"I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman (John 15.1)."
We believe that all who are familiar with the Bible have found a measure of comfort in this subject at one time or another. Sermons and articles regarding the vine abound. We personally have read many articles on the vine and have heard countless sermons from this text as well. Much we heard and read was well received. Regrettably, much was not.
Almost without exception those commenting on the vine and its branches have drifted from the clear illustration the Lord used, and to some degree violated the profitable practice of comparisons. Some commentators, especially among the conditional ranks, take far too many liberties with the figures the Lord used. An example of this loose divining will be seen in verse two where the Lord spoke of purging. We hope, the Lord willing, to amplify on that later in this article. Other commentators have appeared to be more interested in promoting a particular set of doctrines from the subject of the vine, rather than adhering to, what is to our mind, plain truth. Should our Saviour deliver us from these, and other pitfalls in our exposition, we hope to be able to set forth some of the beautiful instructions from the Lord's message on the vine and the branches.
The Lord spoke often in parables; He frequently used metaphors, and illustrations drawn from nature and man's surroundings. An excellent example is where the Lord said, "I am the good shepherd. . . (John 10.11)." We are certain from the Bible that He never actually tended a flock of four-legged sheep. He there conveyed a simple truth in the form of an illustration, and truly Jesus was the master of illustrations. In John 6 Jesus spoke of Himself as the bread of life. Though the reprobate Jews had no idea of what He spoke, it was, in God's good time, made unmistakably clear to His elect. They would spiritually feed on Him. Many such comparisons might also be suggested, but what we are aiming at should be apparent.
"I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman." While it is vitally true that God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, it does not necessarily follow that He represents Himself to His people in the same way at all times, and in all ages. We do not therefore, understand Him to sustain the relationship with His people as that of a vine in eternity past, in the Old Testament, or in the ages to come. This is a relationship unique to what we call the gospel age. If the Lord wills, we hope to establish that point as we continue.
"I am the true vine." There were other vines, but He Who was the way, the truth, and the life, was the only true vine. This assertion must be viewed in connection with the description of Israel as a vine in Isaiah 5.1-7 and elsewhere, although to our mind, Jesus is rather more establishing the vital unity He and the disciples maintained, then and now. The language describing the vine in Isaiah 5 is far too clear for there to be serious misunderstanding. There the vine is the topic of a song, sung by Isaiah to Israel. The principals of this song appear to be Jehovah, the well beloved, and Christ, the beloved. The vineyard was planted in a very fruitful hill, no doubt referring to Zion. It is worth mentioning too, that this vineyard did not plant itself, contrary to the "duty-faith" application the hawkers of Arminianism would force into the interpretation of this and all other texts. Vines do not plant themselves; the husbandman does.
Great effort and design went into the preparatory work for Jehovah's vineyard. A fence was built; stones were gathered out; a watch tower was erected; the wine press, anticipating the harvest, was made. Central to all this expenditure of planning and expediting was the planting of the choicest vine.
The choicest vine! Herein lies the heart of this song to the well beloved. This vine was no cull; neither was it of questionable quality. It was choice; chosen as the best the husbandman could possibly plant of all the vines that were, or could be, available. Israel, this choice vine, was alone known, or beloved, of all the nations of the earth. Small and defenseless though the twelve tribes were, God took them from among the nations of the earth and owned them as His people. They were His peculiarly, and He led them about from the wilderness to a city of habitation. There He planted them; His choice vine.
After much care and patience, Jehovah abandoned His choice vine. Why? Principally, because, despite all that was done for this vine, it came from bad stock! It never did, and never could, bring forth acceptable fruit to the husbandman. It rather, being intrinsically wild itself, brought forth wild grapes. We sincerely believe most expositors have missed the meaning here of wild grapes entirely. Generally, the meaning given for wild grapes is that they somehow represent the saints' disobedience, sin, or failure to serve God acceptably. Only in a secondary sense could that be correct. The word for wild in the original Hebrew is never used elsewhere in the whole of the Bible; only in this text. Its meaning is poison berries, thus we see that the failure of the vine runs far deeper than outward failure.
We learn from the first chapter of Genesis that everything brings forth, or reproduces, after its kind. There are no exceptions. Like begets like; thus this vine manifested its true condition in bringing forth clusters of poison berries, and it could have done nothing else. It was poisonous throughout though its outward appearance may have been pleasing to the eye. All the tender loving care and maintenance given it then would not have changed the nature of that vine one particle. Choicest vine or no, it could never yield useful fruit for the husbandman. An incurable disease had permeated the plant. Thus Jehovah took away the hedges, and broke down the walls of protection leaving His choice vine for the wild beasts to devour. Wild grapes might be suitable fruit for the wild beasts of the field, but not for the wine press of the husbandman, representing the Holy cup of Jehovah. A sad ending indeed for so choice a vine, but without producing the clusters for the press the vine was actually worthless.
