Vipers must have had a terrible reputation in first-century Judaism. Our advent writer, Matthew, quotes John the Baptizer’s use of the infamous phrase. ““You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'” Later, Matthew records Jesus using this descriptive phrase, coincidentally, on the same group of religious leaders. Hmmm.
Anytime we see a specific group of people listed in the New Testament, it’s important for us to find out who they are. When we understand the players and context of these events, we can better make an application in our own lives.
The Pharisees were the largest “party” within first century Judaism. They were influential in synagogue life throughout the entire Judean region. They were concerned with living a holy life as prescribed by the Torah, prophets, and writings. For them, God’s holiness was most evident in how someone lived their life. The pharisees embraced a number of doctrines not specifically mentioned in the Torah, but found widespread acceptance after the Babylonian exile. Jesus’ own beliefs were most closely aligned with the Pharisees, having been to synagogues where Pharisees were most influential. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, it was the essence of the Pharisee vision that went on to become mainstream Judaism.
Then there are the Sadducees. The Sadducees were located primarily in Jerusalem. They were guardians of the ritual and worship in the temple. They cared about holiness and found strict adherence to the Torah essential to maintaining the purity Torah demanded. Many were priests and God’s holiness was demonstrated in right worship. The Sadducees forged a strong alliance with the Roman government and many served in government leadership. These two realities – their association with the temple and their relationship with the government – were their sources of power and influence at the time of Jesus. They were more conservative that the Pharisees, but influential nonetheless. Hmmm.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were easily recognized by their dress. Pharisees, or at least their leaders, often wore long blue fringe or phylacteries (small boxes containing the ten commandments) on their wrists or foreheads. Likewise, since many Sadducees were also priests in the temple, they often wore temple vestments. Interestingly, the clothing of each group reflected the things each cared about most – prayer and obedience to Torah in daily life for the Pharisees, and the purity of worship in the temple for the Sadducees.
I have not forgotten about the vipers! Did you know that many snakes, including many species of vipers, are viviparous, giving LIVE birth rather than laying eggs? While I think God had a significant lapse of judgment in allowing snakes to evolve, John’s vivid image of viviparous snakes may have been intended to convey his amazement that even leaders among the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to him for baptism when he, himself, had never warned them about the “wrath to come.”
This is where something gets lost in translation too. Earlier, Matthew recorded that John was shouting (“boa’w”) at the top of his lungs, trying to get his message heard. Here, however, Matthew does not use the verb “boa’w” (shout) to describe how John addressed them. Instead, he uses the verb “eipen,” which means simply, “said,” as in a typical conversational way.
He then goes on to instruct them as he was instructing everyone else about what was at stake in taking on his baptism. Just because they were religious leaders did not exempt them from the truth of his message: a real and vital repentance. They -and we – are no longer dealing with matters that exact daily obedience to Torah or the purest attention to detail in ritual. We are dealing with one who comes baptizing with Holy Spirit and fire. We must truly repent – turn, and dramatically change our actions. If we don’t, our attentiveness to righteousness, in any form, will be swept away with the chaff into unquenchable fire.
Hmm. Being called a brood of vipers is sounding a whole lot better than turn or burn!