The Vinedresser, the True Vine, and the Branches
Scripture Readings:Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; JOHN 15:1-17 (text); Romans 11:17-24
April 24, 2016 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear congregation of Christ: Our reading in Isaiah Chapter 5 is about a vineyard owner who planted a vineyard, tended and protected it with care, but when harvest came, his vineyard produced not sweet, but only bitter, wild and therefore, useless grapes. What a disappointment! God is the vinedresser. The vineyard is God’s covenant people whom he had chosen, planted and cared for until the vines brought forth fruit. In the Old Testament, it was Israel, as we read in Isaiah 5:1-7 (cf Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1).
In the New Testament, the vineyard is not the kingdom of Israel, but the kingdom of God, the church (Matt 21:28-46). “I am the true vine” is the last of Jesus’ seven “I AM” sayings in John’s Gospel. Chapter 15 is also part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. Jesus himself is the true vine, his desire is to glorify his Father through the branches attached to him that bear fruit. But there are also unfruitful branches that are cut off from the vine.
So this is our theme today, “The Vinedresser, the True Vine, and the Branches,” under four headings: first, The Vinedresser Loves His Vineyard; second, The True Vine Glorifies the Vinedresser; third, Unfruitful Branches Taken Away; and fourth, Fruitful Branches are Pruned.
The Vinedresser Loves His Vineyard
Isaiah introduces Chapter 5 as a song by God’s “beloved,” a Hebrew term of endearment usually applied to a romantic relationship between a man and a woman (cf SoS 1:13ff). But here, the term is used by Isaiah for God. God is not only “the Holy One of Israel,” but his “beloved friend” as well. Our text is not just a song, but a “love song,” but what kind of a love song is this? It is a strange love song, because it talks about his dear friend’s unfruitful vineyard and how his friend will let it be ruined.
In this love song, Isaiah develops the story about the Lord’s vineyard in the form of an allegory, an Old Testament literary device that uses symbolic characters and events to illustrate a message. At the end of the story, the symbolism is usually explained, as Isaiah does so in verse 7: the vineyard is Israel itself whom God loved, provided for, and protected all her days.
Isaiah describes how his beloved friend planted a beautiful vineyard. He chose a very fertile hill, dug it and cleared it of stones. He bought the best and choicest vines to plant his vineyard. In the ancient Near East, including the hill country of Israel, vineyards were often planted on hillsides terraced by retaining walls. Imagine the rice terraces in Banaue, but instead of rice, vines were planted. The owner digs the ground, removes the stones, and then backfills it with fertile soil. To protect his vineyard, he builds a watchtower in the middle with the stones he removes, and surrounds it with a wall or a hedge.
Grapes were very important in the ancient Near East, as it is used not only for producing wine, but also preserved as raisins. When the grapes appear, the owner will hire other workers to protect his vineyard from wild animals, birds, or even thieves from the watchtower. The owner also digs a winepress to get ready for the harvest of grapes. After the harvest, the workers would press out the grape juice by walking through the winepress barefooted.
A vineyard is the most common symbol used for Israel in Scripture. God condemned Israel’s leaders because they “have destroyed my vineyard” (Jer 12:10). In Psalm 80:8-16, Israel is “a vine out of Egypt” whom God brought out and planted in the land where they prospered. In Jeremiah 2:21, God rebukes Israel in the same language he uses in Isaiah 5, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” And Hosea 10:1 says Israel is “a luxuriant vine,” but sinned more and more with its prosperity.
How did God plant Israel as his choice vine? The historical Psalm 105 tells us of God’s provision and protection for his chosen vineyard Israel. From the beginning, God called their forefather Abraham from a pagan land, brought him into the Promised Land of Canaan, and made a covenant with him and his descendants. Through the centuries, God never broke his covenant promises to Abraham, sending Moses to redeem them out of slavery in Egypt by performing mighty acts before the Pharaoh. Because “he remembered his holy promise and Abraham, his servant,” he spread a cloud to protect them from the heat by day, and a pillar of fire to guide them by night. He sent manna and quail from heaven, and opened the watery rock to satisfy their thirst. In summary, the Psalmist sings,
So he brought his people out with joy, his chosen ones with singing. And he gave them the lands of the nations, and they took possession of the fruit of the peoples’ toil, that they might keep his statutes (Psa 105:43-45).
