But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to 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)News about a man named John was spreading. People all over the country were coming. The low and high, the rich and poor, all sorts of people were coming, even the Pharisees and Sadducees.
John must have perked the curiosity of the Pharisees. In John's Gospel, we learn that the Pharisees had sent priests and Levites to question John the Baptist (John 1:24). The Pharisees must not have been satisfied with John's answer, because we soon see them show up in person.
John's first words to the leading religious figures of his day were less than pleasant. John knew that the Pharisees and Sadducees had no desire to repent, so he immediately launched his assault by calling them a "brood of vipers."
Vipers are highly poisonous snakes. John was not complimenting the Pharisees. Instead, he was associating them with death, with Satan himself, who through a snake deceived Eve.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist directed his attack, "You brood of vipers," at the Pharisees and Sadducees. In Luke, we read that John spoke these words to the crowd (Luke 3:7). Evidently, John's "discussion" with the Pharisees was not private. Instead, this was a message for everyone in the crowds, but it was specifically directed toward the Pharisees and Sadducees— the leaders who were supposed to be guiding Israel in righteousness.
John continues with the words, "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance." As if to say, "Show me the evidence of your repentance. True repentance produces fruit, but where is your fruit? Is your fruit the long prayers that you pray? The large gifts you donate to the sound of trumpets?" Clearly, there was little fruit to be found, and that was John's point.
Any good preacher knows the importance of cutting off objections before they can be made, and that's what John does next, saying, "And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham."
John knew what the response from Pharisees and Sadducees would be; he knew that they would claim that their ancestry was what gave them favor before God. But John's message was clear: the axe was laid at the root of the trees. Their ancestry did not matter because they lacked any evidence of inward transformation. They did not truly love God. Thus John warns them, "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
How sharply this must have struck the hearts of the religious authorities and those in the crowds! This was a very different message, one that forced them to examine themselves. And was that not the point of John's ministry, of his life? Had he not been sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah?
By the grace of God, there were some who were transformed by John's preaching. So great was the transformation of John's followers, that those who truly changed became followers of Christ upon hearing of His death and resurrection (see Acts 19:1-5).
But the Pharisees, for the most part, were not changed by John's preaching. It may have startled a few. It may have led a few to repentance, but for the most part it hardened their hearts even farther.
You see, John the Baptist prepared for the Messiah in more than one way. Yes, he preached repentance and, yes, he also transformed many hearts. But John the Baptist also hardened many hearts, including those of the religious elite, the very same people who three years later had hardened their hearts to such an extent that they handed the Son of the Living God over to be crucified. Let us take such an awful thought as a warning! You must be careful to examine your own life, making sure that you truly belong to Christ. For, if you do not, the axe is laid at the root of your tree. Make sure, then, that you are found in repentance, trusting in Christ!