The great Anglican biblical scholar Sir Edwin Hoskyns wrote of Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse in his Commentary on John’s gospel: “The whole scene is an epitome of the Christian religion.”(1) If that is true of chapters 14-17 as a whole, then I think it could also be argued that the eight verses at the beginning of John chapter 15 are such an epitome in miniature, for in just these few short verses, John includes all of the major themes of his version of the Christian gospel, all tightly woven together.
What are those themes? What is the passage about?
The first theme has to do with the John’s understanding of the church. The passage is about ecclesiology. Jesus’ statement “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser” echoes numerous Old Testament passages. These passages all contain a message of judgment. In each of these passages, Israel is the vine, and God is the vineyard owner or planter. So in Isaiah 5, the prophet speaks of a vineyard owner who plants a vineyard that yields wild grapes – a vineyard that will be trampled down and made a waste. “For,” says Isaiah, “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.”
John echoes these passages, but with a Christological twist. For John, Jesus is now the true Israel. He is the true vine, and his Father is the vineyard dresser. Where the previous vineyard had been declared a waste, Jesus – the True Vine – produces fruit. There is still a message of judgment, however. The church is not the vine, but the branches that dwell in the vine. The vineyard dresser prune the vine, and the branches that do not yield fruit are cast into the fire. If the church, or at least members of the church, fail in their mission to dwell in the vine, they will suffer the same judgment as Israel. So the passage is about John’s understanding of church – and we’ll get back to that in a few minutes. (more…)