Questions From Readers
In the past John 15:1-6 has been used as an illustration in discussing Romans 11:17-24. But a close examination shows that these two passages refer to different things. One centers on Christ, and the other on Abraham. Let us consider each passage.
On his final night with the apostles Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the cultivator. Every branch in me not bearing fruit he takes away, and every one bearing fruit he cleans, that it may bear more fruit. I am the vine, you are the branches. He that remains in union with me, and I in union with him, this one bears much fruit.”—John 15:1, 2, 5.
Jesus compared himself to a vine. His disciples, who on Pentecost 33 C.E. were begotten by holy spirit, became branches of the vine. Christ urged that once they became branches they should abide in him and bear fruit so they would not be cast off and lose eternal life. (John 15:6) Bearing fruit would involve their manifesting the qualities that he, Jesus, had displayed. By abiding in union with him they could cultivate the fruitage of the spirit. (Gal. 5:22, 23) And they would be active in speaking about the Kingdom.—Luke 8:8.
While the words in John 15:1-6 center on Jesus, Paul’s illustration of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24 focuses on Abraham. It shows the need to have faith like Abraham’s to become part of his promised seed. The illustration is of a cultivated, or garden, olive tree off from which some natural branches were broken. Branches from a wild olive tree were then grafted in their place. The natural branches represent natural Jews. The wild olive branches stand for Gentile believers who, because of their faith, replaced faithless natural Jews as part of the promised seed of Abraham. This can be best appreciated by examining God’s dealings with Abraham and the attitude of the Jews when the Messiah arrived.
Because of Abraham’s having exercised faith, Jehovah God made with him a covenant for a “seed” by means of which all nations “will certainly bless themselves.” (Gen. 22:17, 18; Gal. 3:8) This affected God’s dealings with Abraham’s natural seed, his descendants, the Israelites. (Deut. 7:7, 8; 2 Cor. 11:22) The Jews in the first century took pride in being able to say: “Our father is Abraham.” (John 8:39; Matt. 3:9) They assumed that because of being Abraham’s natural seed they were assured of a place in Jehovah’s favor and dealings. But, in the book of Romans, Paul showed that while their being descendants of Abraham certainly was an advantage, it was not sufficient in itself. How so?
The reason for this was that Jehovah God purposed through the Abrahamic covenant to produce a spiritual seed. The Messiah, Jesus, was the primary one of that spiritual seed of Abraham, as Paul had explained in his earlier letter to the Galatians. (Gal. 3:16) But he also showed that the spiritual seed was a composite one; it was made up of Christ and joint heirs with him, later revealed to number, all together, 144,001. Paul wrote: “If you belong to Christ, you are really Abraham’s seed, heirs with reference to a promise.” (Gal. 3:29; Rev. 7:4-8; 14:1) But would the secondary seed of Abraham, the 144,000, be made up entirely of Jews, members of the natural seed of Abraham?
That could have been so. From 29 C.E. to 36 C.E. the opportunity to make up that spiritual seed was offered to those who were by natural descent “sons of the stock of Abraham.”* (Acts 13:26; Matt. 15:24) Paul, in the book of Romans, repeatedly brought up this natural link. He spoke of the faith of “Abraham our forefather according to the flesh.” (Rom. 4:1) Then, in Romans 11:1, he said: “God did not reject his people, did he? Never may that happen! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham.” And in the illustration that follows of the olive tree, he continued to focus on Abraham.
The natural descendants of Abraham were like branches of a garden olive tree. But the Abrahamic covenant was to produce a spiritual seed. So in order to be part of that the Jews had to accept the Messiah, be begotten by holy spirit and be adopted as spiritual sons by the Greater Abraham, Jehovah God. (Rom. 4:16, 17) Only a remnant of the natural Jews did so, thus becoming permanent branches in the olive tree. The majority of the natural seed of Abraham did not exercise faith in the Messiah. Thus, according to the illustration, they were broken off the olive tree and did not become part of the spiritual seed of Abraham.—Matt. 21:43.
With that development, God turned his attention to the Gentiles. From 36 C.E. onward, believing non-Jews could exercise faith and become anointed Christians, part of Abraham’s spiritual seed. (Acts 10:34-47; 15:14) Paul compared these Gentile Christians to branches from a wild olive tree that were grafted into the garden olive tree. Hence, even though they did not have a fleshly link with Abraham, they exercised faith like Abraham’s and became part of his spiritual seed. In fact, if later, even after a period of unique opportunity was past, any natural Jew exercised faith in Jesus, he could be grafted back into the tree, becoming part of Abraham’s spiritual seed. (Contrast this with the result to a branch broken off the vine of Jesus. [John 15:6])—Rom. 11:17-24.
As now can be discerned, quite different points are being made by Jesus’ words in John 15:1-6 compared to Paul’s in Romans 11:17-24. One focuses on Jesus; the other on Abraham. Together, though, they do forcefully show that Christianity is not a thing that can be taken for granted. Faith is needed, like “the faith of Abraham.” (Rom. 4:16) Also, it is imperative to remain in union with Jesus and to bear good fruit, following Jesus’ example.