Interactions with various people about the interpretation of kolasis (Matthew 25:46 — Internet Moments Entry # 114) have raised questions about John’s use of the verb airō 15:2. Did John intend this to have a positive sense “lift up,” i.e., elevate sagging branches so that they might produce fruit, or a negative sense “cut off, remove,” i.e., remove branches that are not fruit-bearing (John 15:2). Which interpretation one chooses generates very different understandings of Jesus’ teaching in this context.
First, we should acknowledge that airō means “lift up, pick up, carry.” However, it is equally the case that this verb signifies “carry away, take away, remove,” often with reference to destruction. In John 1:29 John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away (ho airōn) the sin of the world.” The verb obviously in this context has the sense of remove. The paralyzed man (John 5:9), however, “lifted up (ēren) his bed and began walking” (cf. 11:41). Jesus prophecies his death in 10:18 and declares that “no one is taking (airei) it [my life] from me.” The sense is to take away with a view to destruction. At Jesus’ trial the Jewish religious leaders have to act against Jesus in their view because if they let him go, “the Romans will come and take away (arousin) both our place and the nation” (11:48). Again the sense is that of removal which results in loss. At the crucifixion the crowds cry “take him away (aron), crucify him” (19:15). In fact this verb has the sense of carry away, take away, remove in the majority of its occurrences in John’s Gospel. Particularly interesting is the use of the verbal phrase airein ton lithon/tous lithous to mean “take up stones” for stoning (8:59) and “take away the stone” in reference to Lazarus’ grave (11:39). Context is the only means of discerning whether the verb in these two contexts means to take up or take away. This is very similar to 15:2 where we read airei auto without further modification. The accusative case marks an object and the construction in isolation could be open to either interpretation. So I would conclude that we have to consider the context of John 15:2 very carefully in order to discern how the writer intended the verb to mean in this discourse.
Secondly, it has long been observed that the writer likely intended there to be a play on words between airei…kathairei in 15:2. Although the two verbs are not cognate, nevertheless they do sound the same. This word play works in Greek, but probably not in Aramaic. So it may be that the writer is using airei in an unusual sense related to viticulture because he wished to create this word play. There is a difference between how one type of branch is treated (not-bearing-fruit) and the other (bearing-fruit).
Thirdly, we can document the use of kathairein to describe the pruning of vine branches to force them to produce better fruit. However, we have no context where airein applies to cutting off branches of vines as part of the pruning process, nor of its use to describe how vine branches were lifted from the ground to prevent them from rooting. This does not mean that airein could not be used to describe various aspects of viticulture. However, this verb does not seem to be part of the technical vocabulary used to describe viticulture.
So we have to discern the meaning of this verb from its context.
The syntactical structure of 15:2 is one main clause coordinated with a second main clause, qualified by a purpose (hina) clause. Does the hina clause modify both main clauses or only the second one? In the flow of the syntax it would seem that the purpose clause defines the second main clause. If this is correct then we do not know immediately from the content of the first main clause whether to read the action of the verb airei in 15:2a as positive or negative. Because the branch is not producing fruit, the farmer takes some action, but it is undefined apart from airei auto.
Verses 3 – 5 focus upon those branches that bear fruit. It is probable that 15:6 comes back to the condition of the branches that do not bear fruit (15:2a) and provides the response — fruitless branches are “thrown away similar to a branch that has withered.” Eventually such refuse is gathered and burned. Further, the semantic equations in v. 5 between “abiding in me” and “bearing much fruit” indicate that in v. 6 “not abiding in me” is equivalent to “not bearing fruit” as we find in 15:2a. I do not think a third category of branches is being discussed in v. 6.
Theological considerations seem to have particular bearing upon which interpretation one chooses. D. Carson in The Gospel According To John (514-15, 518) provides an excellent discussion about this matter. “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 within them (e.g., Mt. 13:18-23; 24:12; Jn. 8:31ff; Heb. 3:14-19; 1 Jn. 2:19; 2 Jn. 9).”