The Vine must bear fruit (cf. Isaiah 5.1-7)
Filled with the Spirit of truth, Jesus declares that he is the true vine under his Father who is the gardener (15.1). While judgement falls on branches that don’t bear fruit, the Father ‘cleanses’/prunes fruit-bearing branches so that they will produce more fruit. But Jesus declares that his disciples are already ‘clean’ through his Word and so just need to remain firmly in Jesus (cf. John 13.10: “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.”). In union with Jesus his followers will bear fruit (15.3-5). Wonderfully, Jesus’ disciples are told that those who do abide in Jesus will “bear much fruit”. On the other hand they and we need to learn and constantly remember that “apart from me you can do nothing”.
Sin and rebellion against God constantly hinder God’s call of Israel as his people. But now Jesus declares that he is the “true” vine, all that God has called Israel and the Jewish people to be (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7). And Jesus’ followers are to be the fruit-bearing branches who abide in his love and obey his commands (15.9/10). Jesus too shows us the perfect model in that he obeys his Father’s commands and abides in his love (15.10). Jesus makes it clear that his command is that within the people of God we should abide in Jesus’ love and love each other (15.9-17). If we obey Jesus’ commands and abide in his love, he promises us the amazing gift of his joy so that our “joy may be complete” (cf. 1 John 1.3/4). What therefore is the secret of finding true happiness? Abide in Jesus’ love and obey his command to love one another.
While we rejoice in the gift of love and joy which Jesus gives to us as his people, we need also to remember Jesus’ words of warning. If we do not abide in Jesus and obey his commands of love, we shall be like dead branches which are cut off and wither (15.6). Such branches are ‘picked up’ (the word has the same root as ‘synagogue’ to remind us that the vine stands for the Jewish people), thrown into the fire and suffer God’s judgement. But although God’s judgement falls on unbelieving Israel, this applies to all who reject Jesus. And in his covenant with Israel God still has eternal purposes for them.
I am the true vine
In conversation with an agnostic businessman in London I used the word “truth”. He immediately broke into what I was saying, declaring “Truth! What an interesting word! I don’t think I’ve heard that word since I was a boy.” After a pause he added, “After all, no-one believes in truth nowadays, do they?” I suggested to him that as a businessman truth might be rather important. Without truth there can be no trust. But he responded by asserting that in business he wouldn’t trust anyone. What a sad world!
In the Old Testament God is clearly described as “the God of truth” (e.g. Deuteronomy 32.4, Psalm 31.5) and Jesus declares himself to be the truth (John 14.6). As we have already noted, in John’s Gospel the Spirit of God is called ‘the Spirit of Truth’. Truth and therefore trustworthiness lie at the very heart of the Christian faith and life.
What does this picture of the vine representing Israel with Jesus’ disciples as the people of Israel mean today? Has God rejected the people of Israel? Has he replaced them with the very largely non-Jewish church? Or does God still have loving purposes for Israel, the Jewish people? In the Bible we may note a narrowing down of God’s people and then a wonderful expansion. The Old Testament shows that Israel as a whole is called to be God’s people. Sadly the history of Israel shows the people of God often rejecting the Lord and worshipping foreign gods. So we find God’s love being concentrated on ‘the remnant’ of Israel, while most of the people of Israel were cut off like dead branches from God’s loving purposes. Now finally the Father’s love is narrowed even further and Jesus is “the true vine” with his disciples as the living branches. Jesus in his life is all that Israel was called to be. He is the perfect Israel. And God’s call of Israel flows through him to all his followers in union with him. The first disciples and the early church were of course Jewish. God’s purposes for Israel continue in and through Jesus. As the people of God in the Old Testament consisted of Jews plus a few proselytes from other nations, so now too in Jesus all who relate to him in love and faith enter into the promises of the God of Israel. Jews and Gentiles together can now find life and salvation in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. As Romans 12 shows, Gentiles too can be grafted into the Jewish covenantal tree. Throughout the history of God’s church there has always been a core of Jewish believers in Jesus. Even if the majority of Jesus’ followers now are not Jewish, the basis of the church must always remain Jewish – with Gentiles added into the Israel of faith.
So let us pray specially for all Christian ministry among Jews that by God’s Spirit of Truth many may come into life and salvation in Jesus the Messiah. This is why I am specially delighted to be associated with Jews for Jesus, a key evangelistic ministry among Jewish people. God’s covenant with Israel, his promises to the Jewish people can never be withdrawn or countermanded. God’s word and covenant abide for ever.