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Matthew 3:7-12 “The Herald’s Warning”

But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit corresponding with repentance! And do not presume to say to yourselves: ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up from these stones children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree, therefore, every tree not bearing good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I, on the one hand, baptize you with water in reference to repentance. On the other hand, One is coming after me who is mightier than me, of whom I am unworthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His grain into the storehouse, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire.

The following verses are of crucial importance to Matthew’s grander picture. If 3:7-12 were cut out and the narrative moved from v. 6 on to v. 13, several important pieces of information would be missing. Upon the conclusion of v. 6, Matthew presents the possibility of a positive note. John is preaching repentance in connection with a necessary second Exodus and in connection with the promised New Covenant. As a result, all Jerusalem and Judea is coming out to him in order to be baptized. Unless we are provided with additional information, we would be led to believe that John has enacted the fulfillment of nearly all Old Testament prophecy regarding the repentance and restoration of Israel. But we are provided with additional information in the following verses, information that clarifies the incompleteness of Israel’s repentance. Responding to Israel’s skin-deep repentance, John first exhorts the seriousness of his message before explaining the significance of his ministry.

John’s Exhortation: Repentance is Necessary (vv. 7-10)

It would be strange indeed if all Jerusalem and Judea came to be baptized by John without any representative of either the Pharisees or the Sadducees being represented. These two groups embody the theological, political, and social heart of Israel at this time. While it would not be accurate to say that all of Israel belonged to one of these two sects, it is true that the hearts and minds of the nation were formed by these two bodies.

Repentance is Greater than Dumb Show (vv. 7-8)

These two groups did not get along and were often at odds with each other. Yet they come together to John at the Jordan to be baptized (ἐπὶ conveys purpose here). This introduces an obvious question: why? The answer is quite simple. If (a) John is preaching repentance in connection with a second exodus so that (b) the kingdom from heaven might come which means that (c) the time of Messiah, (d) the establishment of the New Covenant, and (e) the destruction of all God’s enemies is near, and if (f) the people of Jerusalem and Judea understand this message and are coming out in droves to confess their sins and place their trust in the coming New Covenant via the demonstration of baptism, then those who supposedly hold positions of authority have a choice to make. They can either (a) join in the “repentance” or (b) discredit the baptizer. They’ve come to “prove” that they too are ready for Messiah and His kingdom. But are they really ready?

John’s Rebuke (v. 7): “But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?” The scene is tightly connected to the previous verse. It is as if John was in the middle of baptizing the crowds along the banks of the Jordan when he looks up to see this unified contingent of both the Pharisees and Sadducees. The single article addresses these two groups as a unit (τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων). Upon seeing them, John offers a stiff rebuke.

By referring to them as a brood of vipers (γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν) John is not simply hurling insults at them. His language is very precise. A “brood” is a group of offspring. John is literally calling them “sons of serpents.” This goes beyond a nominal insult regarding the poisonous effect of their teaching and influence and strikes at the heart of the spiritual parentage.[1] John goes all the way back to Gen. 3:15 and accuses the Pharisees and Sadducees, Israel’s religious, political, and social conscience, of being spiritual seeds of Satan and thus utterly separate from the seed of the woman.

John follows up his accusation with a rhetorical question: who warned you to flee the coming wrath? The Old Testament clearly links the coming kingdom with a time of God’s wrath (Obad. 15-21; Joel 2:1-11, 18-27; 3:18-21; Amos 5:18-20). Any topic of Yhwh’s kingdom will necessarily include a discussion on what the prophets call the day of Yhwh. Therefore, if John is preaching that the kingdom from heaven is on the verge of invasion (Ps. 2), then one can easily assume that God’s wrath is even closer. Yet God’s wrath is never indiscriminate nor administered capriciously. The wrath of God is poured out accurately, precisely, and effectively. Those who repent and turn to God have no fear of His wrath (Joel 2:12-17; Ps. 2:10-12). By identifying the Pharisees and Sadducees as sons of Satan and rhetorically asking about their flight from wrath, John implies that the coming wrath that precedes the kingdom is designed to consume such as them. More than a shot across the bow or a slap in the face, John publicly labels the spiritual, social, and political conscience of Israel an object of God’s wrath. Any baptism that they seek is not indicative of repentance but is only a dumb show. John makes it clear that he will have nothing to do with their charade.

