John the baptist’s message for the religious.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 February

Didn’t sound too pleased with them.

Matthew 3.7-10 • Luke 3.7-9 • John 1.19-23

In Matthew and Luke’s parallel stories, John the baptist comes across a bit hostile towards the religious folks who come to check him out.

Matthew 3.7-10 KWL
7 Seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, John told them,
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruit, from repentant people.
9 Don’t presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
10 The axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”
Luke 3.7-9 KWL
7 John said this to the crowds coming to be baptized by him:
“You viper-spawn! Who warned you to escape the wrath of God?
8 Fine then: Produce worthy fruits, from repentant people.
Don’t start to tell yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham’:
From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.
9 Plus, the axe lays at the root of the tree right now.
So every tree not producing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.”

In John, not so much, but then again they’re not there to prejudge him, but find out just who he claims to be.

John 1.19-23 KWL
19 This is John’s testimony when the Judeans sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem
so they could ask him, “Who are you?”
20 He conferred with them, and didn’t refuse to answer: “I’m not Messiah.”
21 They questioned John: “Then what? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I’m not.”
“Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
22 So they told him, “Then what?—so we can give an answer to those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?”
23 John said, “I’m the voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Straighten the Master’s road!’ Is 40.3
like the prophet Isaiah said.”

These folks would be:

  • Pharisees, whom I dealt with elsewhere. These are the religious Jews, as opposed to the irreligious, secular Jews. Many were actually trying to follow God. And same as us Christians, many were hypocrites, faking it for social and political acceptance. Jesus sparred with the hypocrites a lot, but don’t get the wrong idea all Pharisees were that way.
  • Sadducees. Our present-day equivalent would be those pagans who call themselves “spiritual but not religious”—they believe in God, but not religion. Freakishly, these are the folks who ran the religion: The head priest, his family, and the leading families of Jerusalem, were in this camp. They believed in God and the Law, but not the supernatural: No angels, miracles, afterlife, End Times, resurrection, or prophets beyond Moses. Just God.
  • Levites. You may have heard Israel had 12 tribes. They actually had 13, and Levi was the weird 13th tribe which had no land, lived in cities, and took turns serving in temple. Only Levites could be priests, and John was a Levite himself. Some were Pharisees, some Sadducees, some in other denominations. But all were involved in temple.
  • “The crowds.” In Luke John is hostile to everybody, not just religious folks. Everybody gets slammed with his preaching. No exceptions. But it’s fair to say most of them were Pharisees, which I’ll explain in a bit.

John’s reaction to them was essentially, “What’re you doing here? Aren’t you saved already?”

John and Elijah.

Part of the reason the crowds came to check John out was his lifestyle; the camelhair clothing and the leather belt Mk 1.6, Mt 3.4 was reminiscent of Elijah from the bible, who wore the same outfit. 2Ki 1.8 Pretty unique look. Deliberately so; John was trying to remind ’em of Elijah.

Thing is, the Pharisees had some particular End Times beliefs about Elijah. Christians aren’t the only ones with wild and wacky End Times theories. So did the Pharisees. Picking and choosing scriptures from Daniel, Ezekiel, and other passages, throwing in a few books from the pseudepigrapha (books supposedly written by famous Old Testament saints, like Enoch and Ezra and Moses, but weren’t really), the Pharisees cobbled together their very own End Times timeline. Several, really. Like Christians today, they didn’t agree on all the particulars.

But in the most popular theory, before the End there were 12 tribulations Israel would go through first. After the 12th, the Prophet—the very last prophet in history, a prophet like Moses Dt 18.15 whom they were expected to heed—would appear. Pharisees debated whether the Prophet was the second coming of Elijah—who hadn’t died, y’know. 2Ki 2.11 If you took Malachi literally, he was coming back. Ml 4.5 Some Pharisees figured Elijah and the Prophet were the same guy; some didn’t, and figured both were coming.

Anywho. Elijah would return the father’s hearts to their children and vice-versa, Ml 4.6 then Messiah would come, defeat Israel’s enemies, and rule the nation for 400 years. (Although some Pharisees believed there’d be two messiahs—one would die, Is 53 and the other would reign.)

Back to John. His appearance must’ve looked awfully Elijah-like, 2Ki 1.8, Mk 1.6 but they couldn’t be sure he was literally Elijah, and asked him. To each of these questions, John responded no.

Thing is, he totally is Elijah. Jesus said so.

Matthew 17.11-13 KWL
11 In reply Jesus said, “Yes, Elijah is coming, and restores everyone.
12 But I tell you: Elijah did return already, and people didn’t recognize him.
They did to him whatever they liked, and the Son of Man is likewise about to suffer from them.”
13 Then the students understood him: He told them about John the baptist.

John may have believed he wasn’t, and said so. But Jesus is in a position to know, since he’s the same LORD who spoke to Malachi, and knows precisely who he meant. Likewise Gabriel, who foretold John to his father, was in a position to know:

Luke 1.17 KWL
“He’ll precede him in Elijah’s spirit and power,
‘to turn back fathers’ hearts to their children,’ Ml 4.6
and rebels back to orthodox thinking—
to get the people ready for the Lord.”

John had Elijah’s spirit, power, and commission. Clear-cut enough for you?