That is the Old Testament picture of Israel as the Lord’s beloved, chosen vineyard. But Jesus modifies this picture when he came.
The True Vine Glorifies the Vinedresser
In the New Testament, Jesus transforms his Father’s vineyard into a single vine: himself. And this vine’s purpose is to glorify his Father. But how does he glorify his Father?
In verses 8-11, Jesus says that the branches that abide in him and bear much fruit gives God the glory. As he abides in the Father, and loves the Father, he keeps the Father’s commandments. He kept the whole Law perfectly in order that he may be the perfect Redeemer of the people that his Father had given him from eternity past. The last work he had to do was willingly offer himself as the sacrifice in place of his sinful, rebellious people. On the night before he was arrested in Gethsemane, he considered his shameful death on the cross his and his Father’s glorification, so he prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you… I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:1, 4; 13:31).
After his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit does his work of giving a new heart and mind to his people to enable them to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus as the Christ, Savior and Lord. In turn, those branches that abide in him glorify God by bearing much fruit which is their godly lives. Bearing much fruit is the sure spiritual by-product of being attached to the True Vine. God calls us as individuals and as a community of believers together, “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6). We are to “ glorify God for his mercy” in keeping us attached to Jesus, the Life-giving Vine (Rom 15:9).
Not only are our many good fruits a spiritual by-product of abiding in the True Vine; they are also our witness to our families, friends, co-workers and classmates so they too would glorify God. So Peter exhorts us, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12). The ultimate good work and witness to the world was demonstrated by the martyrdom of the apostles. Before his arrest, Jesus told Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19). Today, thousands of Christians in the Middle East glorify God by their willingness to suffer and die because they confess their attachment to the True Vine. Do you glorify God by bearing the fruits of the Spirit such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23)?
Unfruitful Branches are Thrown Away
Back in Isaiah 5, the owner of the vineyard did all the careful and diligent work of building, planting and protecting his vineyard for a plentiful harvest. But when harvest came, the owner tasted the grapes, and alas! The grapes were “stinking” or “sour,” which describes its bad smell and taste inconsistent with the planting of the best vines in a fertile, cultivated land. They were like “wild grapes” growing in the wilderness without the care of an owner, and so tasted and smelled bad.
In return for all of God’s love, Israel rebelled against God, resulting in their ruin. In what ways did they rebel against God. In Isaiah 5:8-24, God catalogues his six charges against them: greed, self-indulgence, disregard for God, and moral perversion, and social injustice. Because of these sins, God punished Israel by with the invasion and destruction of Israel by Babylon, “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste.”
So in the New Testament, Jesus warns that those who are at first attached to the True Vine but bear no good fruit will be cut off, thrown away, and burned. Is Jesus teaching us here that those who are truly saved are in danger of losing their salvation if they don’t bear good fruit? In the Parable of Wheat and Weeds, we see a similar text where Jesus says that at the end of the age, he will separate the weeds from the wheat, and throw the weeds – which are “all causes of sin and all lawbreakers” – into the fiery furnace (Matt 13:40-42, 50; cf 15:13). In Chapter 13, we learned of Judas, who had been a disciple of Jesus from the beginning of his earthly ministry till his death, was a “son of destruction” before the creation of the world.
At the end of another vineyard parable, Jesus tells the Jews that because of their unbelief and unfruitfulness, they are “wretches” who will be removed from the vineyard and thrown into “a miserable death.” And the ultimate condemnation is this: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matt 21:41-43). This judgment against Jews leads us to another point: the nation Israel from the time of Jesus’ first coming ceased to be God’s chosen, holy people and kingdom (1 Pet 2:9). The kingdom of God has been given only to those who believe in Christ, whether Jews or Gentiles. These are those that God has chosen to be fruitful branches because they are connected to the True Vine. This is why Jesus says in verse 16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
How then should we see ourselves as Christians chosen by God to belong to the True Vine? Are we to be proud and careless? In Romans 11, Paul uses a cultivated olive tree to illustrate the kingdom of God. The Jews are the natural branches, but because of unbelief, they were cut off from the olive tree. In addition, Gentiles like the Romans were grafted in. But this knowledge should not result in pride, so he warns us, “So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you… Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom 11:21-22). Those who do not bear fruit, whether Jews or Gentiles, will be cut off.
