Summary: When we’re connected to Christ, the True Vine, our lives bear fruit.
The Vine and the Branches
When I lived in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg I admired the vast hillsides of grapevines. Grapes are the most widely grown fruit in the world. Grapes have been cultivated as far back as ancient Egypt, 2,500 years before the birth of Christ.
The grapevine was a symbol of ancient of ancient Israel and is part of modern Israel’s national emblem. Grapes have always been central to Israel’s agriculture and economy. The climate of Israel is ideal for viticulture. The grapevine represented Israel’s fruitfulness in doing God’s work on earth. This symbol was on Israeli coins during the between-the-testaments time of the Maccabees.
A very important product of ancient Israel was a grape honey made by boiling the grapes into a molasses-like jelly, which was very sweet. 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 vine hung over the entrance of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, a gift from Herod. It was made of delicately-twisted gold wire and beads. Israel appeared outwardly healthy, but was spiritually withered. Jesus, in one of many “I am” statements declared, “I am the true Vine.” (vs 1)
John 15 is a continuation of Jesus’ Upper Room message as to why our hearts should not be troubled (from ch 14). Why should we be free from anxiety? Because He is the Vine and we are the branches! He will take care of us.
In verse one we see that God the Father is the Owner of the vineyard, as well as the Cultivator of the crop. Vines require constant, attentive care. A vineyard calls for harder and more regular labor than any other form of agriculture. The Israelites built watchtowers by their vineyards to guard against thieves and wild animals. The Father tends His grapes, waters and protects them, and cultivates a harvest so that it will produce a maximum yield. We can trust the Gardener to nurture and watch us. His eye is on every branch. God makes His garden grow (c.f. I Cor 3:6).
Verse two explains the fruitful union between believers and Christ. It also reveals the essential “pruning process.”
Pruning has 3 aspects:
New plants are pruned for 3-5 years to “train” them before they are allowed to produce a crop. New believers require time to grow and training to help them become rooted in their new faith. You don’t ask new believers to teach Sunday School—you feed them with the milk of God’s word.
Pruning is also necessary to remove any dead wood, which can harbor disease and decay.
The pruning of live wood improves the vines potential for fruit-bearing. Untrimmed vines develop unproductive growth--long, rambling branches that produce few grapes because the strength of the vine is given to growing wood. Fruit contains the seed for more fruit, so the process continues on and on.
For their size, vines are extremely productive, yielding as much as 80 lbs of grapes in a single season. And good roots 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”. As Jesus applied the words the Father gave Him to the lives of the disciples, they underwent a pruning process that removed evil from them and conditioned them for further service. The words “cut off” in verse 2 can mean to take away or remove, but also to cleanse or trim clean. Judas was an example of a dead branch that was cut off; Peter an example of a live branch being pruned for greater productivity.
Verses 4-5 highlight the importance of fruitfulness in the Christian life. These verses reveal the Source of our success. Our fruitfulness is not the result of human 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. Our effectiveness depends on receiving the constant flow of life from Christ. “Without Me you can do nothing.” We can accomplish nothing of permanent value apart from Christ, the True Vine.
If you’ve ever lived by the beach you’ve likely seen sand sculpture competitions. Sand artist labor to make remarkable images in the sand. But their artistry is fleeting; their work lasts a day and is swept away by the tide. Apart from Christ, our aspirations have as much permanent value as sand art. What’s the point of anything we do if our aspirations have no eternal value?
How can we know we are “abiding” in Christ? We know 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 will not appear by human effort. We would wither spiritually if we were severed from the Vine that sustains us. A disciple is one in the process of becoming like Christ. The command to “abide” is not fulfilled in a single act--it is an on-going life committed to and united to Christ.