A Letter to Bibleman

Not long ago, we received the following message from a curious reader.

Dear Bibleman,

[Okay, I lied. The reader didn’t call me Bibleman. But please indulge my superhero vagaries.]

biblemanI was wondering if someone can write an article on UBFriends regarding John 15, specifically mentioning John 15:2. Do you mind explaining to me briefly the meaning behind Jesus’ words? I want to clarify what that verse actually means. I was told often to cut of certain things in my life that did not bear fruit. To a certain degree, I agree with that. For example if I habit of lying and end up hurting people, that does not produce in me Christlike character. At the same time, this verse is often used or implied as you need to get rid of your girlfriend, job, whatever, because it doesn’t bear fruit! If you don’t mind explaining that verse to me, I would appreciate it!

Dear Reader,

If I someone gave me a nickel for every time I have been asked that question, I would have five cents!

I’m sure that many of our readers have encountered that interpretation of John 15:2 before. Let’s call it the “We should prune ourselves” or WESHPRO interpretation.

Before going any father, let’s agree that, in many cases, pruning yourself may be a perfectly good thing to do. Suppose you are running a business, and some of your investments are failing to generate profits. Sooner or later you have to say, “Enough!” and cut your losses by eliminating the unprofitable ventures from your portfolio. WESHPRO is often a reasonable principle to follow in business and in your personal life, because it is good, common sense.

But WESHPRO is not found in John chapter 15. To claim that WESHPRO is being taught there, we have to ignore what Jesus actually says.

Here are the words of Jesus in John 15:1-4, quoted from the New International Version.

1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes* so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

* The Greek for he prunes also means he cleans.

The first thing to notice in this passage is that there’s a whole lotta prunin’ goin’ on. But who is being pruned? Jesus. And who is doing the pruning? The Father. To squeeze WESHPRO out of this passage, we would need to replace both Jesus and the Father with ourselves. Is that an accurate and responsible way to read the Bible?  Not on your life, or my name isn’t Bibleman!

The second thing to notice here are the instructions that Jesus gives to his disciples. If WESHPRO is an acceptable meaning, then I suppose that, somewhere in the passage, Jesus would actually tell his disciples to prune themselves. But that is not what Jesus does. There is only one command that Jesus gives to his disciples in this passage, and that command is: Remain in me.

The third thing to notice here is that the Greek verb translated as he prunes also means he cleans. In verse 3, Jesus brings his disciples into the metaphor, depicting them as branches attached to the true vine. The disciples are, in some sense, being pruned or cleaned. But Jesus says this action has already taken place. The disciples have already been pruned. From now on, their job is simply to remain in Jesus, to stay in a life-giving union with him as branches attached to a vine, and if they do, the fruit of the saving work of Jesus Christ will be borne through them.

To really understand what Jesus is saying, we need to carefully consider the context. Jesus is not speaking in a vacuum. This teaching, which is part of the Upper Room discourse (John chapters 13-17), must be understood in light of his imminent suffering and death. And this teaching is shaped by the historical context of first-century Judaism and the language of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament often depicts the nation of Israel as a vine. For example, consider Isaiah 5:7:

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty  is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah  are the vines he delighted in.

And consider this passage from Psalm 80:

7 Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

8 You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.

10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.

11 Its branches reached as far as the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.

12 Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?

13 Boars from the forest ravage it, and insects from the fields feed on it.

14 Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine,

15  the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.

16 Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish.

17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.

18 Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us that we may be saved.

Psalm 80, which appears to have been composed during the Babylonian exile, is a collective cry by the Jewish captives for God to save them and restore their kingdom. Jews of the first century prayed the psalms every day. There is little doubt that the disciples. when they heard Jesus’ metaphor of vine and branches, would immediately connect it to this psalm. The disciples, who were raised in Jewish homes and steeped in rabbinical traditions, held great pride and confidence in their heritage as God’s chosen people. Their identity was defined by their historical connection to Israel, which they viewed as God’s true vine.

Against this backdrop, the teaching of Jesus in John 15 becomes profoundly shocking. Notice his claim at beginning of verse 1: “I am the true vine…” What Jesus is actually saying, in Bibleman’s paraphrase, goes something like this.

