Our Lord Jesus Christ says: “I am the true Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch of Mine that bears no fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Here is a reading of the German version published by Eduard Ellwein (1954): Luthers Evangelienauslegung 4.Teil: Das Johannesevangelium S.441-444.
Everything that follows in this chapter and in the sixteenth the Lord addressed to His apostles after He rose from supper to go into the garden. He continues to speak of the consolation that will not only be theirs after His resurrection, when they will see Him again, but will continue after His ascension into heaven and their dispersion throughout the world, where they, too, will suffer and be persecuted. He foresees how His disciples and the Christians will fare, and at the same time He takes into view both His own suffering, which is now at hand, and the suffering that will befall the disciples. In an exceedingly fine parable and picture He says, as it were: “Why should I say a great deal to you? I am leaving, and I shall have to suffer and die. Later you will have to do the same thing. This suggests a vine and a vinedresser to Me, for our lot will be that of a vine and its branches.”
This is a very comforting picture and an excellent, delightful personification. Here Christ does not present a useless, unfruitful tree to our view. No, He presents the precious vine, which bears much fruit and produces the sweetest and most delicious juice, even though it does not delight the eye. He interprets all the suffering which both He and they are to experience as nothing else than the diligent work and care which a vinedresser expends on his vines and their branches to make them grow and bear abundantly. With these words Christ wants to teach us to have a view of the affliction and suffering of Christians that is far different from what appears on the surface and before the world. He says that Christians are not afflicted without God’s counsel and will; that when this does happen, it is a sign of grace and fatherly love, not of wrath and punishment, and must serve our welfare.
This requires the art of believing and being sure that whatever hurts and distresses us does not happen to hurt or harm us but for our good and profit. We must compare this to the work of a vinedresser who hoes and cultivates his vine. If the vine were able to be aware of this, could talk, and saw the vinedresser coming along and chopping about its roots with his mattock or his hoe and cutting the wood from its branches with his clipper or his pruning hook, it would be prompted by what it saw and felt to say: “Ah, what are you doing? Now I must wither and decay, for you are removing the soil from my roots and are belaboring my branches with those iron teeth. You are tearing and pinching me everywhere, and I will have to stand in the ground bare and seared. You are treating me more cruelly than one treats any tree or plant.” But the vinedresser would reply: “You are a fool and do not understand. For even if I do cut a branch from you, it is a totally useless branch; it takes away your strength and your sap. Then the other branches, which should bear fruit, must suffer. Therefore away with it! This is for your own good.” You say: “But I do not understand it, and I have a different feeling about it.” The vinedresser declares: “But I understand it well. I am doing this for your welfare, to keep the foreign and wild branches from sucking out the strength and the sap of the others. Now you will be able to yield more and better fruit and to produce good wine.” The same thing is true when the vinedresser applies manure to the stock of the vine; this, too, he does for the benefit of the vine even though the vine might complain again and say: “What, pray, is this for? Is it not enough that you are hacking and cutting me to pieces? Now with this filthy cow manure, which is intolerable in the barn and elsewhere, you are defiling my tender branches, which yield such delicious juice! Must I stand for this too?”
That is how Christ interprets the suffering which He and His Christians are to endure on earth. This is to be a benefaction and a help rather than affliction and harm. Its purpose is to enable them to bear all the better fruit and all the more, in order that we may learn to impress this on ourselves as He impresses it on Himself. As though He were saying: “After all, this is the truth, and I cannot interpret it otherwise. I share the fate of the vine in every respect. The Jews will throw manure at Me and will hack away at Me. They will shamefully revile and blaspheme Me, will torture, scourge, crucify, and kill Me in the most disgraceful manner, so that all the world will suppose that I must finally perish and be destroyed. But the fertilizing and pruning I suffer will yield a richer fruit: that is, through My cross and death I shall come to My glory, begin My reign, and be acknowledged and believed throughout the world. Later on you will have the same experience. You, too, must be fertilized and cultivated in this way. The Father, who makes Me the Vine and you the branches, will not permit this Vine to lie unfertilized and unpruned. Otherwise it would degenerate into a wild and unfruitful vine which would finally perish entirely. But when it is well cultivated, fertilized, pruned, and stripped of its superfluous leaves, it develops its full strength and yields wine that is not only abundant but also good and delicious.”
