by Abigail Dundore ’24

      In the farewell discourse in the Gospel of John (located in chapters 13-17), Jesus is delivering final advice to his disciples in anticipation of his imminent absence. Craig Keener explains that the farewell discourse “interprets the meaning of Jesus’ passion for his disciples: [that] they will share both his sufferings and his resurrection life” (893). Jesus develops this theme of fellowship by explaining to his disciples that although he will soon be absent, his presence remains in them insofar as they remain in him. It is in this context that Jesus boldly declares, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1, English Standard Version). Readers of John’s gospel who are well versed in the Old Testament (OT) will not be surprised by Jesus’ statement; vineyard imagery is pervasive in the OT, functioning as a well-developed parable that traces the narrative arc of Israel’s history. When carefully examined, this OT imagery illuminates how Jesus’ declaration in John 15:1 is the climax and fulfillment of a pervasive Scriptural promise.

      An adequate understanding of John 15:1 necessitates a brief aside regarding Johannine ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”) statements. Jesus’ claim “I am the true vine” is one of John’s many uses of ἐγώ εἰμι, a phrase with a critical Christological purpose in John’s gospel (Burge 354). Contrasting John’s use of ἐγώ εἰμι to the Synoptic use of the same phrase reveals how foundational ἐγώ εἰμι is to John’s theology. The Synoptics employ ἐγώ εἰμι for a combined total of twelve times, while John uses it thirty times (Burge 354). In John, ἐγώ εἰμι appears sometimes as an uncertain predicate (in which Jesus leaves unanswered what he is claiming to be), and at least four times as an absolute, in which “I am” functions as a standalone title. Seven times, ἐγώ εἰμι occurs in an explicit predicate form; these seven cases (including John 15:1) describe Jesus in a pictorial or metaphorical sense. It is critical to note that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) translates the OT theophanic claim “I Am [Yahweh]” as ἐγώ εἰμι. With this in mind, Raymond Brown’s commentary argues that John’s use of ἐγώ εἰμι in relation to Jesus “draws attention to the implications of divinity” (537). In other words, John uses ἐγώ εἰμι to parallel Yahweh’s self-given name, thereby implying that Jesus is divine. This paper is less concerned with John 15:1 as evidence of Jesus’ divinity than with Jesus’ fulfillment of an OT parable, but an adequate understanding of the ἐγώ εἰμι is foundational for an analysis of John 15:1.

      Having established this necessary background material, we begin to examine the pervasive OT viticultural references and imagery. Given that Israel boasted an abundance of vineyards, it is unsurprising that OT authors draw heavily upon this commonplace imagery (“Vine, Vineyard” 914). In a broad sense, OT vineyard imagery can represent safety, fearlessness, or prosperity (1 Kgs. 4:25; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10)1 . More often, the vine imagery is used in the OT as an extended analogy or parable. Psalm 80, Isaiah 5, and Ezekiel 19 lucidly delineate this parable, which begins with God choosing “a vine from Egypt,” planting it, and clearing the ground for it (Ps. 80:8). Isaiah 5 speaks of the care with which “my loved one”2 digs up a fertile hillside, clears it of stones, and plants it “with the choicest vines” (5:2). Despite this generous care, the vine turns against the one who planted it, becoming “a corrupt, wild vine” (Jer. 2:21). In Isaiah, the one who planted the vineyard laments, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” (5:4). The vineyard’s failure to produce fruit incites judgment on the vineyard. “It was uprooted in fury and thrown to the ground;” it shrivels, withers, and is consumed by fire (Ezek. 19:12). The prophet Joel speaks of an enemy coming against the vineyard with “lions’ teeth,” laying waste the vine, splintering it, stripping off its bark, and throwing it down (1:7). 2 The following paragraph links the character of “my loved one” to God.


