1 sn <i>Even now the ax is laid at the root of the treesi>. The imagery of an “ax already laid at the root of the trees” is vivid, connoting sudden and catastrophic judgment for the unrepentant and unfruitful. The image of “fire” serves to further heighten the intensity of the judgment referred to. It is John’s way of summoning all people to return to God with all their heart and avoid his unquenchable wrath soon to be poured out. John’s language and imagery is probably ultimately drawn from the OT where Israel is referred to as a fruitless vine (<data ref="Bible:Ho 10:1-2">Hos 10:1-2data>; <data ref="Bible:Je 2:21-22">Jer 2:21-22data>) and the image of an “ax” is used to indicate God’s judgment (<data ref="Bible:Ps 74:5-6">Ps 74:5-6data>; <data ref="Bible:Je 46:22">Jer 46:22data>).
1 sn The Greek verb <span class="greek">αἴρωspan> (<span class="translit">airōspan>) can mean “lift up” as well as “take away,” and it is sometimes argued that here it is a reference to the gardener “lifting up” (i.e., propping up) a weak branch so that it bears fruit again. In Johannine usage the word occurs in the sense of “lift up” in <data ref="Bible:Jn 8:59">8:59data> and <data ref="Bible:Jn 5:8-12">5:8-12data>, but in the sense of “remove” it is found in <data ref="Bible:Jn 11:39">11:39data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 11:48">11:48data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 16:22">16:22data>, and <data ref="Bible:Jn 17:15">17:15data>. In context (theological presuppositions aside for the moment) the meaning “remove” does seem more natural and less forced (particularly in light of v. <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">6data>, where worthless branches are described as being “thrown out”—an image that seems incompatible with restoration). One option, therefore, would be to understand the branches which are taken away (v. <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:2">2data>) and thrown out (v. <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">6data>) as believers who forfeit their salvation because of unfruitfulness. However, many see this interpretation as encountering problems with the Johannine teaching on the security of the believer, especially <data ref="Bible:Jn 10:28-29">John 10:28-29data>. This leaves two basic ways of understanding Jesus’ statements about removal of branches in <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:2">15:2data> and <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">15:6data>: (1) These statements may refer to an unfaithful (disobedient) Christian, who is judged at the judgment seat of Christ “through fire” (cf. <data ref="Bible:1Co 3:11-15">1 Cor 3:11-15data>). In this case the “removal” of <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:2">15:2data> may refer (in an extreme case) to the physical death of a disobedient Christian. (2) These statements may refer to someone who was never a genuine believer in the first place (e.g., Judas and the Jews who withdrew after Jesus’ difficult teaching in <data ref="Bible:Jn 6:66">6:66data>), in which case <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">15:6data> refers to eternal judgment. In either instance it is clear that <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">15:6data> refers to the fires of judgment (cf. OT imagery in <data ref="Bible:Ps 80:16">Ps 80:16data> and <data ref="Bible:Eze 15:1-8">Ezek 15:1-8data>). But view (1) requires us to understand this in terms of the judgment of believers at the judgment seat of Christ. This concept does not appear in the Fourth Gospel because from the perspective of the author the believer does not come under judgment; note especially <data ref="Bible:Jn 3:18">3:18data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 5:24">5:24data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 5:29">5:29data>. The first reference (<data ref="Bible:Jn 3:18">3:18data>) is especially important because it occurs in the context of <data ref="Bible:Jn 3:16-21">3:16-21data>, the section which is key to the framework of the entire Fourth Gospel and which is repeatedly alluded to throughout. A similar image to this one is used by John the Baptist in <data ref="Bible:Mt 3:10">Matt 3:10data>, “And the ax is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Since this is addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to John for baptism, it almost certainly represents a call to initial repentance. More importantly, however, the imagery of being cast into the fire constitutes a reference to eternal judgment, a use of imagery which is much nearer to the Johannine imagery in <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">15:6data> than the Pauline concept of the judgment seat of Christ (a judgment for believers) mentioned above. The use of the Greek verb <span class="greek">μένωspan> (<span class="translit">menōspan>) in <data ref="Bible:Jn 15:6">15:6data> also supports view (2). When used of the relationship between Jesus and the disciple and/or Jesus and the Father, it emphasizes the permanence of the relationship (<data ref="Bible:Jn 6:56">John 6:56data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 8:31">8:31data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 8:35">8:35data>; <data ref="Bible:Jn 14:10">14:10data>). The prototypical branch who has not remained is Judas, who departed in <data ref="Bible:Jn 13:30">13:30data>. He did not bear fruit, and is now in the realm of darkness, a mere tool of Satan. His eternal destiny, being cast into the fire of eternal judgment, is still to come. It seems most likely, therefore, that the branches who do not bear fruit and are taken away and burned are false believers, those who profess to belong to Jesus but who in reality do not belong to him. In the Gospel of John, the primary example of this category is Judas. In <data ref="Bible:1Jn 2:18-19">1 John 2:18-19data> the “antichrists” fall into the same category; they too may be thought of as branches that did not bear fruit. They departed from the ranks of the Christians because they never did really belong, and their departure shows that they did not belong.