As the Passover mean came to a close, Jesus said to His disciples, “Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:31; NKJV). And then in Chapter 19, verse 1 we are told “When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered.” Where exactly along the way the discussion recorded in chapters 15 and 16, and the prayer in chapter 17, took place is anyone’s guess. But Jesus was certainly aware that He was now literally on His way to His arrest and crucifixion. The tone of the discussion changes. Whereas in the Upper Room there was give-and-take, now the discussion takes the form of an extended monologue. The fact that He was about to depart has now been established; He now focuses on their responsibilities and privileges going forward.
Jesus begins this part of the discussion by telling them a parable (John 15:1-8). “I am the true vine,” He tells them, “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, that it may bear more fruit” (vv. 1,2). Here we see two different types of branches: those that do not bear fruit and those that do. The branches that do not bear fruit “He takes away.” The ones that do bear fruit “He prunes.”
But whom do these two types of branches represent? Is Jesus saying that it is possible to be a genuine believer and to lose his salvation?
It must be kept in mind when interpreting a parable like this that Jesus is typically making one or two main points, but that analogy must not be pressed too far as to the details. The main point that Jesus is making in this parable is the importance of maintaining a close relationship with Him. The details are incidental.
The best answer here seems to be that the branches of the vine are professing Christians, but not necessarily genuinely born-again ones. They have made professions of faith; they have been baptized; they are recognized members of the visible church. But not all are vitally connected to Christ through a genuine experience of the new birth, and as a result these show literal evidence of spiritual life. They are content to go through the motions. They show up for church most Sundays. The put money in the offering plate. They sit patiently and listen to the sermon. But their heart is somewhere else.
These, then, Jesus says, the Father “takes away.” Sometimes they fall away of their own accord. Sometimes they are excommunicated by the church. In the end they face the judgment seat of Christ who says, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). What a terrifying prospect!
But then there are other branches as well, ones that do bear fruit. Of these Jesus says that the Father “prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Here it is evident that He is speaking of genuinely born-again Christians, in contrast to the nominal professing Christian, for He goes on to say in the next verse, “You are already clean because of the world which I have spoken to you” (John 15:8). In the process of hearing the gospel and responding to it they have been inwardly regenerated – they have a new heart and a desire to serve Christ. The have put the things of the old life behind them. Yet the Father still “cleans” and “prunes” them. Even as born-again Christians there are things that come into our lives that come between us and Christ and interfere with our spiritual growth. This is especially true when things are going well for us outwardly. We become preoccupied with the things of this life and let our relationship with Christ languish. But God is a wise and caring “vinedresser,” and His concern is that we “bear more fruit”; and to that end He prunes us – He disciplines us, subjects us to trials and difficulties, but all that we might be more fruitful and blessed in the work of the kingdom.
Sometimes when we are in the midst of trials and difficulties, and God does not seem to be answering our prayers for deliverance, we must keep in mind that God has His own purposes in what He brings our way, and that His divine purpose includes our sanctification and usefulness in the kingdom. In such circumstances we must learn to submit to His will and patiently learn the lesson He has for us. He will eventually bring us through the trial, and we will be the better for having gone through it!