I have to admit my discomfort with John’s approach to speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Beginning a sermon with “you brood of vipers . . . “ does not seem to be a good idea; it’s not the way I am wired to approach people.
But that is exactly what we have recorded in Matthew 3:7-10 which quotes John the Baptist as saying:
“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? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 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.” (Matthew 3:7–10, ESV)
Jesus was also hard on the Pharisees, so the lesson I learn from this is that God has a low tolerance threshold for religious hypocrisy. He doesn’t like it whether it is in the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or in you or me.
The antidote to hypocrisy is a deeper understanding of how deeply we are flawed and how deeply we are loved. Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (ESV)
The “joy set before him” is you and me and everyone else who believes. Jesus wanted a relationship with you so badly that he was willing to endure the Cross to have it. That is very strong love.
In the assurance of the strength of Jesus’ love we can find the strength to face our deepest flaws. It is by facing them and helping others to face theirs that we can avoid hypocrisy.
Would John the Baptist address your church with the opening words, “you brood of vipers . . .?” Would he address you that way?
If you are like me, there are times when he would rightly do so. We are all works in progress.