of Another, having an inner joy untroubled by the trials of this scene, I will bear much fruit, and the Father will be glorified in my life. May it truly be so for each one of us!