Luke 3:9
In these verses we have brought into view four aspects of religious truth.

I. THE FUTILE. The Pharisee, if he were charged with any evil course, consoled himself with the thought that he was a "son of Abraham;" to his mind it was everything with God that he was lineally descended from the father of the faithful, and had been admitted by the rite of circumcision into the "commonwealth of Israel." John, anticipating the doctrine of Jesus Christ, demolishes this delusion. That, he tells his audience on the banks of Jordan, is a matter of very small account with Heaven; that is not the criterion of character; that is not the passport to the kingdom of God. Let no man think to build on that poor foundation. Not genealogical connection with the best of men (see John 1:13), not admission by outward rite into any visible community, decides our state before God. If we appear before him, and have no better plea than this to offer, we must prepare for his dismissal. All that is fleshly, all that is circumstantial, all that is outward and unspiritual, falls short of the Divine requirement. It does not bring us into the kingdom of heaven.

II. THE DIFFICULT. "God is able of these stones," etc. Nothing could be easier than for Almighty power to raise up children unto Abraham - to bring into existence more children of privilege. He had bet to "speak, and it would be done; to command, and it would come forth." But it was quite another thing to win the disobedient and the disloyal to filial love and holy service, to bring the hard of heart and the proud of spirit to penitence and confession of sin, to conduct the feet that had long been walking in paths of selfishness and guilt into the ways of wisdom and of worth. This is a work in the accomplishment of which even the Divine Spirit employs many means and expends great resources and exercises long patience. He teaches, he invites, he pleads, he warns, he chastens, he waits. And on this great, this most difficult work, this spiritual victory, on which the eternal Father spends so much of the Divine, we surely may be well content to put forth all our human, strength.

III. THE SEVERE. "Now also the axe is laid unto the root... is hewn down, and cast into the fire." John intimates that a new dispensation is arriving, and with its coming there will come also a more severe sentence against disobedience and unfruitfulness. The shining of the fuller light will necessarily throw far deeper shadows. They who will not learn of the great Teacher will fall under great condemnation. The useless trees in the garden of the Lord will now not only be disbranched, they will be cut down. It is a very solemn thing to live in the full daylight of revealed religion. With every added ray of privilege and opportunity comes increase of sacred responsibility and exposure to the Divine severity.

IV. THE PRACTICAL. (Vers. 10-14.) Real repentance will show itself in right behavior, and every man, according to his vocation, will take his rightful part. The man of means will be pitiful and generous; the man in office will be just and upright; the soldier will be civil; the servant will be faithful and be satisfied with the receipt of what is due to him; the master and the mistress will be fair in their expectation of service; the father will be considerate of his children's weakness; the children will be regardful of their parents' will. And while the right thing will be done, it will be done reverently and religiously, not only as unto man, but as "unto Christ the Lord." - C.







The axe is laid unto the root of the trees.
It seems to me a total mistake to apply the words of the Baptist, "And now also the axe," &c., to any work ordained for man. When the appointed time comes, God does indeed show forth His justice by sweeping away that which is utterly corrupt. Yet even the Son of God, in His human manifestation, came not to destroy, but to save. Assuredly this is the only part of His office which we are called to discharge. As His ministers, we are to be ministers of salvation, not of destruction. The evil in ourselves, indeed, we are to pluck up, branch and root; but in our dealings with others, unless we have a special office committed to us by the laws of family or national life, our task will mainly be to contend against evil by sowing the seeds of good, not by radical reforms, but by seminal. The satirist, the rhetorician, the moralist, will indeed try the former, and will therefore fail. The Christian has a higher power entrusted to him, the power of God's goodness and mercy, the gospel of redemption and salvation; not the woes of the Trojan prophetess, who could gain no credence, but the glad tidings of the kingdom of heaven. And if he relies on this power, he will succeed where others must needs fail.

