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John 15:1-8 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 13:31—14:31. THE CONTEXT
These verses serve as the foundation for chapter 15, and introduce several themes on which Jesus expands in chapter 15:
• The commandment to love (13:31-35; 15:12).
• The possibility of denying or not abiding in Jesus (13:36-38; 15:6).
• The use of the word meno in its various forms (vv. 4-7; see also 14:2, 23; 15:4 ff).
• The vital nature of the disciple’s connection to Jesus (14:6; 15:5-6).
• The promise of fulfilled prayer (14:14; 15:7).
• The importance of keeping Jesus’ commandments and bearing fruit (14:15; 15:8).
But we also begin to hear about the hatred of the kosmos world for Jesus and his disciples (15:18 – 16:4) (Williamson, 194).
JOHN 15:1-8. OVERVIEW
These verses are an allegory (a work in which the characters represent other things and symbolically express a deeper meaning). There are four actors in this little drama.
• The Father is the vinegrower (v. 1).
• Christ is the vine (v. 5).
• The disciples are branches (v. 5).
• Those who do not abide in Christ are useless branches (v. 6).
The vine imagery is familiar. The Old Testament frequently pictures Israel as a vine or vineyard, but typically these references are negative. God said, “I… planted you a noble vine, wholly a right seed. How then have you turned into the degenerate branches of a foreign vine to me?” (Jeremiah 2:21; see also Isaiah 5:7; Ezekiel 15:6; 19:10, 12).
In these Old Testament examples, Israel was the vine and was subject to judgment. In John 15, Jesus is the vine and it is the branches (the disciples or Israel) who are subject to judgment (Borchert, 139).
Vineyards are familiar to Jesus’ disciples. People pass vineyards as they walk from place to place. Some own their own vineyard or work in a vineyard. They are able to discern fruitful branches from those that will drain the vine’s energy. They trim unfruitful branches, all the while feeling good about the surgical purpose of their work. The pruning might seem cruel, but it renews the vine’s vitality. Useless vines drain the plant’s strength. To leave them in place serves no purpose, and reduces the value of the vineyard. The vinegrower cuts away unfruitful branches and, finding them unusable, burns them.
Where is the church here? The fruitful church is the branch that the vinegrower prunes, but the unfruitful church is the branch that the vinegrower removes and throws into the fire.
JOHN 15:1-3. I AM THE TRUE VINE
1“I am (Greek: ego eimi) the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. 2Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away (Greek: airei). Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, (Greek: kathairei) that it may bear more fruit. 3You are already pruned clean (Greek: kathairoi) because of the word which I have spoken to you.”
“I am (ego eimi) the true vine” (v. 1a). In this Gospel, Jesus uses “I am” (Greek: ego eimi) on a number of occasions:
• “I am the bread of life” (6:35).
• “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (6:51).
• “I am the light of the world” (8:12).
• “I am the sheep’s door” (10:7).
• “I am the good shepherd” (10:11).
• “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
• “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6).
This “I am” language hearkens back to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush when God identified himself to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM,” telling Moses, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14).
In other words, “I AM” is God, and these “I am” metaphors identify Jesus as God. This is in keeping with the opening statement of this Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).
This is the last of the “I am” metaphors in this Gospel. Like the other “I am” metaphors (bread, light, gate, shepherd, etc.), the vine metaphor is reassuring—comforting. Vines and vineyards are familiar to Jesus’ disciples, and would remind them of home (Howard-Brook, 330).
When Jesus identifies himself as the true vine, he implies that there is a false vine. The Old Testament passages cited above make it clear that Israel has been a false vine.
“and my Father is the farmer” (v. 1b). This suggests that the Father is the superior, but it also suggests great mutuality between Father and Son. The vine (Son) is dependent on the vinegrower (Father) for its care and feeding, but the vinegrower (Father) is also dependent on the vine (Son) for its produce (faithfulness). Each gives life to the other and takes life from the other. We cannot overstate the mutuality that exists between the Father and the Son. Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30).
The Father/vinegrower performs two services to enhance the productivity of the vine. First, “Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away” (v. 2a). Second, “every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (v. 2b). It is important to note that, whether the branch is productive or not, the vinegrower wields a sharp knife. If the branch is not productive, the vinegrower removes it, but if the vine is productive, the vinegrower nevertheless prunes it to enhance its future productivity.
This should be instructive to us. We would like to believe that the Father will remove the unproductive branch but will spare the productive branch. However, the Father’s loving care means being subject to the vinegrower’s pruning knife—experiencing the loss of relationships and activities that inhibit our discipleship. This can be painful, and leave us wondering if God cares (Craddock, 260).
