The Bible uses a lot of agricultural imagery. You’re probably most familiar with this from Jesus’s parables about sowers and fields, or His statement “I am the vine.” These sorts of analogies are rooted both in the culture of Jesus’s day and in the Old Testament writings, and they focus on three types of plants: grain, vines, and olive trees. Those plants are also the three main agricultural products of Palestinian farming: “grain, new wine, and oil” (Theological Wordbook: Old Testament, entry 1040a). These three things figured prominently in scripture, mostly in tithes and offerings (Lev. 23:13; Deut. 14:23; 18:4; 2 Chr. 31:5; Neh. 10:39; 13-12) and promised blessings (Deut. 11:14; Jer. 31:12; Hos. 2:8, 22; Joel 2:19, 24).
Grain, vines, and olive trees were a key part of culture in Bible times and they’re used in teachings that are a key part of our faith. The study I’m sharing today started out with the question, “How can we bear fruit for God?” and the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became with the way God and the writers He inspired use these three plants to tell us about His plan, kingdom, and relationship with people. At first, I planned to divide this up into three posts (one for each type of plant), but the way the Bible talks about them is so intertwined I don’t think that would be useful. That means today’s post is a little on the long side, but I hope you’ll find this study as interesting as I do 🙂
A Brief History of God’s Vineyard
Obviously, grain, vines, and olives are useful for physical things. They were key to food production, they were used extensively for tithes and offerings, and olive wood played an important role in construction. In addition to these uses (and perhaps because these plants were so well-known and widely used), the Bible also talks about metaphors and spiritual parallels for us using these three types of plants and their produce. Hosea offers a great example of this.
Near the beginning of Hosea’s book, God brings a complaint against Israel, His unfaithful wife who “has refused to acknowledge that I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil” (2:8, NET). God’s punishment for her idolatry was to “take back my grain … and my new wine,” turning the cultivated land for food production into an “uncultivated thicket” (2:12, 15). That’s not the end of the story, though.
I will commit myself to you in faithfulness;Hosea 2:20-23, NET
then you will acknowledge the Lord.
“At that time, I will willingly respond,” declares the Lord.
“I will respond to the sky,
and the sky will respond to the ground;
then the ground will respond to the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil;
and they will respond to ‘God Plants’ (Jezreel)!
Then I will plant her as my own in the land.
When a new covenant is restored with God’s people Israel, the agricultural blessings return. God’s people are compared to “a fertile vine that yielded fruit” (Hos. 10:1, NET). In this passage, Israel is also counseled to plow up the ground of their lives and bear new crop–righteousness and love rather than wickedness and injustice (10:11-13). Here in Hosea, we see the fruit of grain, grape, and olive plants used to speak of blessings, punishment, and (most relevant to today’s topic) the state of human hearts. Are we planted by God, or growing wild? Are we sowing with a good harvest in mind, or investing in bearing bad fruit?
Cultivating a Faithful People
In the Old Testament, Israel is often compared to a vine. Typically, it’s in a negative context. Israel was a vine that betrayed God and so He withdrew His protection from them (Psalm 80:8-16). It was a vineyard where the grapes went sour, rotten, and foul (Is. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21). It was a fruitful vine that used its fruit to worship a false god (Hos. 10:1). The consequences of all this unfaithfulness was to be punished, burned like a dried-out vine cut away from a plant (Ezk. 15:1-7; 19:10-14). There is, however, a promise of restoration. The Lord will protect and water His vineyard, and Israel will blossom and thrive (Is. 27:1-6; Hos. 14:4-8).
The way the prophets talked about Israel as a vine would have been very familiar to the Jewish people of Jesus’s day. When He taught parables which compared the kingdom of God to a vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16; 21:33-46), His listeners would have connected it to what they heard read in the temple about Israel as God’s vineyard. And when Jesus spoke of a vineyard where the people tending it betrayed the owner, the “chief priests and the Pharisees … realized that he was speaking about them” when Jesus said, “for this reason I tell you the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce it’s fruit” (Matt. 21:43-46, NET).
