(Mat 3:7-10 ESV) 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? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 10 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.”
“Brood of vipers” obviously insults their parents and them as well. These were not kind words. The allusion may be to Jer 46:22, speaking of Egypt —
(Jer 46:22-24 ESV) 22 “She makes a sound like a serpent gliding away; for her enemies march in force and come against her with axes like those who fell trees. 23 They shall cut down her forest, declares the LORD, though it is impenetrable, because they are more numerous than locusts; they are without number. 24 The daughter of Egypt shall be put to shame; she shall be delivered into the hand of a people from the north.”
If so, then John is calling them pagans and Gentiles who will be defeated. In fact, the Egyptians are the ones God destroyed in the Red Sea — a people so wicked that they should be fled from.
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Judgment Day was at least 2,000 years in the future. Maybe longer. What is the “wrath to come”? Judgment after they each die from old age? Possibly, but John seems to be speaking of an event soon to happen — and the Destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus in 70 AD fits well. It was the end of the Mosaic age. The Temple was destroyed. And Jews died and were enslaved by the tens of thousands. It was a terrible, brutal siege, and it fits the descriptions of Lev 26 and Deu 28 very nicely.
Hence, to a Jew, thinking in terms of God’s judgment against the nation more than judgment against individuals, the “wrath to come” surely included the fall of Jerusalem in about 40 years. I mean, why should we read John as thinking solely in eschatological terms when we don’t read Jeremiah and Ezekiel that way. The OT prophets spoke in similar terms of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.
(Jer 7:20 ESV) “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.”
Paul certainly uses “wrath” to speak of judgment at the end of time, but John’s audience would have heard his words in terms of a destruction to be visited by God upon them within their lifetimes.
(Mat 3:9 ESV) 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.”
This is, of course, the centerpiece of Paul’s preaching as well. Ancestry is not salvific; faith is. For Paul, this means the Gentiles may come in. For John, this means that many Jews will not make it.
(Mat 3:10 ESV) 10 “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.”
John’s metaphor (also used by Jesus and Paul) is that a truly penitent person will bear “good fruit,” meaning good works. It’s not enough to repent of your sins and no longer do wrong. You must also do good — not that good works earn salvation but that penitent people have circumcised hearts and therefore are motivated to do good by their circumcised natures — that is, the operation of the Spirit.
What are these good works? Well, the same good works spoken of in Deu 10 and in the prophets — care for the poor and vulnerable, justice for the oppressed.
The last chapter of the First Testament reads —
(Mal 4:1-6 ESV) “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb [Mt. Sinai] for all Israel.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
The threat was to destroy the land with fire, with utter destruction. It’s sounds a lot like John the Baptist, in the role of Elijah. And it sounds a lot like the destruction of Jerusalem, the fulfillment of Lev 26 and Deu 28. The curses were coming true — again — and so it’s time to get right with God!
Now, Matthew says nothing of John’s baptism producing forgiveness, but both Mark and Luke have John proclaiming a baptism of repentance unto (eis) forgiveness of sins, in language remarkably parallel with Acts 2:38.
(Mar 1:4 ESV) 4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
(Luk 3:3 ESV) 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
This bothers some commentators because, they assume, forgiveness under the Mosaic covenant came from animal sacrifice. But the prophets promised forgiveness to those who repent and confess their iniquity.
(Lev 26:40-42 ESV) “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies — if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
Implicit is that if the Israelites confess, they will be forgiven. The same promise is found
(Deu 30:1-3 ESV) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”
Again, if the Israelites will recall their covenant with God and return to him, they will be forgiven.
Therefore, no new covenant or amendment to the old covenant was needed for repentance, confession, and baptism to produce forgiveness. God had promised exactly that 1,500 years earlier, and he had not forgotten.
No, the hard question isn’t why God could forgive those baptized by John, but why did John baptize at all?