On the surface reading, John 15:1-11 is fairly straight-forward in its intent to enjoin upon its readers the importance of “abiding” in Christ Jesus. Those who abide, bear fruit and those who do not abide face negative consequences. This much seems clear: abiding is good and not abiding is bad. Controversies begin to emerge when questions are asked about the nature of those “not abiding” in Christ and the nature of the judgment these non-abiding branches face. It is here that one’s larger theological framework tends to enter and, at times, constrain one’s exegesis. In light of this concern it is helpful to be aware of two different types of framework constraining impulses. The first revolves around factors in the text itself. One’s theological system can move one to adopt questionable interpretations within the passage or to miss exegetical clues that are not amenable to one’s theological presuppositions. The second issue relates to factors outside the text. A person’s systematic theological reflections can be brought to the text in such a manner that the text is asked questions which lay beyond the author’s intention. Sensitivity to these potential dangers will need to be kept in mind as John 15 is approached.
Jesus begins this section with the evocative words: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (v 1). The immediate surroundings of vineyards no doubt prompted the use of this imagery but there is far more laden within this language. The imagery of vines and vineyards has a number of intertextual echoes from the Old Testament (Ps 80:8-9, 15; Isa 5:1-7; Jer 5:10; Ezek 17:1-10; Hosea 10:1). In these Old Testament passages Israel is likened to a vine or a vineyard and the Lord is the owner of the vineyard (Isa 5:1). Jesus is utilizing standard and stylized imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures and infusing it with new meaning revolved around himself. Instead of Israel being the vine, Jesus now declares himself to be the vine and the true followers of the Father must find relationship to him through Jesus.
This recognition of the intertextual echoes of the vine/vineyard imagery is important because it is this Old Testament imagery that helps inform the rest of the passage. It is this context that must be seen as primary rather than overly interpreted viticulture practices that some would use to tease out of the passage an over-abundance of meaning.
In verses two and three Jesus states:
Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, he prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.
Jesus speaks of two different kinds of branches: those who do not bear fruit and those who do bear fruit. These two branches have two different actions done to them. Fruit-bearing branches are pruned or “cleaned” so that they may bear even more fruit. This imagery is drawn from the practice of removing some of the tendrils on the vine in the spring so as to maximize fruit production. There is some controversy as to the meaning and significance of what happens to the branches that do not bear fruit. The New American Standard Bible translates the Greek word airo as “takes away.” Another rendering of this word is “lifts up.” The Greek word has both meanings in the Gospel of John although the majority of uses are “takes” or “takes away.” It would appear most natural to accept the translation of the NASB in light of three factors: (1) the majority of prior usage of this word in John; (2) the parallelism is better maintained in verse 2; and (3) there is a corresponding comment in verse 6 which should be taken into account as a contextual indicator.
EXCURSUS: GARY W. DERICKSON’S
VITICULTURE AND JOHN 15:1-6
Gary W. Derickson has written an article in which he attempts to argue for the understanding of “lifts up” in reference to the John 15:2. His argumentation involves an examination of the viticulture techniques of the first century. Although space constraints forbid a full analysis a few items should be noted that are problematic for Derickson’s position. First, there a number of assumptions made by Derickson that must all line up in order for his interpretation to hold. Four such assumptions are:
(a) Derickson recognizes that the spring pruning removed some nonfruiting
branches but he chooses to emphasize that, “Some nonfruiting branches
were kept on the vine.” Derickson assumes that it is these kept branches
that Jesus was referring to in John 15:2.
(b) Derickson draws attention to the fact that both “trailing” vines and
“trellising” of vines was common. Derickson must assume the “trellising”
of vines is what is under consideration in John 15.
(c) He assumes that airo was an established term “farmers used then to
describe their own practice” even though, as he acknowledges, this usage
lacks any attestation in the literature of the time.
(d) He assumes that both terms mentioned in verse 2 in reference to pruning
“are better understood as being done simultaneously.”
