When God Gets Ahold of Your Noggin

[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?

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11 Responses to When God Gets Ahold of Your Noggin

  1. Aimee Byrd says:

    In retrospect, I think God has “lifted” me from unfruitfulness at the very times where I thought I was being fruitful for him. Turns out I was turning to other idols, like self-righteousness or self-glory. My heart is so deceitful, even in how I serve the Lord. I am so glad that he also delivers the severe mercies in his wisdom and love that we are incapable of wishing upon ourselves.

    • Tim says:

      Me too, Aimee. And to stay with the vine and branch metaphor, I think now that I look back I can see that God pruned off me those acts of self-righteousness and self-glory. Pruning can hurt like the dickens at the time.

  2. Jeannie says:

    This is really interesting and a helpful interpretation of the passages — one that again shows God’s amazing grace and mercy and reassures me that He never gives up on us.

    • Tim says:

      John’s Gospel is one of the most reassuring reads there is, isn’t it Jeannie? Not only do we have this wonderful Vine and branch passage, but John also records Jesus’ promises that God draws his people to him and then never lets us go. Amazing love.

  3. Mary Anne says:

    I’m afraid this portion depresses me a bit:

    “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. ”

    OK, how literally are we supposed to interpret that? Because I wish that my Mom were not in nursing home with dementia, or that I didn’t have health problems and chronic pain issues, or that my best friend hadn’t been jailed for something he didn’t do . . . the list goes on and on. What “I wish” never seems to be the thing that happens . . . and when people tell me, “God does what will be best for us,” I look at my Mom and just don’t see how that could possibly be best for her or anyone else. I never thought the verse about “if you Mother and Father forget you” would ever be literal for me, but yeah, my Mom doesn’t know who I am anymore.

    Instead of God getting hold of my head, sometimes I wish I could get hold of His.

    • Tim says:

      I can’t imagine how difficult all that is, Mary Anne. My prayers are with you, your mother and friend.

      On remaining in Jesus and Jesus’ words remaining in us and then asking for what we desire, I think the act of abiding – of our abiding in Jesus and his word dwelling in us – transforms us in such a way that we ask for that which is in line with God’s will. This is a topic that’s come up repeatedly in conversations I’ve had about Psalm 37:4 – “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I think that not only means that delighting in God is a blessing, but also that when we find our delight in him he then places the desires in our heart that allow us to delight in him even more.

      Obviously God’s not a magic genie, doing our bidding if only we rub the lamp as instructed in John 15:7 (remain in God and have his word remain in you) and in Psalm 37:4 (delight in God). If that’s all it took for all our wishes to come true, we wouldn’t be worshipping the Almighty God of the universe; we’d be worshipping Robin Williams in blue paint and a turban.

      What that means for God’s people who hurt is beyond my understanding, though. I mean, I know what the doctrinal stance should be as revealed in scripture but I don’t know how that plays out in any one individual’s circumstances. All I know is that God wrote the words “Comfort, comfort my people”, and he must have meant what he said.


      • Mary Anne says:

        I know. It’s not about magical wish fulfillment. But I do get frustrated when I hear other people talk about their daily miracles and God’s oh-so-precious promises and I’m just like, “Yeah, whatever. Spare me the ghastly details of your happiness.” Sometimes it seems that God goes way out of His way for some people and others can’t get the time of day from Him.

        What was it C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Pain? Something about how he could make suffering understandable, but to make it palatable was beyond his ability.

        Thanks for your kind words.

        • Tim says:

          “the ghastly details of your happiness” – So true, MA. Sufferers don’t necessarily need to get all the details of another’s happiness.

          Lewis had much to say on suffering, of course. Here is one of his insights from The Problem of Pain:

          “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find you have excluded life itself.

          On the issue of palatability, here’s another quote from Problem of Pain but it’s not God’s limitations Lewis is talking about:

          “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made “perfect through suffering” is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.”


  4. Bronwyn Lea says:

    One of the very unexpected blessings of being a home owner for me has been that, by being responsible for a garden, many metaphors in the Bible have fresh impact for me. Every time I pull weeds I think of the pervasive nature of sin. And every time I prune fruit trees I think of John 15: the pain of it, the necessity of it, the dependence of each branch on the tree (or vine, as the case may be). And weeks later, when the new roses and the fresh fruit appear, they remind me of God’s promise that all that painful pruning DOES accomplish good.
    I keep wondering if I will get to try my hand at shepherding, and what insights on the Word that would bring?

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