If our minds weren’t cluttered with unnecessary and often unsubstantiated theology, I wonder what our understanding of John 15 would be? In that chapter Jesus offers a metaphor regarding the vine and the branches. Without too much drama his main point is fruit only comes when branches abide in the vine.
There is a rich OT history to the idea of the vine and that should not be lost in our quest to understand the first part of this chapter of John’s gospel. Because John is the only one of the gospel writers to include this teaching he apparently sees great value in it. Indeed, the passage, including chapters 16 & 17, are pregnant with OT tradition and NT gospel significance. Consequently it is imperative that we seek to understand that significance.
A good starting point is understanding that this is a metaphor and not a parable. As we know, Jesus offers significant teaching moments wrapped in parables. Often those parables include stories about vineyards. This, however, is not one of them. It is a metaphor. A metaphor takes one idea or object and substitutes it with another in order to make a point and promote understanding. Hence, the vine becomes an idea or object that is substituted for let’s say endurance, in order to make a point about endurance. Branches must endure or remain in the vine in order to both survive and bear fruit. The branch needs to abide/remain in the vine. It cannot survive any other way as described in this teaching by Christ.
Jesus said he is the true vine. He is not “like” a vine, he IS the true vine. If we understand that it becomes fairly clear there is something significant about abiding in Christ, the true vine. It is not simply to bear fruit but abiding in order to maintain a relationship!
In a recent Bible study group, the teacher began the study by saying this chapter in John is “not about eternal security” it is about relationship. And he may be right if we take a denominational approach to eternal security – once saved always saved. But if we look at the teaching from Jesus, if the branch abiding in the vine is about relationship than what value is abiding if that relationship is not susceptible to being breached? Why would Jesus emphasize the need to abide if, in reality, not abiding is not possible? Is it only for the purpose of “fruit” that we are to abide in the vine? If so, why would there be branches that bear no fruit? Is it because there is something wrong with the relationship? Is it possible to abide in the vine and NOT bear fruit? Apparently so because it is precisely those branches that are cut off and burned. But how can that be if the vine and branch have a life-sustaining relationship? How? It all hinges on abiding.
If we look back at the OT use of the vine/vineyard as represented by the nation of Israel we’ll see that the nation did not fulfill its mission or “calling” as God’s vine. Isaiah 5:1-7 is probably the most pronounced revelation of that fact. God expected His people to produce the fruit of righteousness and justice. Instead they produced the exact opposite. According to the words of Isaiah God had done all that a caretaker could do, but still the results were unacceptable. Those are the images Jesus had in mind when he said he is the “true vine.” A vine that will reflect justice and righteousness. A vine that pulses with the very heart of God and provides life to all who abide in him. Security comes only from abiding in that vine.