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Matthew 3 and Luke 3 recount the emergence of John the Baptist and the beginning of his ministry. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to receive his baptism, he calls them out as a "brood of vipers", with the implication that he denies them the water baptism. The account in Luke 3 proceeds to say, "What should we do then?" the crowd asked, and John gives them teachings and examples on repentance, but we do not know whether or not "the crowd" included some of these Pharisees and Sadducees, and my own inference is that it did not.

Why did John call them a "brood of vipers"? Now, I understand the application of this title to these two groups overall, so I don't require an explanation of its meaning. But why specifically in this instance when they came to be baptized? Some may say it was to "flex" their position, show off to the people, and receive "praise" and honour from them in doing so. Or some could say that they did it to receive more blessing, and more of God's "approval".

But neither of these reasons seem characteristic of them to me. Their general mindset was that they thought:

  1. John was a lunatic and/or heretic, and
  2. They were God's chosen group, and were already blessed and anointed to be in the positions they were in.

So going to receive baptism from John just to "show off" to the people doesn't make sense in that mindset. In fact, it would seem to do the opposite: it would probably confuse the people to see these highly religious people want to receive something from a guy they considered crazy and blasphemous.

So it makes me think that those who went to him were genuine in heart to receive it. But if they were, then why did John call them "brood of vipers" and deny them the baptism? I guess the implication of these passages is that they were doing it for selfish reasons, but if so, I can't for the life of me think what those reasons might be.

So my real question is, for those Ps and Ss that went to John at the Jordan:

  • If they did have a "brood of vipers" heart, then why did they go to John in the first place? What did they have to gain by doing so?
  • If they went with genuine hearts to receive baptism, then why did John call them out (and possibly deny them the baptism)?
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    There will be a multitude of views on this. From which part of the broad spectrum of what calls itself 'Christian' would you like an answer ?
    – Nigel J
    Jan 5, 2022 at 21:23
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    The Pharisees and the Saddusees came proudly to John, dressed in their affiliations special attire. John expected that if such people had had a change of heart they would come dressed in humble ordinary clothes. Jan 6, 2022 at 1:17
  • They are descendants of Cain, whom the "Serpent seed" was attributed. So, St.John called them "sons of snakes", because Cain have numerous of descendants that remain alive after Noah's flood because they were reptillian. Jan 6, 2022 at 20:31
  • @NigelJ I think the question is fine as it is (no need to be scoped by theology / denomination) since I don't think the different interpretations can be correlated to particular theologies / denominations. What we need is good exegesis and accounting of other relevant passages in the canon. Jan 6, 2022 at 22:33
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    Please get rid of the huge "edit" note and all the <ins> tags. SE doesn't support it because all SE posts have an edit history which any user can view if he wants to (and most of us don't want to, we just want to read the question without a lot of commentary about edits).
    – Null
    Jan 6, 2022 at 23:33

4 Answers 4

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Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? - Luke 3:7

Luke makes it appear that John the Baptist is talking to the whole crowd but Matthew's account gives additional detail:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? - Matthew 3:7

John is addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees here; singling them out in fact, not because of their vocations but because of their heart condition:

Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. - Matthew 3:8

When John asks, "Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?", he is essentially asking them, "What are you doing here?". John is speaking as a prophet at this time and, as such, has insight from the Lord into their heart condition. This is why he is able to say, "begin not to say within yourselves"

This is not the last time the P and S group will be chastised for relying on their lineage. The Lord Jesus upbraided them for this very same attitude:

I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father. You Are of Your Father the Devil. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. - John 8:37-45

True repentance turns away from reliance upon one's own estate, one's own righteousness, whether it be of lineage, religion or behavior. True repentance calls upon the Lord to sit upon the throne of one's heart. True repentance brings about change through reliance upon the grace and mercy of the Lord. True repentance brings forth fruit that is in keeping with righteousness by obedience to the Word through humility before the indwelling Spirit.

