The Allegory of the Vine and the Branches
The Holy Scriptures are supremely rich. The Christian who does not plumb the depth of these treasures is poorer indeed.
There is a brief context in John’s Gospel record that we would like to explore briefly, not only for the instruction and edification that it imparts on its own, but also for the opportunity of illustrating how one may reap great rewards in surveying a biblical text analytically, though we do not mean to suggest that this study exhausts all possibilities.
Near the end of his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus, speaking to his disciples, declared: (Note: The following rendition employs more contemporary language for those not versed in ancient, agricultural vocabulary.)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken unto you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it remains in the vine; so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches: He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for away from me you can do nothing. If a man does not remain in me, he is thrown away as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatsoever you will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:1-7; with supplementary instruction following).
In the following study we wish to explore these elements: the contextual background, the literary format, the characters in the illustration, some verbal forms, along with some vocabulary points of emphasis and interest.
Jesus and his disciples had concluded the meeting in the upper room in Jerusalem where they celebrated the Passover. Apparently they had just left that event, and were making their way eastward toward the garden of Gethsemane situated on the western slope of the Mt. of Olives (John 14:31b; 18:1). Undoubtedly, the disciples were exceedingly anxious (cf. 14:1), and perplexed as to what loomed ahead.
The discourse in chapters 15-17, therefore, was calculated to calm, to instruct, and to strengthen these courageous (though somewhat fragile — at least at this point) men. They needed some crucial preparation for the ordeal that would follow in the next twenty-four hours.
The literary format of the narrative is that of the “allegory.” An allegory is an expanded metaphor. The metaphor is a figure of speech where a comparison is made between two objects for the purpose of illustration. It constitutes a more dramatic mode of teaching than by means of a simple prosaic narrative.
The allegory draws the comparison, but without the use of common comparative terms (e.g., as, like, such like, even as, etc.). This format allows for a more potent form of expression than that of the simile. A good example, comparing these two figures, is found in Jacob’s prophecy concerning the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49). He says on the one hand that Judah “is a lion’s whelp” (v. 9a; metaphor); then again, Judah “crouched as a lion and as a lioness” (v. 9b; two similes).
In this allegory, the Savior sets forth some wonderful truths in the motif of the agricultural environment of his day. A good Bible class teacher will do some research in this area, in preparation for his/her presentation. Background details can add real “sparkle” to a class.
The Characters in the Illustration
There are four characters in the Lord’s illustration.
(1) There is the “husbandman.” This term is rather obscure in our modern culture. “Husbandman” does not signify a “husband,” but rather a tiller of the ground, a vinedresser, or, in our vernacular, a farmer. He is the one in charge of the vines and to whom ultimate accountability is to be rendered. He does everything within his power to see that the plant bears fruit. If it does not, the fault is not his.
Jesus identifies the “husbandman” as “my Father,” i.e., God, the Father. Of special notice should be the singular pronoun “my,” rather than “our.” As the Son of God, Christ entertained a very unique relationship to his heavenly Father, and that is emphasized several times in John’s Gospel (5:17-18; 20:17; cf. also Luke 2:49). The expression is a subtle affirmation of the Savior’s deity.
(2) There also is the “vine.” The vine is the source of life for the branches. It provides the water and nutrients by which the grapes are produced. Without the vine, no fruit could ever result. Branches are utterly dependent upon the vine. Without Christ, of course, there is no spiritual life or hope of eternal reward (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12).
It is interesting that Christ designates himself as the “true” vine. The Greek term denotes that which is genuine; the word stands in contrast to that which is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated or pretentious (Thayer, p. 27). Inasmuch as the Israelite nation was portrayed on occasion as a “vine” by the Old Testament prophets (see Isaiah 5:1-7; cf. Matthew 21:33ff), one can scarcely avoid thinking that this is a rebuke aimed at a considerable segment of the Hebrew family; the nation largely had failed in its mission, and was on the precipice of murdering its Messiah (cf. John 10:7ff).
(3) The “branches” are identified explicitly as the Lord’s “disciples” (v. 8). How anyone can possibly contend that Christ is the vine, and various denominational churches are the branches, is an unfathomable mystery; it is an example of the most irresponsible scholarship imaginable.
(4) Finally, there is that ambiguous “they,” to which reference is made in verse 6. These will be responsible for gathering the withered/pruned branches, and committing them to fire for burning. One might surmise that these individuals correspond to the “reapers” mentioned in the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), identified later as the Lord’s “angels” (v. 39). They will “gather out” of God’s kingdom those who cause others to stumble, and who themselves practice iniquity (v. 41).
