“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” (John 15:1 )
In the curious tradition of ancient iconography, Jesus appears perched in a most unlikely-looking vine whilst his disciples, looking even less comfortable, hover birdlike in the slender branches. Such is the difficulty of making a visual representation of a metaphor.
And yet it expresses a most important point. The point is this : Who was listening, exactly, when Jesus spoke these familiar words? The answer, of course, is the group of disciples. Or rather, all the disciples less one. Judas had already left and the wheels of Jesus’ betrayal had already been set in motion.
And Jesus had known he would. As he had washed their feet before the meal (in John 13), he had said “Not all of you are clean.” It must have broken his heart to look up into the face of one who had so utterly misunderstood him and was even now coldly turning away…
So what the icon does is remind us of the precise context of Jesus’ words. He himself is the vine; and the faithful disicples are the branches that bear fruit; but the fruitless branches are the Judas-branches. And the fruitless are the faithless ones, who have cut themselves off from the source of life and fruit-bearing.
And yet, you’ve probably noticed that there are twelve figures grouped around Jesus in the icon, and not eleven. Is that just a matter of symmetry? Hardly. In these icons every tiny detail is loaded with significance. Does it then refer to Acts 1 and the replacement of Judas among the Twelve? But why is replacement necessary at all? What is the significance of the number twelve? Why not five, or eight, or ten? The answer is because there are twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus said that at the renewal of all things, when he sits on his glorious throne, his twelve disciples will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:27–8), as others had done in the Old Testament (Ex 18:13–26).
If you were a first-century Jew and heard for the first time that Jesus was the true vine and his people were the branches (John 15:1, 5), you would have mixed emotions.
On one hand, you would be quite familiar with the idea of comparing people to vines and vineyards. Grapevines were a familiar sight in Palestine. Your Bible, the Old Testament, frequently refers to Israel as being a vine that God planted. You may have recited Psalm 80 in your morning prayers. In verses 8-9 the Psalmist says to God, “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.” You would know how God brought Israel out of Egypt and planted it in the promised land.
You would have read the words of the Hebrew prophets who likened Israel to a vine or vineyard. You would recall the words of Hosea who said that “Israel was a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit” (10:1). Hosea meant that Israel increased in prosperity. But he went on to say that Israel’s prosperity unfortunately led to increased idolatry: “The more his fruit increased the more altars he built.”
You may have chanted these words of Isaiah: ” …my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill …He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (5:1-2). No doubt, you were haunted time and again with the words of God spoken to his people through Jeremiah: “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?” (2:21). That would have reminded you of Ezekiel’s chilling words spoken against Judah: “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (15:6).
You as a first-century Jew would be very familiar with the symbolic meaning of vine and vineyard. In fact, the idea was so prevalent in the first century that in one of his parables Jesus expressly made use of the vineyard motif as symbolism for Israel (Mark 12:1-12). Jesus concluded the parable by saying that the owner will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. In response to the parable, the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus because “they realized that he had told this parable against them.” The symbolism of the vine was not lost on them.
However, just because you would be familiar with biblical references to vine and vineyard, that would not necessarily make it easy for you to understand how Jesus could be the true vine. For one thing, vine in the Old Testament always represented the whole people of Israel rather than a single individual. How could something that symbolized the whole people of Israel be a symbol of Jesus as an individual?
Secondly, whenever the Old Testament prophets, as well as the parable of Jesus mentioned above, made reference to vine or vineyard, they always had in mind the imminent judgment that God would bring upon his disobedient people. In other words, the idea of vine would not bring positive images to your mind. You would be reminded of vine twigs that are good for nothing but as firewood.
For this reason, the Gospel of John refers to Jesus not simply as the vine but more specifically as the true vine. The implication is that in contrast to Israel, which became unfaithful and incurred the judgment of God, Jesus remains faithful and thus fulfills Israel’s calling to be the vine of God.
It is noteworthy that the contrast is between Israel and Jesus, not between Israel and the Church. The Church is not the true vine; Jesus is. Furthermore, Jesus is not the trunk or the root; he is the vine. He is the true vine who fulfilled the destiny to which Israel was called. The Church can be a part of that destiny only as branches in the vine. The Church cannot fulfill Israel’s destiny without Christ. Apart from Christ the Church is nothing but dead twigs.
But with Christ, all things are possible.
This is partly drawn from Jirair S. Tashjian’s The Symbolism of Vine in Scripture.