Friday, April 17, 2009

Wrestling with John 15

In re-reading John 15 the other day, I noticed that the New King James Version had an alternate translation of verse 2. In most translations, this verse reads, "He cuts off (removes, takes away) any branch in me that does not bear fruit, while any branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." The New King James, in a footnote, says, "also He lifts up" instead of removes or cuts off.

As I read and thought, I began to wonder why "lifts up" is not more widely used. Is "cut off" used because of the word given in verse 6? If lifting up a branch perhaps produces more fruit on the vine, wouldn't it make sense that the Gardener, who is most interested in seeing more fruit, would lift up the branch rather than remove it? Jesus says in verse 8, "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." In verse 2 He says that the Gardener (the Father) prunes branches so that "they will bear even more fruit." God's desire is to see fruit, not to have firewood.

Also, in verse 2, Christ says, "Any branch in me," which leads me to think that Christ isn't interested in cutting those branches off. The New Testament talks time and time again about our being "in Christ," much more so than Christ being in us, actually. It is troubling to me to think that my standing in Christ can be based on my fruit or lack thereof; who in the Body of Christ could remain in Him if our "in-ness" was based on us? Who in the Body abides in Him perfectly moment by moment? Our salvation is by grace, as is our abiding. Verse 2 translated "cuts off" would seem to make my position in Him more tenuous than it is, considering I am sealed with the Holy Spirit, a deposit guaranteeing my inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

In the ESV study Bible, mention is made of the "lifts up" possibility, but it discounts it because in verse 6, the unfruitful in Christ are thrown away and burned, symbolizing judgment and hell. But the NIV translates verse 6 to say, "If anyone does not remain in me (doesn't say "anyone in me") he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned." It seems that the problem for this branch is that it is not in Christ, and therefore has no life. It withers and is only good for one thing – firewood.

I vaguely remembered that Bruce Wilkinson had written a book along the "lifts up" angle, though I never read it. So I did a google search for "Bruce Wilkinson, vine, lifted up" and the first link I found was this one.
I also found this article online.
And this one. (For contrasting views see here, and here. )

To me, lift up makes sense and seems consistent with what I believe is the point of John 15, which is that we learn the secret of bearing fruit. It's not that I don't think there will be judgment, it's just that I think that Christ was talking more about fruit than judgment in this passage. What do you all think?


Jen said...

hey marsh--i have a few thoughts. now, i might have one year of seminary almost down, but i'll be the first to admit that a little bit of knowledge has the potential to be more dangerous than none at all or lots of it. So these are just thoughts based on what i've learned this year and not hours in the library stacks and prayer.

My OT prof (who is a brillant yet humble sweet follower of Jesus)tells us that the best way to get through these unclear passages where a working knowledge of the original languages may help to bring clarity, she has us do exegesis without the big 600 page commentaries and instead has us do just what you did: use different translations, pray and compare it to who we know the Trinity and the Gospel to be.

My next thought is that we have to look at John 15 in its context before looking at the problem of the translation of the individual words. Ch 15 comes in the context of abiding, prayer, the Spirit, and the close relationship between the Trinity and then God with us. The only real "action" that occurs before Jesus bursting into this metaphoric teaching is Jesus comforting the disciples after sharing that he will be "betrayed" and Judas goes off to do that (13:27). It is interesting that after the the story in 15 that Jesus goes on to tell the importance of love, unity and the Spirit--all culminating into the famous Ch 17 prayer.

Your question about pruning and "lifting up" must be read in light of the text indicating that Jesus says that in His relationship to the Father that he also undergoes this process (NRSV uses "in me" in v.2) The Message even says: 1-3 "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken."

There is an indication that the branches to be cut off are related to Jesus. If we were able to find the actual greek wording of this it might help. However, in the OT the word "to cut/to cut off" refers directly to the covenant. If you look at the passages involving Moses and the stone tablets and circumcision the wording is "to cut" as in "to cut a covenant." I saw in one of my study Bibles when I followed the concordance references that the vine metaphor is of Hebrew origin and is used in the Psalms and throughout the Prophets. There is a notion of judgement that is attached to the vine. It is a symbol that is a blessing to those of us who are truly in the vine, but it is a curse to those who are not. According to Hos 10:1, Israel is often the metaphorical vine. Early in the book of Isaiah, there is also a parable of sorts that speaks of a vine where God judged all of Israel and cut it off and a faithful remnant grew out of it and it has heavy Messianic tones to it. There are many other echoes, I've just mentioned a few that I found.

It seems to me, given the context, that there is a double word being spoken here. The first is for those like Judas who is not in the vine--rather than stick with Jesus, he betrays him. The second is that the other disciples who were worried about the "betrayal" ended up staying with him till the end (although with some minor betrayls themselves). "Remain in me" should be comfort to those who look to Jesus for their life, but it should be damning words to those who do not trust Jesus. I love how the Message says that the "message" of Jesus is what has already done the pruning that is necessary to sustaining us. This points to your own comments about the sealing of the Spirit. Our pruning comes not from being "not good enough and needing more works for righteousness" but that b/c we are already "in" that the Spirit will bring sanctification as a means of living out our identity and belonging through Christ which came only through grace.

Sorry so long, but you found a GREAT topic! Thanks for encouraging me to wrestle with it too!

Tim Bits said...

Interesting observation here Marshall, thanks for the post I found it rather uplifting no pun intended. To hear that another version uses lift up rather then cut off takes some of the harshness away from the Gospel. It also puts my mind at ease. This passage of scripture, along with the judgment depicted in Matthew 25 is two of my biggest fears. That is, I’m doing things for God and when it’s all said and done, I’ll hear those words "depart from me, I don’t know you"