John 15:1-9 — Jesus said, ‘I AM the true vine’ — LeGrand Baker

We can understand the Savior’s self-identification as “the true vine” to pull together as one the meaning of the Garden of Eden experience, the ancient Israelite temple drama, and the temple itself; and, thereby, to his Atonement, and to our sacrament. The vine represents the tree of life with the grapes being the fruit of the tree and the wine being the waters of life. It is in that imagery of the Savior as the tree of life that we find the message he probably intended his apostles to understand. Jesus said,

1 I AM the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth [prunes] it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.
8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.
9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love (John 15:1-9).

The Savior’s reference to himself as the true vine is easy to understand as a simple but effective horticultural parable similar to Jacob’s quoting Zenos about grafting weak branches to a strong root.

Using imagery like these opens the mind to a panorama of possibilities. Symbols can stir the heart and mind in ways that transcend their physical reality. Symbols, whether words, gestures, or physical objects, can carry our minds through multiple layers of meaning—layers that may unfold like the petals of a rose, moving our minds though the vast expanse of our eternal journey and causing us to stop along the way and ponder the beauty before us. Our visualization of the tree of life is one of the most powerful examples. For example, the menorah with its three pairs of raised arms sat just outside the veil in Solomon’s Temple. Some saw it as a visual representation of the tree of life, its burning light—like glorious white fruit at the end of each branch—giving light to all the house. Others saw it as a promise that God answers our most solemn prayer.

The idea of the tree of life is found in the religions of virtually every ancient culture, but nowhere is it better explained than in the Book of Mormon. Lehi described it as representing the eternal destination of righteous people. Nephi explains it as symbolic of the Savior’s love. Àlma uses its imagery to teach us how our faith may mature from only a desire to know the Savior, through a sequence of growth experiences until we can taste the light, pluck the fruit of the tree of life, and become an expression of the tree itself (Alma 32:35, 40-43).

The imagery of the tree of life is an integral part of the ancient Israelite temple drama, which is a symbolic description of the entire plan of salvation. {1}

The waters of life are always associated with the tree. They are moving, living, and tranquil waters. They give life as rain, rivulets, and great rivers, but they are never stagnant and never salty. The symbols of the tree of life and the waters of life are fundamental to the Feast of Tabernacles drama. They represent the food we eat and the water that keeps us physically alive. They also the source of our eternal life. Nephi wrote that the waters of life and the fruit of the tree of life represent the love of God.{2}

Nephi understood that more vividly because of his vision, but the principle was fundamental to the teachings of the ancient Israelite temple drama. We know that because God’s love is everywhere in the Psalms and the Psalms were the liturgy of the ancient Israelite temple drama. {3}

In the ancient temple drama’s rendition of events in the Council in Heaven the Savior was anointed with a perfumed oil that symbolized the Tree of Live. Psalm 45 represents the foreordination of both the king of Israel and his queen. After Elohim blessed him, the king did obeisance, first to Elohim, then to Jehovah. It is apparent from what the king says to Jehovah that the latter had just been anointed to be King of eternal Israel.

7 Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

We know the king was addressing Jehovah in these verses because of the words, “therefore God [Elohim], thy God [Elohim], hath anointed thee [Jehovah] with the oil of gladness.” That anointing was very recent, for Jehovah’s garments were still fragrant with perfume used in the sacred scented anointing oil.

8 All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad (Psalm 45:7-8). {4}

In acknowledging that Jehovah’s garments still smell of the fragrant perfumes of the anointing oil he also gives us the formula by which the sacred oil was perfumed: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia.” This was a very meaningful formula. The oil was, of course, olive oil, the product of the fruit of the olive tree, which in ancient Israel represented the tree of life. Myrrh is a perfume made from the sap of a bush or small tree. Aloes is a perfume made from the heartwood of another tree, and cassia is a perfume made from the bark of still a different tree. So on the stage, one representing Jehovah had just been anointed with a sacred oil whose fragrance were a composite of all the parts of a tree—either an acknowledgment or a declaration that Jehovah is the tree of life. {5}

In the Garden scenes of the ancient Israelite temple drama, the Garden contained not only the tree of life but the waters of life as well. The Garden sat on a hill and the tree of life was at the top of the hill in the center of the Garden. The waters of life flowed down from the tree just as in Lehi’s vision. Eating its fruit gave one both the right and the power to remain in the presence of God. Consequently, when Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge they had to leave the garden where God was.

