“I am the true vine,” Jesus tells his disciples, “and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15:1, NRSV). It’s easy to think of this as just another colorful metaphor, with Jesus drawing on imagery from the surrounding culture that the disciples would have understood. Let’s see, I need to teach them about fruitfulness. Might as well use grapes; that should be familiar enough.
But there’s more to it than that. There are numerous passages in the Old Testament that refer to the people of Israel as a vine planted and tended by God to produce fruit. “You brought a vine out of Egypt,” writes the psalmist; “you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (Ps 80:8-9). But God withdrew his favor and protection because of their disobedience, and the psalmist cries out for God to relent. Similar themes are found in Isaiah, where a song about a lovingly planted vineyard turns to lament:
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isa 5:4-7)
This is the background of Jesus’ statement. He doesn’t say, “I am a vine,” as if merely crafting a nice metaphor. Rather, he says, “I am the vine” (John 15:5); indeed, he is the “true vine” (John 15:1). Jesus is, in other words, truly embodies the justice and righteousness that was always meant to be the calling card of the people of God.
It’s not as if Jesus is simply telling his disciples that they need to get busy doing amazing works in his name. The fruit that they will produce is righteousness, and most importantly (as we will soon see), love. But all of this is because they are being called, in Jesus, to be the new Israel, the people who in their life and conduct witness to the character of God.
It’s important for us not to lose sight of this, as if following Jesus means being fruitful in the sense of doing good works. That’s true as far as it goes, but works are never an end in themselves. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). He says nearly the same thing in John: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8).
Jesus is not just a vine, but the true vine, and we are his branches. We bear fruit, not to satisfy a “requirement” of righteousness, but to bring glory to God.