A Pleasant Vineyard

I grew up in a family that did not drink any alcohol, including wine. So when I went on my first trip to Napa Valley to tour the wineries this past week, I knew absolutely nothing about wine or how wine is made. Before heading to Napa Valley, I did not think that I would be too impressed with the vineyards. Having grown up in the South where there are lots of gardens, corn fields, and other types of fields, I thought it would take more than a field of grape plants to awe me. However, much to my surprise, the sight of these beautiful vineyards on softly, rolling hills took my breath away. 

A vineyard is a widely used metaphor in the Bible of God’s people – Israel in the Old Testament and Christians in the New Testament. In Isaiah 5:1-7, we read about God’s first vineyard – Israel. Isaiah tells us that God planted this vineyard on a fertile hill; he cleared it of stones. He planted in it the choicest of vines and built a watchtower in the middle of it. He also hewed a wine vat in it and built up a wall and a hedge of protection around it. (Is. 5:1-2,5) God loved this vineyard and did everything necessary for a fruitful and profitable return. However, at the end of it all, this vineyard yielded wild grapes (Is. 5:2,4). What was wrong with this vineyard? It had faulty vines. Despite all that God did for it, the vines could not produce good fruit. Who are the vines? The vines are the people. 
Because of sin, people have been estranged from God ever since the Garden of Eden. When God called the nation of Israel out from among the nations of the world, He did everything necessary for them to have fellowship with Him and for them to produce good fruit. He gave them the Law; He gave them His presence in the tent of meeting. He gave them the sacrificial system so that atonement could be made for their sin. God gave them righteous men and women to serve as judges, kings, and prophets to guide them in the way of righteousness. He protected them many times from enemies, and fought on their behalf. Yet, after all God did, many of God’s people turned to idols, murdered their brothers, practiced corrupt business, divorced their spouses, gave their children up for unholy things, and the list goes on. The vines had produced sour, wild grapes. 
Yet, 22 chapters later, Isaiah is given a vision for the future. A vision of hope. A vision of a pleasant vineyard that will produce the fruit God desires – the good and choicest fruit. 
Isaiah 27:2-6 says:
In that day,
‘A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!
I, the LORD, am its keeper;
every moment I water it.
Lest anyone punish it,
I keep it night and day;
I have no wrath.
Would that I had thorns and briers to battle!
I would march against them,
I would burn them up together.
Or let them lay hold of my protection,
let them make peace with me,
let them make peace with me.’
In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots
and fill the whole world with fruit.
This passage begins with “in that day.” As prophetic literature, “in that day” denotes something in the future. However, many people today will still read this passage as something futuristic that has not happened. Although there is an element of “not yet,” the majority of the prophecies in the Old Testament have already been realized in Jesus Christ. We can best understand Is. 27:2-6 by reading John 15:1-6. Nothing changed with how God kept the vineyard in chapter 5 to how he tended it in chapter 27. God is still the keeper of the vineyard. He still takes care of it most ardently. He still protects it so that he challenges even the briers to get in. Yet, something has changed to which now the vineyard in chapter 27 is producing good and sweet fruit instead of wild grapes in chapter 5. The vineyard has gone from being accursed to pleasant. The vineyard has changed because there is a new vine. 
Can you imagine a vineyard with only one vine? Having seen vineyards, the idea is laughable. One vine to produce hundreds and millions of grapes? One vine? Yes, one vine. In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Look at the image below:

We see in this picture the vine coming forth from the ground and from the vine little branches shooting off in every direction. Because Jesus came to earth as completely human, remaining both 100% God and 100% human in the flesh, Jesus was able to live a life without sin. Being God in human flesh, He was able to be the perfect “vine,” which is to say the perfect human. This vine – Jesus – is not diseased by sin, so this vine will always produce good fruit. Therefore, this new and pleasant vineyard has already begun, and it is a vineyard with one vine and millions of branches. God uses this metaphor of the vine and branches to drive home the point that as branches cannot bear fruit apart from the vine so neither can we bear fruit apart from Christ. The branches on a vine that do not bear fruit will be destroyed; likewise, the people who do not have a relationship with Christ will experience the wrath of God.  
Through the metaphor of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7, 27:2-6, and John 15:1-5, we have been told the history of God’s salvation. I encourage you to look at other places in Scripture where the metaphor of the vineyard is used to make a teaching point. It comes up often in prophetic literature as well as the parables of Jesus. 
I couldn’t go to Napa Valley without tasting one of the wines, though probably much to my parents’ dismay. However, it was important for me to taste something that was made from cultivating the fruit grown right outside its door. 
What a wonderful thing to be part of this pleasant vineyard that began 2000 years ago with the coming of Jesus Christ and to be producing good fruit for the harvesting of our vinedresser God. 
(*To my Shades Mountain Baptist peeps, I began writing and formulating this blog post earlier this week. It is only, in my estimation, by divine appointment that today’s sermon would be on one of the passages used here and thus a similar message being spoken.)


