John (Part 54): The Vine and the Branches (ch 15)
Although the discussion continues about relationship, Jesus shifts the focus from his relationship with the Father (God) to the disciples’ relationship with him. Verses 1 through 8 of chapter 15 provide an illustration of how the relationship with Jesus works. Jesus presents himself as the vine and God as the vineyard keeper. Although Jesus will be talking about the disciples’ relationship in him, the mention of God as the vineyard keeper is meant to show that the whole of the relational structure comes from God’s provision and care.
The illustration and interpretation seems simple. Jesus is the vine. Branches are people. If the branches produce fruit (good works), they remain in the vine. If the branches do not produce good works, they are broken off by the vineyard keeper and tossed away to be burned. The difficulty with a simple view of this simple illustration is that it would seem that the branch in the vine equates to salvation. But, then, it is these branches in the vine (the saved) who still must produce fruit (perform good works) or God will break them off, or in other words, cause them to lose their salvation. While the Arminian nods in satisfaction with this interpretation, the Faith Electionist looks on in alarm. Rehearsing in mind other comments by Jesus (especially in John 3), God (especially in Isaiah), and Paul (especially Romans 7-8), we find that losing salvation is not an interpretive option for this illustration. The simple interpretation appears to be a false one.
Many Arminians may argue from an Ockham’s Razor point of view to say the simple interpretation is the best. Certainly, Jesus wouldn’t be throwing in compounded complexities in picturing a relationship that he wants them to understand, would he? Well, no. Jesus does want the disciples to understand relationship. This is not one of those situations in which the Bible tells us that Jesus is intentionally speaking in parables so that the unbelieving would not understand (Matthew 13:13). However, although Jesus is not intent on giving some complex imagery simply to make his point more difficult, it very well could be that the relationship idea itself is a little more complicated than a black-white, saved-not saved teeter-totter approach. If our mindset can’t see past a saved-or-not-saved classification when describing relationship, we will tend to want to interpret everything according to that neat, limited classification viewpoint. But relationship with God through Jesus, we have already found, is more complex than that. We must bear in mind who God is and how he operates alongside with who we are as image bearers and how we, then, operate. Keep the following chart in mind.
These categories of essence and activity are essential to a proper understanding of God’s interest in relationship. God is truth, goodness, and beauty. Those are his essential qualities. He confirms them within himself by his faithful assent to them and hopeful expectation to be and operate by them. And his expression of love is the revealing and providing of his truth, goodness, and beauty. For relationship’s sake, then, God necessarily made us as image bearers, able to comprehend his truth, goodness, and beauty through a conceptual intelligence, conscious morality, and critical aesthetic. We assent to that TGB apprehended with a concluding faith, and look forward in hope to that TGB being the constant and reward in our continuing future. And, importantly, just as God communicated his TGB to us in love, we also are made to reflect his understood and tightly held TGB through love back to him and to others. It is this pattern, then, that is the heart of relationship. It is this resulting love on which Jesus told us that all the Law and Prophets rested (Matthew 22:40). And it is this pattern of truth, goodness, and beauty flowing through God, Jesus, and his disciples that Jesus is emphasizing in this discussion AND in this vine and branches illustration.
The first thing we should realize, then, about the “simple” interpretation is that we may not fully have appreciated what the fruit represented. Simply equating the fruit with good works is not what Jesus has been communicating about works through this passage. In this passage, Jesus has presented works he has done (14:10-11) and commands he expects the disciples to follow (13:34; 14:15, 21). But his emphasis on both his works and the disciples’ obedience in following commands has nothing to do with meritorious service by which to earn anything. Jesus’s point has always been that these works and resultant obedience are indicators showing a relationship that is already in place—both his with the Father, and the disciples’ with him. In just a few verses later, Jesus will tie the fruit to obedience to his command in this way: “I appointed you that you should go out and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain. . . . This is what I command you: Love one another” (15:16b-17). So, then, Jesus clearly explains that the fruit of his illustration is the love that the disciples will be able to show and share precisely because they are nourished through Jesus the vine. Refer back to the chart. The truth, beauty, and goodness of God comes to us through God’s revelation in love (Jesus). We then are able also to love based on receiving God’s TGB through his love communication—the Word—Jesus. That’s the flow of the vine/branches analogy.
We still may wonder about the breaking off of the branches that don’t produce the love fruit. There is a similar illustration that Paul uses. His, however, involves an olive tree as opposed to the grape vine of Jesus’s illustration. But I think if we examine Paul’s illustration, it may help us with a fuller understanding of the grapevine.
In Romans 11, Paul discusses the hardening of the Jews as the means by which Gentiles are able to be brought to God. But, Paul’s point is that although the Jews were hardened, their hardening at the time of Jesus’s ministry did not disqualify Jews from still being able to gain the same salvific relationship that the Gentiles realized. I’m going to step through the ideas of Paul’s argument before we look at his illustration.
Jews were hardened. That means that God had moved back his influence on the Jews, based on their rejection in twisting God’s previous revelation to them—choosing to see the revelation in a selfish, self-gratifying manner. (Note: this is the normal pattern of God in engaging with his image bearers. He moves first providing revelation. If that revelation is rejected, he steps away (as in Romans 1). If that revelation is accepted in faith, he moves forward (as in James 4:8).) Because the Jews were hardened, they did not believe Jesus was from God on mission to bring them to God. Instead they crucified him.
