A ravenous wolf, such as Jesus described in Matthew 7, is someone who uses threats to extort money or service from others. If you were such a person, God forbid, you might to use the following verse to threaten the saints:
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. (Matt 3:10)
“Beware the swinging axe! Produce good works or burn. Excel in generosity (pass the offering bucket) and service (sign up for these programs) or there’ll be hell to pay!”
To threaten people in the name of the Lord is thoroughly evil and as far from Christ as you can get. Yet it happens all the time.
I’ve seen letters demanding church members pay their tithes or have their membership revoked. Churches where I live name and shame non-tithers from the pulpit. I’ve been told God would bless me if I signed up to help widows and orphans with the hint that he might curse me if I didn’t. Curses, excommunication, shame, withdrawal of friendship – if you’ve been in church a while, chances are you’ve encountered these sorts of threats. It’s a disgrace.
And it’s not what John the Baptist was talking about in Matthew 3:10.
The axe and the tree
The tree in question is the unbelieving nation of Israel. For centuries the Israelites had the inside track when it came to the favor of God. They were the chosen, the children of Abraham, yet they persistently turned their backs on the Lord.
At Sinai God gave them the law to expose their sin and reveal their need for grace, but still they didn’t repent. Instead, they became self-righteous, as exemplified by the religious classes that John was addressing:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” (Matt 3:7-9)
John was not speaking to followers of Jesus but religious people who hated the Lord. His warning was later repeated by Jesus:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!… You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:33)
Again, Jesus was not speaking to his disciples but to self-righteous hypocrites who scorned the Grace of God even as he stood among them. For fourteen centuries the nation of Israel had the law which ministers death, yet they refused to come to him for life (John 5:40).
Pictures of destruction
To the religious Jews who scorned grace Jesus uttered scary words. Again and again he warned them that time was running out. We see Christ’s warnings to Israel all through his ministry:
- Jesus cursed the barren fig tree as a prophetic picture of the curse unbelieving Israel had brought on itself (Matt 21:19).
- Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that had one more year to bear fruit or it would be cut down (Luke 13:6-8).
- Jesus spoke of withered branches being gathered and thrown into the fire (John 15:6), branches that Paul said were unbelieving Jews.
- When the Savior of the world entered Jerusalem for the final time, people waved branches without fruit and the locals wondered, “Who is this?” (Matt 21:10). Jesus wept because they didn’t recognize what would bring them peace (ie: himself; Luke 19:42-44).
The destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Israel is a sad and tragic tale that serves as a warning to those who reject the life and peace that Christ offers. Reject life and you’ll reap death. But these warnings should not frighten the Christian. One with the Lord your future is as secure as his.
“But what about the axe at the root?” If your root is self-righteous unbelief, then you need to repent and believe all the good things that God says about you. He loves you, cares for you, and longs for you to come home. He does not want you to axe yourself with the fatal consequences of self-trust.
The Holy Root
But if you are a believer, then Christ is your Root and “the root supports you” (Rom 11:18). You need not fear the axe of God’s wrath because it has already fallen. On the cross his wrath against sin was satisfied. On account of Jesus you are eternally unpunishable.
If the root is holy, so are the branches. (Rom 11:16)
One with the Lord you are as righteous and holy as he is. So pay no attention to those fear-mongers who swing axes at the church. Those who threaten God’s kids are way out of line.
The Good Shepherd does not discipline us with scourging or with axes. If you’re in a place where guilt and shame are regularly used to coerce proper behavior, you might want to use those things on the ends of your legs and walk away. It could be the healthy choice.