The Vine and the Branches, Verse-by-Verse

Young Grape Vine
Young grave vines

Today’s post came out of a request from my Uncle Dave (Hi, Uncle Dave!) to do a verse-by-verse commentary on the first part of John 15, Yeshua as the True Vine.  Enjoy!

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer,” and Israel is the vineyard, as it is written:

Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.

He dug it up,
gathered out its stones,
planted it with the choicest vine,
built a tower in its midst,
and also cut out a winepress therein.
He looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

“Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
please judge between me and my vineyard.

What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes, did it yield wild grapes?

Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will take away its hedge, and it will be eaten up.
I will break down its wall of it, and it will be trampled down.

I will lay it a wasteland.
It won’t be pruned nor hoed,
but it will grow briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.” (Isa. 5:1-6)

Withered Vines

As Rabbi Judah ha Nasi admits, “The vineyard of the Holy One, blessed be He, is none other than Israel” (Lev.R. 32:1).  In the whole vineyard of Israel, there was to be found only a single fruitful vine, the Messiah, who goes on to say (15:2), “Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Yeshua is not here speaking of the general judgment coming upon Israel, as Isaiah did; He speaks only of, every branch in Me. He speaks of this same judgment of those “in Him,” in Mat. 7:21-23: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.’

We might be tempted to think then that we are declared righteous on the basis of our works, our fruitfulness, to which Yeshua answers (15:3), “You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” The word “pruned”and “pruned clean” is the Gr. katharos, which literally means “cleansed.” It can mean to prune, but here there is a play on words. We are cleansed because of the word which Yeshua has spoken to us—the same word by which He died on our behalf and rose again on the third day. And yet, the fruitless branches are still “in” Messiah when they start out. How do they become “in” Messiah and yet somehow fail to be purified by His word?

Again, Yeshua gives us the answer (15:4): “Remain 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.” Elsewhere, Yeshua also emphasized the necessity of staying in union with Him: You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake, but he who endures to the end, the same will be saved (Mark 13:13). Likewise, in his epistle, John describes those who did not remain in the true Vine: They went out from us, but they didn’t belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have continued with us. But they left, that they might be revealed that none of them belong to us. (1Jn 2:19)

Does this negate the assurance of salvation that we are supposed to have through our faith? Not at all. As Christian apologist J.P. Holding points out, citing David DeSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity,

[Pistis, “faith”] is often used as a noun to refer to the Christian “faith” as a set of convictions. In far many more cases the meaning intended is in the sense of faithfulness, or loyalty as owed to one in whom one is embedded for service (in this case, the body of Christ).

This now leads to an expansion of the pistis concept as derived from deSilva. As deSilva shows, the relationship between the believer and God is framed in terms of an ancient client-patron relationship. As God’s “clients” to whom he has shown unmerited favor (grace), our response should be, as Malina and Neyrey frame it, a “constant awareness” of prescribed duties toward those in whom we are indebted (God) and the group in which we are embedded (God’s kin group, the body of Christ).

This “constant awareness” is the expression of our faithfulness of loyalty — in other words, this is our pistis, or faith. “Faith” is not a feeling, but our pledge to trust, and be reliable servants to, our patron (God), who has provided us with tangible gifts (Christ) and proof thereby of His own reliability.

In other words, “faith” is not only mental assent to a set of convictions, but an ongoing loyalty to our Patron, Who has given us an unbelievable Gift (Charis) in our redemption from sins. (See also our articles on Honor and Obligation and Survival and Community, which also draw heavily from Holding’s work.)  One who does not have this loyalty does not have Biblical, saving faith and faithfulness. Yeshua describes the faithful vs. the faithless branches, when He continues (15:5), “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. 6 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.” The fruit is not the cause of the branch remaining in the Vine—it is the inevitable result.

Thus the old paradox is resolved:  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,not of works, that no one would boast (Eph 2:8f), and yet, Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith (Jas 2:17f). The loyalty to our Patron will lead to doing His works, but the initial Gift that led us to this loyalty is wholly undeserved and can never be earned or repaid. Our faithfulness is the honorable response to the Gift and is necessary to receive it and remain in it, but could no more repay the Gift than life-long loyalty and friendship can truly repay someone who, for example, bought back a house for us that was under foreclosure.

However, as in the client-patron relationship that Holding and DeSilva describe, the Patrons response to our Pistis is to give us still more undeserved Charis (15:7): “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.” To quote Holding again, this time citing Zeba Crook’s Reconceptualising Conversion, “there is no such thing as an isolated act of grace. An act of favor and its manifestation (the gift) initiate a circle dance in which the recipients of favor and its manifestations must ‘return the favor,’ that is, give again to the giver…To fail to return favor for favor is, in effect, to break off the dance and destroy the beauty of the gracious act.” Out of our faithfulness, we remain in union with the Vine; out of union with the Vine, we become fruitful; out of that fruitfulness, we give back to the Father. And the Father in turns gives to us more undeserved (because the initial Gift is so great that it can never be repaid) Gifts.

The ultimate purpose of this “circle dance,” of course, is not to glorify man, but to glorify the Holy One (15:8): “In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples.”

I have to admit that I’ve read this passage many times before, but until I wrote this essay, I never really appreciated its depth. Thank you Uncle Dave for giving me the opportunity with your question.

Shalom u’vrecha

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