Verbal Actions and Vocabulary Emphases
Grammar is very important in a book, the words of which are inspired of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Within this context, there are at least ten significant verbal actions set forth. Some have a positive emphasis; others are adverse. Let us consider the positive first, and then the negative. We will survey five actions in each category.
(1) Christ spoke of the necessity of the branches “bearing (i.e., producing) fruit.” The term is used eight times in this chapter. The present tense form indicates a sustained productivity. The unfruitful branch is considered worthless. The fruit, in the immediate context, consists of the converts one personally makes, or is instrumental in helping to bring to the Lord (see vv. 8,16; cf. Romans 7:4). Elsewhere in the New Testament, however, there is also the admonition to produce the “fruit” of Christian character (Galatians 5:22-23).
(2) There is a “cleansing” or “purging” that takes place even with reference to productive branches. The purpose in the cleansing (an allusion to trimming) is to enhance branch production. Every disciple should attempt to be wise enough to be grateful to God for whatever disciplinary procedures are necessary for the development of his service to Christ (see Hebrews 12:7ff). Just as the farmer uses the cutting knife to sever dead branches, even so he “often cuts back the living wood so far that His method seems cruel [to the spiritually dull]. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most there often comes the greatest fruitfulness” (Tenney, pp. 227-228).
(3) The Lord emphasized the necessity of “abiding” (i.e., remaining) joined to him. Seven times in this general context there is stressed the urgency of “remaining” with the vine (Christ). The verb meno (118 times in the NT; 67 times in John’s writings) carries the idea of sustaining a union with, continuing with, being steadfast, or enduring. The exhortation assuredly implies the possibility of not doing so!
(4) For those who abide in the Lord, there is the promise that they may “ask” God for those things necessary for their personal spiritual development and the conversion of others (v. 7). Of course many of us have insufficient faith to “ask,” hence, we do not receive (James 4:2). The Christian life is one of trust; and trusting, we petition our Father for heavenly-oriented needs.
(5) In response to unselfish requests (cf. James 4:3), there is Heaven’s pledge that “it shall be done,” i.e., God will respond to our prayers. This promise, of course, is not without limitation. The “whatsoever” of the text must be qualified by other passages that bear on the same theme. See Paul’s requests, and the Lord’s response, in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Even Jesus, when praying that “the cup” pass from him, qualified the request, “your will be done.” This is the most selfless request of all!
(6) But there are verbals of a different tone. Every branch that does not bear fruit is to be “taken away” (v. 2). In this context, the Greek word aireo signifies to “take off” that which is attached to something else — to rend or cut off (Thayer, p. 16). Practically speaking, it is the equivalent of being “severed from Christ,” the expression used by Paul to depict certain Judaizers who were corrupting the gospel (Galatians 5:4). It is utterly incredible that any scholar could suggest: “We should not regard this as proof that true believers may fall away” (Morris, p. 594). What else could have been said to make it plainer? What lengths men will go to, in order to preserve their cherished doctrines!
(7) Those who choose not to remain with Christ are to be “thrown away” (v. 6). They are trash; unfit for further use.
(8) The “cast off” state is said to be subject to “withering.” The original word suggests the idea of simply “drying up.” Interestingly, the verb is in the passive voice; the thrown-away branches “are withered” (as a result of forces exercised upon them). Could this hint of the removal of divine blessings? Or might it be the accelerated influences of the world in a spiritually impoverished environment?
(9) There is reference to the withered branches being “gathered” in preparation for final disposal. As noted earlier [see “Characters in the Illustration,” (4)], this could have to do with the work of angels at the time of the Judgment.
(10) Finally, there is the verb “burned” (v. 6). Dead branches are thrown into the “fire” where they are burned (literally, being burned — present tense). There can hardly be any doubt but that Christ is here warning about the danger of eternal punishment in the hell of fire (Matthew 13:41-42; 25:46). And, as Lenski observes, the verb “affords no support for the annihilation of the wicked — the cast off branches are burning” (p. 1038). Calvinists, of course, would emasculate this context of any reference to hell, because they do not believe that a child of God can fall from grace (cf. Beasley-Murray, p. 273).
In concluding this summary of John 15:1-7, one other word-combination should be stressed. Six times in this context the Lord used the expression “in me.” The term is employed of those who are in “union” with Christ. It initially referred to those “disciples” to whom he was giving instruction on that occasion; later, though, the application would be to those who have become “disciples” in a more technical sense (Matthew 28:19), and thus have entered into the “in Christ” relationship by means of obedience to the gospel (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27). These became known formally as “Christians” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).
- Beasley-Murray, G.R. (1987), John – Word Bible Commentary (Waco: Word).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1943), The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to John — Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Tenney, Merrill C. (1948), John — The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Thayer, J.H. (1958), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).