The Sunday lectionary reading for Easter 5 in Year B is Jesus’ teaching that he is the true vine in John 15.1–8. It is a striking and memorable image that has three different elements of context to consider, and it reiterates themes from earlier in the Farewell Discourse as well as picking up ideas that were first sown at the beginning of the gospel narrative.
The previous chapter ends with Jesus inviting the disciples to ‘Rise, let us go from here,’ which appears to look forward to John 18.1, when together they ‘go out’ across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane. In a previous generation of scholarship, this was seized upon to demonstrate that the final editor was using two separate sources, which he had clumsily stitched together leaving this obvious error, so that the second half of the Farewell Discourse was originally unconnected to the first half. But this assume that editors are stupid, and commentators from 1,800 years or more later are far smarter, and can spot things that the stupid editor didn’t notice! It also fails to take into account that the style is continued seamlessly between the two parts of the material, and even that the second half repeats, reiterates and develops themes from the first half, so they are well integrated together.
There are two common alternative explanations for the phrase at John 14.31. Either Jesus urges them all to leave, but in fact continues in discussion, much as when at a dinner party someone says ‘We really must be going…’ but continues engrossed in conversation. Or they really do leave the upper room, and Jesus’ teaching in John 15–16 and the prayer in John 17 take place as they wander across the city. (Tradition has it that the upper room was located in the south-west corner of Jerusalem, and the crossing to Gethsemane is on the central east side.) This would allow Jesus actually to look up to heaven as described in John 17.1, since they are now out of doors, and it would mean that ‘going out’ across the Kidron Valley in John 18.1 is going out of the city, not going out of the room.
Whatever the geographical explanation, it seems to me that the more important question is what the rhetorical effect is of leaving this phrase in. It points to Jesus’ teaching being offered, not to people in a safe and enclosed space, but for people who have got up and are on their way somewhere—that is, it is not so much about security and assurance in an inward-looking sense, but about equipping and direction in an outward-looking sense. Abiding in Jesus and bearing fruit is mostly about what we do in the big wide world—which is why Jesus goes on to talk about the world in chapter 16.
In the Fourth Gospel, there are seven occasions where Jesus declares simply ‘I am’, without adding a predicate, and seven occasions where Jesus declares ‘I am [something]’, with a predicate, of which this is the last. Felix Just notes how all these images are rooted in the OT, and primarily refer to God’s relationship with Israel:
- Bread of Life / Bread from Heaven – see Exod 16; Num 11:6-9; Ps 78:24; Isa 55:1-3; Neh 9:15; 2 Mac 2:5-8
- Light of the World – Exod 13:21-22; Isa 42:6-7; Ps 97:4
- Good Shepherd – Ezek 34:1-41; Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23:1-4; 80:1; 100:3-4; Micah 7:14
- Resurrection / Life – Dan 12:2; Ps 56:13; 2 Mac 7:1-38
- Way – Exod 33:13; Ps 25:4; 27:11; 86:11; 119:59; Isa 40:3; 62:10
- Truth – 1 Kings 17:4; Ps 25:5; 43:3; 86:11; 119:160; Isa 45:19
- Vine / Vineyard – Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80:8-17; Jer 2:21; Ezek 17:5-10
The first of our three elements of context, then, is OT language about Israel as God’s vine or vineyard. Isaiah 5.1–7 tells the story of God planting a vineyard, and tending it, yet it produces only ‘bad fruit’. As with much of Jesus’ use of parables, it is told as a simple story, and the parabolic reference is only made clear at the end:
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 (Is 5.7).
Jeremiah 2.21 picks up this image in a single verse, whilst Ezek 17.5–10 recasts it as an apocalyptic vision of judgement. Ps 80.8–17 reverses the image, in that Israel is now a vineyard that has been attacked with its walls broken down, and the psalmist asks when God is going to intervene. But all of these are negative images, and contrast sharply with Jesus’ positive use: he is the true vine, and those who remain in him will indeed bear much good fruit. And where the other six ‘I am’ predicates put Jesus in the position of God in relation to Israel, this one does the reverse: rather than being something to and for Israel, here Jesus takes the place of Israel. (This is also a contrast with Jesus’ retelling of Isaiah 5 in the parable of the wicked tenants in Matt 21 and parallels.) The other sayings claim that what God was to Israel, Jesus now is to those who follow him, but this saying identifies his followers with Jesus, so that we relate to God as Father in an analogous way.
The gate opening into the building was, as I said, completely overlaid with gold, as was the whole wall around it. It had, moreover, above it the golden vines, from which depended grape-clusters as tall as a man (Wars, 5.210–212, cited in Kruse, TNTC, p 364).
So, in its architecture, the temple connects Israel as a fruitful vine with the hoy, temple presence of God dwelling in their midst. Jesus has already claimed to be the true temple presence of God in John 2, and now he claims to be the true vine that grows fruitfully in God’s presence.
If ‘Rise, let us go from here’ in John 14.31 does mean that chapter 15 is Jesus speaking as he and the disciples walk through the city, then they might well have been in sight of this golden vine as Jesus teaches on it.
The third element of context is first-century viticulture, and the pattern of pruning (which mostly continue, in revised form, to this day). Vines need training, in the ancient world either over rocks or on trellises, but in the modern world on wires. Then and now they need two kinds of pruning; in the spring, the new shoots will need trimming, so that the tendrils do not grow too far or too fast, thus getting the plant to put its energy into producing fruit rather than just adding more greenery. This will also include cutting out the smaller grape clusters, and even (according to Monty Don on BBC’s Gardener’s World) trimming some of the grapes out of a cluster to allow the other grapes to grow larger.
