Fruit is a commonly used metaphor in the Bible. John the Baptist spoke of fruit when teaching about the effect repentance has on moral behaviour (Mat 3:8), and the Lord Jesus used fruit to illustrate how we can identify false teachers (7:20). We read about the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), of light (Eph 5:9 JND), of righteousness (Jas 3:18), and the fruit of our lips (Heb 13:15). So, as we move from our dispensational and devotional appreciation of the True Vine to the primary, practical teaching of the saying, it will help if we first identify the specific fruit focused on in the passage.
The immediate context seems to imply that this crop consists of effective prayer (Joh 15:7), joy (v11), witnessing for Christ in a hostile world (vv16,27; 16:1-4) and peace (16:33), all of which are produced as the branches abide in the Vine. Having itemized the fruit, we now consider the importance of those involved and their specific role in generating this harvest.
First, as the Vine, Christ is the source and sustainer of life. The vine supplies nourishment to the branches, and without it, the branches have no life or necessary nutrients for fruit bearing (i.e., love and the Word, vv9,15). Furthermore, fruit is never attributed to the branch but always assumed to be formed by the vine. All power and produce come from the True Vine.
Then, the Husbandman’s role points us to the Father’s work in this spiritual agriculture. Later, we will look closer at the activities of the Vinedresser, but note here in passing that He intervenes by “taking away” the unfruitful and “purging” those who are actively producing.
Finally, for the branches, the concept is simple: the three types represent three classes of people. The difficulty in interpretation comes as we try to determine who makes up these groups. Many sound Bible students, convinced of the doctrine of eternal security, differ in their interpretations of the unfruitful and withered branches. The following is a short discussion of possibilities and probabilities.
The Unfruitful – Taken Away
Assuming that every true believer will be fruitful at some point, in these branches some see people who claim a connection to the Vine but have never been converted. This interpretation is plausible; however, the Lord does refer to these branches as “in Me,” so we should at least consider other potential understandings. Had this branch once borne fruit and been interrupted somehow? Could its present barrenness be temporary? In that case, the unfruitful one is a believer, and at least two different possibilities present themselves:
This Christian could be “taken away” in God’s disciplinary action, as is the person who neglects to examine and adjust himself in 1 Corinthians 11. In this case, being taken away would mean the death of that believer.
The words “taketh away” could also be translated as “lifts up.” If so, we are witnessing the Divine Vinedresser as He works on the barren branch to elevate it from the dirt, making it productive again. Sometimes, believers can become earthly-minded, compromising obedience and draining spiritual energy. The Father anticipates fruit after skillfully removing the defilement, restoring practical separation from the world, and reminding us that, as heavenly people, we should set our minds on heavenly things (Col 3:2).
The Fruitful – Purged or Pruned
These branches are currently generating grapes but need pruning to direct more energy and nutrients toward the fruit. This process is akin to God’s training discipline in every true believer, which is never pleasant but yields fruit afterward (Heb 12:11). This is reinforced when we remember that God’s working in the lives of believers to produce moral results is a common scriptural theme (Rom 8:28-29).
We also appreciate that His Word is a cleanser (Joh 15:3). This is undoubtedly connected with chapter thirteen’s positional truth: “Ye are clean, but not all.” But His Word is also essential practically and daily to keep us free from false doctrine and defilement that would hinder spiritual growth. Overall, then, it is through the circumstances allowed in our life and the Word of God that unnecessary things are removed, resulting in more fruit.
The Withered – Burned in Fire
None are as controversial as the withered branches. The thought of burning conjures images of eternal judgment, causing many to understand these people as pretenders and false teachers. While this group may well be illustrating the eternal doom of an apostate unbeliever, that assessment could come from viewing this group through the wrong lens. If we remind ourselves that fruit-bearing is in question and not salvation, what is the alternative interpretation?
Perhaps the focus on burning here emphasizes the worthlessness of this branch. Ezekiel witnesses to the truth that vines are only good for one thing, and if they are not fruitful, they go into the fire (Ezk 15). So, if we hone in on the worthlessness of the branch and not the judgment, we could have here a believer whose testimony is compromised by his behaviour. The dynamic witness that a Christian could have to the character and power of God now carries no weight because sin has devalued it. Restoration to God is expected after failure, but sometimes the effects linger in the eyes of onlookers. (Note, it’s not necessarily the husbandman who burns these.) This person is possibly a saint who has failed and, in that failure, has lost power in their testimony before men.
Regardless of one’s position on the various branches, we are all responsible for abiding in the Vine. While abiding could be generalized to mean maintaining close communion with our Lord, again, the passage seems more specific. Verses 7 and 10 attest to the same principle: abiding in Him requires obedience to His Word. The concept is clarified, and the bar is raised when the Lord says, “Even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (Joh 15:10 KJV).
Admittedly, the calibre of Christ’s obedience is unattainable, and the primary command to love one another carries this same Christ-like standard. But, despite our limitations, as the Word of God moulds our minds and we aim to live a life of obedience, the True Vine will produce fruit through us.
From bread to grapes, our consideration of the Great I AM has provided us with much spiritual food. Hopefully, unfolding the Son of God’s character in these sayings, with their Old Testament shadows and New Testament teachings, has encouraged our hearts and challenged our minds to think broadly and look for Christ in all the Scriptures.