Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

John 15:1–8, with Jesus’s teaching using the imagery of a grapevine and its branches, is one of my favourite Bible passages. I love that Jesus emphatically encourages his followers to abide in him and rely on him in John 5:4–5. But in verses 2 and 6, there are sobering statements.

Jesus begins by saying “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener” in verse 1, followed by this statement about the Father in verse 2.

“Every branch in me that does not produce fruit ‘he removes’ (airei), and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit” (John 15:2 CSB).

“He removes” or “he takes away” is how the Greek verb airei has been typically understood and translated in John 15:2. But a relatively new interpretation of this verse is circulating and being taught in some churches, namely, “Every branch in me that does not produce fruit ‘he lifts up’ (airei) …”[1]

Is this newer, alternate interpretation of “lifts up” valid? In this article, I look at the Greek verb in question and at Jesus’s intention in John 15:1–8.

The Greek Verb Airō

The dictionary form of airei is airō. Airō occurs in various forms just over 100 times in the Greek New Testament with various meanings. It often means “take away” and “remove” but more frequently it means “lift up,” “raise up,” or “pick up.”[2]

English translations of John 15:2 typically translate airei as “he takes away” or “he removes.” The NIV and a few other Bible versions have “he cuts off.” All of the 50+ English translations of John 15:2 on Bible Gateway have the meaning “he removes” or something similar. None have words that mean “lift” or “raise.”

“He lifts up” or “He takes away”?

The explanation that goes with the newer interpretation is that the gardener, God the Father, “lifts up” a branch of the Vine that is trailing on the ground and fastens it higher on a support of some kind. The idea is that by trailing on the ground the branch has become dusty or damaged making it unproductive; by lifting it off the ground, the branch now has the chance to become productive. It’s a lovely idea, but is this what Jesus meant?

Why has John 15:2a been reinterpreted? The main reason is a reluctance, even a “terror” as someone told me, of accepting the idea that a branch may be removed from the Vine―cut off from Jesus―due to a lack of productivity. And this removal appears to go against the theology of eternal security, or “once saved, always saved.”

I suggest Jesus’s statements about the unproductive branches, and similar statements in the Gospels, were deliberately designed to be startling and sobering so that hearers would pay attention and assess their hearts and their actions. Jesus often used strong statements, and even hyperbole, to shock and provoke his audience. His words in John 15:2 were intended to provoke a response; they are not necessarily a statement about the doctrine of salvation as such.[3]

What is being compared in John 15:2?

I can see that some might take the message of John 15:2 to be increased productivity for branches which is achieved by lifting unproductive branches and by further pruning already productive branches. However, “he removes, takes away, cuts off” fits the context of John 15 well, especially as Jesus goes on to say that the unproductive branches that have been severed from the Vine are then thrown into the fire after they have dried out (John 15:6).[4]

Also, nothing is said about a branch trailing on the ground. Trailing branches are simply not mentioned in this passage. The comparison in 15:2 isn’t the position or type of growth (trailing or non-trailing) of the two kinds of branches, what is being compared is their fruitfulness.

And the comparison in John 15:5–6 is between fruitful branches that have remained attached and those that have been severed and are thrown into the fire and destroyed.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are gathered up, thrown into the fire and burned (John 15:5–6).

Strong Statements about Unfruitfulness

John 15:2 and 6, and the removal and destruction of unfruitful branches, is consistent with similar messages in Jesus’s teaching elsewhere in the Gospels.[5] He didn’t shy away from speaking strongly about unfruitfulness.

Here’s a small sample.

 Matthew 7:19-21: “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Luke 13:6-9: (The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree) “… Perhaps it will produce fruit next year, but if not, you can cut it down.”

Conclusion

From what I can tell, after reading blog posts and listening to messages, the only reason for claiming that the first phrase in John 15:2 is about lifting up a supposedly trailing vine is that some people don’t like the idea that God removes unproductive branches and that this idea goes against their theology of salvation.

However, the purpose of the Vine and Branches discourse is not primarily to make a comment about salvation. Rather, the purpose is to emphasise that fruitfulness is an expression of a faithful Christian life, that this can only be achieved by abiding in and clinging to the Vine, and that this brings glory to the Father.

“My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8 cf. John 15:16).

If we are faithfully following Jesus and obediently doing what he wants, according to our gifts and abilities and circumstances, there’s no need to be terrified (cf. 1 John 4:18). The main takeaway from John 15:1–8 is that we need to keep abiding in the Vine. If we do this, we will be fruitful.


Footnotes

[1] Writing in the first half of the 1900s, A.W. Pink may be among the first to suggest this alternate interpretation. In his commentary on John’s Gospel, he wrote that “it would be more accurate and more in accord with ‘the analogy of faith’ to translate, ‘Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he lifteth up’ from trailing on the ground.” (StudyLight) Pink seems to have arrived at this interpretation by harmonising John 15:2 with his strong Calvinist beliefs. By doing so, he appears to have missed the intention of Jesus’s rhetoric.
If a find earlier sources of this teaching, I’ll add them here.