Many years earlier the Psalmist Asaph had lamented the pitiful condition of this same vine even in his day. He did, as well, give us a clue to the native condition of this vine as he wrote the following: "Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it (Psalm 80.8)." This vine represented the natural seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were the choicest of all the families of the earth, for they were beloved of Jehovah for His covenant's sake. But they were said to have come up from Egypt! True enough, they had their origin elsewhere, but still the Spirit of Inspiration would have us to know that this vine was nourished for several centuries in the foulest of all the regions of this earth; Egypt. Both the original depravity of Adam, and the pollutions of Egypt had contaminated the root, stock, branches, and fruit of this vine.
It may be correctly suggested by the reader that the foulness of Egypt did not cause the nature of this vine to become corrupt. Certainly not! But, being inherently wild guaranteed that the vine would find Egypt a suitable environment to flourish in. And yet, all this only served to fulfill the eternal plan of God for making of them there a great nation. It was for His further purposes for them He led them into Egypt and then led them out. No wonder then that Asaph engaged in pleading for Jehovah to draw near to this desolated vine. "Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine: (Psalm 80.14)." God had surely indicted this prayer in the heart of Asaph. However, it had not been revealed to Asaph at that time the plan of God to cast off natural Israel and to establish in their place spiritual Israel. The time was yet far off that the Lord would say to this depraved vine, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate (Matthew 23.38)."
Returning then to John 15, Jesus said, "My Father is the Husbandman." It must not be overlooked that while Jesus sustained the role of the true vine itself, His father attended to all I its affairs. This, we believe, gives us a glimpse at the covenant relationship between the Father and the Son. From eternity past God the Son purposed to repose in the power of the Father to sustain Him always, from His birth to His coming forth from the tomb. In covenant agreement He, the Son, would return to the Father, bringing His sheaves with Him.
The true vine was selected (in eternity past), planted, and tended to with exacting care. It was with full Divine assurance that it would answer to the eternal purpose which gave rise to its service. The Son of man was, in this capacity, in all points a true vine, and God the Father was an unfailing husbandman. There could be no possibility of failure such as occurred (and it was certain to occur) with the vine from Egypt. And, as surely as God is Holy, the first vine necessitated its own destruction by producing poison berries. Such noxious fruit demanded the faithful husbandman destroy the vine, but with the true vine no such possibility existed. Unfailing care and perfect maintenance was certain from the time the true vine was planted until the last ordained fruit was gathered. No doubt but Jesus intoned that inclusive certainty when He said, "My Father is the husbandman." Jesus was as secure in His Father's care while He was the true vine as if He was then seated at the right hand of God in heaven with legions of angels in constant attendance.
"Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit (John 15.2)." The word every is used in this verse twice. We understand it to mean the same, all of them, both times it is used. In the first citation all branches not producing fruit are removed, and in the second instance all branches that do bear fruit are purged. There are no exceptions in either case. It is extremely important to keep this in mind when confronting the erroneous views of the Conditionalists for they often attempt to make exceptions for certain classes of sinners. Thus, with all the branches under the watchful eye of their husbandman, we see the Lord in this illustration as a thoroughly fruitful, fully purged vine, fulfilling every anticipation of His Father the husbandman.
We have noticed a sad tendency on the part of many who comment on this verse to do violence to the expression taketh away. Notice carefully, these words of Jesus are a simple, clear, statement of fact. They are not a warning or threat. Jesus did not sternly bombast the disciples with a rude threat of dismissal or apostasy if they, as branches, failed to meet certain conditions. Rather, this opening statement regarding the vine and its branches gives the hearers wonderful assurance that the attentive husbandman will properly care for his vineyard. It seems clear to us that when an husbandman discovers branches that, for whatever reason, are not bearing fruit, he prunes them out, making room for new branches. We cannot believe this is done either in malice, or as a merciless punishment for squandered opportunities, as limited Predestinarians teach. There would be no chiding the branch for its sluggishness; no harsh criticism for its aging beyond the term of fruitfulness. No; rather, as a matter of good maintenance, the unfruitful branch is excised.
That there is a positive message in the taking away of the unfruitful branches appears clear enough. When we speak of unfruitful branches, we speak of God's children only. None of those that only make a profession of union with Christ are included. God's children, as branches, abide in Christ while they sojourn in this life. To each of them it is allotted, from all eternity, a fixed period to abide in the vine. They have "A time to be born; and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted (Ecclesiastes 3.2)." Some of these branches have but a short time on this earth; others reach great ages. To one it is given to bear fruit throughout the heat of the day; while another is called at the eleventh hour. Stephen, that blessed martyr, served as a fruitful branch but briefly; yet it cannot be denied that it was as a fruitful branch. John the beloved was yet continuing to bear fruit while on the Isle of Patmos, many years of cross bearing in the Name of the Son of God having been his lot. Could any lover of Divine truth say that Stephen was snatched out of the vine for failure to bear fruit? Or for failure to continue to bear fruit? Was it because he was disobedient or wicked? Did he somehow fail to live up to the heavenly standards of fruit bearing branches? Absurd, isn't it?
