The Pharisees were the traditionalists, the conservative religious leaders of their day. The wealthy Sadducees were the liberals; they controlled the temple businesses that Jesus later cleaned out.
When John saw them, this is what he said:
You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgment? Do something to show that you have really given up your sins. And don't start telling yourselves that you belong to Abraham's family. I tell you that God can turn these stones into children for Abraham. An ax is ready to cut the trees down at their roots. Any tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into a fire.Does that bother you to hear John speaking so forcefully to his religious leaders, those who were considered to be in spiritual authority over him?
I mean, after all, these were all the priests and ministers and seminary guys, they were supposed to be the spiritual giants, with deep spiritual responsibilities. They were important religious leaders who had made time to come clear out to the desert to meet with John. But God had given John a prophet’s discernment to see the truth about these men.
John’s message was a call to self-judgement. He urged the people to take sides with God against themselves.
But the Pharisees and Sadducees held that being descended from Abraham made them exempt from John’s call to repent. They thought they were already good enough to please God.
As The Message puts it, “Do you think a little water on your snake skins is going to make any difference? It's your life that must change, not your skin! And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
They didn’t have any sense of their own sinfulness, and they were offended by the very idea that they might need something more than their own righteousness, which they had worked very hard at to achieve.
They considered themselves faultless in their ability to keep all the rules they had written about how to obey God’s law. To suggest they might need to repent, that they were undeserving of God’s favor, was an affront to them.
Their intent was to tuck baptism under their belt for just in case, just to make sure they had dotted all their “i’s” and crossed all their “t’s” in terms of religious observance.
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