Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Play on Words (John 15:2-3)

I suspect that there is nothing harder to bring into English than a play on words. When that play on words branches (pun intended) into metaphors (and the question of how hard to push the imagery), and into the relationship between justification and sanctification, it moves from “hard” to “almost impossible.” Then add in John’s use of double meanings and nuances, and many translators go screaming into the night.

As a followup on a previous post, I was asked about the relationship between “prunes” (John 15:2) and “clean” (v 3). Here are the two verses; pay special attention to the Greek. “Every branch (klema) of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away (airo), and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes (kathairo) , that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean (katharos) because of the word that I have spoken to you” (ESV).

Okay, there are lots of things going on here. First of all, klema is not the normal word for a branch, which is klados. klema is more appropriate for the tendrils, the non-fruit bearing suckers that will never produce fruit and yet absorb life-giving nourishment. So the image is of the vinedresser removing anything that would take nourishment away from the fruit-bearing branches. (Qualification: klema is used for a normal branch in the context later on, so we should not put too much weight on this point.)

Secondly, airo means “to prune.” As you may have noticed in the comments to the previous post, there is some debate as to the precise meaning of this, but basic to the word is the idea of taking something away, not just lifting up (see references in BDAG, especially the references to meaning “take away” without any reference to “taking up”). The non-fruit bearing suckers are cut off. They will never bear fruit. The life of the vine (i.e., Jesus) is intended only for those branches that can and will bear fruit. (In an interesting parallel, John 13:10, Jesus earlier said that the disciples are already clean (katharos), but not all, meaning Judas, the “son of perdition.”)

Now starts the play on words. Those branches that are able to bear fruit because of the vine need to be pruned. If they are not pruned, they will not be nearly as fruitful. But kathairo has an interesting semantic range. It can be used in a physical sense of pruning, but it can also mean “to clean” such as when you sweep a floor clean (see BDAG). Jesus is starting to make the shift from a physical truth to his true intent of making a spiritual truth. He is concerned with the spiritual purity and fruitfulness of his followers.

We have two apple trees in our front yard. When the blossoms come out, I have a choice. I can either cut back about two-thirds of the stems holding the blossoms and end of with some good Washington apples later in the summer, or I can be lazy and not prune them back, and the best I am going to get is lots of small apples fit only for the deer, and also expect some of the branches to break under the weight of too many little, worthless apples. The same is true of vines. A vine will produce a lot of unproductive growth that must be cut off if the true branches are going to receive enough nourishment to be fruitful. As my father writes, “God’s ‘pruning’ is his gracious way of directing the flow of spiritual energy in order that his plans for our lives will be realized’ (Robert Mounce, John, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised, page 574).

While the pruning process is not painful to the apple tree or the vine, it can be painful to Jesus’ followers, can’t it? It is similar to Heb 12:6. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (which I blogged on earlier). Even though we are to count all things in the context of joy, the snipping of God’s shears can be painful, whether it is a loss of job, or friends, or security, or personal goals. The question is, is our pruner all-loving and all-knowing, and of course the answer is “Yes.”

But back to the vine. V 3 had always been a strange verse to me, parenthetical at best. And I know that Jesus and the biblical writers at times include parenthetical remarks, but my default is to assume a comment is not parenthetical and to look for connections. That connection is provided by the play on words — and this is one of the reasons why we all learn Greek. The connection will be lost, or its strength diminished, if you don’t see how strongly the Greek is tying vv 2-3 together.

As the disciples listen to Jesus and hear him talking about cutting off dead wood and pruning the new fruit on the vine, I suspect they were looking puzzled. (Perhaps most of the Upper Room Discourse puzzled them.) Jesus wants to assure them, now that Judas is gone, that they are not dead wood to be cut off and burned. They are true branches attached to the life-giving vine, Jesus. But that means the vinedresser would be snipping away at them. In fact, they have already been pruned back; they have already be purified by the message of the Messiah (feel the play on words).

These are wonderful words of encouragement, that despite all the ups and downs they have experienced, and the big one that is yet to come (a crucified Messiah), they are firmly attached to the vine and have been prepared by God to bear much fruit. It has hurt, and is going to hurt, but that does not mean the vinedresser has ignored them or doesn’t know what he is doing. In fact, the pruning is part of their assurance, as is the disciplining of a son, that God knows exactly what he is doing, and the end of the process is their own spiritual growth and the glory given to God though our fruit.

The final question of the passage is how far to push the metaphors. Are the tendrils apostate Christians, or are they people who joined the visible community of the church but never were truly attached to the vine, or is it part of the imagery to help the metaphor come alive?

Regardless of the answer to this question, the primary purpose of the metaphor is “to insist that there are no true Christians without some measure of fruit. Fruitfulness is an infallible mark of true Christianity” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 515). He concludes, there is a persistent strand of New Testament witness that depicts men and women with some degree of connection with Jesus, or with the Christian church, who nevertheless by failing to display the grace of perseverance finally testify that the transforming life of Christ has never pulsated with them.”

Both Calvin and Wesley would respond, “Well said.”