Having emphasized so much how things that transpired fulfilled the prophets, Matthew presents John the Baptist in the same vein (Matt 3:3). The time right before a unique and unrepeatable event is a unique and unrepeatable time, if somehow we become aware that it is at hand (3:2). The blessing of John the Baptist to the nation was just such a thing.
It brought those who came to him, even the "brood of vipers," into a correct preparation for what the prophets had predicted, the kingdom of heaven, but John did not, nor could not, do that himself. God warned those who came, to flee from the wrath to come. That was the answer to John's question in 3:7.
The exhortation to them therefore is not a dare, as if John taunted those who came to him to bear fruit because they could not. "Therefore bear fruit..." Since God has warned them, John exhorts those God has thus warned to flee, to do this, and not be inert like stones, which nevertheless God can transform even though they are inert. God has warned, and therefore it is God who says something should be done, actions taken. They are not stones, but have been given their warning to act, which stones cannot do.
This flight from the wrath to come will be a success if a tree bears fruit. The axe is laid at the root of all trees, since the kingdom of heaven is at hand, but the fruit bearing tree will not be cut down and will not be thrown into the fire.
What is the fruit? Is it the repentance? No, but it, the fruit, is in keeping with repentance. It fits with repentance. It fits also with the flight from the wrath to come. Since they are in flight, having been warned by God no less than Joseph was in his situation (2:22), John commends and points them to the bearing of fruit, Fruit in keeping with repentance is fruit in keeping with their flight.
John associates himself and his baptism with repentance, but promises something which is very close now, which is much bigger. He who is coming will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
He had just talked about fire (3:10), before saying that (3:11). That which John prepares them for (the kingdom of heaven) is coming upon them, and "He who is coming after me" is going to immerse them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Whom? To whom will He who is coming after John do this? To those who came to John. So much the more, then, the call to bear fruit is urgent, since the one who is coming is the one who harvests the wheat and burns the chaff.
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