Even now the axe 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.
(Matthew 3:10 ESV)
We are currently studying the words of John the Baptist which he directed towards the hypocritical Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, when they wanted to be baptized by him.
These men had not truly admitted their sinful nature (i.e. repented) as is the requirement to receive God’s forgiveness. John knew this because they did not exhibit any behavioral changes that one would expect with the humble act of true repentance [Matthew 3:8]. Using another agricultural metaphor, John today warns them about their future.
John believed that the Messiah (who we’ll find out is Jesus) would imminently (even now) take an axe to the roots of the trees and cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit and throw them into the fire. At the end of every harvest season the farmer would go through his fields and uproot any tree that did not bear fruit in the previous season so next year it would not steal any nutrients from the soil at the expense of those trees that did produce fruit.
But Jesus did not do this during His first presence on earth. While John was well aware that the Messiah was about to come on to the world scene [Matthew 3:2], he, like all the prophets before him, failed to understand that the Messiah would come twice: first to be killed and then subsequently to reign as King.
When Jesus came to earth the first time He came to be killed as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind with the promise to return. When He does return it will be to separate humanity into two categories: those whose sins have been forgiven and those whose sins have not.
Those people who have truly repented (i.e. turned away from their sinful nature) and have received God’s forgiveness will be taken to heaven. Those who have not will be separated from God forever. We call that hell.
Right now, in between Jesus’ advents, we are in the time of harvest [Luke 10:2]. Believers are sowing seeds of the gospel all around the globe and people are being “harvested” into God’s kingdom by repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness. They are then filled with the Holy Spirit and will “bear fruit”, proving they are a true child of God [John 1:12-13; Galatians 5:22-23].
But some day Jesus will return and the harvest will be over. No one knows when that will be [Mark 10:32]. It can happen at any moment. And when He does it will be too late for those who have refused to repent and take advantage of God’s free offer of forgiveness.
The Bible often refers to hell as fire not because (I don’t think) it will be engulfed in flames but because it will be pure agony to be separated from God and instead be solely in the presence of sin and sinners for all eternity. It will make Ferguson, Iraq, and Hiroshima will look like a toddler’s birthday party.
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