A Reason for Change

Matthew 3:7 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. 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. 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.”

Many people throughout history have been curious about Jesus and Christian ministry. In fact, many will even come into the church, stay a while, maybe even years, observing what takes place. Many come close, observe, and even some will participate in ministries around the church. Some of these will come for a while and one day walk away, move on to something else. For some, church fits well in their schedules during certain stages of life. When the kids are young, it may seem, well just good, right, to see to it that the kids go to church. Parents look for good influences for their kids and maybe they find it in church. Some people may go through lonely times and find some kind of social satisfaction being in a church. Young people may go to church to find a spouse. Still others, like a man I met years ago, he went to church to find customers for his growing business. Others just want to fit in somewhere, to have a say, to find a position where they feel important and listened to. People seek out churches for all kinds of reasons, from curiosity to social fulfillment.

When John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan, he was like a spiritual phenomenon. Many came out to see him, no doubt for all kinds of reasons. He was not the typical rabbi teaching in the synagogues. He was not connected to a church, or a school. He was like a loner and yet people seemed to be drawn to him. People were coming to him to be baptized in the Jordan River. In verse 7 of Matthew 3 we see that even now, there were religious leaders coming to see what all was going on. He apparently was causing a big enough commotion to now attract the leaders of the Jews, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Like many who come to church for all kinds of reasons, the same must have been true for those coming out to see John the Baptist. In verse 7 it simply says that they came out to his baptism. But here is the thing: when people came out to see John the Baptist, the one who was preparing a way for the Christ, for whatever reason they came, they would hear truth. John would give them truth, God’s truth.

Our churches should be able to say the same thing. We can analyze why people come, we can judge people’s motives, we can wring our hands over a lack of real desire to be in church for the right reasons, or we can simply, clearly, and consistently preach and teach, talk about, and hold up truth. And God can take that and He can do whatever He wills with it in whomever’s life He wills.

John was not a man who changed the message, nor would he shrink back from truth – it didn’t matter who showed up.

His message was, in our passage, twofold. First he talked about repentance, and secondly he talked about the worth of Jesus Christ. Two topics that may seem unrelated to each other but they are in fact closely, intricately woven together – repentance and the worth of Jesus Christ. We will look at both, and I want to show you how they are related to each other.

On this day the Pharisees and Sadducees showed up. These were religious leaders each from a different Jewish sect. The Pharisees were an exclusive group. The word Pharisee means “separated one,” and they tried to live up to the meaning of that word. These people were outwardly pious people. They were a self-righteous group who would have little to do with anyone outside of their group. They worked very hard at obedience and even wanted to be recognized for their obedience. We see this in places like Matthew 23:

Matthew 23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues

When they walked down the road, they wanted to be visibly identifiable as a Pharisee, and for others to think, "Wow, there goes a righteous person." Jesus in His ministry often pointed out the emptiness of the Pharisees' religious practices and the hypocrisy of their deeds. Later in Matthew 23 Jesus said:

Matthew 23: 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!

Another group that came out to see John the Baptist was the Sadducees. The Sadducees were quite different from the Pharisees. They were the liberals of the Jews. The Sadducees claimed to hold to the Law of Moses, but that was about it. They cared little for religion though, or the doctrine of religion. In fact, they did not believe in the supernatural, miracles, or the existence of angels. They did not believe in a resurrection of the dead either. They also tended to be a wealthy group much smaller in number than the Pharisees, and they were a political force as well.

So these are the ones who came out to where John was baptizing. Again, maybe just curious, maybe wanting John’s approval since he was gaining a following, maybe they wanted to argue with him, we don’t really know, but we do know that when they showed up John spoke truth to them.

Matthew 23:7b 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.

He begins by referring to them as a brood of vipers. Jesus used these same words later, referring to them. Vipers were small poisonous snakes. Vipers were hard to see, they looked like sticks on the ground. That is what made them so dangerous. Paul was actually bitten by one after gathering wood for a fire, as you may recall from Acts 28. Calling these religious leaders a brood of vipers points to the dangers of their teachings and hypocrisy. They were like poison to their listeners.

