“I am the Valid Vine,” Jesus declares to his disciples, “and my Father is the Vinedresser.” Various forms of the Greek word for “truth” are found in John’s gospel – some thirty-five instances in all. These instances are especially associated with Jesus’ assertions of identity as the One who descends from and ascends to the Father. The Hebrew word for “truth” is transliterated as “Emeth” and deserves some attention.
“Truth” in the contemporary sense is primarily accordance with facts or accepted reality. It is often regarded as something which is either the case as an axiom or can be empirically verified. This is the “correspondence” view of the nature of truth. If we limit ourselves only to the correspondence view of truth, we will go off the tracks in our reading and interpretation of John’s gospel and of the Christian scriptures in general.
“Emeth” has a basic meaning of “reliability.” The word “is used absolutely to denote a reality which is to be regarded as… ‘firm,’ and therefore ‘solid,’ ‘valid,’ or ‘binding” (Quell, TDNT I:233). It has to do with things that are permanent and continuing. “Emeth” is directly related to “emen” which means “truly.” This term is transliterated in the gospels as “amen” and is used by Jesus – especially in John – as a way to identify a solemn truth spoken by Jesus.
Truth, in this sense, is marked by faithfulness, steadfastness, dependability. The Hebrew scriptures certainly understand that some things are “real” and other things are not. However, truth is more than mere correspondence in the Hebrew scriptures. Truth is reliable. Therefore, truth is “relational.”
This has immediate consequences for understanding the Christian scriptures as well. Truth is the basis for faith, both in Paul’s letters and in John’s gospel. But faith is not some mere intellectual assent to a set of “facts” or axioms. Faith is primarily trust – reliance on the dependability and steadfastness of another, particularly God. Luther understands this, for example when, in his Large Catechism, he defines a god as whatever we rely upon in life and in death.
When we get to the Greek term that conveys the Hebrew sense, we get a word that basically means “non-concealment” ((Bultmann, TDNT I:238). The word is “a-letheia.” The Greek word “lethe” means “forgetfulness.” The River Lethe, in Greek mythology, is the river the dead pass over and begin to forget their embodied lives, for example. So, in literal terms, “truth” is non-forgetting what is there.
For the Greeks, truth represents the actual state of affairs, which can often be covered by false appearances. But the word has less of the sense of reliability and steadfastness found in the Hebrew term. In John, truth is always connected to God, the One who is “really real.” The Word is the Legitimate Light that is coming into the cosmos (John 1:9). The reliable bread comes down from heaven, and Jesus brings it (John 6). Jesus is the reliable way to life in John 14. And he is the Valid Vine in our text.
Why does this matter? When we impose the limited, correspondence definition of “truth” on this and other texts in the Christian scriptures, we will get unreliable results. John is not asserting some factual veracity about Jesus. John is promising that Jesus is the steadfast, reliable, continuing Love of God for the cosmos, dwelling among us. John invites us to “abide” in Jesus as that relational Truth in order to access and continue to have the abundant life which God offers to all.
The limited, correspondence, definition of “truth” makes our text and others like it into a sorting sieve, and “unbelievers” are then found wanting and rejected. This is not what John’s gospel intends. “This is a passage from John,” Karoline Lewis (2018) reminds us. “These are the consequences of separation, not statements about a lack of righteousness. This describes the reality of disconnection,” she argues, “not the determination of who is in and who is out.” Lewis notes that these are words from the Farewell Discourse – words to comfort the disciples as they contemplate Jesus’ departure.
These are not words of condemnation or punishment for unfaithfulness. But they do describe consequences. Disconnection from Jesus means withering and dying. Remaining connected to Jesus means flourishing in the abundant life. The vine and the branches as a figure of speech conveys this message with brilliance and depth.
“Every branch in me which is not bearing fruit,” Jesus says in verse 2, “[the Vinedresser] takes out that one.” Let me illustrate.
We have a couple of older trees in our yard. Some of the branches are budding and leafing out in the spring. Other branches remain bare and brown. Those branches are dead. They are not receiving life from the tree trunk, their only connection to the ground, and water, and nutrients. It will be best for the trees (and for the safety of us who stand under them) for those branches to be removed. When we remove the branches, we are not “punishing” them for being unproductive. We are simply responding to the fact that they are no longer alive. They can no longer depend on the trunk for life.
