The purpose of this paper will be to conduct an exegetical study and commentary of the pericope commonly known as The Vine and Branches, or John 15:1-11, through contextual analysis and systematic exegesis of the primary Greek terminology evident in the passage. The genre is one of allegory, with figurative semantic domains throughout, which this paper will address. The literary context of John 15:1-11, which both reflects and contributes to the meaning of the passage, will be set forth, while the historical-cultural context of Christ’s upcoming arrest and crucifixion at the time of delivery will be considered. This paper will argue for Johannine authorship of the passage as well as provide an exegetical basis for the meaning of the term “branches” as a figurative representation of both believers and nonbelievers.
The Vine and Branches allegorical segment of Scripture is considered “the very heart” of Jesus’ Farwell Discourse (John 13:31-16:33) wherein he delivers some of his most poignant messages to his disciples, as recorded by the apostle John. John Tucker describes the “occasion and background” of John 15:1-11:
The Johannine parable is part of a series of passionate instructions given by the Lord on the final evening before His death…While interpreting this passage…one must inject one’s self into the urgency of the moment. The passage must not be read as a…casual exercise in forensic exegesis…but rather in an emphatic imposition of empathy.
Prior to Jesus’ communication of this passage, he predicts his own death and betrayal, including Peter’s denial; comforts his disciples; and promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 12:20-14:31). Following the paralleling allegory of the Vine and Branches, he warns his disciples of the persecution they will face in the world as his followers (John 15:18-25); reinforces the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or Counselor, to assist believers (John 15:26-16:16); and promises the faithful eternal joy (John 16:17-33). Both the surrounding context and the Vine and Branches allegory itself diametrically mix persecution (or an element of earthly suffering) with an outcome of lasting joy for followers of Christ. In summation of his book, John records Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, just prior to detailing the Lord’s arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection (John 18-20). The overall literary context of the Farwell Discourse signifies Jesus’ transition to the Father and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, whose supernatural impartation is guaranteed to those who believe in Jesus and are left on earth to continue the work of Christ’s church as true disciples (John 16:7).
Immediately before the Vine and Branches allegory, John 14:31 concludes with the words, “Come now; let us leave,” with no transitory or connecting phrase at the start of John 15:1. Bob Utley expounds:
Some interpreters have asserted that the upper room discourse ends with [John] 14:31…if so, then possibly the “vine” imagery was a visual sign taken from the golden vines on the temple buildings as Jesus and the eleven walked through its courts that night.
The ESV Study Bible concurs:
[Rather than a] ‘literary seam’ (i.e., an indication that John’s Gospel is pieced together from different sources)…[m]ore likely, John is implying that Jesus and his followers are leaving the upper room, making their way to the Kidron Valley, and arriving in the Garden of Gethsemane ([John] 18:1).
Regardless of the exact location where the allegory was historically delivered, there are several contextual insights which prove noteworthy and associate the passage with consistent Johannian themes. “I am the true vine…(vs. 1a)” is the last of Jesus’ seven “I am” (Ἐγώ εἰμι; ego eimi) “statements in John’s Gospel (John 4:26; 6:35; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 10, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6)” and the use of “true” (ἀληθινή; alethine), as a nominative adjective, “contrasts Jesus with Old Testament Israel, reinforcing John’s theme that Jesus [and those in him] are the true Israel.” Utley adds:
In the OT the grapevine was a symbol of Israel…always [implying] a negative connotation. Jesus affirms that He is the Ideal Israelite (Is 53). As Paul used the body of Christ…as [a] metaphor…for the church, so John used the vine. This implies that the church is the true Israel because of its relationship to Jesus, the true vine.
