05.01.04 Lk. 3:7-14 (See also Mt. 3:7-10) Along the Jordan River
JOHN CONTINUES TO PREACH REPENTANCE
7 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? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 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!
9 Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees! Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What then should we do?” the crowds were asking him.
11 He replied to them, “The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same.”
12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He told them, “Don’t collect any more than what you have been authorized.”
14 Some soldiers also questioned him: “What should we do?”
He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or false accusation; be satisfied with your wages.”
In today’s language, John would have been called a “hell, fire, and brimstone preacher.” He used strong language and had a definite point to make – no one was going to challenge him or get him to be quiet. His three points were proclaimed with no uncertainty!
- He preached with the gift of sarcasm, and proclaimed that people were sinful and had to repent. He baptized those who repented telling them it was time to live holy lives before God.
- Those who repented were to bear the fruit of repentance. In other words, their changed hearts resulted in changed lives.
- John portrayed an imminent judgment that was about to fall upon Israel. He was big on judgment speeches and apparently rather light on sermons of mercy.
05.01.04.Q1 How did the religious leaders appraise someone they suspected to be a new self-appointed rabbi or an aspiring messiah?
Nearly everybody was expecting a messiah, most with great anticipation. Hundreds if not thousands heard John the Baptist. They repented of their sins, fasted, prayed, and expected the restoration of the ancient Davidic Kingdom. But the temple leaders and Romans feared anyone who claimed the title of “messiah,” expecting that another rebellion would soon arise. By this time a number of individuals had come forth claiming to be the messiah (and were usually killed by the Romans). But to identify the real messiah, the temple leaders had devised a 2-step plan to evaluate anyone’s messianic intentions.
- An observation team was sent first, which listened carefully to what was said, but they did not engage in any discussions or debates. The team would have consisted of Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and any other prominent individuals who desired to engage in this field of discovery. The team would return to the temple and report what they had seen and heard. If the president of the Sanhedrin (Annas or Caiaphas) and their fellow leaders believed additional observation was needed, a second team was sent.
- The second team confronted the individual with a wide variety of questions and the responses were reported to the high priest.
Jesus definitely had the two groups of evaluators before Him, and John probably did likewise. Both John and the Essenes used apocalyptic words concerning the future. John the Baptist proclaimed eminent judgment and destruction (Lk. 3:10), and stated that every Jew who did not produce good fruit in his life would be cast into an eternal fire (Jn. 3:10). Neither the Baptist nor anyone else expected Jesus to be as He was, yet the apocalyptic description is applicable when applied to His return and reign during the Millennial Reign.
“Brood of vipers!” It is commonly agreed among scholars that these stinging words were applied directly to the leading Pharisees and Sadducees (Lk. 3:7), as if to emphatically say, “You brood of vipers!” These religious leaders were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of the common people, but instead had become like vipers – unclean and poisonous snakes; a corrupt wealthy power group. They most likely were part of the “first team” that did not come to repent, but to spy on John and report back to Caiaphas. Hence, John’s targeted response.
However, the phrase was a typical idiom used by rabbis or theological schools when debating became intense. It would not have been uncommon that at the end of an argument, between students of the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, that each would call the other by names such as these:
- “You sons of the devil.”
- “You sons of hell.”
- “You brood of vipers.”
- “You serpents.”
When Jesus applied the phrase to those who argued with Him, he used typical language that was readily understood and in common use.
“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” This is the ominous warning that destruction is about to fall upon those who do not repent. In this context, the word “wrath” has a double connotation; It referred to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as well as to the final judgment of God that every person must someday face. When the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, many Jewish believers fled to the Decapolis cities to take refuge and they escaped the destruction and death that fell upon those who rejected Jesus.
“Children … stones.” In this passage Jesus used two words of similar sound in Aramaic and Hebrew, a word play known as a parechesis. The book of Matthew is full of Hebrew thought and idioms. The word stones (abanim) and the word children (banim) sound alike, but in the context of the verse they underscore opposite meanings. Jesus said the Pharisees and Sadducees were to produce good fruit, but stones naturally produce nothing. However, God could have stones produce good children who would honor Him and be children of Abraham. In other words, stones could be more productive than were the critics of John the Baptist. Unfortunately, some details of these thoughts and idioms become lost in the translation from Hebrew and Greek into other languages.
Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees!” In the pictorial language of Hebrew, this symbolized that judgment was extremely near. It gave a severe sense of urgency to the message of repentance and salvation. All the prophets of the Old Testament preached repentance. John most certainly fit the picture quite well. The common theme was that obedience would bring blessings, and disobedience would bring punishment.
But by this time the mindset of the general population was somewhat different. They believed God would come and punish the imperial Romans for occupying their land. They had just experienced a century of Jewish leadership, which was not much better than the rule of the pagans, and they were very disgusted with the influx of Hellenism. Therefore, the message of pending doom and judgment from John was music to their ears. The irony is when Jesus said that “now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees,” He did that precisely during the Passion Week when He cursed the fig tree – the symbol of national Israel.
“The man with two shirts.” Ownership of multiple garments was a sign of wealth. Therefore, if one owned two pieces of garment, the cultural obligation said that he was to help anyone in need. If someone had only an “inner” or “under” garment he was considered to be “naked.” Modesty of dress is a highly biblical value.
“Tax collectors.” Tax collectors were a small group of Jews who were agents for Rome and therefore, highly despised by their Jewish neighbors. Each collector was required to raise a certain amount of revenue based on the population. Anything above that amount, they were permitted to keep. Since this was an excellent opportunity for legalized extortion and money gouging, these agents became extremely wealthy at the expense of their Jewish brothers. Furthermore, since Roman coins had images of men and pagan gods, the strict Pharisees considered anyone who touched a Roman or Greek coin as filthy. Such a person was said to have violated the command against graven images. Hence, tax collectors were passionately hated.
“Some soldiers.” Jewish men were not permitted to serve in the military. The fact that these soldiers asked what they should do is an indication they were Gentiles who came under conviction. However, some scholars believe that a few Hellenized Jewish men may have been in the military. Like tax collectors, they had chosen to leave their Jewish faith to attain wealth and enjoy the permissive Greek lifestyle. Now they were confronted with their sin and asked what to do.
. His use of the term “fire” is typical of many Old Testament prophets who gave similar warnings of judgment.
. Golub, In the Days. 277.
. See a short list of false messiahs at Appendix 25: “False Prophets, Rebels, Significant Events, And Rebellions That Impacted The First Century Jewish World.”
. John the Baptist used figurative language that is reflective of agriculture and desert life. Therefore, he uses terms such as “brood of vipers;” “the axe at the root of the tree,” “baptism of fire,” “the threshing floor,” and “the burning of the chaff.” These phrases proclaimed that God was angry and judgment was about to fall.
. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 9, Session 2.
. Final judgment: Rom. 2:5; 1 Thess. 1:10; Lake of Fire: Rev. 20:11-15.
. Jesus used these puns and plays on words as memory tools for His listeners. See Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. 321-22, 980-81; Smith, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. 53.
. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. 321-22.
. Pilch, The Cultural Dictionary of the Bible. 15-17; Vine, “Clothing, Cloths, Clothes, Cloak, Coat.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:105-07.
. See 15.02.09.Q1.
. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 246.
. Liefeld, “Luke.” 8:856.