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Every branch in me - exegesis of John 15.2
πᾶν κλῆμα ἐν ἐμοὶ μὴ φέρον καρπὸν αἴρει αὐτό, καὶ πᾶν τὸ καρπὸν φέρον καθαίρει αὐτὸ ἵνα καρπὸν πλείονα φέρῃ.
Translated from the Greek as literally as possible:
Every branch in me not bearing fruit He lifts up, and every branch bearing fruit He cleans, that it may bear more fruit.
In endeavoring to understand a text we apply the principles of Biblical Hermeneutics (ΕΡΜΗΝΕΥΤΙΚΑ), the science and art of interpretation. Relying on the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit "to lead us into all the truth," we employ hermeneutical principles to "rightly divide the Word."
The practical application of hermeneutics is Exegesis (ΕΞΗΓΗΣΙΣ), meaning "to lead out" and hence metaphorically "to draw out in narrative, and unfold in teaching." From Louw and Nida: "to make something fully known by careful explanation or by clear revelation."
The verbal form of "exegesis" occurs but once in the New Testament, a hapax legomenon, but this solitary instance shows its intrinsic meaning: "No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him."
Chief among the hermeneutical tools we employ for sound exegesis are:
- Learn the Lexical Meanings - Find the natural and native meanings of words
- Consider the Context - Anchor a text within its semantic, authoral and cultural milieu
- Apply the Analogy of Faith - Scripture interprets Scripture and will not contradict itself
Translations and Commentaries
The NKJV represents the general sense of most or maybe all English translations.
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.
English translations take the main verb of the first clause, ΑΙΡΩ, as meaning “to take away” or “to cut off”. Nearly all commentators follow suit, and take ΑΙΡΩ as the “removing, taking away, or cutting off” of the unfruitful branch. Among them are Calvin, Matthew Henry, J.C. Ryle, Albert Barnes, Adam Clarke, A.T. Robertson, et al.
Among them, the few who lean towards an Arminian perspective, viz. that a born again believer may later lapse and be lost, cite this verse as a proof-text to refute the assurance of a saved person persevering to the end. They hold that there are some ‘in me’ who will subsequently be cut off and removed from the Vine. On the other hand, among those who lean towards a Calvinist view, i.e. holding the doctrine of ‘the perseverance of the saints,’ many assert that these unfruitful branches only seem to be in Him, but are not truly regenerate. They cite the traitor Judas as an example. Both of these approaches seem to labor overmuch to fit a round theological peg into a square interpretive hole.
There is but one exception among commentators of which I am aware: A.W. Pink, whose writings on the Scriptures were profound and prolific. Even Martyn Lloyd-Jones recommended him to a young minister, “Don’t waste your time reading Barth and Brunner. You will get nothing from them to aid you with preaching. Read Pink.” Pink’s dying words were reportedly “The Scriptures explain themselves.” Of this verse he wrote:
Again a difficulty has been needlessly created here by the English rendering of the Greek verb. “Airo” is frequently translated in the A.V. “lifted up.” For example: “And they lifted up their voices” (Luke 17.13, so also in Acts 4.24). “And Jesus lifted up his eyes” (John 11.41). “Lifted up his hand” (Rev. 10.5), etc. In none of these places could the verb be rendered “taken away.” Therefore we are satisfied 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.
ΑΙΡΩ- “to take up / to take away”
Lexical definitions of the main verb ΑΙΡΩ
- to take up, lift, raise; bear, carry; take away, remove; destroy, kill
- to raise up; a. to raise from the ground, take up: stones
- to take upon oneself and carry what has been raised, to bear
- to bear away what has been raised, carry off; a. to move from its place
- take, take up; take away, remove
Other lexicographers are in same camp, understanding 2 basic connotations of ΑΙΡΩ: “to take up” and “to take away.” In the 26 occurrences in John’s writings, he uses the word in both senses, with a fairly even distribution.
- John 1.29 - “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
- John 2.16 - And He said to those who sold doves, Take these things away!”
- John 5.8 - “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”
- John 5:9 - And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
- John 5:12 - They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”
- John 8.59 - “Then they took up stones to throw at Him”
- John 10:18 - No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
- John 11:39 - Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
- John 11:41 - And Jesus lifted up his eyes
- John 11:48 - “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
- John 15:2 - Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away (or ‘takes up’), and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
- John 16:22 - So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
- Revelation 10:5 - And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven
- Revelation 18.21 - “Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone”
Given its dual usage, we judge that the bare lexical meaning of the main verb is not sufficiently determinative in this text, therefore we look further, first to the immediate context of the sentence, and then beyond.