John’s Inferred Result (v. 8): “Therefore, bear fruit corresponding with repentance!” If baptism is what they want, then they must fulfill the necessary requirement. They must first repent. As already mentioned in v. 2, μετάνοια/μετανοέω (repentance/repent) indicates a complete change of life direction. The way one thinks, feels, and behaves (attitude, affections, and actions) is utterly altered. There are two observations we need to make regarding this repentance that John demands of the Pharisees and Sadducees. First, John speaks of a singular fruit rather than a basket full of different fruits. He does not demand a laundry list of humanistic works that somehow proves repentance. Rather, the fruit is singular. One’s wholistic life is the fruit of repentance.[2] Sometimes we adopt a works-based theology when looking for various and voluminous fruits of repentance. The question is simpler than we tend to make it: are we the same person as before?

Second, the singular fruit needs to correspond with the repentance. Matthew uses the adjective ἄξιος which usually is translated as “worthy” but is used to make a comparison between an object and its value or worth. The basic meaning draws a correspondence between two things. In this case, John demands that the fruit (one’s life) corresponds with the profession of repentance. If repentance is a complete change in attitude, affections, and actions and if the Pharisees and Sadducees are sons of Satan by virtue of their being Pharisees and Sadducees, then the fruit of repentance would include these men forsaking their perspective orders so they might serve God on His terms rather than theirs. It is necessary to point out that John does not demand something extra from these men that he has not demanded of others. A changed life that is consistent with a profession of faith and confession of sin is the definition of repentance, the content of John’s preaching this whole time.[3]

Repentance Alone Avoids Judgment (vv. 9-10)

John is more than a fire and brimstone preacher. It is true that he roasted the Pharisees and Sadducees in a public setting. Doubtlessly he caused great offense (the unpardonable sin in our modern context). Yet John did not set out to insult but to warn. He follows up the sting of rebuke by pressing home the seriousness of his warning.

Personal Conviction vs. Public Confession (v. 9): “And do not presume to say to yourselves: ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up from these stones children for Abraham.” John cuts off the Pharisees and Sadducees before they can even mount a response. It is possible that the present delegation might argue their righteous status before God based on works of ritual cleanliness (Pharisees) and particular lineage (Sadducees) and are therefore not in need of repentance. In fact, repentance (complete change in affections, attitude, and actions) would undermine the basis of their right standing. This statement goes even further so as to question their connection to Abraham and the covenant blessing associated with him.

The negated aorist subjunctive (μὴ δόξητε λέγειν – you might not to say) following the aorist imperative of v. 8 (ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν – therefore, produce fruit!) is a categorical prohibition: “do not presume at all to say…” John is saying “don’t even think about claiming you belong to Abraham simply because you share a biological connection.” To be clear, connection to Abraham is the difference between life vs. death, mercy vs. wrath. The question is not the existence of a connection but the type of connection. God’s covenant to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-14) is the basis of biblical soteriology. God swore that the promised seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) would come through Abraham. Abraham believed/trusted what God swore to him (Gen. 15:6) and as a result, God reckoned righteousness to him. It is not enough to simply be a physical descendent of Abraham. One must share the same faith, trust, belief that resulted in God-given righteousness.

John’s warning now pulls back the veil to reveal the wretched state of Israel’s conscience. The object of Israel’s faith is not in the person of Messiah, the coming Seed of the woman who will undo and reverse the curse. Rather, they trust in their biological and ethnic connection to Abraham the patriarch. The fact that John demands that they not say this to themselves indicates that regardless of their public confession, this is their personal conviction.[4] They trust themselves by virtue of their ancestry while rejecting the work of God. John warns them against such foolish presuppositions by pointing at the ground to the river rocks. If God was able to produce fruit in Sarah’s dead womb, is He not also able to raise up faithful and believing children to Abraham from these dead stones? Salvation is not in obtaining the right connections. Salvation is of Yhwh (Jon. 2:9). Family connections cannot save anyone from God’s wrath. But repentance can.

