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? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
(Matthew 3:7-8 ESV)
Over the past few days we’ve been reading about the ministry of John the Baptist. John preached a message of repentance because repentance is the prerequisite to receiving forgiveness of sins [Matthew 3:2]. One must truly believe they are a sinner in need of forgiveness before he can actually be forgiven. Baptism was a subsequent ceremony in which that person publicly declared their repentance and the receipt of God’s forgiveness.
But apparently some people who came to John to be baptised had not truly repented. This included many of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The Pharisees, whose name means “separated ones”, were very exclusive. They believed heavily in keeping certain man-made rules and rituals. The Sadducees, who were fewer in number than the Pharisees, were much more liberal, adhering only to the law of Moses. Neither group had much in common with the other except for the fact that both groups relied on self-effort to win favor with God. Neither group would have believed they had any real need to repent.
John was well aware of their insincerity which is why he calls them vipers. This particular snake has great camouflage; it looks like a stick. This was the same snake that bit Paul when he was gathering wood on the island of Malta [Acts 28:3-5].
John is condemning these men for being hypocrites. Like the viper they appeared to be something they were not. They had not truly repented of their sin even though they appeared to. John recognized this because they did not bear fruit. The term “fruit” in Scripture always refers to manifested behaviors and attitudes [Galatians 5:22-23].
When someone truly repents of their sins it will be noticeable [James 2:17]. Notice that it is not good behavior that saves anyone from the penalty of their sin. None of us are righteous in any way [Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:10; 1 John 1:8 et. al]. None of us can point to any of our deeds and expect to get into heaven [Matthew 7:21-23]. Rather our deeds (fruit) are a result of being forgiven which is a result of being repentant.
We don’t know the motive the Pharisees and Sadducees had in coming to John. Perhaps they were looking for an “insurance policy”. I once knew someone who said he was a follower of Jesus. But he was also a follower of Allah and Buddha and whoever else he could think of. He didn’t see himself as a sinner in need of the forgiveness Jesus offered. Instead he just wanted to cover his bases in case Jesus turned out to be the “right” god.
True repentance is always sincere. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge that one makes mistakes. Everyone does that. To receive God’s forgiveness one must agree that they have sinned against God and they need to be cleansed from that sin.
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