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 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.
As the Apostle Paul makes abundantly clear in his letter to the Galatians, heaven will indeed belong to the children of Abraham. But the children of Abraham are not those who share his blood, but those who share his faith:
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel before hand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
As a child, we would often sing a song called “Father Abraham” in church. The song says:
Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had Father Abraham.
I am one of them, and you are too,
So let’s just praise the Lord!
Why could a group of American Gentiles sing a song like that? Because Abraham is our father by faith. When John pointed to a pile of rocks and said that God could just as easily make children of Abraham out of them, he was pulling the rug out from under the religious leaders. He was awakening them to the truth that their confidence in their heritage was a false hope. Just as Abraham showed his authentic faith by leaving his home and following God into an unknown land, so they were being called to leave behind their selfishness and pride and to show evidence that they were truly followers of God.
The Warning (v.10)
After answering the unspoken objection, John offers the Pharisees and Sadducees a stern warning: “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.”
In the word picture, the trees represent individual people. Each tree has two options – it can either be fruitful, or become firewood. John is calling the religious leaders to examine their lives, and to recognize that they are not bearing fruit that gives evidence to their salvation. The threat of being “cut down and thrown into the fire” is clearly a reference to hell. Sadducees did not believe in hell and may have scoffed at John’s warning, but the Pharisees had good reason to be shaking in their sandals. Moreover, John emphasized the urgency of his message by indicating that “the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” In other words, an unbeliever has no idea when he will be cut down. Many people seem to think they will live forever, or that they can wait to repent when they get older. Yet John’s message is that we do not know the future, and that our lives could end at any moment. An unbeliever has no idea when his life will be “cut down”, and it will be too late for bearing fruit.
A Few Questions Answered
The main point of this passage is that a Christian who does not show evidence of change is no Christian at all. If an unbeliever who is living with someone in an unholy relationship chooses to follow Christ, yet remains in this unholy relationship, that person’s salvation ought to be questioned.
In a town near to where I live, a man was in the process of building a strip club when he was saved. As a result of meeting Christ, he transformed his strip club into a center for Christian learning. Had he continued to build and then operate a strip club while claiming to be a follower of Christ, his salvation would have certainly been questionable. Yet this man backed up his claims of faith with action that gave evidence of an authentic change in his heart.
As you evaluate your life, consider yourself a fruit inspector. It is by objectively seeking evidence of your faith that you can receive assurance of your salvation. Perhaps answering a few common questions might help:
QUESTION 1: If I am to examine my life for spiritual fruit, what is it I should be looking for?
Our passage answers this question by urging us to bear fruit “in keeping with repentance.” In other words, when you are inspecting your life for true signs of salvation, look for evidence that there has been an authentic change in your attitudes and actions since you’ve met Christ. As you are growing as a Christian, can you identify tell-tale signs that you truly are being transformed into the image of Christ? Is hatred being replaced with love? Self-centeredness with God-centeredness? Unforgiveness with forgiveness? Impatience with patience? Abrasiveness with gentleness? Cowardice with boldness? Pride with humility? These are the kinds of fruits you should look for.
Allow me to offer you one warning as you begin to examine your life for spiritual fruit. Have you ever bitten into a ripe, juicy apple only to find that it was rotten inside? You may have heard this joke before:
“What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?”
“Finding half a worm.”
As you examine the fruit of salvation in your life, do not look primarily at the external actions, but at the internal motivations. Just like an apple can look good on the outside and be rotten on the inside, so a person can have many “good works” and yet still be evil inside.
Take Tony for example. Tony contributed to his church’s missions offering this past December. He is quick to point to his contribution to missions as evidence that he has experienced an authentic change. “I would never have given money to a missions offering before I was saved,” he says.
Instead of looking at the external action, however, Tony needs to examine why he gave to the offering. What motivated him to give? Did he feel that it was his duty as a member of his church to give? Was he reluctant to give? Did he give all that God was calling him to give? By asking these questions, Tony will discover whether he is truly bearing the fruits of love and generosity, or selfishness and pride.
