Jesus as the true vine in the light of the Old Testament

“This image of Jesus as the true vine can only make sense for Christians who fully appreciate the people of Israel, its role, and its election in the Hebrew Bible. There is no sense to this image of Jesus without an appreciation of its Hebraic context,” Dr. Faydra Shapiro, Director of the Israel Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, writes in a commentary for the Catholic University of Lublin Heschel Centre, for Sunday, 28 April. She explains the significance of the vineyard image in the Old Testament and how it helps to understand Jesus’ words.

In this reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus presents the last of his seven “I am” statements. In this statement, the gospel writer mobilizes the image of the vine to help readers understand more about who Jesus is.

Now the image of the vineyard doesn’t come out of nowhere. The early Jewish audience of the gospel would have immediately felt at home with the reference, as it is a common one in the Hebrew scripture. We see it used in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Isaiah and Psalms as an image for God’s careful planning and loving care for his cherished people, the people of Israel.

I think my favourite comes from Psalm 80, 7-15, an image of God’s beloved people trying to make sense of our suffering and one particularly relevant for our time:

Restore us, O God of hosts;

let your face shine, that we may be saved.

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.

The mountains were covered with its shade,

the mighty cedars with its branches;

it sent out its branches to the sea

and its shoots to the River.

Why then have you broken down its walls,

so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?

The boar from the forest ravages it,

and all that move in the field feed on it.

Turn again, O God of hosts;

look down from heaven and see;

have regard for this vine,

the stock that your right hand planted.

Now here in John 15 the gospel is presenting Jesus as something remarkable: he is presented not just himself the vine – like the people of Israel – but as being the TRUE vine.

So strangely the most interesting thing for people thinking about Jewish-Christian relations is the meaning of the word “true” rather than the image of the vine itself. What does this “true vine” mean in relation to God’s beloved vine of Israel? Has the vine of Israel been replaced, cast off or rejected?

This image is helpful for us to think about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, and touch the question and challenge of supersessionism –

It is important to note a few things here, though:

1. This image of Jesus as the true vine can only make sense for Christians who have a full appreciation for the people of Israel, its’ role and election, in the Hebrew Bible. There is no sense to this image of Jesus without appreciation of its Hebraic context.

2. It is Jesus who is presented as the true vine, embodying and fulfilling God’s plan for Israel. It is not that Christianity replaces Judaism, or that the Church replaces the Jewish people in God’s economy.

3. “True” is actually a very rich and complex term. It does not have to contrast with “false” and ought not to be presented as such. This passage should not mean that Jesus is true and Israel is false, but rather suggests the understanding that in the eyes of the gospel author, Jesus is the vehicle here on in for God’s plan for this world, as Israel was until this point. Jesus is continuing the role and work of Israel, not replacing it.

Here we can understand that for Christians – and language is a slippery thing here – Jesus comes to represent the fullness of Israel, the representation of Israel, the fulfillment of Israel. The idea that Jesus is the culmination of the chosen people, is undoubtedly a point of disagreement between Jews and Christians. Yet it is also one that should inspire Christians to respect and cherish the Jewish people, as the paradigm of Jesus.

About the author:

Dr. Faydra Shapiro is a specialist in contemporary Jewish-Christian relations and is the Director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. She received the National Jewish Book Award for her first publication (2006). Her most recent book, with Gavin d’Costa, is Contemporary Catholic Approaches to the People, Land, and State of Israel. Dr. Shapiro is also a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project and a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Religions at Tel Hai College in Israel