Luke 3:7-18 “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’ The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”

Many of the aspects of the scene Luke describes here have been repeated throughout the history of the church. At times of reformation, and in great awakenings, multitudes of men and women have been constrained to leave their homes and businesses and travel a long distance to hear a man full of the Holy Spirit preaching the word of God. It happened here in Aberystwyth in the early 19th century when two young men near the bridge at the harbour in Trefechan began to preach, firstly to the young people of the town, and then to all who flocked to hear them, many of whose lives were changed by listening to what was said about Jesus Christ and obeying what they heard. Fifty years earlier than that one of the greatest of all Welsh servants of God, Daniel Rowland, preached for decades in Llangeitho, and people traveled to hear him in that tiny community from every part Wales. For example, they sailed down to Aberystwyth from Anglesey and then they walked the 15 miles from the coast to the village.

In out passage Luke writes of the ‘crowds’ going to hear John’s preaching; Matthew tells us that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5). Neither the wilderness, nor the long distance on foot, nor the searching, disturbing content of his message could prevent them from standing and listening attentively to what he said. J.C.Ryle comments especially the holy boldness with which John spoke, that his head was never turned by the size of the crowds who hung onto his words. John needed to be bold in those bad days because the people suffered with a desperate disease, and desperate diseases need strong remedies. Ryle says, “Well would it be for the Church of Christ if it possessed more plain-speaking ministers, like John the Baptist, in these latter days. A morbid dislike of strong language, an excessive fear of giving offence, a constant flinching from directness and plain speaking, are, unhappily, too much the characteristic of the modern Christian pulpit.” Ryle was never guilty of being a mealy-mouthed preacher. He said, “There is no charity in flattering unconverted people by abstaining from any mention of their vices, or in applying smooth epithets to damnable sins. There are two texts which are too much forgotten by Christian preachers. In one it is written, “Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). In the other it is written, “If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gals. 1:10) [J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, p.89].

John’s great purpose was to constrain these people to turn away from their unbelief and sinful way of life and so escape from the wrath to come. In other words, he wanted them to repent. John had no desire to make people ‘religious’. He demanded in the name of God a change, that they feared Jehovah, hated sin, loved holiness, and lived new lives. So how did he do this? By telling them the truth of their lost and damnable condition, and then declaring to them the glorious Saviour, Jesus Christ. You have to have both these emphases. No one willingly goes as a patient to hospital unless he is first persuaded that he’s sick, and that there he can be helped. No one asks forgiveness for his sins until he knows he has sins needing pardon. That man alone will rejoice that there is peace with God who first knows God’s wrath is revealed against his sins. So here is the scene, a vast crowd who had turned from sin to God and were being baptized. What a glorious sight! How exciting – men and women coming to reality. How did John attract such numbers? What does he have to teach the professing church today about true ‘Church Growth’?


That’s what John said to them (v.7) and they came to believe him. They no longer felt good about themselves. Remember Paul telling the church in Rome itself of the state of the natural man in these striking words, “The poison of vipers is on their lips” (Roms. 3:13). Remember the Lord Jesus himself addressing the Pharisees just as boldly, “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (Matt. 23:33). John didn’t mutter those words under his breath as an aside to some of his own disciples, but he declared them to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him. There was no joke at the beginning of his message to soften the people up and create some cool image of himself. These were his opening words. Be aware that they are not some oriental insult; John is not name-calling. He is using a phrase that would resonate with this largely Jewish congregation. Though it refers to their cunning in hiding their sins and the terrible consequences of being hurt by them there is more involved. Our first parents had been seduced by the serpent in the Garden. Satan chose to come in the form of a snake, and henceforth God established fierce and relentless historical enmity between its progeny and the Seed of the woman. To declare that these people were a brood of snakes was virtually to judge that these Jews were actually living under the control of their enemy, Satan, that they were of the line of the devil.

The Lord Jesus brought the same indictment to this generation; “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (Jn. 8:43&44). Why are my words not clear to you? It is not that I speak in a complex way. The problem is your heart. You have no natural ability to hear what I say. I could as well go to the reptile house of the zoo and preach to the snakes and preach to you without the help of God. My language is not clear to the snakes because they have no ability to programme and respond to human speech, and so too you cannot hear the word of God with discernment without the Spirit’s help. Children of the devil cannot hear the Son of God. John brought a similar judgment against his fellow-countrymen, that they were people in Satan’s grip. Far from being of the seed of the woman Israel was a brood of vipers.

