Please open your Bibles to Matthew 3:7-12
Vs. 7 – The Pharisees were the dominant religious party among the Jewish people. Their views of scripture were often distorted by the fact that they allowed religious tradition to dominate their thinking as opposed to the actual scriptures themselves (see Mark 7:3-13). They were hypocrites because they would teach one thing and then behave in the opposite way (Matthew 23:13-33). For these reasons, Jesus condemned them severely on multiple occasions.
The Sadducees were the second most dominant religious party among the Jewish people. Together, the Pharisees and the Sadducees composed the council of the Sanhedrim. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, didn’t believe that man had a spiritual nature and also didn’t believe that there would be a resurrection. Jesus comes in conflict with them in Mark 12:18-27 and shows that they had grave misunderstandings regarding the resurrection and man’s future state.
In coming to John’s baptism, the Pharisees were concerned about this “preacher” that many had been discussing. They were jealous of any who they saw as a threat to their authority and sway over the Jewish people. This jealousy is reflected in John 11:48 when they said regarding Jesus, “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.” Pilate well observed in Mark 15:10 that it was “for envy” that Jesus was delivered to him.
No doubt the same motives and attitudes were fostering under the surface in regard to John’s baptism. We know that they did not believe in John as a prophet for the words that they spoke to Jesus in Mark 11:31-33. We also know that they refused to be baptized of John according to Luke 7:30. In that regard, they rejected the counsel of God. So we can reasonably assume that they were up to no good in coming to see and hear John.
John also rightly deduces that they were up to no good. The initial words out of his mouth to them are not words of blessing, but rather, condemnation. He calls them a “brood of vipers.” They were a nursery for deadly serpents; they weren’t content to merely be deadly, they had to breed more.
John then asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” The question was both a positive and condemnatory in the same sentence. If they continued in their present course, they would certainly experience God’s wrath and vengeance for so mutilating and damaging His word for His people. Such is the condemnation for all who would so act. At the same time, they were given “warning” regarding their ultimate end and they were to be commended for heeding that warning and coming to the appropriate place. They would be correct in trying to “flee” from that great wrath that God has in store for all of those who refuse to know him or obey him (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). This leads us into John’s instruction for them in verse 8.
Vs. 8 – John now focuses upon what these errant leaders needed to do in order to demonstrate their sincerity in coming to John’s baptism. They needed to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The word “repentance” literally means to change one’s mind toward something or another. However, when looking at repentance as a Christian concept the thought goes much deeper than a mere “change of mind.” The word involves not only a change in thought and attitude, but a reformation of life as well. This is what John demanded of these religious leaders. Not that they merely say they have repented, but that they demonstrate their repentance by a reformed life. Luke gives us additional detail into what John said on this point in Luke 3:10-14. There, not only were the religious leaders addressed, but also soldiers, publicans, and everyday people. John tells each group how they were expected to behave as a result of their repentance. Paul also expected this out of converts to Christianity. He said in Acts 26:20 that when he began preaching the gospel that he “?shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” This is a good lesson for us today to note. Gospel preachers not only have the obligation to preach the word, but also to make appropriate application even to the point of instructing individuals on how and how not to behave according to God’s word.
Vs. 9 – John did not want these religious leaders to fall back upon their heritage for self justification. Just because one was of Abraham’s seed didn’t guarantee one’s salvation. Here was a dangerous presumption on the part of these religious leaders. Jesus refutes this presumptiousness in John 8:33-37 with the fact that it is the one who sins who becomes the slave to sin. Religious heritage doesn’t guarantee personal salvation.
Sadly, there are many today who hold to a form of this same doctrine. They believe that once they have “accepted Jesus into their heart” that they are saved and that nothing they do will in any way affect a change in their salvation. Those who hold this doctrine of “once saved always saved” in essence make the same argument as the Pharisees and Saducees. They claim that because they have a religious heritage they are personally secure. Jesus’ words rebuke them as much as he does these religious leaders. It is personal sin which will cause us to be condemned on the day of judgment. There is forgiveness in Christ, but that forgiveness is contingent upon repentance and obedience to Christ’s will. Those who willfully sin have no sacrifice on their behalf (Hebrews 10:26).
John calls these religious leaders to sobriety when he states that God is able to change stones into Abraham’s seed. It was no reason to boast that they were of the lineage of Abraham. That carries no weight in the eyes of God; He can make descendents of Abraham from rocks, stones, or even dust. God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11). God sees all such boasting as foolishness (1 Corinthians 3:19, 2 Corinthians 11:22,23). What matters today is not whether we are of the physical lineage of Abraham, but whether we are of his spiritual lineage. Those who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed today and heirs of the promise (Galatians 3:29).
