Over the last four years or so I’ve been growing what’s called a food forest.
Basically, in a bed of deep wood chip mulch I’m growing fruit trees like apples and paw paws, shrubs like hazelnuts and sour cherries, and vining plants like blackberries and grapes. I’ve got strawberries and wine cap mushrooms and so on.
It’s my own little garden of Eden, and I love it.
Now, the thing is, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve planted things way too close together, I’ve learned the hard way about how aggressive Jerusalem artichoke can be, my fence wasn’t tall enough so deer have wreaked havoc. I’m a total amateur.
But what this whole process has done for me is open my eyes to a part of the human experience that ancient people would have been intimately familiar with: cultivating plants for food.
We live in a world where you just go to a store and there is a mountain of fresh produce grown by distant farmers with powerful machines.
But now I’m beginning to understand that if you live in a world where you have to depend on eating the food you can grow by hand – the way the biblical authors had to – your relationship with the ground you cultivate and the plants under your care would be far more intense and significant.
I felt anxiety for the first time this year because it didn’t rain for a month. Imagine how stressful it would be if you couldn’t just reel out a hose. It’s opening my eyes.
I tell you all this because today we are exploring the biblical thread of vines and vineyards.
It’s a really common image in the Bible, but these days because of my work in the garden I’m starting to understand that this image carries a lot more weight than I ever understood before. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
By the way, this is week 5 of our sermon series “Threads” where we’ve explored all kinds of biblical images like this - the tree of life, the chaotic sea, sheep and shepherds, blood… Ideas you find over and over in the Bible.
Our hope in all of this is to equip you to be able to read and understand this library of scrolls we call the Bible better than ever before. That’s what this is all about.
So today let’s dive in and talk about vineyards.
WORLD BEHIND THE TEXT
First, it’s important to understand the “world behind the text” - the world of the author and first readers of the Bible. What did vines and vineyards meant to them?
Well, grape cultivation - especially for wine - goes back a long, long way. Archaeologists have found pottery with fermented grape juice residue in Georgia from 8000 years ago. They found an entire winery in Armenia from 6000 years ago.
And just about every ancient culture has references to vineyards and winemaking in their writing, their art, etc. Including ancient Israel.
For example, the temple in Jerusalem was decorated with grape vines. They minted coins in Israel with grape clusters on them. This was an important image in Israel.
But, why? Why grapes of all things?
Well, to the ancient Israelites, the presence or availability of grapes and wine was a shorthand symbol for peace, provision, and abundance.
Because think about it - to grow a successful vineyard, you needed many years - back to back - of peace. Grapes are not an annual crop that you just plant a seed and harvest that year.
You have to prepare the ground and carefully prune the vines and keep out weeds and wild animals for years to get a decent harvest. And you can’t do that if your country is at war or if enemies are raiding your land stealing your harvest.
Conditions have to be perfect. So bountiful grapes and wine are a symbol for peace.
They’re also a symbol for God’s provision. Because the amount and quality of the fruit you grow depends on how much rain you get. Remember, the Israelites lived in the Judean hill country, which was very arid. God had to send the rain for them to have a good harvest.
So if you had grapes and wine it meant God was protecting you and God was sending the rain. In short,
Bountiful vineyards were a symbol for God’s peace, provision, and abundance.
The biblical writers talk about vines and vineyards in these terms all the time.
In the Garden of Eden in Genesis, God gives the humans all the fruit they can eat. You can picture grape vines loaded with fruit. After the flood, the first thing Noah does in the new world is plant a vineyard.
In the book of Numbers, when the Israelites send spies to see of the Promised Land is any good, they come back with a single cluster of grapes that is so big two men have to use a pole to carry it between them.
“Uh, yeah. The land is good. It’s basically Eden all over again!”
Again, grapes mean things are going well. And to the Israelites it meant your relationship with God was going well too.
Over and over in Scripture you see this constant interplay between human faithfulness and God’s provision in response.
