An excerpt from “Commentary on the New Testament” by Robert Gundry
John 15:1–4: “I am the true vineyard, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2Every vine in me that doesn’t bear fruit—he takes it away. And every vine that does bear [fruit]—he cleans [= prunes] it in order that it may bear more fruit. 3You’re already clean because of the word that I’ve spoken to you. 4Abide in me, and I [will abide] in you. Just as the vine can’t bear fruit on its own, [that is, just as it can’t bear fruit] unless it abides in the vineyard, so neither can you [bear fruit] if you don’t abide in me.” Traditionally, translations of this passage speak of a vine and its branches rather than of a vineyard and its vines. By the time John wrote, however, the words for a vine and its branches had come also and commonly to mean a vineyard and its vines. And since “cleans” means “prunes,” it makes better viticultural sense to settle for a vineyard and its vines. For you prune a vine by cutting off its nonbearing branches. You don’t prune branches by cutting off their twigs.
The Old Testament often portrays the land of Israel as a vineyard, and Israel herself as the Lord’s vine planted in the land (see Isaiah 5:1–7, for example). So just as Jesus portrayed himself instead of the temple as “the Father’s home” (see 14:2 with 2:19–22), now he portrays himself instead of the land as the true vineyard—“true” in the sense that he’s the reality which the land symbolized. The land flowing with milk and honey, as the Old Testament often describes it (starting in Exodus 3:8, 17), provided rich nourishment for the vine of Israel. So also Jesus, who described his flesh and blood as true bread and drink (6:30–58), provides rich nourishment for every vine—that is, for every believer—planted in him.
As the vinegrower, God the Father takes away every vine that doesn’t bear fruit, and removal from the soil of the vineyard brings death to the vine. In other words, false disciples face eternal damnation, the second death (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). But God prunes every vine that does bear fruit, that gives evidence of genuine discipleship. In the original Greek there’s a wordplay between “takes away” (airei) and “cleans/prunes” (kathairei). Since the verb for pruning means to clean, the pruning has to do with cleansing true believers from occasional sins, just as Jesus’ washing the sullied feet of already bathed disciples symbolized that kind of cleansing (13:1–11). “You’re already clean” parallels being already bathed, so that only pruning—partial cleansing like washing only the feet—is needed (see also 1 John 1:7–2:2). Jesus’ spoken word has brought cleansing, because he is himself the Word, the self-sacrifice of whose flesh and blood as God’s lamb takes away sin (1:1, 14, 29).
Vines don’t have to be told to abide in their vineyard. They’re just there. So the analogy to Jesus and believers breaks down when he tells them to abide in him. But the surprise in this breakdown of the analogy highlights the importance of abiding in Jesus, of persevering in discipleship. The analogy breaks down even more surprisingly in his promise to abide in believers who abide in him. Vines abide in vineyards, but vineyards don’t abide in vines. So a second breakdown in the analogy provides another point of emphasis: the reciprocal dwelling of Jesus in believers.
The fruit-bearing of a vine depends on its drawing physical nourishment from the soil of the vineyard in which it’s planted. The fruit-bearing of a believer depends on his drawing spiritual nourishment from Jesus, in whom he’s planted by faith. But what does fruit-bearing mean in a believer’s case? If we were dealing with the Apostle Paul’s letters, we might think of ethical behavior, as for example in Galatians 5:22-23 (“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, magnanimity, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”). But in John’s Gospel fruit consists of converts, as in 4:36 (“gathers fruit [issuing] in eternal life,” with a contextual reference to Samaritan converts) and 12:24 (the seed that falls into the ground and dies “bears much fruit,” in contextual reference to Jesus’ drawing all kinds of people to himself). So the kind of fruit-bearing that characterizes true disciples consists in their fulfilling the Great Commission, which Jesus will give them in 20:21, by way of getting other people to believe in him, as Andrew, Philip, and the Samaritan woman have already done in 1:40-51; 4:28-30, 39-42. The pruning away of disciples’ occasional sins makes their Christian testimony more effective in gaining converts (hence, “more fruit”).
