Here is possibly the worst verse in the Bible:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit. (John 15:1-2, NIV)
I say worst verse because this is a shockingly poor translation. A better one is, “He takes up or lifts every branch in me.” If you’re not bearing fruit for Jesus, God helps you. He doesn’t lop you.
Several years ago I wrote an article entitled “What happens to unfruitful branches?” In it I argued that most Bibles get it wrong when they translate Christ’s words as cutting off or taking away branches. Lifting is better. (Full disclosure: I was inspired by a book written by Bruce Wilkinson called Secrets of the Vine.)
I wrote that article and moved on, but it turns out the cutting vs. lifting issue has become something of a hot potato. I had no idea until someone sent me this passage from a book: “No Free Grace publication produced any evidence from the ancient world that said that unfruitful vines or branches were ‘lifted up.’”
I was intrigued. You want evidence? I’ve got plenty.
A bit more digging revealed that this issue divides scholars into two camps: the cutters and the lifters. Which sounds like something out of Gulliver’s Travels. I have no interest in stirring up dissension, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to answer some of the questions I have been asked about that old article.
1. Which English Bible has “lifted up”?
None of the major translations has it. Nearly every English Bible translates Christ as saying unfruitful branches are cut off or taken away, which is why this is a big issue: People don’t like it when you say the Bible is wrong. Only the Bible is NOT wrong. John Wycliffe was. (Wycliffe is credited as having translated the first complete English Bible in the 14th century. Two hundred years later, the KJV translators adopted Wycliffe’s translation choice and so did everyone else.)
I polled non-English-speaking E2R readers and learned that Christ’s words are translated as cutting off/taken away in the following Bible translations: Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, Tagalog, Thai, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Indonesian, Danish, Norwegian, French, Chinese (trad.), Japanese, Lithuanian, Italian, Welsh, Gaelic, and Swahili. I suspect many of these translations were inspired by the translation choices embedded in the KJV.
No Bible translation agrees with me, but I’m sticking to my guns: Jesus said, “Unfruitful branches in me are lifted”, not cut. They’re taken up, not taken away. (Update: Several readers have pointed out that the Passion Translation offers “lifted” or “takes up”.)
2. How dare you challenge hundreds of years of consistent translation?
I’m part of the question-everything generation, so I don’t see what the fuss is about. I encourage everyone to think for themselves. It’s healthy.
3. Seriously, are you a qualified Bible translator?
No. I don’t know any Greek words apart from agape and souvlaki. But I know how to drive a concordance. The word in question is airo. This is the word that has been translated as cut or take away in John 15:2. But look at how this word is translated elsewhere in the New Testament:
Matt 16:24 – Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Mark 16:18 – They will pick up serpents…
Luke 5:24 – I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go…
Luke 17:13 – And they lifted up their voices and said…
John 5:8 – Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”
John 11:41 – And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said…
Act 4:24 – And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord
Rev 10:5 – The angel … lifted up his right hand to heaven
In the New Testament, airo is more often translated as lifted/taken up than taken away.
4. Which translation does the context support?
In John 15, Jesus talks about two kinds of branches; those that abide in him (v.2) and those that don’t (v.6), and the latter are cast away. If the former are sometimes cast or taken away as well, abiding makes no difference and the comparison breaks down.
In verse 2, Jesus compares fruitful and unfruitful branches, and says, “Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes.” To prune is to trim or cut. If both fruitful and unfruitful branches are cut, bearing fruit makes no difference and the comparison breaks down again.
If unfruitful branches are treated differently, they cannot be cut or cast away. The only option left is for them to be lifted up. And this is, in fact, what vinedressers do.
5. Are you a qualified vinedresser?
No, but the Wikipedia entry for vine training reveals that grapevines don’t produce fruit unless they are exposed to sunlight. If you don’t train/lift the branches, excessive shading will inhibit fruit production and encourage disease. It’s the same with Christians. We need to see the Son to stay healthy and produce his fruit.
6. Is there any evidence of ancient vinedressers lifting up branches?
Yes. The Wikipedia article just mentioned has this:
When the Greeks began to colonize southern Italy in the eighth century BC, they called the land Oenotria which could be interpreted as “staked” or land of staked vines.
The staking or lifting of vines is an ancient practice. “Grapevines have been trained for several millennia.” Indeed, the history of viticulture is the history of civilization.
7. I can’t accept Wikipedia as a credible source. Got any actual evidence?
Quite a lot, actually, and far too much to put in a blog article. For those who are interested, the full-length companion note that goes with this article can be found on my Patreon page. In the note I examine the writings of Varro (116 – 27 BC), Columella (4 – 70 AD), Pliny the Elder (23 – 79AD), and other ancient scholars. These authors discuss that wonderful innovation, the trellis. In the words of Pliny, “When the trellis is employed, wine is produced in greater quantities.”
Vines don’t trellis themselves. A trellis implies a gardener taking care to lift up branches and provide support. The gardener does all the work, and the branches become fruitful as a result. What a beautiful picture of God’s aiding grace.
8. Pliny lived in Rome. Is there any evidence of trellises being used in first century Israel?
Yes, please see the bonus materials (on Patreon) that go with this article.
9. What would vinedressers use if they didn’t have a trellis?
A rock or a tree. In fact, before the invention of the trellis, vines were often trained to run up the trunks and branches of trees.
10. What about that verse that says “Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and cast into the fire?”
Thankfully Jesus is the tree that bears much fruit. But Jesus is not talking about trees in John 15; the subject is vines.
The distinguishing feature of vines is there is no separation between the vine and the branch (unlike a tree). It’s the same with us and Jesus. If Christ were to cut us off and cast us away, he would be dismembering his own body. It’s not going to happen. Even “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).
11. What about John 15:6, which mentions branches being cast into the fire?
John 15:1-6 speaks of two kinds of branches – those that abide or have made their home in the Lord (believers, see 1 John 4:15) – and those that have not made their home in the Lord (unbelievers). Only the first kind, the “branches in me,” can bear the Lord’s fruit and here we are talking about what happens if they don’t. (They are lifted or taken up.)
12. Aren’t you spreading dangerous heresy?
By telling people that Jesus helps us bear his fruit? I don’t see how that is nearly as dangerous as threatening Christians with removal or damnation if they fail to perform. Bullying the bride of Christ seems unwise to me.
And to finish, here’s a question from me: If unfruitful branches are not lifted up, what happens to them?
Over the years I have heard from people who prefer the cutting off or taking away translation, which is fine. Each to his own. But so far no one has told me what cutting off/taking away actually means for the unfruitful Christian. It cannot mean pruning because that’s what happens to fruitful branches. Nor can it mean being cast away because that’s what happens to those who aren’t part of the vine.
So what does it mean to take away an unfruitful branch? Nobody seems to know.
But here’s one thing we do know. Read John 15:2 as, “God casts off unfruitful Christians,” and you will have to discard 130+ scriptures that say he won’t.
For this reason above all, I maintain that unfruitful Christians are nurtured, not discarded; they are lifted up, not cast away. “No branch can bear fruit by itself” (John 15:4). We all need the Lord’s help when it comes to bearing his fruit.