My parents moved to Connecticut when I was in college, and around the time they were moving in, I visited them. Their new home was not a very impressive house; it was a rustic wood-panel structure with a large overgrown yard. I was helping my dad clean up the backyard when we came across a large grapevine lying on the ground. We would have cut it up and thrown it away if we hadn’t noticed a couple of grapes on it. So we cleared everything away, and my dad said that he was going to enjoy the grapes that it would produce. I thought to myself “Yeah right, good luck with that.” It looked completely wild and literally only had a handful of small grapes. But he built a makeshift trellis, and then we lifted it off the ground and anchored it upon the trellis. Then to my shock my dad started looping off a lot of its branches, even some of the larger ones. I thought he had lost his mind; how could any plant survive such trimming. He went at it like Edward Scissorhands. But sure enough, the next year it had several clusters of nice sweet deep purple grapes. Understanding how one tends a grapevine is essential for correctly understanding what Jesus meant when he said “I AM the true vine.”
Before addressing Jesus’ claim in John 15, it is necessary to survey his other “metaphorical” I AM statements found throughout John’s Gospel. This blog does not address Jesus’ “absolute” I AM statements (e.g., Jn 8.58). While they are important, they are not helpful for understanding what he meant in John 15. Furthermore, John 15.1-8 should not be interpreted in isolation from the prologue of John’s Gospel. But first, let’s briefly survey Jesus’ other “I AM” statements.
There are seven metaphorical “I AM” statements in the Gospel of John, some of which Jesus asserted more than once. They are as follows:
- “I am the bread of life, I am the living bread.” Jn 6.35, 48, 51.
2. “I am the light of the world.” Jn 8.12; 9.5
3. “I am the gate.” Jn 10.7, 9
4. “I am the good shepherd.” Jn 10.11, 14
5. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jn 11.25
6. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Jn 14.6
7. “I am the true vine, I am the vine” Jn 15.1, 5
Most people understand what Jesus meant by his first 6 statements, even though these declarations have slightly different nuances depending upon their particular contexts. They all, nevertheless, have the same general meaning, which is that Jesus claims to be the universal and exclusive provision of eternal life for all humanity. Jesus made this assertion more emphatically in some of his statements than others. Nevertheless, John introduced this very concept in his prologue, in which he clearly asserted that Jesus is the universal savior for all humanity (Jn 1.9-13). Consequently, we should not understand Jesus’ statement that “I am the good shepherd” to only refer to his concern for the nation of Israel, but instead that he is the good shepherd (i.e., that he is both Savoir and Lord) for all humanity. Certainly the disciples would have at least understood Jesus to mean that he was the promised good shepherd of Israel when he first made this claim. Nevertheless, the more we learn about Jesus’ mission and purpose in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, then the more we come to understand that Jesus was not claiming to be just the good shepherd for Israel alone. Jesus was speaking about a greater reality, one that his disciples did not fully comprehend until decades after the resurrection. Nevertheless, we learn that Jesus meant more than was originally understood precisely because his disciples inevitably came to realize that he did in fact mean more than they originally understood him to mean. And having come to the realization that Jesus is the good shepherd for all humanity, they proclaimed this good news to the church and world, which is preserved in the New Testament.
Nevertheless, a problem arises for some as they seek to understand precisely what Jesus meant in John 15.1-8. It arises because some approach this passage in complete isolation from Jesus’ other “I AM” statements. This is understandable given the context in which it is found, which was during Jesus’ last supper with his closest followers. Regrettably, however, from this passage some conclude that Jesus told his followers that believers can lose their salvation if they fail to “abide” in him. The results of such an interpretation is a “faith plus works” salvation, or a “faith plus one’s own power to endure” salvation (which is functionally the same thing). More specifically, some believe and teach that you initially receive the gift of salvation by placing your faith in Jesus, but you maintain it by your own endurance and good works. Such an interpretation is driven more by one’s systematic theology than an actual exposition of the passage, for Jesus made it very clear to those present that they were already “cleaned” because of the word that he had spoken to them (see verse 3, and for further understanding of what being “clean” meant, see John 13.1-11). Moreover, Jesus had previously taught that all who had believed in him already possessed eternal life, and had passed over from death into life (Jn 5.24). Furthermore, he emphatically promised that it was impossible for him to lose anyone that had authentically and rightly believed upon him (Jn 10.28-29). Consequently, such an interpretation ignores both an integral emphasis within the passage, as well as other clear teachings from Jesus concerning the security of the believer found throughout John’s Gospel.
