When was the last time someone caught you doing something wrong? Did you get embarrassed? Angry? Did you start to argue? Make a joke? Hide? Or do you get sad and quiet? Did you repent?
Most of us don’t want anyone to see our sin unless they are joining us in it. How much worse when someone calls us on it! Yet that is exactly what John the Baptist was doing in the desert of Judah. You would think that as word spread about John’s message, people would stop coming. But they didn’t. They started coming in droves. Did the people sense that the Spirit of the Lord was in his words? His message must have been uncomfortable, but so is the shame of sin. Perhaps their longing for the freedom he offered overcame their hiding. Whatever it was that drew people to him, the popularity and fame of his ministry continued to grow.
The religious leaders in Jerusalem saw that John’s influence was widening out through the nation, and it bothered them. What if he grew to be more popular than them? What if he tried to challenge their positions of power? Who was this son of Zachariah?
When John saw these religious leaders coming out to him, he was filled with indignation. His father was a priest. He had worked with men like this, and he knew them well. Some of them were called the Sadducees. They were a powerful group who were very careful to follow the Law of God in the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible. They didn’t believe the rest of the Old Testament was a part of God’s Word. They ignored the Psalms and the stories of King David. They also didn’t believe in the supernatural. They said that angels and demons were ideas that humans made up. They rejected the idea that there was life after death or that God was at work in the world. But they held great power over the Jewish faith in Jerusalem, and they were in charge of the Temple.
Another group of Jewish leaders was called the Pharisees. They believed in the whole Old Testament, just as Jesus did. They honored what Scripture taught about angels as majestic, living beings that were messengers from God. They understood that demonic spirits were real and destructive to human life, and taught that there is life after death. It was the Pharisees who started the synagogues and taught in them. The synagogues were houses of worship in the towns and villages all over Israel where the common people came to honor the Lord and learn from Scripture.
The Pharisees were the true leaders of the Jewish faith for most of the Jews. But they were very hard leaders to follow. They were so determined to obey the laws of God that they added new, harsh laws for the people to obey that were not from the Lord. Most of the people could not keep up with their multitudes of rules and demands, and so the Pharisees treated the people with a spirit of rejection. Their own religious purity had become more important to them than love for God or love for the people. Their legalism kept the children of God from understanding God’s love as well. Their ministry to the people was often based on fear and shame.
Imagine how that effected the people’s relationship with their God! Imagine how displeased God was that His own leaders were creating barriers for His people from His great love!
The Sadducees and the Pharisees disagreed about almost everything, and they hated each other for it. Members of both groups made up the Sanhedrin, which was the powerful counsel of Jewish leaders who made the great decisions for the Jewish faith at the Temple in Jerusalem. Tragically, both groups dishonored the God they claimed to serve. Their positions of power and their own righteousness were far more important to them than the will of the Lord. As they made their way to where John preached, he cried out against them with a fierce and angry rebuke:
“You brood of vipers!” he declared. Wow. That is pretty harsh. He called them poisonous snakes! How dare he insult the most powerful men in the nation…and in public! The crowds must have been shocked! He went on:
“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Wow! As a prophet of God, John was declaring that these men were so full of sin that they weren’t even worthy to be warned. They didn’t deserve a chance to change. He said the things they claimed to do for God were actually selfish and sinful, and so the result was like rotten fruit. Good fruit would only come if they humbled themselves and repented. That would be pretty tough to swallow if you’d been walking around for a decade or so thinking you were hot stuff spiritually.
John kept right on speaking his ferocious words to them: “…do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children of Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’”
It is hard for us to imagine how fiery and bold these words would have sounded to the people of John’s time. There they all were, standing along the banks of the Jordan River. Soldiers and tax collectors and farmers and every other manner of men and women were there. But when these religious leaders came, everyone else probably cleared the way. These were the men that everyone else listened to and feared. And these men proudly assumed they were most spiritual, holy people on earth. They were used to being treated with deference and respect by everyone in their society. And yet here was this bold man dressed like Elijah, declaring in front of everyone that they were the worst sinners of all! They had misrepresented the Lord of all creation! They had lied about the most sacred Truth!
Then John went after their most prized possession. This was something both the Sadducees and the Pharisees could agree about. These men believed that they were special because they were part of God’s holy nation, the children of Abraham. But now John was declaring that their leadership over the nation was so terrible that the whole nation was going to be severely judged . It didn’t matter if they descended from Abraham if they did not honor God with their lives. The true, spiritual children of Abraham were those that lived by faith in God, and the leaders of Israel during the time of John were far from it.
Would these religious leaders turn their hearts back to God in repentance? Would they allow John to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah? Would they welcome Him when He came? Or would they continue in their rebellion and use their religious positions to exalt themselves and oppress the people?
As we read the story of the life of Jesus, we will meet many different people. Each of them will have to decide whether they will turn to Jesus in faith or harden their hearts against Him. John knew that many would refuse the message of Messiah, and so judgment was on the way.
Christ and John the Baptist were calling the nation of Israel to repentance. Here is a beautiful song that shows what that can sound like: