W. Curtis Porter
In John 15:1-6, Jesus teaches us a lesson of great importance. It is based upon the vine and branches. In Palestine people were well acquainted with vineyards–it was a country that abounded with vines. So the lesson the Lord taught them was well adapted to their understanding. Whether they were passing some vineyards along the way, or because their minds had recently been fixed on the Lord’s Supper, or whatever the occasion, does not matter: the lesson is the important thing. In fact, a number of lessons are contained in the passage for us; and I invite your consideration of them as we study the divine record.
In the first place, an effort should be made to find out what is meant by the branches. In verse 1 Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” Then in verse 5 he said: “I am the vine, and ye are the branches.” These were terms with which they were familiar. The Father is the husbandman. This simply means vine-dresser. The vine dresser is one who looks after and cares for the vine; he protects the branches and always feels an interest in the growth and development of the same. So it is with God. He has selected Christ as the true vine through which the branches are to receive nourishment and strength sufficient for growth. He is interested in our welfare and cares for us. And Jesus is the vine through which the Christian receives strength to develop in the service of the Lord. But Jesus says: “Ye are the branches.” So what does this mean? In other words, who are the branches?
This statement of the Lord has been used by more people, and more often, than any other statement in the Bible to sustain and support the idea of denominationalism in the religious world. If you call the attention of men to the fact that Paul said, “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4), and that “the body is the church” (Eph. 1:22-23), and you conclude that the Lord built but one church, they will at once remind you of the Lord’s statement relative to the vine and the branches. They will insist that when the Lord said that “ye are the branches,” He referred to denominations; hence, they conclude that there is just one true church, but all the denominations are branches of it, just as there is one vine with a multiplicity of branches. This is manifestly a misapplication of the passage, as is seen by a careful look at it. It is true that many branches grow on the same vine—there is one vine and a multiplicity of branches; but all branches are of the same nature; they are all alike.
The unchangeable law of God and nature is that “every seed brings forth after its kind.” If you plant watermelon seed, you expect to find watermelons growing on the vine; you do not look for pumpkins or cucumbers growing on that vine. If you set out a grape vine, you do not go to it looking for peaches, blackberries or figs; for you know that only grapes will be produced. James said: “Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries, either a vine figs?” (Jas. 3:12). We know that such does not occur, but every vine produces after its own kind. This, however, would not be true if the Lord referred to denominations. Each denomination produces a fruit different from every other denomination in the world. In this case, then, the various branches of the vine produce conflicting fruits; and if you can think of a vine whose branches produce all the different fruits in the world, you have a conception of the Lord’s lesson, if he had denominations in mind as the branches of the vine. But let us look at it from another angle.
Jesus said: “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” The pronoun ye is plural, second person. Second person pronouns refer to those who are spoken to. Hence, the branches were the ones to whom the Lord spoke—those who were present with him at the time. Were there any denominations in his presence to whom he could speak? Everyone knows that he was not speaking to denominations; but someone might suggest that he was speaking of denominations when he referred to the branches. In that case he would have said: “I am the vine, they are the branches.” Then he would have used the third person pronoun that pointed out those spoken of. But he did not say, “They are the branches.” He said: “Ye are the branches.” So there is a difference between they and ye. A group of disciples were with him, but Jesus did not say: “Ye are a branch.” Instead, He said: “Ye are the branches.” A number of disciples made a number of branches; and one disciple, of course, made one branch. This is shown in the Lord’s statement in verse 6: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch.” So that settles it for all who are willing to take the Bible for what it says. Jesus said a man is cast forth as a branch. It doesn’t take a whole organization of men to form a branch, but one man is a branch. Each Christian, therefore, is a branch of the true vine; denominations are not branches; and to make the passage mean denominations is to wrest the Scriptures.
But the passage also teaches us the importance of abiding in Christ if we hope to be fruitful and pleasing to the Father. In verses 4 and 5 we read these words:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches; he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without me ye can do nothing.
