John 15:1-8

Recently I found a branch lying underneath a tree outside our home, seemingly been broken off by the wind. The leaves have all started to wither and die.

What if I took these branches, planted them, and watered them daily? Would they live? No, because branches get their nutrients from the tree. Without the tree, there will never be life, no leaves, and no fruit. If I plant it, fertilise and water it, it won’t come back to life, it will just be an old stick in the mud.

This is the lesson the Lord taught His disciples as prepared to leave the Upper Room, and walk past the many vineyards on His way to Gethsemane.

The vine with its branches is a perfect picture of the relationship that comes from sharing a common life. 2,000 years have passed since then, but the lessons Jesus taught are just as relevant today. How can we live fruitful lives? The answer is in these verses.

The branches, the fruit, the vine, and the gardener all interact with each other. The critical word is “abide,” used fifteen times in ten verses. It indicates a relationship. Only those who are saved have a relationship with the Father and can bear spiritual fruit.

The elements of the story are:

a) The Vine
Christ is the True Vine. Only He possesses life within Himself (Jn 14:6). All other vines are counterfeit. He alone is the true source of everlasting, abundant life.

b) The Gardener
The word “husbandman” is an old English word meaning, “free tenant farmer,” of yeoman. Here it refers to the vine dresser, the gardener, who has the responsibility of caring for the vine. Jesus says that His Father is the Gardener.

It is the Gardener who benefits from the vine. When the vine bears fruit, he is praised for what He has accomplished. The Vine, the branches, the soil, and even the fruit do not get the credit. All the glory goes to the gardener. Just as the Lord’s life was devoted to bringing glory to His Father, so should ours. “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).

c) The Branches
The branches are the followers of Christ – hence the key phrase in “in me” – “Every branch in me…” (15:2). These are true believers. He isn’t speaking about those who profess but have never possessed Christ.

The branches are all expected to bear fruit. This is why the phrase “bear fruit” occurs repeatedly in this passage.

The reason for producing fruit is that the gardener might receive honour. In order to bear fruit the branch must be:

(i) Attached to the Vine. If I am not attached, I cannot share its life.

(ii) Abide in the Vine (15:4-5). There must be free flow (fellowship) between the branch and the vine, so His life can flow through me to produce fruit. A branch, united with the vine, will always bear fruit.

(iii) Available to the Vine (15:5). Fruit bearing is a passive activity. The branch simply abides in the Vine. Fruit-bearing is His responsibility.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman” (15:1). Here are:

a) A Picture
The Bible presents three plant pictures of Israel: the vine, the fig tree, and the olive tree.

(i) The Vine – representing Israel as a witness for God in the past (Ps 80:8,9, Is 5:1,7).

(ii) The Fig Tree – representing the nation in the present age.

(iii) The Olive Tree – representing a repentant and restored Israel, bearing fruit for God in the future (Rom 11:16-26).

b) A Parable
In Mat 21:33-46 the Lord told a parable that pictured Israel as God’s vine which He had planted in the Promised Land, and entrusted it to a series of divinely appointed leaders. His servants, sent to assess the investment, were ill-treated or murdered. Last of all, He had sent His Son, and they were now preparing to murder Him. Judgement was unavoidable.

All this pictures Israel who would be temporarily set aside. Instead the church would be the object of God’s attention in the present age.

c) A Principle
“I am the true vine.” “True” is a John word. It means “genuine.” John the Baptist was a reflecting light, but Christ is the “true light.” Moses gave bread in the wilderness, but the Lord is the “true bread.” Now He was saying Israel was not the “true vine” – Jesus is. Their identification with the Jewish nation and religion was irrelevant. Relationship with Christ is what matters

Note that these branches are “in me” – in Christ. Salvation is summed up in the phrase “in Christ.” This chapter has to do with fruit-bearing and witness; not with salvation and eternal security.

The Lord identified two kinds of branches:

a) Fruitless Branches
“Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away” (15:2). Who are these fruitless branches? The Lord was addressing only believers – even Judas had already gone.

The Gardener deals with every branch in Him that bears no fruit (15:2). “He taketh away” can also mean “lift up.” He “lifts up” the fruitless earthbound vine to encourage it to bear fruit. If it doesn’t it is removed. He does not loses his salvation, but he is removed from the place of usefulness. Was this what happened at Ephesus?

When a vine is fruitless, there will be at least three results.

(i) Loss of Fellowship (15:6). It shares the same nature as the Vine, but it is no longer abiding and drawing fellowship.