Honor the LORD with your wealth
and with the best part of everything you produce.
Then he will fill your barns with grain,
and your vats will overflow with good wine.
Honor God with your generosity and he will provide for you.
All that to say: Abundant vineyards in the Bible are a symbol of the good life God promises his people.
And that good life is unlocked when people live in line with God’s desires.
THE VINEYARD OF THE LORD
So that’s the baseline idea for this biblical thread. There are a lot of vineyards in the Bible that tap into that. But here’s where things get interesting.
Because again, these threads are dynamic. Now that we understand the baseline, here’s where the biblical authors start to play - to get creative.
For example, one of the most important vineyard passages in the whole Bible is Isaiah 5, Page _______. If you want to follow along, grab a Bible and read it with me, because the prophet Isaiah here is going to use the image of a vineyard to make a pretty provocative point.
Now I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
but the grapes that grew were bitter.
Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?
Now let me tell you
what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
to drop no rain on it.
The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.
The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
but instead he heard cries of violence.
Isaiah wrote this passage at a time when Israel was very corrupt. There was a ton of injustice and violence. And it seemed like God’s plans for his people were almost completely off track.
Which is why this vineyard imagery is perfect to get across what Isaiah is trying to say.
Because again, as I’ve been learning in my food forest, if you’re trying to grow fruit plants, it’s a lot of work! Years of labor and pruning and weeding.
If I did all that and my garden only produced garbage, I’d be ticked! Now imagine that same thing happens, but your livelihood depends on the fruit you harvest.
The original hearers of this would have hot under the collar with what this gardener was going through. “All that work for nothing?”
And they would have been shocked - appropriately so - when the big reveal comes in verse 7.
This vineyard we’ve been talking about… it’s actually the people of Israel themselves! “[God] expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence.”
There is a play on words here in Hebrew.
mishpat (justice) vs. mispach (violent bloodshed)
tzedaqah (righteousness) vs. tzaꜥaqah (cry of distress)
What Isaiah is saying is that God chose his people to be a beacon of his intentions to the world – Israel was supposed to be a nation of justice and mercy and peace which would bring healing to all the rest. But instead they became anything but.
There’s that interplay between human faithfulness and God’s abundance again. From the very beginning, God’s promise was clear: “live out my good intentions for the world - justice/righteousness - and I’m going to bless you. You’ll experience my abundance.”
But here Isaiah is making the point that the opposite is also true: when human faithfulness and justice and righteousness breaks down, so too does their access to God’s abundance.
Here’s what Isaiah predicts is going to happen to God’s failed vineyard in verse 5 & 6. The land is going to lie fallow, wild animals are going to tear up the vines, and weeds are going to take over…
Now, this is all imagery and metaphor, but the reality was no less severe. The consequence for the people abandoning God’s intentions was exile. This actually happened.
The leaders of Israel were carried off to Assyria and Babylon, and the vineyard of the Lord - the Promised Land, the chosen people - was overgrown with briers and thorns.
It’s a provocative image, right? A symbol of abundance - the fruitful vineyard - now becomes a symbol of desolation.
For a long time - hundreds of years - it seemed like this might be the end of the story. Even after the Babylonian exile was over there were some who began to question when, or even if, God’s mission to heal the world would ever get back on track.
Would God’s vineyard lie fallow forever?
THE TRUE VINE
Well, that is when Jesus entered the picture.
Jesus - this teacher, this prophet - who, like Isaiah, used the imagery of vineyards a lot.
For example, Jesus did this in his parables. That’s actually what this week’s take home passage is all about. Sometime this week I want you to read the beginning of Mark 12:1-12, but read it in light of Isaiah 5 and I guarantee it’s going to come into new focus for you.
Ok. But back to the thread. Jesus picks up on this image of the fruitful vineyard in his teaching, but he doesn’t just use it as metaphor to describe the people. He also enters into the metaphor to describe himself.
