Warning to a brood of vipers
More than a prophet
Jesus once asked a crowd what they had gone out into the wilderness to see (Matt 11:7). They went to see a prophet, however Jesus wanted to remind them that there was more to John than that. John’s prophetic ministry was restoring the cleanliness of the land by co-operating with God’s agenda, as mapped out by Isaiah. He was the nucleus around which God was forming a re-created Israel. However, John was also, like the returning Elijah in the prophecy of Malachi, the herald of something greater.
John oversaw a wilderness move of God that was bound to attract official attention, especially from zealous advocates of the Mosaic Law and acknowledged legal experts. Thus, his activities soon prompted an investigatory visit. John had an urgent warning for the members of this party from Jerusalem, as, within a few sentences, he highlighted the causes of the wrath to come, exposed the weakness of their traditional assumptions and clarified the choice they faced. He then reminded them that after a messenger comes his master, that they faced a choice. There was more than one type of baptism and, when his lord came winnowing would be in order.
The nature of the visitors
John must have begun his brief ministry almost as soon as he was old enough, for Jesus began to teach following his baptism at about aged about thirty (Luke 3:23), i.e. about the age at which God gave the throne to David (2 Sam 5:4). For John, that age marked the earliest point at which he could legally serve in the house of the Lord1 and legitimately serve as a priest. About six months separated the ages of John and Jesus (Luke 1:36). Yet, in that narrow window, John’s ministry grew enough to concern the Jerusalem authorities, leaving all the canonical gospels to report his Jordan-side encounter with those who came to weigh him up (Matt 3:7-12, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:7-18, 7:29-30. John 1:19-27).
Matthew, Luke and John concur that the Baptist’s visiting priests and Levites included Pharisees whilst Matthew also notes Sadducees amongst them. The Pharisees, typically priests, judges, teachers or bureaucrats, came from diverse social and familial backgrounds, but professed expertise in Israel’s legal traditions. They were united by their advocacy of ‘hedging’ legislation in the search for righteousness. By contrast, the Sadducees were a relatively coherent priestly caste, nucleated around descendents of Zadok2, who claimed authority in matters of Law by virtue of their heredity (cf. Ezek 44:15, 23-24). Indeed, when Luke refers to them (Luke 7:30), he uses a Greek term for one who advised on the local legislation3.
A prophet to an apostate priesthood
Whilst Acts emphasises that the Pharisees and Sadducees had fervent differences over resurrection (cf. Acts 23:6), both groups were equally passionate about ritual cleanliness (e.g. Matt 15:1-2, 11-12). The Baptist’s philosophy on cleanliness challenged the validity of their teaching and the temple-based livelihoods of many of them, hence they were anxious to ascertain his authority. Was he the Christ, they asked, was he the Prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15), or was he Elijah, as predicted in the prophecy of Malachi (Mal 4:5)? The scriptures suggested all three would have authority, however the Baptist denied being any of them. Instead he pointed them to Isaiah’s 40’s generic definition of his role (Isa 40:1-11) and reminded them that accepting God’s commandments required those who held power to humble their proud hearts.
John was not the Christ and whilst he was a prophet like Moses, he was not the prophet like Moses. He could also deny being Elijah on a technicality, for Malachi spoke of a reformer preparing the way for the ‘reign’ of Zerubbabel (Ezra being a likely candidate). Yet, before John’s birth, an angel predicted that he would share the spirit of Malachi’s returning Elijah (Luke 1:17) and Jesus later referred to him as the Elijah who was to come (Matt 17:12). Clearly the role of Malachi’s Elijah has much to tell us about John and in particular about his relationship with the Jerusalem authorities.
Malachi ministered shortly after the return from exile in Babylon and rebuked an apostate priesthood which was more wayward than walking the way. Their focus, on personal glory instead of the glory of God and on the respect of people rather than the favour of their Lord (Mal 2:10-16), left Malachi to bring his Lord’s lament. God’s messengers were so busy courting men who believed in other gods that none were prepared to answer the call and listen to their Lord (cf. Isa 41:27-28). It was similar in John’s day, yet his visitors eagerly anticipated the Elijah-preceded restoration of Israel, as if their status would somehow benefit from it. These messengers were deaf to the wisdom of God and blind to what was happening (cf. Isa 42:19-20). Therefore, they failed to appreciate the rebuke implicit in Malachi’s words.
