Exegesis of John 15:1-11: The Vine and Branches

Disclaimer: This paper is the exclusive work of Pastor Brian Chilton.  This paper may not be copied and reused as one’s own work under any circumstances.  Quotations used from the paper are permissible so long as the quotations do not constitute the majority of one’s overall text.  Quotations used within this text must be given credit to the due author as established in “Turabian’s Manual for Writers.”  Any student who copies and turns in this work as his or her own is subject to the plagiarism penalties set forth by one’s institution of learning.  This paper serves as a reference and is for educational purposes only.

grapevine

INTRODUCTION

This paper will examine the pericope found in John 15:1-11.  The text presents a teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus presented Himself as a vine and Jesus’ followers as branches of the vine.  The pericope is divided into three sections: the discipline of unfruitfulness, in verses one through three; the source of fruitfulness, in verses four through six; and the results of fruitfulness, in verses seven through eleven.  The paper will first examine the discipline of unfruitfulness.

THE DISCIPLINE OF UNFRUITFULNESS

Jesus presents a metaphor comparing Himself to a vine and the disciples to the branches of the vine.  Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”[1]  The image of the vine was well-known to the Israelites of the first-century as the vine demonstrated God’s relationship with Israel. Craig Keener writes,

The Old Testament and Jewish literature sometimes portrayed Israel as a vineyard (e.g., Is 5:7), or less frequently as a vine (e.g., Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1), and God as the vinegrower.  A golden vine in the temple symbolized Israel’s power, and Jesus may here portray the disciples as the remnant of Israel…The most basic point of the imagery is the obvious dependence of branches on the vine for their continued life.[2]

While Keener is correct, the vine held more symbolic impact for the first-century Jew.  The issue of judgment was also associated with the vine metaphor.

Whitacre writes, “Most of these texts include the theme of God’s judgment against Israel; the vine has not proved fruitful in that Israel has been unfaithful.  The same use of these images is continued in the Synoptic Gospels…The image of the vine is thus almost always associated with the contrast between God’s ideal for his people and their falling short of it.”[3]  This would certainly be the case as Jesus later said, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away.”[4]  The ideal is broken in individuals that do not bear fruit.  The process of fruit-bearing is later described in the text.  Jesus also identifies Himself as the true vine as opposed to a false vine.  Fruitfulness was important to a vine-keeper as it was a means of financial support.  Watson describes the importance of the oenologist as he writes, “Wine could be make from pomegranates…, raisins…, apples, dates, honey, herbs and figs.  However, wine from grapes predominated…Wine was consumed at daily meals…Wine could be used for medicinal purposes…Wine is usually associated with feasting and celebration.”[5]  Therefore, a vineyard owner would be greatly concerned with the fruitfulness of one’s vines.  Likewise, God would be interested in the fruitfulness of God’s vineyard to an even greater degree.  So, how does Jesus identify Himself with the vine?

The Greek text reads, “Egw eimi Jh ampeloV Jh alhqinh.”[6]  The term “alhqinh”, or “alhqinoV,” means “words that conform to facts true, correct, dependable…what conforms to reality genuine, real, true…persons characterized by integrity and trustworthiness true, dependable.[7]  Therefore, Jesus is identifying Himself as the embodiment of the vine.  The nation of Israel would no longer be considered the vine of God.  Jesus would now assume that role.  The access to the Father and the gateway to life would be through Jesus.  Borchert writes, “In this metaphorical description the Father is still portrayed as the gardener, but Jesus is the Vine, not Israel, and the disciples, the followers of the way of God, are pictured as branches…Jesus, the Vine, appears to stand between the vineyard keeper/gardener and the branches as a kind of “mediator” of life and sustenance.”[8]  If Jesus was the vine that gave life and the ability to produce fruit, or traits of a virtuous life, what would happen to a branch that did not produce fruit?

Jesus did not tolerate unfruitfulness.  Mark records the following instance, “Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again!’ And His disciples were listening.”[9]  In the present passage in John, Jesus shows forth that unfruitful branches would be taken away.  Certainly, the fig tree cursing would have come to their mind.  What did this pruning entail?