I love you with my whole….liver?

I don’t know about you but I love to doodle.  I have been in school for 20 years, and I can look back over 20-years worth of class notes and find all around the edges of my paper little stars, smiley faces, trees, and yes, my most adored doodling character, hearts.  For as long as I remember, hearts have signified that one, most sought after word – love.  I will sign a letter with a heart as a substitute for the word love, knowing that it is understood that I mean love.  I even wear a t-shirt, along with most of America, that reads, “I ‘heart’ N.Y.”, with the big red heart standing in the place of the word love.  To us, the heart is a symbol of love, a love that is often times defined as an emotional and sentimental feeling.  

There is nothing wrong with this; however, the danger comes when we read our understanding of heart back into the Bible.  Every Christian, no matter their culture, is in danger of reading their own culture, thoughts, and experiences back into Scripture thereby potentially making a passage say something that it never would have meant in the time and culture in which it was written.  This is called eisegesis.

The Old Testament, like us today, refers to the heart symbolically.  One of the most popularly quoted OT verse is Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  Verse 6 follows with “and these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”  If we want to leave eisegesis (reading into the text) and to cleave to exegesis (reading out from the text), we must first ask what did the heart symbolize in the ancient near eastern culture and thus to the Hebrew people?  

The heart, especially in the book of Proverbs, is interchangeably used with the mind.  Since the heart symbolized the seedbed of decision making and since thinking is very much involved with making decisions, the heart and mind almost overlap in their function.  The heart is thus the spiritual side of you that makes decisions.  When David confessed his sin to God after committing adultery with Bathsheba, he asked God to renovate his heart.  When he prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” (Ps. 51:10) David was asking for a decision-making rehabilitation.  This is why David said a few verses prior, “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart”(Ps. 51:6).  David desires truth and wisdom in his heart since it is where he makes his decisions.  Understanding then that the heart in the OT is often understood with mind, thinking, and decision-making, we can rightly understand Psalm 119:11 – “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”  If you are going to hide something in your heart, it means you will keep it in memory and let it influence the decisions you make.  

This does not mean that the heart in the OT had nothing to do with love, but a Hebrew hearing the law would not have equated the heart with an emotional feeling of love.  I thought it was quite comical when one of my professors at Beeson Divinity School, Allen P. Ross, to whom I credit this understanding of heart in the Old Testament, told our class that a Hebrew would not likely say, “I love you with my whole heart.”  Instead, they would more likely say, “I love you with my whole liver.”  The liver to the Hebrew people was a bigger and more important organ.  In fact, it would be easier to change a heart than a liver; therefore, the liver would be a better way to express love – it was bigger, more important, and unchanging.  I don’t think “I love you with my whole liver” will catch on anytime soon, but it makes sense nonetheless. 

To love the Lord my God with all my heart does not mean loving him with all my emotional and sentimental love.  It means to love him with my decisions and my thoughts.  It is how I live my life.  I must love God through and with all of me and let my words, thoughts, and deeds reflect that I truly love God.  Peter’s thrice confession that he loved Jesus after Jesus’ resurrection meant nothing until he fed his sheep, just like Jesus said to do.  I must reassess the condition of my heart.  What do my decisions about what to say, what to wear, what to do, what not to do, how to respond to my enemy, how to treat my neighbor (and the list goes on) reveal about my love for God?  What do they reveal about my character?  It takes one second to doodle a heart, but it takes a lifetime to fashion one’s heart, one’s seedbed of decision-making, to love God.