On the other hand, could it be claimed that John endured for many years as a fruitful branch because of some stellar efforts unique to himself? Did he bear fruit even to old age due to superior obedience, or extravagant avoidance of sin? Was his longevity as a fruitful branch in the vine accruable to his account? Put simply, was one or the other, either better or worse, as a result of any creature efforts, more or less? God forbid! To each, as is the case with all the branches of the true vine, was the measure of grace and faith given, as pleased the Lord. There can be no other reason consistent with the Holy will of God; only wild infidel assumptions, or carnal reasoning born of corrupt conditionalism would dare suggest otherwise. Branches in the true vine are taken away from their earthly portion in Christ and removed to their heavenly portion at that time when the appointed fruit bearing has ceased; never before, for any reason, and never after as well.
It might well be asked, before passing on, if a branch in a grape vine could, by effort, will, concentrating, or anything else, bear more fruit than it was capacitated to bear by its native occupancy in the vine? Can we, then, by taking thought, add one cubit to our stature? No more can we do more or less than what our God stations us in the vine to do. How blessed we are if taught by God's grace that only God can make us to differ. The nature of the illustration used by the Saviour in John 15 compels us to acknowledge that our term in the vine, long or short, is of Divine determination, and is not affected by any other agencies.
"... and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit (John 15.2)." Strange as it is, there are those that feel strongly that purging here was a form of pruning. Generally, it is the same folks that think fatalism and predestination are the same. Not so, however. The pruning was done where the Lord spoke of taking away. Purging and pruning are two completely different subjects. Pruning would only force the vine to produce another branch in place of one that had been pruned out, whereas purging (cleansing) preserves, and improves the capability of the vine to bring forth more fruit. Most people that have engaged in gardening know that good healthy foliage on a plant increases the vitality of the whole system. Purging will wash away insects, smut, dust, and most other accumulated trash on the branches, and free it to grow and thrive unencumbered. The Lord stated to the disciples this would be done as a matter of fact, for the husbandman would certainly tend to it in due time, as seemed needful to Him.
Using the figures of the Lord's illustration we ask, can the branches purge themselves? Would they not continue to remain filthy until the husbandman saw fit to purge them? The answer is obvious. Even so then, believers, children of the heavenly King, cannot purge themselves from all the dross and filth they accumulate in their daily journeys. At least not if the Lord's illustration of the vine and the branches has any validity.
Then what must they do? Well, what did the Lord tell them to do? Did He lay down a string of nervous warnings for them to hastily act upon? Did He admonish them that if they did not get and keep clean, terrible things would take place? He told them absolutely nothing about what to do! Rather, He assures them with the following: "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you (John 15.3)." We feel content that the disciples were just as clean, at that moment, as they would ever be in this polluted world, for Jesus said unto them, "Now are ye clean..." And, we may add, they were now clean through no effort of their own. All requisite purging was done for them! Let those addicted to a "duty for reward" system ponder that for a while. What's more, these disciples had been purged before they had been told of the need for purging. How this crushes then the whole fabric of the works system.
"Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." It has ever been maintained by Predestinarian Baptists that life comes to a chosen vessel through the voice of the Son of God, as is recorded in John 5.24,25. This is what is referred to by some as Spirit regeneration as opposed to the erroneous doctrine of gospel regeneration. But, what is being illustrated by the vine and the branches only indirectly touches on the reception of eternal life, if at all. At the time the husband-man plants the vine, the branches are even then in the vine, although not presently manifested. Subsequently, as the developing growth of the whole vine proceeds, the branches appeared. They are fully attached to the vine, and are a part of the whole. Living off the constant flow of sap from the root system, they will begin to set fruit. Life exists. It is a life of perfect union. This union should be apparent to all who have eyes to see.
Thus, when the Lord said to the disciples, "Now are ye clean through the word which I have spoken unto you" He was not advising them of their eternal union with, and in, Him. Rather, He was pronouncing them clean. They were clean at that moment. He used the word clean to let them know they had, as those fruitful branches had, been purged. That purging was the results of Jesus speaking the word to them. No one else was sent to speak to them; this was the work of the Son of God and His voice was all that was needed to purge them fully.
We hope those things we have touched on in this article have not been the source of more confusion than light. If it may please the Lord we will take up this subject again later, for we have but barely examined its contents.
J. F. Poole
Volume 8, No. 1