The author of Hebrews explains it this way: “For whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). He goes on to say that “all chastening seems for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11).
While the parent’s discipline and the vinegrower’s pruning might be painful, they are beneficial. That is important to remember, because life involves pain, and this text assures us that our pain is not necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure. On the contrary, pain may well be a sign that God is still working to mold us—to shape our lives—to help us to become the best that we can be.
Jesus further reassures the disciples, “You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (v. 3). At the Passover footwashing, he told them, “Someone who has bathed only needs to have his feet washed, but is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you” (13:10), the exception being Judas, the one who would betray him (13:11).
Now, once again, Jesus pronounces his disciples clean. His word has cleansing power when we believe it and obey it. This, too, is instructive. The closer our relationship to Christ, the more “cleansed” we are and the less pruning/cleansing we will require (the Greek, katharoi, can mean both pruned and cleansed).
There is a word play in verses 2-3 that is apparent only in the Greek. The vinegrower “takes away (airei) every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, (kathairei) that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned cleaned (katharoi) because of the word which I have spoken to you.” It seems clear that the author chose these words with their literary value in mind.
JOHN 15:4-8. REMAIN IN ME, AND I IN YOU
4“Remain (Greek: meinate—from meno) in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. 5I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you. 8In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples.”
“Remain (meinate—from meno) in me, and I in you” (v. 4a). This verb, meno, in its various forms, occurs in a number of passages in this Gospel. In most cases, they describe an important relationship or spiritual condition:
• John testified, “I have seen the Spirit descending like a dove out of heaven, and it remained (emainen) on him” (1:32).
• Jesus rebukes the Jewish religious leaders, saying, “You don’t have his word living (menonta) in you; because you don’t believe him whom he sent” (5:38).
• Jesus says, “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain (meine) in the darkness” (12:46).
• Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many homes (monai). If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you” (14:2).
• Jesus says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home (monen) with him” (14:23).
Paul makes a similar point when he talks about being “in Christ.” “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “In Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
In 15:4-7, Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with him—our abiding in him—is the key both to our fruitfulness and to our destiny. The Christian finds strength and purpose through relationship with Christ. The weak person becomes strong when grafted onto the Christ-vine, and the strong person becomes vulnerable when detached from it.
Furthermore, Jesus has promised his disciples that the Father “will give you another Counselor, that he may be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive; for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him. You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you” (14:16b-18).
C.J. Jung says that Christ “adds a new rung to the ladder of evolution, producing a new creature who lives in a new way to which the natural man can no more attain than a crawling thing can fly…. And… this daring claim cannot be laughed out of court. For (Christ) has done it. And we meet such new creatures every day upon the streets. And we are meant to be one of them; are intended so to live that others, meeting us, will look at us, and look again, and then from us to Jesus Christ…. And that perhaps is the most signal way in which we can help Christ” (quoted in Gossip, 717).
“Remain in me, and I in you” (v. 4a). These words are also addressed to the church,which has a valid ministry only insofar as is empowered by its relationship to Christ (Cousar, 315).
“As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me” (v. 4b). The church is always tempted to look to wealthy donors or political connections for strength, but Jesus tells us that fruitfulness starts in a very different place. As long as we are in his presence, his strength becomes ours. As soon as we turn our back on him, our strength begins to drain away.
We are tempted to believe otherwise. Our prayer life gets swallowed up in busyness. Our true values are revealed in the way that we set priorities—or allow priorities to set themselves. For clergy, many things are Priority One. We must conduct worship, weddings, and funerals—console the grieving—visit hospital patients—attend board meetings—supervise staff—counsel—teach catechetical classes—answer the phone—prepare the bulletin—attend civic activities. We know that we must also pray, but prayer too easily gets lost in the rush. We hope that a quick cry for help is enough, but Jesus says, “Remain in me.”
We are also tempted by other loyalties. We know that abiding in Jesus is central to our ministry, but we also know that loyalties to denomination, bishop, and theological heritage help us to get ahead. It is all too easy to make these our abiding places, but Jesus says, “Remain in me.”
“As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me” (v. 4b). Abiding in Jesus enables the branch to bear fruit. What fruit?
• Jesus commands us to love one another (13:34; 15:12), so love must be one of the fruits.
• Jesus calls us to obey his commandments (v. 10), so obedience must be one of the fruits.
• Jesus promises joy (v. 11), so joy must be one of the fruits.
• But perhaps the fruit involves more than is revealed in this chapter. Paul mentions the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Surely abiding in Jesus must produce each of these in some measure.