Abiding in Jesus isn’t the same as bearing fruit, then. It’s the condition for bearing fruit. You can’t bear fruit unless you abide in Jesus. So what does abiding in him mean more exactly? It means to keep on believing in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God (compare the comments on 2:11; 20:30-31, and in 6:59-71 contrast those who do and don’t keep on believing). So at the base there’s adherence to correct belief in Jesus. Then there’s good behavior because of cleansing (pruning) from sin. Effective Christian witness (much fruit-bearing) follows naturally.
15:5–8: “I am the vineyard. You are the vines. The person who abides in me—and I [abide] in him—this person bears much fruit, because apart from me you can’t do even one thing. 6If someone doesn’t abide in me, he has been thrown outside as a vine [is thrown outside a vineyard]; and it dries up, and people gather them and throw [them] into the fire and they’re burned. 7If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you want; and it will happen for you. 8My Father has been glorified in this, [which is] that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” “I am the vineyard” repeats 15:1a except for a dropping of “true” before “vineyard.” Once given, that description is no longer needed. Where 15:1b identified Jesus’ Father as the vinegrower, 15:5b identifies believers as the vines. Earlier statements only implied this identification. The inability to bear fruit without abiding in Jesus is intensified to the point of inability to do “even one thing” by way of successful evangelism, which fruit-bearing symbolizes (compare the inability of Jesus to do even one thing apart from his Father [5:19–20, 30]), so that success in evangelism comes ultimately as a result of Jesus’ work, not human ingenuity, marketing techniques, or what-have-you.
We might expect a full stop after “this person bears much fruit” and a new, independent sentence to begin with “apart from me you can’t do even one thing.” Either that or “and apart from me you can’t do even one thing.” Instead of a full stop or “and,” though, we have “because.” Thus Jesus emphasizes that the inability to do any fruit-bearing at all apart from him is the reason why bearing much fruit depends on abiding in him. And “much fruit” contrasts with “not even one thing.” To the inability to do even one thing apart from him is added the certainty of bearing much fruit if you do abide in Jesus. As abiding in Jesus is the condition that has to be met for fruit-bearing, “And I abide] in him” is the cause of fruit-bearing. And to the taking away of fruitless vines, which is now expressed as their being “thrown outside,” is added their drying up, being gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. These additions punctuate with frightening detail the eternally deadly consequence of nonperseverance. We expect “will be thrown out,” not “has been thrown outside.” But the past tense dramatizes the certainty of future judgment. It’s as though the judgment has already taken place. The plurals “them” and “they” show that “a vine,” though singular, represents all who fail to persevere and thereby suffer damnation.
Jesus’ abiding in believers becomes the abiding of Jesus’ words in them, because as the Word he is his words. He’s their subject matter; and he makes the granting of “whatever you want” in prayer conditional on abiding in him and on his words’ abiding in the person who makes the request (see also 15:16; 16:24, 26 and compare 14:13–14). The person who abides in Jesus will want to please him, and the words of Jesus which abide in such a person will determine that person’s desires. Nevertheless, the emphasis falls not on the conditions but on the promise of answered prayer provided the conditions are met. The bearing of much fruit, which is to say successful evangelism, brings glory to God, the vineyard-keeper and Father of Jesus. Again a past tense, “has been glorified,” dramatizes the certainty of a future event. From the standpoint of John, writing late in the first century, the widespread success of the gospel has already redounded to God’s glory; for multitudes now praise him as the Father of their Savior Jesus Christ. God is also glorified when those who bear much fruit through winning converts become themselves disciples of Jesus. But aren’t those who convert others already his disciples? Well, yes—but discipleship isn’t something you do and get it over with. It’s a continuous process of becoming, or it’s nothing at all. We’re back to perseverance as a mark of true believers. And their perseverance brings glory to God.