Proximity and Certainty of Judgment (v. 10): “Even now the axe is laid at the root of the tree, therefore, every tree not bearing good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” After cutting off their unbiblical reasoning, John comes to the climax of his argument by way of a metaphor. The basic thrust of the word picture is that the time to repent is now. There is not a moment to be lost.

The point of the axe at the tree’s root is not so much that the axe is laid down at the foot of the tree (who leaves their tools laying around?) but that the axe is in hand with the blade placed against the trunk in preparation for the first strike.[5] The image is much more terrifying than one might at first think. John is not suggesting that the tool of judgment (the axe) is laid out ready to be used. John states that the one who wields the axe is already sizing up and taking aim for his first swing. If the kingdom of heaven is at hand (v. 2) then the preceding judgment is even closer. This metaphor ties John’s larger warning together because only the fruitless trees are cut down and cast into the fire.

Several things about this statement need to be brought to our attention. First, the axe-work is not a pruning work to encourage new growth. The tree is cut off at the base or the root and is therefore eliminated. This is final judgment language. Second, the work that corresponds with repentance (v. 8) is here simply called good fruit. The various trees are cut off because of their lack of fruit. John has already accused the Pharisees and Sadducees of not possessing the fruit that corresponds with repentance (i.e., a changed life). John thus marks his audience as trees with the axe blade already poised at their base. Finally, this fire is nothing less than eschatological and eternal judgment. One does not refine trees by cutting them off at the base and burning them. A tree that is cut down and burned is good for nothing. This is final judgment language pure and simple. John identified the Pharisees and Sadducees as fruitless trees and sons of Satan. Yet he continues to preach repentance while urging the proximity and certainty of the coming judgment.

John’s Explanation: A Coming Greater One (vv. 11-12)

John’s exhortation (vv. 7-10) now changes to an explanation (vv. 11-12). It is likely that the Pharisees and Sadducees will refuse to take John’s warning of superficial repentance seriously. In such a case, John explains that he is not the final authority and that they will have to deal with the One who comes after John.[6] This One who is coming after John comes with a greater baptism (v. 11) and will make a greater and final separation (v. 12).

A Greater Baptism (v. 11)

I, on the one hand, baptize you with water in reference to repentance. On the other hand, One is coming after me who is mightier than me, of whom I am unworthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The μὲν…δὲ construction creates a natural “on the one hand…on the other hand” presentation. John is presenting his ministry (on the one hand) in contrast to the coming ministry of an infinitely greater being (on the other hand). There are three elements of this contrast that require further comment. The first is the connection between John’s baptism with water and repentance. Many translations make it seem as if the water somehow enables or even produces repentance (water for repentance – NASB/water unto repentance – NKJV) but the context clearly links John’s baptism as a rite given to those who have already repented. It is therefore unlikely to translate εἰς as “for”. It is more likely that John simply refers to water as being associated or connected to repentance in a more general way (water with reference to repentance). The larger point is to emphasize the superiority of Jesus’ baptism in comparison to John’s. John not only uses a common substance with which to baptize (water) but also baptizes in a symbolic manner only. He does not accomplish this repentance with water, but only associates the future cleansing of the New Covenant (Ezek. 36:25-27) with the present water of the Jordan.

Second, John emphasizes the fact that he is greatly inferior to the coming One and is therefore not Messiah. John says that he is unworthy/unfit/insufficient (οὐκ εἰμί ἱκανὸς) to so much as carry the sandals of the coming One. Removing and carrying sandals is the duty of a slave. John says that he is not even worthy to perform the duties of the coming One’s slave, much less be seen as His colleague. If John is unworthy to be this One’s salve while claiming to perform a baptism that is only associated with repentance, what does that indicate about the Pharisees and Sadducees? They are unworthy to be baptized by John, the one unworthy to carry the coming One’s sandals.

