By Alexander Batson
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” -Matthew 3:7-10
In the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist comes to prepare the way for the Son of God. In this passage, John confronts the Pharisees who come out to witness his ministry of baptism at the Jordan River. In the Gospels, the Pharisees are the representatives of moral pride and spiritual arrogance. In their quest to earn God’s favor, they cling to things besides Jesus Himself. While it can be easy to dismiss the Pharisees as the “bad guys” in the Gospel stories, I think it’s actually more helpful to look at them as a mirror of ourselves and our own pride in our own achievements and reluctance to submit fully to Jesus. In light of this, let’s see what John’s rebuke has to offer our often wayward hearts.
First, John points out the misguided motivations of the Jewish religious leaders. He asks, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He does not welcome them as he does the other people seeking baptism. They did not come to repent and be a part of the kingdom of God. John seems to think that they came because they were looking to avoid some sort of wrath – perhaps they were scared of missing out on something that God was doing, or perhaps they thought that this baptism would add to their religious credentials. Either way, we should take John’s warning and examine our own hearts – are we coming to Jesus because we see his beauty, grace, mercy, lordship, and love? Or are we merely coming to soothe our guilty consciences, find easy assurance that we won’t end up in hell, and add to our religious resumé?
Second, John admonishes the Pharisees for claiming Abraham as their ancestor. John rightly discerns that these men thought themselves worthy of God’s favor because of their religious pedigrees. They knew the Law and the Prophets and they kept the rules of the Torah. They lived morally upstanding lives. But John reminds them that this is not enough – only true repentance and turning to Jesus can save them. In what do we trust for salvation? Is it Jesus? Or is it good works, grades, career achievements, relationships, or even a good Christian family?
Finally, John warns the Pharisees that judgment is coming for those who do not “bear good fruit.” He urges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This statement may seem a little odd; after all, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders of the day and the most morally upstanding people around. What does John mean by saying that they did not bear fruit? John’s warning shows us that we can live morally good lives yet still be far from repentance. It’s easy for us to go through the motions, going to church, being nice to people, doing well in school, and handling all of our responsibilities. However, this is not enough. We need to constantly search our hearts for opportunities to repent and constantly turn towards Jesus. And we need to always be reminded that the fruits of true repentance can never come from ourselves alone. We cannot produce them – only Jesus can transform our hearts and turn us towards Him day after day.
Dear Jesus, we pray that you would break us of any trust in ourselves – in our works, our talents, our relationships, our spiritual pedigrees. Let us not look to anything except You for salvation. You have delivered us by Your death and resurrection, and only Your person and work have the power to save. Help us take John’s warnings to heart as You humble our spiritual pride. Amen.
Alexander Batson is a PhD candidate (History of Christianity) at Yale University.