Sundoulos - Spring 2010

Significance of the Vine Motif in John 15

An Interpretive Model for Jesus’ Messianic ‘I am’ Statements

by John Hutchison

Introduction

Jesus’ rich imagery in “I am” statements like John 15:1-8 has captured the interest of casual Bible readers and serious scholars alike. In his own explanatory words (vv. 2-8), Jesus invites us to explore the depths of the metaphor, to determine how the physical grapevine, branches, fruit, and actions of the vinedresser picture our living relationship with the Father and Jesus himself. In addition, this is the last of seven “I am” statements recorded in John where the Greek formula εγω′ ειμι followed by a predicate noun makes assertions about the identity of Christ. Is Jesus claiming to be God in his use of terminology equivalent to the name Yahweh revealed in Exodus 3:14? Is the Apostle John, whose Gospel is the only one to record these statements, making a similar claim? An affirmative answer to both of these questions certainly fits with John’s emphasis as a Gospel writer, and with Jesus’ self-claims elsewhere. But, is this the main point of Jesus’ “I am” claim in John 15:1?

An important interpretive question that leads to an answer is, “What was the inspiration for Jesus’ choice of this particular metaphor in his Upper Room discourse?” Certainly a visual cue might have sparked his words that night. Some have suggested the cup of wine during the Last Supper, a vine growing in the window of the room, or perhaps the elaborate vine on the Temple gate, a symbol of Israel placed there by Herod the Great.1

When one considers the associations this imagery had for Jesus’ disciples, the original hearers, the meaning is unmistakable. The following factors support the thesis that Jesus’ intended referent in the vine imagery is the nation of Israel, and that his claims are primarily Messianic in nature.

The Grammar of John 15:1

The Definite Article. A factor which helps determine the meaning of Jesus’ statement is the presence of the definite article with “vine” (η α′μπελοσ). In all of the "I am" passages in his Gospel, John uses εγο ειμι with a predicate including the definite article. Harner notes the significance of this construction:

We may note first that when John uses the phrase εγο ειμι with an expressed predicate, he always uses the definite article with the predicate…. A predicate noun in Greek usually lacks the article. When it is used, it indicates that the predicate is identical with the subject rather than a general class of which the subject is a particular example. By using the article with the predicate in these εγο ειμι expressions, John wishes to express his belief that Jesus is, for example, the light of the world, and that conversely the light of the world is Jesus and no other. In these phrases the emphasis lies on the identity and interchangeability of subject and predicate.2

Blass-Debrunner confirms this important grammatical point, “Predicate nouns as a rule are anarthrous. Nevertheless the article is inserted if the predicate noun is presented as something well known or as that which alone merits the designation (the only thing to be considered).”3 Therefore, based upon the inclusion of the definite article, Jesus’ words in John 15:1 may legitimately be translated, “I am THE vine, the true one.”

The Significance of α′ληθινη. Coupled with the definite article, this adjective in John 15:1 is central to the meaning of the verse. One possible connotation of “true” is genuine or trustworthy as opposed to false or spurious (e.g., the true God in 1 Thes 1:9). But this word can also be used to distinguish heavenly, divine reality from that which is human and earthly, as in the case of the true tabernacle in Hebrews 8:2: “who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.” It is the second connotation which seems to fit best in John 15:1. Thus, the true vine is the one which is the highest, most ultimate realization. The perfect replacing the imperfect. This meaning is certainly supported by the use of the definite article, but it is also consistent with other uses of
α′ληθινοσ in John’s Gospel. When taken in this way, the concept of the true vine is to be seen as the fulfillment of an Old Testament type of the Messiah.

Old Testament and Cultural Considerations

Not only does the grammar of John 15:1 allude to some earlier “vine” foreshadowing the Messiah, but the cultural and religious context of 2nd Temple Judaism argue for the same. Colin Kruse, quoting Josephus, describes a prominent symbol of Israel: the image of the vine at the Temple:

In the time of Jesus a great golden vine hung over the entrance to the Jerusalem temple. Josephus describes it: “The gate opening into the building was, as I say, completely overlaid with gold, as was the whole wall around it. It had, moreover, above it those golden vines, from which depended grape-clusters as tall as a man” (Jewish War v.210-212).4

The grapevine symbol may also be found in coins, Temple décor, burial places, and art of the period.5 These examples demonstrate the cultural presence of the vine symbolism for Israel before, during, and after the time of Christ. Finally, consider the Old Testament use of the vine motif:

Psalm 80:7-19. God’s people Israel are pictured as the vine which “God brought out of Egypt.” Yahweh took great care driving out the nations, clearing the ground, and planted the vine. The result—a thriving vineyard whose borders spread from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River. But the vineyard is here pictured as broken down and destroyed, a result of the judgment of God.

