Summary: As branches of the vine, it is our purpose to produce much fruit, not simply to serve ourselves by producing leafy growth.
God told Abram, “All people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). He was not pointing to Isaac. Nor to Jacob, the first Israel; even though he brought blessing where he went, he was not the perfection of the promise—of God’s covenant. Similarly the sons of Jacob were not the realization of the oath. The nation of Israel was unfaithful, rebelling against God.
Israel is described throughout the Old Testament as a vine. Isaiah prophesied, “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as a well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit” (Is. 5:1–2). Israel is the vine of God’s own planting, His own special people. God gave them everything, and everything they took. But when He looked for a crop of good grapes, they yielded Him nothing but bad fruit.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine” (Jn. 15:1). Jesus is the vine. Jesus is the true Israel, the true descendant of Abraham through whom the blessings promised to Abraham would (and do) forever flow. In Christ, the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, the children of the promise, are vindicated. The old nation grew up mightily, but was cut down for its disobedience. Yet from the hacked off stump of Jesse, in all appearances dead and wrecked, a new shoot emerged, Jesus Christ, the true vine.
We are the branches. Notice, we are not the vine. Christ alone is the vine; He has supremacy in all things (cf. Col. 1:18). God has grafted us into the plant, taking what was wild and recreating it into something cultivated by its association to the root, the root which makes us holy (cf. Rom. 11:16-24). As part of the vine, we now share its life through the grace of God. “Our life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). And while branches send nourishment back to the plant, the root remains their source and origin. Without branches, the vine will send out new branches. Without a root, the branches wither.
“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit” (Jn. 15:2). As branches of the true vine, the expectation is that we will produce fruit. Branches are not left on the vine to solely to make leafy growth. We are not engrafted into Christ to make leafy growth. So what’s leafy growth?
Vines are prolific, putting out tons of leaves and runners. But a grapevine isn’t planted with the hope of making a large vegetative mess, nor for its flowers or wood. The vine is planted for the singular purpose of making grapes. When the vine produces lots of leafy growth, it is extending the branches and making lots of shade, but it fails to achieve its purpose, the production of fruit. The goal for the vinedresser is not to have lots of branches, but to have a strong, healthy root and enough vegetative growth to create much fruit.
We can grow leafy as well. When our spiritual lives focus on the self, we are producing leafy growth. A branch that looks solely to its own growth, extension, and increase is not healthy. Now, how can working on my own growth and development possibly be negative? Within the human body, what is unregulated cell growth called: cancer. In the Body of Christ, if one member grows without regard to the others, injury frequently results. The church in Corinth struggled with this very issue. St. Paul writes, “Be careful…that your exercise of freedom does not become a stumbling block for the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). When a branch grows wild, it sucks up resources that would benefit other branches and it shades branches desperately in need of the sun. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19). So when I allow my spiritual life to take away, cover up, or impede my brothers, I am producing leafy growth.
When we don’t return the blessings we have received to God, we make leafy growth. The purpose of the branch’s connection to the vine is to bear fruit. When the branch takes life and takes life and takes life from the vine without producing the fruit that it ought, it is a parasite. It devours life and supplies nothing back. Our spiritual growth as branches of the true vine should lead us to greater union to God and love for Him. This will lead us to sharing more of our life with our fellow branches, as St. John writes, “If we love another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 Jn. 4:12).