1 This paper, as with most scholarship on the topic, understands the distinction between “vine” and “vineyard” to be irrelevant for Scriptural purposes. Chrys C. Caragounis offers a contrasting minority opinion in “Vine, Vineyard, Israel, and Jesus.” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok, vol. 65, 2000, pp. 201–14.

2 The following paragraph links the character of “my loved one” to God.


Similarly, Hosea 2:12 declares that “the beasts of the field shall devour [the vines and fig trees].” Taken together, these numerous passages coalesce to construct an image of a vineyard that failed to prosper and was ultimately destroyed despite receiving the gardener’s tenderest care.

      This vine parable undoubtedly corresponds to the OT narrative of the nation Israel. Isaiah 5 makes this correlation explicit: “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel” (5:7). Likewise, Ezekiel prefaces his lament for the vine with a command to “take up a lament concerning the princes of Israel” (19:1). Because Isaiah 5 and Ezekiel 19 indicate a direct correlation between the vine and Israel, and because of the imprecise way in which the other OT vineyard parables alternate between viticultural language and speaking directly of Israel, it is reasonable to correlate all of the OT vineyard passages with the story of Israel. In the same way that the vine was brought from Egypt and given a place to flourish, God brought Israel out of Egypt and established them in a new land; he drove out their enemies and gave them the environment in which to prosper. Although God provided perfectly for Israel, they chose wickedness and idolatry over law-observance and righteousness––just as the vine produced only bad grapes when good ones were sought. The image of the vine being destroyed by wild animals corresponds to Israel and Judah being destroyed by Assyria and Babylon, respectively, in 722 B.C. and 587 B.C.

       Having established the connection between the tragic story of the OT vine and the nation of Israel, readers of the vineyard parables will wonder what to make of the promises of restoration offered for the vineyard. Although the vine “yielded nothing,” God promises redemption: “From this day on I will bless you” (Hag. 2:19). Unlike the “former days” of judgment, God will provide “a sowing of peace,” in which the vine proves fruitful, bearing “a full yield” (Zech. 8:11, 12; Joel 2:22). However, God did everything to grant his vineyard the conditions in which to flourish in the first place and it still failed. How can he promise to bring about a fruitful crop3 from this desolate vineyard? Speaking directly about the subject represented by the vine, we note that although God gave Israel the law, the promised land, and his presence in the temple, they rebelled. God’s extensive provision was insufficient to guarantee obedience; what remained for God to do to promote Israel’s flourishing?

      To answer this question, it is useful to examine what Jeremiah 31 describes as “a new covenant.” This covenant is fundamentally different from the first covenant which Israel broke, and it is this covenant that will allow Israel to flourish in the coming time (Jer. 31:2). Under this new covenant, God promises to ‘“…put [his] law in their minds and write in on their hearts. [He] will be their God, and they will be [his] people…they will all know [him], from the least of them to the greatest’” (Jer. 31:33). What changes under the new covenant? God himself enters into Israel, becomes their righteousness, and forgives their former sins. It is the presence of God in the hearts of Israel that enables them to flourish.

      The viticultural imagery of the OT reflects this new covenant shift. In Hosea, God declares to Israel that he will become the tree; “your fruitfulness comes from me,” he assures Israel (14:8). Instead of Israel being responsible for fruit-bearing, God takes this responsibility upon himself. Psalm 80 foreshadows the conditions under which this shift will occur; after lamenting how the “vine is cut down” and “burned with fire,” the psalmist pleads, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us…that we may be saved” (80:17-19). The vine imagery examined in the context of the new covenant illuminates the need for a “son of man” figure to become the vine in place of Israel and to function as the source of Israel’s fruit.


3 This paper understands fruitfulness to be representative of a state of human flourishing. For Israel, flourishing included the safety, fearlessness, and prosperity referenced on page two, which was promised in the context of obeying the law. Deuteronomy 28 provides a picture of the flourishing that would come if Israel obeyed God’s covenant as well as the punishment that would befall if Israel disobeyed.

