How Is Jesus the True Vine?

The seventh and last of the “I am” sayings of Jesus—“I am the true vine” (John 15:1)—is arguably the most enigmatic of them all (at least to gentile readers). The temptation for many readers (and preachers) is to view this language purely as a metaphor for how we are to flourish and be fruitful individually as Christians, but that is not how it would have registered with Jesus’ original audience, all of whom were Jews.

Everything about this statement would have sent the minds of the Jewish listeners racing back to their Hebrew Bibles, where the imagery of the vine runs through the unfolding history of redemption in God’s dealings with Israel. So, as the weight of Jesus’ language began to settle on them, they could only be astonished by what Jesus was daring to say about Himself in terms of its fulfilment.

In the book of Psalms, the psalmist speaks about how Israel came into being as a nation by saying,

You [God] brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.” (Ps. 80:8)

The prophet Isaiah, warning Israel of their spiritual backsliding, uses the language of a vineyard planted and tended by God but which had grown wild and unfruitful (Isa. 5:1–6). Jeremiah uses the same language (Jer. 2:21). It was beautiful but also poignant imagery.

The whole story of Israel as the people of God is laced with evidence of God’s love and care for them. He chose them from eternity, redeemed them from slavery, led them through the wilderness, and provided them with a land of their own. He gave them all they needed to not only prosper spiritually as a nation, but also to be His instrument of blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen. 12:3). But they squandered His gift and drifted from the God to whom they owed their existence.

None of this would have been lost on Jesus’ disciples when He spoke of the vine in relation to Himself. Just as the collective identity of the multitudes of God’s people in Israel was rooted in God their deliverer, and their spiritual vitality and fruitfulness was rooted in their union and communion with Him as Lord and Savior, so now, in an even more glorious way, the promises God had made were fulfilled in Christ.

The mindset of many Christians today is often shaped by post-Enlightenment individualism, focusing primarily on ourselves and seeing our own story as paramount. But this mindset is contrary to the teaching of the Bible. The emphasis of Scripture is not merely on what we are in ourselves but on what we are corporately and collectively in our new life in salvation. Jesus uses the imagery of the vine and its branches to portray the relationship between Him and His people. His disciples knew precisely what He was saying—not least in relation to the spiritual fruitfulness to which union with Him must inevitably lead.

It is noteworthy that Jesus’ first application of the image of His being the true vine concerns those who give the appearance of being His followers but are not: “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he [God the Father] takes away” (John 15:2). He is speaking of those who give the appearance of being Christians through outward involvement in church but whose profession of faith is not genuine. They lack evidence of what Paul later calls the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23).

Jesus goes on to speak of the grounds on which people are incorporated into Him as the true vine when He says, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). His word, spoken in the gospel, is first of all declarative. It assures those who believe not only of pardon but also of purification through His justifying grace. It is His once-for-all pronouncement of a new standing with God.

However, as is often pointed out by theologians, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone.” Faith is inseparably joined to the grace of sanctification. The new legal standing we have before God through His pardon and acceptance must go on to manifest itself in the evidence of His transforming grace in our lives. He conforms us progressively to the image of His Son, our Savior Jesus.

But often, as is echoed in the teaching of Scripture elsewhere, this growth and fruitfulness of our new life comes at a cost. The Father “prunes” the branches to make them more fruitful (John 15:2). Through the rigors of providence and through the struggles of life, God weans us off self-reliance and teaches us to “abide” ever more fully in His Son.

It is striking that Jesus provides the key to understanding what “abiding” in Him means in practice: we are to abide in Him and His words are to abide in us (John 15:7). The evidence of this will be seen in our prayer life as we lay our needs before God and see His answer to our prayers.

The bottom line is that we as Christ’s disciples are to abide in His love (John 15:9). It was this one detail that embedded itself in the consciousness of Paul, poignantly captured in his declaration to the Galatians, “He [Christ] loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Christ’s love for him was the soil in which Paul’s love for Christ flourished and grew. May it be the same for all of us who are united to Christ, the true vine.

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Ligonier Ministries

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