The prevalent, repetitive term μένω (meno) is used in the allegory eleven times in the NIV (translated remain) and ten times in the NASB (translated abide). This Greek word is used in the New Testament approximately 118 times, and Utley states, “[f]orty of these appear in John’s Gospel and [twenty-six] in his letters…[t]his is a major theological term for John.” Within the allegory, the verb μένω moves from the aoristic aspect, imperative mood, active voice (μείνατε; meinate; vs. 4) to future tense, indicative mood, with active voice (μενεῖτε; meneite, vs. 10), indicating that if the abiding or remaining is done according to command (vs. 4), then a promise of reward will come to pass in the future (eternally; vs. 10).
Analysis of Text
As aforementioned, Jesus opens the allegory of the Vine and Branches with, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1a). “I am” (Ἐγώ εἰμι; ego eimi; personal, possessive pronoun, nominative; verb, present, indicative, active) is the seventh of such statements used in John’s Gospel, wherein each “include the definite article before the predicate noun, and most…include adjectives…that invite investigation into the Old Testament [for Christ’s fulfillment].” Walvoord states:
In its New Testament usage, the word for vine [ἄμπελος; ampelos; noun, nominative] is always associated with fruit bearing (Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; Jas 3:12). Christ is the true vine in contrast to that which would be false… The word for true [ἀληθινή; alethine; adjective; nominative] has the connotation of that which is ultimate, perfect, or infinite.
The “I am” is used with an “expressed predicate.” According to Blass and Debrunner, “Predicate nouns as a rule are anarthrous [Greek substantive: used without an article]…nevertheless, the article is inserted if the predicate noun is presented…as that which alone merits the designation (the only thing to be considered).” Thusly, Jesus’ and/or John’s use of Ἐγώ εἰμι in this case signifies that Jesus is the one and only consideration for the fulfillment for the Old Testament “vine” metaphor, strongly reinforced by the term true (ἀληθινή). Tucker states:
[I]t should be clearly evident that the Lord made use of the Old Testament “vine” metaphor to draw attention to and accentuate the genuine nature of Himself and to assure fruitfulness that was intended by the Father, as opposed to the degenerate, unfruitful nature of Israel which previously was not capable of fulfilling such intentions of the Father.
The ESV Study Bible adds:
The repeated references to fruitbearing (John 15:4, 5, 8) underscore that this is God’s primary purpose in creation (Gen 1:11-12, 22, 28) and in redemption (John 15:8, 16). The Old Testament prophets envisioned a time when God’s people would “blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” (Is 27:6; Hos 14:4-8).
In essence, the opening introduction of the allegory points to Christ as the only mediator (vine) between God (vinedresser) and man (branches), enabling man to adequately fulfill the initial purpose of creation (Gen 1:28; fruitbearing, vs. 2).
The conjunction kai (translated, and) leads to the statement, “My Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1b). Vinedresser (γεωργός; georgos) is a nominative noun which means God the Father is the gardener in charge of caretaking and overseeing the event of fruitbearing, as in the art of divine husbandry. The ESV Study Bible notes:
The vinedresser refers back to Isaiah’s first vineyard song, where God is depicted as tending his vineyard, only to be rewarded with wild grapes (Is 5:1-7; Ps 80:8-9). The fruitfulness of those in Christ contrasts with the fruitlessness of Israel.
The stem of γεωργός is ἔργον (ergon) which asserts that God is the worker who accomplishes the “deed that completes an inner desire, intention or purpose.” A believer who is “in Christ” should have, or develop, the same desires and purposes as God’s (Ps 37:4; Matt 6:10; Rom 8:28), in an attitude of reception and rest, as Jesus is the source of life.