Thereafter, the symbolism of the fruit of the tree of life and the waters of life representing the way to return back to the presence of God. The ancient Temple presented the invitation to return to the tree, to the paradisaical Garden, and to God. The physical Temple at Jerusalem sat upon an outcropping of rock that was the sacred mountain. Their temple drama was designed to represent one’s ascent to the top of the mountain.

At the top of Sinai Moses saw God; at the top of Garden of Eden’s hill was the tree and the waters of life flowed down from the hill; in the Holy of Holies was the throne of Jehovah. Just as the fruit of the tree symbolizes the promises of the Atonement, so the Savior personifies the fulfillment of the promises of the fruit of the tree of life. As though they were a single unit, the tree, the water, and the ancient temple all come together as an invitation to return to God.

Hugh Nibley explained the relationships between the Garden, the mountain (“navel of the earth”), and Solomon’s Temple.

The Temple at Jerusalem represented the same concepts as the Garden of Eden. The Temple was not just sacred space, it was the navel of the earth—the counterpart of the heavenly temple. It was the symbolism of creation, the place of enthronement, the gathering place of men and gods, the site of the sacred meal (representing the fruit of the tree of life). All these come together at the conclusion of the New Year festival temple drama. In ancient Israel, the Temple was the geographic and cosmic focal point of the earth, where the great New Year rites were presided over by the king as a representative of God on earth. {6}

There are many kinds of trees and other plants that have been used to represent the tree of life. In Greece it was usually the olive tree; in Egypt both the olive and the date palm. {7}

In the 23rd Psalm where one is likened to a sheep who follows his shepherd, the “green pastures” are the fruit of the tree and the “still waters” are the waters of life. In his book about of the menorah, Leon Yarden suggests that at the time of the Exodus, the symbol of the tree of life was the almond tree. He reports that the “almond is the first tree of spring in the Near East” and “the last to shed its leaves.” {8}

In Israel the olive tree played the most significant role as the tree of life. Its fruit represented the fruit of the tree and its oil represented the waters of life. The bowls of the menorah were filled with olive oil that gave light to the interior of the Temple. {9} Kings and priests were anointed with olive oil. The anointing was a cleansing that gave of power and authority, and ultimately the promise of both knowledge and eternal life. {10}

20 But ye have an unction [anointing] from the Holy One, and ye know all things. …Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father. And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life. … But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him (1 John 2:20-27).

The distinguished Bible scholar Sigmund Mowinckel was the first to point out that the king’s anointing was an “endowment with the Spirit.” {11} The scripture Mowinckel quoted to show that reads,

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward (1 Samuel 16:3-13).

Mowinckel translated it a bit differently.

     [The king’s] anointing was related to his endowment with the spirit. The later tradition says explicitly that when David was anointed, ‘the spirit of Yahweh leaped upon him’.
In virtue of his endowment with the divine spirit, the king is filled with superhuman power. He receives ‘a new heart’; he is changed into a new man (1 Sam. x, 6, 9)….He receives a new disposition expressed, according to oriental custom, in giving to him a new name which indicates his new, intimate relationship with the god who has chosen him, and whom he represents.
Through his anointing and endowment with the divine spirit, the king also receives superhuman wisdom. {12}

The importance of the anointing and its association with the king’s spiritual powers were also described by Professor Aubrey Johnson:

The fact that the king held office as Yahweh’s agent or vice-gerent is shown quite clearly in the rite of anointing which marked him out as a sacral person endowed with such special responsibility for the well-being of his people as we have already described. Accordingly the king was not merely the Messiah or the ‘anointed’; he was the Messiah of Yahweh, i.e. the man who in thus being anointed was shown to be specially commissioned by Yahweh for this high office: and, in view of the language which is used elsewhere in the Old Testament with regard to the pouring out of Yahweh’s ‘Spirit’ and the symbolic action which figures so prominently in the work of the prophets, it seems likely that the rite in question was also held to be eloquent of the superhuman power with which this sacral individual was henceforth to be activated and by which his behavior might be governed. The thought of such a special endowment of the ‘Spirit’ is certainly implied by the statement that, when David was selected for this office, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brethren; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward. {13}

Frederick Borsch’s description is much shorter, but also somewhat more inclusive.

