Tag Archives: Pharisees

Sermon — Matthew 3:7-12 — The Gospel: Comfort and Warning

18 Oct

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I remember one time when I was a youth leader having a yard sale. Yard sales usually make very little money for the amount of time you have to put into them. So here I was with a yard sale at another church. And the people of the church brought all their stuff and we filled up the church fellowship hall and then people started coming. Before we started I noticed a big ceramic frog sitting on a table. I chuckled. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Big round bright green frog with a cartoon face. I said to one of the youth, “There’s no way anybody’s going to buy that frog.” Well, you probably know how the story ends. Somebody bought the frog during the first fifteen minutes of the yard sale. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And you know, that’s the way I think the gospel is to people. To some people, it’s worthless. To others, it is the greatest treasure in the world. Of course, in reality, it is the greatest treasure in the world, not because of how we feel about it but because God has made it so. The worth of all things is defined by God, not by us. Still, though, we often reject God’s view of things. Sometimes we even reject God’s view of things while still being very religious. There’s a whole category of people today who say, “I’m spiritual” but they totally reject what God has said about the realities of life. They are making a god in their own image and feeling good about it. And that is not unlike what the religious leaders of the Jews: the Pharisees and Sadducees, did. And this is why John the Baptist addressed them when they came out to see him. He wanted to call them away from their false image of God and themselves to a true and real repentance and faith. And so he points them to the comfort and warning found in the good news of the kingdom. This morning we’re going to look at Matthew 3:7-12.

 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Wow, John, that’s kind of harsh! Calling these guys the offspring of snakes! Yet again, John is basically saying what we said last week, “Wake up!” The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders, and as such they were the most likely to put their security in their own religious activities and not really consider the condition of the hearts before God. Have you ever wondered how preachers can fall into affairs and all kinds of terrible sin? It happens way more than we’d like to admit. And I think the reason it happens is because preachers, in bringing the Word of God week by week, sometimes lose the wonder of knowing God. We become inoculated against the very things we preach week by week. The condition of our hearts does not match the content of our words. The one thing all preachers and teachers must focus on most is their own heart. If I do not cultivate a heart of repentance and faith I am a sitting duck for hypocrisy. And so are you. This was the chief problem both John and Jesus had with the religious leaders: their inward life bore little resemblance to their outward life.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were very different people. The Pharisees were numerous and popular, viewed as the upstanding, godly people of their day. They cared about the law of God and even built a fence around the law, coming up with additional regulations that were supposed to keep you far from breaking God’s law but which actually became a law unto itself that degenerated into legalism and formalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Jewish heritage was all-important to the Pharisees. They saw their lives of purity as the key to national revival in Israel and the rule of God overcoming the rule of Rome. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were considered more liberal in their standards, rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees but also rejecting some truths that were clearly from God, like the reality of a future resurrection and a future judgment and the reality of angels and spirits. They were too sophisticated for such beliefs and they often cultivated a lavish lifestyle and sought cultural power.  They were respected because of their position and power and people in Jesus’ day, even as in our day, often considered a rich person blessed by God and a poor person cursed.

These Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to John’s baptism probably to check it out, maybe even to see if there was some way they could exploit John’s popularity for their own ends. John sees right through them and gives this stern warning.

John associates these religious leaders with the offspring of snakes. By calling them offspring John is probably connecting them to the corrupt priests of the Old Testament who persecuted the prophets. So John is saying the leaders of his day are just as bad as the leaders of yesterday. The religious leaders appear to be the cream of the crop but because of their hypocrisy they lead others away from spiritual life. In this way, they are like that original serpent, the devil, who led Adam and Eve away from spiritual life with the promise of a new and better life. Jesus will go on to make this association directly, calling the religious leaders children of the evil one.

John not only called out the religious leaders for their true identity, he also talked about the wrath to come. This would have struck a nerve with the Sadducees in particular, as John was making clear, contrary to their beliefs, that a judgment was coming, God’s wrath was going to be poured out. The way to get out from under that wrath is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.  Repentance and faith. Sadly, the religious leaders had neither. They were self-assured. This is why John gave them such a harsh message. The old cliché is right: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Consistent with the preaching of the New Testament, we find a holy boldness in confronting unrepentant people and compassion for those who repent. And both actions are loving, because without repentance no one will believe and be reconciled to God. If I saw my child in danger in the middle of the road with the truck bearing down on them but didn’t want to upset them by speaking to them harshly, I would not be loving them, I would be hating them. Having my child upset because I yelled to them, “Get out of the road!” is worth it, because that yell saved them from death. In the same way, a strong message of repentance to a self-assured people can be life-giving. John goes on to point to the weaknesses of the Pharisees and Sadducees in order, starting with verse 8 . . .

