John 15 – Nice about the vine but what about the burnt-up branches???

April 2020. For Nadja.

The ‘problematic’ reading of John 15.

There appears to be a dark side to this ‘true vine’ discourse by Jesus which is the discarded branches. In verse 2, the Father/gardener ‘cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit’ and in verse 6 he says that ‘if anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up and thrown into the fire and burned’.

At face value, this is scary.  It seems to imply that if any of us disciples don’t ‘remain’ in him, then we will face an uncertain future.  In fact, it looks like we could be burned up which most Christians would associate with hell and the lake of fire. So, is this saying that Christians who don’t remain in Christ will be sent to hell – to put it bluntly??

At times the church, or parts of the church did believe this.  The Donatists in the fourth century were the most famous example. They believed that apostate believers would not be redeemed even if they asked for forgiveness. Most evangelicals today would be uncomfortable with this belief, and would believe that once a Christian, always a Christian and that we cannot lose our salvation. That still leaves us with an awkward passage like this, so preachers and believers try to tone down the judgment implied by ‘cuts off’ and ‘thrown into the fire’.  They say that this implies temporal chastening on earth, and some consequences of sin, but not our final destiny.

Of course, John 15 is just one of several scary passages that seem to imply judgment for Christians and even that Christians can lose their salvation.  (Hebrews 6:1-6 is the scariest example). These passages evoke feelings of guilt and unworthiness in Christians, and so they are often used as preparations for confession.  

So what is going on?  How does grace fit in with judgment?  John 15 is a great example of this because it seems to mix verses that are full of comfort with verses that are full of fear – right next to each other. In fact, Jesus himself says at the conclusion of this ‘true vine’ section that he has told them these things so that ‘my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete’.  Warning people that may be thrown into fire and burned seems a strange way to make people’s joy complete!

A Better Reading – Jesus is the new “Israel” of God

Jesus is not talking about individual salvation or the fate of souls here:  the main theme is that he is the “true vine”, and everything else follows from this theme.  We don’t really appreciate the magnitude of this claim unless we think like first century Jews. By saying that he is the true vine, Jesus was making a massive landgrab: he was saying that he, a single man, was in fact the true Israel, the true nation. His audience (the disciples) would recognise this immediately since the imagery of Israel being the ‘vine’ that Yahweh planted was a common one in the Jewish scriptures. The disciples knew that this role was what Jesus was appropriating for himself.

For instance, Psalm 80 famously said,

“You brought a vine out of Egypt.. and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.”   Even more significantly, the Psalmist goes on to imply that this ‘vine’ is not just the nation, but a person; “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son  you have raised up for yourself.”

And Isaiah 5 sings the same song but turns it more tenderly to a semi love song.

“I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. He looked for a crop of good grapes but it yielded only bad fruit.”

If Jesus is the true vine, his disciples were the true branches…

But Jesus went further and aligned his disciples with his landgrab by saying that they were the branches. This extension of the image moved the disciples, and us, right to the heart of the big claim, because being ‘grafted’ into Jesus, implies that we are of a similar stock to Jesus the true vine. The imagery aligns us and Jesus even more closely than Jesus and the Father, since the Father is the ‘gardener’ and we and Jesus are the growing vine. He is the progenitor, the rootstock of the whole new vineyard.

Importantly the disciples did not deserve this either. They were about to betray and abandon Jesus through fear.  But we know that this was not their final fate.  He held onto them and once they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they took his message to the whole world. The imagery suggests that they were ‘pruned’ by this trial and their failures.  This pruning however was not to discard them but make them grow faster and better. We should apply the ‘pruning’ part of this section to ourselves as disciples. Ie we can and will fail, but the Gardener will use that to promote our growth.

What then of the discarded branches – the branches that don’t bind to the rootstock and hence fail to yield fruit?  I think he is primarily talking about the Jews who were about to crucify him. He is announcing a coup here – he will become the true Israel and all of the promises that Israel has gathered to itself will move over to Jesus. The actual act of that takeover will be the Jews crucifying Jesus.  So the Jews’ position at the core of God’s promises will pass to Jesus.

