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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Declares He Is the True Vine and His Disciples Are the Branches (15:1-6)
Jesus Declares He Is the True Vine and His Disciples Are the Branches (15:1-6)

Jesus begins with the Gospel's final "I am" saying. The earlier sayings had focused on Jesus as the life-giver and had included an invitation to come to him and to believe in him (6:35; 8:12; 10:9; 11:25-26; 14:6). Now, however, Jesus is speaking to those who have already come to him, and so his charge is that they remain in him (cf. Michaels 1989:271). The earlier theme of life is now developed in terms of intimate union with Jesus, a sharing in his own life. Thus, this is a fitting conclusion to the "I am" sayings.

The image is not a parable, since it is not a story, but rather an extended metaphor (Carson 1991:513), that is, basically an allegory, for all the details have significance. The main point of the image is clear enough: the intimate union of believers with Jesus. The disciple's very life depends on this union. As branches, believers either bear fruit and are pruned to bear more fruit or do not bear fruit and are thrown away and burned.

The image of the vine, and the closely associated term vineyard, were commonly used throughout the Mediterranean world (cf. Barrett 1978:472; Brown 1970:669-72). Most significant for our passage is their frequent use in the Old Testament and in Judaism to symbolize Israel (Barrett ibid.; Brown ibid.; Behm 1964:342). Isaiah has an extended use of this image in his "Song of the Vineyard" (5:1-7), and there are many other less developed uses (for example, Jer 5:10). The image of the vineyard frequently shifted to the vine, as here in John (for example, Jer 6:9). On the temple there was a "golden vine with grape clusters hanging from it, a marvel of size and artistry" (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 15.395), and the vine was used to represent Jerusalem on coins made during the first Jewish revolt (A.D. 66-70), so the vine was clearly a symbol of Israel. Furthermore, even the notion of a true vine shows up in the Old Testament: "I planted you as a fruitful vine, entirely true [alethinos]. How have you become a wild vine, turned to bitterness" (Jer 2:21 LXX). Here, as also in Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, God, the gardener, cared for his vineyard but got sour grapes. Consequently he will destroy the vineyard. This theme of judgment accompanies virtually every use of this imagery in the Old Testament.

Therefore, when Jesus refers to himself as the true vine (v. 1) he is once again taking an image for Israel and applying it to himself. Jesus himself is true Israel (cf. Hoskyns 1940b:560; Pryor 1992:124-31). This claim corresponds to his break with the temple at the end of chapter 8 and his forming a renewed people that began in chapter 9 and came clearly to the fore in chapter 10. Israel's place as the people of God is now taken by Jesus and his disciples, the vine and its branches. This is not a rejection of Judaism as such, but its fulfillment in its Messiah. The identification of the people of God with a particular nation is now replaced with a particular man who incorporates in himself the new people of God composed of Jews and non-Jews. Israel as the vine of God planted in the Promised Land is now replaced by Jesus, the true vine, and thus the people of God are no longer associated with a territory (Burge 1994). Jesus' corporate significance has been included throughout the Gospel in his use of the term Son of Man, so it is perhaps significant that the image of the vine and that of the Son of Man are identified together in Psalm 80:14b-16: "Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son [ben; cf. LXX: hyion anthropou, `son of man'] you have raised up for yourself."Given this strong association of the vine with Israel, when Jesus refers to himself as the vine that is true he signals a contrast between himself and the official Judaism as represented in the Jewish leaders who have rejected him and thus cut themselves off from him and his Father. The role of the Father as the gardener (v. 1) continues the theme of Jesus' dependence on and subordination to the Father (cf. 14:28) and also emphasizes again the contrast between Jesus' relationship with God and that of his opponents. The specific focus, however, is on the branches, who are in intimate contact with Jesus (v. 2). There is no real parallel to this specific use of the image of the vine and the branches elsewhere (cf. Behm 1965). This passage, then, uses imagery that speaks of Jesus' identity over against official Judaism, but it uses the imagery to address issues within the new community rather than between the community and their Jewish opponents.