In John 15:2a, Jesus states that “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away.” Firstly, the term, “in Me” signifies those who are “in” the new covenant, or believers in Christ. This is significant in that believers (every branch in Me) are not exempt from the pruning process of the vinedresser (vs. 2b) as this multiplies fruit (vs. 2c). In other words, for the believer who abides (stays, remains) in Christ, the process of pruning and the outcome of fruitbearing is his guarantee (vs. 5). Some interpreters take “the branches” to mean the unregenerate or unbelieving, however, taken as an absolute, this conflicts with verse 2b. Others interpret the branches as unfruitful, yet true believers, which again, taken as an absolute, conflicts with verse 6, where these branches are “thrown away, drie[d] up, gather[ed], and cast into the fire.” Suffice it to say, the Vine and Branches encompasses all the Lord’s created, and God, as the vinedresser, oversees such determinations (Rom 2:16; 2 Tim 4:1; Rev 19:11). The uncertainty (from the human point of view) that lies between the branches’ specific identity creates a tension which motivates personal effort (vs. 4). The balanced dichotomy of rewards (fruit, joy) versus purification (fire) increases the allegorical teaching value of the parable, which echoes the “whosoever will” election apparent within John 3:16, and is reiterated in 1 Corinthians 3:14-15.
“Fruit” (καρπὸν; karpon; accusative noun; vs 2, 4, 5, 8) covers a wide literal and figurative semantic domain, such as “the fruit of trees and vines, child-rearing, results of work or deeds, praises to God, to gather fruit into life eternal, as those who by their labours have fitted souls to obtain eternal life;” or, “crops, harvests, or the outcome of behavior from righteousness or evil in the inner life.” Essentially, the allusion to “fruit” in this passage may refer to anything done in one’s lifetime, with contextual emphasis on discipleship and obedience to the Lord’s commands (John 15:8, 10; Col 3:23-24).
There is some controversy over the English translation “takes away” (vs. 2a, αἴρει; airei; present, indicative, active, verb) in that most of the New Testament usages of this term mean, “to lift up.” Tucker maintains:
Grapes were allowed to grow along the ground [during the time of Christ] where their clusters were propped to prevent them from being ruined…As a consequence of a misguided understanding of the viticultural practices of the day…many have determined that αἴρει must mean “remove or take away,” as in judgment, contrary to the viticulturally precise “lift up,” as in stimulation and encouragement.
However, both the passage content and the literary and historical context prior to the crucifixion support the parable as far more than a light-hearted, viticultural task. In addition, responsible horticultural practices in any era or locale include clearing off and burning that which is not productive to make way for new growth. The ESV Study Bible states, “…branches…are thrown away and burned in 15:6, which seems clearly to be a picture of final judgment.” This author maintains that the range of semantic domain for αἴρει, whether “to lift up or to take away,” should be considered applicable in light of both verse 2 and 6, including:
[R]aising the mind [which is] equivalent to excite, affect strongly (with a sense of fear, hope, joy, grief), or [as used] in John 10:24, to hold the mind in suspense between doubt and hope.
These definitions may coincide experientially to the waxing and waning process of pruning (vs. 2b). For the Father to lift up an abiding branch closer to the sun of his holiness would yet require purification and cleansing. This full semantic range reflects the spectrum of internal motives and experiential learning processes of believers as they gain understanding of what is meant by living, or abiding, in Christ.
John 15:2b begins with the conjunction kai (translated, and) where Jesus equates responsibility to the Father (vinedresser) who “takes away” branches that do not bear, and prunes those that do. “Prunes” (καθαίρει; kathairei) means “to cleanse for sacred use” including, “healing of diseases” and “religious and moral purity, as from sin and a guilty conscience…to make pure [or] acceptable to God.” The present, indicative mood of καθαίρει strongly suggests that the process of purification is continual and universal, as God’s work steadfastly accomplished in all souls (branches) under the sun. In John 15:3, Jesus declares those who have heard the Word he has spoken are “already clean” (ἤδη; ede; temporal adverb/καθαροί; katharoi; nominative adjective) which “implies completion [of the purification], referring to what is not yet strictly present, but already impacts the present.” Such an assurance that the branch is already cleansed due to the abiding Word instills faith and hope for the future (vs. 2, 11).
