Written by Paul J. Bucknell on October, 22, 2020
John 15:2 The Interpretation and Translation of “Lift up” over “Take away”
Check out five great reasons Christians should start using “lift up” in John 15:2 as a translation rather than “take away.”
After preaching through John 15 again, I’ve decided, once for all, to clarify the validity and preference for the Greek word aero (airō) to be translated “lift up” rather than “take away.” I was first introduced to the viability of this translation by Bruce Wilkinson in the Secrets of the Vine. By using “take away,” the power of Jesus’ message is stripped away, ending with a confusing and distorted verse causing theological issues. The translation “lift up” linguistically and otherwise greatly befits Jesus’ words in John 15:2 and powerfully speaks to Christians everywhere.
2 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.
2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He lifts up; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
I admit I don’t like countering the many English translations using “take away.” When foreign translations depended on the King James Bible, they carried this mistranslation to their foreign versions. My dilemma was that I needed to reevaluate the use of “lift up” every time I studied John 15 (my memory is short). After studying for this article, I am convinced of the superiority of “lift up.” I don’t say this lightly. I present five reasons we all should use “lift up,” and in all honesty, I cannot think of any reasons besides tradition that we should use “take away.” Besides, why should we let some inferior translation steal away from Jesus’ prized words, which bring deep comfort to the broken-hearted and confidence in God’s plans?
“1 I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” (John 15:1-6)
Here are the five strong supports for preferring the translation “lift up” in John 15:2a over “take away.”
1.) Translation of John 15:2
The most important fact supporting the usage of “lift up” as a plausible translation is that it serves as a main, oft-used, translation of the Greek word used here (aero). John uses the Greek root word aero 26 times in his gospel, with three main English translations: lift up, bear or hold, and take away.
D.A. Carson questionably dismisses “lift up” as an option because it is translated “lift up” only 8 times compared to a more frequent “take away.” If it is a legitimate translation, then it should be fully evaluated. In the Abbot-Smith lexicon, “raise,” “raise up,” “lift or draw up” is listed as the first definition for aero (αἴρω). There is one minor translation to “keep in suspense” (John 10:24). “Take away” is a legitimate translation, but it is hardly the only one.
61 English translations of John 15:2a, all but one, translate aero as take away, cut off, lop off, or remove. The exception, TPT (The Passion Translation) uses lift and props up: “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.”
Since the Greek word is frequently used in John with the three translations, we can dismiss the idea that we are trying to force a usage to match our desired interpretation. Instead, we should, as faithful expositors, fairly try all three definitions and see which best fits the context.
Summary: The Greek word aero does not demand any of the three translations; all are proper to use. But why do the main English translations consistently use “take away” instead of “lift up” when it makes little sense?
2.) Affiliation to Verse 6 (John 15:6)
Unfortunately, the unified voice of the English translations lead the commentators and readers into confusion by exclusively translating aero to mean “take away.” Few even know there are two other standard legitimate translations. But let us explore the reason for their usage of “take away”, “cut off,” or “remove,” for as for now, it compels the reader to look no further.
Typical John 15:2 interpretations bypass good principles
The major reason for this common usage of “take away” is its connection to John 15:6. Being placed in the same paragraph, it is easy to assume the branches of verse 2 are the same as the branches that are taken away in verse 6.
“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (John 15:6).
They conclude that those who do not bear fruit (2a) are the same branches as those that do not abide in Him (6). Later, in point 4, I’ll prove to you this conclusion is incorrect.
The Greek word used in 15:2 is not used in 15:6. The only thing in common is the handling of branches. Verse 6’s handling includes being thrown away, dried up, gathered and cast into the fire. They assume those taken away are these that end up being burned.
But frankly, when we consider the other legitimate translations, they provide different interpretations, one of which I would consider superior. We must consider both “lift up” and “bear up” as possible translations. They are similar if we think of a vineyard and the special care that unfruitful branches need. They have usually gone wild (grown quickly) and end up on the ground rather than on the trellis (excellent illustration of disobedience but not stated here). Instead, they end up on the muddied ground suffering from pests, disease, breeze, and the lack of sun. Without special training, they will not bear fruit. This is why the vineyards carefully guide the vines. The gardener carefully maintains each vine and cultivates its branches to bear many grapes. This is exactly what we find here. Those on the ground are lifted up and twisted onto the trellis to bear their own fruit.