ΕΝ ΕΜΟΙ - “in me”
The prepositional phrase “ἐν ἐμοὶ” (in me) is used 14 times in John’s gospel. For example:
- John 6:56 - Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
- John 10:38 - even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.
- John 14.20 - will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
- John 15:4 - Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
- John 15:6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers
- John 16:33 - I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.
The preposition “ἐν” (in) has a broad range of meaning including “in, on, and among.” Yet in John’s use the phrase, “ἐν ἐμοὶ” (in me), we hear Jesus describing an intimate connection of unity, referring to Himself and His Father, as well as with His disciples and Himself.
Some have found a correlation and correspondence between 15.2 “every branch in me not bearing fruit” which the Lord apparently “cuts off,” and 15.6 “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” But this is clearly a contrast, and not a correlation. The former branches are “in me” and the latter are “μή τις μένῃ ἐν ἐμοί” (not abiding in me). To aver that the branches “in me” only seem to be so goes against all of our Lord’s statements aforementioned. He says nothing to support such a view. Indeed in John we hear Him saying things like:
- John 10:14 - I know My sheep, and am known by My own.
- John 10:26–28 - But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.
- John 13:10–11 - …you are clean, but not all of you.
- John 13:18 - I do not speak concerning all of you. I know whom I have chosen
- John 17:12 - I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
Since Jesus does not equivocate, we ought not to either. We must conclude that “in Me” is a statement of genuine fact, and that those who are so described are truly His own.
ΦΕΡΟΝ - “bearing”
The “not bearing” and “bearing” clauses are Present participial phrases functioning adjectivally to modify the subject “branch.” The Present participal “bearing” denotes the current condition of the branch, not its final determined state. The first branches are not currently bearing fruit, and the Vinedresser acts accordingly. The second branches are currently bearing fruit, and the Vinedresser likewise acts accordingly. What would a good vinedresser do in these respective instances?
Tending the Vineyard
Though there have been technological advances over the centuries, the basics of tending a prosperous vineyard have not changed over the millennia. A brief study of the craft shows 2 essentials that the successful vinedresser must attend to: 1) training unfruitful branches and 2) cleaning and pruning fruitful branches. The first involves getting branches up off the ground, and up where they can get light. In the following video a modern day vineyard farmer describes the process of “desuckering” grapevines. He says
“We’re getting the plants away from the ground. That’s where disease, mold and fungus originate. We want to get the plant up toward the sky where the sun can hit it well. This will help the buds become fruitful.”
The “I am” statements
In John’s gospel our Lord uses metaphors to reveal Himself to us. Each one begins with the implied covenant name YHWH, “ἐγω εἰμι” (I am.) Here are most of them, cited in the ESV:
- John 6:35 - I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
- John 6:51 - I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
- John 8:12 - I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
- John 10:9 - I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.
- John 10:11 - I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
- John 10:14 - I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…
- John 11:25–26 - I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
- John 15:5 - I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
We see in every instance cited that the “I am” statement is immediately followed by one or more attendant benefits which this aspect of Christ’s character confers upon His people. If we read John 15.1-2 as
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me not bearing fruit He takes away…”
it would be incongruous with all other “I am” statements, and would stand alone among them as pronouncing an ominous threat instead of promised blessings.
But if we read it thus:
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me not bearing fruit He lifts up…”
it would stand in accord with all the other “I am” statements in proclaiming blessings, and it also would more aptly comport with the analogy of the vinedresser, who “lifts up” branches on the ground and fastens them to supports so that they do not become diseased, but rather may now become fruitful.
The Analogy of Faith
This understanding is also consistent and compatible with the character of Christ as He is given to us in Scripture, e.g. Ephesians 5.29:
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.
Would our Lord cut members off of His own body, who are not presently bearing fruit? The blind, lame and paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5.2-9 was not very fruitful just then. But our Lord did not “take him away” or “cut him off.” He healed his diseases and lifted him up. This is the way of the One who came to seek and to save that which was lost, and who did not come to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench. ~ Isaiah 42:3 NASB