Jesus–as the Word who delivered God’s message to the prophets–knew exactly what He was doing when He compared the kingdom of God to a vineyard, showed that the Lord is the only one with the right to decide how that vineyard is managed, and warned that the unfaithful would not be allowed to grow in the kingdom/vineyard forever (Matt. 15:12-13). Much like the parables where Jesus compares His people and people’s reactions to His word to grain (Matt. 13:18-30), the way Jesus talks about vines shows that the kingdom’s inhabitants are not a group which automatically includes any one type of people based on their background. He’s specifically cultivating a field/vineyard full of faithful people, regardless of where they started out “growing.”
All Nations Grafted In
We’ll come back to the idea of fruitfulness, but this last point about a change in the composition of the field/vineyard also connects to an olive tree analogy that Paul uses in Romans. Like vines and grain, olives figure prominently in scripture. Olive oil was used to anoint kings and priests, and as part of the offerings. Olive wood was used to build sukkas (Neh. 8:15) and in the temple construction (1 Kings 6:23, 31-33). Someone who trusts “in God’s loyal love” is “like a flourishing olive tree” (Ps. 52:8, NET). Much like the vine imagery, Israel was also called a once fruitful and “thriving olive tree” that became “good for nothing” through unfaithfulness and was set on fire (Jer. 11:16, NET).
It’s with that background that Paul uses olive trees imagery to show his gentile readers how they relate to the Jews (which represented one tribe of Israel, Judah, though Paul uses them to stand-in for all of physical Israel). Even in the Old Testament, the name “Israel” referred to both a physical nation and to a smaller group of spiritual, faithful believers (Rom. 11:1-4). A similar thing is happening today, only now this faithful remnant doesn’t just include descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It includes those who were once outside Israel as well and who’ve responded to God’s call (Rom. 11:5-16).
To illustrate this, Paul compares Israel to a cultivated olive tree and the Gentiles (ethnos in Greek; tribes, peoples, nations) to a wild olive tree. Both groups are olives–people made in the image of God–but one has a longer history of being chosen, tended, and cultivated by God for a specific purpose. Now, the Master Gardener is expanding His cultivation project. He’s pruning out those who do not believe and grafting in those who have faith. Which olive tree you came from doesn’t matter; only the state of your heart (Rom. 11:17-24). In other words, God is still working in the same vineyard/field/orchard that He has always had, cultivating a kingdom people, but He is bringing new vines and branches in and grafting them all onto one Root.
How to Bear Fruit for God
Jesus is the holy root which makes the branches grafted into Him holy (Is. 11:1-10; 53:1-5; Rom. 11:16; 15:8-13; Eph. 3:16-19; Col. 2:6-7; Rev. 5:5; 22:16). Remember all those verses about Israel as an unfaithful, fruitless vineyard and the prophecy about future growth? Jesus is how that prophecy is fulfilled.
“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Father is honored by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.”John 15:1-8, NET
See how this echoes so many of the prophecies we’ve looked at? Jesus reveals that He is the one we need to have a relationship with in order to be fruitful. Without Him, we wither away like ancient Israel so often did as they strayed into unbelief. The emphasis on being rooted also echoes other prophresies that talk of God’s people being rooted (Is. 27:6; 37:31-21; Jer. 17:7-8). The closer we are to God, the more firmly we’re rooted and the more we thrive. And the more we study what the whole Bible says about the way God’s people are like grain, vines, and olives the better we understand what Jesus is teaching us in passages like this one where He says, “I am the vine.”
God is looking for fruit from the people growing in His vineyard. He exercises patience, encouraging us to grow, but if we refuse to keep abiding in Him, He won’t force us to stay and bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9). We can’t grow and fruit without Him (1 Cor. 3:6-9), but we are also active participants in this fruitfulness and we are free to disconnect from the root and be unfruitful if we choose (as so many Jewish people of Jesus’s day chose to do when they rejected Him as the Messiah). When we choose to abide in Jesus, though, we will abound in the fruits of His spirit (Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 5:8-11; 2 Pet. 1:5-8). In His grace, goodness, and love, God has opened the way through Jesus’s sacrifice for all people everywhere to become part of His kingdom-garden. Let’s stay close to Him, rooted with faith and trusting Him to supply all we need to grow and thrive and bear fruit that glorifies our Father.
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