A consideration of the vine and branches metaphor in John 15:1-8
“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one abiding in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit. For apart from Me you are able to do nothing.” – John 15:5 Berean Literal Bible
What did our Lord mean by “the one abiding in me”?
A while back, Nicodemus asked me for my opinion on that, and I confess I was unprepared to give a considered answer.
The word rendered ‘abide’ here is from the Greek verb, menó, which according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance means:
“abide, continue, dwell, remain”
“A primary verb; to stay (in a given place, state, relation or expectancy) — abide, continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand, tarry (for), X thine own.“
An ordinary use of the word is found at Acts 21:7-8
“We then completed the voyage from Tyre and arrived at Ptol·e·maʹis, and we greeted the brothers and stayed [emeinamen derived from menó] one day with them. 8 The next day we left and came to Caes·a·reʹa, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelizer, who was one of the seven men, and we stayed [emeinamen] with him.” (Ac 21:7, 8)
However, Jesus is using it metaphorically in John 15:5 as there does not appear to be any literal way for a Christian to abide or dwell within Jesus.
The difficulty in understanding what Jesus means stems from the fact that ‘to abide in someone’ is largely nonsensical to the English ear. It may have been so to the Greek listener as well. Whatever the case, we do know that Jesus made use of common words in uncommon ways to express new ideas that came with Christianity. For instance, ‘sleep’ when referring to ‘death’. (John 11:11) He also pioneered the use of agape, an uncommon Greek word for love, in ways that were new and have become uniquely Christian.
Determining his meaning becomes even more challenging when we consider that Jesus often dropped the word ‘abide’ altogether as he does at John 10:38:
“But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10:38 KJV)
My previous theological training would have me believe that “abide in” can be accurately rendered “in union with”, but I’m loathe to fall back on out-of-the-box thinking, knowing how easily that can lead to following men. (See Addendum) So I put this question to the back of my mind for a couple of weeks until my daily Bible reading brought me to John chapter 15. There, I found the parable of the vine and the branches, and everything just fell into place. [i]
Let’s consider it together:
“I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch not bearing fruit in Me, He takes it away; and every one bearing fruit, He prunes it that it may bear more fruit. 3Already you are clean by reason of the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch is not able to bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither you, unless you abide in Me.
5I am the vine; you are the branches. The one abiding in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit. For apart from Me you are able to do nothing. 6If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown out like the branch and is dried up, and they gather them and cast them into the fire, and it is burned. 7If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you wish, and to you it will come to pass. 8In this My Father is glorified, that you should bear much fruit, and you shall be My disciples. (John 15:1-8 Berean Study Bible)
A branch cannot live separated from the vine. When attached, it is one with the vine. It abides or lives in the vine, drawing its nutrients from it so as to produce fruit. A Christian draws his life from Jesus. We are the branches feeding off the vine, Jesus, and God is the cultivator or vinedresser. He prunes us, cleans us, makes us healthier, stronger, and more fruitful, but only as long as we remain attached to the vine.
Not only do we abide in Jesus, but he abides in the Father. In fact, his relationship with God can help us to understand our relationship with him. For instance, he does nothing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing. He is the image of God, the exact expression of his character. To see the Son, is to see the Father. (John 8:28; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3; John 14:6-9)
This does not make Jesus into the Father any more than a Christian’s ‘being in Christ’ makes him into Jesus. Yet the fact that we abide in Jesus implies more than simply being one with him in goals, thoughts, and activities. After all, if I am united with someone or in union with him, I will share the same goals and motivation, but if that person passes away, I can continue to express the same thoughts, motivations, and goals as before. I don’t depend on him. This is not the case with us and Christ. Like a branch on a vine, we draw from him. The spirit he gives keeps us going, keeps us alive spiritually.
