John 15:1-8


We don't know whether this text was spoken in the upper room or on the way to Gethsemane.

Fahling: Just what the occasion was that prompted the Lord to continue His discourse by presenting Himself as the true Vine, whether it was the fruit of the vine in the paschal meal or a vine growing in the courtyard or the symbol of the vine on one of the Temple gates, we do not know.

But when negative critics make the claim that John has used the figure of Vine and Branches to replace the words of institution, found in the Synoptics, that is something else. Furthermore, Reformed theology is known for its denial of the true presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. For example, Hendriksen:

Jesus now bids these men to look away from the symbols of merely physical bread and wine and to see in Him the reality, the fulfillment, the great Antitype. . . Not the wine from which the communion-wine had been derived, nor even Israel, but Christ himself, present with the disciples that memorable night, was the REAL vine.

Hendriksen is trying his best to make the words of institution figurative. And, in trying to do so, he makes the figurative language of John 15:1-8 literal. In this way Reformed theology falls victim to what negative critics have said, though conservative Reformed theologians do not want to be identified with form and redaction critics.

The 26th edition of Nestle Greek text, unlike the 25th, makes verses 9-17 a major paragraph. The 25th edition makes all of John 15 a major paragraph, with subparagraphs at verses 18 and 26.

John 15:1  "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener." 

Note emphatic "I am," right at the beginning. Forms of emphatic "I am" occur again in verse 4, twice in verse 5. In addition to the other obvious references, Christ refers to Himself no less than 14 times. Likewise, notice the obvious references to  "you," a total of fourteen. It's one of the very personal "I-you" passages in the Gospel of John.

Back to verse 1: "true" means "genuine, unique." It is used figuratively, of course, but the point is that Christ is our sole source of spiritual sustenance. Jesus always refers to the Father as MY Father, not OUR Father. His Father is the "gardener," the vine-dresser. What is meant by this becomes clear in verse 2.

John 15:2  "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." 

The word "fruit" occurs 3 times in this verse, once in verses 4, 5, and 8 each. A key word in this pericope. This verse reminds one immediately of Galatians 5:22.23; Ephesians 5:9; Hebrews 12:11, which ought be read. In Galatians 5 the term "the fruit of the Spirit" implies the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the genuine vine. Likewise with Ephesians 5:9 and Hebrews 12:11.

The words "bears no fruit" do not mean that some Christians are actually fruitless, but indicates the deluded person who thinks he can be a Christian but produces no fruit.

The subject of  "prunes" is "My Father." Hebrews 12:4-11 is an excellent parallel passage here. Just as a vine dresser prunes the branch to make it more productive, so the Father scourges every son whom He receives. The peaceable fruit of righteousness results. The source of the fruit is Jesus alone. The cause of greater yield is the Father who cleanses fruitlessness from the branch.

Before we proceed, it is good to mention Wm. Hendriksen and R.C.H. Lenski with reference to their commentaries on this passage. Hendriksen is Reformed. The underlying differences between Reformed and Lutheran theology are very apparent here. Hendriksen sets "sovereign grace" aside  "human responsibility." He mixes and confuses justification and sanctification. And though he condemns Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, the word "synergism" is conspicuous by its absence in what he says.

John 15:3  "You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you." 

"Already" clearly means "already," thus rendered by RSV, AAT and NASB. Note emphatic "you Christians." "Clean" is here a synonym for  "justified." For "because" KJV has "through," RSV and NEB have "by," but NIV and NASB are best: "because." "The word" is plainly "the Gospel." The Gospel conveys the forgiveness of sins to the individual believers. On this thought cf. John 13:10 and 6:63. Also Acts 15:9.

The point of the verse here is that the fruit, the good works, do not make a Christian better or cleaner. Christians are already clean, justified, pure because of the Gospel. Whenever Christians feel their sinfulness and sin they must flee to the Gospel which conveys to them the forgiveness of sin because of what Christ suffered on the cross. The good works which a Christian does, though necessary and given to him by God (Ephesians 2:9.10), do not make the Christian better.