John levels his first comment squarely at the Pharisees, with their emphasis on the observable implementation of the Law. His image of a brood of vipers comes from Isaiah, who applied it to those who did not know the way of peace and whose paths were therefore crooked (Isa 59:5, 8). Such ignorant people, said Isaiah, brood the eggs of serpents, a deadly ‘fruit’ to any who eat them. Isaiah’s prophecy was itself a subtle reference to both Genesis and the psalms. In Genesis the serpent offers the deadly fruit of wilfully misinterpreted Law (Gen 3:1-4) and its rebellion makes it dangerous (Gen 3:15). In the psalms (Ps 58:1-5), David develops this, by observing that people who have venom like serpents fail to judge uprightly and concluding that this makes them as dangerous as a deaf cobra that cannot hear its charmer's voice. Hence, John’s brands these deaf sons of a serpent as Eden-spoiling deceivers, peddling crooked interpretations of the law.
The wrath to come
Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the priests of Malachi’s day were men who yearned to see the God of Justice act mightily and yet were too deaf to attend to their Lord’s agenda (Mal 2:17). They were supposed to be God’s messengers, walking a righteous path in accord with the covenant of Levi and providing true instruction (Mal 2:6-7). However, they sought human solutions rather than listening to the Lord and consequently did things that nobody with even the least of the Spirit would do4. They deviated from God’s ways, showed partiality in their judgements and caused the people to stumble (Mal 2:1, 8).
John could confidently expected ‘wrath to come’ (Matt 3:7), for a judge whose judgements carry no weight is worthless (Ezek 20:7). Therefore, thoughtless inattention to the Law must ultimately provoke a reaction (Deut 4:25-26). Whilst God is compassionate and slow to anger, an apparent lack of intervention, as Malachi assured his audience, is nothing more than judicious restraint5. The day was coming for the arrogant and evildoer and a priesthood who were incapable of cleansing their land would see it succumb to a curse.
Joel’s template for such a day of judgement showed how people might survive the divine wrath (Joel 2:12-13). As God assured Malachi’s audience, the key was “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Mal 3:7 NKJV). An outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28-29) ensured that prophetic calls for repentance preceded the event. These, if heeded, either allowed the Day of Atonement to restore the cleanliness of the land before the day arrived or brought a remnant to birth in the wilderness. It was such an outpouring that Malachi anticipated when he spoke of God sending Elijah to restore the heart of their forefathers in the children and align the heart of children with their fathers (Mal 4:3)6. In the First Century, an outpouring of the Spirit was once again in progress and John was the Elijah of his day.
Fruit in keeping with repentance
Having highlighted the problem of deafness, John warned the vipers that had slithered out of Jerusalem to confront him, to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They were bad trees, incapable of producing good fruit, so John was not demanding tangible evidence of a change of heart. Instead he was inviting them to come as they were, accept a place under his authority in the remnant and step into a guarantee of good fruit.
The Isaiah 35-40 context of his ministry, enabled John to have confidence that the recreated Israel would bear good fruit, for, as God’s judgement went against Judah and Hezekiah faced Israel’s complete annihilation, Isaiah gave the assurance that a remnant would go out of Jerusalem and bear fruit (Isa 37:31). Similarly, Ezekiel depicted the Judah that returned from Exile as a remnant broken off from a proud tree, planted and then bearing fruit (Ezek 17:22-24).
Sons for Abraham out of stones
As John moved to address the issue of sons for Abraham, he shifted the focus of his rebuke to the Sadducees and their hereditary claims. His comments involved a clever Hebrew wordplay (children being bēn and stone ’eben7), but there was more to them than that, for they called to mind Isaiah’s advice to those who seek the Lord and pursue righteousness to ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many’ (Isa 51:1-2, NRSV).
John’s quotation from Isaiah 40 (Matt 3:3, Isa 40:3) adds a further dimension to the picture of God raising sons of Abraham from stones by inclining us to view these words through the lens of Joseph’s life. John, like Joseph, invited his clan to accept his leadership as part of a remnant. Just as John’s ministry would be fruitful, so Jacob prophesied that Joseph was a doubly fruitful bough (Gen 49:24). However, Jacob went on to say that Joseph’s strength would not fail (Gen 49:24), for it was from God, the Mighty One of Jacob, that the Shepherd and that the Stone8 of Israel comes. The stone of Jacob, erected to mark the house of God (Gen 28:22), became the stone of Israel when God summoned Jacob to Bethel, judged the hidden idolatry in his family and changed his name (Gen 35:6-14). Then, when Israel’s family went adrift again at Shechem, God called them under the authority of Joseph rather than that of Bethel. Thus, in blessing Joseph, Jacob acknowledged that, for this family in exile, the shepherd whom God raised up had become the divinely carved Stone of Israel, before which they receive godly judgement. As Isaiah 40 reminded us, it is but a short step from this single Stone to stones. For in the wilderness the single shepherd Moses spawned seventy shepherds with a Spirit like him to help him guide the people.
