The words of the Lord Jesus at the end of John 14 must surely point to a change of scene: “Arise, let us go hence.”
Walking through Jerusalem
`The next indication of place is at the beginning of chapter 18, where we read that Jesus went forth with the eleven, over the brook Kidron to the garden of Gethsemane. What happened in the interval separating the departure from the upper room and the arrival at the garden? It appears the Lord uttered the words contained in John 15:1-17:26, speaking in the open air as they proceeded from the upper room, moving through the city.
But this is not the view of all commentators. Some hold the words were still spoken in the upper room, and so regard John 18:1 as relating to the final exit from the house. If that be the case, one logical consequence must follow: having told his followers to stand, the Lord kept them standing while he uttered the whole of John 15-17. This must appear a strange thing to do. Surely, if the Lord wished to continue speaking to the eleven, he would have continued without asking them to arise. So we revert to the opinion expressed above. If this is the correct interpretation, the beginning of John 18 must indicate an exit from the city to the garden.
William Temple is quite unambiguous: “We picture the Lord and his disciples leaving the upper room with minds full of what had just been done and said. They walk for a time in silence through the dark street and enter the temple court. There in front of them, glinting in the light of the full moon, was the great Golden Vine…” .1 That the beautiful allegory of the vine (John 15:1-8) may have been prompted by this spectacle is a possibility considered by others.2 As some of the details appear to be conjectural, dogmatism is best avoided. They were authentically spoken by the Lord Jesus, and that is what matters. Perhaps weight can be given to the opinion that the Lord spoke in the open by the interesting fact (noted also by Dr. Temple) that in chapter 13 and 14, Peter, Thomas, Philip and Judas all interrupt the Lord with their questions; this does not occur in the whole of chapter 15.
Old Testament background to the parable
While we seek to understand the precise circumstances in which the Lord spoke, it is what he actually said that matters. The figure of the vine employed by the Lord in John 15:1-8 has its roots deep in the Old Testament. There it represents the special relationship between the Lord God and the people of Israel: “Thou broughtest a vine out of Egypt: Thou didst drive out the nations, and plantest it” (Psa. 80:8). This is a reference to the great truth which Israel should never have forgotten; that their very existence as a free and independent people was due to the Lord’s own action in delivering them from the bondage of Egypt and providing a land for them to occupy. The mentions of this are numerous.3
The function of a vine is to produce grapes; its wood has no commercial value (Isa. 5:1-7; Ezk. 15:2-6). When, therefore, the Lord Jesus spoke his parable of the vineyard (cf. Matt.21:33-44) his hearers would be acquainted with the Old Testament background, and appreciate the thrust of the parable. The Lord, like his predecessors, lays the emphasis on the function of the vine to produce fruit. This was what the Lord required ofIsraelin lieu of rent (cf. Matt.21:34).
God wants the fruits of righteousness
As so often, Paul helps us when he talks about the fruit of the spirit in all its manifestations: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, temperance (Gal.5:22-23). Of these, the supreme quality is love, as the Lord shows in the chapters now under consideration.
It was the failure of Israelto produce the fruits of righteousness which led to the surrender of its unique privileges and to the election of the Gentiles. So much is made clear by the Lord in his parable in Matthew 21: “Therefore say I unto you, the kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matt. 21:43). All members of the newIsrael need to bear this in mind: the vindication of their election lies in the production of the fruits of righteousness. There can be no grounds for boasting on our part at the expense ofIsrael for, by the exercise of divine grace, they will yet bear fruit to God. The same grace which has brought us within the scope of the gospel will remove from their hearts the veil which now lies upon it and graft them into the good olive tree (II Cor. 3:15-16; Rom. 11:17-24).
God is the husbandman
The failure of natural Israel was not the end of God’s redeeming purpose as He provided His own shepherd to replace the false (Ezk. 34:22-23). So He is the one who provided the true vine in our Lord (John 15:1). There may be special significance in the use of the term “husbandman” in the phrase, “my Father is the husbandman” (John 15:1), which contrasts with the parable (Matt. 21:33) where the husbandman is Israel. This may well reflect the special involvement of the Father in the person and work of the Son. As we have had occasion to remind ourselves, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (II Cor.5:19).
