Summary: Jesus declare the fruitful union between believers and Him. He will prune us when necessary, but will not forsake us.
When we lived in California and Germany, we admired the many vineyards. Grapes are the most widely grown fruit in the world. They’ve been cultivated as far back as ancient Egypt, 2,500 years before the birth of Christ.
The grapevine is a symbol of Israel, part of its national emblem, as depicted on coins. Grapes represent the nation’s fruitfulness. They’ve always been central to Israel’s agriculture and economy. An important product of ancient Israel was a grape honey made by boiling the grapes into a molasses-like jelly. When Israel is referred to as the “land of milk and honey”, it is referring to this product rather than honey from beehives.
In the time of Jesus, a golden grapevine hung over the entrance of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, a gift from King Herod. It was made of delicately-twisted gold wire and beads. Identifying with Israel, Jesus declared in another “I AM” statement: “I am the true Vine.”
Verse one reveals God-the-Father as the Owner and Cultivator of the vineyard. Grapes require constant, attentive care--more intense labor than any other crop. The Israelites built watchtowers by their vineyards to guard against thieves and animals. Our Heavenly Father tends His grapes, waters and protects them, and cultivates a harvest to produce a maximum yield. We can trust this Gardener to nurture us; His eye is on every branch.
Verse two explains the fruitful union between believers and Christ. It also reveals the essential pruning process, which has 3 aspects…
1. New plants are pruned for 3-5 years to “train” them before they’re allowed to produce a crop. In the same way, new believers require time to grow and training to help them become rooted in their new faith.
2. Pruning is also necessary to remove any deadwood that could cause decay. God prunes from us that which will hinder our growth.
3. Farmers also prune live wood, in order to improve the vine’s potential for fruit-bearing. Untrimmed vines develop unproductive growth--long, rambling branches that produce few grapes because the vine is focused on growing wood.
For its size, a single vine is extremely productive, yielding as much as 80 lbs of grapes in a single season, and can continue to produce grapes for nearly 100 years. Jesus is saying to His followers that we are re-born to re-produce. We’re able to do so, because we abide in Him.
Verse 3 assures us that we are healthy branches. Jesus did not equate the word “clean” with “perfect”. The words “cut off” in verse 2 can mean to take away or remove, but can also mean to cleanse or trim clean. Judas is an example of a dead branch that was cut off; Peter an example of a live branch pruned for greater productivity.
Verses 4-5 highlight the importance of fruitfulness in the Christian life, and reveal the Source of productivity. Our success is not the result of self-achievement, but of abiding in Christ. We are fruitful because of the Vine. We cannot bear fruit on our own. We cannot survive apart from Christ. We cannot accomplish anything of permanent value apart from Christ, the True Vine.
How can we know if we are “abiding” in Christ? -When our lives are producing fruit. This happens when we are in union with the Source of life and fruitfulness. The fruit of the Spirit does not come about by human effort. We would wither spiritually if we were severed from the Vine that sustains us. The command to “abide” is not fulfilled in a single act; it is an on-going life united to Christ.
George Whitfield conducted outdoor evangelistic campaigns in the 1700’s throughout New England, a period of revival called the “Great Awakening.” Though thousands responded to his preaching, when asked how many were converted after one of his sermons he replied, “We’ll know in five years.” The point Whitfield was making was that five years should reveal which decisions were superficial and which were genuine, lasting commitments to Christ.
“Apart from Me you can do nothing.” No Hebrew prophet would’ve dared to make such a bold statement. For any mere person to say such words would be shamelessly egotistical and irreverent. Yet God-the-Son, the True Vine has spoken. Apart from Him we are unable to please the Father. None of our works are acceptable unless we are connected to Christ. What we do will have lasting value and eternal worth only if we’re doing it for Christ, and by His power. Apart from Jesus we cannot be holy…but joined to Him we overcome the world, the flesh and the devil.
Verse 6 is not a warning but a statement of fact. Jesus is describing how some branches are fruitful while others disappointingly are not. God removes fruitless branches. If branches are to bear the right kind of fruit, they must be a part of the True Vine. Jesus points out in Matthew 7:20, “By their fruit you shall know them.” No fruit means no life. John explains in his first epistle that those who leave the fellowship of faith show that they never “belonged to us”; if they had been truly genuine believers they would have “remained” (2:19). These people didn’t lose their faith; they showed their true colors. True believers remain loyal. Yet “the fruitfulness of the branch does not depend upon itself but upon Christ in whom it lives” (Westcott).