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Life Together in Terms of a Vine

John 15:5 (ESV) … “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.

Deeper Study Passage: John 15:1–16:4

This chapter is about solidarity. A common theme through all the four Gospels is discipleship defined in terms of being ‘with Jesus’. John gives that concept clarity and meaning in this famous chapter, which describes the relationship with Jesus both as organic (the vine) and as friendship based on love. True disciples are those with the gift of constancy. They need to ‘remain’ in the vine and bear fruit (vv. 5, 8, 9 and 16).

It is well known that John does not contain any of the parables that we find in the other Gospels. However, in this passage on the vine, we come close to the sort of word-picture that we met in chapter 10 on the ‘good shepherd’.

Both the vine and the good shepherd images illuminate much of the teaching of this Gospel and help our understanding of the relationship between Jesus and his followers. The vine is a well-used image of the care that God lavishes on his people in the Old Testament. Isaiah 5 and Jeremiah 2:21 are the best-known examples. In both these passages the well-tended vine is unfruitful and deserving of harsh treatment. John’s presentation concentrates on the need for pruning both to cut out the dead wood and to ‘cleanse’ (v. 2) the rest so that it may bear more fruit. Palestinian vineyards required patient tending. It might be up to three years before any fruit could be expected. It is obvious that growth in discipleship depended on patient viniculture by the gardener (God) and remaining grafted into the main stock (Jesus). Tending or ‘cleansing’ has already been dealt with in the feet-washing incident in chapter 13. By implication, those who have broken away from the main stock are neither clean nor capable of bearing fruit and therefore have forfeited their right to inherit life. Judas represents this sort of errant disciple. Possibly he is being used by John as a reminder to his first readers that the worst thing that could happen is for a disciple to break away from the close fellowship they experience as part of the ‘vine’.

In order to sustain this solidarity, the disciple is encouraged to follow the example of Jesus, who inspires his followers to love one another in the way he has loved them. The proof of that love is demonstrated by Jesus in the sacrificial laying down of his life for them who are no longer described as disciples or sheep but as ‘friends’ (v. 13). So the link is established between this chapter with its use of the vine image and that of chapter 10 when the good shepherd is said to lay down his life for the sheep (v. 11). The relationship between the shepherd and his sheep is one of protection and care. That has now developed into a covenant relationship of reciprocal love and friendship between the shepherd and his sheep. This is the central theme of the rest of the ‘farewell discourse’. The section began with a reference to the love Jesus had for the disciples (13:1). It will conclude with Jesus praying that ‘the love with which the Father had for him may be in the disciples and he in them’ (17:26). They are chosen for the purpose of bearing fruit which will last. They are to be the abiding testimony to the teachings of Jesus. This concept of indwelling in the mind of Jesus and being privy to the words of the Father is very like the thinking in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he encourages his readers to have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:4).

This section on the importance of the love commandment ends with warnings about the cost of such love. Jesus has already demonstrated the length to which he is willing to go in order to express his love for the disciple. We have seen the opposition of the authorities resulting in expulsion from the synagogue for the man born blind; now Jesus warns the disciples to expect the same fate (v. 20 and 16:2). Jesus is presented in full prophetic mode, conveying to the disciples the words of God concerning the future which is now a present reality to the first readers of this Gospel.[1]

[1] McFadyen, P. (1998). Open Door on John: a gospel for our time (pp. 92–94). London: Triangle.

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