Today I cannot stand before a congregation of earnest Christians on a Sunday morning – zealous evangelical students, and the most eminent Christian men, and godly Christian women, believing fathers and mothers – and snarl at you that you are nothing but a brood of vipers. That would not be true, and I do not accept that this is a description of most of you. You profess to belong to Christ; you are of the seed of the woman, and you show this by living credible godly lives. I don’t believe that the vast majority of you are a brood of vipers, however I cannot stand here week after week and flatter you because many of you are hell bound. Let us all take these words of Jesus and John and Paul about the natural state of our hearts really seriously. We have a snake in our bosoms. There is power within us that will strike at those who love us most and wound them. We have this malice naturally, and we Christians have to fight against it by the power of the Holy Spirit. We hurt the ones we love because we are a brood of vipers. Let us tell God it is so. Let us acknowledge that we are sinners whose hopes of mercy are in Jesus Christ alone and we are seeking to follow him day by day. Many here are doing this by the grace of God; and I will never scold such people when they sin because I stand in solidarity with them.

John was applying this epithet to people who were nominally religious as descended from Abraham, confident of their privileges as God’s chosen people, but they were lacking any seriousness about daily living. John spoke to people without a bone in their bodies of daily repentance for their sins. They weren’t heartbroken that they loved the Lord so little, rather they were content with their religious status. So John preached to them and warned them that this was the way God saw them, not as the beautiful seed of Abraham but as a “brood of vipers”, malicious, dangerous and deceitful people. See yourselves as the Holy One in heaven looks down on you and evaluates you – the one before whom the angels cry Holy, Holy, Holy, covering their eyes at the sight. I am saying that every unrepentant sinner seems one of a nest of vipers to him. Many people at the side of the Jordan believed John – “What snakes we are!” – and repented and were baptized by him. Would to God that all of you believed it of yourselves too and I baptized you.


That is John’s second indictment (v.8). Think of a crab apple tree boasting that it’s a Cox’s Pippin tree. “Where’s your fruit?” we ask it. John was facing people who claimed that God was their Father. “Where is the family likeness?” he asked. If you claim you belong to God then there will be the fruit of that relationship in you, day by day. You remember how the Lord Jesus raised this theme in the Sermon on the Mount, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them” (Matt. 7:15-20).

You claim to be a member of the Kingdom of Heaven, that by a birth of the Holy Spirit you have entered it. Let me ask you whether you are living the life of a citizen of the kingdom? Where is the fruit of the Spirit’s indwelling? In other words, if the Spirit is within you then we will know it not by what you say but by how you live, by virtues such as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control. Then when there is the fruit of new life, and only then, all the world knows you’re not a crab apple tree but a delicious producer of Cox’s Pippins. We sit under your shadow with great delight! You understand that we’re not looking for perfection in any Christian, but we know that God is certainly searching for some desire in your hearts for himself. He is drawn in delight to the fruit of the Spirit, and for any grief that such fruit is not more abundant. Blessed are they that mourn. Here were John’s fellow-countrymen who were saying to themselves, “We’re all right because we belong to the right race, we are related to father Abraham. We are the chosen people of God living in the land he promised to Abraham.” “Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (v.8), warned John. I wonder how many of them thought of a vast valley that seemed to be full of white stones but on examination they were found to be bones. Then God brought them together as skeletons and clothed them in sinews and flesh, and made them live. So God, in the twinkling of an eye, could make a million children for Abraham from the stones littering the wilderness. God will never lack children to honour him. He can make the stones cry out to praise him. Wales will never face a future without some voice of praise. Have you seen the stony heart you have?