It would seem that the pruning of branches would be the removal of those who were not producing fruit.  Barker and Kohlenberger write, “The means by which pruning or cleaning is done is the Word of God.  It condemns sin; it inspires holiness; it promotes growth.  As Jesus applies the words God gave him to the lives of the disciples, they undergo a pruning process that removes evil from them and conditions them for further service.”[10]  But, what constitutes the need for pruning?  It would appear that since Jesus is the link to life and the Father that a life lived outside of the body of Jesus would result in this pruning process.  Tasker would seem to agree, “The verb kathairo translated purgeth in verse 2 is better rendered, as in RSV, ‘prunes’.”[11]  In verse six, Jesus would go back to the topic of unfruitfulness.  Jesus shows the end result of unfruitfulness, “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”[12]  Borchert states, “The downside of the mashal here reaches its epitome.  Failure to produce fruit brings a severe warning concerning the end of unfruitfulness.  Employing the indefinite pronoun tis (“anyone, someone”), the evangelist separates any unfruitful person from the faithful, persevering, fruitful disciples/branches and indicates that such a person is thrown away and withers.”[13]  This would seem to be the case.  Fruit only comes from a branch’s healthy connection to a healthy vine.  When the branch’s connection is lost, no fruit can grow.  The illustration is pertinent and forthright.  When a kudzu-branch wrapping around a tree loses the connection with the root, the branch withers, dies, and falls from the tree.  The branch can then be removed and disposed.  This is the image presented by Jesus of the one who has no solid connection with the vine.  In contrast, a healthy connection produces fruit as will be seen in the next section.

THE SOURCE OF FRUITFULNESS

Jesus showed that the source of fruitfulness was found in a relationship in Him which also connected one to the Father.  This connection, however, also brings forth a major theological question.  It is an age-old question that has divided Christian denominations for centuries.  What is this process of fruit-bearing?  Stamm writes, “Before we offer ourselves and our fruitbearing as a medium for God’s growing revelation we need to make sure that our wheat is not the cheat that springs up whenever the Christ of faith is severed from the Jesus of history. John recognizes that God’s revelation is conditioned by man’s ability, readiness, and willingness to receive the truth by doing the truth.”[14]  The last statement especially applies in this context.  The text indicates that it is the reciprocal nature of God’s relationship with an individual that produces fruit.  Yet, there is a larger theological question.  Can one sever this tie with God?

If a person could sever the relational tie with God after the relationship began, then some would argue that salvation could be defaulted.  Tasker writes, “Unwillingness, through a proud sense of self-sufficiency, to draw spiritual strength from Jesus, flow of this vitalizing power, renders the so-called believer a dead branch unable to bear fruit.”[15]  If Tasker is correct in the assessment that a dead branch relishes in the self, can one who claims to believe in Christ but remains totally depends upon the self be called an actual disciple of the Lord?  Is this a question of one losing salvation or an issue of one having never received the gift offered to the world through Christ Jesus?  One hint that is given to the reader is found in the use of the term “abide.”

The New American Standards translates verse 5 with, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”[16]  The New International Version translates the same verse with, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”[17]  The translators chose a different term in explaining this connection with Christ.  The New American Standard’s translators chose “abide” whereas the New International Version’s translators chose the term “remain.”  In the Greek text, the word “menwn” is used.[18]  “Menwn,” or “menw” is defined as “remain, abide”…in a more permanent sense dwell, live, lodge…of persons continuing on through time last, remain, continue to live.”[19]  The word “menw” does not necessarily help one in the interpretation of the theological problem.  In order to understand the context of the term, one must examine the understanding of the term in Jesus’ time.  Kynes writes of the term,

As a common translation of the Greek verb menein, “to abide” has rich theological associations in the Fourth Gospel where 40 of the 112 NT occurrences of the verb occur…It is used to communicate the enduring character of Christ, and more importantly, when used with the preposition “in” and a personal object, it points to the relationship of mutual indwelling of the Father, the Son and the believer…”Abiding in Christ” assumes the most intimate union possible.  The identification of Jesus with the true vine (15:1), a symbol of Israel (cf. Hos 10:1; Jer 2:21; Ps 80:9-12, 15-16; Is 5:7), in which the disciples are to abide, suggests a corporate dimension to his person that has important Christological implications.[20]

