3 - Observations
And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).
Why am I highlighting that verse? Do you remember what we’re looking for in Matthew? Compassion. “How can you find compassion in a verse like that?” You probably ask… Well, let’s dig into it and I’ll show you.
On the surface of things this verse seems to be saying, “Be good or be destroyed.” And in a way it is, but there’s so much more to it.
We Jamaicans have a thing that we like to joke about: if you have a fruit tree that is not bearing any fruit we like to “threaten” the tree by giving it one good chop with a machete and saying, “If you don’t bear, I’m going to cut you down!” Does it work? I don’t know. But our folklore says it does. Supposedly trees that have been “threatened” go on to produce a bounty of crops.
John the Baptist was warning the people of Israel of things to come. For centuries they had been God’s chosen people. He had set apart to be his priests, which means that their job was to represent God before all people. They were called to be ambassadors if you will of the gospel.
Remember Leviticus 27? The people were told how they would be blessed by their obedience. They were also told what would happen if they did not obey. Sadly, they disobeyed and all the punishment was theirs.
At this point in their history they were under Roman rule. Many of them were still occupying the Promised Land but they were not free. While the Romans allowed them some amount of freedom – the Israelites could move about within the city limits and keep their religious rites – the evidence of their occupation was everywhere.
There were soldiers inside the city and they had to pay taxes to Rome. There would have been some things that were now prohibited (some of the things in the law could not be carried out without permission).
All of that to say this: God was telling the people through John that it was not going to be business as usual. No more would he allow them to continue to disregard the great commission that they had been given. The time to work and minister to all nations was now.
Now. This moment.
Not later when they were freed. Not tomorrow when they had overthrown the Romans. Now while they were in bondage and subject to Roman authority.
The Israelites were being called to witness of the mercies of God in their present circumstance. Any individual who was not producing fruit, that is, anyone not displaying the traits and characteristics of Christ, anyone who was not making disciples would no longer be considered a member of the priesthood.
Now that seems harsh but let’s remember that this was hundreds of years after God had given them the original charge. They had been ignoring their mission for ages and God had sent them many warnings and reminders and still they disobeyed.
But God had compassion on them and decided to send another warning – an urgent one letting them know that the time had come for them to get serious about their mission. He could have just sent judgment as he had more than enough evidence against them. But he didn’t. He chose to lovingly inform them of the sentence to come. Wasn’t that compassionate?
Father I thank you for sending warnings and reminders before you pass judgment on your people. Open our eyes and our ears so that we get the message that is being sent to us. Open up our understanding so that we can discern what is true so that we are not deceived. Thank you for hearing and answering our prayers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.