Hey guys. I know that, for all your lives, you have taken immense pride in your identity as Jews. That’s okay. I’m a Jew too, in case you haven’t noticed! But I’ve got something important to say, something that will rock your socks. From now on, I am the True Vine. I am the source of all life and all nourishment. My arrival is the fulfillment of the psalmist’s cry for redemption and restoration. In fact, Psalm 80 is actually about me, even though the psalmist probably didn’t realize it. Haven’t you noticed, for example, that in verses 15 and 17 of that psalm, it talks about the “son” and “the son of man”? Well, that’s me. God has worked powerfully through the nation of Israel. That work was preparation for my arrival. From now on, your primary identity will be shaped by your connection to me.

“But Bibleman,” you may ask, “what does Jesus mean by pruning?”

Bibleman thinks that pruning is a complex metaphor with multiple meanings. Your English teacher may have taught you to avoid mixed metaphors. But Jesus never took your English class. He used language in ways that were common in the first century, and the authors of the New Testament enjoyed mixing their metaphors.

Bibleman thinks that, in John 15:1-4, Jesus is trying to convey the following points.

  • The Father is about to prune the Son. The Father will cut off the Son’s earthly life by sending him to the cross. But this pruning will create new life and new fruit after his resurrection.
  • The death and resurrection of the Son will become a means of wrath and judgment against those who have rejected him. Those events will cause some branches — some parts of the Jewish nation and aspects of their traditional faith (for example, the sacrificial system and temple worship) — to be cut off and destroyed.
  • The death and resurrection of the Son will clean the disciples (in fact, it already had!) and firmly establish their identity as branches of Jesus, the True Vine.

“But Bibleman,” you may ask, “what does this passage mean to me? What is this passage saying about what I’m supposed to do?”

Bibleman thinks that, whatever this passage meant to Jesus’ disciples in the first century, it means essentially the same thing to us today. Two millennia have passed, and our situation is somewhat different from that of the apostles. But Jesus is still the True Vine. He is still our source of life and nourishment. Our primary identity must still be grounded in him.

And regarding that last question, “What am I supposed to do?”, Jesus answered that himself. The command is clear: Remain in Jesus. Later in the chapter, Jesus clarifies what that means. It means to remain in his love. It means to love your brothers and sisters in Christ.

And that, says Bibleman, is enough.






  1. Bibleman to the rescue again, just in time!

  2. This is simply awesome! I concur fully with Bibleman. Near the end of my time in ubf, I got so sick of having to replace “Jesus” with “me” when studying the bible. We were even told at the last conference I ever attended to replace “Jesus” with “me” in Jesus’ high priestly prayer…. “glorify me!” we all shouted. Well not all of us. It was so surreal.

    ADMIN NOTE: I added a “more” tag so that the front page looks normal.

  3. btw, Hereticman now only uses The Message paraphrase version of the bible. It helps heal the scars that he got from using the NIV as a cheesegrater:

    John 15

    • Joe Schafer

      Bibleman likes The Message too. But he wouldn’t recommend it as the only version to look at. Neither would Eugene Peterson, the guy who produced it.

    • Hereticman agrees. He wants to clarify that he uses the Message as the primary source, and encourages the reference of at least 13 translations when trying to understand any part of the bible. He says that Sirach and Wisdom are important to look at as well.

  4. Hereticman agrees that WESHPRO is not what is being taught by John 15, mostly because he is against cutting off any part of one’s self.

    But Hereticman has a question: If we are the branches of Jesus, and the Father is pruning Jesus, doesn’t that also mean the Father may, at times, prune us? Is it a valid inference here in John 15 that if we remain in Jesus, we should be ready to be cleansed/pruned by the Father? And furthermore, if it is the Father doing the pruning, what business does anyone have trying to clean or prune anyone else?

    • Joe Schafer

      Yes. Bibleman thinks that is correct. Although we who are in Jesus have already been pruned (cleaned), there is an ongoing work of pruning (cleaning) that goes on throughout our lives. This is called sanctification. It is the work of God, carried out by the Holy Spirit. We participate in the process, but we do not direct it.

  5. Hereticman would also like everyone to note that he is not only against WESHPRO, but he also adamantly opposes MISHPRO (“missionaries should prune others”).

    • Joe Schafer

      And Bibleman thinks that others should not prune missionaries either. Though that is certainly tempting.

  6. Thanks for the clarifications Bibleman! And yes, Hereticman fully acknowledges the wrongness and futility of attempting OSHPRUMI, not that Hereticman has ever attempted such a thing…

  7. This is what I meant when I spoke about the difference between ubf Bible study and normal (Bibleman’s) Bible study. There is the same difference in every passage we’ve studied since we left ubf (more than a year already). And that’s why I can’t say that ubf is a normal christian church. There is not only spiritual abuse but also Scripture abuse in ubf. btw we’ve studied the John’s gospel newly in a Bibleman’s style)).