 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

This must have cut the Pharisees deeply. They were the pure ones, the examples of virtue for the whole nation, yet John says their fruit is rotten. Fruit in keeping with repentance is about recognizing our sin and turning to God in humble faith. The Pharisees were about recognizing the sin in others and trumpeting their own so-called acts of righteousness. Much like the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, the Pharisees had the outward appearance of spiritual life but there was no inward reality. The fruit of repentance for us is to walk in the light of the Lord, as we read in Ephesians 5:8-11, for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. So John’s first challenge, primarily to the Pharisees, is that their apparently fruitful lives are not so fruitful after all. His second challenge to them comes in verse 9 . . .

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

John goes after the Pharisees next on the matter of their heritage. Don’t trust in your hypocritical works and don’t trust in your heritage as children of Abraham. The people coming to be baptized were getting this. They were recognizing that they needed hearts of repentance and faith not merely blood relation to Abraham if they were to be the people of God. So they adopted the approach of the Gentile convert to Judaism by being baptized. “We’re just as needy as the Gentiles, we’re not trusting in Abraham’s bloodline.” This was an attack on everything the Pharisees stood for because they though salvation was theirs by right through their being part of the covenant people of God and here comes John saying what Paul will basically say in the book of Romans, “A Jew is not a Jew outwardly, but from the heart.” The heart is all-important. The kingdom is at hand. If you are going to get in on it, you have to repent. It’s really very similar to the discussion Jesus had with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Everything you’ve been relying on will do you no good.

Isn’t it interesting that John doesn’t hold back from giving the bad news? I mean, we are so tempted to hedge on things like God’s judgment and hell because we don’t want to make anybody mad. We shouldn’t preach hell with a smile on our face, we shouldn’t want anyone to go there but we must be willing to warn people that hell is a reality with which we must reckon. So many times we want to get to the good news before we’ve really laid out the bad news. But that approach just leads to a bunch of unrepentant people professing Jesus with their lips and denying Him with their lives. Until we feel the weight of our sin against God and the reality of His judgment against sin, we will not be compelled to repent. And without repentance, there can be no true enjoyment of the good news.

So this is John’s message to the Pharisees: Don’t trust in your track record, and don’t trust in your heritage. Repent. In verse 10, I believe, he turns his attention back to the Sadducees . . .

10 Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

The Pharisees were legalists, holding onto heritage and self-righteousness to make their way with God. So they needed to be warned that their works were not as good as they thought and their blood relation to Abraham was no guarantee of being in God’s family. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were worldly. They were about acquiring wealth and influence, they were very much focused on this life. So they needed a wake-up call about the true nature of reality, which John begins to give them in verse 10.

The ax is at the root of the trees. The root. That’s an unusual way to cut down a tree, unless you’re trying to be totally rid of a tree. Then you go at the roots. But here there is no stump, it is roots and all. Proud Sadducees, all your energies have gone into this life, building up your own little world of influence, making for yourself a legacy, but now the ax is coming down on the roots of that life, it’s all going to be taken from you and cast into the fire. There’s still time. The ax is there but it’s not swinging yet. So repent.

To bear good fruit is to live a life of repentance and faith. To bear bad fruit is to live a life of pride and self-reliance. Good fruit leads to life, bad fruit leads to damnation. So John is pleading with the Sadducees not to merely live for today, but to think about the future, to consider their destiny. In verse 11, he warns them of the coming of the King, a coming that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John makes a comparison between himself and the one to come: Jesus. John makes it clear that there is a stark difference between himself and Jesus. John is not worthy of to be Jesus’ lowly servant. Jesus is far more powerful than John. And Jesus will bring a very different kind of baptism than John, not a baptism of water for repentance but a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

The comparison John makes is amazing because by earthly standards John is incredibly powerful and the Holy Spirit is with him. It is obvious that John was highly sought after by the people, deeply courageous in speaking the truth to the powerful and totally willing to give his life to the purposes of God. Jesus Himself would later say, “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John.” Yet here John says in comparison to Jesus he is not worthy to be the lowliest household slave. There can only be one reason why such a great man as John would say what he says here about Jesus. It can only be that Jesus is not a mere man. John is not speaking with false humility, he is just recognizing how much greater Jesus is than he is.

