Several years ago I received a call from a gentleman with whom I had minimal contact. He wanted his teenage children to be baptized. I had enough contact to know what this was about. You see, some people view baptism as some kind of magic amulet. You get yourself dunked in the water, you say the “I do” and “POOF!” you’re solid man. You can leave that building with a shield of protection without giving a thought to the idea of changing your life. Just so you know, I never turn anyone away who wants to be baptized, but I did want to talk to his children. I wanted an opportunity to stress the concept of death and resurrection; of a life changed by the will of God. All three of them (the father and the two teenagers) sat in my office as I spoke of the glory of forgiveness and grace; of dying and living. They opted out. I’m pretty sure they wanted the magic amulet option. They wanted what Dietrich Bonheoffer called cheap grace.
John must have been a sight to see. Were his eyes as wild as his camel hair garments? Did locust legs stick between his teeth? Even all those years ago living in the wilderness would have been a hard life. Often, people who chose to live that way were suspect of being undesirable crazy people. But there you have John out there traveling around the Jordan. And here is the amazing thing; people flocked to be baptized by this crazy person. Some have suggested that John’s first audience would have been folks like the Essenes; people who also chose to divorce themselves from cities and mainstream Judaism; people who would have shouted out a hearty “amen” to John’s message of repentance and making straight the path of the Lord. But word had spread and now some were coming out from the villages and cities.
And notice John’s opening remarks to these eager to be baptized people. “You offspring of vipers!” Now, that’s nice. Matthew tells us that these people were primarily Pharisees and Sadducees. Luke makes no such distinction. They are just people who were “going out” to be baptized. As is the case in most societies, being called a snake was not a compliment. Poisonous snakes were considered to be pure evil. For the Israelites there was an aversion to all manner of snakes due to the Snake in the Garden. So, John is not saying, “What a bunch of cute, wise, pleasant serpents you are.” You are descendants of vipers! Who warned you to try to escape from the wrath to come? The wrath to come often referred to any moment of God’s judgment. Some have suggested here that John misunderstood the coming of Jesus. Maybe. But the fact is, Jesus did bring judgment. And not just the pronouncement of a coming judgment way in the future. Jesus came to force a decision. Everyone who rejects Jesus stands judged. In the moment of rejection. And yes, later on, if they live in rejection they will face the ultimate judgment. God sent his son and all who believe in him will be saved by grace. But wrath comes upon rebellious rejection.
The problem John was addressing is that many in these crowds viewed his baptism as a magic amulet. Dunk me in the water John so that I will be ready. But they didn’t want to follow that up with the painful shaping; the dying; the changing. So, he warned them to produce fruit that would be worthy of repentance. And don’t dare fall back on that whole “But we’re the descendants of Abraham” nonsense. Our God is able to raise up stones as children of Abraham. As he said this, his audience would have had a lot of stones to look at and imagine God changing them into children. Do you believe in the power of God? Or, do you rest on your heritage?
The axe is already put to the tree. Picture God with axe in hand. He lowers the axe so that it is touching the root or the lowest part of the tree. This is how many an ax wielder will ready himself for the swing. And this is not just about Israel as if John were saying that the trees equal the nation. This is about everyone; every tree. Trees are intended to bear fruit. If they don’t, they become good for nothing but cutting down and cast into the fire. Yes, John’s audience was Jewish. But the warning goes out to every ethnicity of tree.
I am convinced that baptism is necessary; it is the point where we combine our story with the story of Christ; it is a dying, burial, and resurrection. But it is not a magic amulet. God, by grace, resurrects you to new life. And he expects you to live. I am afraid that some go through this life without changing, without bearing fruit. They dance in their old life singing out “My baptism will save me!”. But baptism without repentance – without change – is worthless. Cast it into the trash heap. Repent! Change! Grace to you.