  8. I think a major reason why UBF has explained Bible verses and passages out of context, such as in this post, is that some UBF long-timers have the idea that you should just read the Bible and be directly inspired by the Bible/Holy Spirit, and not be “influenced by other sources.” This is not necessarily bad or wrong.

    The problem is that some think that if you read Bible references, commentaries, the sermons of others, you are not really studying the Bible.

    Then the contradiction is that it is OK to reference some UBF leader’s manuscript, but not the commentary or sermon of others.

    Such attitudes may gradually be changing in some UBF chapters. But perhaps not in all UBF chapters.

    • @Ben: You say “that some UBF long-timers have the idea that you should just read the Bible and be directly inspired by the Bible/Holy Spirit, and not be ‘influenced by other sources.'”

      Well, if that is so, why then do they require people to make Bible study with a Bible teacher and a questionnaire and listen to Sunday sermons and read the daily bread booklet. Aren’t all of these “other sources”, too? And aren’t these much, much stronger and manipulative than any Bible commentary since they envolve human relationships, and are repeated week for week, year for year?

      If the Bible would teach UBF doctrine all out of itself, wouldn’t it suffice to lock people into a room with just the Bible every week, instead of imposing 1:1s, group BSs, conferences, DB, SWS etc. on them?

  9. I think that the Bible had been studied through (not all the books) in ubf long ago and there is nothing left to study. Since those golden years everything a ubfer is supposed to do is to learn the heritage interpretation of every Bible passage in order to be an elite christain and the best Bible teacher. Not to be influenced by other sources is not necessarily bad or wrong, but the only ubf source is bad and wrong. And I see in myself that the ubf Bible study style made me unhealthy in my mind and in my relationship with God and his word and I need time to be healed. Though I agree that ubf experience has helped me to understand and discern many “bad” and “strange” things which normal christians have never seen in their life.

  10. To understand John 15:2 in the WESHPRO way – is it bad and wrong? or not so bad? To understand EVERY Bible passage in the similar heritage way – is it bad and wrong or not so?

  11. Sharon Schafer

    It isn’t bad to study the Bible as UBF has…it’s a form of narrative theology, which focuses on teaching and hearing stories of faith rather than on propositional truth and systematic theology. This can be a very valuable way to study the Bible and form a faith community with shared purpose and meaning. I think all churches do this to some extent and many would benefit from doing it more. The problem occurs when no attempt is made to understand the context of the original story, and to place it the context of the finished work of Christ, that is to relate it to systematic theology. This is a recipe for error and false teaching

    • I think you hit on an excellent point Sharon (and a point that someone should develop into a ubfriends article..!) – Narrative theology.

      Yes indeed, narrative theology is a valuable approach. I would like to say that seeing the bible as a redemptive narrative is the only way to study it, but I know there are other valid approaches.

      And yes, ubf does often use the narrative approach to the bible. The fatal flaw, as I see it, is that in ubf I made the narrative about me. As I continue to reflect on the past 20+ years, I see that I wove myself into the narratives of the bible. When I studied Abraham, I was Abraham. When I studied Jacob, I was Jacob. When I studied Jesus, I was Jesus. I was constantly, week after week, weaving my life into the bible, attempting to imitate the bible characters.

      This became problematic. Why? Because I am Brian Karcher (aka. heretic man) and NOT any of the bible characters. I see now that it is fine to learn from the bible, but to put myself into the bible like I was doing led me to live in a fantasy world that became disconnected from reality.

      This was a major point of contention between Chris and I in the past :) Thankfully, Chris won this argument! Studying the bible as a narrative is good, but we must see Jesus’ narrative as we live our own, unique narrative together with the Body of Christ.

  12. The pastor in my previous chapter would often say, “Truth without application leads to arrogance, and application without truth leads to heresy.” (paraphrased) I appreciated that saying. It reminded me that in any passage of the Bible, my study should be balanced; on one hand, not only looking for truths that lead me to a deeper understanding of Scripture, but also looking for ways in which the Spirit wants me to put those truths into practice to better love Jesus and God’s people. And on the other hand, not merely trying to find rules/directives in Scripture that need to be applied to me, but to find the deep truths of Jesus Christ, God, and the gospel in each passage.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts!

    • Joshua, I like that comment about application and truth. These days I like even more the concept of multi-faceted approaches to the bible and faith.

      I am trying to weed out all pendulum type thinking- the “either/or” dichotomies that seem to plague Christianity these days. I think God and the bible and faith are not so binary. The best solution I’ve found is to consider the Trinity and constantly strive for more options.