In John 15:4-5, Jesus reinforces the idea that a “branch cannot bear fruit of itself” by repeating, “I am the vine.” He expresses that fruitbearing is only possible through abiding in him, “…for apart from Me you can do nothing” (vs. 5). For (ὅτι; hoti) is the conjunction that leads to χωρὶς (choris; translated, apart from) ἐμοῦ (emou, translated, me) δύνασθε ποιεῖν οὐδέν (dynasthe poiein ouden; translated, you are able to do nothing). Dynasthe is a verb in the present, indicative, passive voice which infers that regardless of where Christ is (on earth with the disciples or resurrected after crucifixion), his followers cannot do a thing (ποιεῖν; present, infinitive/οὐδέν; accusative adjective) in the present without abiding in the Lord for strength. The ESV Study Bible argues, “[N]othing [here] does not mean “nothing at all,” for unbelievers…carry on their ordinary activities of life apart from Christ; [r]ather, it means, “nothing of eternal value…” However, this author maintains that Christ is talking to his disciples (you, vs. 5a), who are proven believers, and the term οὐδέν here is preceded by ou (not) leaving no room for any exception. If one is not abiding in Christ, they are abiding in absolutely nothing at all, which will be the result of their fruitless labors (vs. 6).
John 15:1-11 utilizes the term “abide” in the NASB, and “remain” in the NIV, repeatedly. The branches are to abide in Christ (vs. 4-7) and his love (vs. 9, 10), while Christ’s words abide in the branches (vs. 7) and he abides in the love of the Father (vs. 10). In essence, Jesus is establishing his ongoing position as mediator between God and man, as the source of life essential for positive human productivity and kingdom advancement (fruit). Robert Martin explains the use of “abide” (or, “remain”) in John 15:1-11:
Jesus uses the imperative mood, which here conveys the idea of entreaty, exhortation, even command. …[W]hile we may be tempted to read the word “abide” in a static way, that would be to miss our Lord’s meaning altogether. As the context plainly shows (John 15:10), “abide” is a very dynamic word…Abiding in Christ may be epitomized in two expressions: 1) intimate communion and 2) energetic perseverance…We need to be drawing sap from the vine. Without that we will be barren…
“Abide” or “remain” (μένω; meno) means, “to continue, dwell, endure, remain, stand and tarry;” it is commonly used metaphorically in John’s other writings as:
[A] place, to be said of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit [or] the Word of God, the Truth; of time, said of believers, or sin; [or,] of qualities, such as Christ’s love (1 John 2:19-24, 4:15; 2 John 1:2; John 6:56, 15:4, 1:32-33, 14:17, 21:22, 15:10).
Rick Renner states:
A literal translation of John 15:7 could be, “If you steadfastly and continuously abide in Me, and if My words steadfastly and continuously abide in you, you may ask what you will, and it shall be done for you.” The word meno gives the idea of something that is rooted, unmoving and stable.
In the allegory, Jesus graduates the metaphor from a natural garden (vs. 1; vineyard, or a type of Eden relating back to Genesis) to the spiritual realm, which he is about to enter fully himself (vs. 8-11; John 14:2, 19-21). He communicates this through the variances of the word, meno, transitioning it from the aoristic aspect (meinate, vs. 4) to the future sense (meneite; vs. 10). Jesus unites the natural analogy of managing plantings to his followers becoming immovable in faith via an abiding, eternal dependence upon him.
Those abiding are in a process of becoming (γίνομαι; ginomai) a planting of the Lord (true disciples) which will glorify the Father (vs. 8; Is 61:3). If one abides in Christ, with his words abiding in them, whatever this one actively wishes (θέλητε; thelete; present, subjunctive, active: def. “desires what is best, closely related to faith”), or asks (αἰτήσασθε; aitesasthe: aorist, imperative), it will be done (γενήσεται; genesetai; future, indicative). This term, γένησθε (genesesthe; translated, you shall be; aorist, subjunctive) is repeated in John 15:8, connecting the granting of prayer and the granting of discipleship—both of which are defined as “becoming, coming into being, being born, emerging or transitioning.” “Ask” is an imperative command, from the aorist perspective, which links prayer on the earth to that already granted from above—it is becoming manifest. Similarly, those abiding are becoming (γένησθε) disciples, though this term is in the subjunctive—it may take place, dependent upon one’s choice to abide and keep the Lord’s commandments (vs. 10).
