Matthew 3:7 – But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
When looking at Matthew 1:19 we looked at Joseph’s righteousness, and that it caused him to desire to put Mary away quietly and not expose her to public disgrace. It appears that the very opposite is occurring here. You have Pharisees and Sadducees showing up to be baptized and John is exposing them to public disgrace, calling them a brood of vipers. One thing we ought to notice in Matthew 3:7 is this, “...he saw MANY of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming...” this was not an isolated Pharisee showing up for baptism, coming to confess sin. Reading this gives a sense that a group of religious leaders, and a large one at that, showed up to be baptized. We will see later in John’s gospel if we ever get there, that Jesus certainly shows compassion on the isolated Pharisee, Nicodemus, and even on the isolated Pharisee of Pharisees Saul of Tarsus later to be known as Paul. In this situation you have a crowd of religious leaders coming and John must publicly call the entire bunch a brood of vipers, not to place shame on any individual Pharisee or Sadducee, but to place shame on the whole ‘brood’ of them and the system they represented... or at least what they had made that system into.
It is very important to see that God deals kindly with individuals, at least in the sense that he extends mercy on an individual basis... of course when mercy and grace are rejected God will not deal kindly... at least at the judgment, nonetheless when Jesus is dining with and relating to sinners it is mercy he seeks. At the same time God rails against institutions that are not acting in accordance to his will. Thus the prophet John the Baptist rails against the Pharisees and Sadducees as a group. Why does he do this? To prepare the way for Jesus, just as it was prophesied he would do. The religious institution of the time need to be flattened and the way needed to be made straight, thus John the Baptist dealt harshly with it. His railing against the Pharisees and Sadducees was the very act of preparing a way in the wilderness and make straight the paths.
Again there is application to this. As Christians our battle is not with flesh and blood, but against the powers and forces of darkness. Our battle is not with the individuals but the forces behind them and above them. To expose a group to disgrace or to show the sinfulness of a group say the KKK is entirely in keeping with the scriptures, and there is precedent to do such a thing. At the same time to expose and individual, even an individual from the KKK to public disgrace without first dealing with them compassionately giving a chance for repentance is wrong. (I am saying this from a stand point of individual interaction, not speaking of forgiving in the court of law, or saying a person should not be turned in.) Of course we know that at some point an individual must be exposed but the first line of attack is mercy.
As you look at Matthew 3:7, you will not find John the Baptist calling the nominal people from Jerusalem a brood of vipers. Does that mean they were not wicked? Of course they were wicked and sinful, they came confessing their sins, moreover as far as devotion to God, the individual Pharisee or Sadducee was likely far more devout than the typical Jew. This is entirely a matter of an institution that must be labeled a brood of vipers in order to prepare the way for Jesus.