Finally, we need to understand the significance of the coming One’s baptism. It is often argued that there is but one baptism in view because of the single preposition that governs the mode of baptism (αὐτός ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί – He will baptize you in/with the Holy Spirit and fire).[7] This view that understands Jesus’ baptism as consisting of both the Holy Spirit and fire links this statement with its supposed fulfillment at Pentecost. “Fire” is therefore not a means of judgment but a means of purification. This single baptism is therefore a positive. This interpretation overlooks at least three significant facts. (1) The verb βαπτίζω is used and not the noun βάπτισμα. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the single preposition indicates the agency of the Holy Spirit with the means of fire. It is impossible for a single term to have two drastically different functions within a single clause. It is better to understand two acts of plunging, dipping, immersing. The first in/with the Holy Spirit and the second in/with fire.[8] (2) “fire/πῦρ” is used to indicate judgment in the verses immediately before and after the current text. It would be strange indeed for John to bounce back and forth between illustrations of fire being first negative, then positive, only to once again be negative in the span of three verses. To argue that fire is sometimes used in a purification context is as relevant as arguing that John’s baptism is a baptism of destruction because sometimes water is seen as a tool of judgment. Just because a statement is true does not mean it is relevant to the context. (3) John is speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees who he has already called sons of Satan and therefore is probably not indicating a happy ending awaits them. There is a choice set before the audience (you/ὑμᾶς), an audience already identified in v. 7. If they truly repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance, then the One coming after John will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. If not, then He will baptize with fire. The next verse elaborates on this theme as the greater baptism leads to a greater separation.

A Greater Separation (v. 12)

His winnowing fork is in His hand and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His grain into the storehouse, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire.

Another metaphor is used yet John moves from the vineyard to the threshing floor. At this point it is safe to assume that (1) Jesus is the One coming after John and (2) Jesus is the subject of all the indefinite verbs (He will baptize, clear, gather, burn).[9]

The whole process of threshing, winnowing, storage, and disposal are in view. The cut and cured grain would be laid on a wooden threshing floor trampled on by oxen in order to break the grain heads away from the hulls and stalks of the dried plant. The winnowing process involves a fork or shovel used to toss the mulch into the air where the wind would blow the lighter hulls, chaff, and stalks away leaving the heavier grain to fall back to the ground. When this was complete, the grain is sacked up and placed into a barn or store house while the remaining stubble and chaff, being good for nothing else, are burned. Four observations should be made.

First, John again speaks with a sense imminence. He does not say that it is the time of harvest or that the grain has already been cut. Rather, he says that Jesus (the One coming after him) already is holding his winnowing fork. The process of separating grain from chaff is all but begun.

Second, John places a tremendous emphasis on Jesus’ possession. He speaks of His, winnowing fork, His threshing floor, and His grain. The tools, produce, and even the place all belong to Him. Thus, it is striking that the chaff receives no such designation. What is burned does not belong to Him.

Third, the unquenchable fire is certainly a reference to eschatological judgment, but in the sense of torment and punishment rather than annihilationism. In a real agricultural scene, the fire would go out once the chaff was consumed. John speaks of something much more terrifying, a fire that never goes out because the object being burning is never consumed. Wrath is eternal. A sobering truth.

Finally, there is an overarching theme of Jesus’ complete control and sovereignty of the present situation. John has no authority or ability to do anything other than preach repentance because of the coming kingdom. He cannot cleanse sinners with his baptism, nor can he accurately separate the true grain from the false chaff. It is not his duty to purify and preserve but only to preach. The Lord Jesus will come after him and provide the necessary cleansing for repentant sinners as well as make accurate separation in the end. Not a single kernel of grain will burn and not scrap of stubble will escape the flames. Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 110-3. [2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 58. [3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 108. [4] Morris, p. 59. [5] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 145. [6] Ibid. [7] Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 35. [8] Nolland, p. 145-7. [9] Turner, p. 115.


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