Remember, John was human, and not infallible. You want infallible, you listen to Jesus. The Elijah prophecy was fulfilled by John. It needn’t be fulfilled again. Not in the Pharisees’ End Times prophecies, nor ours.

Prophetic disdain.

Certain Christians speculate John was involved with the Essenes, a denomination of Jews which lived in a desert commune, practiced strict ritual cleanliness, and baptized (i.e. ritually washed) a lot. Now, the fact they lived in the desert and baptized a lot doesn’t mean John was Essene. Anyone who lived in the desert would wash a lot.

But a lot of folks figure the Essenes were the Qumranis—the folks who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls—and them, we know a bunch about. We particularly know they weren’t big fans of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their view was that heretics had taken over the temple, and needed to be overthrown.

In the Qumrani version of the End Times, the Sadducee priests and Pharisee rabbis were included among the “sons of darkness,” whereas they were the sons of light. At some point, the sons of light would fight the sons of darkness, win, and the two messiahs (yep, they also believed in two messiahs too) would rule Israel: The Messiah of Israel would rule the nation, and the Messiah of Aaron would run the temple. (When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the Great Tribulation in the year 70, the Qumranis believed it to be the End, and fought these “sons of darkness” to the death. Their death. Which goes to show how getting the End Times wrong can become a really big deal.)

In the Qumrani timeline, Elijah and the Prophet are irrelevant. So if John were Qumrani, he’d have dismissed those guys as irrelevant, and the priests and Levites as heretics. He did call ’em viper-spawn, after all.

I translated gennímata ehidnón/“offspring of vipers,” as “viper-spawn,” a term which isn’t as offensive in English as it would be in John’s culture. If you wanted to go there, “sons of bitches” would do the job. Whoops, should’ve warned you that was coming. I’ll wait while you go get your fainting salts and fan yourself.

Why’d John start the conversation by trying to piss them off? We can tell from what he said next: “Produce worthy fruit(s).” Which they weren’t doing. They were producing the fake stuff. Stuff that’d make ’em look good in public, but didn’t impress God any. John nailed down the sort of fruit he was talking about: “Worthy fruit(s), from repentant people.” Stuff that could demonstrate to God, not to others, they were serious about following him.

Looking for loopholes.

Yeah, we Christians try to loophole our way out of good works by pointing out, “God knows my heart.” Indeed he does. But if our faith doesn’t produce works, it’s dead, Jm 2.17 so when Christians have nothing on the outside, appealing to our insides is a waste of time. It’s just more hypocrisy.

Christians also try to loophole our way out of good works by pointing out, “Once saved, always saved.” We said the sinner’s prayer; God’s now obligated to save us. Well, the Pharisee version of that is, “We have a father in Abraham.” Follow their logic:

  1. God promised Abraham to have a permanent relationship with his descendants.
  2. Pharisees were Abraham’s descendants.
  3. Ergo Pharisees had a relationship with God.

As God’s chosen people, God’s elect, they were guaranteed salvation. Right?

Wrong. And we Christians make the very same mistake: We figure we’re God’s elect too, so we’re guaranteed salvation. Well, we may be God’s elect, but election only means God has gone out of his way to have a relationship with us. Doesn’t mean we have one: If we have nothing to do with God regardless, we have no such relationship. When we don’t acknowledge God and his Messiah, he won’t acknowledge us either. Mt 10.32-33, Lk 12.9 Our sinners’ prayers put him under no obligation. He owes us nothing. Whereas we owe him everything.

Hebrew-speakers like to claim John made a pun here: “From these rocks, I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham.” In Hebrew “stone” is eben, and “child” or “boy” is ben. Of course, this theory presumes John was speaking Hebrew. He was not; first-century Judeans spoke Aramaic and Greek. In Aramaic “stone” is kífa and “child” is bar. In Greek it’s líthos and téknon. No puns there.

Still, this idea has got a bit of traction from Messianic Jews who insist there’s gotta be something in it. One of ’em tried to tell me John had to be speaking Hebrew to the religious folks, ’cause you might recall one of the fruits of the Spirit is kindness, Ga 5.22 and he didn’t want to rebuke them in public, so he spoke a language only the scholars would know. I would buy this explanation if only John hadn’t began his discussion by calling them viper-spawn. Rebuking them in public sounds about right.

Lastly John pointed out there was no sense in putting off repentance, as if the End would never come—as the Sadducees believed. “The axe lays at the root of the tree right now,” he stated. Someone brought it there to cut the tree down. Soon. And if their “tree” wasn’t gonna produce fruit, down it’d come. Soon.

Yeah, I know, the End hasn’t arrived yet. But it did for them. John preached this in the year 28. In the year 70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and killed all the priests. So these people John spoke to, and ordered to clean up their act: They had 42 years left. Plenty of time to repent. Pity so many of ’em didn’t take the opportunity God had given them.

How much time do we have left? We don’t know when the End will come—or when our personal end will come, through illness or accident or disaster or terrorism. When that happens, will God find fruit in our lives which is consistent with repentance? And will we try to get out of our lack of fruit by claiming we’re his elect, or that “you know my heart, Lord; you know I believed in you.” Yeah, but our beliefs didn’t get us to obey. What good were they?