The new community has been established and now must bear fruit for God, in contrast to Israel and its fruitlessness. As among the people of Israel, so among Jesus' disciples, there are those who bear fruit and those who do not (v. 2). What is this fruit? Some scholars suggest Jesus is referring to the fruit that comes from bearing witness to Jesus, that is, converts, the fruit of evangelism. At least twice in John the image of bearing fruit is used with something like this meaning (4:35-38; 12:24). Other scholars interpret this fruit as being the ethical virtues characteristic of the Christian life (for example, Morris 1971:670). But something more basic, something that underlies both missionary work and ethical virtues, seems to be intended. The development of the image in the next section (vv. 7-17) suggests that bearing fruit refers to the possession of the divine life itself and especially the chief characteristics of that life, knowledge of God (cf. 15:15) and love (15:9-14). Jesus says when they bear much fruit they demonstrate that they are his disciples (15:8), and elsewhere he states love the evidence that one is a disciple (13:35; 14:21, 23) and is in union with God and with one another (17:21-23). Thus, the image of fruit symbolizes that which is at the heart of both Christian witness and ethics—union with God.

As it is the Father who draws people to Jesus (6:44), so it is the Father who cuts off (airei) those who do not bear fruit and who prunes (kathairei, "cleans"; cf. the NIV footnote) those who do bear fruit. In a sense, these two activities summarize chapter 13, with the cutting off of Judas (13:21-30) and the cleansing of the disciples (13:10; cf. Michaels 1989:271). All judgment is in the hands of the Father, both among Christ's disciples and those outside that community. Indeed, some would see the persons referred to in verse 2 as ones outside the community of Christ. Those who believe that "true disciples are preserved to the end" (Carson 1991:515, citing Jn 6:37-40; 10:28) assume that the disciple in verse 2 is not a true disciple, since a true disciple will persevere to the end (Carson 1980:97-98). "Many are reckoned by men's opinions to be in the vine who in fact have no root in the vine" (Calvin 1959:94). But Jesus does not say "those who appear to be in me" but every branch in me. It will not do to collapse the antinomies of Scripture. "How a man can be `in Christ,' and yet afterwards separate himself from Him, is a mystery neither greater nor less than that involved in the fall of a creature created innocent" (Westcott 1908:2:198). The believer's assurance is not in the decision to follow Jesus, but in the graciousness and faithfulness of the Father and the Son (see comment on 6:37). Though God allows us to reject him, his own disposition toward us is love, a love that continues to pursue even those who reject him (see comment on 13:26). Those who are worried about the assurance of their salvation should find comfort in the character and actions of God. Our fretting over ourselves is itself a preoccupation with self that must be pruned away, for it inhibits our relation with God, our bearing of the fruit of eternal life.

Since fruit refers to sharing in the life of God and the activities that naturally come to expression when that life is present, this cutting off follows by definition. It is impossible to be united to God and remain ignorant of him and not manifest his own characteristic love. In such a case the branch is cut off and cast out to be burned (v. 6). The reference to being cast out (eblethe exo; thrown away in the NIV, v. 6) may point to excommunication from the community, but the actual practice in 1 John does not seem to present active excommunication on the part of the community—the antichrists seem to leave on their own (1 Jn 2:19). Obviously they would not leave without reason. Most likely John showed clearly the errors of their ways and wanted them to accept his teaching, but they eventually withdrew instead. Thus, the way the cutting off appears to take place in the Johannine community is the same way the judgment takes place in the Gospel, namely, the light shines and does its own work of separation.

