Preparing the Apostles

John 15,16

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman” (John 15:1, scriptures from NASB
unless otherwise noted.)

by Nathan Austin

In the Upper Room, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, predicted his betrayal, and the denials of Peter. He encouraged them, explaining his relationship to the Father and promising the holy Spirit. He then said, “Get up, let’s go from here” (John 14:31).

We can imagine them filing out of the upper room and beginning their journey to Gethsemane. Knowing that he had but a little time left with his Apostles, Jesus shifted his thoughts as he spoke with them.

The True Vine

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1,2).

The association between Israel and the grapevine would have been well known to those Jewish disciples. “For the vineyard of the Lord of armies is the house of Israel” (Isaiah 5:7). (Also see Psalms 80:8, Jeremiah 2:21, Hosea 10:1). Ancient Jewish coins have been found bearing the image of the vine leaf or grape cluster. And when Moses lists the most important resources of the Promised Land, the list begins with wheat, barley, and vines (Deuteronomy 8:8).

If Israel was the “original” vine, planted and made to increase through the nurturing of Jehovah, then Jesus as the “true” one signified the ultimate vine, the perfected vine, the final vine towards which history and prophecy had been pointing. Until this point, there were undoubtedly those who relied on their ancestry (the old vine, God’s chosen people) as their assurance of God’s grace and favor. However, the better, perfect vine (through Jesus) was the only way forward.

The vine-dresser removes branches that bear no fruit and prunes the branches that do bear fruit so that he might increase their yield. In this picture, he simultaneously informs his followers of the necessity to bear fruit and warns them that experiences and trials are not without purpose, but like pruning, they will result in still greater fruit-bearing which will render ever greater glory to the Father. “Just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me” (John 15:4, Phillips).

In Romans 11:17-22, Paul uses a similar illustration when he compares the acceptance of Gentiles into the Church to olive branches grafted onto the olive tree. In both cases, the life-giving properties reside in the core vine (or tree). In both cases, branches that refuse to bear fruit are replaced with those that do. The apostle notes that there is no special consideration for the “natural” branches — instead it is the ability of the branch to bear fruit that determines whether the branch remains. We gain life from our attachment to and nourishment from the true vine.

The Believers and the World

“If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own. But because you do not belong to the world and I have chosen you out of it, the world will hate you” (John 15:19, Phillips).

By the time John recorded this conversation, the disciples had experienced religious persecution. Recall that Paul was not alone in his distrust of this new religion. Jews would continue to feel animosity toward a belief system that upended their exclusive status as a channel to God. The intolerance of polytheism and pagan religions and the insistence on a single, true God, stoked inter-family strife and division.

History has demonstrated that where differences exist and power is at stake, humans will find a way to divide and conquer. Christianity was so clearly different that it brought judgment against beliefs outside of prescribed norms. That judgment still exists, although now the judgment comes from within the divisions of Christianity. If one does not believe in a triune God, he may be accused of being part of a cult. If one refuses to pick up arms and wage war, then he may be considered a traitor and troublemaker. If one refuses to participate in gossip or avoids participating in politics, he may be deemed strange.

By upholding a high moral standard (although an aspirational goal that cannot be completely achieved), we highlight our differences to those around us and some may suppose in us a “holier-than-thou” attitude. People do not like to be reminded of their failings and their own lack of morality.

However, Jesus prescribed a defense against these attacks. “This is my commandment: that you love each other as I have loved you … I shall not call you servants any longer, for a servant does not share his master’s confidence. No, I call you friends, now, because I have told you everything that I have heard from the Father” (John 15:12,15, Phillips).

The word “servant” is the Greek doulos (Strong’s 1401). It describes subservience, both voluntary and involuntary. Jesus elevates his disciples from being servants without understanding to friends who will receive a deeper understanding of God’s plan. They are now to love (agape) one another just as he loved (agape) them. When faced with the animosity of the world, what better way to support one another than as a spiritual family joined in the bonds of love?

Preparing the Apostles

“But these things I have spoken to you, so that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them” (John 16:4).

Jesus knew that the path that lay ahead of his followers would be difficult, compounded by his absence. He sought to plant a seed of understanding that when recalled would sustain them through persecutions. The Apostles had not yet received the holy Spirit, and could not understand why Jesus was leaving them. Their expectation was for Messiah to immediately usher in God’s Kingdom and restore the status of Israel. We can only imagine their disappointment when their hopes were so abruptly disrupted. Although Jesus had warned them that they would be removed from the synagogue and be shunned by family and friends (John 16:2) they did not understand any of it.

Jesus assured them that his departure was not only necessary but would lead to the best
outcome possible: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I am leaving … if I go, I will send (it) [the holy Spirit] to you” (John 16:7). The granting of the holy Spirit was a critical step in the development of the Church. Through it men would be able to understand the error of their ways and the superior path of righteousness. “All who follow the leading of God’s Spirit are God’s own sons” (Romans 8:14, Phillips). Even today we can credit God’s holy Spirit with our continued growth, both individually and as a body of His people. Our faith is a living faith, a growing faith. “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day” (Proverbs 4:18).

The words contained in John 15 and 16 mark a transition in Jesus’ communication with his close followers. “These things I have spoken to you in figures of speech; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech, but will tell you plainly about the Father” (John 16:25). The time for speaking in parables and veiled statements was drawing to a close. Despite his own difficult night ahead, Jesus expressed concern was for the well-being of his disciples in the aftermath of his arrest, persecution, and death. Jesus had told them, “Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He knew that the moment was near. Yet even in this terrible anticipation, he demonstrated his great love.

Within these recorded words, we see admonitions of bearing fruit (15:4); keeping the
commandments (15:10); and loving one another (15:12). When it was over and the Spirit had come, those followers gathered with Jesus that night would undoubtedly recall his words not understood at the time: “I have told you all this so that you may find your peace in me. You will find trouble in the world — but, never lose heart, I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

Becoming Like Jesus

Have you noticed how flamingos may be white,
orange, or pink? Their diet consists of algae and
brine shrimp that contain pigments called carotenoids,
and their color reflects the characteristics of
what they eat. Similarly, the more we consume the
words of Jesus in scripture, the more we will take on
his characteristics.

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