The Axe to the Roots of the Trees

The Axe to the Roots of the Trees

The Axe to the Roots of the Trees.

“When John the Baptist saw many Pharisees and Sadducee coming to be baptized, he denounced them. ‘You brood of snakes!’ he exclaimed. ‘Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God… Even now the axe of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire!”  (Matthew 3:7-10).

John the Baptist was the end of an era. He was the last and greatest prophet in the Old Testament tradition. John, whose name means “Lord is gracious,” was the miracle baby of the aged couple Zechariah and Elizabeth. He was born into a priestly family, since Zechariah was an active priest in the Temple and Elizabeth was in the family line of Aaron. It would be difficult to find another biblical personality, apart from the Messiah, who was the object of so many prophecies. John was

  • the “voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3);
  • he was the “messenger” sent by the Lord, “who will prepare the way before Me.” (Malachi 3:1);
  • he was Elijah the prophet, sent to “clear the way for the Day of God” (Malachi 4:3);
  • he was named by the angel Gabriel, who said that John “will herald God’s arrival” (Luke 1:13-17);
  • he was prophesied by his father to be a “prophet of the Most High, and will go ahead of the Messiah to prepare His ways.” (Luke 1:67-79).

John was chosen before birth to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the appearance of the Anointed One in this world. John would not go into this crucial mission empty-handed – he was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. Despite his lineage, John was not raised in a priestly home. From childhood he lived out in the desert, probably with an ascetic community that were strict members of Judaism. In this wilderness, he grew physically strong, mentally disciplined, and spiritually focused, and well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Much of his childhood was spent in solitude with God, away from the Temple and all its rules, and from society in general. As it turned out, John was well-prepared to have a holy stubbornness as to his calling. He was tough and single-minded and well able to live off locusts and wild honey in a simple existence. Some scholars estimated that John’s ministry was only for a space of six months, but evidently that was all the time that Jesus needed to enter His part in the story of salvation.

John’s baptisms were distinctive, though, because he was full of the Holy Spirit, he was not associated with the Temple system and all its regulations, and he preached the idea that his baptism is merely a pledge, a promise that the baptized person will perform a radical change to his life. Repent, repent, turn around, John repeated. John’s baptism was more like an initiation rite into a brotherhood, a fellowship of penitents awaiting the coming of God in a new, special way. So John insisted that those baptized would “bear fruit that befit repentance,” a changed moral and spiritual life. John continued to preach that the mere washing with water was not enough. The baptized had to prepare the way for the Messiah by making an about-face in their lives.

When John wasn’t baptizing, he was engaged in straightforward conversation with a wide variety of people coming to him… Pharisees, priests, scribes, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, the wealthy elite, the common poor. John was known to have harsh words of condemnation to those who deserved them, and wise words of moral guidance to those asking for them. He was intolerant of the wealthy and the religious leadership. He called them the offspring of vipers! (Luke 3:7-14). Listen, you snakes, John would yell at them. Do you think by washing your body here you can escape judgment? Do you think you can slither away from the fire of judgment? I know you, you don’t fool me, he would say. You don’t have any intention of changing your life, of repenting and  turning to God. You’re just going to do what young vipers do, eat away your mother from the inside, destroying the heart and spirit of the holy Faith that birthed you. Don’t try to claim salvation because Abraham is your father. Children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. You must bear fruit that shows you have repented. If that doesn’t happen, whether Jew or not, the branches of your nice little fruit tree will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

In his customary, dramatic way, John the Baptist gave us rather a extreme picture of God here… Evidently, John envisioned God as this mighty lumberjack who wanders through a vast forest of people who contend that they are believers in the Lord God. And this heavenly lumberjack inspects all the trees in the forest, judges which are fruitful and which are a waste of space, and He begins to wield His axe and cut down all the unfruitful trees, down to the roots! All of this picturesque language begs a question: How can we make sure we are fruitful trees?

Let’s follow the science, God’s natural science. In order for a tree to grow and thrive and bear fruit, it needs to grow roots. Bearing fruit depends on growing roots. A tree doesn’t go high unless it goes deep. Growing a root system in our spiritual life requires that we go deeply into God. We pray until it becomes second nature. We study and internalize His Word until it’s all we want to do. We meditate on the truths of Scripture, ruminating like sacred cows chewing their cuds, until those truths become a part of our spiritual digestive system. We worship with joy and devotion, by ourselves and with our fellow believers, to express our love of the Lord. We listen thoughtfully and consider the wisdom of those who open Scripture and expound its truths. Whatever helps us deepen our root system into God is welcome into our life. Without roots the tree will not get the nutrition needed to thrive. And without deep roots, a tree will topple with the first windstorm.

Growing roots enables the tree to bear fruits. Scripture is clear that God wants us to be fruitful in two ways: fruitfulness in deeds, and fruitfulness in character. Jesus repeated John’s words in Matthew 7:19, that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And in John 15:5-8, He declared that “If anyone remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” There are too many passages in Scripture to mention here about the fruit of good deeds. But here are a couple… “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16); “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Tim. 6:18); “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (Heb. 10:24).

Believers are called to grow deep roots into God, and to bear fruit in good deeds. Finally, we are to be fruitful in our character growth. We are to grow in the character traits of God, demonstrating His personality, His behavior. Believers are intended to reveal to the world what God is like. Growing in the fruit of the Holy Spirit is another way of saying this. The Spirit is implanted in our lives so that we can grow in God’s virtue and character, so that we correctly represent the Lord in our daily lives. Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to grow in love, in joy, in peace, in patience, in kindness, in goodness, in faithfulness, in gentleness, and in self-control. As our roots are growing deeper into God, it is only natural that His life is growing within us to become more like Him in character and personality. We grow into looking like Jesus through the power of His Holy Spirit. We might want to think of that list of qualities as one big fruit of love, and all the seeds that follow are the seeds of love. Or, if this is more helpful, perhaps we can think of this passage as a branch of love from the tree of Jesus, the Tree of Life, and the branch of love is heavy laden with all the other qualities that comprise love, that are motivated by love. However we think of it, since Paul uses a singular word for “fruit” and not the plural “fruits,” it is helpful for us to think about this Galatians 5:22-23 passage as referring to the primary fruit of love and its components, what love looks like when it is lived out, the quality that sums up all the virtues of God.

Our tree will thrive when we grow deep roots, bear the fruit of good deeds, and live into the fruit of God’s character. We won’t need to worry about John’s great lumberjack at the Judgment as we depend on the Lord for all it takes to grow in a heavenward direction. We need not fear the axe. With the sufficiency of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, our little tree will grow into a thriving tree of fruitfulness, an oak of righteousness.