15:9–10: “Just as the Father has loved me, I’ve also loved you. Abide in my love.” God’s love for Jesus his Son provides the standard of comparison for Jesus’ loving us who believe in him. Abiding in Jesus himself morphs into abiding in his love for us. To abide in his love is to stay loved by him. 10“If you keep my commands, you’ll abide in my love just as I’ve kept my Father’s commands and abide in his love [compare 10:17–18].” So abiding in Jesus’ love depends on keeping his commands. He’ll love us as long as we keep his commands. That’s the implication of “If.” To put it another way, if we don’t obey him, he’ll stop loving us. No unconditional love here! Again Jesus is pointing out the danger of apostasy and of consequently being taken away and thrown into the fire of eternal judgment (compare Ezekiel 19:10–12 and, for apostasy, 1 John 2:19). Jesus’ keeping his Father’s commands defines love in terms of obedience, not just feelings, and sets the example for our keeping Jesus’ commands. And just as his obedience to the Father ensured that the Father would continue to love him, so our obedience to Jesus’ commands ensures that he will continue to love us. God commanded him to love us, and Jesus commands us to love one another in the Christian community.
15:11: “I’ve told you these things in order that my joy may be in you and [that] your joy may be fulfilled.” Jesus rejoices when we abide in him by actively loving one another in obedience to his command. And this obedience isn’t onerous. It brings us joy just as it brings him joy. When Christians demonstrate love toward one another their joy is filled full, as a container is filled to its brim (compare Psalm 19:8: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart”). The next verse (15:12) will now repeat the command Jesus gave in 13:34. Then 15:13 will define its extent; 15:14 will make obedience the condition of being loved by Jesus; and 15:15 will contrast being loved by him with slavery.
15:12–15: “This is my command, that you love one another just as I’ve loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, that someone lay down his life for his loved ones. 14You’re my loved ones if you do the things that I command you. 15No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave doesn’t know what his master is doing. But I’ve called you loved ones, because I’ve made known to you all the things that I heard from alongside my Father.” “Just as I’ve loved you” shows that Jesus is the “someone” who has laid down his life for his loved ones in the greatest possible act of love. He called believers his “disciples” in 15:8. Now he calls them his “loved ones.” Most translations have “friends” instead of “loved ones.” “Friends” isn’t wrong, but it obscures the fact that the underlying Greek word is the noun form of one of the two verbs John uses for loving (including God’s love for Jesus and for Jesus’ disciples, Jesus’ love for Lazarus and for the anonymous beloved disciple, and the disciples’ love for Jesus [5:20; 11:3, 36; 16:27; 20:2; 21:15–17]). In the present context of the disciples’ loving one another and especially of Jesus’ loving them, therefore, “loved ones” brings out the overarching theme of love more clearly than “friends” does. Not loved ones in the sense of biological relatives, of course; but friends as the objects of love. As in 15:10, Jesus makes obedience to his commands the condition of being his beloved friends. His statement in 13:16, “A slave isn’t greater than his master,” implied that he was their master and they his slaves. Now he discards that comparison in favor of a loving relation between friends. Slavery entails blind obedience. A relation of love between friends entails obedience on the basis of full disclosure. And Jesus has disclosed to his beloved friends all that God the Father told him. That is to say, Christian believers are privy to the entire communication of God the Father to his Son Jesus Christ. They’re not slaves. They’re the ultimate insiders.
15:16: “You didn’t select me; rather, I selected you and appointed you that you should go and [that] you should bear fruit and [that] your fruit should abide in order that whatever you ask the Father in my name—he might give [it] to you.” Normally, Jewish disciples selected whatever rabbi they wanted to study under. Not so here. Jesus not only affirms his selecting of the disciples as his beloved friends. He also denies their having selected him, so that his loving them is the cause and their loving him is the effect (compare 1 John 4:19: “We love, because he first loved us”). His selecting them had a threefold purpose: (1) that they should “go” into the world of unbelievers; (2) that they should bear fruit by way of making converts; and (3) that they should keep on bearing such fruit (compare Matthew 28:19–20: “On going, therefore, disciple all nations . . . . And behold, I am with you all the days till the consummation of the age”). Perhaps “Get up, let’s go from here” in 14:31 symbolically forecasts the Great Commission in 20:21: “Just as the Father has sent me, I too am sending you.” The purpose and result of fulfilling this commission is answered prayer, for fulfilling the commission helps define what it means to ask for things in Jesus’ name. To put it negatively, you aren’t praying in Jesus’ name if you aren’t fulfilling the Great Commission by going, bearing the fruit of converts, and persisting in such evangelism (compare the comments on 14:13–14).
