John the baptizer isn’t pulling any punches with me. God is serious. God is God. I can’t flee. That is a reality I must deal with.
John challenges me to produce fruit. When I follow Jesus, radically change my mind about who is in charge (aka repentance) and am filled with His Holy Spirit, I will produce the fruit of the Spirit. I have to be careful about relying on my religious upbringing. That will get me know where. God doesn’t need me at all. God can create followers out of the rocks in the ground if He wants to. If I don’t produce fruit, God will cut me down to size and I might be thrown in the fire.
Yikes. I get it. I hear the message. John is speaking to me.
He then said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance [aka changing your mind and actions].
And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” | Luke 3:7-9
John pictured the self-righteous sinners as snakes that slithered out of the grass because a fire was coming! Jesus compared the Pharisees to vipers because their self-righteousness and unbelief made them the children of the devil.
How tragic that the religious elites and leaders refused to obey John’s message and submit to his baptism. They not only failed to enter the kingdom themselves, but their bad example and false teaching kept other people from entering.
John the baptizer was also a teacher. He not only preached publicly, but he also had a personal ministry to the people, telling them how to practice their new faith. He told them not to be selfish but to share their blessings with others.
Even the tax collectors came to John for counsel. These men were despised by their fellow Jews because they worked for the Romans and usually extorted money from the people. Luke emphasized the fact that Jesus was the friend of tax collectors. John did not tell them to quit their jobs but to do their work honestly.
Likewise, the soldiers were not condemned for their vocation. Rather, John told them to refrain from using their authority to get personal gain. These were probably Jewish soldiers attached to the temple or to the court of one of the Jewish rulers. It was not likely that Roman soldiers would ask a Jewish prophet for counsel.
John was faithful in his ministry to prepare the hearts of the people and then to present their Messiah to them. He clearly stated that Jesus was “the Master” and the Son of God. Because John rebuked Herod Antipas for his adulterous marriage to Herodias, he was imprisoned by the king and finally beheaded. However, he had faithfully finished his God-given assignment and prepared the people to meet the Messiah, the Son of God.
“Therefore” makes John’s preaching a fulfillment of the passage Luke has just quoted from Isaiah. So there’s continuity with the Old Testament yet again.
“The crowds” travel out of their cities and towns of residence as John itinerates throughout the region. The combination of their traveling and John’s itineration appeals, as often in this good news book and Acts, to interest in travel on the part of Luke’s audience. And throughout this good news book and Acts, Luke delights in the numerical success of the good news message. This success argues for the message’s divine origin.
Good Jews often immersed themselves for the sake of ritual purification. But to be immersed by John marked an innovation which—because he was acting as God’s prophet—symbolized the washing away of sins by God himself.
“Offsprings of vipers” implies that though the crowds had come to be baptized for the forgiveness of their missing God’s goal (aka sins), they hadn’t yet radically changed their mind about missing God’s goal. They wanted forgiveness without change, as though baptism as such would effect the forgiveness.
John asked them who’d warned them to flee from the wrath that was going to come, that is, from God’s judgment on no change. The question implies they were motivated by fear of that judgment without an accompanying sorrow for their missing God’s goal. The question also implies that John hadn’t warned them to come for baptism apart from change.
The next “Therefore” means that since the crowds are fleeing the coming wrath, they need to demonstrate change in their behavior. The plural “fruits” points forward to particular good works that John will detail in 3:10–14.
For the moment, though, he tells the crowds that they shouldn’t even start substituting in conversation their religious ancestry for the good works that in their conduct would demonstrate change.
Then John says in effect that Abraham doesn’t need the crowd for his posterity. Nor does God need them for the keeping of his promise to Abraham that Abraham’s posterity would exceed in number the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. Stones are proverbial for being lifeless.
But if you don’t change your mind and act differently, John says, to keep his promise to Abraham God can raise up descendants for him out of the very stones lying there. And in addition to this possibility is the actuality of judgment on those who don’t change, for which the axing down and throwing of a tree into fire is the image.
“The axe lies already at the root of the trees,” so that judgment is imminent.
“At the root” means that the cutting edge of the axe is aimed toward the root of trees, so that the judgment is dangerous. Since “the root” supplies the nourishment without which trees die, a cutting of the root implies a judgment that’ll be permanent.
“Every tree that’s not producing good fruit” means that nobody at all who’s unchanged will escape judgment.
“Is being cut down and thrown into fire” describes future judgment as so soon and certain that it might as well be occurring right now. But people still have a chance to change and escape.
Here is a literal translation:
Therefore he was saying to the crowds that were traveling out [into the wilderness] to be baptized by him, “Offsprings of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath that’s going to come? 8 Therefore produce fruits in keeping with repentance; and don’t start saying among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as a [fore]father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children [= descendants] for Abraham out of these stones. 9 And also, the axe is already lying at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that’s not producing good fruit is being cut down and thrown into fire.”
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Lk 3:7–9). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (pp. 234–237). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 181). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.