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No Good Wood

Ezekiel 15:1-3 – The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, how is the wood of a vine better than that of a branch on any of the trees of the forest? Is wood ever taken from it to make anything useful? Do they make pegs from it to hang things on?”

John 15:1-6 – “I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. He takes away every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If anyone remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

Did you ever go to a lumber yard or home improvement store and ask for some “vine wood” for a wood-working or home remodeling project? Try it, if you want to see some surprised and puzzled looks! No one orders "vine wood" for construction projects, because it’s no-good wood! You can’t build furniture or cabinets from "vine wood," and you certainly can’t build a house from "vine wood"! You can’t even use a small piece of "vine wood" for a peg on the wall, because once the wood dries it becomes brittle. There’s no strength to it, and whatever you hang on the peg will fall to the floor.

The wood of the grapevine is notoriously useless. It is good for one purpose only, and that is to bear grapes. God designed the grapevine for that sole purpose—to bear fruit!

Parable of Ezekiel 15

In a series of signs, visions, sermons and parables, the prophet Ezekiel announced the coming judgment of God upon the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. God had clearly declared in His Word that He would have to judge the nation if it rebelled against Him and turned away from following His Law. In Ezekiel 15 we find the parable of the fruitless vine. Israel had been God’s choice vine, but because they were fruitless they had become “no-good wood”! God expected His people to bear spiritual fruit, but because of their sins of idolatry and immorality, the people of Israel were about to go into captivity at the hands of a foreign nation. Just as a fruitless vine is removed, so the fruitless nation would be removed.

God had given the southern kingdom of Judah plenty of warning. About 100 years before Ezekiel’s parable, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrian Empire. During that time period, the prophet Isaiah had given a similar message from the Lord to the whole house of Israel, warning them of the consequences that befall a fruitless vine. “Now I will tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed. I will break down its wall and it will be trampled” (Isaiah 5:5). In Isaiah’s time God had graciously and miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat, but now the kingdom of Judah was about to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and the armies of the Babylonian Empire. Already Daniel and other Jewish youths had been taken captive to Babylon in 605BC, and Ezekiel and other captives had been taken in 597BC.

When Ezekiel gave this parable of the fruitless vine in about 590BC, Jerusalem was still standing—but the axe was about to fall! While Ezekiel was giving his prophetic parable to the Jews who were already in Babylon, Jeremiah was warning the people in Jerusalem that the fruitless vine was about to be removed. (See Jeremiah 2:21 and 12:10.) The ends of the no-good wood had already been burned and the middle (Jerusalem) charred in the first two attacks (Ezekiel 15:4). Now the worthless vinewood was about to be completely burned (vs6-7) as dead, fruitless vinewood is burned in a bonfire. Shortly after this parable was given, the Babylonian forces moved against Jerusalem in a third and final attack. After a siege of more than a year, Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah fell in 586BC, and the beautiful Temple of the Lord that had been built by King Solomon was destroyed. Most of the survivors of the siege and attack were dragged away as captives to Babylon.

Metaphor of John 15

The sad condition and consequences of a fruitless vine with its no-good wood refers not only to unbelieving Israel, but to fruitless “Christians” as well, according to John 15. In an extended metaphor, the Lord Jesus said that He is the true Vine and Christians are the branches. As in Ezekiel’s parable, the branches of the true Vine are expected to bear fruit. Fruit in the Christian life is much more than effective results in Christian service. It is primarily effective growth in Christian character. The well-known fruit of the Spirit should be seen on the branches of the true Vine—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). How is God’s harvest in my life?

In our Lord’s teaching we can see that there are three different possibilities regarding the relationship of the branches to the Vine. First, there are Christians who abide in the Vine, and thus produce much fruit (v5). Verse 10 tells us that abiding in Christ means to keep our Lord’s commandments and to rest in His love. 1 John 3:24 says, “Those who obey His commands live in Him, and He in them.”

A second category consists of branches that bear fruit, but not much fruit (v2b). In this case, the Father prunes the branches so that they will bear more fruit. Pruning a grapevine is a cutting-back process that results in more grapes, by removing unfruitful or diseased portions of the branch. God’s discipline is designed to produce more fruit by removing from our lives habits or values that are diseased or unhelpful. Since no Christian is a perfect fruit-producing branch all of the time, every Christian experiences the pruning process at one time or another, and quite often many times. Hebrews 12:5-11 tells us that discipline or training in the family of God is like a pruning process. The cutting process is not pleasant—it’s painful! But in the long run it produces a “harvest of righteousness,” fruit which is pleasing to God (Hebrews 12:11).

