John Rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
9 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 of Abraham.
10 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.
The Brood of Vipers (v.7)
American Christianity is currently divided into two groups: Catholics and Protestants. Similarly, in the New Testament, most Jews aligned themselves with one of two groups: the Pharisees or the Sadducees.
The Pharisees were considered the more conservative group. Their philosophy was one of law-keeping, and their purpose was to ensure that the Jewish people obeyed God’s law to the letter. John MacArthur writes:
“The Pharisees formed a self-righteous, ‘holy’ community within the community; they were legalistic isolationists who had no regard or respect for those outside their sect. They believed strongly in God’s sovereignty and in divine destiny and that they alone were the true Israel. They considered themselves to be superspiritual, but their ‘spirituality’ was entirely external, consisting of the pursuit of meticulous observance of a multitude of religious rituals and taboos, most of which they and various other religious leaders had devised over the previous several centuries as supplements to the law of Moses. They were known collectively as ‘the tradition of elders,’ concerning which Jesus gave the Pharisees one of his strongest rebukes, charging them with ‘teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’ (Matt. 15:2-9).”
The Sadducees were the more liberal sect. They rightly rejected the Pharisees’ legalism, and accepted the Torah as the only true law of God. Unfortunately, they also rejected many teachings of the Scriptures, including the existence of angels, spirits, and the afterlife. Consequently, whereas the Pharisees sought to store up treasures in heaven by their obedience, the Sadducees’ motto could have been carpe diem – “seize the day.” Their perspective was noted by Isaiah: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
The Pharisees were certainly the more popular group in the time of Jesus. Their external forms of religiosity were seen by all and admired by many. The Sadducees were seen as traitors for cutting deals with the Romans and helping to enforce their rule. Despite all their differences, one common bond united these two very different groups: they both adamantly opposed the ministry of Jesus and were convinced that His claims to Messiahship were nothing short of blasphemy. Ultimately, it was the working together of the Pharisees and the Sadducees that resulted in Jesus being crucified on the cross of Calvary.
As John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing people in the Jordan River, a group of Pharisees and Sadducees approach him for baptism. His response is shocking: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
What does John mean by referring to the religious leaders as the offspring of snakes? There is probably a double meaning. Vipers were particularly known in New Testament times as being violent snakes. The common myth was that after the male and female viper had mated, the female viper would kill and eat the male. Then, when the female viper gave birth to her brood, the young would kill and eat their mother. In Sonavel a similar way, John seems to be accusing the Pharisees and Sadducees of being responsible for the spiritual deaths of their numerous Jewish followers. Jesus later echoed this sentiment as He condemned the Scribes and Pharisees:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
Also, by calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers”, John is raising the idea that they are children of the Devil, the great Serpent himself. Again, this is a sentiment that Jesus later states more clearly by saying, “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”
When John asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” the emphasis is on the word “you”. “Who warned you to flee, when there is so little chance of you escaping?” John the Baptist understood that it is those people who have long been involved in the external forms of religion who are often the hardest to save. Satan’s firmest grip is not on the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, but on the Deacon Jones’ who believe themselves safe though they do not have an authentic faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Week after week they hear the gospel preached, and maybe even teach it themselves in Sunday School classes or Bible study groups. Yet each time they hear it, they refuse to be convicted, and their heart is hardened just a little more. No one knew the Scriptures better than the Pharisees and Sadducees, and no one was further way from receiving its central, soul-saving message.
The Importance of Bearing Fruit (v. 8)
Most pastors I know would never turn away someone who wanted to be baptized. Yet that is exactly what John the Baptist did. When some of the Pharisees and Sadducees approached him, he refused them, saying “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Remember, baptism is an external action that symbolizes and publicly expresses a previous internal change. The symbolic washing in the water is to represent the inner washing that has already taken place when a person has repented of their sins and placed their trust in God. John the Baptist rightly suspected that these religious leaders were trying to pull off the same ploy they were known for: participating in the external action without any corresponding internal change. Put simply, John was not convinced that these men had authentically repented, and therefore he refused to baptize them. Instead, he demanded that they show evidence that their repentance was real.
The Abraham Objection (v. 9)
Having dared to reproach these Pharisees and Sadducees, John the Baptist anticipated their objection and answered it before they could speak. For centuries the message had been proclaimed in Israel that there would come a day when God would set up His perfect kingdom, and that the members of that kingdom would be children of Abraham. The religious leaders wrongly assumed that this meant that anybody who had Abraham’s blood in their veins was a shoo in to heaven – whether they had repented or not. Their understanding was that a person could live like the devil their entire life, but because of God’s promise to Abraham, they would still be saved.