1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:1-5 ESV
Jesus and His disciples have now departed the upper room where they had eaten the Passover meal together. He is resolute in His determination to keep the providentially preordained rendezvous with the cross and death prepared for Him by His Heavenly Father. But the 11 disciples who remain, are still trying to get their heads around all that Jesus has been revealing to them. And even as they make their way into the night, He continues to expand their understanding and prepare them for what lies ahead.
This passage, which is part of Jesus’ ongoing farewell discourse, provides one of the most powerful descriptions of what it means to experience eternal life with God through the Son. Jesus borrows from the familiar imagery of the vineyard to create an extended metaphor designed to convey the non-negotiable dependency His followers must have in Him. As a result of His death, burial, and resurrection, these men will no longer be independently minded followers, but they will become totally reliant extensions of God’s glory as expressed through His Son.
Over a period of three years, these men had expressed their allegiance to Jesus by choosing to follow Him and sacrifice all else on behalf of Him. They had given up their careers, left their families, exposed themselves to ridicule, gone hungry, suffered life-threatening storms at sea, traveled countless miles, and listened to more lessons than they could even remember. They were dedicated men who loved Jesus greatly. On several occasions, they had even expressed their willingness to lay down their lives for Him. But Jesus knew that the key to their continued faithfulness and fruitfulness would be through His death and resurrection. The very thing they feared the most would be the one thing that would transform their lives and transcend all their expectations of greatness and glory.
So much of what Jesus has told His disciples has escaped them. And His continued discussions regarding His death had left them frightened and frustrated. They couldn’t understand why He had to die. They couldn’t bear the thought that He was going to leave them. But Jesus had told them that His death would prove to be life-giving and fruit-bearing.
“Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me.” – John 12:23-26 NLT
Extending this earlier discussion of death, life, and fruitfulness, Jesus declares, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1 ESV). This will be the last of His “I am” statements and, with it, Jesus conveys to His disciples that everything is about to change, including their relationship with Him.
The imagery of the vine would have been very familiar to the disciples, not just because they lived in an agrarian culture where vines were ubiquitous, but because the vine was a symbol of Israel’s relationship with God. Every time they passed by the temple in Jerusalem, they would have seen the golden vine that adorned its walls. But according to the prophets, the nation of Israel, planted by God to produce abundant fruit, ended up producing wild grapes.
Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes. – Isaiah 5:1-2 ESV
And Isaiah made it painfully clear that this lovingly planted vine that produced less-than-quality fruit represented the people of God.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry! – Isaiah 5:7 ESV
Now, Jesus was declaring Himself to be the vine. In doing so, He was letting His disciples know that He had replaced Israel as the sole source of fruitfulness. He would be the fulfillment of all that Israel should have been. His life would yield abundant fruit and bring glory to God. Israel had failed to remain faithful. They had refused to keep their preferred status as God’s chosen people and chose instead to worship false gods. And the prophet Jeremiah declared to them God’s displeasure.
But I was the one who planted you,
choosing a vine of the purest stock—the very best.
How did you grow into this corrupt wild vine? – Jeremiah 2:21 NLT
But with this final “I am” statement, Jesus lets His disciples know that He is the true vine. He has been faithful and fully obedient to the will of God, the vinedresser. He was “planted” by God with a purpose in mind: to bear much fruit. And Jesus, by sacrificing His life, would fulfill that purpose by producing a “plentiful harvest of new lives” (John 12:24 NLT).
And the most amazing aspect of Jesus’ fruit-bearing ministry is the vital role His disciples will play. They will become the branches through which His life-giving, fruit-bearing ministry will flow. But it will require constant abiding on their part. The key to their role in producing fruit will be in their dependence upon the vine. And Jesus utilizes the imagery of the vinedresser or gardener tending His vines to convey exactly what He means.
“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he [the vinedresser] takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” – John 15:2 ESV
There has been much debate over the centuries as to what Jesus means in these verses. Is stating that a fruitless branch is taken away, is He describing a believer’s loss of salvation? This idea would stand in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the Scriptures regarding the believer’s assurance of salvation. Jesus goes on to describe these fruitless branches as worthless and destined for destruction.
“Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned.” – John 15:6 NLT
Again, is Jesus suggesting that believers who fail to produce fruit will be removed from their relationship with Him and turned over to eternal judgment? That seems highly unlikely, based on His own admission to His Father that He had not “lost” any of those the Father had given Him.
“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction…” – John 17:12 ESV
It is important to remember that Jesus is addressing the 11 disciples who have chosen to remain with Him. They are walking with Him as He makes His way across the Kidron Valley from the city of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane. These men represent all those who have placed their faith and hope in Jesus. But Jesus is revealing that the real key to their future fruitfulness and faithfulness will be the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. As a result of His coming death, resurrection, and ascension, they will find themselves the recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit. He will permanently attach them to the vine, allowing them to play a vital role in the fruit-bearing plans of God.
The emphasis in this passage in on fruitfulness, not fruitlessness. It is on the vinedresser’s purpose to reap a harvest of fruit through the vine and its branches. Jesus was not threatening His disciples with a loss of salvation. He was simply conveying that their future relationship with Him would be all about fruit-bearing. To not bear fruit would be illogical and unacceptable. The very fact that He describes God as the vinedresser who “prunes” the branches so they can bear even more fruit reinforces His point.
He calls His disciples to remain or abide in Him.
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.” – John 15:4 NLT
This had immediate application, as the disciples faced the uncertainty of the circumstances surrounding them. Jesus knew that the next few hours were going to be trying and He was calling them to remain faithful, continuing to believe in who He was. In a sense, they were about to be pruned, as God cut away all their preconceived notions regarding the Messiah. In just a matter of hours, all their lofty hopes and aspirations that Jesus would establish His Kingdom on earth would be shattered. But Jesus pleads with them to remain.
From the other gospel accounts, we know that the disciples would end up deserting Jesus. When the authorities came to arrest Jesus, they would flee into the night. But there is a sense in which they remained. They stayed nearby. They stayed together. There maintained a feint flicker of hope as they faced an unknown and uncertain future.
But Jesus was assuring them that their days of fruitfulness were not over. He would still use them to do great things. But the primary lesson they were going to learn from it all was their total reliance upon Jesus for all things. They could produce no fruit apart from Him. And their lives after His return to heaven would be marked by complete dependence upon Him.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.