The first few verses of John 15 are simultaneously beautiful and haunting.
But the beauty of Jesus’ invitation to abide in him is too often overwhelmed by the prospect of being removed, pruned, cast into the fire. The thought of not producing fruit–or enough fruit–and being cast aside, evokes fear.
How much of our fear, I wonder, is unnecessary, driven by bad translation and misunderstanding of the cultural reference to the viticulture of Jesus’ day?
The word translated “removes” or “cuts off” is airei, which is better translated, “lifts up.” In other words, the vine-grower takes care to lift up the young shoots, directing them upward and cleaning the dust off them lest they become contaminated and be stunted or else rot and perish.
So what is the “fruit” that these branches are supposed to bear? Fruit is the natural outworking of the inner life of the plant. It is how the plant reproduces itself; plants always bear seed according to its kind.
So if Jesus is in the Father (and the Father is in him [see John 14:20]), then the fruit that Jesus bore was the manifestation of the Father’s essence and nature. And if we are in Jesus and he is in us (again, see John 14:20) then the fruit we will bear is the manifestation of the Father’s essence and nature expressed in us.
Given this understanding, why, then, would he cut us off or destroy us if we are abiding but bear little (or no) fruit?
If the Father is glorified as we bear much fruit (John 15:8), then these verses become a promise that the Father will lovingly care for us, lift us us and encourage us, support and nurture us as his essence and nature is manifested in us, not hack us off and throw us into the fire. He has begun a good work in us, and he will bring it to completion, Paul reminds us in Philippians 1:6.
So the next time we hear these verses from John 15 read, let’s hear them as an encouraging promise that we will be lifted up, not a threat that we will be cut off.