We know the utter impossibility of fruit being produced by a branch which has no connection with the vine. A branch cannot bear fruit of itself—it must get its nourishment from the vine. Separate the branch from the vine and you destroy all possibility of its producing fruit. The branch must abide in the vine if fruit is to be borne. Just so with the disciples of the Lord. We cannot bear fruit of ourselves. We must abide in the true vine (Christ) if we hope to be pleasing to the husbandman (God). We sometimes lose sight of our insignificance. We think we are important and we get the thought that we can do wonderful things upon our own strength. But Jesus said: “Without me ye can do nothing.” Like Paul, we might say: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). But we must remember that without him, we are helpless. Jesus might get along all right without us, but we cannot afford to try to get along without him. The vine can get along without some of the branches, but no branch can succeed without the vine. Therefore, we must abide in the true vine–we must abide in Christ—to succeed in Christian living. To abide in Christ is to abide in his teaching. The man who runs counter to the will of the Lord is not abiding in him and cannot succeed in fruit bearing. Jesus further said in verse 2: “Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” Just as the vine dresser will prune the branch that bears fruit that it may produce more fruit, so God will assist us to be more fruitful.
The fruit that must be borne by the branches in the vine is Christian fruit—such fruit as a Christian character will produce. Paul, writing to the churches in Galatia, said: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). The branch that does not produce this kind of fruit is not acceptable to the vine dresser. If, instead of these, our deeds are deeds of hate, strife, impatience, intemperance, pride, unbelief, and all such things that belong to the works of the flesh, we bring ourselves under condemnation. And God has declared that “they which do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21). As branches in the vine, why not make an effort to be faithful to the service of the Lord? If you lack interest in the Lord’s work, but are very interested in the things of the world, there is something seriously wrong with you. If you neglect to meet to worship God as he has ordained, you are failing to produce the fruit God expects. If you are downright lazy toward the service of the Lord, how can you expect to hear him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant?” To be good and faithful servants requires that we be fruit-producing branches, that we live in harmony with divine requirements, and that we exemplify the traits of Jesus Christ in our own characters.
But another important thought is contained in the Lord’s statement in verse 2. He said: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” The same idea is found in verse 6, as follows: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” Some have reasoned that this is the “nominal Christian”—the one who claims a union with Christ but really had never been united with him. One commentary in my library says: “This doubtless refers to those who are professors of religion, but who have never known anything of the true and real connection with him.” But all such reasoning as this is absurd and is done for the purpose of sustaining a theory. Any sensible man knows that the husbandman does not take away from the vine, and cast forth to be withered, a branch that has never been connected with the vine. He takes away dead branches, or branches that are unfruitful, and burns them; but they are branches that had a connection with the vine. When men come along and gather the withered branches to burn that had been cast forth, where did those branches come from? Certainly, from the vine; their connection with the vine had been severed. Notice, again, what our Lord said: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” Every branch “in me,” not every branch “out of me,” or every branch that seems to be in me; but every branch “in me.” Yes, the Lord says these branches are in him; so they do have a connection.
Furthermore, Paul said: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). When one becomes a new creature, he becomes a Christian; and men become new creatures in Christ. Every branch, therefore, that is in the true vine represents Christians, children of God, those who have been saved. To say that these were but hypocritical pretenders, that they had never known Christ, that they never had any connection with the vine, is the height of folly; for Jesus said they were in the vine, or in him; and since that is so, they had become new creatures. If they had but an imaginary union with the vine, the severing of the union would be imaginary too. Does the husbandman really “take away” the branch that produces no fruit? If so, then it had one time been connected with the vine, for he could not take away something that was never there. If these were but professors of religion, who “had never known anything of true and real connection with him,” just what is accomplished when they are taken away? Their relationship to him would be as before; they are not connected now and were not then. So no change has been made in the matter. An imaginary severing of an imaginary union is all imagination anyway. But the fact is, these branches were really and actually connected with the vine—they were branches of the vine—but they produced no fruit and were taken away and cast into the fire. This is a true representation of those who become Christians, new creatures in Christ, but fail to live as God directs. They bring forth no fruit. So they are taken away and cast into the fire of hell. Stronger proof than this is not possible in showing that children of God may fall away and be lost at last. Don’t let any man deceive you by telling you there is no danger. If there had been no danger, nor possibility, of God’s children being lost at last, Jesus would never have taught the lesson of the vine and branches. You may now be connected with the true vine, you may be a branch in that vine, but if you live in sin against God and do not produce the fruit of the Spirit, the Lord will take you away. It will be terrible to be severed from Christ, but such will occur, and you will be cast into the place of punishment for the wicked.
Christians cannot commit any sin beneath the sun, die in the act, and still go home to Heaven. God will reward every man according to his works, and if you, as a child of God, spend your days in sin, you will have to spend eternity in hell. The thought is terrible to contemplate; so let us resolve to be fruitful branches in the true vine and be welcomed to bliss and joy at last.