the Fourth Week of Lent
Vine, Allegory of the
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
VINE, ALLEGORY OF THE.—In the allegory of the vine (John 15:1-10) Christ describes the close relation which exists between the disciples and Himself, and impresses on them the necessity of the continuance of this intimate union as the indispensable condition of fruitfulness on their part. The figurative side of the allegory is not developed first and then followed by the interpretation, but figure and interpretation are woven together throughout the passage. When we separate them we find that the figurative material is comparatively slight. It presents to us the picture of a vine tended by a husbandman who takes away the unfruitful branches and cleanses the fruitful, i.e. cuts off from them all useless shoots, that they may become more productive. Attention is also directed to the fact that the unfailing condition of fruit-bearing is that the branch abide in the vine. If by any chance it is separated from the parent stock, it is of no more use, but is cast forth from the vineyard and withers away, and is fit only for firewood.
In the interpretation Christ Himself is the vine (‘the true vine’ is the phrase used, of which we shall discuss the significance presently); His Father is the husbandman, believers, especially the disciples, are the branches. As there are unfruitful branches in the natural vine, so there may be some who, in spite of their communion with Christ, yet prove unproductive. The fate which overtakes them is similar to that of the unfruitful branches of the natural vine. The Heavenly Husbandman severs the connexion between them and Christ (John 15:2 a). Wherein fruitfulness consists Christ does not say. Some take it as the keeping of His commandments (John 15:10), and the practice of that righteousness whereby the soundness of the tree is proved (Matthew 7:16; Matthew 7:20-21), while others think specially of that Apostolic work which is to fall to the disciples (so Bruce, Training of the Twelve, p. 402). By the cleansing of the branches (John 15:2 b) we must understand such Divine dealings as tend to greater fruitfulness in the life of the believer. The process of cleansing in the natural vine suggests to us the chastening discipline to which the Father subjects believers (so de Wette). But in proceeding to speak of the disciples, to whom He now directly refers as the branches, Christ gives a more general interpretation of the figure of cleansing. They are already clean, He says (John 15:3), on account of the word which He has spoken to them, i.e. the revelation He has given them has had a purifying influence upon their life. The vital matter for them is to continue in such close relationship to Christ, whose word has had this cleansing influence upon them, that they may ever remain clean. Therefore He proceeds to insist upon the necessity of their abiding in Him, i.e. making Him the source from which they derive all their strength and nourishment (John 15:4). This is the indispensable condition of fruitfulness in the spiritual life (John 15:4-5).
Before proceeding to describe with greater fulness the blessed results that follow from such close adherence to Him, Christ pauses to indicate the fate of those who sever their connexion with Him (John 15:6). They are like the branches that have been broken off from the vine, which are cast out of the vineyard and wither away, and are gathered together and burned. Some would find an exact equivalent to all the details in this description. The casting forth corresponds to their exclusion from the Church, the withering to their loss of spiritual life, the gathering to the work of the angels (Matthew 13:30; Matthew 13:39), and the fire to Gehenna. In any case the language indicates the certainty of the destruction that awaits all who break away from their adherence to Christ. In contrast to this, Christ proceeds to describe the condition of those who abide in Him. United to Him in close communion, they will obtain whatsoever they ask (John 15:7). The result will be abundant fruitfulness to the glory of the Father, whereby they will become true disciples of Christ (John 15:8). The exhortation to abide in Him is finally strengthened by an appeal to the example of God and Christ in their relation to one another. Christ’s love to the disciples is like the love of the Father to the Son. As Christ abides in the love of the Father by keeping His commandments, so will the disciples abide in the love of the Son if they keep His commandments (John 15:9-10).
