by J. C. Laney
Beginning the analogy, Jesus introduces himself as the vine. The definite article (“the”) with the adjective alēthinos (ἀληθινός) indicates that Jesus is the “true” or “genuine” vine. Although Israel was viewed as the vine in numerous Old Testament texts, Jesus is the “true vine” who fulfills God’s expectation for his people. A growing vine needs care and so Jesus identifies God the Father as the farmer or gardener. God is the one who does the planting, watering, and pruning of the vine. As in Isa 5:1–6, the vineyard is under God’s care and sovereign authority.
Jesus goes on in John 15:2 to describe the work of the gardener or vinedresser in relationship to the branches (klēma, κλῆμα) which are attached to the vine. Jesus doesn’t identify the branches with a particular group of his followers, but he does identify two kinds of branches: the fruit bearing and the fruitless.
It is obvious in this analogy that Jesus is speaking about people, not plants. The context suggests Jesus is referring to his disciples, broadly defined as “interested listeners.” A disciple (mathētēs, μαθητής) is one who listens and learns, “a learner.” A disciple would follow his teacher, learning from what he did as well as from what he said.
Jesus is teaching that there are two kinds of disciples—those who “bear fruit” and those who do not. Crucial to an understanding of this text is the fact that not all disciples continue with Jesus. John records that some of Jesus’ disciples turned away from Jesus’ hard teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66 ESV). John’s point is clear: Not all “disciples” are believers. Some listen and learn for a time, but then turn away, rejecting Jesus and his teaching.
Continuing his application of the analogy, Jesus describes two actions that are taken with regard to the branches. The vinedresser “takes away” (airō, αἴρω) the fruitless branches and “prunes” (kathairō, καθαίρω) the fruit bearing branches. The latter verb can also be translated “to cleanse,” “to purge,” or “to purify.” While it was commonly used in contexts of ceremonial cleansing, kathairō is not the normal word for pruning. Its use here can be attributed to the fact that Jesus is talking about people rather than vines.
Regular pruning is absolutely necessary to maximize the fruit production of a vine. The Mishnah refers to the thinning of the grape vines and the removal of branches that have defective clusters (m. Peah 7:4–5). Robin Murto, a grape grower in Yamhill County, Oregon, says, “Pruning is the single most important job you can do in a vineyard. What eventually ends up in a bottle of wine starts right here.” It is a job that must be done carefully to avoid injury to the vine. She adds, “All it takes is one wrong clip to reduce any given vine’s productivity by half.” Dick Shea, another grape grower in Oregon, notes, “Pruning isn’t something that seems to intrigue people, but it is just absolutely critical. It’s integral to the quality of the grapes.”
Drawing insight from a publication by the California Agricultural Extension Service, Rosscup describes several different kinds of pruning. First, there is the pinching with the thumb and finger to remove the growing tip of a vigorous shoot, so that it will not grow too quickly and be broken or damaged by a gust of wind. Second, there is topping, the removal of one or two feet from the end of a growing shoot to prevent a later loss of the entire shoot, which might be snapped off by the wind. Third, thinning involves the removal of grape flowers or clusters, which enables the rest of a branch to bear more and better quality fruit. Fourth, there is the pruning or cutting away of suckers, which rise from below the ground or from the trunk and main branches of the vine. Some of the pruning takes place during the growing season, but the main pruning takes place in the fall or winter when the grower prunes the vine severely to prepare it for the next growing season.
What is the spiritual lesson Jesus is revealing by this analogy? Jesus is teaching the Eleven in the upper room that as the vinedresser cuts away and removes that which would hinder the productivity of the vine, so God the Father, through loving discipline, removes things from the lives of believers that hinder their spiritual fruitfulness. While the Greek word (kathairō) is translated “to prune,” it could just as well be translated “to cleanse.” And in the next verse Jesus uses the nominal form of this word to say that the Eleven are “clean” (katharos, καθαρός) by virtue of their response to the teachings of Jesus (John 15:3).