Yet again Jesus tells his disciples to love one another. 15:17–19: “I’m commanding you these things, that you love one another.” “These things” boil down to this single command, but by repetition this single command has become an emphatic plural. The repetition sets up a contrast with hatred: 18“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before [it hated] you. 19If you were from the world, the world would have been loving [you as] what belongs to them. But because you’re not from the world (rather, I selected you out from the world), on account of this [your not being from the world] the world hates you.” Obviously, “the world” consists of unbelievers. Jesus’ disciples aren’t “from the world” because they’ve been born “out of God” and “from above” (1:12–13; 3:3, 7). They’re a different breed from worldlings. So the worldlings hate them (compare 3:19–21). They hated Jesus first, because he too was from God and from above. God sent him into the world. As an antidote to discouragement, then, Jesus commands his disciples to understand both the world’s prior hatred of him and the reason for the world’s hating them. So he’s the model of being hated by the world just as he’s the model of being loved by his Father. And the flip side of Jesus’ selecting the disciples to be his beloved friends is his selecting them out of the world’s loving friendship into the world’s hatred. Generally speaking, the world hates Christians for their claiming to have the absolute truth in Jesus over against the world’s different beliefs and loose behavior.
15:20–21: “Remember the word that I spoke to you, ‘A slave isn’t greater than his master.’ If they’ve persecuted me [as in fact they have], they’ll persecute you too. If they’ve kept my word [as ironically they haven’t], they’ll keep yours too [as ironically they won’t].” Though Jesus no longer calls his disciples slaves (15:15), he reminds them of the earlier such comparison (13:16) to draw a parallel between their persecution and his. Persecution shows that the aforementioned hatred has to do with actions, not just feelings, just as in the case of love. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and Jesus forewarns his disciples not only of the world’s persecution but also of the world’s disobeying their word of command to believe in him. Only those whom God has given to him will obey their word (6:39, 65). 21“But they’ll do all these things to you on account of my name, because they don’t know the one who sent me.” The immediate cause of the world’s persecuting believers in Jesus and disobeying their word—the immediate cause is their proclaiming Jesus’ name as “God” (see 1:1 and especially the comments on 1:12; 17:11–12). The underlying cause is unacquaintance with God, who sent Jesus. For no one comes to God, and thereby knows him, except through believing that Jesus is God (14:6–11).
15:22–23: “If I hadn’t come and spoken to them, they wouldn’t have had sin.” That is, they wouldn’t have been guilty of the sin of disbelieving that Jesus is the Word who speaks as himself God. “But now they don’t have an excuse for their sin.” Jesus’ having spoken to them as the Word who is God has robbed them of an excuse for their sin of unbelief. They do have sin, but they don’t have an excuse for it. 23“The person who hates me [see 15:18] hates my Father too.” Why so? Because the Father abides in Jesus (14:10), so that Jesus and God his Father are one (10:30).