Such is the course of the allegory. The following points in connexion with it may be briefly discussed:
1. What is meant by the true (ἀληθινή) vine? It is often taken as suggesting that the natural vine only imperfectly represents the idea of the communion of Christ with believers. But why should the vine be selected rather than any other plant? And in what respect is the organic relationship suggested by the figure only imperfectly represented by the natural vine? H. Holtzmann understands the phrase as meaning that Christ is the vine which belongs to the higher world and has been planted by God in the midst of mankind; and he finds here another instance of the Platonic tendency of the Fourth Gospel to regard sensible things as imperfect copies of archetypes which exist in the world above (Handcom. ad loc. and p. 35). Calvin takes the phrase as equivalent to ‘Ego vere sum vitis’; and van Koetsveld (De Gelijkenissen van den Zaligmaker, ii. 199 f.), on the analogy of the true light (John 1:9), and the true bread (John 6:32-35), understands it as meaning the vine which may be called so in truth, and does not merely bear the name and appearance of such. But in the case of the true light and the true bread we can understand the force of the adjective in this sense, as light and bread are metaphors which we are in the habit of employing in a spiritual reference, and it is proper to emphasize the fact that, for the illumination and nourishment of the spiritual life, a higher light and bread than the natural are necessary. But before we can understand the force of the adjective as applied to the vine, we must recognize in what sense it is appropriate to introduce the vine metaphorically in a religious reference. The Old Testament supplies the connexion. The vine was a familiar metaphor as applied to Israel (Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15:1 ff; Ezekiel 19:10 ff., Psalms 80:8 ff., cf. Isaiah 5:1 ff.). But Israel had proved unfaithful to her calling. She had ‘turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine’ (Jeremiah 2:21). Delitzsch has further pointed out that the vine is used as a symbol of the Messiah (Iris, English translation pp. 184–186). It is with reference to this familiar metaphor that Christ calls Himself the true vine. The idea that was held before Israel in the prophetic application to her of the figure of the vine is realized in Him and His disciples.
2. What is the relationship between Christ and the disciples indicated by the mutual abiding in one another? Viewed from the side of the disciples, this relation is presented as an injunction, ‘Abide in me’; from the side of Christ as a promise, ‘and I in you,’ i.e. and I will abide in you (John 15:4). This is the usual interpretation of the verse, though Bengel makes the injunction embrace the whole: ‘Facite ut maneatis in me et ut ego maneam in vobis.’ In the following verses more particular statements occur, which seem to define more clearly the relationship thus indicated. But the difficulty is to determine to which of the sides of the relationship the statements in question apply. Thus in John 15:7 we have the phrase, ‘If ye abide in me and my words abide in you.’ Does the latter clause take the place of the ‘and I in you’ of John 15:4, or is it a fuller description of the clause immediately preceding it, thus corresponding to the ‘abide in me’ of John 15:4? Either view may be adopted with some show of reason. In support of the first, it may be pointed out that, on this interpretation, the phrase exactly corresponds to the ‘He that abideth in me and I in him’ of John 15:5. On the other hand, when it is remembered that the ‘and I in you’ of John 15:4 contains a promise, and that in John 15:7 the two clauses together embrace the condition upon which the promise which immediately follows (‘ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you’) depends, there seems good ground for taking the clause ‘and my words abide in you’ as a more definite statement of what is involved in our abiding in Christ; while the promise which immediately succeeds may be regarded as presenting under a new aspect what is meant by Christ’s abiding in us.
Again, in John 15:9 we have another aspect of abiding presented, ‘Abide ye in my love,’ i.e. continue to be the objects of my love. Here again the question arises, To which of the two abidings does the phrase apply? To our abiding in Christ, or to Christ’s abiding in us? The parallelism of the phrase to the ‘abide in me’ of John 15:4 favours the first alternative. On the other hand, it may be pointed out that while the phrase occurs in John 15:9 as an injunction, it is repeated in John 15:10 as a promise, conditional on our keeping Christ’s commandments. Now, in the interpretation of John 15:7 suggested above, to have Christ’s words abiding in us, i.e. to keep His commandments, corresponds to the ‘abide in me’ of John 15:4. Here, therefore, the promise which is held forth to those who keep the commandments, i.e. to those who abide in Christ, will correspond to the promise of John 15:4, and to abide in Christ’s love will represent under a new aspect what is meant by Christ’s abiding in us.
Each of the ways of regarding the verses in question yields a view of the relationship of the believer and Christ to one another which seems to be true in fact, and to harmonize with the general Johannine conception of that relationship. To have Christ’s words abiding in us is a phrase which, in view of the importance assigned in this Gospel to the word, may well represent what is meant by abiding in Christ. It is in the word that Christ reveals Himself, and that only is the true relationship to His Person which involves trustful acceptance of, and obedience to, His word (John 8:31; John 14:15; John 14:21). On the other hand, just because of the importance thus assigned to the word as that through which Christ reveals Himself, the phrase may likewise denote the manner in which Christ abides in the believer. The sanctifying power of the word has already been referred to in the passage (John 15:3). The words which Christ speaks, they are spirit and they are life (John 6:63), and to have them abiding in us is already to have everlasting life (John 5:24). In like manner, to abide in Christ’s love is a phrase which may equally well describe either our abiding in Him or His abiding in us. Our abiding in Christ may in John 15:4 be the condition upon which the promise of Christ’s abiding in us is given. But in the spiritual life it is difficult to draw a hard and fast line between conditions and consequences. The conditions upon which promises or blessing are fulfilled become an integral part of the blessedness bestowed. To abide in Christ’s love is at once the condition and the constituent of spiritual blessedness. It is at once our abiding in Christ and Christ’s abiding in us. These two abidings seem to be the same relation regarded from different sides. On the one side we have the subjective aspect of the relation presented, on the other the objective (Weiss, Die johan. Grundbegriffe, p. 71); on the one side the attitude of faith towards the Saviour, on the other the response of the Saviour to the faith which unites the believer to Him. See also art. Abiding.