(ii) Loss of Vitality. There is a deadness where there used to be life, weakness where once there was power.

(iii) Loss of Reward. What sadness will unfruitful Christians experience at the Judgement Seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:13-15).

b) Fruitful Branches
“Every branch that beareth fruit, he purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit” (15:2).

Note that the quality and quality of what we produce are not our responsibility. Our duty is to abide. What is good fruit? It includes

(i) Christian Character (Gal 5:22-23).

(ii) Christian Service (“being fruitful in every good work,” Col 1:10),

(iii) Christian Mission (Phil 1:22), sharing Christ with others.

The Lord here describes a two sided process:

a) Our Side – Dependence
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (15:4). The lines of life in the vine run from the root to the farthest branch, giving vitality to each branch. Without the vine a branch is fruitless, lifeless, and useless.

Believers are never exhorted to be “in Christ,” but are frequently exhorted to abide in Him. The word “abide” conveys the idea choosing to be intimately linked to Him which results in an intimate relationship between Christ and the believers. It involves the authority of God’s Word and constant contact with him by prayer. (15:7).

“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (15:7). A blank cheque? God is too loving and too wise to put the key to His treasury into the hands of carnal Christians. As we abide in Him we learn His will, and partner with God in accomplishing His plan for the world.

The promise of prayer in 15:7 depends on two things: “if ye abide in me,” maintaining heart communion with Christ, and “my words abide in you,” the life regulated by the Scriptures.

b) His Side – Discipline
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (15:5). When the Gardener sees a fruit-bearing branch, he pays special attention to it and “purges it.”

The Gardener uses three methods of purging or purifying his vineyard:

(i) He Challenges the Branch – “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, He taketh away” (15:2). “Taketh away” means “to lift up” or “to raise higher.” The Gardener lifts the branch from the dirt into which it has fallen and gives it a better chance to be productive. The Lord may have to touch our lives and lift us up to challenge us to growth. If He should so lift our lives, it is always a marvellous proof of His love, and our relationship to Him (Heb. 12:8).

(ii) He Cleanses the Branch. “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (15:3). The farmer lifts up and washes his vine to remove any dirt, discoloured leaves, insects, or parasites that consume life but produce no fruit. So the Lord washes us with His Word so we may bear more fruit. This is not the cleansing of salvation; rather the daily cleansing by the Word.

(iii) He Cuts the Branch. Pruning removes all that harbours disease and decay, and will eventually destroy the vine. How is it done? By the Word of God (15:3) which condemns sin and aids holiness and growth. As we obey it, we undergo a process that removes hindrances to fruit-bearing. To neglect the Word may enable us to avoid the pruning process, but we miss the opportunity of fruitful life.

Pruning may mean the removal of whole bunches of grapes so that the crop will be of higher quality. Spiritual pruning may mean removing what is good and better to produce the best.

Pruning is an expert art. “Pruners” must be carefully trained or they can destroy an entire crop. Only the heavenly Gardener knows how much to cut away, where, and when to use the pruning hook.

The greatest judgment God could bring to a believer would be to let him alone, let him have his own way. It hurts when He removes something precious from us; but as the fruit is produced, we see the Father knew what He was doing.

A sculptor once fashioned a magnificent lion out of solid stone. When asked the secret, he replied, “I chipped away everything that didn’t look like a lion.” Pruning is God’s way of chipping away everything in our lives that doesn’t look like Christ.

“If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (15:6).

What does this mean? A severed branch withers and is cast into the fire to be burned. Note the change here in the pronouns. Up to this verse the emphasis is on “I, me, you.” Now “he, them, and they” are used. The “ye” referred to the disciples and those who are truly His. The “he, them, they,” refer to a different group.

Here the severed branches are carefully distinguished from the real ones. Judas was a severed branch. He was attached to the cause, but not to Christ. When the cause appeared to collapse he sold his Saviour, and died an apostate’s death. He represents those who attach themselves to the church but don’t know Christ.

The Lord’s warning here is strong, “men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” No clue is given as to who the “men” are, or what the “fire” is. The horror of it penetrates the conscience. Surely Judas and his imminent deed and his impending doom were in the Lord’s mind.

Christ’s declaration of being the True Vine signifies the importance of fruitfulness. He desires not only followers but fruit-bearers. The more we abide in Christ, the more fruit we bear; and the more fruit we bear, the more the Father deals with us so that the bigger crop also becomes a better crop.