We have heard of names like Johnny Appleseed, Pacos Bill the cowboy who could rope a twister, and John Henry the freed slave who could drive a railroad spike faster than any man alive. These folk heroes have helped mold our society for over 100 years. One of the most famous such tall tails is about a giant lumberjack named Paul Bunyan. The stories differ from place to place but typically it was said that Paul could chop down a tree with a single swing, and that he could cut one down with his swing coming or going! It was nothing for him to cut down one million trees in a day’s work, then he would stomp the stumps down into the ground! What a story! Now, here is a silly question: How would you feel if one of those trees had been you?
John was standing in the Jordan river baptizing people from Jerusalem, all of Judea and the region around the Jordan, as they came confessing their sins (Matt. 3:5-6) when a group of Pharisees and Sadducees came to meet him.
The Pharisees and Sadducees represented a large portion of the Jewish religion. The Pharisees numbered around 6,000 at the time of Christ and most likely took their name from the Hebrew word “Pharesh”, meaning “separated”. They separated themselves from other groups by holding strictly to the traditions of the Law of Moses. They were hypocrites, speaking one thing and practicing another. They were never concerned with doing what was right in the sight of God, only making sure that others did.
The Sadducees were a smaller sect of the Jews. Sadducees did not believe in angles, or in the coming Kingdom, or resurrection. We remember that because they were “sad-u-cee”. The two groups were at odds with each other for the majority of their history, and even at this point in time were not friendly with each other.
Here is a question: Why were they coming to John this day? The obvious answer is that they wanted to discourage him, or even run him off. But take a closer look: John greets them by saying “O ye generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). This writer takes that to mean that they had come to the river that day to be baptized! Think about it, they had studied the Old Testament from their youth up, they had read, and re-read, and memorized Isaiah 61:1 which told of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. They believe the Messiah was going to come, no doubt they believed He would have a forerunner. At this point, they have yet to reject Christ.
The mind of a Pharisee would say “If this the forerunner to Messiah, and he says to be baptized, I am going to be baptized.” The problem is, they missed the point of baptism. John, through either common sense or divine inspiration discerned their motive, hence his calling them “generation of vipers”.
John would of course correct their misunderstanding by telling them to “bring forth fruits unto repentance”. These Jews thought being the seed of Abraham would get them into the Kingdom to come, and into the grace of the Messiah, but John has a message for them.
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” (v. 10). John paints a word picture of a woodsman who has marked a tree for removal, and has laid his axe to lean upon the tree while he removes his coat. The image is truly one of a dead tree in an orchard that is ready to be removed, and the axe-man is ready to chop it down.
John is telling these hypocritical Jewish sects that their religion is dead, and they have killed it by their unwillingness to repent! Soon, the Jewish system of religion, and government, and style of life would be destroyed when the axe of God, in this case the Roman army would wipe Jerusalem, as they knew it, off of the map.
Remember our question at the beginning? How would you feel if you were a tree, and you were about to be chopped down? There is a message form Matthew 3 for us, as well as there was for those old Pharisees and Sadducees. Repent of our disbelief, misdeeds, and our half hearted attitude toward God, because the axe is already laid to the root of the trees, and the axe-man is ready.
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