But no Christian who is attached to the True Vine and bears fruit will be cut off. True believers will never be “thrown into the fire, and burned,” a symbol of eternal judgment (Isa 30:27; Matt 3:12; 5:22; 18:8; 25:41). Or are these branches true believers, but are just not bearing fruit because of immaturity? Again, the answer is no. These are not truly connected to the life-giving vine to begin with. Being truly attached to the True Vine means bearing much fruit.
Fruitful Branches are Pruned
So the vineyard will bear much fruit, the vinedresser “prunes” the branches. Pruning a tree is a common procedure done by farmers and gardeners: they remove those branches that would harm the tree. Branches that are dead, damaged, or diseased are cut off and thrown away. For true believers, this implies that God does away with desires, habits, and activities that are harmful to them. Sometimes, God cuts off things in our life that are in the way of loving and serving God and our brethren more fully. This may be in the form of painful trials, discipline, suffering, or even persecution.
The Greek verb “to prune” comes from the same root translated “clean” [ref]The verb translated “prune” in John 15:2 is the Greek verb kathair?, while the adjective “clean” in John 13:10 and 15:3 is the Greek katharos.[/ref] in our last sermon about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and telling them that they are “clean” (John 15:3). So the feet of true disciples soiled by sins are cleansed by God’s “pruning” work, and thereby increase their yield of good fruit. Painful “pruning” in our life will result in joyful and more steadfast abiding in the True Vine and a righteous life, “[God the Father] disciplines us for our good. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:10b-11).
No one can do anything of spiritual value and good, unless he remains attached to Christ. Abiding in Christ means continuing in a close communion with him daily through meditating on God’s Word, prayer, and partaking of the spiritual nourishment given by the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. But we also abide in Christ in our close communion with God’s people. In keeping these commandments, believers continue to abide in the love of Christ, and those who abide in him are now his “friends,” not his “servants.” Now, he is the servant who will lay down his life for his friends (see Addendum below).
What are the benefits of all this “pruning” work and abiding in Christ? Jesus mentions two here. First, his joy will be our joy, and our joy will be full (verse 11). Not the happiness and pleasure that the world gives such as money, possessions, fame, family and friends, but true joy that only the Spirit can give. Second, we have the assurance that God will hear our prayers, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (verse 7), and “whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (verse 16). These verses are used by prosperity gospel teachers to deceive their flock to give and ask God for all kinds of wealth and health. But notice two conditions attached to this promise, contradicting the prosperity gospel teachers: abiding in Christ, and abiding in his words.
True Christians abide in Christ in faith and trust that the True Vine assures them of eternal life. They are to pray in the name of Jesus and for his glory. How do believers abide in his words? They are to know and obey his commandments. How else can a believer pray according to his Word if they do not know the Scripture, his Word? And how can he pray according to his Word if they do not obey his commandments?
Dear friends, abiding in Christ and abiding in his words also have this lasting result: your joy will be complete. Sufferings, sickness, trials, despair, persecution, even death, may come, but you will still have an inner joy in the knowledge that you are connected to Jesus Christ the True Vine, Savior and Lord. You will never be cut off from the life-giving, nourishing True Vine.
We still rejoice when God “prunes” us, because he assures us that this “pruning” is for us to bear much good fruit. We know that Christ abides in us and we in Christ. Even when God “prunes” our lives, we still have complete joy; we still pray in his name when the answer is wait or even no; we still do everything for his glory; we still cling to the promises in his Word even in life’s many disappointments; we still love our church community in spite of its faults, disunity, and jealousies because we know we are all connected to Jesus Christ, the True Vine.
Addendum: The True Vine and the Lord’s Supper
While I did not mention this in the sermon, this is an additional thought on our text.
When we read about the True Vine and the branches in John 15, it is hard not think of the True Food and Drink in John 6. The theme of abiding in Christ is also found in verses 54-56, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” a This is the same language found in John 15:4-5, “Whoever abides in me and I in him …”
The other connection to Jesus’ vine and branches speech is found in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, where he says, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25; Matt 26:29). Jesus even talks about his death in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper then is not merely a remembrance, but is a means by which Christians continue to abide in Christ the True Vine and he in them. In this reading, Jesus the True Vine offers us himself, the “fruit of the vine” as life-giving nourishment for our souls.