The Vine and Branches: John 15, Part 1
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away,… (John 15:2)
The fruitless branch is taken away.
How can one best express what God has done through the death and resurrection of Christ? Sin is forgiven and relationship with God is restored. However something even more profound and harder to express has occurred: we have become united with God through Christ. How does one express that invisible reality? The Apostle Paul frequently uses the expression, “in Christ” to express the idea; we who believe in Him are joined to Him by His Spirit. The Gospel of John records Jesus as expressing this truth in the image of a vine and its branches. The branch “abides” in the vine; its very life is inseparable from that of the vine.
In this parable, three different branch types are depicted. We could depict these three branches in table form:
|1||in me||bears none||“taken away”|
|2||in me||bears much||pruned|
|3||not in me||cannot bear||“thrown into fire”|
These three branches represent three positions in relationship to Christ. The first two are “in Christ,” while the third has been removed from the vine. In part 2 of this series we will consider the branches that are pruned and the branches that are thrown into the fire, while this article introduces vine growing and focuses on the branch that bears no fruit and is “taken away.”
Vine growing in the land of the Bible
Jesus’ teaching on the vine needs to be understood in light of ancient local vine growing techniques. Modern techniques have changed things, but even today ancient growing techniques are preserved in parts of the mountainous regions of biblical Judea and Samaria.1 A traveler through these regions will notice three different ways of training a growing vine.
1. Taliah, the hanging vine
Some vines are trained to grow straight up; their branches being suspended from a network of overhead wires, or in some cases, the vines are supported and trained upward by poles. In either case, the result is that the branches are held high off the ground.
2. Mismechet, the supported vine
A second technique is to support a vine on the stone wall which fences in the vineyard. In this century, old tires are frequently used to support the vines. These vines are supported off the ground, but are not trained directly upward.
3. Sorek, the vine low to the ground
This third type is permitted to lie close to the ground. The word sorek means “combed,”2 and is used to describe this technique because fields of vines grown in this way look as if they have been neatly combed, the vines being ordered into straight rows as a comb orders hairs on the head.
In ancient times there was a practical reason for utilizing these different techniques. The goal of every vinedresser, of course, is to produce a high quality grape in as large a quantity as possible. In former days, one of the major limitations upon the farmer was the ability to harvest grapes at just the right time as they became ripe.
Each family harvested their own plots, which in many cases were separated quite some distance from each other. In addition, the work of pressing the grapes and the fermentation process had to begin promptly. Since the labor force was limited, it was to a family’s advantage to extend the harvest period as long as possible. Vines growing at different heights from the ground ripen at different times, so the harvest was extended.
The hanging vine supports its branches off the ground. Branches which are kept high will yield a larger harvest than those permitted to trail along the ground. The difference in yield may amount to as much as 25%. Branches that grow near the ground benefit from early spring warmth reflected from the soil and ripen earlier, but produce less fruit. A supported vine represents a compromise. By training vines in all three ways, hanging, supported, and combed, a family may extend their harvest from as early as early July to possibly late November in a mild year. There is a cost for this extended season, however: a lower yield per vine for every vine which is permitted to trail along the ground.
The Branch Which Bears No Fruit
A branch which bears no fruit is worse than useless; it saps energy from the vine which is needed for fruit bearing branches. Many English translations state that God “takes away” this type of branch. Other English translations render the phrase, “he cuts off” (NIV, NLT). The Greek word used in the passage3 can in fact mean these things and often does, but its first meaning is “to lift up” or “to suspend.” 4
We can perhaps understand this verse in one of two different ways. If we understand the verb to mean “to cut off,” then we are, perhaps, reminded of the Book of James. James declares that faith without works is dead. A non-productive vine branch may actually be alive, but functionally it is dead in that it is not bearing fruit. In the same way, a believer in Christ may be part of the Body of Christ, but functionally dead in that he or she does not evidence the life of Christ, “fruit,” in their lives.
If, however, we understand the verb in this verse to mean “he lifts up” instead of “he cuts off,” then we are left with a very different picture. Vine branches which are left to run along the ground produce less fruit. The corrective for this situation is to lift the branch off the ground and to support it. When a branch becomes weighed down with fruit to the point that it drags on the ground, the vinedresser responds to the situation by lifting up and supporting the branch.
For a human being the weight of fruit bearing—being patient, understanding, and kind in difficult situations—can eventually take its toll. Even a very dedicated follower of Jesus can find themselves from time to time in a condition of seeming fruitlessness—impatient, quick to anger and ungracious. It is at this very time that an individual might feel that God is displeased and would like to just cut him or her off.
When this verse is understood in this light, we see Jesus depicting God as a compassionate God who comes to the aid of His weary saints. God, as vinedresser, sees a branch in its plight and intervenes to help. Every branch which has become weighed down and stops producing fruit he lifts up. This is a message of great encouragement to one who has become “weighed down” with pressures of life. God the vinedresser understands and cares.
But, if God is compassionate as stated above, how do we understand His throwing a branch into the fire to be burned? Is this not a picture of a wrathful or vengeful God? This question, as well as the matter of pruning, will be considered in part 2.
1The geographical names Judea and Samaria refer to the names in the time of the Bible and are not to be read as making a modern political commentary.
2The word sorek also is used to mean a high quality vine, and is used as such in the Bible. A major system of streams which drains the western face of the Judean mountains is called the sorek, undoubtedly taking its name from the fact that its drainage area is prime vine growing country.
3airei, 3p. present indicative active of airo
4According to Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott eds. Clarendon press, Oxford, 1980 ed. Also, The Analytical Greek Lexicon Moulton, H. ed., Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1977 ed.
© 2010 – David Miller