(A. W. Hare, in "Guesses at Truth. ")

We may learn from it, in the first place —

I. THE KIND OF FRUIT WHICH GOD REQUIRES FROM US. In our text it is called "good fruit"; and, in the eighth verse, "fruits meet for repentance." With what propriety, my brethren, are fruits like these denominated "good." They are the result of a good principle, even of that "godly sorrow" which worketh repentance to salvation, not to be repented of; they proceed from a good source, for they are the fruits which the Holy Spirit Himself produces in the heart and life which He controls; and they accord with the Divine revelation and with the Divine will, "for He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

II. THE MEANS WHICH GOD EMPLOYS TO RENDER US PRODUCTIVE OF THIS KIND OF FRUIT, AND WHICH SHOW HOW REASONABLE IT IS THAT HE SHOULD EXPECT IT FROM US. In the first place, God has endowed you with a capacity to produce this kind of fruit. A stone is not capable of producing the fruits of a tree, because it is destitute of vegetable life. A tree is not capable of producing the fruits of instinct and sagacity, because it is destitute of animal life. And the beasts of the field are not capable of producing the fruits of reason and of conscience, because they are destitute of intellectual and moral life. Nor are such fruits required from them. God never requires from His creatures any actions which they are naturally incapable of performing. "But there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty hath given him understanding." He has endowed us with reason and with affections. You retain the ability, but you have lost the disposition, to exercise the mind aright. You may destroy the eye by which you behold the surrounding universe; you may destroy the link that binds your spirit to your mortal flesh: but your responsibility to God, and your immortality of existence, you cannot destroy, you cannot touch. Secondly: In order to enable you to bring forth this good fruit, God has supplied you with the gospel of His Son. The gospel contains also the motives to fruitfulness; and these motives are the most powerful that can be presented to the mind. And the gospel contains also the promise of that Divine influence by which fruitfulness is infallibly secured! for "He giveth His Holy Spirit to them that ask Him." Thirdly: God has visited you with various dispensations of providence, and with various convictions of conscience, all of which have been intended to direct your attention to the gospel, that thereby you might bring forth fruits meet for repentance.

III. THE CONTINUED UNFRUITFULNESS OF SOME PERSONS, NOTWITHSTANDING ALL THE MEANS WHICH THE GOD OF MERCY HAS EMPLOYED.

1. Some of these unfruitful persons are sensual and profane. Their bodies and their souls are given to sin.

2. Some of these unfruitful persons are intellectual, and moral, and amiable.

3. Some of these unfruitful persons are professors of the gospel. They are branches in the vine, but they bear no fruit.

IV. THE AXE WINCH IS LYING AT THE ROOT OF SUCH UNFRUITFUL PERSONS. "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees." This "axe" may therefore be considered as emblematical of death, at which period the character and condition of the fruitless, as well as of others, will be decided and fixed for ever.

1. The axe which is lying at your root reminds you of the patience and long-suffering of God. If you had had a servant in your family who had cared as little for you as you have cared for God, would you have continued him in your house as long as God has continued you? No, my brethren, you would not. You would have cut down the tree, and you would have dismissed the servant.

2. The axe which is lying at your root reminds you of the critical circumstances in which you are placed. Remember that, though you have not yet been hewn down, the axe is actually lying at your root. The axe has not to be prepared; it has been prepared, and sharpened. The axe has not to be brought to you from a distance; it has been brought, and is now lying at your root.

3. The axe which is lying at your root has sometimes admonished you of its being there. You have seen others fall under its influence; but have you never felt it yourself? Has the cold iron never sent its chilling influence through your frame?

V. THE AWFUL CONDITION TO WHICH SUCH UNFRUITFUL PERSONS ARE DOOMED. "Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." The nature of this condition is indescribably terrible. There is an awful peculiarity even in the death of a fruitless sinner. "He is hewn down." And the language intimates at once his own unwillingness to die, and the determined and penal manner in which his death is inflicted. The certainty that this condition will be incurred by the finally impenitent is another sentiment which our text conveys — a certainty so sure and perfect, that the event is spoken of as having actually taken place. "He is hewn down, and cast into the fire." If you die unfruitful, your destruction is as certain as your death.

(J. Alexander, D. D.)

The remarkably broad statement implied in this bold figure of speech must strike a European as somewhat extraordinary; and yet there is more of literal truth in it than one would at first thought be disposed to imagine. The fact is, in Western Asia trees, as trees, are but little valued. The fruit-trees are preserved and nourished with great care; but nearly all other trees are cut down for fuel, mineral fuel being exceedingly scarce. An exception is made in favour of poplars. These are permitted to grow to their full height for the sake of the long beams they supply.

(Biblical Things, &c.)