The king is anointed. The holy garment is put on him together with the crown and other royal regalia. He is said to be radiant, to shine like the sun just as does the king-god. He is initiated into heavenly secrets and given wisdom. He is permitted to sit upon the throne, often regarded as the very throne of the god. {14}

Widengren quoted Pseudo-Clement to show that the anointing oil was symbolically a product of the tree of life:

     This idea of an anointing with oil from the tree of life is found in a pregnant form in the Psalm Clementine writings, from which some quotations may be given. In the passage concerned, the author (or rather his original source) discusses the problem of the Primordial Man as Messiah. He is represented as stressing the fact that the Primordial Man is the Anointed One:
But the reason of his being called the Messiah (the Anointed One) is that, being the Son of God, he was a man, and that, because he was the first beginning, his father in the beginning anointed him with oil which was from the tree of life.
Primordial Man, who had received the anointing, thanks to which he had been installed in the threefold office of king, high priest, and prophet, is then paralleled with every man who has received such anointing:
The same, however, is every man who has been anointed with the oil that has been prepared, so that he has been made a participant of that which is possessed of power, even being worth the royal office or the prophet’s office or the high priest’s office. {15}

The temple rites of the Feast of Tabernacles culminated with this anointing ceremony when the king was adopted as son and legitimate heir of Jehovah (Psalm 2:7). Israel’s relationship with God was a covenant relationship, and the king was the living evidence of that covenant. One gets a feel for the eternal significance of the anointing ceremony in Psalm 25 where the promises of the sode are projected into the eternities. {16}

Early Christians taught that the Savior’s cross represented the tree of life. There are two reasons to believe it was made of olive wood. Olive was one of the most common trees in the Holy Land and there is historical evidence that it was used to make crosses for crucifixion. The only archaeological evidence of an actual crucifixion still has fragments of olive wood attached to the bone. {17}

Wilfred Griggs explained,

The New Testament also alludes to the cross of Jesus as a tree. (See Acts 5:30; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24.) Some have noticed that the Greek word used in these passages is the same as that used for the tree of life in the Septuagint, different from the usual New Testament word for tree. According to a number of sources, some early Christians thought of the cross as a tree of life. {18}

One of the early Christian writings that most emphasized the idea that the cross became the tree of life is The Gospel of Philip.

     Philip the apostle said: “Joseph the carpenter planted a garden, because he needed wood for his trade. It was he who made the cross from the trees which he planted. And (so) his seed hung on that which he planted. His seed was Jesus, but the planting was the cross.”
But the tree of life stands in the midst of paradise. And indeed (it is) the olive-tree. From it came the chrism [anointing oil]. Through it came the resurrection. {19}

As we have seen, grass (Psalm 23), nuts (almond), and the fruit of a variety of trees could each represent the fruit of the tree of life. The Savior added wheat to that list when he explained that he was the bread of life.

33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.
34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.
35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst (John 6:33-35).

When the Savior said, “I am the true vine,” he was equating himself with another representation of the tree of life and using the imagery that evokes the same relationships as Alma when he taught the multitude of poor people how they could also become an extension of the tree of life.

The prophet taught that they could begin by believing, or even desiring to believe in the Savior. He then likened that desire to a seed of the fruit of the tree of life. He said the seed is planted in the heart where it may begin to grow. Alma asked, “O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light ….if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.” Alma identifies this fruit as “the fruit of the tree of life.” Therefore, the tree that is growing within us “shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41). This scripture takes on an entire new meaning if we read “faith” as pistis, meaning contract or covenant, as it does in the New Testament.{20}

Alma also explained,

38 But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
39 Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.
40 And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith [secured in the covenants] to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.
41 But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
42 And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
43 Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith [keeping covenants], and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you (Alma 32:38-43).

The grape vine, as a tree of life, has the same characteristics as the olive tree. The vine is the tree, the grapes are the fruit of the tree, and the wine is the waters of life.

At the conclusion of John’s Revelation, he was shown the celestial city. He wrote, “I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Revelation 21:22). He saw God’s throne bearing the identifying characteristics of a sacred temple—in the immediate proximity of the tree of life and the waters of life (Revelation 22:1-5). John wrote,

3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
5 And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
6 And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely (Revelation 21:3-6)
…………………..
22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.
23 And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof (Revelation 21:22-23).
…………………..
1 And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
2 In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
3 And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:
4 And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.
5 And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.
6 And he said unto me, These sayings are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done (Revelation 22:1-6).
…………………..
13 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city (Revelation 22:13-14).

John’s book of Revelation is like Lehi’s vision in that it describes our struggle to return to the tree of life. The difference is that while Lehi talks about individual family members, John talks about an entire celestial culture. In John’s vision, those who are worthy to enter the celestial city are those who have the right to eat of the fruit of the tree of life —they are celestial kings and queens—“the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”

Jesus on the cross of olive wood is an imagery that pulls us directly into the sacrament covenant. Jesus as the bread of life and as the true vine does the same. The fruit of the tree is sweet above all that is sweet and is both the representation and the assurance of the love of god. The tree, the fruit, and the water are a celebration of the Father’s covenant with us. The Savior personifies both the promise and the fulfillment of that covenant. His concluding words, as he explained to his apostles that he is the true vine were,

9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love (John 15:1-9).