3. Can we accept the allegory as authentic in its present form? It has been felt by some that that form is far from satisfactory. Illustration and interpretation are mixed together throughout. No clear and connected picture, of which the details are in due course interpreted, is brought before the mind; but the figure of the vine is used as the foundation upon which is based a series of metaphors, loosely strung together, describing the relation of Christ and the believer to one another. When we compare it with the parables and similitudes of the Synoptic Gospels, we realize at once what a vast difference there is between them. It has been suggested that the allegory of the vine may have been originally a parable which John has worked up into its present form. B. Weiss believes he can find the original elements in John 15:2; John 15:4; John 15:6, and thinks that it had taught that, as the husbandman does all in his power to make the vine productive, but if his efforts are in vain casts forth the worthless branches and burns them up, so God’s purpose in the planting of the Kingdom of God in Israel had been to increase the fruitfulness of its members, and if that purpose is not fulfilled the only result will be the exclusion of Israel from the Kingdom. The main point in the parable could not have been that the increasing fruitfulness of the branches depended upon their abiding in the vine, but that this abiding might be forfeited by continued unfruitfulness. But the Evangelist, who ever puts the personal relation to Christ in the foreground, made this abiding in Christ as the condition of fruitfulness in the religious life the central thought, though in John 15:2; John 15:6 the original tendency of the parable is still apparent (in Meyer’s Kommentar, 1893, ad loc., and Leben Jesu ii. 334 ff.). Jülicher thinks that Weiss is influenced by a desire to make John approach as closely as possible to the Synoptists; and while he does not believe the allegory as preserved by John to be genuine, confesses himself unable to conjecture what its original form was, supposing it to be based upon authentic reminiscences (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 1888, pp. 120, 196).
4. Is the present place of the allegory in the Gospel the correct one? Sanday (Fourth Gospel, p. 231) thinks that it belongs to an earlier and more didactic period in the life of Christ, and that it is out of place in the present speech, of which the object is to comfort the disciples in view of their Lord’s departure. De Wette and B. Weiss bring forward the same objection. The latter thinks that the allegory in its original parabolic form, of which the main point was a warning against unfruitfulness, belongs to the period of crisis in the life of Christ, when the multitudes who had been attracted to Him fell away, and He foresaw that even one of the Twelve was to prove unfaithful. The Evangelist has brought together in these farewell speeches all that seemed to deal with the self-revelation of Christ to believers; and as the interpretation which he put upon the allegory, by making the central point of it an exhortation to abide in Christ, led him to include it in this category, he has inserted it here (Leben Jesu, ii. 334). Bruce meets the objection that the allegory is out of place in the farewell discourse, by showing that Christ’s object in that discourse is not merely to comfort the disciples in view of His departure, but to prepare them for the continuance of His work. When we realize that this is the purpose of the speech in which it occurs, the aptness of the allegory cannot, he thinks, be questioned (Training of the Twelve, p. 401).
Literature.—The various commentaries and works on NT theology; Wendt, Lehre Jesu, ii. 497 f.; Weiss, Die johan. Grundbegriffe, § 8; van Koetsveld, De Gelijkenissen van den Zaligmaker, ii. 194–204. For homiletical treatment see Maclaren, Holy of Holies, 168 ff.; Macmillan, Bible Teachings in Nature, 174; A. Whyte, Walk, Conversation, and Character of Jesus Christ, ch. xxxiv.; A. Murray, Abide in Christ, passim; Westcott, Revelation of the Father, 119; P. J. Maclagan, Gospel View of Things, 146; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] ix.  211.
G. Wauchope Stewart.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Vine, Allegory of the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​v/vine-allegory-of-the.html. 1906-1918.