What About those Branches that are Burned?
You can’t read the Gospel by John without noticing the words “the Father” (58x) and “My Father” (27x). Apart from two statements in John 1, two in John 13, and two questions by the disciples in the Upper Room, all the other usages come from the lips of the Lord Jesus. Add to that His use of “My Father,” “living Father” (Jn 6:57), “holy Father” (17:11), and “righteous Father” (v 25). Who knows the Father better than the Son? What better place to learn about the Father than these 85 references made by the One who came to reveal Him?
But of course there is so much more to learn about the Father, the One also called “our Father” in the prayer Christ taught His disciples, and “your Father” to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection. For, as the Lord explained, His words and deeds also came from the Father (Jn 12:49-50; 5:19, 36; 10:32). It was the Father’s will He came to do, and finished (5:30; 17:4). The glory He manifested was the glory of the Father (1:14; 14:13). And when His work on earth was done, He did not speak of going to heaven, but to the Father (16:10; 20:17).
In the Upper Room, the Lord Jesus unfolds the wonders of the working of the Godhead in the believer’s life. Our familiarity with the words in John 15 might prevent us from finding their secrets, unless, like a careful vintner, we pull back the leaves to find the choicest clusters. Here, in His own words:
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit…If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples (Jn 15:1-2, 6-8).
HOW IS CHRIST THE “TRUE” VINE?
It should be evident that the right answers generally come to those who ask the right questions. And our first question is this: What does the Lord mean by calling Himself the true vine? Israel is described as a vine of God’s planting (Ps 80:8, 14; Isa 5:1-7; Jer 2:21, etc.). Is He contrasting Himself with Israel, they being false and He being true? That may be the case, but something lies deeper in His words.
Contrary to the notions of modern sociology and anthropology, man did not begin as a polytheist and then slowly evolve into a monotheist. It was clearly the other way around. In their folly, the nations took the attributes of God and made them into many gods—of love, of fertility, of war, of the sea, and so on. The universe became a place ruled by impersonal forces. Through idolatry, they sought to manipulate these forces to their benefit.
So God raised up Israel as a demonstration to the contrary.
GOD’S PLAN IN TRANSPLANTING ISRAEL
What if a small and lowly people, vine-like, could be transplanted out of slavery in Egypt, and placed beside the most travelled route in the ancient world? Canaan is the land bridge between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Desert and links the three ancient continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. If Israel—transplanted, watered, cultivated, and rooted in God—could bear the sweet fruit of the Spirit, what would be the effect on the nations who tasted her fruit? Would it not draw them to conclude that if they were also rooted in the God of Abraham, their peoples could also bring forth that vintage “which cheers both God and men” (Jud 9:13).
The word “true” (alethinos) with its cognates occurs about 20 times in the book of John. The Lord is also referred to as the true Light (Jn 1:9) and the true Bread (6:32). The word “true” is defined as “that which has not only the name and resemblance, but the real nature corresponding to the name.” Jesus was certainly not calling the manna false bread, but was referring to Himself as the actual bread which the manna illustrated.
In the same way, in calling Himself the true Vine, the Lord was not stating Israel to be false. Rather He was declaring that He did not become the Vine at His incarnation. He was actually the true Vine all through history, the Vine of which Israel was to have been a figure. Were Abraham and David not growing on the Messiah all along? How else could He say that “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (8:56) if the patriarch wasn’t drawing his life from the Messiah? And how would David pen the words: “They pierced My hands and My feet” (Ps 22:16) if he wasn’t drawing the experience from Christ Himself? The hope of the coming Messiah was the life force in the faith of the OT saints.
IF MESSIAH IS THE VINE, WHO ARE THE BRANCHES?
But clearly there was a problem. There were many Israelites who had a natural connection to the Messiah but no spiritual link. Like the two “His own” statements in the book (Jn 1:11; 13:1), the first encompassed both natural and spiritual sons of Abraham; the second verse includes only the saved. Or think of Peter’s usage of Hosea’s children, Lo-Ammi, meaning “not My people” and Lo-Ruhamah, meaning “not having obtained mercy.” He writes that we “once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet 2:10). While this reference may refer only to Jews who have placed their faith in Christ, Paul shows the same link for redeemed Gentiles in Rom 9:25-26.
The Lord refers to branches “in Me” who do not have the life of the Vine flowing through them. The Jewish leaders intended to cut off the Lord Jesus, but He was declaring that they would be the branches cut off, not He, who is the Vine. On the other hand, there were some branches who needed purging and pruning. They showed evidence of life because they bore fruit, but the Divine Vinedresser wants “more fruit,” “much fruit,” and “fruit that remains” (Jn 15: 2, 5, 16). As we saw in an earlier study, it is the Father who know the difference between those who have form but no life and those who share the life of the Vine and so bear fruit.
LIFTED UP OR THROWN INTO THE FIRE?
Some suggest the explanation for those branches “in Me” that bear no fruit lies in a different meaning for “takes away.” They suggest the Greek word airo should be translated “lifts up” and describes the work of a Middle East vinedresser who props up struggling branches so they might become fruitful. It is true that airo can mean this, as when the Lord lifted up His eyes. Some find this helpful. But does that solve the whole picture? What then of the consequence of not having that fruit-bearing life? “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned” (v 6).
It seems the best explanation for the whole passage is to see this as another description of the transition from old to new, from those who had a natural connection to the Messiah to those who have His life in them through faith. Who are His true relatives? “Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven” (Mt 12:50).
In closing, whatever your view of the issue discussed above, please notice the 3-fold secret of fruitfulness.
First, there is the reality of the life-principle of Christ the Vine in the believer. All heaven’s resources are vested in Him and He is in us: “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him” (Col 2:9-10).
Second, there is the Father’s pruning and purging ministry to remove what restricts greater blessing. Who of us should cry over the cut-away bits of sucker and dead wood when the result is more fruit?
Third, there is the command given to us that stresses our personal responsibility: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). To abide (meno) is to seek to make the Lord at home in our lives and the Word leaves us in no doubt regarding what pleases, and displeases, Him.
You’ve probably heard it before—the secret of abounding is abiding. It has nothing to do with externals. Christianity is an inside job. If we limit the Lord’s access to our real selves, we cannot expect a life of blessed fruitfulness. Because, as He says, “Apart from Me…nothing.”