The fig tree that failed to produce fruit

The judgment of the vine/plant of Israel is not an isolated theme in the gospels. We should read this passage alongside the fig tree mentioned in Matthew 21: which also happened in the passion week. Jesus was on his way into the city and was hungry. He passed a fig tree hoping to eat its fruit, but it was barren, so Jesus said, ‘May you never bear fruit again’ and the fruit tree withered. This fig tree symbolised the nation of Israel as a political and social entity not the individuals in it.  This meaning is reinforced because the cursing of the fig tree is juxtaposed with Jesus cleansing the temple.  The temple was meant to be God’s house and a place for his presence, for the ‘fruit’ of God’s character to be evident on the earth. Instead they had made this a den of thieves. That means that it, the temple, and by extension Israel, was not yielding fruit.

This theme of the Father expecting fruit from Israel dominates the gospels – and one of the recurrent metaphors is that of harvest.  Yahweh expected harvest from Israel but instead he got nothing. So he will cast them aside and choose others.

For Jesus to position himself as the true vine – the vine that does indeed bear the fruit that God wanted – was amazing confidence in the context of the passion week.  Just consider his position in that last week. He was being surrounded by the powers of his day, an alliance of convenience between three bastions of power in the region; Israel, Rome and Herod. Measured against anyone of these, he had no resources, no power, no authority. In particular the whole machinery of Israel, both political and religious was arrayed against him with sinister intent. Jesus was an outlier, literally and figuratively. He was from the rustic north of Galilee and he was not high born, had no networks to call on, no influence to wield. In the minds of his disciples, they were about to fall off a cliff. They loved this man, but despite his achievements, it all looked hopeless.  So they were filled with anxiety and fear.

It was into this context, this frightened audience, that Jesus said these words, and their primary interpretation must be located in this intimate setting: one man to his eleven friends encircled by a horde of enemies within a sense if impending doom. Into this hopeless landscape Jesus turns the tables and says in effect – I am greater than all the machinery of Israel, in fact, I am the new Israel.

He makes his purpose in saying this clear – he wants to comfort them.  He wants their joy to be full. “I have spoken these things to you that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full”. (verse 11)

What about Israel’s fate as the discarded branches?

All of this might lead you to ask, “Okay but what about the discarded branches of Israel?  Are they burnt up forever? And what does the image of being ‘burned up’ imply?”

In order to answer this question intelligently, it is first necessary to address the question of fruit. What does Jesus mean by this idea of ‘bearing fruit’?  And even more broadly, what does the Scripture, including the Old Testament, mean by this?  This is a vital prelude to answering the discarding issue, because the reason that the branches are discarded is quite explicit – they failed to bear fruit.  So, we need to first build out the wider meaning of fruit bearing.  

Isaiah 5 is very helpful here because it lists the fruits that God was looking for and failing to find in the nation of Israel. These are a litany of social sins primarily focusing on the rich and powerful. He begins the list with a sobering declaration – The Lord was ‘looking for justice but saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.”  (Isaiah 5:7). This declaration tells us two things; firstly, that the LORD is looking for fruit on the earth and secondly that he is hearing the cries of victims.  This tells us that he does not have an arbitrary list of ‘standards’ that we need to keep – his interest is people, and in particular the vulnerable and the victims.  He loves humanity and he expects everybody, especially leaders, to take care of each other and in particular the weak and disadvantaged. This picture of sin is more about a social system than just individuals. Isaiah 5 reads like a culture map of a decrepit Israel.

We can expand this picture well beyond Israel and apply it to all humankind. The LORD wants to see the fruit of brotherly love and in particular, just and humane societies on the earth he has given us.

This gives more force to what Jesus went on to say about the ‘fruit’ that his Father expected from his disciples. It was love.  This would mark out his kingdom. So to extend the image of the vine; Jesus is the vine planted in the soil of God’s domain, life and love. We are engrafted onto him, and so have access to the juice of life and love that flows directly from the heart of God’s soil.  The Father is not just planting vines for no reason, he wants to see fruit. He wants to see his character displayed.

Hebrews 7,8 and 9 says that the old covenant failed to produce this fruit. “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect) …”  (Heb 7:18).  So, it was not just the Jews but the system of law that failed to produce the fruit that God wanted. Hence, he introduced a new hope – his Son - to inaugurate a new covenant.

So, what of the fate of the nation of Israel?

Paul covers this explicitly in a complex argument in Romans 9 – 11.  The short answer is that ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Rom 11:26).  In my view, this only makes sense within the wider framework that all humanity will be saved which is in fact what Paul says in 11:32 “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all”.

In essence his argument is this;

Has God cast aside his people the Jews?  No – just look at history, including Pharoah.  He uses people (including their disobedience) to achieve his ultimate aim which is the salvation of all. So ‘casting aside’ is not permanent but a means to that end aim. He has ‘cast aside’ Israel temporarily in order to introduce the blessing of salvation to the Gentiles, and the whole world. Once that final aim is achieved, he will also save all of Israel.