The second major problem is that Derickson “overinterprets” the details of Jesus’ metaphor. In attempting to correlate Jesus’ metaphor with first century viticulture practices he gets bogged down in the details of such practices. In pressing these details to the extent he does Derickson comes close to saying the opposite of what Jesus intended. For example, first century viticulture practices demonstrate that both fruiting and nonfruiting branches were kept “and were desired on every vine in Jesus’ day.” In pressing this detail is it to be realistically expected that Jesus is saying the Father “desires” nonfruiting branches? Also, these same viticulture practices speak of pruning away the fruiting branches “for they are considered useless.” Derickson does not attempt to correlate this practice with the text of John 15 since it would be obviously out of place to think that Jesus was thinking of removing good branches to be thrown away.
In verse 3 Jesus speaks to his disciples before him and states that they are “already clean.” This is in line with words he has already spoken earlier in the evening. In John 13:10 Jesus told his disciples, “you (plural) are clean, but not all of you.” The reference to the one who is not clean is explained in verse 11 as being Judas—the one who is to betray Jesus.
This state of being “already clean” creates the context in which the disciples are to “abide” in Christ as mentioned in verses 4 and 5. In these verses Jesus shows the both the necessity of abiding and the sufficiency of abiding in him. The necessity is seen in that without abiding in Christ there is no fruit-bearing. However, abiding in Christ allows one to produce much fruit. The language of “abiding” which is so frequent in this passage signifies “remaining” in obedient allegiance to Christ. Something of this is seen in verse 7 when Jesus speaks of his word abiding in his disciples. Furthermore, this language of “abiding” figure prominently in 1 John where the apostle both exhorts and illustrates what abiding looks like in the believing community. John details out in this epistle three main categories of obedience, love, and faithfulness to the apostolic doctrine of Christ. The first two of these (obedience and love) are themes that are also in the larger context of John 15 (John 13:34-35; 15:10, 12-14, 17).
In verses 6 Jesus mentions the consequences of not abiding in him. The imagery of a branch being thrown away and being burned is highlighted. The language of “fire” is often used by Jesus in reference to judgment (Matt 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 25:41). This verse makes sense as correlated with verse 2 in that the fruitless branches there are said to be “taken” and now here in verse 6 their fate is shown. The primary emphasis of the passage is not on judgment however, but, rather, on the positive expectation of his disciples abiding in him.
Verses 7 and 8 speak about the promise of answered prayer for those who abide in Christ and how this will glorify the Father as his disciples bear much fruit. In so abiding, with its corresponding fruit-bearing, the disciples will manifest that they are indeed Jesus’ disciples.
Verses 9 and 10 urge the disciples to abide in the love of Christ through obedience. Jesus stresses the depth of his love in that he compares it with the love with which the Father loves Jesus. Jesus emphasizes that this abiding is not primarily a mystical union as it is a relationship of obedience to his commandments. Jesus draws the parallel between his abiding by obedience to his Father and the need for his disciples to abide by obedience to his commandments.
In verse 11 Jesus gives the reason for the words he is speaking. He is seeking his disciples joy. In abiding in Christ through obedience the disciples will know the joy of Christ’s presence and love. The accent in this passage is on the positive outcomes for his abiding disciples.
Many times the difficulties with this passage are brought about by the systematic theological categories that one brings to this text. The three theological systems of Free Grace theology, Arminian Theology, and Reformed Theology all bring their frameworks to the text and tend to ask certain questions of the text. It may prove helpful to show briefly how these various views tend to see the interpretative options in John 15.
Free Grace theology tends to read John 15 within the confines of its larger theological commitments. They see two classes of Christians as being spoken of here—fruiting-bearing and non-fruit-bearing Christians. This comes out most clearly at the exegetical level in discussing verse 2 and what it is that happens to the branches that do not bear fruit. A few questionable exegetical moves are made here. First, as was seen above, the language of airo is interpreted to mean “lift up.” Second, there is an attempt to create a disjunction between verses 2 and 6 so that they are seen to be not speaking of the same persons or realities. Third, the judgment language of verse 6 can be seen by some Free Grace advocates to mean something less than eschatological judgment. This is a possibility but it should be kept in mind that Jesus is using a metaphor. This metaphor may not be offered here to specify the details of temporal or eternal punishments. Having recognized this, however, does not mean the imagery should be reduced to “uselessness” in the kingdom. Jesus is using this dramatic metaphor to say something about the status of these non-abiding persons. His language does not speak of someone being in the kingdom but merely an unproductive member.