      The OT’s representation of the need for a son of man to usher in the new covenant and become the ultimate fruit-bearer is the precise context in which John 15:1-17 ought to be read. Jesus’ assertion “I am the true vine” is situated profoundly as the resolution of the vineyard narrative. This phrase is a claim to the divine name of I Am, but it also indicates Jesus’ position as the true fulfillment of all that Israel was meant to be. Jesus presents himself as Yahweh and as “the son of man,” Yahweh’s solution to bearing fruit in a fruitless vine. John C. Hutchinson agrees, arguing that in John 15:1, Jesus is “contrasting himself to another earlier vine, Israel, and claiming to be the genuine vine—the perfect in place of the imperfect, the fulfillment of the type” (70). Hutchinson offers exegetical and textual evidence for this claim. First, the definite article “ή” (“the”) that appears before “vine” does not normally occur alongside a predicate noun, so it here emphasizes that Jesus is the singular and final vine. Second, the adjective “αληθινή” can be translated as “genuine” or “au9thentic”––a word that clearly begs readers to juxtapose Jesus to a previous, less genuine vine which, as this paper has argued, is Israel). Third, John consistently employs OT imagery in his gospel, so it is natural to read the John 15 vineyard imagery in the context of the extensive OT viticultural imagery (70). Hutchinson’s three points coalesce to underscore the idea that Jesus’s claim in John 15:1 occurs in the OT context of the vine.

      There is great significance in Jesus claiming to replace Israel as the true and fruitful vine. Jesus explains in John 15 that since he is the vine, his followers 4 cannot bear fruit apart from dwelling in him, while those who do abide in Jesus will bear much fruit (15:5). In his commentary on the Fourth Gospel, John Calvin writes, “We are, by nature, barren and dry, except in so far as we have been ingrafted into Christ, and draw from him a power which is new, and which does not proceed from ourselves” (106). Israel was barren and dry, unable to produce its own fruit until Jesus entered the scene as the solution, offering to bear fruit in the fruitless nation. Similarly, in John 15, Jesus invites any of his disciples who desire to become fruitful to simply recognize their natural barrenness and rely upon Jesus alone as the source of their fruit.


4 To this point in Scripture and in this paper, the vineyard imagery has been applied to the nation of Israel. Here in John 15:1, Jesus applies this imagery to himself, with implications for his relationship to his disciples. The New Testament testifies to the reality that being Jesus’ disciple is not limited by nationality, but rather extends to any who will believe, whether Jews or non-Jew (Romans 1:16). Therefore, these promises about abiding and fruitfulness rightly extend to any person who follows Jesus.

      The full profundity of Jesus’ declaration “I am the true vine” is revealed most clearly when John 15:1 is read in the context of OT viticultural imagery. As the OT vine parable indicates, God’s people are incapable of producing fruit under even the most ideal conditions. For this reason, Jesus functioning as the true vine is a necessity––and a great relief. No longer do God’s people need to muster their own fruitfulness. Rather, “Jesus is the source of all real strength and grace to his disciples… and imparts to them, as they need, grace and strength to bear the fruits of holiness” (Barnes 336). The pressure is off; Jesus’ disciples are invited to bear fruit by simply abiding (John 15:5b). This is squarely in line with God’s declaration to Israel: “from me comes your fruit” (Hos. 14:8).

Works Cited

Barnes, Albert. Luke and John. Edited by Robert Frew, Baker Book House, 1949. Notes on the New Testament.

Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. Edited by William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, Doubleday & Company, 1970. The Anchor Bible.

Burge, G. M. “I Am Sayings.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, InterVarsity Press, 1992, pp. 354-6.

Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. 2, Translated by William Pringle, Baker Books, 1999. Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol 18.

The Holy Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway, 2001.

Keener, Craig. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol. 2, Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.

“Vine, Vineyard.” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, edited by Leland Ryken et al., InterVarsity Press, 1998, pp. 914-7.