Take a look with me at John 15, Page ____. Here’s what Jesus told his disciples on the night before his crucifixion.
I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.
I am the vine; you are the branches.
The disciples of Jesus would have all been well versed in the imagery of the prophets.
Growing up they would have memorized Isaiah 5, they would have been taught by their elders about the Babylonian exile and what happens when the people drift from God’s intentions and bear the sour grapes of injustice and violence.
For Jesus to say that he is the true grapevine - this isn’t just some simple metaphor. No. He is stepping right into the tension of Isaiah 5 and saying,
“God’s vineyard is not desolate and overgrown anymore. It’s bearing fruit again. But this time, the fruit is sweet. The peace and provision and abundance of God is back. The fruit of God’s intentions for this world is being made real: through me, the true vine… and through you, my branches.”
I said before that Abundant vineyards in the Bible are a symbol of the good life God promises his people…
What Jesus is saying here is that that good life is now available to you and to me.
And when I say “the good life” I’m not talking about financial wealth or having power or fame, and I’m not even talking about a life free from suffering.
When I say “the good life” I’m talking about a life that produces the fruit of Jesus’ influence. A life that draws energy and nourishment and refreshment from Son of God, just like a branch on a vine.
The fruit that comes from that deep connection looks exactly like what God intended for this broken world from the very beginning of the story. Here’s how the Apostle Paul describes it, again tapping right into this biblical thread:
The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Now, that’s a familiar passage. But let’s just take a second and camp out here.
In Isaiah 5, when the people were left to their own devices, what fruit did they produce? Violence, injustice, chaos… Their fruit was rotten. And when we look around at our world today, we still see that fruit in a lot of places.
But when we are grafted in to Jesus, the true vine, we bear his fruit – fruit like love. Can you imagine what it would be like for people to look at your life and just see genuine love like Jesus? Or joy?
What if you had a reputation as a peaceful person? Or a patient one?
What if your deep and abiding connection to Jesus made you kind and good and faithful and gentle…
What if you were known for your self-control?
This is the fruit we bear when we remain grafted into the true vine and his Spirit within us produces fruit we could never produce on our own.
Bottom line: We were meant to live in Eden. Designed to be caretakers of an abounding and fruitful garden. One day we’ll return there, resurrected in a New Creation where we can live free and abundant lives face to face with our Creator.
In the meantime, though, in this still broken world, our lives can be signposts of what’s to come. As the vineyard of the Lord, we can give our broken world a taste of Eden. Fruitful, abundant, alive…
Not because we’re especially good people. Not because we work really, really hard at it.
No. It’s because we are connected to the true vine and the fruit we bear is his.
Now, we don’t have the time to do a deep dive into John 15. There is a lot we could dig into there.
But I want to draw your attention to one final thing Jesus says in that passage.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
I know that raises all kinds of questions. Are we supposed to just be like, “Alright, I wish for a million dollars. Wait! I wish for more wishes!”
No. Jesus is not a genie. He’s talking about fruitfulness. He’s tapping into this whole biblical thread of the vineyard and talking about being true disciples - true followers of his. Followers who do the things he taught us to do.
I don’t know the extent of all we can ask for, but I do know this: it is very ok to ask to become more fruitful.
And that is exactly the kind of thing that I believe when we ask for it, God will give it, just like Jesus says here.
When we ask our Father to shape us to be more like Jesus, that is precisely the kind of thing he does.
So I’m going to give you a moment to ask. Ask God to produce more abundant fruit in your life.
Specifically, the fruit of the Spirit we just talked about. I’m going to list up on the screen of the fruit Paul mentions in Galatians and I want you to pick the one you most desire to grow in (I randomized the list so we don’t get lost in its familiarity)
Which one stands out as the one you want to see more of in your life?
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!”
What sweet fruit do you want God to produce in you? Take a moment and ask.
Because I believe our heavenly gardener knows exactly what he’s doing.