Keener writes, “Dead, fruitless branches of vines are obviously of no use for carpentry; their only possible value is for fuel.  Jewish teachers believed that God had awful punishments in store for apostates, because those who had known the truth and then rejected it had no excuse.”[21]  The question is; would this understanding have inclined the first-century listener to believe that salvation was dynamic or static in its application?  In other words, is salvation based upon the keeping of certain criteria or is the union full and complete?  There still remains some mystery as to how this would have been understood.  A strong case could be made that the text calls for an interpretation that would lend itself to the possibility of the loss of salvation.  However, this writer takes a different approach.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”[22]  In 2 Peter, it is written, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”[23]  Therefore, is the issue about the loss of salvation of the believer or the pruning process of those who were intended to come to salvation, but refused the grace of God offered to them?  It would seem that Judas was being referenced in the teaching of Jesus as Judas would have been in attendance when this message was given.  But this begs the question, was Judas ever truly a follower of Jesus or was he a follower in name only?  Jesus said in another text, “‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’  Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”[24]  It would seem that Judas was never truly part of vine.  Therefore, it is in this writer’s opinion that the true believer is assured of one’s status in the Lord.  As Paul writes, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”[25]  John also writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”[26]  Once a believer receives the salvation of the Lord, the believer is grafted into the vine of God and is given assurance of that connection.  Those who never allow God’s grace to graft them into the vine of God are left to wither and die although the intention was for the individuals to join.  This certainly does not answer all the questions in the debate, but offers one possible explanation.  For the final section in this Johannine pericope, the results derived from having a fruitful relationship with Christ will be addressed.

THE RESULTS OF FRUITFULLNESS

Verses seven through eleven of John chapter fifteen presents the reader with three particular results that arise from having a fruitful relationship with Christ.  In verse seven, the first result of a fruitful relationship is found.  The result of an intimate prayer life is found as Jesus said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”[27]  There is an intimacy found in this passage as Jesus shows that the disciples can ask anything from Jesus.  Borchert brings up a good point about the absence of praying in Jesus’ name as Borchert wrote, “The way of stating the ‘asking’ is phrased differently in the previous chapter, but the actual implications are quite similar.  Here it is unnecessary for a repetition of the discussion on asking ‘in my name’ because if one is abiding in Jesus, it would be virtually impossible to pray in any other way than that of representing the nature of Jesus.”[28]  Robertson agrees with this rendering as he wrote, “This astounding command and promise (γενησεται [genēsetai], future middle of γινομαι [ginomai], it will come to pass) is not without conditions and limitations. It involves such intimate union and harmony with Christ that nothing will be asked out of accord with the mind of Christ and so of the Father.”[29]  Just as communication is important for marriages and other relationships, so prayer is important for the believer in Christ.  Another result of a fruitful relationship exists in the text.

The next result originating from a fruitful relationship with Christ is found in verse eight.  That result is the glorification of the Father.  Jesus said, “My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”[30]  “Edoxasqh” is the term translated “glorified.”[31]  The stem is “doxazw” and means “as giving or sharing a high status glorify, make great…, as enhancing the reputation of God or man praise, honor, magnify…, as putting into a position of power and great honor, especially in the future life glorify.[32]  Examining the various definitions for “doxazw,” the definition of “honor” fits the context of this verse the best.  Therefore, the text states that the Father is honored and magnified when a person enters this divine, Father-Son relationship.  There is a third result that emanates from a fruitful relationship with Christ.

The third result from a fruitful relationship with Christ is love as found in verse nine and ten.  The text states, “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.”[33]  “Agaph” is the term translated “love.”[34]  Agaph is a term that many, if not most, students of the Bible have studied to some degree.  The term infiltrates many important passages in the New Testament even that of John 3:16.  Agaph is defined as, “love; …especially as an attitude of appreciation resulting from a conscious evaluation and choice; used of divine and human love.[35]  The concept of agaph love saturates the Gospel of John.  Borchert writes,

In this verse the focus turns again so that the theme of abiding merges into the crucial Johannine theme of love….They are as follows: the Father loves the Son…, and the Son obediently loves the Father…; the Son loves his followers, and they are to love and obey him…; loving and obeying the Son means being loved by the Father…; being loved by the Son also implies loving one another…; God not only loves the disciples but loves the world and gave his Son for its people…; but many in the world love darkness and do not do the will of God.[36]

Jesus made this agaph love the prime focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Jesus, as Morris writes, “…brought into the world a new emphasis on love which he demonstrated in his own life and which he made clear he expected his disciples to produce too.  For him love depends on the nature of the lover rather than that of the beloved.”[37]  The theme of agaph love is second only to the themes of abiding and fruitfulness in this passage.  One could make an argument that it would be due to agaph love that the abiding and fruitfulness processes were initiated in the first place.  For this loving friendship with Jesus, the true vine, brings forth an abiding, fruitfulness.  Later, Jesus tells the disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from the Father I have made known to you.”[38]  This relationship between humanity and God is deepened in Christ.  Keener writes, “In tannaitic parables, Moses appears as God’s friend four times, Israel three times and a few others, including Abraham, one each.[39] This is probably a primary background for the ‘friends of God’ image in John 15:15, especially because in John 1:14-18 the disciples are compared with a new Moses to whom God revealed his glory in Jesus, the embodiment of Torah in flesh (cf. 2 Cor 3:6-18).”[40] Therefore, the disciples could be called friends of God by the relationship that the possessed with God the Father through God the Son.