      So I think that avoiding heresy and arrogance is not so simple as getting application and truth right. I think we would need to also consider “reality”, as well as the Spirit’s guidance.

      For example, let’s say there is a truth that “2 + 2 = 4”. It is clear that those are the facts. Let’s say the bible teaches such a fact. How do we apply such truth? Well, we would say that a believer must get the answer of “4” whenever adding 2 plus 2. For a lot of people, this is a fine application, and not a problem of conscience.

      What if there is a person who has a broken “4” key? That person will never be able to get the same “truth” as everyone else.

      This is possibly a lame example, but my point is that the human condition is multi-faceted and not binary. We humans are all broken in some way. We need to deal with our own sins on top of that brokenness. And furthermore we have to face God’s law that reveals our ugliness. And on top of that we seem to have an inherent selfishness. And even if we somehow resolve all of that, we must face God’s curse upon this world.

      So to avoid arrogance and heresy, I say we need a magnificent gospel that addresses our entire human condition, not merely truth and the right application.

  13. ADMIN NOTE: Our host servers experienced a power outage of some sort last night for several hours. Everything came back up this morning, but there may be minor outages today if the host has to restart something.

    • Joe Schafer

      Is the server housed at the New Orleans Superdome?

    • Ha! No, I think the servers are in Utah. But interestingly enough, the Bluehost team quickly pointed out Sunday on their blog that even the Superbowl people have power problems!

  14. Phil 2 Five

    @Bibleman jajaj, my thoughts on this statement: “From now on, their job is simply to remain in Jesus, to stay in a life-giving union with him as branches attached to a vine, and if they do, the fruit of the saving work of Jesus Christ will be borne through them.” As Brian mentioned earlier, too often the focus in a UBF Bible study is “self”. Like you mentioned before Jesus’ command in John 15 is to remain in Jesus, His love, and His word.

    Here’s a quote from a message on John 15:1-8:
    (Source: http://ministrydepot.com/sermons/2009/04/sermon-for-john-15-1-8-easter-5-b-loaded-with-fruit/)

    “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Near the word, ‘he,’ write in the word, ‘God.’ God is the owner and gardener of the vineyard.
    The Pharisees were people who did not have a vital connection with Jesus Christ nor with God. Both John the Baptist and Jesus warned their listeners about the Pharisees and Sadducees who did not produce the good fruit of the kingdom and their dead lives would be pruned and they would be thrown into the unquenchable fire.
    We think of tomato plants that grow up and are very full of green leaves but have no tomatoes on them. What a disappointment. We grow tomato plants to raise tomatoes, not simply to have green bushes. Some people like the Pharisees produce lives that are like tomato plants, all show and green. They tithe, read their Bibles and show up in church, but they don’t produce any attitudes and actions of love towards God and the neighbor.” Although I do agree that there are things in our lives which do not produce fruit and need to be ‘cut off’, I do not agree how UBF Bible study are often conducted.

    • Joe Schafer

      Dear Phil 2 Five,

      It seems to me that you are not objecting to the idea of pruning yourself. Bibleman doesn’t object to that either. Sometimes it’s necessary.

      Perhaps you are objecting to the way that some people will use passages of scripture to exert pressure on others to make decisions that God may not be calling them to make. They try to use John 15:2 to prune others in inappropriate ways. Bibleman doesn’t like that.

    • Phil 2 Five

      Exactly my point!!

      “Perhaps you are objecting to the way that some people will use passages of scripture to exert pressure on others to make decisions that God may not be calling them to make.”

      >> It seems more often than not, some UBF leaders, tend to tell people what God’s calling is for them. Here’s what frustrates me! Some leaders seem so sure of what God wants you to do, regardless of how God is actually leading you. If you were to disagree then they pull out the ‘deny yourself’ card and put it on the table.

  15. jaemanpark1231

    Thank you for your article. I think your approach is unique, logical and even more biblical. If I understand your explanation correctly, would it be like this.

    “God the Father prunes us who are in Jesus [v2] by His words [3] through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    Although I learned the passage in the similar way in Korea UBF [we should prude ourselves], but my bible teacher prayed that I might be pruned by the power of the Holy Spirit through the word of God and prayers. My experience with that passage was beautiful.

    Maybe, because of my biased experience, I felt a little bad about the comments that some people had to mentally/spiritually suffer due to inaccurate interpretation and inappropriate applications of John 15.

    I thank God for you who meditate on the Scripture day and night and speak the truth with confidence.