Winning Converts?

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin 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.” (Luke 3:7-9 NASB)

One approach to ministry that has always confused me is the ‘seeker sensitive’ approach.  It seems that in our day pop psychology has everyone so concerned about self; self-image, self-esteem, self-centered, and so on.  It’s like we’re breeding for narcissism and histrionics.  It is the extreme edge of our American independence. And it’s very dangerous. And it is, in my opinion, a poor basis for ministry.


John the Baptist, as people are coming to him to be baptized, calls them the children of vipers.  It’s easy to lose or forget the meaning of ‘brood’ when we read this verse in most translations, old and new.  Since in the Hebrew Scriptures, both what we call the Old Testament, and especially in what became the Apocrypha, snakes are associated with the evil enemy of God, that was the absolute height of insults.  People come to hear him, and he calls them children of the devil.  Nice. And would probably never happen in our day.  My question is, should it?

In John 6, Jesus sees the crowd following Him, and winds up speaking in such offensive terms they all leave but the disciples.  He repeatedly insults religious leaders, He uses the rich and religious elite as the villains in His parables, and all along refuses to attach Himself to responsive crowds.  So John’s approach is actually not that different from Jesus’.  You would think that Jesus nor John would be able to draw a crowd after a while.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.  And, yes, that could possibly be because they were the best ‘show’ around at the time, and HBO hadn’t been invented yet.  Still, we may learn from John’s approach.


John doesn’t just call them children of snakes, he also asks, “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?”  There are a couple of frightening elements in that.  One, it clearly implies they don’t deserve to be saved from what is coming.  And two, it also clearly states something really bad is coming.  It is as if John is saying, “Oh man, you were supposed to be consumed in the destruction. Dang it, who let the cat out of the bag?”  He might as well have told them that they were not really worth his time.  Not an ingratiating way to the hearts of the people, or so we would think.


He then tells them to not only repent, but behave in line with repentance.  That makes sense as we read it, but consider yourself in the crowd.  This insulting wild-man in camel skin, honey and a stuck locust bits in his beard, tells you that you need to behave as if you’ve repented.  You come out to be baptized for repentance, to be forgiven of sins, and he says, “Now act different.” Is he saying you were a bad and evil person before?  Well, actually, yes.  Telling people they’re sinners, that their behavior needs to change, and that what they do daily isn’t cutting it isn’t popular.  It’s uncomfortable.  But we shout, ‘Legalism! We live under grace, not law!’  And shout back, “HOGWASH!” And of course, I’m not popular.

Here’s the problem with the viewpoint that we ‘live under grace not under law’; the tendency is to live lawlessly.  Paul preaches grace, and he needed to, and we need to both hear that and live that today.  But he also preached against lawlessness, and we refuse the balance.  The good news of Jesus saving actions on our part (His death, burial, and resurrection) is that we are now able to function in the work (think, ‘behavior’) He prepared for us to live out from the beginning of creation.  Think about that!  He has a purpose for us designed into the very warp and woof of the created order that we are now free to pursue with our lives.  Yet we accept grace with one hand yet with the other continue to focus on and serve ourselves.  How can such an approach be considered ‘saved’ in any real sense?


John then  removes their comfortable foundation of their identity with Abraham.  If they weren’t uncomfortable with active repentance, this should do the trick.  “So you’re a Jew, so what?”  I can’t imagine people in the crowd going, “Yeah! Of course! Why didn’t I see that before?”  I’m pretty sure John didn’t get a lot of ‘amen’ from this crowd.  But as I said up front, he wasn’t looking for that.  Not only can they not rest in their ancestor, Abraham, but John says their actual ancestry goes back to the devil.  Not a good day to go to church, not if you were looking for something to feed your inner Narcissus.

I don’t know that I have all that great a grasp of how the Jews viewed ‘salvation’ exactly, but I do know that being a descendant of Abraham was very important, even if it wasn’t essential.  I believe it may have been like, “All those are definitely in, but we also accept those who aren’t but follow our belief system.”  The book of Acts especially, and places in the Gospels refer to ‘God-Fearing Gentiles’ which I believe refers to those who believed in the Jewish God versus their own cultural gods, but who stopped short of becoming Jewish, following the law to the degree the cultural Jews did.  I infer from their presence that Jews were okay with that.  That they didn’t reject Gentiles wholesale, like we often think they did.  Another clue to their perspective though is the fence in the Temple which marked the farthest a Gentile could go to worship.  Beyond that point, only Jews could go.  Now, I don’t know if this was defined by birth or degree of devotion (God-fearer versus complete convert).  But either way, Gentiles could get some distance into the Temple, and be okay.

So, what does John’s comment really get at then?  Well, I’m guessing here, but I suspect it was something like Jesus’ comment to Nicodemus that he had to be born again.  Nicodemus could not rely on his birth as a Jew to get into the kingdom of God.  I think John is saying the same thing.  And then goes farther to say that a pruning is coming even to the house of Israel (Israel is often referred to as a ‘vine’ by God).  Not only is being a descendant of Abraham not make them ‘safe’ but a day of ‘pruning’ is coming making comfortable reliance on being Israelite even more dangerous.


Then John, in good sermon style, brings it around to his first point, the fruit of repentance.  We’re back to behavior again. Bring forth that good behavior that indicates true repentance or suffer the consequences even now about to come. While this style communicates a sense of urgency, removes the comfort of remaining as they are, and steers them in a particular direction, it’s still insulting.  I like it.  Of course, I will admit, I like the idea that my Master gives me the ‘go ahead’ to be insulting in sermons and teaching.  But the idea is false of course.  John isn’t trying to be insulting, he’s just not letting a fear of being insulting keep him from saying what they have to hear from God.  If he didn’t say what he said the way he said it, they would be left being fine without change.  All they would have done that day is get wet in the Jordan, not really change.  John knew they needed more.  He spoke harsh, but as Jesus would after him, he spoke the loving thing they needed to hear.

My question today is, who will speak the harsh thing we need to hear? Or does anyone love us enough to say it?

What’s your view through the knothole?


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