Luke 3:9 (ESV) … “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.”
The heavenly message needed, earthly application. John the Baptist supplied this vigorously. Seeing Jews proud of their religion standing in the baptismal line, he shocked them. No words of congratulations, gratitude, or praise to God. Instead, he issued a stinging attack. John practiced prophetic name calling. He saw straight through those wanting to be baptized. They wanted one more credential behind their name, one more religious act they could tell everyone about. They were not saints. They were snakes. They needed to take John seriously, along with the God who stood behind John. They needed to know divine wrath was coming.
Just as prophets of old tried to warn the nation and prevent God’s discipline and judgment, so John played out the prophetic role. If you want to go through the ritual, be ready to live the life. Gaining God’s forgiveness requires more than carrying out another religious ritual. Forgiveness means changing your way of living, producing new fruit in your life. Repentance is not a one-time performance. Repentance is a continuing way of life—a life totally different from the one that required repentance in the first place. Repentance is a change of life, not just an exchange of words. Repentance depends on much more than keeping up family traditions and relying on proud and proper family trees.
John declared that God does not have to work with the family of Abraham. He can start over again. He can pick up the rocks in the wilderness and start a new family of Abraham. He can fulfill his promises to bless Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17) with the new family of Abraham.
John told these religious leaders that they had no claim on God. They could never bring pressure to bear on him to fulfill his promises. He will do so in the ways he chooses with the people he chooses. God’s threat is not an empty gesture. He is already at work. He has picked up his sharpened ax and is chopping away at the roots of Israel’s family tree. One factor determines which trees get chopped and which may continue living. God is the fruit inspector. Trees with good fruit live. Others die and burn.