John's baptism did not confer repentance it demonstrated it: It was a sign. John is prohibiting them from the baptism of repentance because they are not repentant. This is evident by the passage in John 8, long after John is gone, when Jesus confronts them for the very same attitude John the Baptist called out.

John did not deny them. They disqualified themselves by unbelief.

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  • Wow awesome answer.
    – JonH
    Jan 7, 2022 at 3:39
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The Matthew account gives the impression that John could have baptized some of those Pharisees and Sadducees, because his scathing address to them begins at verse 7 and continues through to the end of verse 12. Verse 11 says,

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire".

We do not know if the Pharisees and Sadducees walked away in disgust during John's chastisement of them, or whether they (or some of them) took the rebuke and did not let that put them off queuing up for water baptism. Those who truly felt repentant at John's preaching would have stayed. John would not have denied them baptism.

Notice also how the Luke account does not single out the Pharisees and Sadducees? Verse 7 simply says, "Then he said to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers..." etc. There could also have been 'viperish' persons in the multitude who were not Pharisees or Sadducees. John did not have the ability to read hearts, as did Jesus, but the Holy Spirit prompted his ministry and his preaching. All who came heard that warning about a generation of vipers.

This quote from an old commentary seems to hit the nail on the head:

"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 is 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 (Lk.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 John." (Matthew Henry Commentary p1285, re. Mt.4:7)

This leads to your main point, "my question is, why did John call them "brood of vipers"?" Here are further explanatory points:

"Christ gave them the same title; ch.12:34; 23:33. They were as vipers; though specious, yet venomous and poisonous, and full of malice and enmity to everything 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 (cf. Gen.3:25); of their father the devil, Jn.8:44. They were a viperous gang; they were all alike" (Ibid. p1286)

Matthew Henry's 'Commentary' makes the same point I did when looking at Luke's parallel account: that scathing verbal attack was addressed to the whole crowd. Don't forget that, at that time, there was a real expectancy among the Jewish people that it should be time for Messiah to appear, so when John came to prepare the way for Messiah, national interest was focused on John, hence the crowds coming to see and to hear him. The religious leaders were just as interested as the general populace. But John's ministry was designed to sift the wheat from the chaff. Those genuinely repentant would submit to water baptism at his hands, and who knows but that a few of those religious leaders would have done so? The account allows for that, even though it's clear that the majority of them would not.

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  • Please see the updates I made to the question.
    – istrasci
    Jan 6, 2022 at 19:54
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Pharisees and Sadducees - A "brood of vipers"

Throughout the Sacred Scriptures, there was a strong connection between serpents, evil and the underworld which we call Hell.

John the Baptist condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” in (Matthew 3:7. A “brood of vipers” is a “family of snakes.” Because vipers are venomous, John was essentially calling the religious leaders “deadly sons of serpents.” It’s quite a bold denunciation—and one Jesus repeated to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders in Israel during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. The Pharisees were the Law-keepers and promoters of tradition, and the Sadducees comprised the wealthier ruling class. Over the centuries, these well-meaning groups had become corrupt, legalistic, and hypocritical and would eventually be responsible for crucifying the Son of God. They earned their label “brood of vipers,” a sobriquet with deeper meaning than is obvious at first glance.

The viper was seen to be an evil creature. Its venom was deadly, and it was also devious—the viper that bit Paul was hiding in the firewood (Acts 28:3). The Hebrew Scriptures, which the Pharisees knew well, associate the serpent with Satan in Genesis 3. For John to call the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” implies that they bore satanic qualities. This idea is clearly stated by Jesus in John 8:44, where He says the unbelieving Jews “belong to [their] father, the devil.” When John and Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” they were pointing out that these men were deceitful, dangerous, and wicked—deceitful in that they were hypocrites (Matthew 23:15); dangerous in that they were blind leaders of the blind ( Matthew 15:14); and wicked in that their hearts were full of murder (John 8:37).