Combine Isaiah’s exhortation, to look to the rock, with Jacob’s blessing and you get the subtext of John’s message. God gave Joseph authority over all Israel’s descendants, not because of a hereditary right, but because only Joseph had the spirit of Abraham and so was truly his son. Like Joseph, John started out as a remnant of one, but as God’s appointed leader, he could similarly claim the right to judge all Israel. As with Moses, God would take the Spirit from the remnant’s leader and transfer it to others as the need arose. Thus, the God given shepherds of the new exodus were already amongst his disciples9, each a living stone, from which God could raise up sons for Abraham, for like desert stones, their ritual cleanliness qualified them as containers for God’s Spirit10.
The axe at the root
John returned to the idea of the fruitful versus the fruitless as he warned his guests of an axe at the root. The scriptures use trees symbolically to depict people or groups with widespread influence (Ps 1:3, 37:35). Thus, a prophet announcing the felling of a tree warned of the removal of status and authority, whilst the leaving of a stump, as in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 4:20-22), signified that re-growth remained possible. However, Malachi warned his wayward priests that God would leave them no stump. As you only take an axe to the roots if you wanted to sever them to remove the stump, John was echoing Malachi’s words as he warned the Sadducees of a complete loss of power11. His words also remind one of Moses’ guidance on siege works. Such transitory structures had an insatiable appetite for wood but ultimately ended up either on fire or on the fire, yet the Law instructed the axe man to spare the useful trees that fate (Deut 20:20).
The messenger and the awaited lord
John’s tribesmen might have been tempted to regard his warnings as the misdirected youthful zeal of an eccentric and over-critical junior member of their tribe. However, John had a further warning for them. They would face someone greater than him. These seed of serpents could anticipate an encounter with the Seed of the Woman, a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek and Lord of Lords whom even John had no right to serve, no matter how small or menial the task.12.
Malachi anticipated such an appearance of the lord of the Sons of Aaron as he declared, “Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” (Mal 3:1, NKJV). His prophecy, usually treated as if involving two individuals (as in the NKJV above), in fact involves three, God, a messenger and a lord. God is speaking and features as ‘I’ or ‘me’. The messenger, like John, clears the way and is a teaching priest, i.e. a messenger of the covenant13. The lord is the one whom Malachi’s returnee priests desired, an heir to David’s line who could wield the authority of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, reform the priesthood and atone for their high priest’s sin, thus allowing them to cleanse the land. That much is clear from the description Malachi gives of this lord’s function, he is a refiner, purifying the Levites and making their offering acceptable (Mal 3:3). This sovereign agent of God would come suddenly to his temple, as he did, with Zechariah’s revelation that Zerubbabel was acceptable in that role (Zech 6:9-13).
Immersed in wind and fire
In Malachi, the appearance of the Levites’ lord precipitates a day of judgement when the divine judge’s fiery wrath separates the people, scattering the inattentive like dust and vindicating those who clung to God’s earlier judgements (Mal 4:1-3). The arrogant and evildoer are burnt like stubble and left like trees without root or branch. Yet, for the justified, dawn brings healing in its wake and they trample on the wicked, as if they were the ashes of stubble in a burnt off field. Malachi faced his priests with Joel’s familiar choice of outcomes, however he applied them not to different nations but to different contingents within one tribe. The priests and Levites could either listen and change, or turn a deaf ear and face the consequences when their lord arrived.
John followed Malachi’s example and presented his guests with a choice of outcomes. In doing so he once again built upon a solid scriptural foundation. The scriptures recognise three basic ways to deal with unclean residues on things you wanted to preserve, wash them off, carry them outside the camp or burn them off14. Thus, when Isaiah announced the day of judgement that would deal with a corrupt Jerusalem and cleanse the land, it embraced all three techniques. God would wash away the filth of Jerusalem, whilst dealing with the bloodshed by a wind (or spirit15) of judgement and a spirit of burning (Isa 4:3-4). Hence, here the wrath of God is analogous to the Law’s basic cleansing methods and the land survives them, emerging cleansed by the death or exile of those responsible for polluting it.
Isaiah was not alone in portraying the dual agencies of wind and fire as a means of cleansing the land. Malachi hinted at such a process, when he announced that the day would burn like a furnace and the evildoer would be like chaff, i.e. dispersed on the breeze (Mal 4:1). Moreover, Ezekiel, addressing an unclean Judah where bloodshed and idolatry had removed all hope of enduring a day of judgement (Ezek 22:13-22), foresaw that restoring the land would involve scattering Judah into exile and blowing on them with fire as when a refiner separates the silver from the dross.