Jesus' disciples have been cleansed by his word, and they will be cleansed in the future (15:2-3). This word refers to all that Jesus taught, his entire message (logos), conveyed by both word and action. This revelation centers on the same two foci mentioned with regard to bearing fruit—knowledge of God in the Son and the love command—the foci being united, for God is love. This knowledge and this love do not characterize the disciples right then, but will "on that day" (14:20-21), after the glorification of Jesus. But something related to this later state must now characterize them since Jesus has already said they are all clean except Judas (v. 3; cf. 13:10). Indeed, if they were not clean, they could not come into the divine presence, yet it is said that they are in Christ. Perhaps what they have is the vague outline of this knowledge and love, which will later be filled in by the Spirit. They certainly believe Jesus is come from God, even though their continued ignorance is quite evident here in the farewell discourse. More obvious is their love for Jesus, mostly evidenced in their willingness to lay down their lives for him. That they came to Jerusalem is evidence of this willingness (11:16), and it is stated explicitly by Peter (13:37). They are not yet capable of such love when things get bleak, but at least they have the desire to be loyal. Such adherence to Jesus on a social level is analogous to the coming internal co-inherence referred to in this figure of the vine. Their humility in accepting Jesus, along with his cryptic sayings and deeds, and their willingness to die with him, even though this willingness is weaker than they realize, manifest the love that is crucial for remaining in Jesus. They still have much in their lives that is not in keeping with the life of God. Such false growths need to be pruned away so God's eternal life might grow and increase in their lives. Part of the good news is that the Father undertakes such pruning in the life of each disciple. The discipline may be painful (cf. Heb 12:4-11) as the life of self and rebellion is cut away, but the result will be untold blessing for the disciple and for others through him or her. The Father's pruning is for the sake of growth, which suggests the eternal life is a very dynamic reality.

Jesus stresses the impossibility of producing this fruit apart from him (vv. 4-5). People are able to produce much without God, including converts, good deeds and even prophesies, exorcisms and miracles (cf. Mt 7:22-23; Ridderbos 1997:517). But the divine life such as we see in Jesus is dependent on God's own character, power and guidance at work in the life of the disciple. Jesus did not will nor speak nor act from himself; neither is the branch capable of bearing fruit "from itself" (v. 4, aph' heautou; NIV reads by itself). Hence Jesus' command to remain in me (v. 4).

The second part of this sentence is probably also a command. The Greek simply says, "Remain in me, and I in you"; the verb is left out of the second half. The NIV supplies a future and I will remain in you, which is a valid option. But the parallelism in verse 5 suggests that here also the two sides are balanced, and thus the dwelling of Christ in the believer is also an imperative (Barrett 1978:474). "In one sense the union itself, even the abiding of Christ, is made to depend upon the will of the believer" (Westcott 1908:2:199). At this point the vine imagery breaks down, since branches do not have consciousness and will. But the point is clear enough, for throughout this Gospel the human and the divine work together. The Father prunes and cleanses, and the Son has cleansed by his word, showing the Son's oneness with the Father (cf. Chrysostom In John 76.1). But the disciples themselves must make an effort to remain. Remaining is not simply believing in him, though that is crucial, but includes being in union with him, sharing his thoughts, emotions, intentions and power. In a relationship both parties must be engaged. The divine must take the initiative and provide the means and the ability for the union to take place, but it cannot happen without the response of the disciple.

The consequence of remaining is the bearing of much fruit (v. 5), but the consequence of not remaining is being cast out, withered, gathered and burned. This may be a reference to eschatological judgment (cf. 5:29), using imagery common in the Old Testament and Judaism (cf. Lang 1968:936-40) and in the Synoptics (for example, Mt 3:10 par. Lk 3:9; Mt 7:19; 13:40; Mk 9:43; cf. Lang 1968:942-46). Ezekiel 15 is especially relevant because it speaks of God's judgment against Jerusalem, his vine. The wood of the vine is useless except as fuel for a fire (Ezek 15:1-8). As Ezekiel shows, the image can refer to God's judgment whenever it takes place, not just at the end of time. Since John does not use such imagery elsewhere to refer to the final judgment, the reference here is probably not to the final judgment and hell (Beasley-Murray 1987:273). For John "it was punishment enough to be separated from Christ and God and therefore exposed to `withering' and death" (Schnackenburg 1982:101). The casting out "happens simultaneously with the cessation of the vital union with Christ. It is not a future consequence, as at the last judgement, but an inevitable accompaniment of the separation" (Westcott 1908:2:200). Such separation from God, the source of all light and life and love, is the essence of all judgment, whether eschatological or not. The ones who are so judged in this passage are those who have refused to remain in Christ. Like the opponents throughout the Gospel, they have rejected Jesus and thereby turned their backs on God and thus life itself. Their former intimacy with Jesus, such as it was, makes their rejection all the more worthy of judgment.

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