“And every one which is bearing fruit,” Jesus continues, “[the Vinedresser] cleans up in order that it might bear more fruit.” As I noted in the previous post, there is a word play involving “takes out” and “cleans up.” These are similar actions, John seems to be saying, with quite different results.
Every three years this text shows up early in the gardening season. It reminds me how much I hate pruning our garden plants. It’s not the task itself that bothers me. It feels wasteful to me.
As I pinch off one of those sucker branches on a tomato plant, I wonder if that’s the branch that would have produced the most tomatoes. When I remove some lower branches on a cucumber vine, I’m sure I’ve just reduced my total crop (even though I know I haven’t). If I take a few lower stems off the zucchini, I know I’ve opened up a spot for a hungry worm to invade, and I’ll have to watch that spot closely.
It’s not sloth I’m battling. It’s greed – and the fear of scarcity. This is one of my habits of hoarding (though certainly not the only one). I’m sure that because I’m clipping off some branches, there won’t be enough vegetables at the end of the process. I’m sure I’m contributing to the problem. I don’t trust the vine to produce enough unless I leave every last blessed branch.
Of course, if I do so, I’m actually reducing the final yield. Pruning and cleaning are not “punishments” for the plants. Pruning and cleaning leave some small injuries on the stems that will heal just fine if I pay adequate attention. In fact, pruning and cleaning are acts of care. The goal is to improve the harvest – to equip the remaining branches to bear much fruit.
John’s gospel is concerned about Jesus followers who are considering leaving the Jesus movement and staying with their previous faith communities. That’s why John is concerned about “abiding” in the truth of the Messiah, the Son of God, who is Jesus. This is the difference between me and the branches on my tomato plants. Those branches stay put unless I take them off. I can leave the Valid Vine if I so choose and try to find abundant life elsewhere.
Jesus “leaves his disciples with a picture of their relationship that communicates the unquestionable connectedness between them and Jesus, even in the face of Jesus’ absence,” Lewis writes. “It is an image of absolute dependence, certain reliance, and a binding relationship that is severed only when we choose to walk away. The only judgment here is on us,” she concludes, “when we decide to abscond from abiding in Jesus.”
We humans are twice as sensitive to threat as we are to opportunity. We are primed to hear news as bad even when it’s good. That is certainly the case in John 15. Lewis (2018) pleads with us as preachers to hear this text as Gospel rather than Law: “hear these words that are comfort, not condemnation. That are reassurance and not rejection. That are invitation and not abnegation. Without Jesus, being connected to Jesus, to the vine, a life filled with resurrection all around is not possible.”
That being said, I don’t think this text can or should be used to assure ourselves that we Jesus followers have a corner on the Truth market. It’s fruit-bearing that indicates a current connection to the Valid Vine. When I hear the Hebrew word for truth, “Emeth,” I go immediately to the final volume of the Narnia Saga, The Last Battle. C. S. Lewis creates a character in that book named “Emeth.”
Emeth is a soldier for the Other Side. Yet, he finds himself in the New Narnia, Lewis’ imagery for Heaven or the New Creation. Emeth is as surprised as anyone to discover his new location, since he was on the side of the Enemy. Aslan, the Christ figure in the Chronicles, explains the situation to Emeth. “I take to me the services which thou hast done to [the Enemy]. For I and he are of such different kinds,” Aslan continues, “that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him” (page 189).
Seeking the Truth is demonstrated by bearing fruit. And that fruit may appear in the most surprising of places, Lewis seems to say. “Beloved,” Aslan says to Emeth, “unless thy desire had been for me thou would not have sought so long and so truly. For all find,” the Great Lion concludes, “what they truly seek” (page 189).
Jesus is the Valid Vine. Branches connected to that Vine bear much fruit and in that way prove to be his disciples. We should be careful as we read and interpret this text to remember that Jesus chooses the branches, not us. And we should encourage all who seek the Truth.
References and Resources
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018) https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.