Painful Pruning

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (‭‭John‬ ‭15:1-11‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

As you may recall, last week we talked about the peace that Jesus promised. Not the kind or quality of peace the world gives, but true peace that comes from a deep, personal relationship with Him. Relational peace from Jesus is able to sustain us in the midst of turmoil, chaotic circumstances and even disintegrating personal relationships. In today’s passage, Jesus continues and expands on that idea through the use of an extended metaphor about a vine. Let’s take a look…

In several Old Testament passages (Ps 80:8, Is 5:1-7, Jer 2:21), we find that Israel is referred to as a vine. Generally speaking, these references are negative and reflect a judgment upon Israel for her failures to remain obedient and faithful to God. However, there is significant evidence that Israel used the vine as a national and religious symbol. A vineyard on a hill, fenced and cleared of stones, was the natural emblem of the kingdom of Judah. In fact, this symbol was engraved on the coins of the Maccabees, on the ornaments of the Temple, and on the tombstones of the Jews. This is important in understanding Jesus use of this metaphor and the contrast he is drawing between the “false” and “true” vine of Israel. 

Listen to the prophetic words of Isaiah: “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isaiah‬ ‭5:1-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

God’s purpose for Israel was for them to be His people, and to reflect His values. They were to display His glory, to reveal His character, to show His will and love to all the nations of the earth. Israel was to be a “living testament” or the “word” of God before all mankind. God took a piece of ground and cleared it of stones, built a wall around it. He prepared it, protected it, and then planted a choice vine. Yet, the vine did nothing but produce wild, sour grapes. Israel didn’t fulfill God’s purpose, they pursued their own purpose. So, God tore down the wall of protection He had built around Israel and the vine was trampled under the feet of those nations who conquered and ravaged her. 

Now, God has sent His Son to plant a new vineyard. One in which Jesus is the true vine, we are the branches and God is vinedresser. But, understand that while God’s people, those who constitute branches on that true vine, have changed and now includes Jews and non-Jews alike (or Gentiles, to use the old Biblical term), His purpose hasn’t changed. He still intends that we display His glory, reveal His character, that we be a “living testament” of God before the eyes of a watching, often skeptical, world. Now, let’s look at the heart of this passage…

Notice there are three specific things Jesus points out about the vine. First, he points out that He is the true vine. Jesus doesn’t say he’s a NEW vine replacing the old, unfaithful one but that He is the true vine and always has been. That implies that the old vine references were a false vine. Israel saw herself as the fulfillment of God’s promises, the Messiah. The focus of Israel was never to be on Israel as a nation state, but upon Israel as the “people” of the one, true God. As stated previously, Her purpose was to reflect God’s character, purpose, will and love and to point the way towards God. She was always intended to point towards Jesus, the Messiah, as the vine of God and never at herself. 

Next, He points out that God is the vinedresser of the vine. The purpose of the vinedresser is to prune and care for the vine so that the vine produces optimally. Generally, there are two things a vinedresser seeks, quality and quantity. To achieve these goals the vinedresser will control the soil, water and unproductive branches. In other words, the vinedresser will seek to control external factors to achieve optimal results. God’s purpose as the vinedresser is to prune the living branches for additional fruit development and to remove the dead branches for vine health. We often misunderstand God’s purpose in our lives as one of personal happiness. But, the goal of the vinedresser is not our personal happiness but our fruit producing health and capacity. 

Ok, so what are the specific desires of God from his people, the vine’s branches? Here are a few verses that illustrate what God desires:

“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” (Isaiah‬ ‭5:7‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah‬ ‭6:6-8‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

“And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord ‘s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi‬ ‭2:13-16‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Finally, these verses illustrate the very “fruit” God desires: justice, righteousness, kindness, humbleness, and faithfulness. Paul puts it this way…

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians‬ ‭5:19-24‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

So, what does all of this have to do with the vine metaphor? Jesus tells the disciples that they (the branches) cannot survive apart from Him (the vine). There are two things the vinedresser is seeking, dead branches that bear no fruit and need to be removed and living branches that bear fruit but need pruning to be more productive. 

Many try and live life separate from the vine, the light and life of the world, and when they do, they die. We all know and recognize that “life” is really much more than just physical existence. A person’s physical life can often be sustained by mechanical means, but we recognize that truly isn’t living. Jesus tells us that life is even more than we realize. It is deeper than a physical existence, it is even deeper than an emotional, passionate existence. Life is only truly known when it is realized humbly through God’s power and presence and that only comes through the Son. Remember, no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. So, dead branches are removed. Don’t be a dead branch…

But the vinedresser also works on the living, fruit bearing branches by pruning them for better fruit. I’ve never really understood pruning until recently. I always assumed that if a branch was alive and growing then it should be left alone. However, I have a peach tree in my back yard and after having several years of lackluster peach harvests, I asked someone. I learned that when a fruit tree is properly pruned then it puts more “growth” into fruit and less into sustaining extraneous branch growth. 

To be honest, this often describes my life. I suspect it describes yours, too. Lots of strength and effort put into extraneous and self-focused “needs.” Lots of branches that yield no actual spiritual fruit. Lots of actions and activities that do not reflect God’s glory. Those passages we read from the Old Testament indicated that God was seeking people who were kind, gentle, honest, just, righteous and faithful. Yet, when we look at our actions they are often lacking in those very qualities. 

Let me ask a really simple, but difficult, question. Do you think anyone would refer to you or your actions as godly or holy? No? At least, not most of the time?That means you and I have some need for pruning. We have extraneous branch growth that isn’t producing godly fruit. I’m certain pruning isn’t comfortable or comforting, but it is necessary. It is beneficial for spiritual growth and development. Let me leave you with one more scripture verse to meditate on…

“And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans‬ ‭8:27-29‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

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