The crowd believed they were heading for the coming wrath (v.7). “No,” says the atheist. “No wrath to come, the same grave for the child murderer as for his killer, and for Hitler as for the six million Jews. Jesus Christ ends up dead just like the devil. Death is annihilation. We all end up equals in the grave and that’s it.” That is the desperate, unenviable faith of the atheist. But let me ask you whether it is a strange thing for you to believe that God can raise the dead? What sort of God would simply annihilate everyone, treating good and evil in the same way? If God looked at sin and said, “It doesn’t matter; it’s of no real concern to me, gas ovens, crucifixion torturing a child; forget about it, because I just shrug my shoulders,” then God would no longer be God. If he looked at the life of Jesus and said, “Annihilate him!” What sort of God would that be? John insists that this is a moral universe, that we all face not annihilation but evaluation. The one doing the judging will be the glorious Messiah, for God has committed all judgment to his Son; “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v.17). Yes, there is wheat; thank God for that, and that every grain owes its being to grace, but there is also chaff. There’s the seed of the woman; thank God that he saves and keeps such people, but there is also the seed of the serpent. Two groups, and only two, and a great separation is coming when God will make it clear which is which. The Good Shepherd speaks of separating his flock into two groups the sheep and the goats. Here John spoke of the winnowing fork throwing the mixture of wheat and chaff before the winnowing fan and the chaff being caught away by the breeze and burned up, good for nothing else, but the heavy seed falling to the ground and every grain gathered. That is the picture the Holy Spirit gives, that God who comes as a rushing mighty wind will blow away the lightweight chaff into the furnace of hell, while the living seed will be gathered into God’s garner for evermore.

This was John’s message, but it was no different from Jesus’ message and he, by many extraordinary signs, confirmed that everything he spoke was true. Remember that here is the one who fed 5000 with five loaves and two fishes; he spoke and the winds and waves obeyed him. He is the one who raised Lazarus from the grave. Here is the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Never man spake as Jesus spoke. My point, of course, is this, that Jesus Christ more than any other person in the New Testament spoke of the coming wrath. That is simply a fact, and that is my only justification for bringing this matter of the wrath to come to your attention. You say you don’t agree that you are facing the wrath of God. Then the great question is whether you are a greater, better, wiser more loving man than Jesus Christ. Who am I to believe? Jesus Christ or you? John said that the Lord would burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire, and that was also Jesus’ message.

Jesus spoke of a godless rich man who at his death experienced the wrath of God. He asked for a drop of water on his tongue, because he said, “I am tormented in this flame” (Lk. 16:24). Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, chose those words. God’s wrath did not annihilate the rich man; it caused him pain. We are told in the book of Revelation that the “wicked shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire” (Rev. 21:8). “Think of the pain of even the smallest burn. To touch a hot stove produces a blister which throbs for hours. A few drops of scalding water make us wince and cry out. Even a tiny spark stings and irritates. So what must the pain of being cast into flames, body and soul, forever? We cannot imagine what it will mean for the resurrected bodies of the damned. We are not told how much of the suffering will be physical. But we can be sure that at the very least the fire of hell means excruciating agony. That is why the words are chosen by John and Jesus. It will be a hideous counterpart of the bush that burned with fire but was not consumed. The wicked will burn with fire but they will not be consumed” (Edward Donnelly, Heaven and Hell, Banner of Truth, 2001, p.37).


John presses the great divine diagnosis of their condition upon them, and though they were godless sinners they didn’t say, “We’re leaving. We’re not going to hear you again.” No. They flocked to the Jordan and listened to his message with alarm and faith. How extraordinary! Think of the sense of shock you might feel in church one Sunday when you spot the boy you were in school with years ago who had the foulest tongue, and was the nastiest bit of work in all the school. You haven’t heard much more about him but what you have heard has been bad news. He is the last person you’d ever expect to be interested in the gospel, yet he is here sitting in church, listening intently to the preaching. You can’t wait to talk to him afterwards. How has he come to church? What has happened to him to bring him here? There is a natural interest in such a change – on a purely human level. Think of an old lady who has never owned a car or shown the slightest interest in cars, suddenly turning up at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone her eyes glued to the racing cars whining around the track. Why this new interest? What is her story? Or think of an anti-blood-sports protester whom you spot sitting on the back of a stallion, dressed in pink and riding with the hounds after a fox. What is the reason for such a sea-change? We are all interested in the forces of change.

