by J. Randal Matheny, editor
“The axe is already laid at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
The Brazilian government controls the sale of chain saws. Trees have become nearly sacred. Environmentalists have seen to it that you can go to jail quicker for possessing a wild animal than for killing a human being. The other day I used the phrase, “to kill two birds with one stone.” Now that comes from an era before the sanctification of Flora and Fauna.
Just so, John the Immersor’s ringing call to repentance sounds strange to modern ears.
Cut down a tree that doesn’t bear the kind of fruit we like? Why, every tree is good, every plant has its place, every green thing contributes to cleaner air and and better environment! So say the scientific experts who serve as gurus and priests. All hail the tree-huggers!
By this ancient metaphor of the axe at the roots, John declares that some people will not stand before God on the last day. They will be destroyed. Judgment is near. Repentance now is a must. Repent or perish! Judgment is like the axe laid at the root of the useless tree, as the woodsman measures with his eye exactly where to strike with his first swing. Judgment has begun.
Time is short, so be quick, be urgent, do not tarry. Never mind those who think repentance is an outmoded concept. Forget the hecklers who draw the weirdos hefting “Repent or Perish!” signs. Heed not the glib tongues of those who assure that grace will cover all, that God’s mercy will sift it all out in the end.
John was the odd figure. His appearance must have frightened children. His diet book certainly wouldn’t have attracted many buyers. His piece of ground wasn’t prime real estate. And his message was jarring.
But it rang clear and strong to a soft and selfish society. It cut through the hype and the hope of a secular kingdom to declare the change of heart and turning of the soul to God. His words whistled like an arrow straight to the heart. Or like the whack of an axe on the roots of the tree.
So read the verse and let the axe at the roots jar the modern ear.
For John still is announcing the coming of the Messiah.