A Better Vine
Of the Gospels, none is as full of Old Testament typology as the Gospel of John. The apostle John had a keen interest in the types, shadows, symbols, metaphors, and elusive allusions the Savior employed during his earthly ministry in order to set forth his own divine glory (John 1:14). Most of the types in the Fourth Gospel are rooted in Israel’s exodus and wilderness experience. Whether it was the incarnation of the Son of God typified in the tabernacle in the wilderness (John 1:14), Jesus’ miracle of turning water to wine (John 2:1–11) in Moses’ miracle of turning water to blood (Exod. 7:14–24), Jesus’ death on the cross in the serpent on the pole (Num. 21:4–9), his miraculous multiplication of the bread (John 6:22–59) in the manna from heaven (Exod. 16), his offer of living water (John 7:37–44) in the water from the rock (Exod. 17:1–7), his self-identification as the light of the world in the lampstand in the temple, or his sacrificial death in the Passover lamb (John 1:26; 19:36)—Jesus came as the true Israel of God to fulfill all that old covenant Israel merely typified.
In John 15:1, Jesus spoke his seventh and final “I Am” (εγω ειμι): a self-identification of all that he is and all that he came to do as the true Israel of God. In saying “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), Christ drew from Old Testament language concerning the old covenant people of God. D. A. Carson writes,
In the Old Testament the vine is a common symbol for Israel, the covenant people of God (Ps. 80:9–16; Is. 5:1–7; 27:2ff.; Je. 2:21; 12:10ff.; Ezk. 15:1–8; 17:1–21; 19:10–14; Ho. 10:1–2). . . . Jesus claims, “I am the true vine”, i.e. the one to whom Israel pointed, the one that brings forth good fruit. Jesus has already, in principle, superseded the temple, the Jewish feasts, Moses, various holy sites; here he supersedes Israel as the very locus of the people of God.1
The Old Testament represents Israel’s unique role in redemptive history under the figure of the vine and the vineyard. God had redeemed his people from their bondage in Egypt in order to make them a new creation in the Promised Land—a second Adam to reestablish the garden-temple throughout the earth. In Psalm 80:8-11, we read,
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.
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.
Isaiah also prophesied (5:1-2) about Israel under the figure of the vine, when he said,
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.
Likewise, Hosea (10:1) declared,
Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.
The imagery of the vine carries with it the idea of spiritual fruitfulness. God’s revealed will for old covenant Israel was that they would be a fruit-bearing people in the barren wilderness of this fallen world. Just as the Promised Land was a “land flowing with milk and honey” (a clear echo of Eden), so the old covenant people were to be a fruitful vineyard on the earth—a restoration of what was lost in the garden. God was restoring what was once lost and ruined by the Fall. One of the ways that God intended to draw the minds of his people back to the Garden of Eden, Adam, and his mission, was through the use of old covenant allusions to the vine and the vineyard.
When God created the world, he placed Adam, his son (Luke 3:38), in a garden-temple. God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). The Lord gave our first parents the commission to bring forth an image-bearing, God-worshiping people who would cover the earth. As the representative, covenantal head of all humanity, Adam was “the vine” that was supposed to bring forth the fruit of holy, righteous image-bearers. Adam was to cultivate the garden, thereby transforming the entire world into a holy garden-temple where God would dwell with Adam, Eve, and their offspring. But Adam failed and forfeited the opportunity to bring forth fruitful offspring when he ate the fruit from the tree from which God had commanded him not to eat.
With the Fall, God frustrated the place of blessing among his image-bearers. Instead of being able to bring forth children with ease, women would now have pain in childbearing. Additionally, instead of bringing forth holy image-bearers, Adam and Eve brought forth descendants in their own fallen image (Gen. 5:3). Instead of cultivating the ground with ease, man would work by the sweat of his brow. Thorns covered the place of bounty and provision. Instead of being a life-giving vine to his descendants, Adam became a cursed vine bringing rebellion and death. The various pronouncements of the curse that God placed on man and woman indicate that Adam and Eve could no longer fulfill the commission God originally gave to them in the garden. Someone else must do it.
Immediately after the pronouncement of curses, God graciously promised to provide a seed from the woman—a son who would conquer the evil one and fulfill the creation mandate (Ps. 8; Heb. 2:5–11). This promise is traced out throughout the entire Old Testament. The seed promise runs through the totality of the Scripture—from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to David, and from David to the fulfillment of the covenant promises in that coming seed, Jesus Christ.