In verse 8 is where we see the word repentance, this is where John told them to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Now remember, John's message was one of repentance. We talked some about repentance last time and how repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of actions. It is always a moving from sin to righteousness, it is a moving to God, to godliness, away from evil. And in addition, the mention of fruit here helps us to better understand what repentance really is. Repentance in the Scriptures is always known by changed behavior.

All the Jews understood the idea of repentance, for it was taught among them. The clear meaning in Judaism of repentance was a change of man toward God, a change in attitudes and in actions. Sorrow for sin alone is not repentance. Being upset over getting caught in sin, or feeling pain over the consequences of sin, is not repentance. For true repentance, there must be fruit of it. Jesus speaks about this:

Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Repentance is not just admitting sin. Pharaoh admitted his sin in Exodus 9, Balaam admitted his sin in Numbers 22, Judas even admitted his sin after betraying Jesus. None of these, however, were repentant. The knowledge of sin, even personal sin, is not enough – it is the forsaking of sin that is the fruit of repentance.

In a parallel passage from Luke, John the Baptist goes on to describe repentance.

Luke 3:10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Repentance was needed. John anticipates the arguments of the Pharisees and Sadducees when he says in verse 9:

Matthew 3:9 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.

Many Jews believed that simply being born a Jew gave them favor and salvation with God. John is disputing that. There is no salvation apart from repentance. There is no salvation apart from real change. He goes on to describe what happens to the truly repentant and what happens to the one who refuses to repent.

Matthew 3:10 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.

Do you see the importance of fruit? Fruit means something. Actions consistent with God’s way are important. The fruit gives witness to what is inside the person. The fruit of good works do not save, but they give evidence of salvation. One who never has good fruit will be thrown into the fire, which means face the judgment of God’s wrath.

There is no salvation apart from repentance. What this does is it shows the foolishness of those who say, "Just come to Christ, ask for forgiveness, and then go on and live the way you have always lived." Many people that I talk to will say with great confidence that they are Christians because they believe that Jesus died for their sins, and yet they will quickly admit that their lives have never changed, nor do they think it necessary that they change in any way. Their mantra is, "God forgives me," meaning, repentance is not necessary. Christianity is a changed life, a life born anew, a life lived for Christ.

Now, why would anyone ever live for another? I mean, we know what we want, right? We know what makes us happy, we know how to get what we want, we have feelings and desires, and wants, why not live life fulfilling all those desires, living for ourselves, right? Why not get all that we can in this life and live it to the utmost? Why would we or anyone else ever repent of our ways, of trying to please ourselves and instead choose to live for another, living to please Him? Well, the answer to that is all wrapped up in who that other person is! And this is John’s next point.

Matthew 3:11 “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. 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.”

Why would John give his life to another and live for another? Why would we? Because he "is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.”

If we don't believe that about Jesus, then we will never repent of our sins. Repenting of our sins and living for another will only happen if we believe that Jesus is worthy of our all. That is what believing in Jesus biblically is. It is believing that He is worthy of our all, of our worship, of our time, of our hearts and minds and works, of everything. So much so that we will give up all that we have and follow Him. We will live this way if we believe that He is the Mighty One, and that His work is so great that to carry His sandals is way above what we could ever deserve.

And what does He do? "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." He baptized His people with the Holy Spirit, He gives us His Spirit, and for the non-believer He baptizes with fire, with judgment, with punishment. That is what fire means here. It has to because fire is talked about just before and just after this mention, and both are clearly references to judgment. It would not make contextual sense to interpret it any other way.

What else will Jesus do?

Matthew 3:12 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.”

There will be a time of separating the wheat from the chaff. The wheat being true Christians, the chaff being non-believers, those who refuse to repent. The wheat will be saved to dwell with Christ, the chaff will enter into eternal fire.

John the Baptist lays it all out here for the religious leaders and the others who were there that day. There are two ways.

One way leads to life. It is the way of the one who repents, sees Christ in His glory for who He is, who recognizes his lowly state and sees Christ as wholly worthy of all. That is the one who is saved.

Then there is the other, the one who will not repent, will not give up his selfish ways, who refuses to change. The one who will live life for himself, will not see Christ as holy and just, will die in his sin and face eternal judgment.

These are the two ways. Everyone will go down one of these two paths. Which one do you choose today?

Matthew 3:7 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. 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. 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.”