Summary: The “lift up” translation best fits the context. “To bear up” is okay, but it typically refers to holding up in a permanent way rather than “lift up” referring to a movement to aid the branch. The translation “take away” completely does not fit verse 2. Instead of building confidence and strength, the use of “takes away” causes great confusion—the exact opposite of what Jesus was teaching at this momentous time in history.
3.) The Context of John 15
The translation “lift up” wonderfully fits the pastoral instruction found in this garden allegory and at the end of the Gospel of John. Within hours after Jesus spoke on the vine, three key questions would arise in the disciples’ minds—all being answered by this one vine illustration.
Summary: The Vinedresser’s purpose is to assist the branches to bear more fruit and help those who need assistance—even to those who fail to bear fruit. Jesus treated the disciples (15:2) completely different from Judas (15:6).
- The first question is about what would happen to Judas the traitor who had already left them to betray Jesus that same night. Judas left the others earlier that evening (John 13), but his full betrayal had not yet come to light. It would within hours. Verse 6 (not 2) clarifies what would happen to those who did not abide in Jesus.
- The second question, incited by the horrific death of Jesus, twelve hours later: How could so much evil happen to Him who was so good and righteous? It would first look like God was outwitted by the evil one—until they considered how Jesus hinted how the Father would prune Him to bear much fruit (cf. Isaiah 53:11-12). John 15:2b explains why God allowed Jesus to suffer on the cross.
- The third question would linger on over the following days and weeks, as the disciples reflected on their failures (cf. John 20-21). Are they any different from Judas? Every last disciple left and disowned Jesus—Him who so dearly befriended them. They are the branches who bore no fruit and needed the Father’s help. God didn’t reject them but tenderly dealt with them so that they would bear fruit (cf. John 21).
4.) Close Scrutiny of John 15:2
A superficial look at John 15:2a will direct us to look at John 15:6, but when we skip over the problems stemming from providing only one translation, as we should, then we can begin to appreciate the significance difference between the John 15:2a branches and 15:6 branches.
Two convincing contextual teachings prove John 15:2a branches are not the same ones as in John 15:6.
The branches in 15:2a, those that are lifted up (or taken away), are affirmed to be “in Me.” Jesus claims them as His own. This is the very opposite to those in 15:6, “If anyone does not abide in Me.” They do not belong to Him.
(1) “In Me”
Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John or the epistles know that this phrase “in Me” or “in Christ” are potent theological phrases involved in God’s grand redemptive program. “In Me” is used 24 times in the Gospel of John. Paul uses “In Christ” 14 times in Ephesians (10 times in Galatians). “In Him” (or into, Himself) is used 9 times in Ephesians.
By believing in Christ, one becomes in Christ and will never die. Just a sample of these “in Me” Johannine verses indicate a sure salvation, affirming what Jesus says in John 15:2.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
“I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
In Me — A Powerful theological New Testament Term
Enormous issues pop up once we assume those branches that do not bear fruit are the same as those taken away and burned up. Instead, Jesus in His pastoral role refers to those who are troubled, upset, self-focused, distracted, etc. They are not unbelievers, nor are they believers who lose their salvation. They are the disciples facing problems that need tending.
I will not debate the issue of the possibility of a believer to lose one’s salvation as that derives from the inappropriate translation “take away.” Jesus said and meant the exact opposite than the meaning “take away” lead by asserting those to believe in Him have eternal life. They are in Christ! This is why Jesus deals with them so gently here, that is, He lifts them up. He hopes for them to bear fruit.
Some people do not have theological issues with using “take away” for 15:2’s translation and subsequently assume these believers lose their salvation. But this is theological wrong (examine “in Me” statements in John) and linguistically inappropriate—opposite to what Jesus actually said: “You are already clean” (John 15:3). Jesus affirmed that they, the branches in verse 2, were clean, not unclean. They were radically unlike Judas Iscariot who professed faith but did not possess faith (verse 6).
