a New Christianity

The Branch, the Vine, and Mars' Hill

This is the follow up article to What Does it Mean... ‘God is Love?’
If you haven’t read that article yet, click on the link to start there.

In the article What Does it Mean… God is Love?, we looked at the four Greek words for love, (storge, philia, eros and agape), and concluded that it was indeed appropriate to look at these four distinct types of love and view them as different levels, and understandings of the same unifying concept: love. While we did look at the easy explanation of what Theos agape or (as 1st John 4:16b translated into English reads,) ‘God is Love’ means, we also realized that we need to look a little deeper, for the ‘not so easy’ answer.

There is a good reason for our search for the ‘deeper meaning’ of John’s statement. In closing out the series of articles on the Beatitudes, I boldly declared that in teaching the Beatitudes to the people, part of what Yeshua was trying to teach us is that we are a part of God! The problem then, is this: If we can’t define God any better than to say Theos agape, or ‘God is love’, then it doesn’t really make any difference whether we say we are a part of God or not, since the easy answer doesn’t bring us any closer to knowing what it means to say that we’re a part of God.

Let’s look at the Apostle Paul’s recorded speech to the Greeks at Mars’ hill which is in the second part of the 17th chapter of Acts. In addressing the men at the hill, Paul says “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:28 NRSV) The word “in” is an important word here, and its meaning plays an important role in our understanding of what Paul is saying; so let’s take a more detailed look at the word “in”. (Note, also, that the word “in” plays just as important a role in the verse from 1st John, as he writes that “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”)

I believe that when Paul said “In Him, we live and move and have our being”, then we must really live “in” God. He must be “in” the earth, the air, the environment around us, and even our clothes; the “in” must include everything – all of creation “in” which we find ourselves existing. If we look at Strong’s concordance we find that the word “in” derives from the Greek word, en. There are people in the church who would quickly point out that the word en may have been translated as “in” but was really meant to be “among”. In fact, we do indeed find that there are times when en has been translated as “among”. We find 2800 instances in the New Testament of the “Authorized version” (Strong’s reference to the King James Version of the bible) which resulted from translating the Greek word en. It is translated into English as: “in” – 1902 times; “by” – 163 times; “with” – 140 times; “among” – 117 times; “at” – 113 times; “on” – 62; “through” – 39 times; and there are 264 other times when it is translated as part of some other miscellaneous words or phrases. So in terms of how the word en has been translated, it certainly can, and has been interpreted as “among”.

However, in the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 5, Yeshua tells his disciples that “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Now, I’m not a winegrower, but I am aware that for centuries, people who grow grapes have performed what we would call genetic engineering, by combining the genes from various grapevines. They have done this by taking a branch from one grape vine and splicing it into another grape vine. The effect of this, when successful, is that the vine repairs the splice itself, and makes the new branch part of the vine. The resulting grapes grow with qualities from both the newly spliced branch, (and the original vine which the branch was taken from,) and the vine which it was spliced into. After several years of growth, I can imagine that only a well trained eye can detect the area where the splicing was done, and over several decades the winegrower will have succeeded at significantly ‘engineering’ the taste of their grapes to produce a better tasting wine.

My point here is to say that when the branch has been spliced into the vine, the grapes on the branch will grow only because the branch and the vine have become the same plant. The branch isn’t “among” the vine, because if that were the case, then there would be no flow of water or nutrients through the branch (from the vine) to the grapes. There would be no resulting grapes, and the branch itself would wither and die, for lack of water or nutrients. Because of this fact, we can look at Yeshua’s statement, “I am the vine, you are the branches”, together with Paul’s statement, “in Him, we live and move, and have our being” and conclude that not only do we find God all around us, because we are “in” Him, but we even find God “in” us – we find that we are indeed a part of God.

We’ll come back and look at Yeshua’s statement from John 15 some more, but lets look at Paul’s statement again. I can imagine that some people might go to Acts 17 and read the chapter. In doing so, they might conclude that in addressing the Greeks, Paul is only quoting the Greek poets, as an opening or as a way to introduce his remarks. They would suggest that he was not actually validating Pantheism, but just trying to warm up his audience. In fact, Paul even says that he is quoting the Greek poets. Look at the verse again. “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” So this conclusion might seem to be valid: that Paul was using the phrase “in Him…” to open the conversation with the Greeks, by tapping into some of their popular philosophies, but he wasn’t actually trying to say that we are “in” God.

(Pantheism is a doctrine, or way of thinking about God, that states that “God is all” and “all is God”. The doctrine of monotheism suggests that there is “one” God, who rules over the universe, without being a part of it. He can be found, sitting on His throne in heaven. Traditional western Christianity teaches monotheism, and this is why I can easily imagine people from the church suggesting that Paul is only quoting the Greek poets, and not validating pantheism. Beyond this brief explanation, we aren’t going to delve any further into the various “theisms” that exist, in this article. If you wish to do so, you can get a good start at Wikipedia.org: Pantheism.)