The same truth is clear when John talks about the Holy Spirit. It is clear that the Holy Spirit was active in the ministry of John. There is no way all those people would have gone out into the wilderness to be baptized if the Holy Spirit had not been working. I mean, it’s easy to get people to come out for a show. That’s true in church life and in life outside the church. Put together a show and people will come out. But John’s ministry was not a show. The people who came out were not coming out as spectators. John was calling them to an action, baptism, which would crush all their pride as Jews. Since baptism was one of the ways a Gentile converted to become a Jew, John’s ministry was a humbling and costly ministry to those Jews who participated in baptism. They were basically admitting that they were no better than Gentiles, that they too were in need of baptism. So John was not doing something that would have been naturally appealing to people. So for his actions to receive such a favorable response from the people is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

And yet John says that the One who is to come is far mightier than John. He says He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So this coming One, Jesus the Messiah, will bring the work of the Holy Spirit to a whole new level. And of course we know the rest of the story: Jesus, dying for our sins, rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, on the day of Pentecost sends the Holy Spirit and He fills the believers there and all believers since. So John is not saying, before Jesus, no Spirit, after Jesus, the Spirit. He is instead saying, before Jesus: the work of the Spirit prepares the way, after Jesus: the fullness of the Spirit at work in God’s people.

And this is what the prophet Jeremiah had said would happen when the Savior came, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

So there is great comfort in John’s words because there is a great Savior coming who is going to deal with the sin the people are repenting of. It’s not enough to repent. That’s a starting point but repentance in itself doesn’t save us. Sin must not only be acknowledged and regretted and turned away from it must also be dealt with. And we, as sinners, cannot save ourselves from our sins. We need a Savior. Jesus has come to be that Savior. And when He saves us, he gives us freedom from God’s wrath, freedom from sin’s power over us, the promise of eternal life, the presence of the Holy Spirit and a thousand other gifts of grace. So John’s ministry, as powerful as it was, was limited. It was a preparatory, foundational ministry. Repent in order to prepare your hearts for the salvation that is coming. But if the salvation had never come the repentance would have been utterly meaningless. But salvation has come, full of grace and truth.

But I also believe John has given us a warning here, because not only will Jesus baptize with the Holy Spirit, he will also baptize with fire. Now this fire baptism has been debated through the years. What does John mean, he will baptize you with fire? And the reason it is debated is because fire in the Bible is used to illustrate both judgment and purification. Sometimes fire illustrates how God will bring judgment on a non-believer and sometimes fire is used to illustrate how God will refine or purify a believer. So which is it here? That is the question that people have discussed through the years. When I first started studying this passage I thought John was talking about the refining fire the Holy Spirit would bring in the lives of believers. But I now think the context of the passage points strongly to the fire Jesus brings here being the fire of judgment on unbelievers.

Jesus will bring the Holy Spirit to those who repent and believe, like the ones here who are coming for baptism. But He will bring the judgment of fire to the unrepentant and unbelieving, like the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come to see John. If you look at verse 10, you see a reference to fire, and it is the fire of judgment. If you look in verse 12, you see a reference to fire, and it is the fire of judgment. So here in verse 11, it seems that consistency would lead us to say that this fire too that Jesus brings is a fire of judgment.

