A great deal of New Testament imagery assumes a knowledge of Old Testament narrative. In a sense, the New Testament is like a painting painted in colours lifted directly from Old Testament canvases and therefore you have to read the Old Testament – again and again and again – in order to really understand and correctly interpret the New.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than with respect to Jesus’ famous declaration, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” (John 15:1 ESV)
Jesus isn’t introducing a new metaphor here – he is carrying on an old one! Therefore our job isn’t to sit and wonder, “What does it mean to be a vine? In what sense might that be true of Jesus?” Our job is to figure out what Old Testament passages he is referring to.
At the very top of that list would be Psalm 80. Psalm 80 is built around the metaphor of the vine: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (Psalm 80:8–9 ESV).
The Psalmist compares Israel to a vine clipping taken from Egypt and planted in the land of Canaan.
That makes sense.
Israel lived for 400 years as a minority group within Egypt. They were culturally, historically, artistically and to a great extent linguistically Egyptian. But then God “snipped” them and transplanted them into Canaan and made them the object of his special attention and care.
The Psalmist says, “The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River” (Psalm 80:10–11 ESV).
But then something changed.
“Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” (Psalm 80:12–13 ESV)
God withdrew his protection and the vine was despoiled by other nations. Isaiah the prophet tells us why, “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?” (Isaiah 5:4 ESV).
Despite all of God’s generosity and care the people of Israel did not yield to him the fruit that he desired. So, effectively, he decided to start over with one single, obedient shoot – as suggested and prayed for in Psalm 80:
“Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your face! But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself! Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name!” (Psalm 80:14–18 ESV)
The hope in the Psalm rests upon “the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself”. Once he comes, the people will be made strong and faithful and they will truly call upon the name of God.
That is the backstory behind Jesus saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1 ESV).
And that is why he says, “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” (John 15:5 ESV).
Jesus is the Obedient Shoot! Jesus is the beginning of a whole new planting by the Lord! Jesus is the one who will give to God the harvest that he deserves.
He is of Israel and he is more than Israel – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.