As the husbandman, God exercises control over the vine, tends it lovingly, but also subjects it to the measures necessary to ensure its health and productivity. So it is that every unproductive branch is removed by the husbandman. In the history of the early ecclesia, there is a dramatic illustration of this in the punishment by death of Ananias and Sapphira who practiced duplicity to deceive Peter and the other apostles. They were unmasked by Peter and paid the ultimate penalty (Acts 5:1-10).
God seeks to keep the vine free of disease
The Greek term for “cleanseth” (“purgeth” KJV) is clearly connected with the next verse where the Lord speaks of his followers being “clean” through the reception of his word. The NIV uses “prunes” while unquestionably the thought of pruning must be prominent in the husbandry of the vine, here surely the concept is that of preserving the vine from disease.
In the experience of the believer the chastening of the Lord, equivalent to the cleansing of the vine, is imperative, as Hebrews 12:7 so powerfully reminds us. The apostles had already received a cleansing agent: “Already ye are clean because of the word which I have spoken unto you.” Their reception of Christ’s teaching, despite their occasional obtuseness, was humble, and they wanted no other (cf. John 6:68-69). This was to prove the great formative experience in their lives, as it should be in ours. The sheep know the voice of their Shepherd and respond to no other (John 10:4,5).
Fruit can only be borne when connected to Christ
By virtue of our flawed nature, though we are branches of the vine, there is no guarantee of continuing fruitfulness: we have to “abide” in the Lord Jesus and he has to abide in us (John 15:4). Here we again encounter this significant term “in.” Our relationship with the Lord must be a living one – the decisive and formative influence in our lives. “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit” (v. 5). There is here the promise of an increasing and abundant fruitfulness, if we continue in our relationship with our Lord.
Paul, who had learned so much from his Lord, writes thus to the Colossians concerning, “the word of the truth of the gospel” which had reached the believers and which was “bearing fruit and increasing,” in all the world (Col. 1:6, note 4).
John 15:5 concludes with a reminder which none can afford to ignore: “For apart from me ye can do nothing.” This is, in one sense, a devastating reminder: “our works,” however numerous and impressive in themselves, are utterly meaningless unless they are inspired by the spirit of our Lord, and that spirit is one of love, of self-emptying so that we can be filled with grace and truth. There is no more dangerous condition for a disciple than a self-conscious awareness of his achievements. Many, our Lord tells us, will rehearse before him all the impressive things they have done (Matt. 7:22). Yet they will be summarily dismissed: “Depart from me, I never knew you.” It is no coincidence that, in the context of these words, the Lord speaks of evil and good fruit (7:16-20). The link with the allegory of the vine is thus clear. While we must not minimize the importance of an active life in the service of our God and His Son, the spirit of humility and love which inspires this service is of vital importance.
We are reminded in verse 6 of the corollary of verse 5, where there is the clear promise of abundant fruitfulness in association with our Lord. However, whatever may be our previous history, if we do not abide in the vine, we effectively cut ourselves off and become branches that wither. Such branches are now fit only to be burnt, a lesson which was pressed home toIsraelby Ezekiel.
Access to the Father
The great allegory finishes on a positive note: if his followers abide in his teaching, making it their only way of life, they will enjoy the privilege to present their requests (evidently to the Father) and they will be granted. We must again note the constant use of “abide;” it stresses the concept of permanence.
Yet the promise provides no license for selfish requests, in themselves so contrary to the spirit of Christ. Verse 8 tells that we glorify the Father by producing much fruit. So it is that in our prayers foremost must be the request that we produce love, “the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14). If we need guidance in the content of our prayers, Paul gives it in the context of this passage: “Put on therefore, as God’s elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye” (vv. 12-13).
If we make a link between this passage and the allegory of the vine, we have it in verse 16: “Let the word of Christ dwell (abide) in you richly, in all wisdom.” Here is the evidence, so abundant in Paul’s letters, which he had learned from his Lord, and aimed to pass on this instruction to his fellows in Christ.
Tom Barling, Teignmouth, England
1.Readings in John’s Gospel, London, 1945, p. 250
2. The Gospel of John, Birmingham, 1943, p. 169.
3. We need especially to take note of this fact: the Decalogue is introduced with the words: “I am the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of theland ofEgypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2).
4. The need to increase in the life in Christ is a constant theme in Paul’s letters. Thus, after commending the Thessalonians for the quality of their brotherly love, he adds: “But we exhort you brethren, that ye abound more and more” (I Thess. 4:9-10).