The doctrine John preached was that of repentance, in consideration of the kingdom of heaven being at hand; now here we have the use of that doctrine. Application is the life of preaching, so it was of John’s preaching.
Observe, 1. To whom he applied it; to the Pharisees and Sadducees that came to his baptism, Matt. 3:7. To others he thought it enough to say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; but when he saw these Pharisees and Sadducees come about him, he found it necessary to explain himself, and deal more closely. These were two of the three noted sects among the Jews at that time, the third was that of the Essenes, whom we never read of in the gospels, for they affected retirement, and declined busying themselves in public affairs. The Pharisees were zealots for the ceremonies, for the power of the church, and the traditions of the elders; the Sadducees ran into the other extreme, and were little better than deists, denying the existence of spirits and a future state. It was strange that they came to John’s baptism, but their curiosity brought them to be hearers; and some of them, it is probable, submitted to be baptized, but it is certain that the generality of them did not; for Christ says (Luke 7:29, 30), that when the publicans justified God, and were baptized of John, the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him. Note, Many come to ordinances, who come not under the power of them. Now to them John here addresses himself with all faithfulness, and what he said to them, he said to the multitude (Luke 3:7), for they were all concerned in what he said. 2. What the application was. It is plain and home, and directed to their consciences; he speaks as one that came not to preach before them, but to preach to them. Though his education was private, he was not bashful when he appeared in public, nor did he fear the face of man, for he was full of the Holy Ghost, and of power.
I. Here is a word of conviction and awakening. He begins harshly, calls them not Rabbi, gives them not the titles, much less the applauses, they had been used to. 1. The title he gives them is, O generation of vipers. Christ gave them the same title; Matt. 12:34; 23:23. They were as vipers; though specious, yet venomous and poisonous, and full of malice and enmity to every thing that was good; they were a viperous brood, the seed and offspring of such as had been of the same spirit; it was bred in the bone with them. They gloried in it, that they were the seed of Abraham; but John showed them that they were the serpent’s seed (compare Gen. 3:15); of their father the Devil, John 8:44. They were a viperous gang, they were all alike; though enemies to one another, yet confederate in mischief. Note, A wicked generation is a generation of vipers, and they ought to be told so; it becomes the ministers of Christ to be bold in showing sinners their true character. 2. The alarm he gives them is, Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come? This intimates that they were in danger of the wrath to come; and that their case was so nearly desperate, and their hearts so hardened in sin (the Pharisees by their parade of religion, and the Sadducees by their arguments against religion), that it was next to a miracle to effect anything hopeful among them. “What brings you hither? Who thought of seeing you here? What fright have you been put into, that you enquire after the kingdom of heaven?” Note, (1.) There is a wrath to come; besides present wrath, the vials of which are poured out now, there is future wrath, the stores of which are treasured up for hereafter. (2.) It is the great concern of every one of us to flee from this wrath. (3.) It is wonderful mercy that we are fairly warned to flee from this wrath; think—Who has warned us? God has warned us, who delights not in our ruin; he warns by the written word, by ministers, by conscience. (4.) These warnings sometime startle those who seemed to have been very much hardened in their security and good opinion of themselves.
II. Here is a word of exhortation and direction (Matt. 3:8); “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance. Therefore, because you are warned to flee from the wrath to come, let the terrors of the Lord persuade you to a holy life.” Or, “Therefore, because you profess repentance, and attend upon the doctrine and baptism of repentance, evidence that you are true penitents.” Repentance is seated in the heart. There it is as a root; but in vain do we pretend to have it there, if we do not bring forth the fruits of it in a universal reformation, forsaking all sin, and cleaving to that which is good; these are fruits, axious tes metanoias—worthy of repentance. Note, Those are not worthy the name of penitents, or their privileges, who say they are sorry for their sins, and yet persist in them. They that profess repentance, as all that are baptized do, must be and act as becomes penitents, and never do any thing unbecoming a penitent sinner. It becomes penitents to be humble and low in their own eyes, to be thankful for the least mercy, patient under the greatest affliction, to be watchful against all appearances of sin, and approaches towards it, to abound in every duty, and to be charitable in judging others.
