[This article first appeared last summer at Aimee Byrd’s Housewife Theologian.]
Jesus says that apart from him we can do nothing. That’s not news to me; there’s lots of stuff I fail at, even simple things. Jesus also tells us that in him we can do all things. Since I know I fail if left to my own efforts, Jesus’s statement is great news; because I’m not going to kid myself – “It’s all right, everybody makes mistakes” just doesn’t cut it.
Speaking of cutting it and of doing things either apart from Jesus or with him, we’ve got this wonderful passage in John 15:1-8 –
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
I started thinking about this because I’ve been reading through Genesis and came to the part where Joseph is in prison with Pharaoh’s Cup Bearer and Chief Baker. (Genesis 40.) The two men have disturbing dreams which Joseph interprets for them. He tells each of them that their different dreams mean that Pharaoh will lift each of their heads up, the Cup Bearer to be restored to his position of trust and authority, the Baker to the gallows.
Lifting someone up can have different meanings in the Bible, then. The idea of kingly comfort and protection is reiterated in Psalm 3:3 (“But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.”) while the sense of destruction and shame is seen again in Deuteronomy 3:22-23, a passage applied to Jesus himself in Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung [i.e., raised up] on a pole.’”).
This made me think of John 15:2 in that passage above – “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
Most translations use “cuts off” or “takes away” or something similar in verse 2 to show a removal from the vine. The Greek root word, though, is airó and means “lift”. (Strong’s Greek Concordance 142.) Vineyard owners did not necessarily cut off unfruitful branches if they could be lifted up to where they can gather sunlight and so become fruitful. Keep in mind that Jesus is talking about branches that are in him, the True Vine. He is not talking about those who are outside him, but to the church. If this message is to the church, then, it makes more sense to see his meaning this way: God will lift up (airó) the unfruitful branches so that they will be fruitful for God.
Now some may say that I am ignoring John 15:6 – “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” Doesn’t that say that some branches in Christ are going to be cut off, tossed in the fire and burned to cinders? Good question. No it doesn’t.
John is a careful writer. Just as in Revelation where John uses the word “like” in an attempt to describe Jesus’ glorified appearance (e.g., Revelation 1:14-15 – “… his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters”), here John records Jesus using the word “like” in a purposeful fashion. It’s also the only time Jesus uses it in this parable.
Jesus does not say earlier that he is like a vine and we are like branches. The metaphor is such a close parallel to reality that he doesn’t need to. But when it comes to those of his people who are not bearing fruit, he switches to a simile and says they are “like” cut-off branches. Can this mean that they are not really cut-off branches, but rather that if we try to do things apart from Jesus it will be as if we were? I think so, when you read this line in the context of the whole passage.
Which leads me to two questions –
1) When has God lifted your head in comfort or exaltation?
2) When has God lifted you out of your unfruitfulness, into the light of his Son?