[2] Here are all eight verses in the New Testament with the same verb as in John 15:2a (airei: 3rd person singular present active indicative of airō) for comparison. I’ve also noted the Greek preposition apo (“from”) in five verses where it occurs, as this is a concern for some who prefer the “he lifts up” interpretation of John 15:2a. (You can check this for yourself here.)

Matt. 9:16b: “… for the patch ‘pulls/tears away’ (airei) ‘from’ (apo) the garment, and a worse tear occurs.”
Mark 2:21b: “… the patch ‘pulls/tears away’ (airei) ‘from’ (apo) it, new from old, and a worse tear occurs.”
Mark 4:15b: “… Satan immediately comes and ‘he takes away’ (airei) the word which had been sown in them.”
Luke 8:12b: “… then the devil ‘takes away’ (airei) the word ‘from’ (apo) their hearts …”
Luke 11:22c: “… [the stronger one] ‘he takes away’ (airei) the [weaker one’s] armour in which he trusted …”
John 10:18a: “No one ‘takes away’ (airei) [Jesus’s life] ‘from’ (apo) me …”
John 15:2a: “… every branch in me not bearing fruit, ‘he takes away’ (airei)…”
John 16:22c: “… and [then] no one ‘takes away’ (airei) your joy ‘from’ (apo) you.”

[3] Nevertheless, Craig Keener writes, “The cutting (15:2) and burning (15:6) of unfruitful branches repeats the vital Johannine warning of falling away (2:23–25; 8:30–35). Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) (Google Books)

[4] Here’s an excerpt from the entry “Vine” in Orr’s International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

The cultivation of the vine requires constant care or the fruit will very soon degenerate. After the rains the loosely made walls require to have breaches repaired; the ground must be plowed or harrowed and cleared of weeds—contrast with this the vineyard of the sluggard (Proverbs 24:30-31); in the early spring the plants must be pruned by cutting off dead and fruitless branches (Leviticus 25:3,4; Isaiah 5:6) which are gathered and burned (John 15:6).” (Source: Bible Study Tools)

[5] There are several teachings and parables in the Gospels that come with strong warnings if we fail to help others and use our talents (e.g., Matt. 7:21; Mark 4:19-20), plus the account of the barren fig tree (Matt. 21:19).
Paul’s analogy of an olive tree, with some branches that are grafted in and other branches that are broken and cut off, is also worth considering when thinking about Jesus’s analogy of the Vine (Rom. 11:17-24; cf. Matt. 21:43).
John the Baptist made this statement about some Sadducees and Pharisees who were relying on their Hebrew heritage rather than on genuine repentance: “The axe lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10//Luke 3:9).
And then there’s Ezekiel chapter 15 where the wood of grape vines being used for firewood is used as an analogy for the destruction of the residents of Jerusalem.

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Image Credit

Photo of grapevines in Germany is by Canadian photographer Laura Stanley, via Pexels.

Further Reading

The NET Bible has a good note on John 15:2 here.

Explore more

3 things wise disciples do to build unshakeable houses (Luke 6)
Hyperbole and Divorce in the Sermon on the Mount
Hell (1): Paul, James, and Jesus on Gehenna
Hell (2): Eternal Torment, Eternal Fire, Eternal Death
Instant Christianity?
Verses about Continuing Salvation
“Fear and Trembling” in Philippians 2:12

21 thoughts on “Are the branches lifted up or taken away in John 15:2a?

  1. I, usually on a daily basis, remove dead leaves or flowers from my plants/flowers. I do this to provide more nourishment for the ones that are still good or yet to be produced. Dead tree branches are a hazard to the people walking under the tree and to the tree itself as they could catch fire more easily than the live branches.
    That verse has always been rather troubling to me. I’ve looked at it as a warning. I may be wrong. Oftentimes, I am. But I have found that as I mature on my journey of Faith, I see many different ways to understand God’s word. He’s ingenious like that—in all His ways!

    1. I’m a gardener too, and have just come inside after some pruning (and weeding and mulching). I think you’re spot on, Connie.

  2. God takes what is already dead and removes it, the branches that are already unattached. I wonder if this “lifting up” might also mean he just picks up and throws out? Much like Connie mentions dead heading and preventing hazards.

    1. Hi Sierra, this article is the result of a discussion I had on Facebook in May (here). (I waited to post this article because I wasn’t sure if my regular readers would be interested.)

      On a thread about Greek-English dictionaries, a few people shared sermons and blog posts that elaborate on the idea that a trailing branch is picked up in John 15:2a and is given a chance to be productive. This is how they understand “lift up.” They reject the idea that the unproductive branch is removed and disposed of. Ron was quite persistent, and a few people backed him up.