III. Here is a word of caution, not to trust to their external privileges, so as with them to shift off these calls to repentance (Matt. 3:9); Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father. Note, There is a great deal which carnal hearts are apt to say within themselves, to put by the convincing, commanding power of the word of God, which ministers should labour to meet with and anticipate; vain thoughts which lodge within those who are called to wash their hearts, Jer. 4:14. Me doxete—Pretend not, presume not, to say within yourselves; be not of the opinion that this will save you; harbour not such a conceit. “Please not yourselves with saying this” (so some read); “rock not yourselves asleep with this, nor flatter yourselves into a fool’s paradise.” Note, God takes notice of what we say within ourselves, which we dare not speak out, and is acquainted with all the false rests of the soul, and the fallacies with which it deludes itself, but which it will not discover, lest it should be undeceived. Many hide the lie that ruins them, in their right hand, and roll it under their tongue, because they are ashamed to own it; they keep in the Devil’s interest, by keeping the Devil’s counsel. Now John shows them,
1. What their pretence was; “We have Abraham to our father; we are not sinners of the Gentiles; it is fit indeed that they should be called to repent; but we are Jews, a holy nation, a peculiar people, what is this to us?” Note, The word does us no good, when we will not take it as it is spoken to us, and belonging to us. “Think not that because you are the seed of Abraham, therefore,” (1.) “You need not repent, you have nothing to repent of; your relation to Abraham, and your interest in the covenant made with him, denominate you so holy, that there is no occasion for you to change your mind or way.” (2.) “That therefore you shall fare well enough, though you do not repent. Think not that this will bring you off in the judgment, and secure you from the wrath to come; that God will connive at your impenitence, because you are Abraham’s seed.” Note, It is vain presumption to think that our having good relations will save us, though we be not good ourselves. What though we be descended from pious ancestors; have been blessed with a religious education; have our lot cast in families where the fear of God is uppermost; and have good friends to advise us, and pray for us; what will all this avail us, if we do not repent, and live a life of repentance? We have Abraham to our father, and therefore are entitled to the privileges of the covenant made with him; being his seed, we are sons of the church, the temple of the Lord, Jer. 7:4. Note, Multitudes, by resting in the honours and advantages of their visible church-membership, take up short of heaven.
2. How foolish and groundless this pretence was; they thought that being the seed of Abraham, they were the only people God had in the world, and therefore that, if they were cut off, he would be at a loss for a church; but John shows them the folly of this conceit; I say unto you (whatever you say within yourselves), that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. He was now baptizing in Jordan at Bethabara (John 1:28), the house of passage, where the children of Israel passed over; and there were the twelve stones, one for each tribe, which Joshua set up for a memorial, Josh. 4:20. It is not unlikely that he pointed to those stones, which God could raise to be, more than in representation, the twelve tribes of Israel. Or perhaps he refers to Isa. 51:1; where Abraham is called the rock out of which they were hewn. That God who raised Isaac out of such a rock, can, if there be an occasion, do as much again, for with him nothing is impossible. Some think he pointed to those heathen soldiers that were present, telling the Jews that God would raise up a church for himself among the Gentiles, and entail the blessing of Abraham upon them. Thus when our first parents fell, God could have left them to perish, and out of stones have raised up another Adam and another Eve. Or, take it thus, “Stones themselves shall be owned as Abraham’s seed, rather than such hard, dry, barren sinners as you are.” Note, As it is lowering to the confidence of the sinners in Zion, so it is encouraging to the hopes of the sons of Zion, that, whatever comes of the present generation, God will never want a church in the world; if the Jews fall off, the Gentiles shall be grafted in, Matt. 21:43; Rom. 11:12
IV. Here is a word of terror to the careless and secure Pharisees and Sadducees, and other Jews, that knew not the signs of the times, nor the day of their visitation, Matt. 3:10. “Now look about you, now that the kingdom of God is at hand, and be made sensible.”
1. How strict and short your trial is; Now the axe is carried before you, now it is laid to the root of the tree, now you are upon your good behavior, and are to be so but a while; now you are marked for ruin, and cannot avoid it but by a speedy and sincere repentance. Now you must expect that God will make quicker work with you by his judgments than he did formerly, and that they will begin at the house of God: “where God allows more means, he allows less time.” Behold, I come quickly. Now they were put upon their last trial; now or never.
2. “How sore and severe your doom will be, if you do not improve this.” It is now declared with the axe at the root, to show that God is in earnest in the declaration, that every tree, however high in gifts and honours, however green in external professions and performances, if it bring not forth good fruit, the fruits meet for repentance, is hewn down, disowned as a tree in God’s vineyard, unworthy to have room there, and is cast into the fire of God’s wrath—the fittest place for barren trees: what else are they good for? If not fit for fruit, they are fit for fuel. Probably this refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, which was not, as other judgments had been, like the lopping off of the branches, or cutting down of the body of the tree, leaving the root to bud again, but it would be the total, final, and irrecoverable extirpation of that people, in which all those should perish that continued impenitent. Now God would make a full end, wrath was coming on them to the utmost.