So then, what precisely did Jesus mean when he stated that he is “the true vine”? Jesus’ assertion should be interpreted in the same manner as Jesus’ other “I AM” statements, which is that he is the only true life-giving source for all of humanity (i.e., eternal life). Branches that reveal the fruit of salvation (positional sanctification) are regularly pruned by the Father so that they can bear more fruit (progressive sanctification), thus glorifying God and proving their relationship with Jesus. In the first half of the passage Jesus was teaching his disciples about progressive sanctification (cf., Jn 15.2b-5). The doctrine of “progressive sanctification” focuses upon the concept of personal holiness, which speaks to how believers can “live out” what God has already accomplished in them through Christ. Nevertheless, Jesus made a very important transition in verse 6. In verse 6, he changed from addressing the disciples that were present (i.e., those that he declared were already “cleaned”) to “anyone,” which is an indefinite personal pronoun. Concerning these unknown people he states that “anyone” who does not abide in him is “thrown away” (i.e., those that have not received eternal life through him), and are inevitably gathered for burning (i.e., eternal damnation).
Many misunderstand this passage because they know little about practices of vinedressers and pruning. Jesus knew that vines have only two types of branches, those that produce fruit and those that don’t. Fruit bearing branches are valued, while those that don’t are rejected. Non-fruit bearing branches are known as “suckers.” Suckers completely lack the capacity to bear any fruit, and thus they drain sap from the vine that might otherwise go into fruit bearing branches. Fruit bearing branches also have suckers, which is precisely why vinedressers continually prune them. Vinedressers prune fruit bearing branches so that the vine’s sap will be directed towards fruit production rather than leaf production. Branches that never bear fruit are inevitably cut off because they are worthless for fruit production. Non-fruit bearing branches never produce fruit, no matter how patient you may be with them. Consequently, they are eventually cut off, and then gathered up and thrown into a burn pile. This is exactly Jesus’ point, everybody (i.e., all of humanity) must “abide” in him (i.e., trust and believe) in order to receive the fruit of eternal life. Once someone entrusts themselves to him, then they not only receive the fruit of eternal life, but they also receive the capacity to bear additional fruit to the glory of God. Their capacity to bear more fruit is fostered as God “prunes” their lives of the things that dishonor the Lord or are barriers to their devotion to him. Consequently, because they are believers the Father prunes them so that they may bear even more fruit. Anyone that has not first entrusted themselves to Christ are spiritually dead—no matter how healthy and alive they look, and inevitably they will be cut from the vine and eternally separated from God.
Some still struggle with this passage because they observe that the non-fruit bearing branches have some type of a connection to the “true vine.” This should not be a problem, however, since John’s prologue makes it clear that it was Jesus who created all things (Jn 1.3, 10). Therefore, since Jesus made all humanity, both believers and unbelievers, we should not be surprised that all humanity and creation is sustained by him, even those who have rejected him. Jesus is God incarnate, and as God he sustains all things (Col 1.16-17; Heb 1.1-3), and it was for him that all things were created (Col 1.16), and he has authority over all things (Matt 28.18, John 5.22-23, 27). Jesus is Lord of everything and everybody, whether they correctly acknowledge him or not. Consequently, the scriptures plainly indicate that Jesus sustains the mortal lives of all people—both believers and unbelievers. However, if anyone goes through life without ever receiving him as their Savior and Lord then they forfeit their only opportunity to the eternal life. This is exactly what makes rejecting Jesus so offensive, for by it unbelievers have actually rejected both the true God, as well as the world’s only savior; consequently, there no longer remains any atonement for their sin. Therefore, John 15.1-8, as well as the rest of Jesus’ “I AM” statements, should motivate us to make sure that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is the central focus of all that we do in his name. Consequently, John 15.1-8 should be understood as having an evangelistic emphasis, as well as an explanation of what progressive sanctification looks like for those who have believed and received eternal life. The passage is not just about personal holiness, and it is not just about evangelism, it teaches us about both. And most importantly, it does not explain how believers can lose their salvation.
Believers should always be thankful for the eternal life they have received through the Lord Jesus Christ, and they should renew themselves afresh to allowing the true Vinedresser to prune away that which keeps them from producing fruit that glorifies the majestic name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you have never trusted Jesus’ sacrifice as the only payment of your sins and received him as your Savior and Lord, then there is no better time than now.
Monte Shanks, Copyright © January 17, 2018, The Lantern & Shield Times LLC.