Contextually, the passages surrounding the Vine and Branches disclose the Christological summation of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection process which was about to be fulfilled when the allegory was delivered to the eleven disciples. The main focus is discipleship for those to live (remain, abide) in Christ (vs. 8), which continues to be applicable today. The aorist tenses prevalent in John 15:1-11 suggest a top-down viewpoint of Christ’s life on earth and his teaching indicates his desire for disciples of any era to adopt a similar viewpoint of their own life of service on the earth. Utley notes:
It is surprising how many aorist tenses are used in this context [John 15:1-11] where one would theologically expect present tenses. The aorists seem to be used in the sense of summing up all of one’s life and viewing it as a whole.
The “branches” distinctly include believers who must abide and remain in Christ, as the one and only true vine, in order to bear fruit (vs. 8). God’s process requires believers to endure pruning for more fruit (vs. 2b); pray (vs. 7); love Christ (vs. 9); and keep his commands (vs. 10) in order to be proven Jesus’ disciples, after which comes the promise of full joy. Discipleship may take place, dependent upon one’s choice to both abide in the Lord and keep his commandments (vs. 10).
The literary context surrounding the Vine and Branches has been explored and Johannine authorship has been supported by the recurring themes of the “I am” statements; the metaphor of the true vine being Christ; and the repetitive use of μένω. The abrupt end of John 14:31, with no transitory phraseology to introduce the passage, is explained without resorting to the conclusion of a “literary seam,” as the allegory is nestled amidst passages with literal and figurative motifs highly complementary to its general message. The historical-cultural context has been considered in light of Jesus’ upcoming arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. The strong use of allegory, aorist tenses, and surrounding passages for support, communicate Jesus’ urgent message regarding the disciples’ ongoing ministry as an experience of both purification and joy, with the promise of the Holy Spirit as helper (John 14:15-27; 16:5-16), so those grafted into Christ through faith might receive the new wine and produce much fruit. In addition, this paper has provided an exegetical argument for the term “branches” as a figurative representation which includes both believers and nonbelievers.
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Block Diagram: John 15:1-11 (NASB)
1 “I / am / the true vine,
My Father / is / the vinedresser.
2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, / He / takes away;
every branch that bears fruit, / He / prunes it
it may bear more fruit.
3 You / are / already clean
because of the word which I have spoken to you.
4 Abide / in Me,
I in you.
As the branch cannot / bear / fruit of itself
it abides in the vine,
so neither can you
you abide in Me.
5 I am / the vine,
you / are / the branches;
he who / abides / in Me
and I in him, he bears much fruit,
apart from Me you can do nothing.
6 If anyone does not / abide / in Me,
he is thrown away as a branch
they gather them,
cast them into the fire
they are burned.
7 If you / abide / in Me,
My words / abide / in you,
ask whatever you wish,
it will be done for you.
8 My Father / is / glorified by this,
you bear much fruit,
so prove to be My disciples.
9 Just as the Father / has loved / Me,
I / have also loved / you;
abide / in My love.
10 If you / keep / My commandments,
you will abide in My love;
just as I have kept My Father’s commandments
abide in His love.
11 These things I / have spoken / to you
My joy may be in you,
that your joy may be made full.
 Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages are in the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
 ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2054.
 John A. Tucker, “The Inevitability of Fruitbearing: An Exegesis of John 15:6 – Part 1,” Journal of Dispensational Theology 15, no. 44 (April 2011): 51-68, accessed June 18, 2018, http://www.liberty.edu.
 ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2054.