Remember, no one could point to more religiosity and “good works” than the Pharisees. Their failure was that they failed to examine their lives to see that their fruit looked good on the outside, but was filled with worms within. In examining your life, look for authentic transformation in your actions, but also look for a transformation of the attitudes behind those actions.
QUESTION 2: Can anybody really have assurance of salvation?
Yes, absolutely. It is certainly true that even the most devout Christian will always find at least a little rotten fruit in their lives. Nevertheless, the Bible does indicate that believers can have assurance: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The more a Christian walks with God, worships God, and obeys God, the more the Spirit of God will provide a sense of assurance. It is extremely important the Christians understand that it is never the responsibility of a pastor or parent to give assurance. Assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit as a Christian matures in His faith. Only the Spirit can provide it, only the Spirit can take it away.
QUESTION 3: Can Christians backslide for a period of time?
The Bible certainly recognizes that true believers can backslide for a period of time. When a Christian allows himself to be taken by a sin for a season, he should expect these three things:
First, he should expect to lose any assurance of salvation the Spirit has previously granted. When a Christian dwells in sin, all of the warnings of the Bible about hell and damnation apply to him. Nobody can live in disobedience to God and expect to go to heaven.
Second, the backslidden Christian should expect confrontation by brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what is commanded by the Apostle Paul in Galatians: “Brothers, if anyone is caught (ensnared) in a transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Any church that cares about its members will take steps to lovingly reprove any Christian who is backsliding in his relationship with Christ.
Finally, a backslidden Christian should expect discipline from God. Hebrews 12 reminds us that God disciplines every child He loves. This discipline can come in a variety of forms: loss of joy, suffering reproach from God’s people, sickness, or even death.
QUESTION 4: How does one discern an unbeliever from a backslidden Christian?
This is a question often asked by parents of wayward children. Many children make decisions for Christ when they are young, and then live in a season of disobedience when they enter their upper teens or leave home. Church leaders also often wonder how they can distinguish between their members who are truly saved but backslidden and those who were never saved to begin with. How can we know the difference?
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives us instructions of what to do if a Christian in our midst falls into blatant sin. First, an individual is to approach the backslidden believer and urge him to repent of his sin. If the person refuses, then that individual is to confront him again, this time with two or three brothers or sisters. If the person still refuses to repent, Jesus commands that the matter be taken before the church. If after being confronted by the church the person still refuses to turn from his sin, that person is to be removed from church membership and treated as an unbeliever.
Jesus’ message in these instructions seems to be that the difference between a backslidden Christian and an unbeliever is that a backslidden Christian – when confronted about his sin – will ultimately repent, where as an unbeliever will not.
QUESTION 5: If a person truly believes himself to be a Christian, yet is really struggling with a sin, should he doubt his salvation?
No. The Bible is clear that it is those who do not struggle with sin who are in danger. It is those people who are not battling sin that I worry most about. Paul himself struggled with sin. He said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
If a woman is living with someone in a sexually immoral relationship, and sees no conflict with her lifestyle and her relationship with Christ, she ought to question her salvation. If a professional is involved in unethical business practices, or a student is involved in cheating at school, and they do not see any conflict between these actions and their professions of faith, they ought to question their salvation. Any person who neglects the means of grace – Bible reading, prayer, fellowship with other believers – and is not fighting to mend that situation ought to question his or her salvation.
Any person, however, who genuinely loves Christ and is involved in a fight with sin ought not to doubt his or her salvation. The central question is not whether or not you are winning the fight, but whether there is a fight at all. If you are seeking assurance of salvation, then 1) pray that the Spirit would give it to you, 2) examine your life for spiritual fruit, and 3) continue to fight the good fight of the faith, trusting Jesus to save your from your sins.