People use figurative speech when they want to communicate some idea in an indirect manner and they do so because for some reason, oftentimes, indirect communication can be more effective than direct communication. For instance, Shakespeare could have said, “Jealousy is bad and often has negative consequences.” That is a fairly direct way of discussing jealously. But, instead, he wrote Othello. Certainly there is a lot going on in Othello, but I think most readers/viewers of Othello would agree on is that one thing the play attempts to say is something to the effect of: jealousy is bad and often has negative consequences.
It seems to me that we can understand Jesus’ use of figurative speech in John 15 in a similar manner. John 15:1-8 gives the famous “Vine and Branches” allegory. This is a bit of a story, not as long or as intricate as Othello, but nonetheless it attempts to convey something in a manner that is not direct. What is that thing that Jesus is attempting to convey? To my read, it seems that he is talking about the relationship that followers of Jesus have with Jesus. What is the nature of this relationship? How are followers of Jesus related to Jesus? Well, its kinda like the relationship that a branch has to a vine.
Those of us who remember our high school science courses (or can look on Wikipedia) know that plants pass nutrients around their system via xylem and phloem. The xylem brings mostly water up from the roots to other locations in the plant; the phloem passes mostly sugar all around the plant system. So, let’s suppose you are looking at a plant, perhaps even a vine like a grapevine. In a well-established vine, you would see a strong, think, inner stem that might wrap around some support, like a tree, a fence or a trellis. And off the main stem would be various branches, on which one might find leaves and fruit.
For a branch to be a part of a plant, it has to be in a connected relationship with the stem in order for it to be in process of receiving nutrients. If a branch were to be cut from the stem, it would no longer be able to receive nutrients and it would soon use up its own resources. But, when a branch is in a right connected relationship with the stem, it is able to receive all that it needs for strength, growth, and the production of fruit.
Now, let’s “branch out” a bit here to look at John 15:1-8 in its wider context. For this passage comes during Jesus’ “Farewell Discourses,” where he is giving some final instructions and exhortations to his disciples prior to his arrest and trial. John 14 and 16 are chalk full of discussions of the coming of the Holy Spirit. These two chapters give some of Jesus’ most thorough teaching on the nature and role of the Spirit. One of the main features of these discussions is, it seems to me, the role that the Spirit will play in connecting the disciples to the (soon to be) ascended Jesus. On this score, I think Jesus statement in John 16:14 is most clear, “he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Now, of course, to “declare” (also: “announce,” “proclaim”) is just to give something verbally, and I take it that when talking about the Holy Spirit, this is a bit of a figurative speech as well. But the point here, I think, is that the Holy Spirit will serve as some sort of means by and through which the disciples will remain in relationship with Jesus, despite his “going.”
And just how are we to understand this “means of relationship”? Well, its kinda like the relationship that a branch has to a vine.