But the hardening of the Jews that led to the crucifixion of Jesus offered to the Gentile nations that opportunity to have relationship with God, because the crucifixion of Jesus was necessary for such a relationship. This fulfilled the Scripture’s prophecy of the nations being part of the Zion purpose (e.g., Isaiah 60:3). But even though the Jews had been hardened, the fact of Jesus’s crucifixion also benefitted them in the same way as it had the Gentiles. Through the crucifixion, they too were offered the opportunity to have relationship with God. And thus, with the fullness (or fulfilling of the Gentiles’ inclusion) and the opportunity for the Jews, even though they had been hardened for a time, all the people of God could come into community of life in God—the true Israel of God.
Paul explains this through the illustration of the olive tree. In his example, the root of the olive tree is covenant relationship with God. Taking a step back, we know that this covenant relationship Paul is speaking of is NOT covenant of life relationship. The Covenant of Life, which God made with Adam, was broken by Adam, resulting in death. And thus, all Adam’s offspring inherited death—broken Covenant of Life relationship. But in God’s redemptive plan, God chose Abraham, because of his faith—belief in the revelation of God—as the founding basis for a series of covenantal interaction with humankind to bring the Messiah Rescuer into the world to accomplish redemption. Thus, Abrahams offspring, the Jews, continued through the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, and the Davidic Covenant in the redemptive revelation by God toward his ultimate purpose. It is this covenantal series of relationship which the Jews enjoyed with God that is the olive tree root in Paul’s illustration. But Jews grew hard. They resisted. They took God’s promises and twisted them to selfish purpose. As a result, they are the branches broken off from the olive tree. They are cut off from God’s covenantal series to redemption. But because of their hardening, they rejected Jesus and crucified him, allowing opportunity for the Gentiles. These Gentiles are the wild olive branches grafted into the root of the covenantal series to redemption. But even those Jews broken off because of unbelief could also be grafted back in through faith.
Now, notice that Paul is dealing with the covenantal series to redemption and two groups: the Jews and the Gentiles. Jesus, in his grapevine illustration, is not dealing with two groups. At that point in the upper room (or wherever they were at this point of the conversation), they were still at a point prior to the crucifixion—prior to the New Covenant being realized. Thus, being in the vine does not mean New Covenant of Life salvation (as the “simple” interpretation had thought). It is the last and ultimate revelation of God in the covenantal series to redemption. Therefore, those (Jews) who did believe in God’s covenantal provision through Abraham and Moses, but who ended up rejecting Jesus, had cut short God’s revelation to them. They then could not love because of their rejecting God’s TGB in Jesus. Without love, they had no fruit. These, then, who rejected Jesus, who would have no fruit, would be broken off—exactly as Paul had explained of the Jews in his olive tree example.
This then is Jesus’s point in telling the disciples that they were “clean” and in urging the disciples to “remain” in him. Being “clean” did not mean being saved. The disciples would have understood what being “clean” meant. The whole religious system had countless washings for purification. It was a constant temple activity. It was a constant life activity (for the sick, after menstrual periods, after touching a dead body, even ceremonially before eating every meal). You needed purification to be in a position to have covenantal relationship with God. For example, you had to be ceremonially clean to eat Passover. Jesus told the disciples that so far they had believed God’s revelation through Jesus. That was good. They were clean. But urging them to remain in him meant that more revelation was coming. He was about to be carried off to his death. They were not to give up. They were not to think, “Oh, so he’s not the one that will bring us to God after all.” No, they were to remain in him, believing. And as they did so—as they believed that TGB from God communicated through Christ in his death/resurrection—it would flow through and be made evident in their reflection of it through love. They would bear that fruit.
When Jesus said in verse 7 that whatever they wanted would be done for them, he shows its contingence on remaining in him. The reflection in love of God’s TGB, received through Jesus, is that for which the one who remains in him will ask, will be the much fruit produced, and will be what glorifies God.
Verses 9 through 17 of chapter 15 bring this discussion to its climactic focus. We find this passage emphasizing the heart and purpose for this entire relationship sequence. That which bonds us together in relationship is God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. The activity of bonding in this TGB is love. And the result of that bonding is joy.
Verses 9 through 10 show the sequence. God loves Jesus. Jesus loves us. We are to love each other. Of course, the love flows back and forward and among all parties, but this sequence is meant to show how it comes about. It necessarily starts with God. It is the TGB that is his essence that begins the flow. And we are able to experience love only because it has flowed to us through Jesus. We read this exact idea in one of John’s letters: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And this flow of TGB through love, we are told, produces joy. Jesus spoke—he revealed—he loved. And his revelation of love was so that the disciples’ joy could be complete. How exactly would it be complete? It would not be complete simply because Jesus loved, but rather because Jesus’s love enabled them to also love. As they loved (like Jesus did in communicating God’s TGB), their joy would be complete.
Returning to John’s first epistle, we find that spelled out for us in its prologue. John speaks of observing, seeing, touching, hearing the Word of life—Jesus in his revelation of love. But this, which was revealed to the disciples, John explains, they have in turn declared it to their hearers. And through this declaration, he concludes in verse 4, their joy (the disciples’ joy) is made complete.
Verse 4 in the KJV reads, “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” This is not the original. It appears to be a correction by later copyists in later manuscripts. The confusion came from the Greek, which literally says something like this: “This we are writing—we—that our joy may be complete.” Apparently some copyists thought the repeated “we” stuck in the middle should have been “you,” so that the sense was “we are writing to you.” And this change, of course, necessitated also changing the “our joy” to “your joy.” But earlier texts discovered showed that the original most likely was the repeated “we” and the corresponding “our joy.” The repeated “we” was for emphasis. John was explaining this flow of love and joy that we have been discussing. Jesus enabled John and the disciples to have their joy made complete by the ability given to not only receive the word but to give it out as well. So John writes that as he and the disciples repeat in love for others the revelation of God, it completes their joy.