Vs. 10 – John prophesies regarding the termination of the old economy. Judaism was not to last much longer as an authorized religious entity. Hence, the axe was at the root of the tree, indicating that it was about to be used to cut down that tree. Judaism was limited in its scope (it was originally intended only for the nation of Israel, see Deuteronomy 5:1-3) and hence, religiously, it could not serve God’s purposes in extending salvation to the entire world. Thus, it had to be brought to an end in order for God’s purposes for all men to go forward. Jesus brought this economy to an end when he died and nailed the law to the cross along with our sins (Colossians 2:14). Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:15 that Jesus abolished the law. Jesus himself said that the law wouldn’t be destroyed until all things were fulfilled (Matthew 5:17,18), and they were fulfilled. Jesus also told numerous parables regarding the cessation of the Jewish economy and the inauguration of the kingdom (see Matthew 21:28-46 and 22:1-14). No longer did the Jewish nation bear “good fruit” and hence it was only fitting for it to be “cast into the fire.” Jesus said in Matthew 15:13 “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.” This is exactly what happened to the Jewish nation as it had been corrupted by Rabbinical Judaism.
Vs. 11 – John makes reference to the element which he used to baptize, namely, water. The purpose of John’s baptism was “for repentance.” Hence, John sought to bring the wayward Jew back to a state of favor with God. John’s baptism was thus limited in that it could only cleanse the Jew who repented and obeyed God’s counsel in being baptized. This is one reason why Paul did not accept those who were baptized with John’s baptism after the cross (see Acts 19:1-7). John’s baptism was thus limited to the time prior to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Hence, belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus was subsequently required. John’s baptism didn’t require such and could no longer be valid for the Christian era.
John prophesies that One is coming who will administer a different baptism. John says this One would be mightier than he. In what sense? Mightier in scope of message; mightier in authority; mightier in power over the elements; mightier in personal purity, mightier in lasting results of His work; the list could go on and on. Because of these facts, John was not worthy to be such a One’s sandal valet. In this culture, it was customary for the servant of the house to handle the footwear of the house guests. John’s statement shows reverence and humility. He did not even consider himself worthy to be His servant. And such ought to be the attitude of all who have been redeemed by the love, grace, and mercy of God through Christ (Luke 17:10).
The nature of this Mighty One’s baptism was to be with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Many have been confused regarding this pronouncement. Some have considered that the fire and the Holy Spirit are the same baptism. But the immediate context (vs.12) forbids such a thought because being baptized with fire is obviously not desirable.
Some have also misapplied the scope of the baptism of the Holy Spirit saying that all Christian baptism is Holy Spirit baptism. Such ignores John’s statement that it would be Jesus himself who would administer such baptism. It is clear from the New Testament that many of Jesus disciples were involved in administering baptism, but these baptisms were not Holy Spirit baptisms! Hence, we must come to the conclusion that Holy Spirit baptism was an affair limited only to those whom Jesus personally chose to be baptized in such a way. John no where says that everyone would be baptized in the Holy Spirit; he simply states that Jesus would administer such and Jesus did as recorded for us in Acts 2:1-4 and Acts 10:44-46 as explained in Acts 11:16. No other time in the New Testament do we read of Jesus’ administering Holy Spirit baptism than these two times. Men have tried to suggest such, but there is no reason to conclude that simply because a passage mentions baptism that it is of necessity Holy Spirit baptism. And those who believe such do so without any contextual evidence. The most common administration of baptism in the New Testament was water baptism and such ought to be the assumed regarding any passage that mentions baptism unless there are contextual reasons to believe otherwise.
Vs. 12 – A winnowing fork is an instrument designed to toss grain mixed with hulls into the air so that the wind may catch the hull and drop the grain. In this manner the hull was separated from the grain. The hulls (chaff) then drifted off in the direction of the wind and were eventually burned. The grain was then collected and gathered into the barn where it could serve its good purpose.
John explains Jesus’ work to be similar in nature. Jesus teaching separated those who would believe and obey the Lord from those who would not. The wheat (believers) would be gathered into the barn (presumably heaven). The chaff (unbelievers), on the other hand, would be burned with unquenchable fire (hell). There are only two eternal destinies for man. Man may either choose to live a holy life in harmony with God’s will and be forever in fellowship with God in heaven, or he may so choose to live in rebellion to God and spend eternity in hell. Moses spoke of the way of life and the way of death (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Jesus spoke of these two ways as well in Matthew 7:13,14. Jesus also spoke of the sheep being separated from the goats for all eternity in Matthew 25:31-46. Where will we spent our eternal destiny? The choice is up to each of us.