Vipers and Chicks

If you are familiar with rattlesnakes, you probably don’t consider a brood of them cute and friendly! Appreciate the language Jesus used in Matthew 23:33–39 in criticizing the Pharisees.

Beware of vipers! The Pharisees were dangerous. Jesus does not lightly call the Pharisees and teachers of the law snakes. They appeared outwardly religious, but inside were full of spiritual death and decay. The Pharisees were not only the biological descendants of those who murdered the prophets, they failed to realize that they were the spiritual heirs of the same rebellious, murderous spirit. “Now that the prophets were safely out of the way and they could no longer hear the thunderbolts those great men hurled at conventional religiosity, they could safely applaud all that the prophets had said, quite oblivious of the fact that their lives gave daily evidence that the kind of thing the prophets denounced lived on.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 586) They would continue to persecute God’s messengers, verse 34. They were plotting the death of the Messiah himself. The term, “snakes,” fit, since they were followers of the Serpent who deceived mankind.

Judgment is coming! The blood of righteous, unjustly shed, flows upon those who reject the Messiah. Those who heard Jesus’ words stood in solidarity with their forefathers, who had persecuted the prophets. The first murder of a righteous person is described in Genesis 4. The Hebrew Bible concludes with 2 Chronicles, and in chapter 24 is the account of the martyrdom of Zechariah, the son of the priest, Jehoiada. (The prophet who authored the book that bears his name was the son of Berekiah, the son of Ido.) Jehoiada may have had a second name (Berekiah), or there may have been another ancestor of Zechariah by that name. Although we may not understand all of the genealogy, there is no need to assume a contradiction. The point is that from beginning to end the Scriptures contain accounts of godly people put to death by the ungodly. Jesus’ hearers stand in that line, and as it culminates in the murder of the Messiah, that line would reap God’s judgment. Desolation is coming! As you read on into Matthew 24 Jesus prophecies the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in 70 A.D. He portrays this as God’s judgment on persistent rebellion and unbelief. The destruction of Jerusalem anticipates the final Judgment. God’s curse pursues covenant breakers all the way to the condemnation of hell, see verse 33.

Gather like chicks to the hen. Appreciate the compassion of your Lord. The Lord compares himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. He laments the refusal of Jerusalem to flee to him. Although Luke records similar words of Jesus earlier in his ministry (Luke 13:34, 35), Matthew places this as his last record of Jesus’ teaching to the public. Jesus truly desired that Israel repent. Yet he did not decree in his secret will that such repentance would take place. He offers salvation. His words reveal his compassion. “Jesus is speaking here in his capacity as the Messiah and Saviour. He is speaking therefore as the God-man. He is speaking of the will on his part as the Messiah and Savior to embrace the people of Jerusalem in the arms of his saving grace and covenant love.” “In this lament over Jerusalem, furthermore, there is surely disclosed to us something of the will of our Lord as the Son of God and divine Son of man that lies back of and is expressed in, such an invitation as Matthew 11:18. Here we have declared, if we may use the thought of Matthew 23:37, his will to embrace the labouring and heavy laden in the arms of his saving and loving protection.” (“The Free Offer of the Gospel,” The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 4, pages 120 & 121) Despite the viperous behavior of his people, Jesus still laments their rebellion and calls them to come to him. “But you were not willing,” are among the saddest words in this Gospel. People would rather keep their superficial self-righteousness than flee to the Savior and cling to him alone. Don’t let those words be said of you.

Flee to the Savior. The day was about to come when the presence of Jesus would be withdrawn. Judgment was about to come. Yet, as he spoke there was still time to flee to him. The Father has graciously given a delay between the first coming of Christ and his return in judgment. The day will come when Jesus will be acknowledged as the blessed one coming in the name of the Lord. Every knee will bow to him, either willingly trusting in the Savior who redeemed them, or reluctantly, as rebels forced to acknowledge him. Now is the time to flee to Christ. He himself is the refuge. The only way to flee from God’s judgment is to flee to God as he comes to you in Jesus Christ.

Listen to Jesus’ words of warning. How does he see you? As a brood of vipers, young and active, but venomous and deserving his judgment? As chicks who refuse his outspread wings, and his words of warning? Or are you among those who really hear him and flee to the refuge he alone can provide?

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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