5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 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? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. — Matthew 3: 5-8
Beginning this week in Matthew 3:5 we see a literal Exodus of the people of Israel from Jerusalem, Judea and the whole region; away from the safety of civilization and toward the desert wilderness. This isn’t the first time in history that this has happened for the people of Israel, and Jewish tradition has ensured that the first time wasn’t forgotten. The people of Israel have again been waiting 400 years for the spirit of God to move. This time their enslavement is not physical as it was in Egypt, but spiritual, and the deliverance that they have been promised will come in the form of a Messiah. This promise has been met with counterfeits in recent history, so no one is sure exactly how the people of Israel will be delivered; but still they have faith. In the midst of this, if you are one of the devout, then witnessing an Exodus of people into the desert wilderness is something you would recognize. This would be something worth stepping away from the comfort of your daily life and venturing into the desert to see.
It is here in the desert that we find John surrounded by people. Now that they have arrived, he preaches repentance and baptizes in the Jordan river. The water is significant. It is well known to the Israelites that in order to escape, you have to pass through the water. The waters have covered the earth, they have covered Pharaoh’s armies, and they covered the people who originally passed through this very same river into the promised land. For each believer, these waters now offer the cleansing needed to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven that is about to be ushered in by the coming Messiah.
But what, or rather, who is it that pursues them into the desert? Who are the ones who would keep the people exiting to John enslaved? We get the answer in he next verse as he calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees for being a brood of vipers. This language reflects back to Numbers 21: 4-9 where we have seen these snakes before while wandering in the desert.
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea,[a] to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” — Numbers 21: 4-9
In the past it was up to Moses in communion with God to counteract the venom of the serpents by lifting up a bronze snake on a pole for all to see and be saved. The people coming to John in this wilderness are still being pursued by vipers and still in need of something to look to for salvation. This, in fact, is why John is here; to point the way, and to tell us that God is still in the business of saving his people.
In the last 400 years the Pharisees and Sadducees have carved out niches for themselves in the political/religious social order. They have both found a comfortable spot for God, keeping him in check by carefully studying the law. They have developed separate systems that seem to work in the delicate political/religious balance of the time, but these are systems based on inequity. They are systems that conveniently work to benefit both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Neither group makes up a large percentage of the population, and both groups lay heavy burdens on the Jewish people while invoking the name of God. To borrow an idea from Tolkien, they have inherited a kingdom that has no king, and in their minds it needs no king. They have crowned Herod king, and he does not share power.
There is a tyranny of sorts that can come with the status quo, and the Pharisees and Sadducees both wield it mightily. John has drawn both groups out out to the wilderness. John is preaching the one thing that can challenge this delicate power balance. John is preaching change, John is preaching repentance, and John is preaching baptism because John knows that the King is returning. He knows their hearts, he knows why they have followed the people into the wilderness, and he warns that the wrath of God is coming for them.
Wrath of God is such an interestingly complex concept in the New Testament. Several places within the writings of Paul we find a paradox of the Glory of God and the Wrath of God being what appear to be two sides of the same coin. It depends on whether we are fleeing or pursuing, if we are trying to keep the law, or trying to use the law to keep others in line. For either person encountering God leads to death, this is the effect of original sin. But for those of us who, upon finding God, would repent, then in this death we also find life. At the moment when we would meet our end, we find a beginning, new life and true freedom in Christ.
7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” — Romans 2:7-8
16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” — II Corinthians 2:16
without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved and that by God. — Philippians 1:28
John ends his charge against the Pharisees and Sadducees with the statement that in order to meet the Glory of God rather than the wrath of God, they should produce fruit in keeping with repentance. This suggests what is at the heart of the problem with the status quo. When we hedge God out, we pin ourselves in. When we keep God safely at a distance, we fail to produce fruit. Our initial repentance may be genuine, but the fruit begins to wane when we no longer practice crop rotation. We become too comfortable tilling the same ground and growing the same crop. The risk diminishes with the familiar and our dependence on God begins to lessen. It is not our works that can save us. It never has been. Fruit is something that only God can produce in and through us, but you’ve never had to look far to find those who know the power of entrapping people in a gospel of works. There is no doubt that some part of all of us are vipers wanting to work our way to salvation, but John points out the way to life; it is found by looking to the cross.
Make no mistake: in the end, it is this type preaching that will get both John and Jesus killed. The status quo is powerful, kingdoms are not surrendered easily, and the kingdom of heaven will still cost you no less than your life. But John knows that in this world we are not born free. Freedom is only gained by laying down our lives, and he is able to see through the deception of the Pharisees and Sadducees. John can see that the kingdom of heaven has come down, and that truth is a paradox. Freedom is found in surrender, life is found in death, and the narrative of a holy nation is also a personal journey.