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The Church Plant/Field/Vineyard/Vine

by André Schwartz last modified Jul 23, 2014 03:51 PM
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The Church is the physical gathering of people under God’s authority and for His sake because of the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. But it is also a cosmic reality that transcends ordinary space and time and that encompasses far more than a single gathering of believers.

It’s a community – albeit somewhat “subversive”. It’s a body – with Christ as its head. It’s an army – defending the truth and conquering the enemy of darkness. It’s a court – disciplining its own. With this delivery we will see that the Church is also a plant or vine and even a field or vineyard.

In the Old Testament, the grapevine and the vineyard symbolise Israel. This is pictured by the Psalmist as “a vine from Egypt” that God transplanted and nurtured in the Promised Land before judging Israel as a vineyard by breaking down its walls (Ps 80). Isaiah also uses the metaphor “Israel is a Vineyard” (“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight,” Isa 5:7). God cares for the vineyard. He also judges a failed harvest.

Other plants are also used to represent Israel, including an oak tree (Isa 61:3), a palm or cedar (Ps 92:12), and an olive tree (Jer 11:16-17).

In Ezek 17:1-24, the prophet relates a rich “parable” about an eagle who broke off the topmost shoot of a cedar (Jehoiachm) and transplanted it in “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Meanwhile, the eagle planted “some of the seed of the land” in fertile soil, where it became a flourishing vine, an image of Israel under the rule of Babylon (referring especially to the rule of Mattaniah/Zedekaiah). This vine, though, “bent its roots” to another eagle (Egypt) and, as a result, will be “pull[ed] up by its roots” and “its fruit” will be “cut off”. However, God himself will plant a clipping from the top of a cedar and plant it “on a high and prominent mountain” in Israel, where “it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar” (cf. Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25). Here we already see an image of the Church, starting as a small clipping.

These metaphors are carried into the New Testament with the imagery of the vine/vineyard conveying both the sense of God’s care and the potential of his judgment. This is how it is used in the Gospels: the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) and Jesus’ discussion of the vine and its branches (John 15:1-8). In these parables (seemingly covering salvation-history allegorically) the metaphor is implicit and obvious: “The People of God are the Vineyard of God.” The Jewish leaders who are being addressed in the parable, having refused repeatedly to return to the owner the agreed-upon portion of the harvest even to the point of killing and ejecting the owner’s son, stand under judgment. This is what the OT “church” was supposed to be (a fruit-bearing vineyard), but now only a small clipping from that will become a mighty cedar.

In John 15:1-8, Jesus becomes “the true vine” and disciples are branches that hold the promise of bearing much fruit, but are under the threat of being “thrown away” and “burned”.

Jesus’ use of this image provides an intimate image of the relationship between disciples (the Church) and Jesus. As fruit-bearing branches must “remain in the vine”, so disciples (churches) who flourish and bear much fruit must remain organically connected to Christ and accept the nourishment He offers. “Much fruit” results from abiding in Jesus and praying in his name and consists of obedience to Jesus’ commands, experiencing Jesus’ joy, love for fellow believers and persistent, faithful witness to the world on the pattern of Jesus’ own witness and with a similar and negative reception.

The Church is “God’s Field” in 1 Cor 3:6-9. The focus here, though, is on the workers (Paul and Apollos), their differing roles, and essential equality, rather than the field itself.

Paul employs the image of the olive tree as an allegory in Rom 11:17-24 to illustrate Gentiles being brought into God’s Church. He highlights both the privilege of their identity as branches in the tree that share in “the root and fatness of the olive tree” and the threat of judgment (cf. Jer 11:16-17). The Gentiles (that is us), as wild olive shoots grafted into the tree, should not “be haughty” toward Jews who have been “cut off,” “but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.” Paul’s use of an olive tree to represent God’s people (the Church) accents the continuity of the covenant people of God from the Old Testament.

The plant/vine or field/vineyard images are used to give a specific identity to the believers (the Church) in the NT. It functions to stress the privileged connection the Church has to Christ and the resources we receive from Him. In line with uses in the OT, these metaphors also describe the attendant responsibility of the Church to yield “peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11) and warn of the judgment that will surely follow the misuse of such exalted privileges.

These images of the Church, show the organic vitality of nourishment and growth, as well as warning of the negative results of refusing such nourishment. So we must ask: Are we truly grafted into the vine? Are we reluctant to have others grafted into the vine because of our privileged position? Do we bear much fruit? These are questions we must constantly ask and truthfully answer as a church.