Lenski: In ascribing this cleansing to the Word, Jesus takes all the credit and glory to himself and leaves none to us. The cleansing by the Word through faith (justification) does not exclude the cleansing which follows throughout life in the putting away of all the defilements of the flesh (sanctification).
Ylvisaker: It is the pure He purifies.

But Hendriksen teaches progressive sanctification:

Those who bear good fruit are cleansed more and more. Having been justified, they now receive the grace of daily renewal, until finally, completely sanctified, they reach the shores of heaven. . . The responsibility is wholly theirs.

These notes are not saying that sanctification is not important. But read Ephesians 2:1-10 and Philippians 3:4-14 to keep justification and sanctification in their proper perspective. They are beautifully combined in Galatians 2:20. Read Article IV, Good Works, in the Formula of Concord. Good works are not optional but neither are they the cause of our salvation. Good works will surely follow from true faith as the fruits of a good tree.

John 15:4  "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." 

"Remain" is another key word in this pericope. It occurs three times in this verse, once in 5, once in 6 and twice in 7, for a total of seven. Here "remain" is imperative. A person remains in Christ by faith. "And I will remain" means "and thus I will remain in you." Christ is telling us to remain in Him but He is not telling Himself to remain in us. He is assuring the individual believer that so long as he trusts in Christ he is cleansed and forgiven. That's always the starting point.

Here we have an axiomatic illustration, understandable even to a child. Everyone will readily admit that a detached branch cannot bear fruit. Nor is Jesus saying that a branch can bear fruit solely because of its attachment to the vine. Jesus is stressing the utter necessity of daily repentance and faith. When a Christian examines himself he should not be surprised to find much sin in his life because in his flesh there dwells no good thing. But by faith he clings to the many promises of God in Christ which inform him that by virtue of His suffering and death Christ has atoned for the sins of all men and therefore also of the individual. That's what it means to remain in Christ.

John 15:5  "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." 

This is a general assurance. But in the next sentence Jesus individualizes: "The one who remains in Me and thus I in him." This is a personal assurance and open invitation to every repentant sinner. "If a man" is a demonstrative pronoun pointing back to the individual repentant sinner who believes in Christ.

Jesus does not say "some fruit" but "much fruit." This is a very comforting word because Christians very often, in their dissatisfaction with themselves, say to themselves as did Paul: "the good which I'd like to do, I do not and the evil which I don't want to do, I do." Read on at Romans 7:20ff. Then Paul cries: "Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this sinful body? Thanks be to God though our Lord Jesus Christ." Such an individual is clinging to Christ, the Vine. And such a person should be assured that he is bearing much fruit, though he is often not aware of it. Then follows a causal clause: "Because apart from Me you (plural again) can be doing absolutely nothing." 

The Christian attributes everything, both his justification and his sanctification, to his gracious Savior Who died for him and Who now lives in Him by faith.

John 15:6  "If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned." 

Now comes the opposite side of the coin. Jesus is speaking of the individual who refuses or ceases to acknowledge Jesus for what He is. We again have illustration. What do people do with branches that fall from a vine or tree? Everybody knows. They carry them away from the vine or tree, let them become completely dry, pile them up and burn them. The verbs are examples of what is called the gnomic aorist, that which customarily happens. Look at the verbs found at James 1:11, good examples of the gnomic aorist. John 15:6 is starkest law picturing the fruitless person who has fallen from Christ.

John 15:7  "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." 

Jesus has used the verb "remain" three times in verse 4, once in verse 5 and once in verse 6. Now He uses it again but amplifies its meaning. "If" is epexegetical, meaning  "namely." Remaining in Christ and having His words remain in us are not two individual things but the same thing. John 8:31 and 32 is an excellent parallel passage here. Christ is where His Word is. Where two or three are gathered together in His name, there He is.