Verse 3, though seemingly out of place, points to Jesus’ special message for the eleven disciples present with Jesus. Jesus validates that the branches in 15:2 are clean. They definitely are not the same branches as in 15:6! Jesus also suggests that someone, not present then at the time, was unclean. When Jesus told this vine illustration, Judas Iscariot was not present as he had been a few hours earlier. Jesus again identified the unclean one as Judas Iscariot. “Not all of you are clean.”
“Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:10-11)
Jesus’ words affirm all the branches (i.e., disciples) mentioned in verse 2 (whatever kind) were clean (15:3).
That one odd branch did not abide in Christ. John earlier pointed out Judas Iscariot’s impure heart when it is said he stole from the money bag (John 12:6). Judas Iscariot had an attachment to another commitment than the True Vine and “abided” in that philosophy of political liberation.
Summary: We are forced to conclude that the branches in verse 2 are not the same as in verse 6. Those in verse 2 were clean and were declared to be “in Me.” Those branches in verse 6 were unclean, not abiding in Christ, and were to suffer a fiery end.
5.) Theological and Biblical Affirmation
We should not conclude that believers can lose their salvation by equivocating the branches in verse 2 with the ones in verse 6. That usage of “take away” presents great theological difficulties. So, let us approach this question from a different angle by asking, “Is it possible that followers of Christ can be unfruitful and yet be saved?”
This is a good question for we expect the Lord to be sanctifying every believer for service. If it is true, then we can perhaps safely separate the branches in verse 2 from Jesus’ words in verse 3. If not, perhaps this is what is being taught.
Acknowledging the “unfruitful believer” doesn’t counter the doctrine of “persevering faith.” Some believers end up being children, swayed by the world most of their lives. This is the reason Paul tells them to grow up (Eph 4:14). At that point, they had never grown up into Christ’s fulness, though they were clearly in Christ.
Paul focuses on the above question in 1 Corinthians through teaching and example. In chapter 3 Paul answers a question about this whole matter.
“If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).
Many believers rightly associate fruit with salvation, but Paul (and Jesus affirms in 15:2) affirms that though fruit points to salvation, it does not mean the lack of fruit negates salvation. By having one’s work burned up, we can safely assume this work refers to their fruit. Since it burned up, it meant they had none.
Later on, Paul speaks about certain believers in the Corinthian church being weak, sick, and even delivered up to death (i.e., sleep) because of a resolute hardness to Christ. They did not bear fruit and therefore lost the privilege to live.
“For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor 11:30).
Summary: Some believers bear little or no evident fruit in their lives. The Lord does not reject them but tends to them, lifts them up like grape branches fallen to the ground, and cleans them off, hoping that they will bear fruit. While some believers persist in walking foolishly and suffer judgment, Others who profess to be a believer, like Judas, are not saved and never were saved. The scriptures validate that believers might be unfruitful and not lose their salvation.
By using “take away,” the church is separated from the powerful comfort that Jesus provided His disciples when they fell away. Instead of dreading if they, like the eleven, are thrown away, God’s people can relish and embrace the Gardener’s ongoing care for their lives so to bear fruit for His glory. God is powerfully at work in His people’s lives (Phil 1:6)!
Study Questions on John 15:2a
- What are the other possible translations of the Greek word (aero) for “take away” in verse 2?
- How do we know that these other translations are good alternatives?
- Why do Christians often use verse 6 to explain the first part of verse 2?
- Explain how “lift up” can be used to care for a vine branch.
- Why does Jesus’ usage of the phrase “in Me” in verse 2 demonstrate that the branches in verse 2a are Christians and different from those in verse 6?
- How does verse 3 again affirm that those described in verse 2 are believers?
- How does the setting of John 15 (John 13 to 21) help us understand the teaching lessons Jesus was passing on to His disciples that night?
- Why or why not do you think verse 6 describes what happens to those who leave the faith like Judas Iscariot?
- Summarize why the author believes “take away” is a poor translation in verse 2a. Do you agree? Explain.
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