This is indeed a fine and comforting picture. Happy is the Christian who can interpret it thus and apply it in hours of distress and trial, when death upsets him, when the devil assails and torments him, when the world reviles and defames him as an apostle of the devil. Then he can say: “See, I am being fertilized and cultivated as a branch on the vine. All right, dear hoe and clipper, go ahead. Chop, prune, and remove the unnecessary leaves. I will gladly suffer it, for these are God’s hoes and clippers. They are applied for my good and welfare.” Christ is surely a master commentator here. This is how He pictures it to Himself: “I am being fertilized, hoed, pruned, and stripped of superfluous leaves; but I know the purpose well. The world is mistaken in its assumption that I shall die and perish. No, this is the work of My dear Father, who is cultivating His vine that it may grow well and have a good yield.” He who is able to learn, therefore, let him learn, in order that when afflicted and assailed everyone may conclude that the world, the devil, death, and all misfortune are only God’s hoe and clipper; that all the revilement and disgrace the Christian experiences is God’s way of fertilizing him. Then let him say: “Praise God, who can use the devil and his malice to serve our good!” Otherwise—if his evil will had a free hand—he would soon kill us with his knife, and stifle and suffocate us with his stench. But now God takes him in hand and says: “Devil, you are indeed a murderer and an evildoer; but I will use you for My purpose. You shall be My hoe; the world and your following shall be My manure for the fertilization of My vineyard.” We must surely acknowledge him a great Master, who knows how to employ the devil’s and all the world’s wickedness for the vines good and not for its harm and ruin, as these intend. This is what He says about it: “Your intentions are evil indeed; you are very bitter and angry, and you plot to destroy My vine; but I will and must use you as My tools with which to cultivate and dress the vine. Therefore cut, chop, and hoe away, but not beyond the bounds that I set. For you shall go just so far that it will not ruin My vine but will help and improve it. You shall not fertilize it with manure until it is choked; you shall use only enough to make it sturdy and lush.”
Thus the dear martyrs viewed their suffering and torments in times past. We read of the martyr St. Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle St. John, that when he was to be taken to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts which were let loose in the arena to tear the Christians to pieces for the purpose of providing an amusing spectacle, he said: “Let them come! I am God’s kernel of grain. He must crush and grind me in the mill before He can use me.” Here is a fine Christian application of this text; its view of suffering is different from the one taken by flesh and blood, which cannot consider such suffering an act of God but regards it as the fury and wrath with which the devil murders and kills man. St. Ignatius, however, looks upon the terrible teeth of the wild lions and bears as nothing else than God’s millstone with which he must be ground to powder in order that he may be prepared as a good cake for God.
Thus we also read that when St. Agatha, a girl fourteen or fifteen years old, was being led to imprisonment and torture, she went cheerfully and said that she felt as though she were being escorted to a dance. These are surely words of comfort and defiance from a young girl who regards the torment and death to which she is being led as no different from a wedding and an occasion for the greatest joy. This is due to faith, which has averted the eyes from the physical appearance and sensations and has directed them upward to the life beyond. It has concluded: “What can they accomplish, even if they do their worst and afflict me with every misfortune? They only usher me quickly from this misery to Christ in heaven.” It is the sole purpose of all the sufferings of Christians to promote our Christian life and to bear fruit for a fuller knowledge and a stronger confession of the Word, a more certain hope, and a wider expansion of the kingdom of Christ. The world, to be sure, intends to do us harm, but it really accomplishes no more than what the church sings about the martyrs: “Unknowingly they lead us into eternal joys.” Unknowingly and involuntarily the world leads the Christians through torture and death to eternal joys. Such tortures are nothing else, as St. Agatha said, than taking our arms in a friendly way and leading us to heaven as a bride is led to a dance. Whatever harm is done to Christians by the world, God turns back their anger and lets the harm redound to their advantage.