Now follows a command. Implicit in the command is the fact that Christ is our Savior. "Whatever you wish" means "no matter what." Christ is closer to the believer than is husband, wife, child, parent or friend. Our inmost thoughts are known to Him and He wants us to bring Him our most personal requests. "And it shall be to you," is a grand promise.

It hardly need be said that Christ is not including ridiculous or godless requests. Faith does not make such requests. Furthermore, faith is always saying, as did He "Not my will but Thine be done." The point of verse 7 is the same made by Paul at Romans 8:31.32. In view of the fact that Christ has already vicariously supplied me with the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, won't He now give me all needed good for this life? Of course He will.

John 15:8  "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." 

This verse reminds us immediately of Matthew 5:16. Note that Jesus says MY Father, which denotes His personal relationship to the Father Who sent Jesus to redeem all men. Those who believe this, bear much fruit. (Note again that it's not merely some but much.)

The good works of the Christian, caused by the fact that Jesus alone is the Vine, the Source, are pleasing to the heavenly Father and clothe Him in the splendor due Him. People should see these good works in us to glorify the Father, not ourselves.

The last phrase could begin "and thus," if we read the Greek according to Nestle 25th edition. In this case we translate "prove to be." However, the 26th reads an aorist subjunctive, not future indicative. In this case the clause means: "that you bear much fruit and are My disciples." In neither case can the form of "showing" mean "become." None of our translations understand it in the sense of "become." Christians do not become Christians by bearing much fruit. That would be contrary to all of Scripture.

Apparently all our translations, including KJV, read as does the 25th edition and these notes consider that correct. RSV, AAT and NASB read: "and so prove to be my disciples." That is surely correct. The much fruit in the life of the Christian glorifies Jesus' Father and proves that he is Jesus' disciple.

Is "disciple" a nominative plural adjective or a dative singular pronoun? These notes prefer the former. But, in any case it means that they belong to Jesus in the sense that they have been persuaded as to His teaching. They are of the same school of thought as is Jesus.

Jesus and Jesus alone is the source of that which is truly good. Read John 10:11-18. His highest good comes to us through the fact that He laid down His life for us. He who believes this is one of Jesus' sheep, justified, cleansed, forgiven. Now read Ephesians 2:9.10: "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God has prepared before in order that we might walk in them." From God's point of view the entire life of the Christian, by virtue of the fact that he is attached to Jesus, the Vine, is a good work. No wonder Jesus uses the expression "MUCH fruit" twice in our pericope. It's either MUCH fruit or none.

 The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IV, Good Works,  paragraph 14, reads:

It is evident that in discussing the question whether good works are necessary or free, both the Augsburg Confession and its Apology often employ formulas like these: 'Good works are necessary'; again, 'It is necessary to do good works because they necessarily follow faith and reconciliation' again: 'We should and must of necessity do good works that God has commanded.' Likewise, Holy Scripture itself uses words like 'necessity', 'necessary', 'needful', 'should', 'must' to indicate what we are bound to do because of God's ordinance, commandment, and will (Romans 13:5.6.9; 1 Corinthians 9:9; Acts 5:29; John 15:12; 1 John 4:11).

Likewise in  Article XI, Election , paragraph 12 we read:

Furthermore, everything in the Word of God is written down for us, not for the purpose of thereby driving us to despair but in order that 'by steadfastness, by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope' (Romans 15:4). From this it is beyond all doubt that the true understanding or the right use of the teaching of God's eternal foreknowledge will in no way cause or support either impenitence or despair. So, too, Scripture presents this doctrine in no other way than to direct us thereby to the Word (Ephesians 1:13.14; 1 Corinthians 1:21.30.31), to admonish us to repent (2 Timothy 3:16), to urge us to godliness (Ephesians 1:15ff; John 15:, to strengthen our faith and to assure us of our salvation (Ephesians 1:9.13.14; John 10:27-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15).


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 106-109. Used with permission.

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