This weekend I am at a men’s retreat with the men of our church. During our teaching and study time we are spending the weekend exploring John 15:1-17; the classic text where Jesus says,
“I am the vine you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (v5).”
As Jesus begins this part of his teaching he doesn’t beat around the bush. He gets right to the point right away and says, “I am the true vine.” As a 21st century western christian, this statement from Jesus doesn’t seem all that shocking to me. I have grown up reading this text over and over and my natural response to it is, “Yeah, of course, Jesus is the vine.” However, for a 1st century Jew in Jesus’ day, this statement would be much more subversive. Because the Jews in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as the vine.
All throughout the Old Testament there are passages that use the imagery of a vine to describe the people of God. Psalm 80 is one of those example. The psalmist writes,
You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations 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. Its branches reached as far as the Sea, its shoots as far as the River. (v8-11)
The image is of God uprooting his “vine” from Egypt and planting it in the promise land so that the vine, his people, could flourish and grow. There are other passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel that also use the image of a vine to describe God’s people. So when the disciples would’ve heard Jesus say, “I am the vine and you are the branches…” They would have naturally thought, “No wait… we’re the vine.”
And while that may have been the case in the Old Testament, the result of them being their own vine was that they produced bad fruit. We read in Isaiah,
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. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit… The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (5v1-2, 7)
While the imagery of a vine doesn’t connect with us in the same way it did with a first century Jew, the nature of this teaching, I believe, is still equally subversive today. Because many people, both christians and non-christians alike, live as though they are the vine instead of Christ.
Notice here in these different images how the mentality of being your own vine is communicated in our culture.
This first group of ads was put out by the Gap back in 2008. The ad campaign was titled the “Your Own” campaign. You’ll notice in each ad there is one line of text that follows this formula, (a verb of some kind “Your Own” fill in the blank .)
“Make up Your Own Philosophy.”
“Invent Your Own Story.”
“Believe in Your Own Experience.”
All of these ads put the emphasis on you as the individual. It’s all about you. What you want. What you believe in. What you think is right.
This next image is even more shocking. It’s an image that was taken from the side of a Burger King cup a few years back. No doubt that you have heard the Burger King slogan, “Have It Your Way.” But notice the smaller print below.
“We may be the King, but you my friend, are the almighty ruler.” Yikes! In a sense, it is saying, “you are your own vine.” You direct your life. You make the decisions. You call the shots. It boils down to the mantra, “I do what I want.”
This last ad always gets me. You’ll notice by the purple background, the ornate picture frame and the royal crest with a crown, that apparently the Toyota Corolla has become the vehicle choice of Kings and Queens. Take a moment to study the ad, and then read the title along with the fine print.
In one way or another, all of these images communicate that you are your own vine. But here, in John 15, Jesus is saying, “No. I am the true vine and you are the branches.” And branches are different from vines. Branches are dependent. Branches can’t exist on their own. Branches draw their source of life and strength from something else other than themselves. But yet, we live in a world where people are desperately trying to be their own vine. And the striking thing about this is that Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing.”
So, let me finish this post in the same way I finished this session with the men of our church, with two questions.
1. Where in your life are your trying to be our own vine?
2. What kind of fruit is that producing?
Because just like when Israel was trying to be their own vine, as we read in Isaiah, they only produced bad fruit. It’s not so much are you producing fruit or are you not producing fruit, but rather what kind of fruit are you producing? Jesus says that they only way to produce good fruit that will last is by abiding or remaining in him, the true vine.
Grace and Peace.