V. A word of instruction concerning Jesus Christ, in whom all John’s preaching centered. Christ’s ministers preach, not themselves, but him. Here is,
1. The dignity and pre-eminence of Christ above John. See how meanly he speaks of himself, that he might magnify Christ (Matt. 3:11); “I indeed baptize you with water, that is the utmost I can do.” Note, Sacraments derive not their efficacy from those who administer them; they can only apply the sign; it is Christ’s prerogative to give the thing signified, 1 Cor. 3:6; 2 Kgs. 4:31. But he that comes after me is mightier than I. Though John had much power, for he came in the spirit and power of Elias, Christ has more; though John was truly great, great in the sight of the Lord (not a greater was born of woman), yet he thinks himself unworthy to be in the meanest place of attendance upon Christ, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He sees, (1.) How mighty Christ is, in comparison with him. Note, It is a great comfort to the faithful ministers, to think that Jesus Christ is mightier than they, can do that for them, and that by them, which they cannot do; his strength is perfected in their weakness. (2.) How mean he is in comparison with Christ, not worthy to carry his shoes after him! Note, Those whom God puts honour upon, are thereby made very humble and low in their own eyes; willing to be abased, so that Christ may be magnified; to be any thing, to be nothing, so that Christ may be all.
2. The design and intention of Christ’s appearing, which they were now speedily to expect. When it was prophesied that John should be sent as Christ’s forerunner (Mal. 3:1, 2), it immediately follows, The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come, and shall sit as a refiner, Matt. 3:3. And after the coming of Elijah, the day comes that shall burn as an oven (Mal. 4:1), to which the Baptist seems here to refer. Christ will come to make a distinction,
(1.) By the powerful working of his grace; He shall baptize you, that is, some of you, with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Note, [1.] It is Christ’s prerogative to baptize with the Holy Ghost. This he did in the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit conferred upon the apostles, to which Christ himself applies these words of John, Acts 1:5. This he does in the graces and comforts of the Spirit given to them that ask him, Luke 11:13; John 7:38, 39; See Acts 11:16. [2.] They who are baptized with the Holy Ghost are baptized as with fire; the seven spirits of God appear as seven lamps of fire, Rev. 4:5. Isa. fire enlightening? So the Spirit is a Spirit of illumination. Isa. it warming? And do not their hearts burn within them? Isa. it consuming? And does not the Spirit of judgment, as a Spirit of burning, consume the dross of their corruptions? Does fire make all it seizes like itself? And does it move upwards? So does the Spirit make the soul holy like itself, and its tendency is heaven-ward. Christ says I am come to send fire, Luke 12:49.
(2.) By the final determinations of his judgment (Matt. 3:12); Whose fan is in his hand. His ability to distinguish, as the eternal wisdom of the Father, who sees all by a true light, and his authority to distinguish, as the Person to whom all judgment is committed, is the fan that is in his hand, Jer. 15:7. Now he sits as a Refiner. Observe here [1.] The visible church is Christ’s floor; O my threshing, and the corn of my floor, Isa. 21:10. The temple, a type of church, was built upon a threshing-floor. [2.] In this floor there is a mixture of wheat and chaff. True believers are as wheat, substantial, useful, and valuable; hypocrites are as chaff, light, and empty, useless and worthless, and carried about with every wind; these are now mixed, good and bad, under the same external profession; and in the same visible communion. [3.] There is a day coming when the floor shall be purged, and the wheat and chaff shall be separated. Something of this kind is often done in this world, when God calls his people out of Babylon, Rev. 18:4. But it is the day of the last judgment that will be the great winnowing, distinguishing day, which will infallibly determine concerning doctrines and works (1 Cor. 3:13), and concerning persons (Matt. 25:32, 33), when saints and sinners shall be parted for ever. [4.] Heaven is the garner into which Jesus Christ will shortly gather all his wheat, and not a grain of it shall be lost: he will gather them as the ripe fruits were gathered in. Death’s scythe is made use of to gather them to their people. In heaven the saints are brought together, and no longer scattered; they are safe, and no longer exposed; separated from corrupt neighbours without, and corrupt affections within, and there is no chaff among them. They are not only gathered into the barn (Matt. 13:30), but into the garner, where they are thoroughly purified. [5.] Hell is the unquenchable fire, which will burn up the chaff, which will certainly be the portion and punishment, and everlasting destruction, of hypocrites and unbelievers. So that here are life and death, good and evil, set before us; according as we now are in the field, we shall be then in the floor.