Updated: Jul 4, 2018
It’s wonderful to be able to look back and see God’s hand on your life. At times it may have seemed as though God had forgotten your phone number. Other times it may have felt as though things were spiralling out of control. But after you passed through the valley and climbed up the other side, you were like the blind man that Jesus healed: at first you looked back and saw men like trees walking – a bunch of hazy shapes without form or distinction. Then, as the Master continued to heal your sight, you began to see clearly (Mark 8:22-25). For the first time, you understood the divine meaning of particular events and circumstances. Like Joseph, you could look back and say, “God meant it for good …”
Such was the case with my eldest daughter and a seemingly innocuous visit to the dentist several years ago. The dentist examined her and said, “This girl needs braces on her teeth.” Then I took my youngest daughter to the same dentist, and he gave us some more good news: “This girl also needs braces on her teeth.” The dentist referred us to an orthodontist, and warned me, “He’s very good, but very expensive.” When a dentist complains that someone is expensive, you can back it in, they are seriously expensive!
So, to cut a long story short, we went to the orthodontist, and discovered that the two sets of braces were going to cost us about $10,000. I reached into my back pocket, and funnily enough, couldn’t find a spare $10,000 lying around! I looked at my wife and said, “What are we going to do?” Those of you who are parents know that in moments like that, something rises up inside you: “No matter what it takes, I’m going to find a way to provide for my children’s needs.”
I was taught by my Scottish-bred, hardworking father that “God helps those who help themselves.” So I said to my wife, “I’ll have to find an extra job on weekends to supplement our income.” We live on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, an area famous for its more than 300 vineyards and award-winning cool climate wines. I said to my wife, “Maybe I could get a job labouring in one of the vineyards or working in one of the restaurants.”
At that time, I didn’t have any experience in viticulture, but Heather encouraged me, “Why don’t you just ring a few vineyards and ask if they have positions available. The worst they can say is ‘No.’” There is a beautiful vineyard situated 2 kilometres up the road from where we live, so I thought I’d start with that one. I found the listing in the phone book and rang the number, only to get a recorded message of another vineyard about 30 kilometres away! In my haste I’d picked out the number of a similarly-named vineyard in the next listing!
I realised I had made a mistake and was about to hang up, but then thought, “I might as well leave a message anyway.” A few minutes later the phone rang. It was the manager of the vineyard I had mistakenly called. The first thing she said was, “Did you see our advertisement?” I said, “What advertisement?” She replied, “The advertisement we placed in the window of the Red Hill General Store.” I said, “No, I haven’t seen any advertisement; I’m just ringing to find out if you have any casual positions available.”
After an interview and a trial, I was hired by this vineyard and I ended up working there on weekends for a period of almost two years. Not only did it help to pay for our girls’ braces, but more importantly, it marked a turning point in my spiritual development. It was a catalytic event that birthed in me a new understanding of God’s ways and purposes.
For me, the vineyard was like a living parable. As I learned to prune the vines, I thought about the words of Jesus in John 15, and the warning of Isaiah in chapter 5. As I watched the grapes being crushed, I thought about the prophecy of Revelation chapter 14. As I helped pour the wine into barrels, I thought about the words of Jeremiah in chapter 48. And that’s essentially what a parable is: an object or event from everyday life that illustrates a spiritual truth. Jesus utilised this strategy to teach the principles of the kingdom of God. He used metaphors from the world of flora, fauna and agriculture that his audience could readily identify with: the birds of the air, the sower sowing his seed, the fisherman casting a net into the sea, the wheat and the tares at harvest time etc.
Now, before anyone gets carried away and interprets this article as an endorsement of drinking alcohol, let me say this: alcohol abuse is a major problem in our society, and the Bible repeatedly warns about the dangers and consequences of an over-indulgent lifestyle. The purpose of this letter is not to advocate or endorse the use of alcohol, but rather, to utilise the imagery of the vineyard as a purveyor of spiritual truth. To put it simply, if references to vineyards, wine, and winemaking offend you, you had better throw your Bible away!