What about Christians who don’t bear fruit?

This is a vexed question that torments lots of believers. When I hear questions after sermons at church, a significant number of them are versions of this question. This is troubling because it indicates that people are insecure about their standing with God and their ultimate fate. We can try to assure people by emphasising the grace of God expressed in Christ which is total.  But that still leaves the question of accountability, ‘guilt’  and fruit.

The answer is to pull apart salvation and fruit.  They are different matters and you will confuse them both if you mix them up. Salvation is entirely the work of Christ and was achieved finally and conclusively at the cross by his dying and rising. Nobody can add anything to this achievement.  Not one work of righteousness or an entire lifetime of good fruits and good works can achieve this salvation. That is why the Bible says, as far as salvation is concerned, “all our righteousness is like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64;6).   This does not mean that our acts of righteousness don’t matter or don’t please God; it means that these acts of righteousness cannot save us. The test of ‘salvation’ is simple: if would mean that we lived eternally and escaped death.  Nobody, no matter how righteous they are, can do this.  This vast achievement was left to Christ.  This is the argument that Paul works hard to develop in the first three chapters of Romans so that ‘every mouth will be silenced and the whole world will be held accountable to God.’ (Rom 3:20)

But God wants fruit from his vine – and that means good works, and love. It also means truth.  The clearest explanation of the separation of salvation from fruit is given in 1 Corinthians 3:10 – 15. Paul says that ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Christ Jesus.’  We accept this foundation by faith and that saves our souls. But what is now very much up for grabs is what we build on that foundation – which is the ‘fruit’ of our lives. Paul says if we build good things on this foundation, they will endure into eternity, but if we build insubstantial things on this foundation they will be consumed by fire, and won’t pass into the kingdom of God. However, he is careful to say “If it burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames’.  This escaping means he takes nothing with him – ie no ‘fruit’.

Conclusion

So here my concluding thoughts on John 15, and the vine imagery.

1) Christ is taking to himself the position of Israel on the earth – ie the position of the holder of the promises of God and the source of blessing to the earth that began with Abraham.

2) Christ is also declaring himself to be the first fruits of a new humanity, a new ‘vine’

3) In so doing, he is aligning himself with the disciples, the church, and finally all of humanity.  Ie the imagery of the vine and the branches suggests a common humanity, a common kind of species between the vine and the branches that allows the sap of life to flow to the branches via the rootstock that the Father has planted

4) This whole project has a purpose to bear fruit. Gardeners want fruit, they want flowers, growth and fruit.  God wants fruit from humanity, including the Jews.

5) In his desire and purpose to gain fruit, he both prunes and discards – metaphors for the temporary disciplining of this life

6) But in the end, all will be saved and that includes Israel.

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[1]The Hebrew word used here could mean ‘branch’ as well as ‘son’.  Even if we take the meaning as ‘branch’ thePsalm is still suggesting that God’s interest in this spreading vine has narrowed right down to one branch.

[2] WeChristians use this word more freely than the writers of the New Testament did.  It is never used by any of the writers of the epistles to describe the state of Christians or even Gentiles.There are only three candidates, and the most famous is Rom 3:19 – ‘That the whole world should be found guilty before God’. This was how the Authorised Version translated it, and it is universally recognised today as a mis-translation. Cf Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NewTestament Words which says it should be translated something like ‘be held accountable ’or ‘under the judgement/jurisdiction of’.  The NIV translates it ‘held accountable’ to God.  But I think when we use this word it often indicates a psychological state of ‘feeling guilty’… before God - which theScripture does not endorse. Although the Scripture does not use a direct word to describe this psychological state of feeling precarious and unworthy beforeGod, it does address it very directly in the book of Hebrews. The writer says that the rituals of the Law failed to ‘clear the consciences’ of the worshippers, and as a result it was discarded. In contrast, Christ’s sacrifice, once and for all ‘cleansed our conscience’ so that we could ‘serve the living God’.  This implies that if we have a precarious sense of guilt before God, we cannot serve him effectively. As a result the writer to the Hebrews declares that God’s goal is that we should feel ‘confident’ before him, not ‘guilty’. (Hebrews 9;14 “How much more will the blood of Christ … cleanse our conscience … so that we may serve the living God”and then, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience…”Heb 10: 22.

Tony Golsby-Smith
Published
February 11, 2020

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