This is judgment — destruction. The axe is not for planting, or pruning, or dressing, or propping, or protecting, but for cutting down. The axe against Israel was the Roman host, and many such axes has God wielded, age after age. Every judgment is an axe: pestilence is God's axe; famine God's axe; adversity God's axe. There is a great difference between the axe and the pruning-knife. Yet some of God's judgments are both in one — an axe to the ungodly, a pruning-knife to the saint. It is God's axe, not man's; its edge is sharp; it is heavy; it will do its work well.

(H. Bonar, D. D.)

I. THE ROOT. That which bears up the branches, and on which the trees and branches stand and grow.

1. The root, then, was the covenant God made with Abraham and his natural seed or offspring, which covenant did, in a mystical sense, as clearly bear up the national church of Israel and all the trees (i.e., members or branches thereof) as common natural root doth the tree or trees growing out of it.

2. By the root may also be intended the foundation of all the Jews' hopes, confidence, and outward privileges.

3. By root, in a more remote sense, may be meant the state and standing of every ungodly, unbelieving, and impenitent person.

II. THE TREES. Men and women, but chiefly the seed of the stock of Abraham, according to the flesh, of whom the national church of the Jews was made up, and did consist; as also, all wicked and unbelieving persons whatsoever, who embrace not the offers of grace in the gospel, or believe not in Jesus Christ.

III. THE AXE.

1. The dispensation of God's providence, or time. Time is pictured with a scythe, but then man is compared to grass; but it may be pictured with an axe, since men are compared to trees; a scythe is no fit instrument to cut down trees.

2. The axe also may refer to the gospel: the Word of God is an axe to hew and square some persons for God's spiritual building, and to cut down others also, as trees that are rotten, and bear no good fruit; "Therefore," saith the Lord, "I have hewn them by the prophets"; and what follows, mark it, "I have slain them by the words of My mouth" (Hosea 6:5).

3. The axe may refer to men, whom God makes use of, as instruments in His hand, to cut down and destroy a wicked and God-provoking people; hence wicked rulers and kings, whom God raises up, as instruments in His hand, to chastise and cut clown a rebellious people, are called "His sword, and the rod of His wrath and indignation" (Psalm 17:14).

4. By the axe may in general be meant God's wrath; however it is, or may be executed, or upon whom, wrath will sooner or later cut down all the ungodly, both false Churches and tyrannical powers of the earth, and all who continue in unbelief and in rebellion against God. The laying the axe to the root discovers the final fall and ruin of sinners, whether considered as a Church or as particular persons; dig up or cut down the root, and down falls the body and all the branches of the tree. Or are you self-righteous persons? Do you build on your own righteousness, like the Jews and hypocritical Pharisees? If so, the axe will cut you down also. You must bring forth good fruit, every soul of you, or perish; and this you cannot do till your hearts are changed, and so you become good trees. Make the tree good, and then the fruit will be good; "an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit," &c. All works of regenerate persons — yea, their religious duties — are but dead works, not good fruits; nor can they bring forth good fruits unless they are planted by faith into Jesus Christ. Nay, I must tell you that gospel-holiness will not save us; it must be the righteousness of God by faith.

(Benjamin Keach.)

1. It cutteth the Sabbath-breaker to hear his profaneness still cried out upon; it cutteth the adulterer to hear his viciousness continually found fault with; it cutteth the drunkard to hear his excess so often threatened; it cutteth the rioter and voluptuous liver, that his course should ever and anon be so eagerly reproved. And so, in the other particulars, it doth even enrage men's hearts that the Word of God cloth so meet with them, as it were, at every turn; and it causeth many to come to hear it no more than they needs must, because, though they set a face upon it, and would make themselves and others believe that it is not so; yet this same sharp axe of the Word, when the edge thereof is turned towards them, doth strike some wound or other into them almost at every sermon. So that as Scripture hath avouched it, so common use will not suffer it to be untrue, that the ministry of the Word is a sharp axe, which hath a biting edge, and cutteth and pierceth where it goeth. The use of it, in a word, is to justify and to maintain to the faces of all gainsayers that that very Word which they hear daily, and which they would fain make themselves and others believe is but an idle word, is indeed and in truth the very Word of God.

