Matt 3:7-10 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (NIV)
Along with the crowds that came to John the Baptist were the religious leaders of the time, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were on one extreme of religion and the Sadducees were on the other.
The Pharisees had a list of dos and don’ts for just about every aspect of life. They proposed that the only way to see eternal life was to follow the lists without fault. The lists were derived from Scripture but overshadowed by traditions and interpretations that carried just as much if not more weight than Scripture. Oh, yes, you also had to be a Jew. The same kind of people can be seen in Christianity. A good Christian can’t do this or a good Christian must to that. I haven’t run in to too many of these in the last few years as the values of the world have crept into the church and the legalistic, hardnosed, unforgiving attitude of these Christian Pharisees has driven away younger people. They used to forbid any kind of makeup for women, couples dancing, movies, even going to a restaurant on Sunday. The most recent ones I’ve run across have different rules. They forbid any kind of Christmas celebration claiming pagan roots, and certainly no Halloween activities. Other even consider you to be a heathen if belong to the wrong political party.
The root of all Pharisee religion whether Christian or Jew is based on works. That means being approved by God for how well I meet the requirements they believe will please Him. If I can keep all the rules and regulations then God must be pleased with me and I’ll be able to go to heaven when I die.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the Sadducees. They purported to be religious but denied perhaps the most important aspect of religion, namely they didn’t believe in life after death or a judgment after death. They also didn’t believe in angels or spirits – people who have died. They also believed in man’s own free will to the point that it seems they denied that God could or would work in a person’s life or that God could know or affect the future. I wonder if they even believed in God. However, they followed the Levitical law even more strictly than the Pharisees while rejecting all the traditions that the Pharisees had added. They were also the aristocrats of the day. They were rich, worldly, and politically powerful. The Sadducees didn’t survive when the nation of Israel was destroyed by the Romans. The political institution that they could manipulate was gone.
We don’t really have any Christians who look exactly like the Sadducees because of their strict enforcement of the law. However, many other aspects of the Sadducees can be seen in many if not most Christian churches and most people in the U.S. I have asked many people who are not grounded in the Christian faith if they will go to heaven when they die. The majority have answered that they don’t even know if there is a heaven. They may admit to believing in God but, just as the Sadducees, they deny His power and His authority over them. The political scene in the U.S. certainly seems to be run by Sadducees. Most claim to be Christians but certainly don’t live like it – eternal judgment or God’s authority over them certainly doesn’t seem to affect their activities or decisions. While that is sad, it is probably sadder that many churches deny the truths of the Bible and have become social clubs at the best. They, like the Sadducees, have elevated mankind above God. They believe that truth is defined by what they believe is true, not by what God has told us.
This is the root of Sadducee beliefs; it is a basic denial of God, His power, and His truth. It comes down to believing anything you want; if you believe you will have an afterlife, then you will. If you believe there is no afterlife, then there isn’t. The truth is that God doesn’t change and He isn’t like a fairy that disappears if we don’t believe in Him. I have some bad news for those who think this way. It is found in Prov 1:24-26. Because I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel, And did not want my reproof; I will even laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes. (NASB)
What did John have to say about them? He called both groups a brood of vipers. Sometimes we have to be very blunt with people before they understand. One of the problems with many churches is that they fail to call sin, sin. They would rather call it poor choices, mistakes, lapse of judgment, or even deny it is a sin. If a person doesn’t know that his behavior is a sin and the seriousness of sin, then how can he repent? 1 John 3:4-6 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NIV)
The Pharisees and Sadducees shared the belief that they were righteous. Why did they go out to John? Did they want to make sure their bases were covered just in case they had missed something? The Pharisees may have been afraid of eternal judgment, but the Sadducees would be afraid of temporal judgment. Either way, John’s response applied to both. Rom 1:18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. (NLT) Doesn’t this sound like these two groups as well as many churches, cults, and secular thinking? They all suppress the truth by and through their wickedness. It doesn’t matter who I am or what I call myself. If I’m denying the truth of God, His wrath will come upon me sooner or later. If I’m a Christian, His discipline will come upon me (Heb 12:4-10) because He loves me and wants to correct me.
If I’m not a Christian His wrath has another side. Rom 2:4-5 Don't you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can't you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.(NLT) His wrath isn’t revealed now because He is kind and patient. However, He affirms that there is a day of judgment for those who reject that kindness and patience.
John could see their hypocrisy. They wanted the benefits of being on God’s side without actually having to do what God wanted. Repentance and turning from sin always shows itself in a changed life and a changed heart. Outward things like performing rituals, whether it is baptism, communion, confession, or penance mean nothing if the heart has not changed. Later in Matthew, it will become clear that their hearts were not right with God.
Another problem that John addressed is the concept that being born in the right place or of the right people is what is necessary for salvation. God called the nation of Israel to be set apart from the world to show the world what a holy people should look like. The nations were supposed to see this and worship God. The Pharisees and Sadducees had morphed this into believing that only an Israelite could be saved. John knew that salvation was not unique to being an Israelite. Paul expounded more fully on this. Rom 4:16-17 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants - not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations" - in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (RSV) Gal 3:14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (NIV) While I’m not exactly a stone, John made the point that God could save even a Gentile like me. Because of my faith in Jesus, I’m a son of Abraham.
Repetition is a good teacher and John pushes the correlation between repentance and bearing fruit. Jesus uses the same analogy to a tree and its fruit and the acts and behavior of a good or bad person in Matt 12:15-20. There is no way to escape the conclusion that a person who lives a sinful life is doing it because his heart has not been changed. He has not repented and there is only one outcome for eternity – fire.
I can follow the clear examples of the Pharisees and Sadducees who distorted God’s Word for their own selfish desires or I can repent. If I repent then my actions must show that my faith is genuine. I’ll either produce good fruit or end up in the fire. What will it be for you? Fruit or fire?