For example, wine is used in Scripture to signify joy. Judges 9:13 speaks of new wine “which cheers both God and men”. Psalm 104 lists the blessings of God in creation, one of which is “wine that makes glad the heart of man” (verse 15). Sirach, the oldest book of the Apocrypha (circa. 180 B.C.), summaries the Jewish affection for wine: “What is life to a man who is without wine? It has been created to make men glad…” (Sir. 31:27-28).
Wine is also used in Scripture as a symbol of divine blessing. The patriarch Isaac said to his son Jacob, “Surely, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed; therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine” (Gen. 27:27-28). Moses promised the people of Israel that on the provision of obedience to the Lord, “He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil…” (Deut. 7:12-13). The prophet Joel predicted God’s blessing on a repentant people: “I will send you grain and new wine and oil, and you will be satisfied by them… the threshing floors shall be full of wheat, and the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil” (Joel 2:19,24).
In Jewish tradition, wine also signifies blood sacrifice. Under the Mosaic Law, wine was offered as a libation as part of the daily sacrifice (Ex. 29:38-40). During the Hellenistic period, wine may have been poured at the base of the altar as if it were blood (Sirach 50:15).
Eventually wine came to be used in the Passover Seder, on the Rabbinic provision that the wine be red. Jesus alluded to the connection between wine and blood at the last Passover Seder he shared with his disciples. Holding up the third cup, the Cup of Redemption, Jesus said, “This (wine) is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24).
Wine is also used in Scripture to signify the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about the importance of putting new wine into new wineskins (Matt. 9:17), a theme elaborated on by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:18; “Do not be drunk with wine in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” Indeed, the state of one who is filled with the Spirit can, in some ways, be likened to the state of one who is intoxicated with wine. Attempting to explain the exuberant behaviour of his colleagues on the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter said to the people of Jerusalem, “These are not drunk, as you suppose… but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘It shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh…’” (Acts 2:14-17).
The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts
In Isaiah chapter 5, the Lord likens Himself to a vinedresser or a viticulturist, and His people Israel to a vineyard.
Now let me sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved regarding His vineyard: My well-beloved has a vineyard on a very fruitful hill. He dug it up and cleared out its stones, and planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, and also made a winepress in it; so He expected it to bring forth good grapes, but it brought forth wild grapes….
The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry for help (Isaiah 5:1-2,7).
Jesus picked up on this theme in John chapter 15, declaring, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit… I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit… By this My Father is glorified that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (John 15:1-8).
The bottom line is this: the vineyard of the Lord of hosts—whether it be Israel of the Old Covenant or the Church of the New Covenant—is comprised of people. Returning to my living parable, I remember standing on the terrace and looking out over the vineyard at Red Hill. In my mind’s eye, every vine and every branch represented a person. Together, the vineyard represented a sea of humanity – a harvest of redeemed souls – the Lord’s inheritance. As I pruned the vines, I would think to myself: “This is how the Lord deals with us. He cuts us back so that we will be trained to grow in a certain way and bear even more fruit next season.”
The apostle James likened God to a farmer, waiting patiently for the precious fruit of the earth (James 5:7). Jesus also likened God to a farmer or harvester. Looking upon the multitudes, He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few, therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:36-38). Clearly, He wasn’t talking about wheat or barley or grapes or olives - He was referring to people!
Likewise, the apostle Paul described the church at Corinth as ‘God’s farm’ or ‘God’s field’ (1 Cor. 3:9). Utilising agricultural terminology, he said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the harvest.”
If, in fact, the Lord’s vineyard represents the Lord’s people, then what does wine, the ultimate product of the vineyard, represent? I venture to suggest that in this context, wine represents spiritual maturity and character development. That’s why, when tending the Lord’s vineyard in Corinth, Paul lamented the fact that he could not address the Corinthians as spiritually mature people, but had to speak to them as spiritual infants (1 Cor. 3:1).
Paul made it clear wherever he went that his intention was to teach and preach in such a way so as to present every person mature in Christ Jesus (Col. 1:28). Moreover, Paul recognised that his mission as an apostle was to speak the truth in love in order that people may grow up in every aspect of their lives and reach a place of maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:13-15).
