The True Vine
By Craig Rushforth
The true vine Reading John 15, 17 and 18
“I am the true vine” – John records these words at the beginning of the chapter 15. This whole chapter and the next one consist of Jesus’ words to his disciples during the short hours between the institution of the feast that we commemorate this morning at the last supper and the arrest of the Lord Jesus – to be followed by his trial and crucifixion.
This was a time when the disciples would probably not understand all that Jesus said to them – and they may have found his actions very confusing. But when the resurrection had taken place and they had received the Holy Spirit they would have looked back at this time knowing the full implications of Jesus’ words. Can we for example imagine what they made of Jesus’ words when he said to them “This is my body which is given for you” as he handed them each a piece of the bread from the Passover table? Or “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” as he gave them the wine? Would they have understood Jesus saying that he was going to his Father and he would send the comforter? Or when he said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” John 16:16 Of course they didn’t understand. As you know John’s gospel records much more of what Jesus said than do the synoptics – and in doing so John records perhaps some of the more enigmatic sayings of Jesus. But there were some words, which in the midst of all this confusion, they may well have been able to understand. “I am the true vine”
What prompted Jesus to make this analogy? Perhaps they had passed a vine by the roadside as they walked. Or perhaps they had been looking up at Herod’s temple which apparently had a vine carved above the great door. But perhaps most likely it was that Jesus was thinking back to the meal that they had just shared and the wine – the fruit of the vine – which they had all taken in symbol of his blood which was shortly to be shed. The disciples would surely have recognised the Old Testament ideas, which Jesus was alluding to. Several times in the Old Testament Israel is compared to a vine. Psalm 80:8-11 Israel was God’s vine, planted and tended by him. But all was not well: Psalm 80:12-16
The prophets take up this theme and Hosea supplies that answer to the psalmists plea – why has God forsaken his vine: Hosea 10:1-2
As you may be aware the vine as a tree is only really good for one thing – it’s fruit. The fruit that makes the “wine that gladdens the heart of man” with, which we remember Jesus this morning. If the vine does not produce that fruit it is a worthless plant. Such was the nation of Israel: Isaiah takes up this theme in his chapter 5: Isaiah 5:1-7.
Jesus then takes up this Old Testament analogy when he says “I am the true vine” – and my father is the husbandman. The word true is the Greek word alhqinos (alethinos) meaning true or genuine. Jesus was contrasting himself and his followers with the worthless vine of the people of ancient Israel. Jesus was the genuine vine; the true Israel; the firstfruits of the new creation – a creation of a people who would honour God and bring forth fruit for him. Jesus continues in John 15 (read v 2)
“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful.”
But who or what are the branches? Verse 5 tells us “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The branches are those who are ‘in Christ’. And if those branches do not bring forth fruit they are taken away – their only function is to bring forth fruit and if they do not they are useless – fit for nothing.
The NIV rather loses the real sense of the passage here – in using the expression ‘trims clean’ it perhaps slightly misrepresents the sense of the original Greek. The word in the original iskaqairw (kathairo) which does mean cleansing or purging as the AV translates it. It is cognate with our English word catharsis – which of course is a purging, usually used in an emotional sense. So rather than the act of pruning the vine Jesus is referring to the practice, apparently common in viticulture, of scrubbing the branches of the vine with soap and water to rid them of damaging fungus.
Jeremiah uses a similar figure with reference to the vine of Israel in 2:21-22: And so Jesus says –
“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”
It is easy to see an immediate application of these words of Jesus. At this point Jesus had been with his disciples for the last three years during which he had nurtured and cleansed them as branches of the true vine. Judas however had not really responded to the nurturing and cleansing – even as Jesus spoke these words about the true vine he had gone off on his mission of betrayal. He had been unfruitful and he was to be cut out from the true vine. The other disciples however responded to the cleansing words of Jesus and would soon bring forth much fruit. But how does this apply to us?
If we are Christ’s then we too are the branches of the true vine. Obviously if we fail to bring forth fruit - the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, if we fail to bring these out in our lives we are cut off from Christ both as a cause and a result of that failure. But hopefully we show in some small measure the fruit of our convictions:- How then are we purged? And cleansed? Jesus says that his disciples were made clean through the word which he had spoken. Are not we purged in the same way?
When we hear Christ’s words, through our reading and meditation on the words of the gospel, so often we see ourselves in new light, and we begin to see more of our failings and having seen them we hopefully try to remove them.
And so we are purged by the reading of scripture and the meditation on the life that we should lead - and how perilous it is to neglect that reading and contemplation. By doing so we refuse the attention of the husbandman, and as the vine that’s not cleansed quickly develops the fungus that stops it being fruitful, so we too are soon overtaken by the cares of life, by the things of this world. How can we then bring forth fruit to him? Jesus goes on to show the closeness of the fellowships between himself and his followers.
Notice that Jesus is the whole vine; not just the stem but the whole tree. His followers are part of the tree - part of him and so he says, “Remain in me and I will remain in you.” Emphasising the oneness of Jesus with his followers. Do we abide in Christ? Do his words abide in us? Are we so at one with him? We must all be to some extent in Christ. Some of us are stronger more fruitful branches whilst others are the young and tender branches who have yet to bring forth much fruit. Some of us probably feel more ‘in Christ’ than others. There are times in all of our lives when our faith seems to fail us – and we don’t feel close to our Lord Jesus and to his Father. But he is there, and is waiting for us to come back to him – waiting to tend us as the husbandman tends the vine.
And every branch needs tending. We all need the fellowship with Christ and with our brethren and sisters. And it is a unity which must be preserved. Jesus goes on in the chapter to show how the branches of the true vine should behave to one another. Please read verses 12 & 13. Here we have another of those statements which can not have meant much to the disciples at the time but in retrospect was very poignant.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And we are his friends if we do what he commanded us. And the wonder of the gift of God is expressed in verse 16 “You did not choose me but I have chose you” - the reference is obvious to his immediate disciples. But it is to us also! And which of us hasn’t wondered “Why me?” Why out of all the millions in the world should God choose me? We sing “Was it for me thy flesh was wounded sore?” Such is the grace and mercy of God! It was for me – and for you – for each one of us who remembers Jesus this morning!
And so we come to remember Jesus in the way appointed. The true vine, who has given us the true wine. His blood shed for our sins; to cover our iniquities; to bring us back to the Father. “Greater love has no man than this…” As we do so we look forward to the day when the prophet says (Micah 4v4) every man shall sit under his own vine…
And we, if we now become part of the true vine and absorb Christ into ourselves; we will sit with him in his Kingdom and drink with him the new wine.
Brother Craig Rushforth – Peasedown, England 22.4.07
Giving preference to the Word of God instead of the word of people and traditions.