John evoked Isaiah’s contrast of methods, but allowed Isaiah 40 to influence him, through its inference that both Joseph and Moses had the spirit of proper judgement (Gen 41:38-39, Num 11:25-29). Both men had the divine Spirit of God, so John, quite justifiably, substituted Holy Spirit for spirit of judgement and presented immersion in the Holy Spirit and fire as the alternative to accepting baptism with water.
Cleansing the threshing floor
Having introduced the contrasting baptisms, John’s switch to a harvest theme continues to key into Isaiah’s text (Isa 4:4), in which the Septuagint version has a neat word play. It refers to a Spirit, pneuma, of judgement, krisis, and a Spirit of burning, kausis, however Krisis has a breadth of meaning that embraces not only judgement, but also separation and choice16, whilst pneuma, can refer to spirit, wind or breath17. Thus, the same words depict both a spirit of judgement and a wind of separation, i.e. a winnowing wind. Isaiah linked such a winnowing process to the levelling of way preparation when he promised that God would make the remnant Israel like a new threshing sled (Isa 41 15-16), so that they could thresh the mountains and winnow the hills.
John latches onto the winnowing theme as he reveals that the coming lord has a winnowing fork in his hand to winnow the wicked (cf. Prov 20:16) so that the wind of God can blow them away like inconsequential dust. Moreover, he assures then, this lord will clear his threshing floor, i.e. complete the job.
The only other biblical reference to the use of a winnowing fork comes from Jeremiah, where God promises to winnow those from Jerusalem at the gates of the land (Jer 15:7). In a city, the threshing floor was often situated in one of the gateways where there was a draught that would disperse the dust away from the city18. The gates also served as a meeting place for rulers and elders (I Kgs 22:10)19. Hence, it was, at least figuratively, in the gates of the land that people reached agreements with those of other lands. However, it was also in the gates of the land that the winnowed chaff was blown into exile amongst the nations.
The metaphor of harvest
The wheat harvest is a frequent biblical metaphor for judgment20, for it separated the life containing grain into barns, whilst disposing of the dead and useless remains of the plant. The residue, comprising stubble, straw and chaff was burnt off, eaten by animals or winnowed21.
The process started as people reaped the ears, brought them onto a threshing floor and threshed them by driving oxen over them to release the useless chaff’s hold on the valuable grain22. The trauma of threshing provides an image of the violent clashes between groups or nations (Amos 1:3). The farmer then took a winnowing fork or a shovel and used it to throw the mix of chaff and grain into the air, allowing the wind to carry off the fine dust-like chaff, leaving the grain, being heavier, to fall to the ground and be gathered into storage. With the harvest secure, the fields were then cleared of stubble and any discarded weeds by the time honoured method of burning off (cf. Matt 13:30).
Chaff blew away in the wind leaving no trace, as did the smoke of burning stubble, so when it came to describing the removal of the wicked, Hebrew poetry saw them as equivalent symbols (cf. Hos 13:3). Thus, the dual agencies of wind and fire act inseparably as, through harvest, threshing and winnowing, God eliminates the dead and useless. This is precisely the metaphor John uses (Matt 3:12).
In Isaiah 42, God lamented the fire and burning that people experienced due to their failure to acknowledge their sin (Isa 42:23-25). John warns that such fire is unquenchable and thus intimately connected to the process of cleansing of the land.
John, as he describes the chaff consumed by unquenchable fire, completes his challenge to his visitors, by returning to the subject of their deafness, for Jeremiah promised that, for those who refused to listen, the wrath of God would burn unquenchably (Jer 7:20-24). It is such unquenchable fire that continues to render the land formless and void (Isa 34:8-11), under which circumstances, the central question for the prophets was who would survive the process. Thus, when Joel foresees the army of the Lord arriving like flames amidst the stubble, he queries who can endure that day (Joel 2:11). Similarly, Malachi, recognising the Levites’ coming lord as God’s fiery agent of judgement, reminds them that the only thing that will matter on the day for which they long will be who can endure its coming.
Isaiah provides the answer to Malachi’s question (Isaiah 33:8-15). The Lord laments the lack of travellers on the highway and the desolation of symbols of Eden like Lebanon, Sharon and Carmel, for the people have conceived chaff and given birth to stubble and, reflecting the typical self-infliction of the sentence of a day of judgement, their spirit (wind or breath) is a fire that consumes. Who can endure such consuming fire and live with such never-ending, i.e. unquenchable, burning asks the Lord, only those who walk righteously. Whilst the wrath of God might be an unquenchable fire, it does not have to burn everybody or forever. Those who are prepared to humble themselves and listen can avert such wrath (cf. 2 Chr 32:25-26).