Thus the pious patriarch Joseph declared in Gen. 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil with me; but God meant it for good,” as though he were saying: “You wanted to kill me, in order to prevent me from becoming your lord. Therefore you sold me to the heathen. But by the very means you employed to forestall this you actually did make me your master. For God is a Master who knows how to convert whatever would hinder and harm us into that which furthers and helps us. Whatever is intended to take our life must serve to preserve it. Whatever would cause us to sin and damn us must help to strengthen our faith and hope, must make our prayer more fervent and cause it to be heard more richly.”
This is what God has done in our own day against the papacy and all persecutors of the Gospel. If our adversaries were wise, wanted to listen, or could take our advice when we say: “Do not act this way, dear sirs! Stop! You will not extinguish the fire this way; you are only blowing into the flames and making the ashes fly into your eyes!”—then they would be acting wisely and could fare well. But since they do not want to stop fuming against the Word but are absolutely determined to subdue it, they merely help our cause and impel us to hold all the more tenaciously to the Word and to pray all the more ardently for its wider and wider dissemination. In the end they will be overthrown without mercy. Then what will be their gain, or what will be our loss?
There are also some noblemen, burghers, and peasants who cannot endure the Gospel and its preachers. Not wanting to hear the truth and worried lest the clergy might again become lords, they now begin to scheme how to get rid of them. To them we also say: “Gentlemen, just continue on your course. You are on the right track. For with the very means with which you plan to obstruct our work you will further it most and will only hinder yourselves.” Here is the Master who always works the opposite of what the world has in mind and who puts its worst schemes to good use. He is the God “who calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17), who reverses and renews all things. To be sure, when Christians are trampled on and beheaded, this does not look like honor and glory, joy and bliss; it seems to be the very opposite. He says, however: “I can call into existence the things that do not exist (Rom. 4:17) and change sadness and all heartache into sheer happiness. I can say: ‘Death and grave, be life! Hell, become heaven and bliss! Poison, be precious medicine and refreshment! Devil and world, be of even greater service to My beloved Christians than the blessed angels and the pious saints!’ For I can and will cultivate My vineyard in this way. All kinds of suffering and adversity will only improve it.”
Therefore even if all the devils, the world, our neighbors, and our own people are hostile to us, revile and slander us, hurt and torment us, we should regard this as no different from applying a shovelful of manure to the vine to fertilize it well, cutting away the useless wild branches, or removing a little of the excessive and hampering foliage. When our enemies think that they have inflicted great harm on us and avenged themselves well, all they actually achieved is to teach us all the greater patience and humility, and to make us believe all the more firmly in Christ. What do they gain by their actions? Nothing; for, as the saying goes, when the father has punished the child, he throws the rod into the fire. Similarly, when God has made enough use of tyrants and blasphemers for the good of His Christians, He retains His vine and His grapes; but in the end He casts the manure, the mattock, and the clipper into the eternal fire.
“Well,” says the world, “if this is true, what are you complaining about? If it is done for your benefit, we will cheerfully lend a hand and give you your fill of hoeing, trimming, and pruning.” Thus the renegade emperor Julian the Apostate vented his spite on the Christians and said: “Your Master taught you to be poor and to suffer all things for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Very well then, we will soon help you reach heaven!” And he robbed them of all they had. But we have the comforting knowledge that bounds have been set for them. For we have a Vinedresser or Gardener who holds the clipper, the hoe, and the fork in His hand. He lets them fertilize, prune, and trim; but when they want to go too far, He can tell them to stop. Thus when Julian wanted to indulge his wickedness by pruning and hoeing, God said to him: “Lie down and die!” That was the end. God controls the clipper and the hoe; they do not control themselves. Consequently, we must not be frightened when our enemies continue to rave at us and persecute us, when it seems that this will never stop. For it has already been ordained that they shall be merely the forks and the clippers, not the vinedressers and the fertilizers. They must stop when He wants them to, and they dare not go any farther than our welfare requires.
