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) …”
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.”
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.
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).
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. 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.”
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.
 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.
 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.”
 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)
 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)
 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.
© Margaret Mowczko 2022
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The NET Bible has a good note on John 15:2 here.
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