CONCLUSION

This paper has evaluated the three themes found in the John 15:1-11 pericope.  The first theme in verses one through three was found to be that of the unfruitfulness that comes outside of having a proper, abiding relationship with God through Christ.  The second theme, in verses four through six, describes the source of fruitfulness.  Finally, the third theme, in verses seven through eleven, tells of the results that come from having a fruitful relationship with God through Christ.  In verse eleven, the pericope is finalized by the description of joy that comes from this relationship.  “Cara,” translated as “joy,”[41] is the result of this intimacy.  The reciprocal relationship of God and humanity through Jesus Christ brings joy to God and joy to the human participant.  It is a win-win situation when one enters a relationship with God through Christ Jesus.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Abridged Edition, New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Borchert, Gerald L. The New American Commentary: John 12-21, Volume 25B. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2002.

Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2005.

Johnston, R.M. “Parabolic Interpretations Attributed to Tannaim. Ph.D. diss., Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1977, quoted in C.S. Keener, “Friendship,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Keener, C. S. “Friendship,” Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000.

Keener, Craig S.  The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993.

Kynes, W.L. “Abiding,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992.

Morris, I. “Love,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933.

Stamm, Raymond Thomas. “Preacher, the scholar, and the Gospel of John: the interpretation of the Gospel of John and the pulpit.” Interpretation 11, no. 2 (April 1, 1957): 131-154. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 5, 2013).

Tasker, R.V.G. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: John. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

 

The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, trans. Philip W. Comfort and Robert K. Brown, Edited by J.D. Douglas. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Watson, D.F. “Wine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992.

Whitacre, R.A. “Vine, Fruit of the Vine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992.


[1] All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), John 15:1-2.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1993), 301.

[3] R.A. Whitacre, “Vine, Fruit of the Vine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 867-868.

[4] John 15:2, NASB.

[5] D.F. Watson, “Wine,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 871-872.

[6] John 15:1, The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament, translated by Robert K. Brown and Philip W. Comfort, Edited by J.D. Douglas (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990), 383.

[7] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, “alhqinoV, h, on,” Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2005), 43.

[8] Gerald L. Borchert, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2002), 139.

[9] Mark 11:13–14, NASB.

[10] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament Abridged Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 351.

[11] R.V.G. Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 175.

[12] John 15:6, NASB.

[13] Borchert, 144.

[14] Raymond Thomas Stamm, “Preacher, the scholar, and the Gospel of John: the interpretation of the Gospel of John and the pulpit.” Interpretation 11, no. 2 (April 1, 1957): 131-154. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 5, 2013), 135.

[15] Tasker, 175.

[16] John 15:5, NASB.

[17] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), John 15:5.

[18] John 15:5, The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament.

[19] Friberg, Friberg, and Miller, “menw,” 258.

[20] W.L. Kynes, “Abiding,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 2.

[21] Keener, 301.

[22] John 3:16, NASB.

[23] 2 Peter 3:9, NASB.

[24] John 6:70–71, NASB.

[25] Ephesians 4:30, NASB.

[26] 1 John 5:13, NASB.

[27] John 15:7, NASB.

[28] Borchert, 145.

[29] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), John 15:7.

[30] John 15:9, NASB.

[31] John 15:8, The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament.

[32] Friberg, Friberg, and Miller, “doxazw,” 120.

[33] John 15:9, NASB.

[34] John 15:9, The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament.

 

[35] Friberg, Friberg, and Miller, “agaph,” 30.

[36] Borchert, 146.

[37] I. Morris, “Love,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 492.

[38] John 15:5, NASB.

[39] R.M. Johnston, “Parabolic Interpretations Attributed to Tannaim (Ph.D. diss., Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1977), quoted in C.S. Keener, “Friendship,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 385.

[40] C.S. Keener, “Friendship,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 385.

[41] John 15:11, The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament.

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