2. Another thing in the axe is, that as it cuts, so it frameth and fashioneth the hearers to a place in the spiritual building in God's Church. And as a crooked and knobby tree must first be hewn and squared, and cut again and again, before it can sort with the rest of the building, so must we also be even cast, as it were, in a new mould, and transformed into a new shape, before we can have a place in God's spiritual house. There is a great deal of crookedness and corruption must be pared from us; we must pass under the workman's tool before we can be an habitation of God by His Spirit. Now, the means to frame us to become fit for the Lord's building is the public ministry of His Word. By it the Lord cloth lop off the superfluity of our corruption; thereby He doth smooth us and make us plain and compact, and join us in, as it were, by certain mortices and joints with the rest of that holy frame, that being once fast coupled unto it, He may preserve us ever unto Himself. Therefore we find in Scripture that as the Church of God was never destitute of this workmanship, so likewise those whom His pleasure was to bring into the society of His chosen — they were framed thereby, and first felt the power and edge of the Word before they were linked together with God's people.

3. It followeth, an axe put to the root of the trees; that is (as I have expounded it), urged and applied to men's consciences, laid and pressed to the hearts of the hearers, For look what the root is unto the rest of the tree; the same is the heart to the whole man. Nathan the prophet laid the axe to the root when he told David, "Thou art the man." So did Elias, when he said to Ahab, "It is thou and thy father's house that have troubled Israel." So did Amos, when he preached at Bethel, the king's own chapel, the destruction of the king's own house. So did Hanani, when he said plainly to the king that he had done foolishly not to rest upon the Lord. So did Zachariah, when he told Joash he should not prosper if he forsook the Lord. So did John the Baptist, when he spake directly to the Pharisees, and called them a viperous generation, and when he told Herod to his face he might not have his brother's wife. So did Christ, when He preached woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, "Woe to Chorazin and Bethsaida." So did Peter, when he told the Jews, "You, I say, have crucified and slain the Lord of life." So did Paul, when he called them "foolish Galatians." It is to no purpose, as it were, to stand hacking at the branches, and to strike here and there upon the outward rind; but a man must go to the root, and knock at the door of every man's conscience, that every soul may tremble, and men at the least may be convinced against the day of reckoning. "If thou doest not well," saith God unto Cain, "sin lieth at the door." Sin is like a cruel beast, which lieth sleeping at the door of every man's heart. It must be awaked and stirred up, that men may see their danger.

(S. Hieron.)

"The axe is laid unto the root of the trees" in the East with a significance which we can hardly understand in the West. It is not merely because the tree cumbers the ground in a physical sense; to even shade-trees-trees of any sort — are greatly to be desired throughout the Holy Land. But the fruit-trees are all taxed; and if unfruitful, they are a heavy incumbrance. If a tree bears no fruit, it brings its proprietor in debt, and that to the most merciless of creditors, a tax-farmer. Some four years ago, when the taxes were heavy and the olive product light, multitudes of olive-trees were cut down on the spurs of Lebanon. It was cutting off the owners' means of support in the future; but that was still in the future, and uncertain. In the immediate present, all that the proprietor could see was cruelty, oppression, and taxes. Future starvation was not a heavier burden than present hunger, with debt as a load above it. It is probable that this is just the same sort of cumbering the ground which was the troublesome one in old times. Space could be spared in the ground for a tree whose only use was ornament; wild trees are still allowed for that purpose; but a fruit-tree which bore a tax is quite a different matter, and probably was so then. The fruit-trees paid a religious tithe; and the secular government could scarcely have been less exacting. The tax on fruit-trees, too, is a heavy one. Read any recent work on the political condition of Egypt, and see how much every palm must pay. Travellers are often surprised at the extra charges which they have to pay — more than the natives — for the use of a horse or a boat; but they forget that the Government is on the look-out for those who own the boat or the horse, and is apt to get the lion's share of all such seeming extortions.

(Professor Isaac H. Hall.)

When we lay the axe to the root of the tree — when we hew off men's very members, when we snatch them like brands out of the fire, when we make them to see their own faces in the law of liberty, the face of a guilty, and therefore cursed, conscience — there will be need of much boldness. A surgeon who is to search an inveterate wound, and to cut off a putrified member, had not need to be faint-hearted, or bring a trembling hand to so great a work.

(Bishop Reynolds.)

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