John the baptizer is speaking the truth. I must be careful to align myself with Jesus and not the religious elites. Who wants to be a snake in Jesus eyes? Not me.
The main thing I need to focus on is “producing fruit”. Jesus gives me the power of the Holy Spirit. There are fruits of the Spirit that are growing in me. I need to cultivate them for the mission Jesus has given me. I can’t allow myself to think that my religiosity will win the day. John and Jesus are clear. There is a consequence to not following the Way of Jesus.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t presume to say 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. | Matthew 3:7-10 (CSB)
John’s preaching centered on repentance and the kingdom of heaven. The word repent means “to change one’s mind and act on that change.” John was not satisfied with regret or remorse; he wanted “fruits meet for repentance”. There had to be evidence of a changed mind and a changed life.
All kinds of people came to hear John preach and to watch the great baptismal services he conducted. Many publicans and sinners came in sincere humility, but the religious leaders and elites refused to submit. They thought that they were good enough to please God; yet John called them a “generation of vipers.” Jesus used the same language when He dealt with this self-righteous crowd.
The Pharisees were the traditionalists of their day, while the Sadducees were more liberal. The wealthy Sadducees controlled the “temple business” that Jesus cleaned out. These two groups usually fought each other for control of the nation, but when it came to opposing Jesus the Messiah, the Pharisees and Sadducees united forces.
John’s message was one of judgment. Israel had sinned and needed to repent, and the religious leaders ought to lead the way. The ax was lying at the root of the tree; and if the tree (Israel) did not bear good fruit, it would be cut down. If the nation repented, the way would be prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
Pharisees and Sadducees composed the two leading factions in the Judaism of that period, though most Jews didn’t belong to any faction at all. Jesus will upbraid both groups just as John does here — a further parallel between John and Jesus that will tell Matthew’s audience to hang tough under persecution because Jesus really was the true heir of the prophet John and the fulfillment of his prophecy.
“Many” helps explain why John responds to the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ coming to his baptism.
“To his baptism” carries a note of antagonism and intimates that John refused to baptize them. “To his baptism” indicates that he baptized people rather than their baptizing themselves. His addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees with “offsprings of vipers” restrikes the note of antagonism and implies they hadn’t repented. Jesus will use the same epithe, so that the parallel between John’s and Jesus’ ministries will be extended yet again.
“Who warned you …?” isn’t the kind of question that calls for an answer. It means, “Since you haven’t repented, why are you coming to me for baptism?” The Pharisees and Sadducees want to avoid the wrath without repenting. This wrath consists in an outburst of divine anger that will purify the world of the ungodly in preparation for what Jesus later calls “the regeneration”.
“Going to come” indicates that the outburst is soon and sure. (For John’s audience, one thinks of the Jewish War against Rome that started in a.d. 66 and came to a climax with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in a.d. 70—a preview of the “great affliction” preceding Jesus’ second coming. To flee the coming wrath successfully requires repentance, a feeling sorry for one’s sins that shows itself in getting baptized while confessing those sins.
“Fruit in keeping with repentance” means conduct that verifies repentance. Absence of right conduct falsifies repentance and makes baptism meaningless. The command to produce such fruit implies that the Pharisees and Sadducees haven’t produced it; and Abrahamic ancestry doesn’t substitute for it. As to their bloodline, they’re offspring’s of Abraham. But as to their moral ancestry, they’re still offspring’s of vipers. So they shouldn’t even “think” to encourage one another that they have a bloodline that’ll exempt them from the coming wrath. Much less should they actually encourage one another in this way. God doesn’t need them to fulfill his promise to Abraham that Abraham would have innumerable posterity.
“For I tell you” and the proverbial deadness of stones magnify God’s ability to “raise up children for Abraham out of these stones.”
“The axe” represents the coming wrath. “The trees” represent people. The axe’s “already lying at the root of the trees” means that God is taking aim with his wrath right now, so that there’s no time to lose in producing fruit in keeping with repentance.
“At the root of the trees” means this is your last chance; for once the roots of a tree are cut, it can’t revive (as it could if a stump were left). Like the plural of “offsprings” and “trees,” “every tree” points both to individual judgment and to judgment that will spare no one who hasn’t demonstrated repentance in his conduct.
“Not producing good fruit” means failure to behave in keeping with repentance. The wrath is so soon and sure to come that it might as well be bursting forth at the present time—hence, “is being cut down and thrown into fire.” The fire is the fire of hell. And Jesus’ saying the same thing will extend the parallel with John still yet again.
Here is the literal translation:
And on seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Offsprings of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath that’s going to come? 8 Therefore [because of the necessity to repent if you want to avoid this wrath] produce fruit in keeping with [radically changing your mind and actions] repentance. 9 And you shouldn’t think to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as [our] father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children [in the sense of offspring] for Abraham out of these stones [lying around here in the wilderness]. 10 And 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). (Mt 3:7–10). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (pp. 9–11). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 16–17). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.