The first three verses of John 15 have caused no small degree of concern for Christians. Does it teach that if I don’t “abide” that I’ll be burned in hell?
I’ll focus on verses 2 and 6 here.
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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. …. 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.
Here’s the cultural background that will help us read this passage as it would have been read by the original audience.
First, there were two times of pruning in the grape growing industry in 1st century Palestine; Spring and Fall. The grapes begin to ripen in July and were usually harvested in September.
In the spring, before the growing season, vinedressers would go through their vineyards and tidy up, care for the vines to get maximum fruit growth. He would lift up, or tie up, or raise up, or take up a vine that was on the ground to prevent it from sending down false roots into the dirt which would compromise its ability to bear fruit. “To lift up” is the #1 meaning of the word here according to BDAG (Greek dictionary of the NT). It is this very concept that is referred to in John 15:2 when Jesus says, “He takes away” or “lifts up” every branch in me that bears no fruit.…” Rather than threatening eternal damnation, “lifting up” indicates that the vinedresser gives special attention to those not yet bearing fruit.
Observe that these branches are “in me” – that is they are saved, but yet they lack fruit. Vinedressers understand that a vine can have genuine life, but lack fruit for a variety of reasons. The last thing a vinedresser would do it whack off the vine and destroy it! What do they do? They lift it up and care for it so it can produce fruit!
In the fall, after the growth season and the harvest, then the vinedresser would clean up and prune the vines. John 15:6 is about the postharvest cleansing of the vine. He would not cut off the unfruitful branches that would produce grapes the next season but only the branches that did not have a healthy connection to the vine.
So what does it mean that “If you do not remain (abide) in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (15:6).
Context is important. Jesus gave no hint that he was talking about unbelievers here. In the context, He was speaking about believers (disciples) who were either abiding or not abiding. Yes, it’s possible to be a believer and not abide. Remember that “abide” is a synonym for fellowship, not salvation. The point is not their judgment but their uselessness.
The word “burning” is only used 11 times in the NT, and 9 of them a temporal burning. The only 2 that do refer to burning in hell are in Revelation 19 and 21 which is describing the lake of fire. The burning here refers to divine discipline or temporal judgment.
1) We want to submit to the Master Vinedresser as He lifts us up – introduces changes in our lives that He knows will enable better fruit production.
2) Stay close to the Vine. Apart from the life giving, life flowing power of the Vine we will wither!
Enjoy Walking with the Savior Today,