Hi I’m Josh Hawkins, this is Episode 132 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 131, we started to look at the possible route that Jesus and the eleven took from the upper room where they had eaten the Passover meal to the Garden of Gethsemane, which was on the slopes of the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem. I talked about how all of the dialog between the beginning of John 15 and the end of John 17 is taking place somewhere other than in the upper room or on the Mount of Olives. Jesus and the eleven leave the upper room in John 14:31, and then this dialog happens in John 15 through 17, and then we don’t see them crossing the Brook Kidron until John 18:1. I mentioned how it seems very unlikely to me that these precious words would have been spoken as Jesus and the eleven walked the narrow, winding streets of Jerusalem, because the city was filled with so many people for the Passover Feast. I think the text in John 15 through 17 gives us some clues as to where they might have been, and that’s what I want to develop for you today. So let’s read some verses from the beginning of John 15:
"“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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned."
(John 15:1–6 ESV)
Jesus begins in this unique and very important text by talking about a vine and a vinedresser, which is just someone who prunes, trains, and cultivates vines and the fruit on it. Now what may seem random to us 21st century Gentiles would have been significant to the eleven Jewish disciples with Jesus. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often depicted as a vineyard that God planted. Some examples would be Psalm 80, Isaiah 5, and Jeremiah 2. Let’s look at those passages:
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River… Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself."
(Psalm 80:8–11, 14-15 ESV)
And also Isaiah 5:
"For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!"
(Isaiah 5:7 ESV)
And Jeremiah 2:
"Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?"
(Jeremiah 2:21 ESV)
So in these passages, a vine and a vineyard is used as imagery to represent Israel’s identity as a nation before God. They were the nation that God chose to be a blessing to all the other nations. God demonstrated His power and commitment to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by delivering Israel out of Egypt in the exodus, giving them the Law at Mount Sinai, and then giving them the land of Caanan as their inheritance. But many times in their history as a nation, as we just read, the vine and vineyard of Israel became degenerate. It became sick and wouldn’t produce fruit. Does this theme sound familiar to what we’ve been looking at throughout the Gospels? The Lord sent prophets to Israel, calling them to return to Him, to be obedient to the covenant that He made with them at Sinai, so that they could be a fruit-producing vine once again. And of course, as I’ve mentioned so often throughout this series, this is why Jesus came to Israel - He came seeking fruit, the fruit of repentance. I’ll talk more about that in a moment. But what I want you to see right now is that this imagery of a vine and vineyard is not random at all. In fact, it falls perfectly into place with so many of the things we’ve already seen throughout the Gospels.
Now, we have a little bit of Old Testament context for the words of Jesus, but how can that help us determine where Jesus spoke these words? Well here’s where the Jewish historian Josephus is very helpful to us. He says that in the Temple in Jesus’ day, around the entrance to the sanctuary, was a massive golden vine. He said that the grapes on this golden vine were the size of a man. Here’s what he says:
“But that gate which was at this end of the first part of the house was, as we have already observed, all over covered with gold, as was its whole wall about it; it had also golden vines above it, from which clusters of grapes hung as tall as a man's height.” - Josephus: The Complete Works, chapter 5, section 7
With this in mind, I think this gives us a very natural context for the words of Jesus that John records. I believe Jesus is speaking the words of John 15 through 17 in the Temple, perhaps as they are gathered and tucked away underneath one of the roofed colonnades that surrounded the outer court. It’s very late in the evening at this point, and the Temple would have been open and the priests would have been preparing things there for the feast the next day. If Jesus and the eleven would have gathered in one of these areas, it would have given them natural privacy even from others coming in and out of the massive Temple complex. The soft glow of the moon as well as the large torches rising up out of the Temple courts would have illuminated the gold and marble used in the Temple construction, and perhaps with this large vine in view as it rose up behind the altar, Jesus speaks something very significant to them. Again, though the text does not explicitly say that they are in the Temple, I think that it’s very likely not only because of Josephus and the vine, but because how the setting of the Temple gives us an even greater depth of understanding as to what Jesus actually spoke to the eleven.
So what did He say, and what’s the meaning of it? Well let’s read the first couple of verses from John 15 again:
"“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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."
(John 15:1–2 ESV)
Think all the way back to Episodes 36, 37, 38 and 39 and the message of John the Baptist from Luke chapter 3. John charged Israel to bear the fruits of repentance because the day of the Lord was coming. And then throughout Jesus’ ministry, He was seeking the fruits of repentance from Israel. Just two days before this, on Tuesday, is when Jesus spoke the parable of the vineyard, indicting the leaders of Israel for failing lead the nation in repentance so that they would bear fruit. We looked at that back in Episode 120. With that in mind, what’s Jesus saying? He’s saying that if someone does not bear fruit, they would be cast into the fire and burned. This is exactly what John the Baptist said back in Luke 3:9 - that there would be Israelites, people who descended from Abraham, who would not get the promises to Abraham and actually be thrown into fire that won’t be quenched. Jesus here is clarifying and once again affirming that an Israelite’s identification with their ethnicity, the Temple, or their possession of the Law did not assure them that they were the planting of the Lord that belonged to the vinedresser. Jesus is saying “I am the true vine”. He is the one that they have to emulate and be joined to by faith. He is the Messiah, the rightful king of Israel, He is the good shepherd and leader of the people, He is the promised prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18 who calls Israel to return to the Lord their God. Him they will hear, and by hearing and relying on the very words of God coming out of His mouth, they’ll repent and return to the Lord their God so that all of God’s promises to Israel as a nation would come to pass. Mere physical descent from Abraham guarantees nothing. Jesus is charging His disciples to hear His words, obey them as the very words of God, to bear the fruits of repentance, and to love one another as to fulfill the Law. And though the world would lash out in hatred against them and the time would come when killing them would even be considered service to God, as they emulated Him in the laying down of their lives, they would be the remnant of Israel who would inherit the kingdom and the resurrection of the dead. Does that make sense?
Now this passage in John 15 is often used to describe how Christians just have to just “abide in Jesus” and keep a strong prayer and devotional life in order to experience and feel His presence. While there may be some measure of truth to that statement, I don’t believe that’s the primary meaning of this passage. The words of Jesus here are much more corporate and Israelocentric than they are personal. Again, we can’t forget that Jesus was Jewish and the words He was speaking in their original context were to eleven Jewish men who would go on to become His apostles. Yes, as Gentiles it’s important for us to have a life of prayer as many other passages in the New Testament make clear, but this passage in John’s Gospel is about Jesus’ assurance to the eleven apostles that they are the ones who will receive the promises because they have borne the fruits of repentance. So many of the words Jesus speaks in this passage need to be looked at with fresh eyes from this perspective. I believe that’s where we can derive the intended and clearest meaning from them, especially in light of the message of John the Baptist, the entire point of the ministry of Jesus, and the parable of the vinedresser Jesus gave just two days earlier.
Well I hope this was helpful to you. in the next episode I want to look at what many have called “Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer” from John 17, and the journey over the Brook Kidron on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, so be sure to come back next time. If you’ve missed any of the past episodes in this series, you can find them all on my website - www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless, and see you next time.