As pruning is absolutely critical to growing grapes, so it is in developing spiritual maturity and fruitfulness. And while spiritual pruning in the lives of believers is productive, it is a painful process! The most productive and fruitful Christian leaders are those whom God has pruned. God’s pruning takes place in different ways and often through humbling experiences. But it is always intended to prepare a disciple for a more fruitful and God-glorifying ministry.
While God “prunes” the fruit bearing branches, “he takes away” (airō) the fruitless branches. The Greek word airō is used twenty-three times in John’s Gospel. In eight places it could be translated “to take” or “to lift up” (John 5:8, 9, 10, 12; 10:18, 24). In thirteen places it must be translated “to take away” or “to remove” (John 11:39, 41, 48, 16:22; 17:15; 19:15, 31, 38; 20:1, 2, 13, 15). How is Jesus using airō in this context? Can the first century cultural background provide a clue?
Bible Word Study: αἴρω, airō
Dillow argues that the fruitless branches are lifted up and encouraged: “A fruitless branch is lifted up to put it into a position of fruit-bearing.” He appeals to R. K. Harrison who writes that fallen vines were lifted “with meticulous care” and allowed to heal. It has been suggested that the vines were allowed to lie on the ground during winter and then “lifted” so they could be productive during the growing season. Dillow adds: “If after this encouragement, they do not remain in fellowship with Him and bear fruit, they are then cast out.”
Radmacher reports seeing vineyards in Israel with the stalks of the grape vines down on the ground. He explains that during the growing season the vine-tenders would place a rock under the vine to raise it up. Several days later they would do this again, repeating the process until the vine is raised up and properly positioned for fruit bearing.
While this interpretation has gained interest in recent years, it does not appear to be supported by the practices of vine growing in antiquity. Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), a naturalist and a Roman official, explains five methods for arranging vines in ancient vineyards: (1) vines spread over the ground, a method referred to in Ezek 17:6; (2) self-supporting vines; (3) vines with a prop but no cross-bar; (4) a vine propped up by a single cross-bar; (5) a vine trellised on a rectangular frame. Pliny says that vines which are propped or trellised are better for wine grapes since this provides more sunshine, better airflow for getting rid of dew, and easier access for pruning. They were also easier to harvest since the grapes hung down and were more accessible.
Infographic: Five Methods of Vine Training
Nowhere does Pliny describe a process of “lifting up” the fruitless branches of the vine. In fact, the Mishnah indicates that the wine presented with the offerings in the temple had to be produced from vines that were not trellised, “but only from vines growing from the ground” (m. Menahot 8:6). Dayagi-Mendels explains that vines that spread along the ground are preferred since they produce “a large quantity of fruit” and are “easy to protect from the summer winds.” He adds: “Such vines ripened early in the land of Israel because of the warm ground temperature; this was seen as an advantage. However, the disadvantage for ground spreading vines was that they were easier prey for mice and foxes.”
One could wonder whether the methods of growing grapes have changed in Israel since the biblical period. James S. Snyder, director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, answers: “Methods for cultivating grapes and producing wine have not changed significantly over the centuries.”
Contrary to the views of some interpreters, the normal meaning of the Greek word airō is “to take away” or “remove.” This understanding has the support of a leading Greek lexicon which cites John 15:2 and says that this word is used of branches that are “cut off.”
If the fruitless branches are “cut off,” what does this suggest about their spiritual condition and destiny? Some would argue that the fruitless branches represent Christians who lose their salvation. They may have believed for a time, but their fruitlessness indicates they have lost their faith and forfeited their salvation. This interpretation, however, appears contrary to the clear teaching of Jesus in John 10:28–29, that those who are given eternal life are safe in the hands of the Father and Son and “shall never perish.”
Others have suggested that the fruitless branches represent true Christians who are removed to heaven by physical death as God’s final step of divine discipline. They lose their lives, but not their salvation. The difficulty with this interpretation is John 15:6 where the removal of the fruitless branch is a prelude to judgment, not blessed fellowship with Christ in heaven. A judgment by fire is the destiny of unbelievers only (Matt 3:12; 5:22; 18:8–9; 25:41; 2 Thess 1:7–8; Rev 20:15). Although Paul mentions fire in connection with the judgment seat of Christ, it is a person’s “work” that is burned, not the person (1 Cor 3:13, 15). There is no text in the New Testament suggesting believers undergo a judgment by fire where they themselves are burned.