God can use many pruning methods, but John 15 tells us that His primary pruning knife is His Word. The word “prune” in verse 2 comes from the same Greek word as “clean,” in verse 3. It is through God’s Word that we are “cleaned.” As David said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to Your Word” (Psalm 119:9). We must allow God’s Word to clean us and discipline us and train us daily before God has to use more painful methods to prune us!

Fruitless Branches

The third category is those branches that do not bear any fruit, and thus are thrown away and burned (John 15:2a,6). Who are these branches? Obviously these branches cannot represent fruitless believers who lose their salvation. Such an interpretation would contradict other clear Scriptures which guarantee the eternal security of every true believer. (For verses on eternal security, see John 3:16; 3:36; 5:24; 10:28-29, for example.)

There are two other possible interpretations for the fruitless branches. The first is that these branches represent careless believers who don’t lose their salvation, but they lose their reward. In this view, the throwing away and burning of the branches (v6) is not the judgment of Hell for unbelievers, but the Judgment Seat of Christ, where the believer’s fruitless works are burned up (2 Corinthians 5:10). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 indicates that a true believer may build selfish, fruitless works of wood, hay and straw on the foundation which is Jesus Christ. The testing fire of the Judgment Seat of Christ will reveal these fruitless works and the unfaithful believer will suffer loss. “If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15). Just as a person may barely escape from a burning building and save his life but nothing else, so it will be for the fruitless believer at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Saved, yes—but rewarded, no!

In support of this interpretation of the fruitless branches, the phrase “takes away”in verse 2 can be translated “picked up,” as a vineyard worker would lift and prop up a fruitless vine in hopes that it would begin to bear fruit. Even today in the Middle East, “picked-up” vines can be seen, supported by boulders that farmers have placed under the sagging vines to help them bear fruit. On the other hand, “takes away” can obviously mean “remove.” That’s exactly what this same Greek word means in John 11:39, where Jesus says “Remove the stone” at the grave of Lazarus. If “removes” is the intended meaning, then in this view of the fruitless branches representing unproductive Christians, “removes” would refer to the removal in physical death of fruitless Christians, as in the case of some Christians at Corinth. Remember, some Corinthian believers were “removed” by physical death because of their incorrect attitudes and behavior at the Lord’s Supper. (See 1 Corinthians 11:30.)

The other possible interpretation for the fruitless branches of John 15 is that they represent people who falsely profess to be believers. They are unbelievers who claim to be “in the Vine,” but they are not part of the Vine - and they never were. That’s why they are fruitless! Dead branches can’t produce fruit because they are lifeless. They are no-good wood! Therefore they are thrown away and burned (v6). In this view, obviously the fire in verse 6 represents the judgment and eternal punishment of unbelievers who only mouth a profession of faith.

There are many such people today - some are even involved in Christian ministry. These are the tares in our Lord’s parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13. The tares look like wheat, but they are really unbelievers when it comes to their hearts. The Lord said that in the judgment at the end of the age these false professors would be “pulled up and burned” (Matthew 13:40-42). And remember what Jesus said about people like this at the coming judgment: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23).

In further support of this view that the fruitless branches represent unbelievers is the obvious contrast in verse 2 between the fruitless branches and the branches that are pruned, because they are at least bearing some fruit. Even a little fruit is evidence of life in the Vine. But no fruit is evidence of a false profession of faith. No fruit indicates no life. It indicates dead, no-good wood. In Matthew 7:19, Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Further support for the view that the fruitless branches represent unbelievers is the significant difference of expression between the “you” of verse 5 and the “anyone” of verse 6. The “you” is obviously the believing disciples, who are “in the Vine.” They are the “you” who are “clean” in verse 3. Judas, the unbelieving disciple, was not clean according to John 13:10-11, but Judas left the upper room before Jesus began to teach about fruit-bearing according to John 13:20. The “anyone” of verse 6 are not the “you” of verses 3 and 5. They are those who falsely profess to be believers. These branches prove their false profession of faith by not “abiding” (remaining) in the Vine. Those people who don’t remain in the Vine and are fruitless clearly indicates that they were never truly part of the Vine, regardless of what they profess. They are dead, no-good wood and will be cut away and burned.

It is just coincidence that the subject of fruit-bearing happens to be in the 15th chapter of both the Old Testament book of Ezekiel and the New Testament book of John. Remember, numbered chapters are not part of the inspired text! However, it may be easier to remember where this important subject of fruit-bearing is found in the Bible by remembering “chapter 15”! Both Ezekiel 15 and John 15 make one point very clear: God desires to see spiritual fruit in the lives of His people. As fruitless branches of a vine are useless and must be removed, so fruitless branches in the spiritual realm are useless and will reap the consequences of unbelief. God has no room for no-good wood. He wants to produce a harvest of righteousness!
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