Since Jesus is in the Father, then to see Jesus is to see the Father. (John 14:9) It follows that if we abide in Jesus, then to see us is to see Him. People should look at us and see Jesus in our actions, attitudes and speech. All of that is only possible if we remain attached to the vine.
Just as Jesus is the image of God, the Christian should be the image of Jesus.
“. . .those whom he gave his first recognition he also foreordained to be patterned after the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Ro 8:29)
God is love. Jesus is the perfect reflection of his Father. Therefore, Jesus is love. Love is what motivates all his actions. After introducing the vine and branches illustration Jesus again uses menó by saying:
“As the Father has loved Me, I also have loved you. Abide (menó) in My Love. 10If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. 11These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” (John 15:9-11)
By dwelling, abiding, or living in the love of the Christ, we reflect him to others. This reminds us of another similar expression also from the book of John.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you should love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. 35By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love among one another.” (John 13:34-35)
You may see it differently, but for me, to abide in Christ and he in me means that I become the image of Christ. A poor reflection to be sure, for I am so very far from perfect, but nonetheless, an image. If Christ is in us, then we all will reflect something of his love and his glory.
Since many of those visiting this site are, or were, Jehovah’s Witnesses, they will be familiar with the unique way that the NWT renders menó in every one of the 106 occurrences where it appears, or is absent but implied. Thus John 15:5 becomes:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in union with me (menōn en emoi, ‘abides in me’) and I in union with him (kagō en auto, ‘I in him’), this one bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing at all.” (Joh 15:5)
Inserting the words, “in union with Christ” to replace “abide in Christ”, or simply, “in Christ”, actually changes the meaning. We’ve already seen that a person can be in union with another without depending on that person. For instance, we have many ‘unions’ in our culture.
- Trade Union
- Labor Union
- Credit Union
- European Union
All are united in purpose and goals, but each member does not draw life from the other nor does each one’s ability to stay on purpose depend on the others. This is not the message that Jesus is giving at John 15:1-8.
Understanding the Position of the NWT
There appears to be two reasons for this particular rendering, one intentional and the other unwitting.
The first is the tendency of the Organization to go to extremes to distance itself from the Trinity doctrine. Most of us will accept that the Trinity does not correctly reflect the unique relationship between Jehovah and his only-begotten Son. Nevertheless, there is simply no justification to alter the text of the Holy Scriptures to better support a belief, even if that belief happens to be true. The Bible as originally written is all the Christian needs to establish truth. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12) Any translation should strive to preserve the original meaning as closely as possible so that no vital nuance of meaning is lost.
The second reason is not likely due to a conscious decision—though I could be wrong about that. Either way, the rendering will seem natural to a translator steeped in the belief that 99% of all Christians are not anointed with Holy Spirit. ‘Abiding in Christ’ and being ‘in Christ’ depicts a particularly intimate relationship, one denied those who are not believed to be Christ’s brothers, i.e., the JW Other Sheep. It would be hard to continually read those passages—after all, there are 106 of them—and not come away with the idea that the relationship the Other Sheep are supposed to have with God and Jesus—friends, not children or brothers—doesn’t quite fit.
So by rendering “in union with” in all those places, it is easier to sell the idea of a more pedestrian relationship, one where the Christian is united with Christ in purpose and thought, but not much else.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about being united, which means being obedient to instructions from on high. Additionally, Jesus is depicted as our exemplar and our role model with little emphasis given to his role as the one to whom every knee should bend. So being in union with him dovetails nicely with that mindset.
[i] A frequent comment made by those JWs who have awakened is that they now feel a freedom they’ve never experienced. I am convinced that this sense of freedom is a direct result of being open to the spirit. When one abandons prejudice, preconceptions, and enslavement to the doctrines of men, the spirit is free to work its wonders and suddenly truth after truth opens up. This is nothing to boast about, for it is not of our doing. We do not achieve it through force of will or intellect. This is a free gift from God, a loving Father happy that his children are drawing closer to him. (John 8:32; Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 3:17)