In reading John Chapter 15:1-14 where Jesus uses an analogy of himself as the vine, and those connected to him as branches of the vine, most translations tell us that unfruitful branches are “removed” or “taken away”.
(1) “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that bears no fruit, He takes away. And every branch that bears fruit, He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
(4) “Remain in Me, as I also remain in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, neither can you, unless you remain in Me.
(5) “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who remains in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit. For without Me you can do nothing.
(6) “If a man does not remain in Me, he is thrown out as a branch and withers. And they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.
These verses have given rise to confusion or in some cases condemnation, because it appears to say that unfruitful “branches” will be TAKEN AWAY. But a more exact and proper reading refutes this, as we shall see. It is not unfruitful Christians, but only those who are NOT in Jesus, NOT true believers, dead branches that are eventually removed and burnt.
Taken Away or Lifted Up?
From just one article about this confusion, we read this:
“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”
“By translating the Greek word “take away,” the power of Jesus’ message is stripped away, ending with a confusing and distorted verse causing theological issues. [But the better] translation “lift up” … befits Jesus’ words in John 15:2 and powerfully speaks to Christians everywhere.
“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He lifts up; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”
This is such an important difference that I feel impelled to point it out. The implication in most bible translations is that unfruitful branches in Jesus (that is, Christians who are not living right) are removed from Jesus and ultimately burned.
However, if the word is translated “lifted up” instead of “removed” there is an altogether more biblical and hopeful meaning, that non-fruit-bearing branches are lifted up into the sun and air by the Vinedresser to see if they will recover and start producing fruit. This indeed is standard viticultural practice!
See the Greek word for “take away” translated as “raise up” in Matthew 4:6: “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up”
Contaminated By The Earth
In one house I lived in, there was a decorative vine on a wall in the garden. In the darkness at the base of the vine, some branches would trail along the soil and start taking root there. I used to uncover them and tie them up to give them a chance of better growth.
Think of the analogy here. A Christian “branch” – one that is truly joined into Jesus the Vine – sinks down into relative darkness, gets connected to the earth, and starts to take root there. But the Vinedresser steps in to lift him up into the sunlight again, to recover, to be restored!
This is an act of love, not vengeance!
The above article continues:
“The most important fact supporting the usage of “lift up” as a plausible translation is that it serves as a main, oft-used, translation of the Greek word used here (aero). John uses the Greek root word aero 26 times in his gospel, with three main English translations: lift up, bear or hold, and take away.
“D.A. Carson questionably dismisses “lift up” as an option because it is translated “lift up” only 8 times compared to a more frequent “take away.” If it is a legitimate translation, then it should be fully evaluated. In the Abbot-Smith lexicon, “raise,” “raise up,” “lift or draw up” is listed as the first definition for aero (αἴρω). There is one minor translation to “keep in suspense” (John 10:24). “Take away” is a legitimate translation, but it is hardly the only one.”
Another misconception about what Jesus was saying is that the branches in verse 2 that are supposedly “taken away” are identical to the ones in verse 6 that are cast out and ultimately burnt. But this is incorrect!
Jesus has established in the first verse of Chapter 15 that He is the Vine and His Father is the Vinedresser. Then he speaks of his children as those who are IN the Vine, abiding in him, joined, attached, sharing the same essential life-giving sap, and thus enabled to bear fruit as the Lord leads.
Following on from that, Jesus speaks of two different sorts of branches:
- Those who are IN HIM but need more help to become fruitful (verse 2)
- Those who are NOT in Him, that wither away and die through self-effort (verse 6)
Read it for yourselves and see. Verse 2 refers to “every branch IN ME” and verse 6 refers to “anyone who does NOT abide in me”.
It is also made plain that, because of the very nature of the life-giving ability of the Vine (Jesus), those who are in him WILL bear fruit – although some more than others – for you CANNOT bear fruit of yourself (through the law and self-effort) but – verse 5: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit”.
This also is the test of a tree, spoken of in Luke 6:43-45, that we can tell the nature of a tree by its fruit. It is also the spiritual reason why the barren fig tree discovered by Jesus was cursed by him, and thus died. (Mark 11:12-14)
What can we learn from the words of Jesus in John 15?
Firstly, the necessity of abiding in him “for without me you can do nothing; the branch cannot bear fruit by itself…”
Secondly, there are two ways to help the fruit-bearing activity along (and this is the work of God the Vinedresser, not man) – one is pruning to provide more strength and fruitfulness, and two is raising up out of the dirt of the earth and out of constricting suffocating company, so that more fruit can emerge.
Thirdly, the non-fruitful branches indicate that the sap is not flowing in them at all.
They are not “living in him” at all, despite perhaps going to church and trying to do the right things. Eventually they will dry up and will be removed, ultimately to be “cast out and burnt” which is perhaps the way Jesus needed to refer to the Pharisees who despised Jesus and sought to kill him.
These people were perhaps fanatically law-abiding but wanted nothing to do with the life of the Son of God. Thus they were lifeless, withered and destined for the fire.
But that is not the fate of those who “remain in HIM” as Jesus promised.