Abiding in Christ is a familiar theme to Christians. Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Interpreters typically draw on viticulture to explain what abiding in Christ means and how doing so results in fruitfulness. What tends to be overlooked is the context introduced by Jesus’ allusion to the Old Testament in John 15:1, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.”
In the Old Testament, the vine or vineyard is a symbol for Israel (e.g., Jer 2:21; Ezek 19:10-14; Hos 10:1) and the vineyard owner, Yahweh the God of Israel (e.g., Ps 80:8-16; Jer 12:10-13; Ezek 15:1-8, 17:5-10). Two passages in the book of Isaiah seem especially relevant to appreciating the vine imagery in John 15:1-8.
In Isa 5:1-7 the vineyard owner does everything a vinedresser would do to cultivate good fruit, but the vineyard produces only bad fruit (vv. 1-4). The owner announces judgment on the vineyard, depriving it of protection and cultivation (vv. 5-6). Verse 7 explains that the LORD of hosts is the owner; Israel and Judah are the vineyard. The LORD expects justice and righteousness of his people, only to find bloodshed and an outcry.
Historically, the LORD’s judgment did fall on his vineyard, most evidently in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. However, judgment is not the final word, neither in history nor in Scripture.
Isaiah 27:2-6 shares the imagery of Isa 5:1-7 but reverses its message of judgment. The LORD now watches over and waters the vineyard continually (27:3). He is no longer angry with the vineyard; instead of subjecting it to briers and thorns, the LORD fights against them (v. 4). Instead of producing bad fruit, Israel the vineyard will take root, blossom and fill the whole world with fruit (v. 6).
The vine, vinedresser and fruitfulness motifs intersect in both Isa 5:1-7, 27:2-6 and John 15:1-8. This, along with John’s use of the Old Testament and the wider Old Testament vine imagery, calls for the vine language of John 15 to be understood as an allusion to the Old Testament, not just as a horticultural metaphor. Sensitivity to this allusion informs and enriches the interpretation of John 15:1-8 in three ways.
First, Jesus’ claim to be the true vine (John 15:1) not only recalls but redefines the Old Testament symbol for the people of God. Most significantly, now Jesus, not Israel, is the vine. Moreover, unlike Israel, Jesus is true to the vine’s purpose, that of producing the fruit that the vinedresser expects (see Isa 5:7).
Second, the Old Testament allusion guides our understanding of the vinedresser’s role. In John 15:2 the vinedresser “takes away” (e.g., ESV, NASB) or “cuts off” (e.g., NIV) the fruitless branch. Because this branch is “in” the true vine, some object to viewing the removal negatively, proposing instead to translate the verb differently (e.g., “lifts up”) or to stress the ultimately positive purpose of the action.
The allusion to the vineyard owner points in a different direction. The vineyard owner both cultivates (Isa 5:1-2, 27:3-4) and judges (Isa 5:5-6) the vineyard (see also, e.g., Ps 80:8-13; Ezek 17:5-10). This background prepares Jesus’ audience for a vinedresser who not only prunes for fruitfulness but cuts off for fruitlessness. It also makes room for the language of judgment in John 15:6.
While it does not remove the ambiguity in the text, the allusion sets the stage for holding in tension two opposing attributes of the vinedresser. In the light of the character of the vinedresser and the nature of the true vine, abiding in Christ must be seen as a necessity, not a negotiable, for believers.
Third, fruitfulness in Isaiah illuminates the same motif in John 15:1-8. Fruitfulness in John 15 has been variously understood in terms of character, converts, love or obedience, for example. The Old Testament allusion here does not specify one fruit or the other for John’s reader. Instead, it points to covenant faithfulness as the crux of the matter.
In Isa 5:7 the LORD looks for mišpāṭ (justice), only to find miśpāḥ (bloodshed); he looks for ṣedāqāh (righteousness), only to find ṣeʿāqāh (outcry). This memorable play on words affirms that Israel is judged not for being fruitless but for producing the bad fruit of covenant unfaithfulness (Isa 5:2, 4).
Relying on viticulture alone to explain abiding in Christ leads to reductionistic interpretation. The vine, for instance, merely symbolises the source of fruitfulness. Fruit denotes a particular outcome. Or, what one does to “abide” is emphasised over what has already been done “in Christ.”
Attention to biblical allusion does not replace exegesis. It should not be overlooked, however, since allusions form part of a text’s literary-theological context. In John 15:1-8 Jesus’ allusion highlights both continuity (vinedresser’s role; fruit’s nature) and discontinuity (the true vine’s identity and fruitfulness) with the Old Testament vine imagery.
This literary-theological context guides readers to see abiding in Christ as a response to the true vine, not a rigour; a necessity for all believers, not a negotiable; and as bearing the fruit of obedience, not obeisance.
Dr Yee Chin Hong teaches Old Testament at Trinity Theological College. Before joining TTC in January 2020, he was on the staff of Cru Singapore (1994-2019), serving in various capacities, including student ministry, teaching, training and short-term missions. From 2016 to 2019, he taught Old Testament at East Asia School of Theology.