The sudden arrival of the God of justice
In responding to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John draws upon the prophecy of Malachi, however deliberately re-focusing it through the lens of Isaiah 40. These Pharisees were deaf messengers, whose inattention to the Spirit was provoking the wrath of God. John, concerned for their salvation, invites them to accept his leadership and become part of the repentant remnant and bear fruit, just as Joseph’s remnant did.
He reminded the Sadducees that God crafts the stones of Israel, stones like Joseph or Moses’ seventy shepherds, individuals who walk in the spirit of Abraham and whom he would be proud to own as children. The Sadducees heritage meant nothing if God considered them fruitless and was about to leave them without a stump.
John lays a stark choice before his visitors, a choice of baptisms. Accept his leadership and be baptised in water, or refuse to listen and answer to a greater lord. This Lord baptised with wind and fire, turning the threshing floor into a place of choice. He winnowed wheat from chaff and melted silver from dross, leaving the useless stubble to be burnt up by the unquenchable wrath of God.
For those who recognised that they were about to be weighed in the balance of God’s justice and who knew that they were about to be found wanting, there was good news. Once again, God offered the same old solution. It had applied in the time of Joseph, it had applied in the time of Isaiah, it applied for those in Malachi’s day and it would apply in the time of John the Baptist. Listen to the prophet, repent and return to God. The formula has never changed and, though days of judgement may come and go, it never will.
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of The Emmaus View book
1 Moses gave conflicting age limits for serving in the House of the Lord setting a lower limit of twenty-five in one place (Num 8:23-24) and elsewhere thirty (Num 4:3, 23, 30). David confirmed the age at thirty (1 Chr 23:3), as did Hezekiah who also confirmed that at twenty they were old enough for other duties (2 Chr 31:15-17).
2 Gary G. Porton, ABD, 5:892-95.
3 “νομικός,” TDNT, 4:1088.
4 Malachi illustrates this from the perspective of divorce (Mal 2:13-16). God’s voice is heard in the account of Adam (Gen 2:21-24), but they were not listening to it.
5 The Lord was fully aware of the perverted plans of this priesthood (cf. Isa 40:27).
6 The Septuagint adds that this meant remembering the Law and the service that God required at Horeb.
7 R T France, The Gospel According to Matthew; 92.
8 Stone is preferable to Rock, see Robert L. Alden, “אֶבֶן (˒eben) stone,” TWOT, 8.
9 In Peter makes presence with John at Jesus baptism a criterion for any new apostle (Acts 1:21-22).
10 For the inherent cleanliness of stone objects see Yitzhak Magen, "Ancient Israel's Stone Age," BAR 24: 5 (Sep/Oct 1998; Logos Electronic Edition, 2002), n.p.
11 The Sadducee movement effectively collapsed following the siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
12 Untying their lord’s shoelaces was a trivial task reserved for slaves.
13 Malachi states that the priest was God's messenger (Mal 2:7) and his instruction should be obeyed. This teaching role was theirs through the covenant of Levi.
14 Joe M. Sprinkle, "The Rationale Of The Laws Of Clean And Unclean In The Old Testament," JETS 43 (2000; Electronic edition, 2002): 637-658, in particular 645.
15 Both wind and spirit are possible translations (see NET footnote on Isaiah 4:4), so, as a typical day of judgement saw the wind of the day scattering people like chaff (cf. Isa 17:13), wind is preferable.
16 Strong, “2920 κρίσις,” Concordance, n.p.
17 J Barton Payne, “2131 *רִיַח (rı̂aḥ) smell, scent, accept.” TWOT, 836-37
18 The the compaction of the ground and the proximity of safety also contributed to this being an ideal site. See L. G. Herr, “Thresh, Threshing,”, ISBE, 4:844.
19 Hermann J. Austel., “2437 שׁער (š˓r),” TWOT, 945-46.
20 J. A. Patch, ‘Chaff,’ ISBE, 1:629; L. G. Herr, ‘Stubble,’ ISBE, 4:640; L. G. Herr, ‘Thresh, Threshing,’ ISBE, 4:844; Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, (Electronic ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 867-8.
21 It also produced straw, which was used as animal food (Judg 19:19) but dead and so symbolically grouped with chaff (cf. Jer 23:28, Job 21:18). This ambiguity made it of less metaphorical use.
22 Wealthier farmers could accelerate this process by using a threshing sled or threshing wheels on a cart.