An Arminian understanding of this passage will tend to find confirmation of its theological belief that a fully regenerate believer can cease to be a follower of Christ and be eternally lost. The exegetical details this view will tend to focus on will be the phrase “in me” of verses 2 and 6. They will point out that there are people who are “in Christ” and yet fail to bear fruit and abide. They will further look to the fiery judgment language of verse 6 as speaking of eschatological judgment and not mere temporal judgments. They will, of course, see that the major focus of the passage is of a positive nature but they will recognize that a minor subplot within the passage is the threat of divine, eschatological judgment for those who do not remain in Christ.
Those influenced by a Reformed or Calvinistic theological system will tend to bring in constructs of an eternally decreed ordo salutis which can effect the understanding of the passage. Given their understanding of the persons being spoken of here, Reformed types can so stress the inability of Christians to “fall away” that the warnings of verse 2 and 6 are rendered superfluous or merely hypothetical. Simplistic version of Reformed theology are so top-heavy on the decretal aspects of theology (aspects which are not on the surface in John 15) they that can read that theology into the text.
More sophisticated versions of Reformed theology will often invoke the construct of the “covenant.” One can be in the covenant and yet not decretally elect. There is, thus, a real falling away from something for those who do not remain “in Christ.” There are, to be sure, various permutations and nuances as to how the concepts of covenant and the decrees both interface and are explained. I tend toward this Reformed covenantal reading of John 15 and below I will detail a few of the textual indicators that when taken together lend weight for this view.
First, the intertexual echoes found in John 15:1 point in the direction of a covenantal context. Jesus is using language drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures that is found in covenantal contexts. Israel is God’s covenanted people and yet he brings judgment and destruction upon her. To be sure, there is always a remnant but this only reinforces the covenantal context.
Second, the mention of the disciples being “clean” in verse 3 serves as a reminder of the similar language in John 13:10 where Jesus said, “you are clean, but not all of you.” This one who is not clean is a reference to Judas as the next verse makes clear. So here is a group of disciples who have “a personal relationship” with Jesus and yet one will betray him thus “falling away.” Judas was in the orbit of Jesus’ ministry and, from all indications in the Gospels, participated in the miraculous ministry of Jesus. In spite of all this Judas did not abide or remain with Jesus.
Up to this point an Arminian interpreter may be able to affirm the reality of falling away but question why a covenantal construct is needed. Why not simply affirm that some Christians can fail to endure and, thus, forfeit salvation? The answer is found in the strong predestinarian focus in the Gospel of John. The close context of John 15:16 and 19 mentions Jesus “choosing” his disciples. It is, however, the larger context of this Gospel’s portrayal of God’s sovereignty on behalf of his own that provides the exegetical context for a unique status for the elect and their endurance.
A third indicator of a covenantal context is found in John’s presentation of similar themes in 1 John. First John is replete with language of “abiding.” For example, 1 John 4:15 states: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” Yet, there are those who have confessed, at one time, this Jesus and then leave. John describes them in this way in 1 John 2:19:
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.
John clearly recognizes that some who at one time were part of the community of faith have left. He does not speak in terms of “losing salvation” but of those who are leaving as manifesting their true identity—“they all are not of us.”
Taking all this into account—Jesus’ clear echoes to Israel, John’s strong predestinarian account, the promises, the warnings, the reality of those who do fail to persevere—a covenantal framework appears supportable.
 The word airo appears 26 times in John. Aside from the disputed meaning at John 15:2 there are eight occurrences which can take the meaning “lift up”: 5:8, 9, 10, 11, 12; 8:59; 10:24; 11:41. It should be noticed that the majority of these occur in John 5 in reference to the “picking up” of a pallet. Another usage (10:24) may be part of an idiomatic phrase (“our souls lifted up”). The other seventeen references are more naturally rendered by “takes” or “takes away”: 1:29; 2:16; 10:18; 11:39, 41, 48; 16:22; 17:15; 19:15 (2 x’s), 31, 38 (2 x’s); 20:1, 2, 13, 15.