In the progress of redemptive history, God called Abraham’s descendants to himself and gave them the same commission he had given to Adam. Just as God had placed his son (that is, Adam) in Eden, so he placed his typical son (Exod. 4:22), Israel, in the Promised Land. Israel was to be a light to the nations by being a spiritually fruitful people on the earth. But, just as Adam had failed by his disobedience, the history of Israel is also a long sad story with their repeated disobedience and failure to accomplish the divine commission.
The Son of God, the last Adam and true Israel, the true vine, has come in order to fulfill that in which Adam and Israel both failed—a fruitfulness not by the law but by the Spirit; a growth and expansion, not through birth but by through rebirth; a growth through the grafting in of a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.2
Jesus declared that he had come into the world to be God’s fruitful and fruit-enabling true vine—the last Adam and true Israel. Unlike Adam and Israel, he obeyed perfectly and fulfilled the mandate God had originally given to Adam in the garden (Ps. 8; Heb. 2:11). Jesus is everything that Adam and Israel should have been. By himself, Jesus accomplishes all that the protological (Adam) and typological (Israel) vines failed to accomplish.
In his death on the cross, Jesus drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath—wrath we deserved because of the bitter wine of our sin. The “sour wine,” which those who crucified Jesus gave him to drink when he hung on the cross, serves as a symbol of this truth (John 19:29–30). We can also observe this symbolism in Jesus’ consecration of wine in the Lord’s Supper. The Savior intentionally chose the “fruit of the vine” to signify his blood and the benefits it would bring. Just as there is a bitterness and a sweetness to fermented wine, so it serves as a sensible sign and seal of the bitterness and blessing that flows from the work on the cross of the Savior.
In the Old Testament prophets, the Lord signified the blessings of the new covenant through the figure of wine. Through Amos, he said, “The mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it; I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine” (Amos 9:13–14). Through the prophet Hosea, the Lord said, “They shall return and dwell beneath My shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon” (Hos. 14:7).
At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. By turning water into wine, Jesus showed himself to be the new creation and the joy-producing redeemer. He had come into the world to transform what was old and useless into that which is new and fruitful. As D. A. Carson explains:
The sheer quantity of water turned into wine . . . becomes symbolic of the lavish provision of the new age. . . . [T]he time for ceremonial purification is completely fulfilled. . . . John’s point is simply that the wine Jesus provides is unqualifiedly superior, as must everything be that is tied to the new, messianic age Jesus is introducing.3
Significantly, the “true vine” discourse is positioned directly in the middle of John’s record of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in the Upper Room (John 13–17). In his teaching and prayer here, Jesus told his disciples that he would impart to them his love, joy, and peace. In Galatians 5:22, the apostle Paul places these three graces at the top of his catalogue of “the fruit of the Spirit.” Jesus is the fruitful vine, full of true love (John 15:9), true joy (John 15:11), and true peace (14:27; 16:33). Through union with him, by the working of the Holy Spirit, believers become the recipients of his love, his joy, and his peace—together with the other fruits of righteousness (Rom. 15; Gal. 5:22). When Jesus says, therefore, in John 15:5 “Abide in me and you will bear much fruit,” he is speaking about the fruitfulness of true holiness born in the lives of those he came to redeem. By the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit, Jesus unites to himself a people who will be fruit-bearing branches, spreading across the face of the earth in order to bring glory to God. In union with Christ, we become God’s fruit-bearing people—a fruitful dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). Jesus said, “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).
This truth is magnified by the fact that Jesus is not just the true vine for old covenant Israel; Jesus is the life-giving vine for believing Jews and Gentiles. The great promise that God made to Abraham—that he would be the “father of many nations”—is fulfilled in the expansion of the kingdom of God through the spreading and engrafting of branches from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. Jesus came to be the Savior of both Jew and Gentile. Unbelieving Israelites were cut off, and believing Jews and Gentiles are grafted into this vine by God’s redeeming grace (Rom. 11).
On our own, like old covenant Israel, we will only ever bring forth wild grapes and spiritual thorns of sin and rebellion. When we are united to Christ by faith and abide in him, however, we are guaranteed to bear much fruit. It is all by the electing love and grace of God. Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). This is the confident assurance given to everyone who lives in a vital, saving union with the true vine.R
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 513.
- I am indebted to Nancy Guthrie for sharing this thoughtful insight with me.
- Carson, 174–75
This post originally appeared in May/June Modern Reformation VOL 28; ISSUE 3 under the title, "I am the True Vine." It is used here with permission. The cover art by Peter Voth is taken from the same edition.