When asked to measure our fruitfulness, we look to baptisms—attendance at worship—funds raised for a new building—or other statistics. True fruitfulness, however, flows from our abiding relationship with Jesus and the Spirit whom Jesus promises (v. 26). It follows, then, that our fruit will be that which we are given, and will be specific to each disciple.
I am reminded of a young woman of limited circumstances whose ministry consisted of reading the daily newspaper and praying for newborn babies, newly married couples, bereaved families, and others in need of God’s help. I believe that she had a fruitful ministry. The fruit need not be things that fit neatly on charts and graphs. The acid test is whether it gives glory to God (v. 8).
But we are faced with the practical question of how to go about the business of abiding in Jesus. What must we do? There are at least three disciplines to which we need to attend.
• Service to God through public worship and support of the church.
• Service to others, in particular service to the needy.
• Service to self through personal prayer, devotions, and scripture study.
“I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5). Jesus does not say, “I am the tree and you are the branches.” The branch of a tree might have some value as firewood even if detached from the tree. The branch of a vine, however, “is suitable only for one of two things, either the vine or the fire” (Augustine).
Rather than becoming simply mediocre when not connected to Jesus, we become absolutely powerless. Rather than the value of our work and witness being just diminished, it becomes completely worthless. We can no more function spiritually when unconnected to Jesus than we can function physically when cut off from the air that we breathe. Being unconnected to Jesus is being cut off from the source of life. Without our connection to Jesus, we are completely dependent on our own resources, which will bear little or no fruit. Our own resources might produce growth, but that growth is likely to be malignant (Ridderbos, 517).
“If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned” (v. 6). This echoes the tone of judgment in Jesus’ metaphor of the sheep and the goats. We would prefer that Jesus affirm our goodness and assure us of life. Instead we learn that, apart from Christ, there is no goodness or life.
“If you remain in me, and my words (Greek: rhemata) remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you” (v. 7). Earlier we heard, “In the beginning was the Word” (logos) (1:1). Jesus is the Word of God—the one who embodies all that the Father intended to communicate to humankind. The word used in this verse, rhemata, has to do with spoken words. These rhemata (words) are Christ’s teachings, which he has embedded in his disciples’ hearts.
Verse 7 sounds very much like the “Ask and you will receive” passage in the Sermon on the Mount, but verse 7 establishes an important condition. It is only the person who abides in Christ who can expect to receive whatever he or she asks. We have great power, but only as we are connected to the source of power. Such connectedness shapes our asking. If we abide in Christ and his words abide in us, our asking will be in accord with his will. Jesus says, “Whatever you desire,” but the person who abides in Christ will not wish for frivolous or evil things. As we abide in Christ, our hearts will be focused on Christ’s concerns and our prayers will sound more and more like his prayers.
“In this is my Father glorified” (v. 8a). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things—but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.
Christ shares God’s glory. The glory of the Lord was revealed at his birth (Luke 2:9; John 1:14). His disciples, Peter, James and John, were privileged to see Christ’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (9:28-36). Christ’s cross was necessary so that he might “enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26; see also Philippians 2:5-11). The Gospel of John in particular speaks of the cross as Christ’s glorification (John 12:23; 13:31-32). Jesus spoke of returning “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
This verse tells us that we, too, can glorify God by our actions and fruit bearing.
“that you bear much fruit” (v. 8b). Fruit was an important source of food for the people of Jesus’ day. It was also an important cash crop. A good fruit-bearing tree (one that grew abundant fruit) was a blessing to the owner of the vineyard or orchard. Good trees enhanced his standing in the community, and bad trees could lead to his impoverishment.
In this verse, fruit is a metaphor for the fruits of discipled living—Christ-like living. That kind of life gives glory to the Heavenly Father, because Christ-like lives manifest themselves as faithful, hopeful, and loving (1 Corinthians 13:13). People are drawn to people with those qualities, and that gives Christians an opportunity to witness to the Lord who makes that kind of life possible.
“and so you will be my disciples” (v. 8c). The word “disciple” means one who learns from the teacher—and practices what the teacher teaches.
While none of us will ever follow Christ perfectly, this verse tells us that there is a clear connection between fruit bearing and discipleship. The person who bears fruit (Christ-like living) becomes Jesus’ disciple. The implication is that the person who does not bear fruit is not Jesus’ disciple.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
Borchert, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 12-21, Vol, 25B (Nashville: Broadman Press, 2002)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Cousar, Charles B., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Palmer, Earl F., The Book That John Wrote (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1975)
Pazdan, Mary Margaret, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
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