At first glance, a branch is not the most exciting or meaningful of metaphors in the Bible for a believer. But as with many words and truths in Scripture, the deeper you dig, the more interesting they become. In the OT, remember that the golden lampstand in the tabernacle was formed to look like a tree with branches. We also read of the fruitful branch, the beautiful branch and the Righteous Branch. The NT speaks of the natural branches, and the one we will look at here in John 15, the vine branch. It is a metaphor the Lord Jesus specifically chose for His final message to His disciples and, among other things, gives invaluable insight in answering the question, “Who am I as a believer in Christ?” In this metaphor, the Lord Jesus reveals God’s essential purpose and unique means to produce in our lives Christ-like attitudes, behavior and character, just like a vine produces grapes on its branches.
It is one of the most intimate and instructive scenes in the Gospels between the Lord Jesus and His disciples as He gathers them for the last time. With the shadows of Calvary looming, an amazing time of fellowship and teaching by the Master with His students unfolds. The lesson came in two sessions: one in the warmth of the upper room, and the other, that we will notice here, in the bracing chill of the night air as they walked to Gethsemane. How would this little band of earnest but faltering disciples ever survive, let alone thrive, as the Savior departed from them via the cross?
Let’s walk with them on their journey and consider the profound and practical instruction the Lord gave them about being branches and bearing fruit in a hostile world.
The Picture that Portrays
The vine, with its branches and grapes, was a familiar sight in Israel and provided an instructive and relevant picture for spiritual truth. The disciples would remember that in the OT the vine, along with the olive and fig tree, was used to symbolize Israel in their relationship, representation, and role in the world for Yahweh. Here, the Lord Jesus, in one of His great “I AM” statements, refers to the vine as well, but He applies it in a very different way. Now, neither His people Israel in the past nor His Church yet to be is the vine, but He is! The Son is the true vine, the Father is the vinedresser, and they/we are the branches.
The Connection that Counts
Our lives and our world are made up of connections. They are essential for any complex object, organism or organization to function and flourish. Just as a branch is connected to the vine, so we have our spiritual link to Christ. This link not only secures and assures our present and ultimate salvation, but it also bestows and carries the divine stream of spiritual life into us, by which we can now produce the true grapes of Christian life and testimony. We are connected to the true and only source we need to be a fruitful branch.
The Pruning that Produces
My uncle and aunt used to occasionally visit our home for a day of rigorous yard work that often involved trimming the bushes and hedges. By the time Uncle Bill was done skillfully cutting away the dead wood and overgrowth with his trusty shears, the branches were a sorry sight. However, amazingly, they would grow back, looking better and healthier than before. Thankfully, with us the Lord Himself is the expert vinedresser who, as needed, wields the shears of His Word to wisely and lovingly prune our hearts and minds and lives of wrong thinking, habits and influences that are impeding our production of spiritual grapes.
On this point, it should be noted that among Bible expositors there are at least two different interpretations of the condition of branches and the cutting of the vinedresser. Among other things, the difference turns mainly on two possible English translations of the Greek word airo in verse 2. It is translated here and other places as “takes away” (Joh 1:29), but in other Scriptures as “lifted up” (11:41). If translated as “lifted up,” some take a comparative view, seeing three types of similar branches being described and understanding all the branches to be symbolizing true believers at various levels of fruit bearing, with the Lord using three different methods of dealing with them. Others, accepting the translation as “takes away,” see the Lord presenting a contrasting view of only two types of branches as being more in line with the immediate context and explaining Judas’ sudden departure and imminent, shocking (to the disciples) betrayal. The branch that is pruned symbolizes a true believer and the branch taken away a false professing non-believer. Whichever interpretation is preferred, both views, along with the rest of Scripture, do not depict a true believer ever being “taken away” from Christ and losing his/her salvation.
The Abiding that Advances
As with every other analogy of the Christian life in the Bible, there is always a corresponding response expected from us to effectively live out the blessing God has brought us into. Grape growing is not automatic! In the Lord’s teaching here, we see the repetition of the key word “abide” to emphasize our responsibility. It simply means “continue in” or “stay where you are.” This doesn’t mean that a branch/believer is uninvolved or inactive, but it describes the daily, consistent practice and nurture of the spiritual life and fellowship we have been brought into through our connection to Christ. Following the basics of prayer, Scripture reading, fellowship with God’s people (other branches) and practical holiness is what it means to “abide in Christ,” with the happy result of advancing our spiritual growth and increasing our grape production.
The Grapes that Grow
It’s inevitable. Being a branch connected to the vine and abiding in Him means that His life will flow through me and that His grapes will grow on me, however minimally. The Lord Jesus, with great expectation, spoke of His disciples “bearing fruit,” “bearing much fruit,” and “that your fruit will abide.” Note the increase in the amount and quality that is anticipated. What are some of those actual grapes? In John 15, the Lord Jesus speaks of obedience (v10), joy (v11), love (v13), faith (v16) and witness (v27). By God’s grace alone, it is true of every Christian that, along with all my fellow believers, a branch in the Vine is who I am and growing grapes is what I do for the glory of God and the blessing of others.