Here is the problem with the argument that Paul was only trying to open the conversation with the Greeks, and didn’t really intend to validate pantheism. In the next verse, Paul says “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, [or an idol,] an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” (Acts 17:29 NRSV) Here, Paul is denouncing the practice of idol worship, which he had seen all around the city of Athens (as pointed out in Acts 17:16). If he knew and understood that it was necessary to denounce the practice of idolatry, which goes against the Father’s will, then we can assume that if Paul had found the idea of pantheism to be incorrect, or incompatible with his understanding of the Father’s will, and God’s existence, he would have denounced pantheism at that point, as well. Instead, he embraced it; from this, we can conclude that pantheism is consistent with Paul’s understanding of God’s existence. Therefore, when Paul says “in Him…” he is declaring his agreement with the idea that we actually live “in” God.

The question which we started off with was “What does it mean to say that ‘God is Love’?”, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve talked about love at all, but that isn’t exactly correct. One of the aspects of Yeshua’s life is that he was sent to be the personification of the love that God is, and an example of this for us. In the first article What does it mean … God is Love?, I suggested that in Matthew 5 verse 48, (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) Yeshua was trying to communicate to us the need to try to love each other ‘at least’ as much as the Father loves us. This is meant to give us a goal to work towards, with the complete understanding that we are not going to achieve this goal in our lifetimes. It has been suggested to me by a retired Pastor, that this sort of belief only sets us up for failure, because we can’t possibly succeed. He suggests that we will feel bad, (and cause others to feel bad if they listen to us,) when we don’t succeed at loving each other as much as the Father loves us. This would be true, except for one key fact: We are not responsible for loving each other as well as the Father loves us. We are responsible only for doing our best to love each other as much as we can, with the goal of always trying to do our best in this regard. It is when we do our best to love each other, that we ‘bear the good fruits’ of love. Obviously, we are coming back to the verse from the Gospel of John, chapter 15. Bearing the fruits of love is but another way of describing our success as we learn to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs.

The passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 15 is this:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

We won’t go over each verse, but I do want to point out a few important ideas. Verse two (“Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit”) reinforces our understanding from the first article that the four loves are parts of a larger range of love. Even the tax collecting scoundrels who know only storge will be pruned to know more love, and bear more fruit. In verse 3, Yeshua says “You have already been cleansed, by the word that I have spoken to you” It would be easy to think that this might have to do with being cleansed from sin, but this isn’t the case. The word ‘cleansed’ in this case, is used to indicate that we have been pruned, and have been made ready to bear the fruits of love, by the words and teachings of Yeshua. As we get down to verse 10, (“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”) we find that our earlier look at verse 3 is validated, as the commandments from Yeshua are all about love, and these are the words and teachings which he has given us. But we also find another interesting fact! When we talked about the peacemakers (from the 3rd article on the seventh Beatitude), we identified them as being huios theos, even as Yeshua is huios theos. Here we find that once again, that he places us on level ground with himself, by saying that with Him, we can abide in the Father’s love.

When I first introduced verse 5 earlier in this article, I talked about the ‘splicing’ of a branch to the grape vine. But with a closer look at the passage from John, we see no mention of splicing at all. In fact, as I read the passage myself, I find that Yeshua is implying that we start off as part of the vine. It is only when the branch fails to bear fruit that it is cut away from the vine. But again, we need to remember that key fact, we are not held to the standards that Yeshua, or our Father have set. Those levels of love are only set before us as a goal to aim at, not as a standard to be judged by at pruning time. You might wonder – does pruning take place at all? If we say that we’re only responsible for our own individual progress, do any of the branches get cut away? Well of course they do, or Yeshua wouldn’t have said that they do.

If we look at the bearing of the good fruits of love, as we have said before, these equate to learning to be in higher self, or to learning to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves. Remember the example from the first article of the second graders learning math? The sad truth is that some second graders don’t learn to do the math as well as the others do. It might be that they don’t understand it; that they did well enough to pass out of the first grade, but didn’t learn the math well enough to be able to move on to the (relatively) more difficult math of second grade. Or, it could be (even in the second grade) that they don’t care and don’t try. If we watch the news or even pay attention to what’s going on around us, it doesn’t take us long to realize that there are people who don’t seem to care, and don’t seem to try to work at bearing the fruits of love, even in some simple form, like storge. I am not pronouncing judgment on these people, I am simply stating the fact that they exist. The point is that these are the branches who will be pruned. These are the people who have made no effort to try and learn how to love others, or put the needs of others ahead of their own needs. These are the people to whom Yeshua refers when he says “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.”

What does this mean for us? It means that we need to learn to love others, better. It means that we need to try to learn to put their needs ahead of our own needs; whether it be a family member, or even someone you don’t know. But mostly, it means you need to do your best, to try and love others as well as the Father loves you!

Once again, (it may seem that) I have skirted the difficult answer to the original question. While this may seem to be the case, the fact is that in order for us to begin to understand the more difficult answer, we need to consider all these other parts of the answer, so that when we put them all together, they will make sense.

...more to come.

Grace and peace to you all,
Paul

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