In the prophecy of Jeremiah, the Lord speaks about the nation of Moab and compares the character of the people to wine that has not been decanted from vessel to vessel, but has been allowed to settle on its lees, and thus, retain its flavour and strength.
Moab has been at ease from his youth; he has settled on his dregs, and has not been emptied from vessel to vessel, nor has he gone into captivity. Therefore his taste remained in him, and his scent has not changed.
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, That I shall send him wine workers who will tip him over and empty his vessels and break the bottles: (Jeremiah 48:11-12).
Wine was allowed to sit on its lees in a barrel or a jar in order to develop complexity and intensity; the dregs helped to improve the flavour, colour and strength of the finished product. However, before it was fit for use, wine had to undergo a filtration process and be poured from vessel to vessel.
Like wine, the people of Moab had been ‘sitting on their lees’ – unchallenged and undisturbed over a long period of time. They had become rich and strong and sensuous and indulgent. However, in God’s estimation, the scent of their character and the taste of their attitude were utterly unpalatable.
In reading this simile, I began to think about the process of wine-making as it pertains to the development of spiritual maturity in the Lord’s people, or, to put it another way, the production of quality wine in the Lord’s vineyard.
Four stages of harvest
One thing I learned while working at the vineyard: harvest time, including the picking of the current season’s grapes and the bottling of the previous season’s vintage, is the most wonderful time of the year. Indeed, the Bible describes it as a time of joy and gladness, singing and shouting, music and festive celebration (Isaiah 16:9-10; 26:7-9).
There are four stages in the process of turning grapes into wine, including harvest, fermentation, clarification, and maturation. Let’s examine each stage and consider the spiritual parallel in our lives.
1. Harvesting the fruit
Harvesting wine grapes is a critical decision-making time in the winemaking process. As grapes approach maturity, winemakers carry out ongoing vineyard assessments to ensure the fruit is picked at optimum ripeness. Harvest decisions are based on the development of flavour and colour, as well as the levels of sugar, tannin and acid within the grape.
At the vineyard where I worked, grapes were picked by hand rather than by machine harvester. Hand picking is a gentler technique, often used for harvesting older, more premium or boutique vineyards. Hand picking also offers better quality discrimination through bunch selection in the vineyard. The grapes are collected in baskets and carried up to the winery where they are removed from the bunch stem and gently crushed through rollers to split the berries and release the juice.
In Biblical times they didn’t have the luxury of machine-operated rollers, so men would crush the grapes by foot in vats or winepresses, usually circular basins cut out of the bedrock. One of the most famous treaders of grapes in history was David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel.
In 1907, Ben-Gurion, an immigrant from Plonsk in Poland, visited the settlement of Rishon LeZion, hoping to find work in the winery. He was offered a job treading grapes in the winepress. In the wine cellar, David undressed and stepped into a long sack with holes for the head, arms and legs. He climbed into a pitful of grapes and began treading with his bare feet, moving one foot after another, piston-like. Incredibly, he pounded the grapes almost nonstop for three days and nights, finishing in a state of near-delirium. Thankfully, times have changed!
What does ‘harvesting the fruit’ mean for us? To my mind, it represents spiritual rebirth, the dawn of enlightenment, the arousal of faith, the beginning of a journey of spiritual discovery, a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ – the moment when the Lord of the harvest picks us from the vine, places us in His basket, and commences the process of spiritual transformation.
2. Fermenting the grapes into wine
After crushing, the must, a combination of juice, skins and seeds, is fermented for up to two weeks. Red wine grapes actually have colourless juice, and the red colour is all in the skins. During red fermentation the skins are left in contact with the juice to extract colour, and tannins which provide structure, mouthfeel and longevity.
Winemakers manage the fermentation by controlling parameters such as temperature and cap management. As the fermentation progresses, the skins rise to the top forming a ‘cap’. Keeping the cap wet by plunging the skins to break up and resubmerge, or pumping the juice back over the skins, is the key to optimum extraction of colour and tannin.
