John 15: Jesus and the Land Promises

Don K. Preston

In John 15 Jesus said “I am the vine, you are the branches.” This statement is a favorite among preachers, because it is used to promote evangelism. After all, Jesus said if one does not bear fruit (i.e. interpreted as converting others) they are taken away and burned in the fire! The problem with this homiletic approach is that it ignores the historical and scriptural context, the sitz em leben (life situation) of Jesus and his audience. And if we truly want to know what Jesus was communicating, we can never ignore these issues.

To Jesus’ audience, Israel was, and always had been, “the vine of the Lord!” The Lord had brought Israel up out of Egypt as a strange vine, planted her in the land, and nurtured her as His special vineyard (Psalms 80:8-11). Israel is depicted as a “luxuriant vine, with many branches” who, unfortunately, gave her fruit to other gods (Hosea 10:1). YHVH lamented the fact that He had planted Israel as a “right vine, truly a right seed” yet she had turned into a degenerate vine (Jeremiah 2:20f). In Isaiah 5, the Lord described Israel in detail as His beloved Vineyard that He had planted and protected. But, due to her unfaithfulness, He was going to take away the protective hedge He had put in place, and allow the nations to come in and burn her. This happened of course, with the Assyrian invasions and deportation of the ten northern tribes, in the eighth century BC.

The imagery and thought of Israel as the vine of YHVH so permeated Jewish thought that in the construction of the magnificent Herodian temple, “The Gate opening into the building was completely overlaid with gold, as was the whole wall surrounding it. Above it, moreover, were the golden grapevines from which hung grape clusters as tall as a man.” (Josephus, Wars, Bk. V:4 Gaalya Cornfeld editor, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1982)358). To the Jewish mind therefore, Israel was the vine! She was the vineyard of the Lord!

Jesus’ statement in John 15 then, when considered in this cultural and theological context, was simply stunning! It was revolutionary. It was subversive!

Jesus was re-defining Israel! He was redefining the very identity of “the land!” As Davies noted: “There is kind of an umbilical cord between Israel and the land.” (W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land, (Berkley, University of California Press, 1974)15. But, when Jesus claimed to be “the vine” and declared that those who refused to abide (dwell) “in him” would be cut off and tossed into the fire, he was undeniably and radically claiming something that we should not miss.

As Gary Burge, in an excellent new book states: “The crux for John 15 is that Jesus is changing the place of the rootedness for Israel. The commonplace prophetic metaphor (the land as a vineyard, the people as vines) now undergoes a dramatic shift. God’s vineyard, the land of Israel, now has only one vine: Jesus. The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless they are grafted into Jesus. Other vines are not true. Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard which refuses to be attached to Jesus will be cast out (15:6)… the only means of attachment to the land is through the one vine, Jesus Christ.” (Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2010)53. Davies likewise notes that in John, the discussion of the core hopes of Israel summed up in the words life and land, are now focused on Christ. “the concept of ‘life’ or ‘eternal life’ assumes a significant role. At no point is it connected with the land in any way. Rather it is always centered in Jesus himself, who in this sense, has become ‘the sphere’ or ‘space’ where life is to be found.” (1974, 331). In other words, whereas in Israel’s nationalistic aspiration her hope was “life in the land”, in John, Jesus is set forth as the one who gives “life in him!” Davies continues, “Any traditional concepts, geographical and other, governing the understanding of ‘life’ are dwarfed by the centrality of Christ.” (1974, 332).

God’s Old Covenant land promises to Israel were fulfilled just as promised (See my DVD series Israel and the Land Promises: Fulfilled or Future? for a complete discussion; available on this website). That terra firma promise was typological of better things, and Christ has fulfilled what the land foreshadowed. John 15 (and the entire New Covenant) completely redefines “the Vine” and “the Land” promises. He is the Vine, He is the dwelling place. Modern day Zionism and dispensationalism is misguided in continuing to place emphasis on the physical land.