Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

αἴρω in John 15:2

I recently received this question, and I thought the answer would be helpful for those learning to determine the meaning of words.

“I was wondering if you could answer why most of (I have not read all) the different translations translate airo in John 15:2 as take away? I've only had an introduction to Greek, but it seems to me that raise up (or something similar) would be more contextually appropriate, especially in light of vs. 3, so I was wondering if it is translated the way it is because of some other textual reasons.”

Before answering the question, please note two good parts of the question. (1) Humility. The writer sees his lack of experience as a potentially limiting factor. (2) His question is based on the context of John 15. Both are very good. Congratulations.

Here are the two verses in question: “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away (airo, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.”

I am not sure why he thinks verse 3 suggests a translation of “raise up,” and I am not sure what “raise up” would mean in verse 2. How would God raise up unfruitful branches. So that is part of the answer. The context of v 2 requires a meaning that fits the image of vine husbandry, contrasts properly with “prune,” and parallels v 6. “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Having said that, the issue here is semantic range. airo has a range of meaning as listed by BDAG as (1) to lift up, take up, pick up, (2) to lift up and move from one place to another, (3) to take away, remove, or seize control without suggestion of lifting up, take away, remove. So the range of meaning is between removing, and picking up to remove. I am not seeing in BDAG any special category for horticulture, but the idea up picking up and removing fits the picture of grapes being lifted up to be examined and then pruned. Hence the TNIV: “He cuts off.”

The suggestion of “raise up” really is not part of the semantic domain. It is to raise up for the purpose of removing, and that is what “take away” does, and hence its common use in translation.

But let me say again, there is much in this question to commend it, even though it is not correct. The person recognized his limitations, and sought for help from the context. That’s a good start.


I watched a video once from a grape growers point of view. "Raise up" is really correct, because what a vine dresser does if a branch doesn't bear fruit is he cleans it off and ties it up higher so it can receive sunlight and bear fruit! This would make more sense because this had been described as a vine "in Me." I think it translated "taken away" due to the translator's preconceptions!

We should be cautious at connecting something to a translator's preconceptions, since we don't know them. Most translators think this is what the word means, regardless of their theologic leanings.

Dr. Mounce, thank you for your response to the question above. I myself have only studied a few semesters of Greek, but we used your textbook, and so I have profound respect for your expertise in this field. I hope none of my questions below come off as arrogant in any way. I am truly seeking to learn the correct meaning of this word in preparation to preach a message on John 15, and I see that the meaning of this word dramatically affects the meaning of this passage. I am still wondering if you can clarify why "airo" should not be translated as lifted up, since in the context of vinedressing, the vinedresser will consistently lift up a branches from the ground that are not bearing fruit, wash the dirt off, and then wrap it around the trellis so that it gets sunlight and bears fruit. I'm wondering if the more common interpretation could be missing it here. Bruce Wilkinson in his book "Secrets of the Vine" says about his study of this word "airo" that " in both the Bible and Greek literature, 'airo' never means 'cut off'" (p. 33). I am still in the process of studying this word for myself to see if he is correct, which is what led me to your post. But if Wilkinson is right, it would be surprising that translators would choose "takes away" as the translation, when that is rarely, or possibly never, the way the word is translated. One final thought: I have heard many people connect verse 6 to verse 2 in order to explain why "airo" must mean "cut off." I myself have assumed that these must have been the same branches as I have read this in the past as well. However, it seems like there is a pretty major difference between the two branches talked about in these verses. In verse 2, the branch that is not bearing fruit is described as "in me," while the branch in verse 6 is described as a person who "does not abide in me;" that is the type of branch that withers, is gathered, and thrown into the fire. I am very curious for your thoughts on this.

Tanks for your note. I had wondered why so many people have your interpretation, and now I know it is (somewhat) due to Wilkinson. It is true that the word can mean, "lift up, take up, pick up," but the predominant meaning is to "take away, remove." Since the branches in v 5 are clearly destroyed, context suggests that this is what v 2 means as well. I am on vacation and can't check my commentaries, but I would guess this is the primary reason.

Good morning Bill So, Im new here, but am thankful that this is offered to people who are looking for additional insights into what God was really wanting to convey to His followers thru His Word. As I look into this passage, wanting to know what may be going on in my own life, its of critical importance to me that I come away with the true meaning of what My Creator is wanting to say to me. From the comments above, it sounds to me like you are saying that— if someone who is “ in me”.... meaning a Believer & Follower of Christ- ( though a failing human) is coming from the lips of Our Savior himself- that He will cut off, and throw them into the fire, if they aren’t bearing fruit.... If I’m being honest- and I sure am, that would not only be one of the scariest verses in all of Scripture, as well as being quite contradictory to Many other passages that say that our salvation is sure.... Im sure if you know God’s Word, then just me mentioning the book of Romans would bring those to mind. If you’ve never had a season in your life that you feel somewhat discouraged in your walk with God, then congratulations!! But somehow I dont think that’s possible for any True believer. We all have sin, disappointment, and discouragement at times..... that’s one of the main reasons we need Him, not to mention our hopelessness due to our sin nature, without His Grace & Mercy. It does make complete sense to me that a Loving, Caring, and Understanding ( for He knows our frame, and He remembers that we are dust...”) Father, would reach down in our time of fruitlessness, pick or lift us up, clean us off, and restore us to the desired relationship and fruit bearing, that He desires us to have with Him..... Not just cut us off, and just throw us away into the fire. What was the incredible and mind staggering pain of the Cross for...? If He’s just gonna throw us away, in seasons of fruitlessness? Doesn’t Scripture say that even when we are faithless, He remains Faithful? What is that all about then? And, there is a strong contrast in the statements between “ every branch in me”—— states that we who are already in Him— connected to The Vine.... and then vs 6 simply reads... “ if a man abide not in me”..... that implies a couple things— that a man- Not a branch— and it also states that - that man does Not abide “ in me”.... that guy or woman obviously isnt in Christ.... So, Im not going to assume your intentions of what you are wanting to try to convey to people.... But I strongly suggest that if your heart isnt trying to lead those who are seeking God, trying to become closer to Him, rather than away from Him... You might consider your hearts desire of why and what you’re doing....

Very good points are already raised. "in me" as mentioned by Aforextrader, indicates a believer, gets my attention. There are many as usual believers 'of Christ' in churches, question is how many are true believers 'in Christ'. There is an ocean difference between by born Christian and New Born Christian. New born Christian is more than a believer born through baptism in water but filled and submerged with Holy Spirit. John chapter 14, 15 and 16 specifically proclaim about the needs for Holy Spirit for every believer in leading a glorified and victorious life in Christ. Once we accept Jesus as the saviour by mouth, we are believer but that does not confirms a fruitful Christian life. As believers we are connected to Jesus but without expected fruit to glorify God, then it is not the goal of the Cross to "Cutt-off / take away" from Jesus and throw us away, but to redress and clean our sinful parts of our hearts (like circumcision); so that, we can be fruitful with the spiritual light of the unlimited form of Christ, the Holy Spirit ( as the Sun does for the grape trees). The branch as mentioned in verse 2 is completely different from that in the verse 6 of John chapter 15. I appreciate for bringing these very spiritual thoughts in the light.

As I have searched the KJV uses this Greek word 102 times, 32 times (the most used rendering) is "Lift Up" and "Take Away" is 25 times with several other renderings much less. And I have use "lift Up" ever since I learned of it. It seems to fix the context. There are 2 groups: Those that "ABIDE" and those that "DO NOT ABIDE" help me understand if I am wrong. Thank you