Are Unfruitful Branches Lifted Up?
How to read John 15:2?
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 very poor translation that changes the meaning of the original words. A better translation 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 recent Passion Translation offers “lifted” or “takes up”. That’s a start.)
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 word 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:
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 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.
So 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 what vinedressers actually do.
5. Are you a qualified vinedresser?
No, but the Wikipedia entry for vine training informs me 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 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 helping us and lifting us up by his 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?”
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, 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 in the first place.
So what does it mean to take away an unfruitful branch? Nobody knows.
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, 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.
Got a question about a tricky scripture? Check out The Grace Commentary.
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I totally agree with this article, Paul. There is no fear in love, and no words of Christ should “scare” a Christian into thinking God is done with him.
Thank you Paul. Just this morning I was re-reading John 15 after reading your post Branches Are Not Sticks; Why God Will Never Cast You Off the other day. Verse 2 has always frightened me but today God stepped in and gave me this revelation on that verse: anything that doesn’t resemble Christ God himself removes. Not me but that which is dead weight, that which cripples me & my relationship with Him as well as others.
Like the old song “Love Lifted Me”
Hello, if we are not cut off but instead lifted up, how does that relate to the rest of Christ’s statement about being through into the fire? Please someone help me to understand this. Thank you.
You can find articles on other scriptures in the Archives > Scripture Index, but the one you’re looking for is here.
“Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and cast into the fire?” Thankfully Jesus is the tree that bears much fruit. I question this interpretation. We are the tree as shown in Psalm 1. Jesus is the tree of life. But we are the tree that need to bear fruit.
Also for John 15:2 – It is true that the word can mean, “lift up, take up, pick up,” but the predominant meaning is to “take away, remove.” Since the branches in v 5 are clearly destroyed, context suggests that this is what v 2 means as well.
As he often did, Jesus is talking about two kinds of people. Sheep and goats, foolish and wise, ready and unready, those who are part of him and those who have no part in him. For more on the discarded branches, check out this recent article.
Thank you, thank you! This puts to rest another one of those “but wait a minute” verse translations. To know Him and then read this as “uh oh, I better get busy and produce some fruit so I don’t get cut off” –never jived with He will never, never leave nor forsake me! It makes total sense…..in my Spirit.
And the nay sayers will say, He doesn’t leave you, but you leave Him when you stop producing fruit. I’m only where I am because of Him, so that only implies the Vinedresser is not doing His job!
Just like being a christian is impossible without Christ, bearing “His” fruit is impossible without being one with Jesus (a vine brought into the Vine by the Vinedresser). Our part, abide–just stay put and rest! Behold the glory of God!
LJP wrote: Love this! Knowing God is not about being a great theologian. We can know Him well enough to answer this question without knowing the meaning in the original language. Although having a solid translation does help many people.
thanks LJP, Think maybe it’s reversed? Do we know Him and His Holy Spirit teaches us. Then all the bible reading and studying confirms what’s already in us. Our mind gets caught up to the Spiritual reality. Some more thoughts!
Absolutely, Jenny, our relationship is with a Person. We can’t even correctly understand the Bible without Jesus and His Holy Spirit. It works so much better to understand the Bible through Him than trying to understand Him through the Bible. So much teaching out there paints the picture of a Heavenly Father who has the same tendencies as we do. We need an understanding that is higher than our ways. Like a risen Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father who we can look to and say, “as He is, so am I in this world”. He is the word. I’ve been enjoying you’re comments, they are so Jesus focused. Keep em coming! 🙂
Would Romans 11:20-22 be considered relevant to this topic?
20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
Generally yes, but how far you can take that depends on whether you think Jesus is talking about individuals or nations in John 15. (Paul is talking about the Jewish nation in Romans 11.)
Dear paul thank you for another very majesterial grade article, endorsing just how incredibly beautiful Gods word is for authentic believers. Forgive me but replies to the vine and lifting up and those who are his may have been already covered within this contribution of thinking that follows.
Surely it is absolutely consistent, why? To the absolute biblical based truth that those who come under HIS sotoria based covering, means such Salvationism is encapsulated within total based covenant. Please does this not also mean nothing of such a purist form of relationship operates inside earth based setting, instead all praises go to HIM it is entirely Divine based. Nothing can separate……… no power of……..thank you.
I was on a trip to Israel last year where I saw an ancient-style vineyard. I have a picture of a vine being “lifted up” just like they did in Jesus’ time. Seeing that vineyard your translation makes perfect sense. I would send you the picture but i don’t know how to attach it here.
Thanks Jack,. You could send the pic to me via FB.
(Passion Translation) Jesus the Living Vine
1 “I am a true sprouting vine, and the farmer who tends the vine is my Father.
2 He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches and pruning every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest.
Hi Paul found this in TPT version that also talks about the lifting up of the fruitless branches.
I’m currently reading you 70AD book and it’s been helpful in re centring some of my preitist ideas which I’d swung towards after ditching a dispensational view many years ago which was very futuristic.
Mirror Bible has lift up😎
Some vehicles require a separate driving license. One meaning of the word airo is to lift up or elevate another to take on yourself and a third meaning is to bear away.
If you had bothered to read a few commentaries it would have saved you a lot of work.
Reformation principle let scripture interpret scripture, let those things that are plain help where there may be some confusion. Perhaps the likes of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Surgeon, Henry, Sproul, McArthur, Carson etc might know what they are talking about.
I wonder if you might have been able to get your opinion across without being so condescending?
Great article, well-sourced and very interestingly written. I was searching for evidence to prove the same translation as you and your post is just perfect, thank you & well done.
Thanks so much for the article, it emphasizes further the unconditional and unending love of God, because at some point in our lives all of us have been un fruitful, so if we had been cut off we would not have grown or come to a place of bearing fruit. We thank God who lifts us up.
Awesome I was just studying on this verse but it just didn’t sit well with me so I began to dig deeper and I’m thankful that I came across your teaching God bless
This is amazing but uncomfortable to read. I feel like I owe every person I’ve ever met an apology.
Thank you Paul for the Insight into this truth. I have come across this truth in my personal meditation one day after I had revealation of Heavenly FATHER’s goodness. LORD JESUS explains the context of sharing this parable in John 15:11
““These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”
The objective of this parable is for our Joy to be full.
The Passion Translation (TPT) did it, this is the only Bible version (translation) that translates this Greek word as “LIFTING” and “PROPPING”. What do you think?
Paul, in John 15:2 the Spirit Filled Life Bible says, “takes away” but with a footnote that says
“or lifts up.”
I have mixed feelings about this mixed message. It’s a bit like saying “God cuts you off (but not really).” But hey, it’s a start. Maybe the translators of the New New Kings James Version will have the courage to go all the way.
This verse had always raised a red flag for me until I read Wilkinson’s little gem. Once he cleared up the issue by translating airo in proper context, the Father/Vinedresser positions the unfruitful vines so they can begin to bear fruit. Quite a different picture! And what is the context? I’m sure everyone was still pondering Jesus’ feet-washing example and other details of that evening’s meal. Jesus was merely reflecting servanthood and what it might look like in his father. This would be his last recorded discourse, on his way to a familiar Garden. Paul’s great assurance in his opening and closing verses of Romans 8 resonate with this picture of the Vinedresser that Jesus paints on his way back to the Garden. I am intrigued with why the Spirit has allowed this prominent poor translation to contaminate so many translations of John 15, such a gem of Scripture!
Fantastic article! God is in the business of saving. If he died while we were yet sinners, it only makes sense he won’t discard us in difficult times.