1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
Jesus begins today’s passage by comparing himself to a vine (a true one) and the disciples to branches of that vine. The image of God’s people as a vine that God tended appears more than once in the Old Testament. Consider the following passages:
1 Now let me sing to my Well-beloved / A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: / My Well-beloved has a vineyard / On a very fruitful hill.
2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, / And planted it with the choicest vine. / He built a tower in its midst, / And also made a winepress in it; / So He expected it to bring forth good grapes, / But it brought forth wild grapes.
3 “ And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, / Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
4 What more could have been done to My vineyard / That I have not done in it? / Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, / Did it bring forth wild grapes?
5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: / I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; / And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will lay it waste; / It shall not be pruned or dug, / But there shall come up briers and thorns. / I will also command the clouds / That they rain no rain on it.”
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, / And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. / He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; / For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help. (Isaiah 5:1-7)
Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a seed of highest quality. / How then have you turned before Me / Into the degenerate plant of an alien vine? (Jer. 2:21)
Israel empties his vine; / He brings forth fruit for himself. / According to the multitude of his fruit / He has increased the altars; / According to the bounty of his land / They have embellished his sacred pillars. / Their heart is divided; / Now they are held guilty. / He will break down their altars; / He will ruin their sacred pillars. (Hosea 10:1-2)
In each of these passages, Israel was the vine, but this vine proved to be worthless. Whereas Israel turned out to be a false vine, Jesus now describes himself as the true vine. As Fr. Farley writes, “As God tended Israel of old, so the Father now tends Jesus’ disciples, the branches of the true vine” (271).
In verse 2, Jesus says that if a branch (that is, a disciple) does not bear fruit, he will take it away. But every branch that does bear fruit, God prunes, so that it may bear even more fruit (just as an earthly vinedresser would do). Sometimes, even fruitful Christians get bogged down in life, and their fruit begins to dry up (or perhaps some sin or bad habit prevents them from being as fruitful as they could be. So God may “prune” that person by allowing (or even sending) affliction into their lives.
In 2 Cor. 1:3-11, St. Paul (who was very fruitful and yet knew his share of afflictions) spoke of one purpose for which God allows afflictions into a Christian’s life: so that they can better comfort other who go through the same thing. Listen to what the Orthodox Study Bible’s note on this passage says:
“The source of afflictions is the sin of humanity. The purpose of afflictions, if we use them properly, may be our comfort and salvation, as the Father himself preserves us through them (v. 3). The means of facing our afflictions is a hope in God which allows us to enter into the afflictions of others in actual, experiential knowledge. In this case, this means empathizing with their apostle’s trials” (406).
In verse 3, Jesus tells the disciples that they have already been pruned, or cleansed, by accepting his teaching and becoming his disciples. They are now ready to bear fruit for him. Of course, they would all see much more “pruning” later. The pruning is a continual process that goes on throughout our lives, the purpose of which is to make us ever more fruitful.
As we see in verse 4, however, in order to have even a chance of being fruitful, Jesus’ disciples must abide (or “remain”) in him. During the last storm that we had before Hurricane Ike, the strong winds blew over the giant bouganvilla plant that covered one side of our house next to our patio. Jennifer spent quite some time trimming it down, cutting off the branches that fell over and broke. She and I made a huge pile of these branches in a corner of our yard. Over time, the flowers on these branches died, the branches themselves withered, and they all turned an ugly brown color (although the thorns are still doing well, thank you very much!). But obviously, these branches, after being cut down, could no longer bear fruit (flowers in this case). They were good for nothing but to be thrown out.
In the same way, we, as Christians, must maintain our inner spiritual union with Christ by loving and obeying him, even in the face of hardship. If we do not do this, then we cannot hope to bear any type of spiritual fruit, and we are of no use to God. As Jesus says in verse 5, without him, we can do nothing, at least nothing of lasting spiritual value.
Food for Thought: How do we maintain that spiritual union with Jesus? Stated another way, what does it mean to “abide in him?”
More Food for Thought: What does it mean to "bear fruit?" Post your answers to these questions (if you would like) as a comment.