(John 15:1-2 ESV) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
In chapter 15, Jesus introduces a new parable, illustrating what he’s already been speaking of.
Jesus is the “true vine.” There is no other. All others are fakes.
The Father is the Vinedresser. The Father takes care of the Vine — but is not the Vine. It’s not enough to be tied to the Father. Only the Vine nourishes and gives life.
Whether or not you bear fruit, you’ll be pruned. If you don’t bear fruit, you’ll be cut from the Vine and die. If you do bear fruit, you’ll be trimmed to help you bear even more. God disciplines those he loves.
This is hardly a parable in support of the perseverance of the saints. Plainly, those branches that don’t bear fruit are attached to the Vine, indeed, are nourished by the Vine — and yet God himself cuts them off to die.
So what is “fruit”?
I can’t count the times I’ve heard this passage used to say that, if you don’t convert your friends to Jesus, you’ll be cut off and damned. “Fruit” is thus interpreted to mean new branches — which is not sound horticulture. (Obviously, modern interpreters need to spend more time in their gardens.)
To a grower of grapes, fruit is not used to plant new vines and certainly not to place new branches on an existing vine. Fruit is to be eaten. Or fermented and turned into wine. It’s to be enjoyed by the Vinedresser.
Jesus routinely takes his images from the Old Testament. And surely part of his reference is to —
(Jer 5:7-10 ESV) 7 “How can I pardon you? Your children have forsaken me and have sworn by those who are no gods. When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of whores. 8 They were well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife. 9 Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD; and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?
10 “Go up through her vine rows and destroy, but make not a full end; strip away her branches, for they are not the LORD’s.”
God will “strip away her branches” due to idolatry. Thus, fruit would appear to be obedience or faithfulness.
Similar is —
(Eze 15:2-6 ESV) 2 “Son of man, how does the wood of the vine surpass any wood, the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest? 3 Is wood taken from it to make anything? Do people take a peg from it to hang any vessel on it? 4 Behold, it is given to the fire for fuel. When the fire has consumed both ends of it, and the middle of it is charred, is it useful for anything? 5 Behold, when it was whole, it was used for nothing. How much less, when the fire has consumed it and it is charred, can it ever be used for anything! 6 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so have I given up the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”
Since the wood of the branches is of no value, it’s good only for the fire. In short, to avoid the fire, the Vine must produce something of value to the Vinedresser.
Although the vine of Israel was destroyed by the Babylonians, Zechariah promises better things for the remnant that survives the Exile —
(Zec 8:11-12 ESV) 11 But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the LORD of hosts. 12 For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.
In short, the fruit of the vine is obedience to God, covenant faithfulness — the opposite of rebellion, which leads to fire and death.
He’s also likely thinking of —
(Isa 11:1-6 ESV) There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.
In this prophecy of the Messiah — as a fruit-bearing branch — the fruit is righteousness, justice, faithfulness, and peace.
Then there’s John the Baptist’s use of the same image —
(Mat 3:7-10 ESV) 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
What is fruit? Repentance. Obedience. Faithfulness.
I know this is vague. We want a checklist of what to do to avoid being cut off the Vine. But there’s no checklist. It’s about the heart and whether you produce things that are pleasing to God. What might those things be? Well, faith, hope, and love would be a really good start.
There’s another subtle point here. In the Prophets, the vine is Israel. Over and over, the Old Testament prophets refer to Israel as a vine that must either produce good fruit or be destroyed.
Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” That is, the gospel — the Truth — is that Jesus comes in Israel’s place. No longer does it matter whether you are a son of Abraham. What matters is whether you are a part of Jesus. “Israel” is redefined as all those bearing fruit by the nourishment furnished through Jesus.
We’ve seen this before in John. No longer is Israel the light of this world. It was called to be but chose rebellion instead. Now Jesus steps into Israel’s shoes as the light of world, and after Pentecost, he enlightens the world through his church — the people of light.
In the Servant’s Songs at the end of Isaiah, the “servant” is sometimes Israel and sometimes an individual. Jesus takes the place of Israel as God’s servant, taking on the role of Israel. Israel was supposed to suffer for the sins of the world, to bring redemption to all. Jesus is doing that instead. And, now, after Pentecost, Jesus does that through the church. (More detail may be found at this post.)
In short, John 15 shows us Jesus stepping into the shoes of Israel. The nation of Israel is replaced with the Kingdom. More precisely, the remnant of Israel — the few who believe in Jesus — become, in Jesus, the true Israel. The believing Gentiles are grafted in. And the true Israel — both Jews and Gentiles — become spiritually connected with Jesus. Jesus is Israel, as are his followers. You see, his followers are in him and he is them. Thus, they are both Israel — God’s elect, God’s chosen, God’s children.
Why is Jesus the “true” vine? Because Israel has proven to be, on the whole, a false vine. Jesus separates light from darkness and belief from unbelief. He redefines the nation through his person.