By Dr. Fred Lybrand
So I’m in the shower (weird how we think there) and I’m going over John MacArthur’s view of John 15 about abiding (in my mind). I listened to MacArthur at a pace of 6 tapes a week for two years in my early days after coming to faith.
He described the branches that were ‘thrown in the fire’ as false branches (Judas Branches). Lest you think I’m making this up, I tracked it down:
There were the true branches and there were the false branches in the analogy. The true branches are represented by the eleven and the false branches are represented by Judas Iscariot. That whole thing flows out of the context of Judas’ betrayal. And at that point, the “In Me” simply means “identification.” I don’t think you can push too much theology into that “in Me” and say that it means absolute conversion. It’s attachment at that point, that’s all. And I think you have a Judas branch, and I think what it’s saying is that there will be people who will attach themselves superficially to Christ but in evidence bearing no fruit at all, will ultimately be cut off and cast into the fire because they show they have no life, because if they are had any life at all, they would have fruit. So I think it’s a graphic illustration of the whole context of what the disciples have just been through with them as compared to Judas.
(from: http://www.biblebb.com/files/macqa/1301-N-8.htm )
So, I did a little more digging and found that my old pastor and teacher Ken Gangel said something similar in the Holman NT Commentary on John 15:
15:6. Verse 6 narrows other possible interpretations of verse 2. We struggle a bit with the words, “he cuts off.” But thrown away and withers takes it further than we want to go in any reference to people who may have been true believers at one time. Certainly the words thrown into the fire and burned could never refer to those who were at one time true believers.
Blum treats this carefully and wisely:
These words have been interpreted in at least three ways: (1) the “burned” branches are Christians who have lost their salvation. (But this contradicts many passages, e.g., 3:16, 36; 5:24; 10:28-29; Rom. 8:1.) (2) the ‘burned’ branches represent Christians who will lose rewards but not salvation at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:15). (But Jesus spoke here of dead branches; such a branch “is thrown away and withers.”) (3) the “burned” branches refer to professing Christians who, like Judas, are not genuinely saved and therefore are judged. Like a dead branch, a person without Christ is spiritually dead and therefore will be punished in eternal fire (cf. Matt. 25:46) (Blum, p. 325).
(from Kenneth O. Gangel, vol. 4, John, Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference, 283-84 [Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000]).
Yes, of course it is strange that fire means literal hell in an analogy…and…yes, of course, it is strange that ‘in Me’ doesn’t mean ‘in Me’ (within their own view) consistently throughout the passage.
But what really struck me under the 98 degree stream of water was the whole idea of a FALSE BRANCH.
The reason this struck me (all these years later) is that there is NO SUCH THING in reality as a FALSE BRANCH. There are parasites (mistletoe) that look like they belong to the tree, yet Christ clearly (and easily could have said that) said the were vine branches. Back then there were no such things as ARTIFICIAL BRANCHES either. Artificial came along with wax and plastics and science (‘contrived by art’ around 1300AD). Christ is using a real, live thing as an illustration.
When the Lord uses sheep, He says some of the sheep are “not His.” He does not say that they are false sheep (you know…look like the real thing…but really aren’t sheep). False prophets are still real people and false teeth are still used for teeth….and, we know where these things come from.
But, where would a false branch come from? In nature (certainly in the NT era) no one had a notion or word for ‘false’ branch (any more than they would have for a false rock, stream, or fish). The branches are real, and they are In Christ. Obviously you must understand Him to be speaking of losing salvation or losing reward (see 1 Cor 3).
From Whence Cometh this Interpretation?
Necessity…and…it turns out to be a wonderful example of eisegesis, or imposing meaning on a text. Since Blum/Gangel exclude any alternate meanings of the word ‘dead’ in the context, they miss the obvious nature of the warning for believers. Therefore, with that as impossible and losing one’s justification as impossible (I agree)—all that is left for MacArthur, et al, is to make up the notion that there could exist in Christ’s mind (and on the earth) the idea that some branches (in Him) are actually fake or artificial branches.
I love these guys and I have no bones to pick, but all of us must learn to be very, very careful when we handle the Word of God. Saying, “It must mean A because B is false elsewhere, can easily tempt us not to read the actual words of the text.”
My practice is to try to settle on a meaning from the immediate passage BEFORE I compare it to other places in the Word. The comparison is valuable, but it is a dangerous way to interpret a passage by imposing meaning from elsewhere right off the bat! The Analogy of Scripture is great, but you must inductively begin with the parts rather than than the whole.
So, what do you think?
Fred Lybrand’s bio may be found here.