On more than one occasion I was dispatched to the winery to help with the process of fermentation. I remember climbing up the side of the vat of Pinot Noir, leaning over the edge to plunge the skins and keep the cap wet, and thinking to myself, “If I fall in, I could drown!” Then I imagined myself swapping stories in heaven with other believers concerning the way in which we had died. One said, “I was burned at the stake.” Another said, “I was beheaded.” Someone else said, “I was sawn in two.” And I exclaimed, “I drowned in a vat of Pinot Noir!” Not exactly “Fox’s Book of Martyrs” material!
What does ‘fermenting the grapes into wine’ mean for us? To my mind, it represents the baptism of the Holy Spirit – submergence in God’s presence and power – which, in turn, produces spiritual potency in our lives. Jesus promised, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8) – a case in point being the group of cowering, confused disciples in Jerusalem, who, empowered by the Spirit, ended up turning the first century world upside down!
After the completion of fermentation, the must is transferred to the press to separate the wine from the skins. The wine is clarified by racking off ‘lees’, which is a combination of residual grape solids and dead yeast cells. Winemakers may further clarify some wines by fining, racking or filtration, as required, prior to bottling.
What does ‘clarification’ mean for us? To my mind, it represents the refining power of the Holy Spirit, who separates the holy from the profane in our lives. John the water-baptizer, pointed to Jesus the Spirit-baptizer, and said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:11-12).
The apostle Paul urged the Corinthian believers to purify themselves from everything that pollutes either body or spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). The Holy Spirit is seen as the purifying agent who filters the ‘dead yeast cells’ from our lives and sanctifies us in thought, word and deed so that we may be holy, even as He is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
Red wine can spend anything from a few weeks to a few years maturing in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels, prior to bottling. (At the vineyard where I worked, the winemaker imported top quality and very expensive oak barrels from France). The wine is left in the barrels to age and develop ‘bouquet’. After the wine is bottled, oxygen is no longer available, and a different type of ageing begins to take place. Some premium red wines can spend several additional years in bottle prior to release.
Winemaking is both an art and a science. While the wine is in the barrel, something dynamic and organic is taking place. The character of the wine is evolving. This process is called ‘maturation’ and is a critical determinant in the ultimate quality and value of the product.
I would often go down to the winery and walk up and down the rows of barrels, aware that something miraculous was taking place inside the oak walls. One day, as I was reading the chalk inscriptions on the top of the barrels, the Lord said to me: “You are like that wine, aging in the barrel.” I understood for the first time that wine not only symbolizes joy and the Holy Spirit, it also symbolizes spiritual maturity – the development of Christlike character in our lives.
Life in the barrel
If the wine in the barrel could speak, I wonder what it would say: “Is anyone out there? Can anyone hear me? Does anyone remember that I exist? Does anyone even care? It’s dark in here. I’ll never get out and see the light of day. I’ll die in obscurity.”
The barrel is a paradox: on one hand, it is a place of confinement and restriction. On the other hand, it is a place of growth and development. To my mind, the ‘barrel’ represents the confining and challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves, which are uniquely designed to stimulate our spiritual growth and facilitate our character development.
James exhorted Jewish believers in the Diaspora: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience; but let patience have its perfect work, that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Joseph was in a ‘barrel’ in Egypt: it was called ‘the king’s prison’. During his more than two years of confinement, Joseph was transformed into another man. The ‘wine’ of his life came to maturity. God developed qualities in him such as humility, reliability, integrity, discernment and wisdom, and honed his natural organizational skills and leadership abilities.
Finally, the day came when the Spiritual Winemaker said, “Joseph, it’s time to let you out of the barrel and present you to the world. You’ve passed the test, and I have full confidence that you will bear the brand of my kingdom with distinction.”
When Pharaoh took a sip of the wine of Joseph’s spirit (figuratively speaking), he was amazed at the richness of the bouquet, the intensity of the flavour, and the length of the finish. He exclaimed, “Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the Spirit of God? Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word …” (Gen. 41:38-40).
My message to you is simply this: Don’t fight against the barrel! Understand that the situation in which you find yourself is ordained of God for your spiritual development. No one likes spending 18 months in a barrel, whether it is an unsavoury job, or an undesirable location, or a difficult relationship, or a financial crisis. But believe me, the day will come when you will look back and say, “I needed that experience. It changed my life!”
As Job said, “When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10), or to utilise another metaphor, “as wine that is fit for a King!”