For us, its reality was encapsulated in only a few words by Alma.

34 Yea, he [Jehovah] saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely (Alma 5:34).

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FOOTNOTES

{1} For discussions of the tree of life, see Lundquist, “Common Temple Ideology,” 57, 67-71; Draper and Parry, “Seven Promises,” 123-29; C. Wilfred Griggs, “The tree of life in Ancient Cultures,” Ensign 18, 6 (June 1988): 27-38; Parry, “Garden of Eden,” 127-29. For a discussion of the drama see Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, “Part 1: Temple Drama of the Ancient Israelite Feast of Tabernacles in the Old Testament,” The Meek in Psalm 25,” first edition, 179-644; second (paperback) edition, 129-458.

{2}For discussions on the waters of life, see Lundquist, “Common Temple Ideology,” 57, 66-67; Lundquist, “What Is a Temple?” 88-89; Parry, “Garden of Eden,” 129-30.

{3} Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into th Hill of the Lord, Part one, is a reconstruction of that liturgy.

{4} For a discussion of Psalm 45 see Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, first edition, 255-305; second (paperback) edition, 181-216.

{5} For discussions of these trees and their perfumes, see the articles about myrrh, aloes, and cassia in The Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible. For a discussion of the foreordinations in Psalm 45 see Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, “The Meek in Psalm 25,” first edition, 255-305; second (paperback) edition, 181-217.

{6} Hugh W. Nibley, “Ancient Temples: What Do They Signify?” Temples of the Ancient World, 405.

{7} For discussions of the widespread use of the symbol of the tree of life see C. Wilfred Griggs, “The tree of life in Ancient Cultures,” in Ensign, June, 1988, 26-31; and Griggs, “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship (Provo, Utah, Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1982), 75-101. }

{8} Leon Yarden, The Tree of Light, A Study of the Menorah, The Seven-branched Lampstand, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1971, 40.

{9} Geo Widengren, The King and the tree of life in Ancient Near Eastern Religion (Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1951), 38-41.

{10} Stephen D. Ricks, “Olive Culture in the Second Temple Era and Early Rabbinic Period,” in Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, eds., The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5 (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book and FARMS), 464-65.

{11} His use of the word “endowment” was appropriate. An endowment is a gift which grows in value with time. For example, when BYU receives an endowment of money, it invests the principle and spends only the accrued interest. Thus the original gift remains permanently intact, providing a perpetual source of income to support university programs or scholarships.

{12}Sigmund Mowinckel, He that Cometh (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), 66. For a discussion on the power of new names see, Hermann Gunkel, (Michael D. Rutter, trans.); The Folktale in the Old Testament (Sheffield, England, Almond Press, 1987), 87.

{13} A. R. Johnson, “Hebrew Conceptions of Kingship,” in S. H. Hooke, ed., Myth, Ritual, and Kingship (Oxford, 1958), 207-208, quotes 1 Samuel 16:13.

{14} Frederick H. Borsch, The Son of Man in Myth and History (SCM Press, London, 1967), 96.

{15} Widengren, “Baptism and Enthronement,” 213-14. The quotes he uses are from Ps. Clem. Recognitions syriace, ed. Frankenberg, I, 45, 4 and I, 46, 335.

{16} Stephen D. Ricks, “The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin’s Address (Mosiah 1-6),” BYU Studies, 24:2, 1984, 151-62.
Sigmund Mowinckel, translated by A.P. Thomas, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 2 vols., Abingdon, Nashville, 1962, 1:50-61.

For a discussion of Psalm 25 see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord (2011 edition), 373-89.
Perhaps the most vivid description of the eternal anointing, clothing, and teaching ordinances is given in Enoch’s account of his sode experience. The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, in The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, 2 vols., ed. R. H. Charles (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), 2:431-69. Early Christians included at least some of Enoch in their canon. Jude 1:14-16 is 1 Enoch 1:9.

{17} “Crucifixion” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1991), 199-200.

{18} C. Wilfred Griggs, “The tree of life in Ancient Cultures, in Ensign, June 198, 26-31.

{19} Gospel of Philip, in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, Revised Edition (Westminster, John Knox Press, 1991), 199. Also see: Gospel of Philip in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco, Harper & Roe, 1988), 153.

{20} For a discussion of “faith” as covenant or contract see Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, “Meaning of ‘Faith’ — Pistis,” first edition, 1007-1025; second (paperback) edition, 697-710.

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