Why were these crowds of careless people drawn to the desert listening to this uncompromising message? Of course the grapevine was effective; they would have heard about the appearance of this man John, coming out of the wilderness in a coat of camel’s hair preaching his sober message. It was certainly not miracles that brought the crowd there: John did no miracles. There was no singing. Take away the music from some congregations and you’d be left with garrison fare. Mere curiosity would have drawn some, of course; nostalgia, a longing for better days would have drawn some. Yet there were those among them who were more than curious; they didn’t snigger; they weren’t bored; they didn’t mutter, “The same old story . . . another fire and brimstone preacher.” Some came from afar, and they all stood earnestly and attentively to hear John’s words of a wrath to come. Who had warned them so effectively? After all, these were the self-conscious ‘chosen people of God.’ They were the sons of Abraham who felt that all was well between them and God, and yet here they were, in their multitudes listening to these awakening sermons urging them to escape from wrath. It would have been no small thing for a Jew to acknowledge that it was he and not someone else who needed to flee from God’s anger – he – and not Caesar and tax-collectors and soldiers hearing this message of repentance and baptism. No, it’s not my brother, nor my sister but it’s me O Lord standing in the need of mercy from God. John challenges them to think first of this extraordinary change of heart. Who is the one who had warned them so effectively that they didn’t do what the whole world did at the time of Noah, and mocked the patriarch’s preaching, and carried on just as they’d always done? This crowd was different, not like the crowd who disdained Noah; they came to hear John, and they hung onto every word and they changed their whole way of life. Why? What could be the explanation?

We can certainly say that other men and women had spoken excitedly to them, “Have you heard that the Lord’s prophet has come? His name is John, and he’s preaching in the wilderness. Come with us to hear him.” There was a human invitation, certainly, but there was surely more than a heightened natural curiosity to explain this hushed audience, this solemn hearing, and this response of repentance and baptism by thousands. I will give you the explanation that Luke provides in the first chapter and the fifteenth verse; John was filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. The only explanation for the mighty response to John’s preaching is that the Spirit of God had prepared him and had been at work as John spoke these very words, and that he worked in the hearts of the congregation at that time. In John’s drawing people from sin the Spirit also was drawing from sin. As John sobered them with his words the Spirit also sobered their consciences. The Spirit himself was there and he had warned them to flee from the coming wrath. God had done it! He had awakened them, and convicted them, and drawn them, and opened their understanding, and given them grace to take the message seriously.

Let me remind you of the words of Jesus, “No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” (Jn. 6:44). If a person sincerely puts his faith in Jesus Christ and turns from his sin then you know one thing, that God has been at work and drawn him to Jesus. There is no way conversion can happen without that. Coming to Christ does not happen by taking a trip to hear a preacher in the desert or by the side of a lake or in a church. It is not displayed by a walk to the front and kneeling at the altar or submitting to baptism. If coming to Christ were some kind of physical act like that who needs a special inward operation of the Spirit of God called the ‘drawing of the Father’? All you’d need would be a dose of healthy curiosity to find out what all the fuss is about, and the health to go and hear a preacher and the courage to go into a river and get baptized. You don’t need the ‘drawing of the Father’ to do that. You don’t need any inward, supernatural, divine operation of the Spirit for physical actions like raising your hand or speaking in tongues or baptism. But our Lord said that the nature of this activity called ‘coming to the Father’ is such that no one can do it unless there is this mighty operation of God called the ‘drawing of the Father.’ No one with a viper’s heart is going to have a totally different heart, one that is full of faith in Jesus and repentance for his sins, unless God works in him humbling and convicting him, and giving him a new heart.

Who had warned them to flee from the wrath to come? God had done it. O blessed be God that he warns sinners, and warns them still! Why are you here this morning and listening eagerly? God has brought you here. The Creator of the universe thinks individually. He considers persons, and he has brought you here. I could do you no greater favour than to be God’s mouthpiece warning you of the danger ahead of you. Last week the Cyclone Sidr devastated coastal Bangladesh. When a cyclone as powerful as this one had hit the area in 1970 then 300,000 people had been killed, but this time just 3,500 had lost their lives. What had saved so many? 40,000 men and women had been trained in issuing warnings of the coming calamity to all the villages along the coast. 5,000 of them had been given hand-held loud-hailers, 10,000 had been given torches and 1,000 had been given cycles and when the Met Office warned the 40,000 of this ferocious storm the volunteers set out on their bikes and cried with their loud-hailers in every village and town, “Get away from the coast. Get up to higher ground. A terrible storm is coming!” and the warning system was enormously successful. Hundreds of thousands of people were saved.