A view that commends itself by the context and the agricultural background is that the fruitless branches represent disciples who are severed from a superficial connection with Christ, the vine. The fruitless branch represents one who has made an external profession of faith that is not matched by a corresponding internal union with Christ.
At first glance, the phrase “in me” (en emoi) appears to be a problem for this interpretation. How can the fruitless branches be “in Christ” if they represent unbelievers? The words “in me” can be understood in either an adjectival or adverbial sense, meaning they can be used to describe a noun or a verb. These words are often read in an adjectival sense in John 15:2: “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” (ESV). However, every other time the words “in me” are used in John’s Gospel they are used adverbially. This pattern of usage suggests the words should be read adverbially here, too, giving the sense, “Every branch that does not bear fruit in me he takes away.” Bearing fruit is a process that happens only in and through Christ. A branch cannot bear fruit apart from a life-giving connection with Christ, the vine.
THE APPLICATION OF THE ANALOGY (JOHN 15:3–11)
Jesus addresses his disciples in John 15:3 saying, “You are already clean” (katharoi). This is the noun form of the verb kathairō translated in John 15:2 as “he prunes.” Here, the noun form is translated “clean” because of the pruning analogy. The vines are cleaned through the pruning process. Judas has already left the upper room (John 13:27–30), so Jesus is telling the Eleven that they have already been pruned (“you are clean”) and can be expected to produce fruit.
Jesus explains further that the disciples are already “clean” (or pruned) “because of the word” he has spoken to them. This indicates that the Father’s pruning of Jesus’ disciples is not necessarily physical. It can take place through teaching, exhortation, or rebuke (2 Tim 4:2).
Jesus goes on to reveal the secret of bearing fruit (John 15:4–5). As a branch cannot bear fruit unless it is connected with the vine, so Jesus’ disciples will not bear fruit unless they abide in him. There is no fruit bearing apart from abiding in Jesus! Two questions must be answered: (1) What does it mean “to abide”? (2) What does it mean “to bear fruit”?
WHAT IT MEANS TO “ABIDE”
The word “abide” (menō, μένω) literally means “to remain” or “to stay.” The implication of the word is that of a continual, permanent connection or relationship (1 John 3:15). There is a clear relationship in John’s Gospel between believing and abiding. The one who believes in Jesus—that is, who “eats my flesh and drinks my blood” (a concept exegetically parallel to “believes in him”; John 6:54)—abides in Jesus. Everyone who genuinely believes in Jesus does not abide in “darkness” (John 12:46), a Johannine symbol of unbelief (John 12:35–36). John equates confessing Jesus as the Son of God with abiding in God (1 John 4:15). He equates the commandment to “believe” with abiding (menō) in him (1 John 3:23–24). One who allows the gospel message to “abide” in his heart “will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24 ESV). Kent comments, “These passages show that confessing Jesus as the Son of God (i.e., believing in Jesus) establishes the relation of abiding. Thus to abide in Christ is equivalent to believing on Christ.” S. T. James concludes: “In his Gospel, John consistently uses menō to indicate the permanent nature of relationships.” This assessment seems to be especially true in John 15:1–6, which helps explain the rather strange absence of “believe” in this passage.
Bible Word Study: μένω, menō
To “abide” is to maintain a vital (life-giving) contact with the vine, the source of life. Belief is the connection which unites the vine and branches. The lack of fruit indicates that one is not abiding (believing) in Christ. The absence of abiding indicates deficient belief, as seen in John 2:23–25; 7:31; 8:31, 40, 45, 46; 12:11, 37. Tenney refers to this “belief” which falls short of genuine faith as “superficial.” Morris calls it “transitory belief,” which is not saving faith.19 It appears to be based merely on an outward profession which is not an inward spiritual reality coupled with regeneration.
The problem with this “belief” is its content. Such belief is based on something other than a clear understanding of Jesus the Messiah and Son of God. Many people are inclined to believe something about Jesus, but are unwilling to yield him their allegiance, trusting him as their personal sin-bearer. Paul’s comment about the Cretans is a case in point: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16). If there is no fruit, there is no faith, regardless of one’s verbal profession.