  3. Thank you for the write up
    Indeed the Bible can be interpreted in various ways …..it takes wisdom to pick the correct analogy

    1. It can be tricky sometimes, however, we should let Bible verses, such as John 15:2, speak for themselves and inform our theology, rather than let our own ideas of theology influence our interpretation.

      And the rest of John 15, especially verse 6, plus similar uses of vines, fig trees, and olive trees in other Bible passages, shows that unfruitful branches and plants are cut off and/ or destroyed. The destruction of unproductive plants is a familiar biblical theme.

  4. I have spent most of my three and a half decades as a Christian terrified about being unfruitful. I did all kinds of ministry stuff because “it needed doing” and I felt selfish if I said no.

    I’ve learned in the last two years that quite a lot of what I believed was, well, lies, based on mistranslations of the “marriage” passages, coupled with an utter lack of context from knowledge of the first-century Roman empire. In other words, partly because of YOUR work, Marg!

    So was all my busyness “fruitfulness”? It may have done some people a small amount of good, but it kept me in a place of fear, fear that I wasn’t doing enough, that I would NEVER measure up.

    At this point, it seems like, for me, “fruitfulness” might consist entirely of healing from what I can only describe as spiritual abuse perpetrated by men who I’m sure meant well but were actually just flat-out wrong in what they taught. But their intentions don’t mean I haven’t suffered grievous wounds, and frankly, I’m not sure I can be healed in this life.

    So all that to say, what is fruitfulness? Who decides? And can we tell just from the outside whether or not someone is fruitful?

    I’m reminded of the chapter “Nice People or New Men” in C. S. Lewis’s “Beyond Personality,” the last book in “Mere Christianity.” Christian Miss Bates is not a very nice person, and unbelieving Dick Firkin is. Is she “unfruitful”? Will some (even other Christians) question whether or not she’s even a believer? Will she HERSELF wonder if she’s actually a Christian, simply because the “fruit” she’s producing is the relatively invisible work of undoing what “natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin” have created, to wit, her “narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness”?

    I am Miss Bates.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jo R. We Christians can really tie ourselves in knots. 🙁

      And fear fear, rather than reverential awe, is rarely a healthy motivation for serving God. I’m sorry this has been part of your experience.

      Who decides? I quite like what Paul says in Romans 14:14, though admittedly his topic isn’t fruitfulness:

      “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

      I find myself walking between the reality that I am led and empowered by the Holy Spirit and that I am “dust.” I find both thoughts comforting.

      “The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.
      For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust” (Psalm 103:13-14 NLT).

      1. Fear-fear, indeed.

        Thank you for your kind words, Marg. Thank you for your hard work on behalf of people like me, who have had the Bible used as a weapon. Thank you for, quite literally, changing the course of my life (and probably many, many others’ as well).

        God bless you, dear sister.

  5. I whole-heartedly agree that this passage, in context, is definitely speaking of removing unproductive/dead branches. I live near many vineyards. I’ve yet to see any of them “lift up” an unproductive branch. So in the real world this “interpretation” makes no sense and the people of Jesus’ day would have known this right away.

    I believe your observation is correct and though you are too gracious to say it like this, the hyper-grace, OSAS people are hard at work twisting scripture to make it fit their man-made theologies. Its sad but not surprising. As the end days wear on we’ll see more and more of this blatant activity. Thank-you for continuing to be a voice, of Truth, crying out in the wilderness. God bless you, Sister!

    1. I often see grapevines growing in the Hunter Valley (in Australia), and their branches are short. I only see long branches when grapevines are used for shade cover rather than for optimum fruit production.

      I did a bit of searching to learn what viticulture looked like in the first century. It seems that at least some grapevines were grown on poles and trellises, but that other grapevines were grown on the ground. Some old vines could be self-supporting.

      Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century CE, has a chapter on growing grapevines in his Natural History which can be read on the Perseus website. (I’m not sure that all of it is relevant for grape-growing in Israel.)

      Pliny mentions the best wood for supports and different methods of pruning, among other things. He advocates for hard pruning for the best production of grapes: “there should never be more than four branches allowed to grow; in one word, there must be no indulgence shown, and every exuberance in the tree must in all cases be most carefully repressed …”

      Asaph Goor observes that in Mishna Shevi’it 2 (c.190 – c.230 CE), “much space is devoted to the actual cultivation of the vineyard: clearing away stones, hoeing, manuring, making basins for irrigation, and the sundry aspects of pruning such as thinning branches, shortening canes, shaping vines and topping them for regeneration.”
      Goor, “The History of the Grape-Vine in the Holy Land,” Economic Botany 20.1 (January-March 1966): 46-64, 55.