The second kind of pruning happens in the autumn, when the branches that are now exhausted are pruned off, leaving buds at the base which will produce next year’s branches that will bear fruit in the new season. The picture here is of one of my vines as it looked this morning: at the bottom of the picture you can see the trained stem of the vine; then you can see the short, upright branches from last year, most of which were pruned off in the autumn; then the new branches sprouting with vigour, the ends of which will need to be pruned over the coming weeks to prevent there being all leaves and no fruit.
We need to read John 15 with this in mind—but also remember that this is a parable or a paroimia, and not a detailed allegory; our relationship with Jesus will not match, in every detail, the relationship of a branch to the vine in viticulture.
As with other sections of the Farewell Discourse (and Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel), key ideas are introduced early on, and there is a kind of circling around and reflection as the ideas are revisited. So in these verses we find:
A1. Jesus is the vine; his Father is the farmer (georgos) in this context understood as vinedresser.
B1. Those who do not bear fruit are pruned off (the autumn pruning).
C1. Those who do bear fruit are pruned to bear more fruit (the spring-type pruning).
C2. This pruning/cleaning comes about by the word of Jesus.
C3. Fruitfulness comes from abiding in Jesus
A2. The branches need to abide in Jesus the vine if they are to bear fruit.
B2. Those who do not abide do not bear fruit and are cut off and burnt.
C4. If you abide, and Jesus’ words abide in you, you will bear much fruit.
D1. As you abide, ask and it will be given to you.
A3. My father is glorified by your bearing fruit as my disciples.
There are a number of things that we miss in English translations. The first is the highly alliterate nature of Jesus’ teaching here: the branches are klemata, the fruit is karpos, pruning is kathairo, and to be clean is katharos. So this passage would have a very distinctive sound to it when spoken in Greek. Moreover, the verb for ‘prune’ (which occurs only here in the New Testament) is cognate with the word for ‘clean’, and this reflects what it actually feels like to prune a plant or tree. I can still remember a sermon from 25 years ago, when the preacher asked someone from the congregation who was a gardener to bring in a large branch (of buddleia as it happened) and demonstrate what pruning involved. There was a tangible sense of the messy and straggly branch being really cleaned up in the pruning process!
Jesus describes the unfruitful branch as being ‘in me’ (verse 2), and this is perhaps where we need to be careful not to be too literal in our interpretation of the parable. In its context, the most obvious reference here is to Judas, who in John 13.30 has gone out to betray Jesus, ‘and it was night’. But the point is that, to be truly ‘in Jesus’, involves bearing fruit; those who might appear to be, but are not fruitful, are not truly part of the vine, and one day that will become clear.
What does it mean to ‘bear fruit’? In the Old Testament parables about Israel as a vine, being fruitful includes obedience to living the kind of life that God has called them to—’for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress’ (Isaiah 5.7). It is therefore no surprise that Jesus here closely links fruit, love of Jesus, and obedience to his commands.
But the obvious meaning of ‘fruit’ in nature is that fruit bears seed, and seeds produce more plants—that is, fruit is about reproduction and growth. Given the context of the Farewell Discourse, preceding not just Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also Pentecost and the explosive growth of the early Christian movement, this cannot be unimportant. To be fruitful is to live in obedient discipleship to Jesus—and through that to see the good news of his love shared effectively so that more people become part of this vine.
The language of ‘abiding’ or remaining gives a spiritual or metaphorical turn to a word, meno, that has previously had a mundane and literally sense. The first disciples see Jesus, and ask him ‘Where are you staying?’ (John 1.38). Jesus ‘stays’ in Capernaum (John 2.12), and later with the Samaritans (John 4.40). Yet from the beginning it has had a more relational sense, so that at Jesus’ baptism (not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, but assumed from our prior reading of Mark) John the Baptist testifies that the Spirit ‘remained on him’ (John 1.32). Perhaps we might want to translate this language as ‘making a home in’: we will bear fruit as we make our home in Jesus, and he makes his home with us.
The apparently contradictory language of us both being in Jesus and Jesus being in us was found earlier in John 14.20 ‘I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.’ But we find the same dynamic in Paul; whereas he mostly talks about us being ‘in Christ’, he also talks of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col 1.27).
Jesus closely associates both the cleanness that comes from pruning, and abiding in him, with his words that he has taught the disciples, which are now recorded in this gospel. The author appears to believe that the gospel text itself now functions for its readers in the way that Jesus’ teaching functioned for the disciples (John 20.31). The early followers of Jesus were marked by their abiding in or attention to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2.42f) and Paul sees the word of God in Scripture as both stripping back (‘correcting, rebuking’) as well as feeding and building up (‘teaching, training’) (2 Tim 3.16).
We are united to Jesus (and therefore to one another) by abiding in Jesus, and this abiding includes and is manifested by obedience to his commands. These two ideas are also held together, expressed in different terms, in John 17: ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17.17; cleaning and pruning); ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you’ (John 17.21; abiding in the one vine).
As we often find in the Fourth Gospel, there appears to be a strongly negative or challenging element in Jesus’ teaching; his warning that ‘without me you can do nothing’ can be heard as quite a stark challenge. And yet, alongside that, there is an extraordinary encouragement: ‘If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit’. Bearing fruit isn’t something that we need to strive for or worry about; it is the natural outcome of our making our home in Jesus and in his teaching, just as, rooted and well watered, my vine will bear fruit quite naturally. It is just what vines do.