Another fascinating detail is found in Jesus’ use of the epithet “brood of vipers” to describe the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:33, He says, “You brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” Farmers, then as now, often burned the stubble of their fields to get the land ready for the next planting season. As the fires neared the vipers’ dens, the snakes would slither away from the flames, but they often did not escape being consumed. Snakes fleeing the fire was a common sight, and Jesus’ words to the Pharisees would likely have called it to their minds. How could they think they would escape the fire of God’s judgment by relying on their own works, which were not at all honest or good? John’s and Jesus’ calling them a brood of vipers was meant to make them aware of their own wickedness and call them to repent. - Why did John the Baptist refer to the Pharisees as a brood of vipers?

We, the Brood of Vipers - Christian Unity Ministries

Brood of Vipers

Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov writes the following commentary on ”You, Brood of Vipers”:

The ministry of John the Baptist “inaugurates the Jesus era” (Brown 235). Furthermore, Brown writes that “by the expression “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah” (3:2) Luke assimilates J[ohn the] Bap[tist]’s call to that of an O[ld] T[estament] prophet (Isa. 38:4; Jer. 1:2; etc.)” (235). Other details point to the prophetic character of John’s mission: living in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), going “into all the regions around the Jordan,” and “proclaiming repentance” (Luke 3:3), as the Judean and Israelite prophets often did. Furthermore, Luke cements John’s image as a prophet by applying the words of the prophet Isaiah (Luke 3:4-6; Is. 40:3-5, 52:10) directly to John.

McVann states that as “the greatest of prophets… John saw through the masquerade of evil which hides its true nature. He read the hearts of those approached: “Brood of vipers…” (3:7) It belongs to prophets to pierce through false exteriors and discern true natures” (Neyrey 344). New Jerome notes that the label “brood of vipers” refers to “the Pharisees and the high priests” who “respectively rejected John’s baptism [Luke7:30, 20:5]”; and that the literary technique that Luke is using is that of “completing analepsis or ‘flashback’” (686). Malina agrees that Luke 3:7 is directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees and adds that this “gravest insult” is an “imputation of doubtful lineage” and “means nothing less than ‘snake bastards,’ a doubly offensive term” (154). This assertion of the negative nature of the label is not, of course, a revelation produced by the latest discoveries in social historical analysis. A Bible encyclopedia published in 1891 mentions that the label “brood of vipers” is the strongest negative label used to describe evil and non-pious people (“Ehidna”). Lopukhin’s biblical commentary published between 1911 and 1913 also states that the “brood of vipers” is an insult directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees who “played a predominant role in the crowd” (3:149). The Interpreter’s Bible (not to be confused with the New Interpreter’s), published in 1952, dives into a bold hermeneutic asserting not only that the label was addressed to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who “came out from Jerusalem, [and] the ordinary crowd made room for these exalted persons”; but also that the “rebuke must have amazed and halted them as completely as though he had struck them in the face,” and that “the Pharisees were outraged; but the multitude, when they had caught their breath, were undoubtedly delighted” (VIII:73).

Brown, however, points out the obvious fact that “the vituperation that Matt. 3:7 directs to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Luke 3:7 directs to the multitudes” (235). Indeed, it may be too obvious, but the Pharisees and the Sadducees do not enter the scene of Luke 3:1-22, so it may be argued that the connection between the “brood of vipers” and the Pharisees and Sadducees in Luke is not established and doubtful at best. Considering that the message of Luke’s Gospel was likely intended as an intelligible proclamation to his community, rather than an obscure literary piece written for a group of savvy critics, analepsis in this particular passage seems unlikely. Furthermore, it is not clear that the Hellenistic culture of the Lucan community was equally as concerned with the “purity of lineage” in the same particular way as the Judean culture was. Concerning Judean culture Malina writes: “Now, we might characterize the postexilic Israelite period as focused on the symbol of holy offspring” (154).