In relation to John 15, this passage not only establishes the “vine” motif for Israel, but also depicts the Father as the gardener. Israel is pictured in a state of judgment and destruction, calling to God to be restored. It is also noteworthy that within this expanded metaphor, one finds references to other Messianic terminology:“the son” (cf. Hosea 11:1) and “the son of man,” Jesus’ favorite Messianic self-title. Though these expressions apply to Israel in this Old Testament context, they later become Messianic terminology as well.

Isaiah 5:1-7. Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (chap 5) is much like a parable, depicting a man who planted a vineyard on a fertile hillside, perfectly prepared to produce good crops and wine. But the vineyard produced only bad fruit, and is now destined to be destroyed. Again, these passages identify Israel with the vine motif, and like Psalm 80, associate it with God’s discipline. Israel is depicted with great optimism and potential, but ultimately judged because of moral and spiritual failure.6

Several other passages from the prophets, including Isaiah 27:2-6, Jeremiah 2:21, Hosea 10:1-2; Ezekiel 15:1-5, 17:1-21, 19:10-15, all support the clear pattern established in the passages above. It is important to note that in all these Old Testament passages, imagery of the vineyard was used to symbolize Israel, but it was also directly associated with future Messianic ministry. In New Testament statements like John 15:1, Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of this motif.7

Jesus as the True Vine – Conclusions

The “I am” claim of Jesus in John 15 is much more than a simple metaphor. Several factors support the claim that Jesus’ main point is Messianic in nature, as he makes the outright claim to be the “vine” that Israel failed to be. Certainly the “vine” metaphor itself speaks volumes about spiritual unity, communion, fruitfulness, and the need for “pruning, but to stop here is to miss a central point. Jesus is contrasting himself to another earlier “vine,” and claiming to be the genuine vine—the perfect in place of the imperfect, the fulfillment of a Messianic type. This is supported in several ways: (1) the definite article with α′μπελοσ which is not normally present with a predicate noun; (2) the adjective α′ληθινη , indicating “genuine” or “authentic;” and (3) the frequent reference of Jesus and John’s Gospel to Old Testament imagery, which provides many clear passages depicting Israel as God’s “vine.” Jesus’ claim was not only identity with God, but as the TRUE or GENUINE “vine,” he was the Messianic fulfillment of Old Testament imagery. Further, John 15 may provide an example for interpreting other “I am” statements of Jesus.8 In them Old Testament metaphors were chosen by Christ to describe his New Covenant Messianic identity in contrast to the failures experienced under the Old Covenant.

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Notes

1 James E. Rosscup, Abiding in Christ: Studies in John 15 (Zondervan, 1973), pp. 20-28.

2 Phillip Harner, The “I am” of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Johannine Usage and Thought (Fortress, 1970),50.

3 F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. Robert W. Funk (University of Chicago Press, 1961), par. 273, p. 143.

4 Colin Kruse, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: John (Eerdmans, 2003), p. 314. See also Joel Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (InterVarsity, 1992), p. 867-68.

5 Paul Romanoff, “Jewish Symbols on Ancient Jewish Coins,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 34 (1944): 299-301. See also a visual display of the vine imagery on coins from the period of Herod Archelaus (4 B.C. - A.D.6 ), the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), and the Second Jewish Revolt (Bar Kokhba, A.D. 132-135) at http://www.calgarycoin.com/reference/jewish/anc-jewish.htm, entitled “Ancient Coins of the Jewish People.”

6 Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (InterVarsity, 1998), 915.

7 Darrell Bock, Jesus According to Scripture (Baker, 2002), 506.

8 “I am the bread of life” (6:35, 48); “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5); “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:8); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25-26); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6); “I am the true vine” (15:1).


John Hutchison (ThM, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is Professor and Chair, Bible Exposition. John is the author of Right When Things Go Wrong: Biblical Wisdom for Facing Tough Times (Kregel, 2005), as well as a number of journal articles and book chapters. John and his wife Leah are also actively involved in leading tours to Israel. They live in Torrance, and are active members in Oceanside Christian Fellowship, El Segundo.

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