Today all over the world the King of heaven sends his volunteers to cry to men and women that they must prepare by turning from their sins for the coming wrath. I am one of them. Am I a good friend to alarm you, and wake you up? Of course; I’m your best friend; I didn’t run for safety and leave you; I wanted to take you to safety with me. I cry now, believe these warnings in the Bible. John is not crying wolf. God has sent him. The word of God has come to him. Listen to what it says.


v] The crowd believed it was facing death. “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (v.9). Do you remember the story Jesus told? “A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down’” (Lk. 13:6-9). That tree was you. God was the owner who comes looking for fruit, and when he finds none wants to cut it down, but Jesus pleads with God, “Leave it alone for one more year.” Another year has almost passed. Is there fruit in your life yet? I tell you that there will be a time when the divine waiting is over. There came a time during the life of Noah when the divine patience was finally exhausted. God waited 120 years as Noah built that ark and preached righteousness to the people, but then the door of the waiting room opened and God, the consuming fire, appeared, and the flood came upon the earth and God shut the door of the ark. No more were allowed in.

Do you hear the sound of the axe? The metal is biting into the wood, chopping away at your life? Every day a powerful stroke cutting through the roots that link it to life and food and security. Do you hear the strokes? You stepped off the curb without looking and the car whizzed by you missing you by inches. Did you hear the sound of the axe? You got out of your depth in the sea and you felt the power of the tide. Would you drown? Did you hear the sound of the axe falling? You went down the hill on your cycle and your brakes wouldn’t work. Did you see another stroke of the axe? You were very ill, never feeling so sick in your life. Did you hear the sound of the axe at those times? It is chopping away into our lives day after day. It is appointed unto men once to know the final stroke of the axe. Is that true? Is that scare-mongering? Are we all going to die? Are you going to die? Will you be ready? One day will be your last day on earth. One hour will mark your end. One breath will be your final one. Then planning and hoping and thinking and resolving will all be over. It will be the end. The last root of your life will be cut through and down you will fall. It is appointed unto men once to die, and after the death the judgment. “We are going to die,” these people believed, “and we have to get ready by repenting of our sins.”


It believed in the imminent appearing of the Messiah. These were the last days and they were on the spot when two great prophecies were being fulfilled.

i] Isaiah’s prophecy that there would be a fore-runner to the Messiah was being fulfilled before their very eyes. There is that great dialogue recorded in the gospel of John when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to interrogate John, “Tell us who you are?” “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ.’ They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert, “Make straight the way for the Lord’’” (Jn. 1:20-23). “I’m not the King; I’m the herald of the King. I’m the voice you hear calling out behind you on the highway, ‘Make way! The King is coming.’ So you’d better straighten things out. He’s almost here.” And what sort of King is he? Very powerful and transcendantly glorious; “one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (v.16). John himself was a very great man. Jesus says that there were none greater amongst the prophets who served the Lord with all his heart. He declared the word of God faithfully. He stood up against the highest men in the land. He rebuked King Herod for taking his brother’s wife as well as for all the evil that the king had done. So John got arrested by Herod for his courage and he was killed. He was a very great man, but he was only the herald shouting to the people to make way for the King. Who knows the names of mere heralds? Nobody. John was the messenger boy. Who knows the names of messenger boys? Nobody. John thought of himself as a nobody; the most menial slave in the house would come and take off a guest’s sandals and wash and dry the guest’s dirty feet. John says, “I am unworthy to perform a task like that for him.” The Messiah is so great. He is the Lord. He is Jehovah in the flesh. Oh to be like John the Baptist and point people to Jesus Christ who is worthy of being magnified before the world. Whatever has been on your agenda this week; whatever trouble you may have been facing; whatever your hopes and goals you’ve had John the Baptist wants you to look at Jesus Christ.

ii] Again, Joel’s prophecy that the Holy Spirit would be poured out was in the process of fulfilment. Do you know what Christ is about to do? He’s going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (v.16). In the prophecy of Joel God says, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28). This is soon going to happen. What they were seeing in the wilderness with the vast crowd and the people responding and being baptized was just one single mercy drop. The beginning of repentance in many hearers, and the resolution to live a better life was one single mercy drop. There would come a day when all over the world Jesus would be pouring out his Spirit, baptizing the nations, glorifying Christ. Every day we live there would be ten thousand people being born of the Spirit of God and baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ. We live in such days. Soon, John is saying, this coming Christ will be so powerful, so highly exalted that the workings of his Spirit will not be confined to Israel, but in distant Wales and California and Korea and Alaska and Kenya and on every part of the globe Jesus Christ will be pouring out his Spirit. This is the greatness of the Messiah whom John prepared the people to meet. Exalting him like that drew the crowds. When he is lifted up men are drawn to him. That is the foundation of church growth.

25th November 2007 GEOFF THOMAS