15:24–25: “If I hadn’t done the works among them that no one else has done, they wouldn’t have had sin.” “Among them” stresses that Jesus did his works in full view of the world. The uniqueness of his works corresponds to the uniqueness of his divine sonship and underlines the world’s lacking an excuse for their unbelief. So just as the words of the Word could have saved the world from the sin of unbelief (15:22), his works could have done the same. They didn’t, though. “But now they’ve both seen [my works] and hated both me and my Father.” Just as hearing the words of the Word robbed the world of an excuse for their unbelief, seeing his works has done the same. And despite the glory of grace and truth displayed in those works (1:17; 2:11), the world has not only disbelieved. The world has even hated Jesus and his coworker God the Father (compare 5:17). 25“[This happened,] however, in order that the word that’s written in their law might be fulfilled, ‘They hated me gratuitously [= undeservedly, for no good reason].’” The quotation comes from Psalm 35:19 or 69:4. So the world’s hatred of Jesus happened for the fulfillment, not just of what’s written in the Law, but of the word that’s written there. That is to say, Jesus is the Word (with a capital W) that’s written as the “me” in his quotation from their law. “Their law” refers to the Jews’ law, the Old Testament. But from 15:18 onward, Jesus has been talking about “the world.” In hating Jesus, therefore, the Jews—more particularly, their authorities—represent the world at large. Ironically, their law testifies against them by predicting their hatred of Jesus the Word (see especially 10:34–35 with comments, but also 1:45; 2:17; 5:46; 12:14–16, 37–41). Added irony comes from a literal translation of the word behind “gratuitously,” that is, “as a gift.” God loved the world by way of giving his one-and-only Son (3:16). The world reciprocated by giving the Son their hatred. Up to this point in chapter 15, then, we have three basic commands: (1) Abide in Jesus (15:1–8). (2) Love one another in the Christian community (15:9–17). (3) Understand the world’s hatred of you (15:18–25).
15:26–27: “Whenever the representative comes, whom I’ll send to you from alongside the Father, the Spirit of the truth, who proceeds out from alongside the Father—that one [again the Spirit] will testify about me. 27And you too are testifying [about me], because you’re with me from the beginning.” Jesus’ preceding talk about making converts in terms of fruit-bearing now leads him to talk about the means of making converts, namely, testifying about him. Pride of place in such testimony goes to the Holy Spirit. According to 14:16 God the Father will give the Spirit as his representative to be with the disciples in lieu of the absent Jesus. According to 14:26 God the Father will send the Spirit in Jesus’ name to teach the disciples and remind them of Jesus’ words. Now in 15:26–27, though the Spirit proceeds out from the Father (he has had a place “alongside the Father” just as the preincarnate Jesus had [see 17:5, for example)], it is Jesus who will send the Spirit. Since Jesus and the Father are one (10:30), they act as cosenders of the Spirit. Consequently, the Spirit will be sent not only in Jesus’ name, as in 14:26. The Spirit will be sent also as Jesus’ representative. Representing Jesus as well as the Father, the Spirit will add his testimony about Jesus to the disciples’ testimony about him. This cotestimony satisfies the requirement of more than one witness to establish truth (8:17); and because of the Spirit’s unity with Jesus the truth, “the Spirit of the truth” means not only that the Spirit will tell the truth when testifying but also that the Spirit is one with Jesus the truth, is also himself the truth as Jesus is, and will testify that Jesus is the truth.
Because this double testimony of both the Spirit and the disciples satisfies the law of two or more witnesses (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15), their testimony will prove effective in bearing “much fruit,” the making of many more converts. We could translate with a command: “And you too, testify.” But favoring a statement, “And you too are testifying,” is the parallel with the Spirit’s testifying, which can’t be taken as a command that the Spirit testify. “Are testifying” dramatizes the disciples’ future testimony as though it were already occurring at the time of Jesus’ speaking. He addresses these remarks specifically to the eleven original disciples, as can be told from the description of his addressees as with him from the beginning. Not from the precreational beginning of 1:1, of course, but from the beginning of his public ministry (see especially 6:64; 16:4). The present tense in “you’re,” where we expect “you’ve been with me from the beginning,” reflects the disciples’ continuing presence with Jesus at the time he speaks these words; and it alludes to these disciples’ having persevered rather than apostatizing like those in 6:60–71. The testimony of these original disciples became the basis of later disciples’ evangelism (1:14; 20:30–31; 21:24).