“You offspring of vipers, who has intimated to you to flee from the coming wrath?”—MATT. 3:7.
WHAT do you think of when you hear the word “flee”? Some may see in their mind’s eye the handsome young man Joseph fleeing from the immoral grasp of Potiphar’s wife. (Gen. 39:7-12) Others might think of Christians who fled from Jerusalem in the year 66 C.E., obeying Jesus’ warning: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then . . . let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of her withdraw.”—Luke 21:20, 21.
The examples mentioned above involved fleeing in a literal way. Today, for true Christians in almost every land around the globe, there is an urgent need to flee in a figurative way. John the Baptist used the word “flee” in such a sense. Among those coming to see John were self-righteous Jewish religious leaders who felt no need to repent. They looked down on the common people who were getting baptized in symbol of repentance. Fearlessly, John exposed those hypocritical leaders: “You offspring of vipers, who has intimated to you to flee from the coming wrath? So then produce fruit that befits repentance.”—Matt. 3:7, 8.
John was not speaking of a physical flight. He was warning of a coming judgment, a day of wrath; and he put the religious leaders on notice that if they were to escape during that day, they would need to produce fruit that proved their repentance. Later, Jesus fearlessly denounced the religious leaders—their murderous attitude showed that their real father was the Devil. (John 8:44) Strengthening John’s earlier warning, Jesus called them “offspring of vipers” and asked: “How are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna?” (Matt. 23:33) What did Jesus mean by “Gehenna”?
Gehenna was a valley area outside the walls of Jerusalem where rubbish and the carcasses of dead animals were burned. Jesus used Gehenna as a symbol of eternal death. (See page 27.) His question about escaping from Gehenna showed that those religious leaders as a class were fit for everlasting destruction.—Matt. 5:22, 29.
The Jewish leaders compounded their sins by persecuting Jesus and his followers. Later, as John and Jesus had warned, God’s day of wrath came. In that case, “the coming wrath” was centered on one particular locale, Jerusalem and Judea, so it could have been possible to flee in a literal way. The wrath was expressed when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by Roman armies in 70 C.E. That “tribulation” was greater than anything Jerusalem had ever experienced. Many were killed or taken captive. This pointed to a greater destruction that awaits many professed Christians and those of other religions.—Matt. 24:21.