 John MacArthur explains how this view of the baptism of fire being judgment in this passage is backed up by the prophecy of Malachi. He says, “It had been predicted by Malachi that the Messiah would purify the nation.  He predicted it.  He predicted that when He came He would come with fire, that He would purify.  But listen to me.  Listen to Malachi 3:1 “Behold I will send my Messenger he shall prepare the way before me”…that’s John the Baptist…”and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant…”  Now, what happens when He comes?  “…who may abide the day of His coming?  And who shall stand when He appeareth?”  Listen to this. “For He is like a refiner’s”…what?…”fire…And He shall sit like a refiner and purifier of silver…purify the sons of Levi, purge them like gold and silver…”  Now, this tells us that He’s coming to purify the nations.  But how?  By just removing the dross, just cleaning them up a little bit?  No.  Chapter 4, it tells us how, verses 1 to 3.  “…the day cometh that shall burn like an oven and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble…the day that cometh shall burn them up…”  In other words, this isn’t just purification; this is consummation…shall burn them up, see.  The fire predicted in chapter 3 is described in chapter 4 of Malachi as that which burns up, consumes the wicked like stubble.  And, beloved, John the Baptist, 400 years later, picked right up where Malachi left off and he says, Israel, He’s coming and He’s coming for salvation and He’s coming to baptize you with the Spirit, but if you reject Him, He’ll come with the baptism of fire, just as Malachi said it 400 years ago.”

Now you might say, “Well, I thought Jesus in his first coming did not come to bring judgment but salvation. And there is certainly truth to that, He came to save. But Jesus also by His very nature makes neutrality impossible: you must reject Him or receive Him. And this makes His coming, while a glorious gift of grace, also divisive. Jesus even says in Luke 12:49 “I have come to send fire on the earth . . . do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No but rather division. From now on houses will be divided, family member against family member.”  So with his words about the ministry of Jesus, that He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, John is comforting the afflicted (promising the repentant that they would have the Spirit) and afflicting the comfortable (warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that a fearful fiery judgment was coming). And verse 12 says that judgment is coming soon.

 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The ax is at the root of the tree, the winnowing fork is in His hand. Words of warning. The winnowing fork is used to toss the grain into the air as a way to separate the good wheat from the chaff, the debris that is gathered along with the wheat when it is harvested. This verse is talking about the future judgment. Jesus will gather His people but the unbeliever will be like chaff that will be burned with unquenchable fire. The amazing comfort is in the security of the wheat being gathered into the barn. Nothing can touch it. It is safe and secure. And it is all gathered. And so it is for all who repent and believe. We are safe in the presence of God and forever can enjoy Him and one day will be gathered with Him forever. The grace of this passage cannot be overstated. For those who repent and believe there is the promise of salvation and a fruitful life and the Holy Spirit and the final gathering into the presence of the Savior, forever safe and secure. But the horror of this passage can also not be overstated. For those who reject Jesus the Savior, there is the reality of damnation, a fruitless life, the fire of judgment marking a person as chaff, worthless, only to be thrown out and burned with unquenchable fire. Unquenchable. Forever safe or forever damned, that is the picture Jesus is giving us here. Judgment and salvation will be thorough, no one will escape. And judgment and salvation will be right. There will be no mistakes. No wheat will be thrown out, no chaff will be retained. There will be no mistakes in separating believer from unbeliever.

This passage is a word of comfort to those who know they have nothing to offer God but empty hands of faith. It is a joy to those who are burned out, beat up and broken. All we need to do is repent and believe. Turn away from sin and turn to God.

But this passage is a terribly fearful passage for the secure. For those who feel like they have it all together, for those to whom outward appearance is everything. Our danger as churchgoers is that we never come to the waters to repent but we only come to observe. Our danger is that we never personally give ourselves to the life of the kingdom even as we are there watching it all unfold in other people’s lives. Our danger as churchgoers is that we become Pharisees or Sadducees, either leaning on our own righteousness or just writing off the reality of God’s judgment as being something not realistic. Trying to bring in the kingdom through our own wits and willpower or denying the kingdom altogether and just trying to build our own little kingdoms of wealth and fun and success. And John comes to us today and says, come to the One who is now here. Come to Jesus. He will forgive and restore and give you new life. The alternative is to go your own way and in rebellion face a fruitless life and a Christ-less eternity of punishment.  Isaiah 45:22 says, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth. For I am God and there is no other.” Some today criticize hell. They act as if God is saying, “Love me and if you don’t I’ll send you to hell forever.” They don’t understand that we God’s judgment as the fruit of a faithless life. It is not arbitrary but is an expression of His holiness against sin and rebellion. As Christians, we do not celebrate hell but we dare not deny it. Our job is to offer hope to the hopeless and warning to those who are trusting in their own righteousness while at the same time making sure we don’t become hopeless or self-righteous ourselves. This is our message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.” That’s good news. 

 

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