The I AM Statements in John: I AM the True Vine

For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people” (Psa 149:4).[1] Between the Hallelujah bookends of a Psalm exhorting the Lord’s people to praise and worship stand these words that could easily be overlooked. While further consideration highlights their sweetness to us practically, there is an actual theological significance to this phrase that can be traced throughout the Scriptures, giving us insight into God’s purpose for creating and communicating with mankind: God delights in His people.

While the beginning of our Bible may only vaguely reference this theme (Gen 1:31), the book of Revelation is more direct: “For thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (4:11). Ultimately and eternally, God’s creation was designed to bring Him holy joy.

But how is this relevant to our Lord’s statement, “I AM the true vine” (Joh 15:1)? In what way does the Bible connect a glad heart to a vine? For this, we need only look at Jotham’s parable in the book of Judges (9:7-15). When rebuking the men of Shechem’s selection of Abimelech as king, Jotham’s words about the character of the trees are enlightening. In arguing that they had chosen the most volatile and least suitable ruler, he likens Abimelech to the thorn bush, whose leadership would be contentious and eventually devour them. The teaching about the olive tree being connected with fatness and the fig tree being linked to sweetness can also be instructive, but what is said of the vine is what helps us in our study. His summary of the creeping plant implies that, in that era, the vine was commonly known for bringing cheer to God and man. And so we have pictured in the fruit of the vine that which rejoices the heart of God (v13).

Metaphorically, different trees in the Scriptures illustrate the nation of Israel as they compare and contrast to the Gentiles.[2] The olive tree, producing oil for lamps, becomes a picture of Israel in testimony to those in darkness around them. The fig tree could be said to symbolize Israel politically among the nations. But the vine displays Israel in obedience and worship, bringing God joy in contrast to the lawless and idolatrous heathen.

Isaiah chapter 5 sings for us the song of the vineyard, giving us a glimpse of a gardener’s labour and purpose. He selects a fertile location, provides a barrier of protection, removes all of the stones and plants a choice, noble vine. After building a tower and making a winepress, he then looks to harvest sweet red grapes. The analogy focuses on the owner’s disappointment in the vineyard, for rather than receiving the tender fruit he sought, he found the bitter “wild grape” sour and worthless (Isa 5:1-7).

The interpretation is then made clear. The people of Israel/Judah were that choice and pleasant vine, and God provided every condition necessary for a productive vineyard. The location (Canaan), the hedging (the law enforcing separation from the nations), and the gathering out of the stones (casting out the nations, Psa 80:8) were all designed to foster fruitfulness. Furthermore, the security of the watchtower (the warnings of the prophets) and the wine fat to extract the juice (the temple[3] in its worship) provided no excuse for failure. Yet, the supple produce of moral righteousness and justice quickly morphed into the wild grapes of oppression and cries of affliction. The fruit God received was not the pleasant-tasting product of a nation obeying and worshipping but the unsavory disappointment of a people rebelling against God’s law and offering Jehovah’s praise to idols. Israel had failed in fruit bearing.

This theme is repeated in a parable that the Lord Jesus told. There was no doubt that Israel and its leaders were the objects of sharp rebuke when He tells of a husbandman whose attempts to garner fruit were met with hostility and murder (Mat 21:33-46; Mar 12:1-12; Luk 20:9-18). Israel confirmed their barrenness by rejecting the prophets sent to warn and instruct them. But they sealed their demise when they rejected the Son.

As this leads us to our subject, we eavesdrop again on the Lord’s farewell teaching. He has already emphasized humility and holiness, but now He will convey spiritual lessons from horticulture. Moving from the upper room, as they make their way toward Olivet, He says, “I AM the true vine.” Some wonder if there had been a rogue vine en route to Gethsemane that the Lord was using as an object lesson for this teaching, but whether or not that is true, to the Hebrew mind the imagery was familiar. The insertion of the word “true” in this phrase may cause us to contrast this Vine with one that was false, fake or fraudulent. But in reality, Israel wasn’t a false vine; they had failed.[4] His point was clear. Set in opposition to Israel’s disobedience and idolatry, the True Vine would never fail to delight the Father!

In a life marked by perfect submission to the will of the Father, we can quantify the True Vine’s production from different angles. On two occasions, God Himself announced from above, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mat 3:17). The Lord Jesus was heard saying, “I do always those things that please him” (Joh 8:29), and the peak of Paul’s Christological teaching extols One whose obedience to His Father led to the cross death (Php 2:8). Surely, this Vine accomplished its purpose.

The contrast is sharp, and the meaning is clear: the True Vine had now come. But the teaching doesn’t end there. While seeing Christ as the Vine is dispensational and devotional, the thrust of the teaching only begins at this point. In our next and final article, we will see how there are three different roles necessary in fruit bearing: the Vine (Christ), the Husbandman (the Father) and the branches (believers). We will follow the Lord’s teaching as He emphasizes the life in Himself, the Father’s work in the vineyard and the importance of abiding in Him. Until then, the oft-sung hymn reminds us of our theme:

All His joy, His rest, His pleasure,
All His deep delight in Thee;
Lord, Thy heart alone can measure
What Thy Father found in Thee.[5]

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[2] From the teachings of A.M.S. Gooding.

[3] W.E. Vine, Collected Writings of W.E. Vine (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1996).

[4] Christ is the True Vine in the sense that He is the ideal. See David Gooding, In the School of Christ (Coleraine, Northern Ireland: Myrtlefield House, 2013), 130.

[5] C. Anne Wellesley (1850–1910)