John 15:1-27 recounts Christ's last words to His disciples the night before His execution on Calvary. Beginning with His identification of Himself with the "true vine" and ending His exhortation that His disciples "bear witness," Christ both states clearly and explicitly what union with Him is like and what those who are in union with Him can expect from the world. This paper will give a line-by-line exegesis of John 15:1-27.
Leon Morris (1989) notes that "in the Old Testament the vine is often a symbol of Israel, sometimes of degenerate Israel" (p. 120). Thus, when John relates a scene in which Jesus says, "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 bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit" (15:1-2), he is making a statement that, of course, begins with "I Am" -- which John does numerously in his Gospel. As Morris indicates, it is a statement that has origins in the Old Testament understanding of God -- but, as John uses it, it also concludes with an Old Testament image (the image of Israel) being renewed in Christ.
"I Am," of course, refers to the pronouncement from God Himself to Moses, who asked by what name the Israelites should call Him: "God replied, 'I am who am.' Then he added, 'This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you" (Exodus 3:14). The meaning of this divine name has been debated by scholars for some time. Traditionally, it has been translated into Jahveh or Yahweh: "Jahveh (Yahweh) is one of the archaic Hebrew nouns…derived from the third person imperfect in such a way as to attribute to a person or a thing the action of the quality expressed by the verb after the manner of a verbal adjective or a participle…As the Divine name is an imperfect form of the archaic Hebrew verb 'to be', Jahveh means 'He Who is', Whose characteristic note consists in being, or The Being simply" (Maas, 1910). Being and Truth are related in both Old Testament Scripture and New Testament. Jesus' "I am" assertion is coupled with the word "true" -- "I am the true vine" -- a technique used "to distinguish His reality and genuineness from that which is false" (Towns, 2002, p. 150).
John's exposition on union with Christ in chapter 15 continues with: "You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you." Here, Christ tells his disciples to retain the lessons and the grace He has given them, and stresses their spiritual relationship. Then He again likens Himself to the vine (and as this is the Last Supper, it is fitting that He does so, associating His blood with the fruit of the vine): "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it remain on the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5). Christ stresses the fact that He is the anchor, the root, the support -- in short, the inspiration behind all good things: "without me you can do nothing."
Christ then warns His disciples what they can expect if they do not cling to Him: "If anyone does not abide in me, he shall be cast outside as the branch and wither; and they shall gather them up and cast them into the fire, and they shall burn" (John 15:6). His reference to burning is a clear reference to hellfire, implying that it really is an either/or choice: either one follows Christ to Paradise, or cuts himself off from Him and falls into Hell. But Our Lord makes a promise for those who choose Him in the next lines: "If you abide in me, and if my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done to you. In this my Father glorified, that you may bear very much fruit, and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love" (John 15:7-9). The promise is that Christ will not abandon those who keep God's commandments, His wisdom, and His love in their hearts. Indeed, love is essential to enjoying union with God: "Abide in my love," Christ says to His disciples. Or, as Lyman Abbott comments, "Christ's love for the disciples is, like the Father's love for Christ, a love personal, warm, strong; but one that does not shield from all temptation, suffering, or even injustice" (p. 189).
Christ then acknowledges that the way to abide in His love is through adherence to God's laws: "If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, as I also have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love" (John 15:10). Jesus has shown how essential it is to follow the will of God -- and now He observes that obeying the will of God is the only sure-fire way to happiness: "These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full" (John 15:11). Christ thus tells the disciples that His peace can be theirs.
Now, He drives home the fundamental lesson of His doctrine, which is founded on the Golden Rule: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). Jesus admonishes them to be patient, kind, strong, faithful -- just as He has been. Then He draws them to His mission -- His willingness to die for them, which He shall do the very next day: "Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do the things I command you" (John 15:13-14). What Christ means here is His crucifixion is no different from His disciples following His commandments: both are a negation of their own wills. Now they must serve a higher will -- yet, Christ elevates the servant by uniting him to the master: "No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15). By revealing Himself, Christ unites Himself to us. Indeed, He makes this very clear when next He says, "You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain…These things I command you, that you may love one another" (John 15:16-17). Christ has chose his disciples and united Himself to them so that they may in turn unite themselves to the faithful and love others the way that Christ has Himself loved them.
Then Christ draws their attention to the fact that not all men will rejoice at the prospect of love: "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you" (John 15:18). In the next verse, Christ tells the disciples that they must live according to the higher law -- not the law of the world (John 15:19), and then He reminds them that if they do live according to the higher law, God's law -- His law -- then they, too, shall be persecuted: they will share in His sufferings: "No servant is greater than his master" (John 15:20). Christ makes it clear that those who persecute do so because they have…