This, of course, is a fair observation of a nation that actively awaits the coming of the Messiah and is preparing to physically bear one. But can we extend the same physiological intensity of messianic expectations to the Lucan Hellenistic community, especially after the Messiah had been born (and the community believed and proclaimed it)? Calling the multitudes that came out to be baptized “’snake bastards,’ a doubly offensive term” (Malina 154), may not, therefore, be the best pastoral approach. - “You, Brood of Vipers!” - Or What to Say to People Who Have Come to Be Baptized

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  • Please see the updates I made to the question.
    – istrasci
    Jan 6, 2022 at 19:54
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OP:   

So my question is, why did John call them "brood of vipers"? Now, I understand the application of this title to these two groups overall, but why specifically in this instance when they came to be baptized?

The assumption is that they "came to be baptized", but did they? Is that why they were there at the Jordan?

John preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3).

Is that why the Pharisees* and Sadducees* came to John? Was it to have their sins forgiven? If it were, it would have been a clear direct denunciation of their own temple service and activity apart from the temple. It was in the temple where via animal sacrifices that their sins were removed (remitted), although the Pharisees may have thought additions (see below).

Remission means "Deliver, Deliverance, Deliverer:

denotes "a release, from bondage, imprisonment, etc." (the corresponding verb is aphiemi, "to send away, let go"); in Luk 4:18 it is used of "liberation" from captivity (AV, "deliverance," RV, "release"). " -source-

Both sects were active in the temple within "The religious responsibilities of the Sadducees included the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their high social status was reinforced by their priestly responsibilities, as mandated in the Torah. The priests were responsible for performing sacrifices at the Temple, the primary method of worship in ancient Israel. and without. " [T]he Pharisees continued a form of Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to mundane activities in order to sanctify the every-day world. This was a more participatory (or "democratic") form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively; whose leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement."

The point is John and thus Jesus represented to them something new and different. They were, to some in the sects, the outsiders trying to challenge their positions, prestige, and pocketbooks. They were not there to be baptized, but to do reconnaissance.

To be sure, there were others, like Paul, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimethea, who did become baptized and did believe, but they left the "brood of vipers".

So, to answer the OP rephrase, the "brood of vipers" were not there to be baptized, but of course they didn't think of themselves as vipers. The religious always believes that God is on their side.

Pharisee "A sect that seems to have started after the Jewish exile. In addition to OT books the Pharisees recognised in oral tradition a standard of belief and life. They sought for distinction and praise by outward observance of external rites and by outward forms of piety, and such as ceremonial washings, fastings, prayers, and alms giving; and, comparatively negligent of genuine piety, they prided themselves on their fancied good works. They held strenuously to a belief in the existence of good and evil angels, and to the expectation of a Messiah; and they cherished the hope that the dead, after a preliminary experience either of reward or of penalty in Hades, would be recalled to life by him, and be requited each according to his individual deeds. In opposition to the usurped dominion of the Herods and the rule of the Romans, they stoutly upheld the theocracy and their country's cause, and possessed great influence with the common people. According to Josephus they numbered more than 6000. They were bitter enemies of Jesus and his cause; and were in turn severely rebuked by him for their avarice, ambition, hollow reliance on outward works, and affection of piety in order to gain popularity."

Sadducee "Sadducees = "the righteous"

a religious party at the time of Christ among the Jews, who denied that the oral law was a revelation of God to the Israelites, and who deemed the written law alone to be obligatory on the nation, as the divine authority. They denied the following doctrines:

resurrection of the body immortality of the soul existence of spirits and angels divine predestination, affirmed free will

*Pharisee and Sadducee source

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  • The assumption is that they "came to be baptized", but did they? Is that why they were there at the Jordan? Good point. Though I link to the NIV, that says they were "...coming to where he [JtB] was baptizing", other translations such as the NASB do say they were "...coming for baptism". Also, please see the updates to my post. You possibly posted your answer while I was in the middle of making my edits.
    – istrasci
    Jan 6, 2022 at 20:02

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