You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father” (Luke 3:7-8).
This is the warm greeting of John the Baptist to the crowds coming to hear him preach and seeking his baptism. He compares them to a collection of young venomous snakes. Repulsive, dangerous, full of poison. Slithering away from a brushfire. It’s a wonder these people didn’t turn right around and head back to Jerusalem!
Now, we tend to think John must have been insulting the hypocritical Pharisees in the crowd, and he didn’t intend to call the sincere people vipers. But Luke makes no such distinction. This greeting was for the whole crowd.
And instead of turning away, they come closer, wanting to know what they should do. What will the fruit of repentance look like in their own lives? So John provides them with specific illustrations of what repentance looks like. John’s mission is to preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3), and Luke reports that “with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them” (3:18).
Those last two phrases remind us of God’s two words, spoken to all of us through the Scriptures: Law and Gospel. Exhortation of what we should do, and Good News of what has been done.
When John called the people a brood of vipers, he wasn’t insulting them for his own enjoyment. He wasn’t trying to make them feel bad or angry. He was stating truth. Their moral state was not a pretty sight. It was repulsive. Hearing this, they could agree that they had indeed failed to keep God’s Law, or they could deny it. But if they denied it—if they insisted they could do all that God required in the Law—they would not hear, or at least not comprehend, God’s wonderful second word. The second word is Gospel—literally Good News. It’s the proclamation that God has done, through Christ, what the people could not do.
Are we today a brood of vipers? Fallen sinners, descendants of Adam and Eve, who break God’s Law, sinning against him, sinning against other people (including our loved ones), and even sinning against ourselves. With no hope of fixing ourselves.
To acknowledge this is the beginning of repentance, and repentance is what must necessarily happen between God’s first word of the Law, and his last word of the Gospel.
Rev. Brent Juliot is Pastor of Living Hope Church in Menomonie, Wisconsin.