If “abiding” means “believing,” what is the result of not abiding? This is the question addressed in John 15:6 where Jesus explains the destiny of the branch that bears no fruit and is removed. The branch that does not have a life-giving connection with Christ the vine (i.e., “does not abide”) is “thrown away, “withers,” and is “burned.” This corresponds to the tares in Matt 13:40–42 that are gathered, bound in bundles, and burned. In a phone conversation with Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedummim (the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel) and an expert in ancient agriculture, I asked what was done with the trimmings that were pruned from the vine. He answered: “When the branches dry, they make good kindling.”
Only unbelievers are destined for a judgment by fire (Matt 3:12; 25:41). When believers are judged, only their “work” is burned (1 Cor 3:13, 15). The fruitless branches which do not abide are “cast out” (eblethe exo), something Jesus promised he would not do to believers (John 15:6; 6:37). This conclusion may be supported by Jeremiah’s use of the vine imagery to describe God’s judgment of Judah where he writes: “Strip off her branches, for these people do not belong to the Lord” (Jer 5:10).
Some have found it troubling that people who have had some sort of connection with Jesus as professing believers are eventually severed from Christ. But this teaching is not unique to this text. John the Baptist instructed the religious leaders who approached him for baptism to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). He added, “Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:10). Jesus warned of the same consequences and added, “Thus, by their fruits you will recognize them” (Matt 7:19–20). Paul wrote of the Cretans who professed to know God, “but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for anything good” (Titus 1:16). James wrote that a faith which is not accompanied by actions is “dead” (Jas 2:17).
THE RESULT OF ABIDING
What, then, is the result of abiding? What kind of fruit might be expected of those who have a life-giving connection with Christ the vine? It is often thought that Jesus is suggesting that true believers will be fruitful as they participate in the harvest of souls for the kingdom (John 4:35–38). Others recall the words of Paul to the Galatians where he identifies nine fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23). But sound principles of exegesis require that we consider the immediate context first.
There are six results of abiding that Jesus mentions specifically in the verses following the analogy of the vine and branches: (1) effectual prayer (John 15:7), (2) glorifying the Father (John 15:8a), (3) authenticating oneself as a genuine disciple (John 15:8b), (4) a continued confidence in Jesus’ love (John 15:9), (5) obedience to Jesus’ commandments (John 15:10), and (6) fullness of joy (John 15:11). Other fruit that result from abiding in Christ are not excluded from this list, but these appear from the immediate context and are the focus here.
Jesus’ teaching on the vine and the branches is not intended to undermine a sense of assurance for true believers, those “branches” that have a life-giving connection with Christ, the vine. Nevertheless, self-evaluation is good. Paul does so himself (2 Cor 13:13). Are there people who have merely professed to be Christians without having experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? If so, this text calls us to recognize the need to trust Jesus alone for our salvation and to enter into the blessings of the New Covenant.
Why did Jesus give this teaching to the Eleven who were true believers? Remember Judas? He had spent three years as an apostle, traveling with Jesus, seeing his miracles and listening to his words. Yet in the end, Judas died in unbelief (John 17:12). On the night of his betrayal of Jesus he left the upper room where the disciples had gathered. John’s words, “And it was night” (John 13:30), reflect the spiritual condition of the heart of one who had cut himself off from Jesus, the light of the world. Jesus gave the analogy of the vine and the branches so that his disciples would be able to distinguish true belief from a mere profession of faith and be able to minister to “professing” believers appropriately.
Fruit bearing inevitably results from abiding (believing) in Christ. If there is no life-giving connection with Christ, the vine, there will be no fruit. Although God alone knows for sure who are his own, the test of fruitfulness will help believers to discern whether or not a professing Christian’s faith is genuine. This spiritual insight is not designed to give us some basis for spiritual pride, but to enable us to minister to those whose baptism or church membership might lead them to think they are believers when in fact they have no vital, life-giving relationship with Jesus, the vine.
Laney, J. C. (2016). Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (pp. 433–441). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.