      And this gem in Mishna Shev’it 4.6: “One who trims grape vines, or cuts reeds: Rabbi Yose the Galilean says: he must leave [uncut at least] one handbreadth. But Rabbi Akiba says: he may cut them in the usual manner, with the axe, sickle or saw, or with whatever he pleases.” (Sefaria)

      Gary W. Derickson has written a paper entitled “Viticulture and John 15:1-6,” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (January-March 1996): 34-52. A pdf is here. Much of it is a discussion on who the unproductive branches are and a discussion on interpreting airei. I’m more interested in Derickson’s “Historical and Cultural Data” which begins on page 34 of the pdf.

      Here’s an excerpt from page 36 of the pdf.

      “For best results the growth rate of a grapevine must be carefully maintained. If it has too few growing points, it grows too fast and becomes vegetative, producing fewer flowers and smaller grape clusters. If it is allowed to have too many growing points, it grows too extensively and its energy is wasted on growth and the clusters do not produce large or juicy grapes. The severe pruning in the early dormant season involves the reduction of the plants to their appropriate number of growing points, the buds. Later the spring removal of shoots reflects the process of insuring that the plant is not allowed to grow too slowly by spreading its energy among the large number of suckers and water sprouts that appear on the main trunk as well as the fruiting branches.”
      Derickson, “Viticulture and John 15:1-6.”

  6. Hi there, Marg,

    I wonder whether the statements about the branches being cut off and thrown into the fire and burned are the extension of the thought that God has no use for unproductive branches, and that their being thrown into the fire and burned is mainly a completion of the analogy to something the disciples knew well.

    To me, this passage has one main idea—fruit bearing—and one associated idea—abiding. The whole passage revolves around these two. Jesus is not only instructing his disciples before going to the cross but commissioning them. He expects them to bear fruit. The way they do that is to abide in him.

    Many years ago—and I mean many, maybe 60—I heard a beloved pastor speak about this passage and he suggested the “raise up” interpretation. I suspect he was following Pink.

    One other instance of the importance Jesus placed on bearing fruit is found in Matthew 25:28, at the end of the parable of the talents, when he has the man giving the talents saying of the one who hid the money in the ground, “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents.” I’ve used that statement to say that, in kingdom work, we need to put whatever resources God gives us in the hands of those who will be productive, so they can become even more productive (maximize fruit bearing).

    So to conclude, I agree with you that this is not about retaining one’s salvation, but an illustration of what God expects of us as workers in his kingdom. But in some ways also it’s a bit of an enigma and requires careful interpretation.

    1. “To me, this passage has one main idea—fruit bearing—and one associated idea—abiding. The whole passage revolves around these two.”
      I agree, Neil.

  7. This is something very timely. I’ve been thinking a lot about abiding in Jesus lately.

    For anyone who feels like they need to strive to bear fruit, just ponder Jesus own words and find comfort. All that we need to do is abide in Him. Treasure time in prayer, worship, and the Word. Fruit will naturally flow from the heart of one who is filled up with God. It also makes me think of this verse:

    “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” <3
    (Matthew 11:28-30)

    1. Yes, it’s not about striving but about abiding.
      I’ve written a few words on Matthew 11:28-30 here: https://margmowczko.com/come-to-me/

  8. Message deleted.

    1. Ron, you need to stop messaging me. It’s becoming harassment. No more emails. No more Facebook messages. No more website comments. Got it?

      I’ve removed the contents of your comment. I strongly doubt that Pam wants this kind of personal information freely available to anyone on the internet.

      Take care and I hope you feel better soon.
      Goodbye.

  9. Long ago, perhaps 50 years, my wife Irene, mostly an OT person (think poetry) came across the idea of “cleaning” for the term most often rendered “punes”. So “lifted” makes more sense as the vinedresser cleans the vine that it might produce more fruit. in lexicon. The reference refered to the vine-dresser tenderly lifting each shoot to lasagne the spots underneath of disease.

    Worked for me… and we so taught to the day she died back in 2017…

    Irene was a strong student and teacher of the Word but it was the preaching she loved most. Her last sermon was titled How Much is Enough”, about greed…

    1. Oops… Please excuse the typos. I accidentally hit Post as I set about to edit…
      Irene found her reference in a lexicon and I intended to use the term lasagne washing by hand the leaves on the vine. This is still done to this day.

    2. The verb in John 15:2b, kathairei, often means cleanse or wash away. But in agricultural use, it can mean “clear,” such as clearing away weeds (e.g. Xenophon, Economics 20.11). And “prune” is a recognised sense of the word.

      John may have used kathairei because it sounds neat paired with airei in John 15:2, even though the verbs are unrelated.

      A repeated theme in the Bible, in both Testaments, is that God removes and destroys unrepentant and unfruitful vines and trees.

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