“Jacob came for a bride from his own people. He desired Rachel, but he did not get Rachel at first, but Leah. After he learned to love Leah as much as he did Rachel, he got Rachel as well. In the beginning Leah had all the babies, her womb was most fruitful. But then Rachel conceives. Israel shall be a fruitful vine. Jesus came for Israel. He wanted to marry Israel, but He did not get Israel. He ends up with the bride He did not desire at first, the Gentile church. After He learns to love the Gentile church, then He gets Israel. In the beginning, the church has all the babies. But in the end, Israel becomes a fruitful vine.” (Jacob Prasch).
What is the relationship between Israel and the Church? Does God have one ‘chosen people’ or two? What is the relationship between God and his people? Who is the fruitful vine?
These were the subjects addressed at a conference in Johannesburg, I attended earlier this month. It was sponsored by Messianic Good News, an organisation dedicated to take the good news of Jesus to Jewish people. It was a great encouragement to spend a week with Jews who love Jesus and who have a passion to make him known within the Jewish community. I hope we can build on this relationship and support their work in the future. Following our day with Chawkat Moucarry looking at Islam earlier in the year, and with Juge Ram on Hinduism and Sikhism yesterday, I hope that early next year we can arrange a teaching day on Judaism and learn how to share our faith with Jewish people.
Please turn with me to John 15 and let us examine the meaning of this image of the vine and the branches.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:1-2)
Jesus makes three main assertions: God the Father is the Vineyard Owner. God the Son is the Vine. God’s People who remain and bear fruit are the Branches.
1. God the Father is the Gardener
“My father is the Gardener” (John 15:1). This truth is sometimes overlooked as we tend to focus on Jesus the vine. Notice in verse 2, it is God the Father who cuts off branches that bear no fruit and prunes the ones that do. He is sovereign and determines our destinies based on how we respond to Jesus.
In the Old Testament the relationship between God and his people is often likened to a landowner and his vineyard (Psalm 80:8-18; Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21; 12:10-11; Ezekiel 15:1-5; Hosea 10:1-2) .
“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isaiah 5:1-2)
We learn here that God is sovereign. This world and everything in it belongs to him. His will is that we come to know and love him. He is our creator and sustainer and he calls us to glorify him willingly and joyfully, bearing fruit in holiness and so becoming like him. That is our purpose – to know him and glorify him in all we do. To that end he prunes and disciplines us out of love, so that we become even more fruitful. God the Father is the Gardener.
2. God the Son is the True Vine
““I am the true vine … 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. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:1, 5-6)
There are three different vines found in Scripture. Past, future and present.
2.1 The Past Vine was the Nation of Israel
In an act of wonderful grace God transplanted Israel out of Egypt into Canaan, and gave them every possible benefit. If ever a nation had everything it needed to succeed, it was Israel. But the vine produced wild grapes. Instead of practising justice, it practised oppression, instead of righteousness, it produced unrighteousness.
In Isaiah 5, the Lord exclaims in exasperation,
“What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” (Isaiah 5:4-7)
As Don Carson notes, “Most remarkable is the fact that whenever historic Israel is referred to under this figure it is the vine’s failure to produce good fruit that is emphasized, along with the corresponding threat of God’s judgement on the nation.” (John, p.513). God had to deal with the nation Israel and chasten it, but it was no use. When God’s Son came to the vineyard, they said “This is the heir” and they killed Him.
They ceased to be the vineyard of the Lord. The past vine was the nation of Israel.
2.2 The Future Vine is the Earth
In Revelation 14 the image of the vineyard is used to portray God’s judgement of all those who ignore God, who defy God.
“Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.” (Revelation 14:18-19)
This unrepentant defiant vineyard, like Israel that will be cut down and thrown into the fire when Jesus Christ returns. So, the past vine was Israel, the future vine will be the earth.