This is an especially charming picture. God portrays Himself, not as a tyrant or a jailer but as a pious Vinedresser who tends and works His vineyard with all faithfulness and diligence, and surely does not intend to ruin it by fertilizing, hoeing, pruning, and removing superfluous leaves. For He does not let His vineyard stand there to be torn to pieces by dogs and wild sows; He tends it and watches over it. He is concerned that it bear well and produce good wine. Therefore He must hoe and prune so as not to chop and cut too deeply into the stem and the roots, take off too many branches, or trim off all the foliage. “Such care,” Christ says, “My Father exercises with respect to Me and you.” Therefore let us be unafraid, and let us not be terrified by the bad manure, the prongs, and the teeth of the devil and the world; for God will not let them go beyond what serves our best interests.
Thank God, we certainly see this today. For if the pope, the bishops, and their tyrants could do as they liked, they would gladly have executed us all long ago. The clipper and the mattock are sharp enough, and the manure is rotten and bad enough. In brief, they have both the will and the might to do this and to do it gladly. What, then, keeps this from happening? Ah, it is not in their hands; for they are not the vinedressers. “No,” says Christ, “the Vinedresser is someone else; it is My heavenly Father. He can prevent them from doing what He does not want or from hoeing, digging, and cutting more than is good for the stock and the branches.”
You see, this is how the Lord Christ comforts Himself as He is now about to enter upon His suffering and to go to the cross. The comfort He has typifies and exemplifies our comfort: “I, of course, am the true Vine, a Vine unquestionably dear to My Father, and you are the vine branches dear to Me and My Father. If ever a vine was carefully and faithfully fertilized, pruned, and trimmed, it is I. Therefore let happen what will; let the devil and the world do what they can. They will not do more or greater harm than My Father allows. What more do we want? Is it not comforting and kindly enough that the Father so sincerely befriends us as His dear vine and branches? Any evil or harm that might afflict them would also afflict Him. He so governs and guides affairs that whatever happens to Me redounds both to My benefit and to yours. Furthermore, He has made exact provision that matters shall not be carried beyond what He sees is good for us. For He is the Vinedresser. As the saying goes, He is the Man Himself—the Man who sees to things Himself and tends His vineyard Himself instead of having others do so.”
Whoever can view this comforting picture aright and believe it must, of course, grow bold and intrepid against the devil and all else. But these are words and pictures that require spiritual ears and eyes, because outwardly things seem far different. This picture, as the saying goes, calls for a good commentator if we are to view in its true light everything that is mentioned here—the Vinedresser, the vine, the branches, and also the clippers, the hoes, and the forks. To the world these are not God’s vine and branches; they are the devil’s plants, nettles, thistles, and thorns, which only burn, bite, prick, scratch, and in short, are unbearable. The world cannot understand why we do not make common cause with it instead of meddling in its affairs and taking it to task. In reality, of course, it is not we who do this; it is God’s Word, which we proclaim for the purpose of bringing everyone to repentance and salvation. Therefore the world regards us as so much fuel, fit only to be thrown into the fire and destroyed. Thus they cry out concerning Christ Himself (Luke 23:18): “Away with this Man! He deserves death!” And concerning St. Paul (Acts 22:22): “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he ought not to live. Death is the best thing for such people.” But since God Himself calls Christ His true Vine and acknowledges us as members and branches of this Vine, let the world, the devil, and hell call us what they please. If they hurl us into the ovens or into hell, it shall not harm us; for here is God, who has a stronger and more forceful language and voice than the world and the devil. He will outshout them and compel them to let us be with Christ and remain His true and fruitful vine branches.
In God’s sight and in ours they, in turn, shall be nothing but God’s clippers and tools, which neither shall nor must destroy or do away with the Vine and its branches. The only profitable service they render is to enable us to bear much fruit for our Vinedresser, who will save and glorify us eternally. It is true Christian knowledge to be able to see as sharply as this and thus to interpret and understand in a spiritual and heavenly manner what the world regards as sheer misfortune and something terrible. We must regard this as sheer good fortune, and we must learn to accept with joy sin, death, suffering, and whatever assails us, and to turn what is evil into sheer good. (Luther Works Volume 24)