2.3 The True Vine is the Lord Jesus Christ
He is the “True” vine. ‘True’ here means the original of which all other vines are a copy. This would have been a dramatic and provocative claim for Jews to hear. No longer were they fulfilling the chosen role God intended. Therefore they lost the designation of the Vine. Jesus would fulfil that role perfectly. The symbolism is similar to that of Christ the Head and the church as His Body. Both speak of our relationship to Christ, our dependence on Christ. It is a living union that we may bear fruit. It is a loving union that we may enjoy Him. It is a lasting union that we may enjoy him forever.
God the Father is the Gardener. God the Son is the True Vine.
3. God’s People are the Branches
“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. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5-6)
Of themselves, branches are weak and useless. A branch cannot produce its own life. It must draw its life from the vine. What is the difference between the two kinds of branches? The one is good for bearing fruit, the other is fit only for burning.
The one bears fruit because it draws its life and energy from the vine. The other does not bear fruit because it does not draw its life from the vine. How can we tell the difference? Jesus tells us the hallmarks of those who abide in him. “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8). The word ‘abide’ sometimes translated ‘cling’ or ‘remain’ occurs 11 times in this passage. J.C. Ryle the 19th Century Bishop of Liverpool said to “cling to Christ”, means to “stick fast to Christ” So what is the fruit that will mark us out as abiding in Christ?
3.1 Love for God: Obeying joyfully in response to Christ’s love
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:9-11)
The first fruit of abiding in Christ will be our experience of God’s love, a love we will long to obey joyfully and thankfully.
3.2 Love for each other: Serving willingly in response to Christ’s example
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:12-15)
We love one another in response to the example of Christ. No longer servants but friends of Jesus. He died for us and calls us to lay down our lives in living service of one another. This sacrificial love marks us out as disciples of Christ, as abiding in Christ.
3.3 Love for others: Sharing freely in response to Christ’s commission
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:16-17)
The fruit here says Carson, is seeing new believers come to experience the same love we have been shown – a love that wants to share Jesus with others, his love in us, overflowing to others. So this fruit is three dimensional: Love for God, love for one another, love for those as yet outside the kingdom.
Which is why this illustration of Jesus is both a mandate to Christ’s followers and also a summons to those who do not yet know him. The evidence that we are part of the vine is simply this, that we remain in his love; that his love pervades all we do, whether in our personal devotions, whether through service in our church life, or in our witness in the wider world.
In the verses that follow, Jesus explains that how we respond to adversity, to suffering and persecution will also demonstrate that we are abiding in him. For these are consequences of us abiding in Christ also. If and when it comes, see it not as punishment but discipline. Welcome it as an opportunity for God to prune you, to refine you, to make you more fruitful to make you more like Jesus.
John Stott says, “We need not doubt that pain, sorrow, sickness, suffering, loss, bereavement, disappointment and frustrated ambition, are all part of the pruning activity of God the gardener.”
He prunes because he loves us; because he wants us to bear fruit, much fruit, fruit that will last. God the Father is the Vineyard Owner. God the Son is the Vine. God’s People are those who abide, who bear fruit – they are the branches. One final thought: Do you know where the best grapes grow on a vine? The best grapes are produced furthest out from the vine. It is true in the Christian life also. It is when we are out on a limb, without any other security or prop except Jesus that we bear most fruit. When we are living by faith, that is when we bear much fruit. If you feel stretched right now, maybe it is a sign that Jesus is at work fruit bearing in you today. If you are not so sure, speak to me afterwards, for there is only one safe place to be in this world – Abiding in Jesus. Lets pray.
PS. Does God have two chosen peoples? Of course not.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12)
Listen to an audio of this sermon here
With thanks to the following authors for ideas contained in this sermon: Gary Burge, John, The NIV Life Application Commentary (Zondervan); Don Carson, Jesus and his Friends (IVP); The Gospel According to John (IVP); Donald Guthrie, Exploring God’s Word (Hodder); Warren Wersbie, John 13-21 Be Transformed (Victor)