Who are the “vipers” of the New Testament Scriptures?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Who exactly are these “vipers,” and why are they so called?

  • Matthew 3:7: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
  • Luke 3:7: “Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
  • Matthew 12:34: “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”
  • Matthew 23:33: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”

“Vipers” is, of course, metaphorical. These are flesh-and-blood humans like us, not cold-blooded reptiles with forked tongues and scaly bodies. (Surely, we are using common sense here, right?) Yet, a figure of speech does not detract from the truth being conveyed in the Scripture. For example, our English expression, “He is a snake,” is non-literal and carries the idea of “treacherous; an insidious enemy.” A related idea is, “She is a snake in the grass.” This appellation denotes someone who feigns friendship, an opponent who pretends to be an ally. Another similar English idiom is, “to nourish a viper in one’s bosom”—to befriend a person who proves to be treacherous. Again, metaphorical language in the Bible does not deny a literal truth underlying the expression. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says the following concerning these “vipers” (Greek, “echidna”) of the New Testament Scriptures: “cunning, malignant, wicked men.”

The idea of snakes in Scripture finds its origin in Genesis chapter 3: “[1] Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? [2] And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: [3] But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. [4] And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: [5] For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. [6] And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. [7] And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons…. [13] And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”

We compare this to 2 Corinthians 11:3: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (cf. Ephesians 4:14). Also, Revelation 12:9: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” Finally, Revelation 20:2: “And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,….” The “serpent” of Genesis chapter 3 was Satan himself—pretending to be a friend but nothing more than a sneaky enemy. Likewise, the Lord Jesus Christ addressed the Israeli religious leaders in John 8:44: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” In other words, they are working in tandem with Satan. They are his children because their spirit is united with him—but looks are deceiving because they appear godly (see Matthew chapter 23)!

Ephesians chapter 2 says of lost people, including Israel’s unbelieving religious leaders during Christ’s earthly ministry: “[1]…. who were dead in trespasses and sins; [2] Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: [3] Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”

Now, we turn to 2 Corinthians chapter 4: “[3] But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: [4] In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” Satan uses works-religion to blind and confuse individuals even now. This was true of Israel’s religious leaders 20 centuries ago during Christ’s earthly ministry. It was true of Cain back in Genesis chapter 4, for apostate religion is what drove Cain to kill his brother Abel! “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). Apostate religionists murdered God’s other prophets throughout the Old Testament—and the adherents of this corrupt religious system eventually put Christ on the cross as well (Luke 11:45-54)! They all hid under the guise of religion; their piety was faked. Pretending to love the Bible and claiming to worship God, they rejected God’s Son and crucified Him in rank unbelief. They were “vipers” indeed!


Considering what has gone before, we now understand the Apostle Paul’s bizarre encounter with a literal snake in the opening verses of Acts chapter 28.

“[1] And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. [2] And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold. [3] And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. [4] And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live. [5] And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm. [6] Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.”

Why did the Holy Spirit deem it essential to include this in the record of Scripture? We must remember the purpose of the Book of Acts. It is not, as commonly assumed, a book of doctrine; rather, Acts is the record of God being just or fair in temporarily setting aside apostate national Israel. The unbelieving Jewish religious leaders that so vehemently opposed Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry are still rebelling against Him—that is, His Apostles—during the Acts period. Whether the 12 Apostles during the first half of Acts, or the Apostle Paul during the latter half, Israel refuses to listen to any and all of these men filled with the Holy Spirit.

First Thessalonians chapter 2 thus remarks: “[14] For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judæa are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: [15] Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: [16] Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.”

The nation Israel fell back in Acts chapter 7, when she stoned God’s spokesman Stephen. She is fallen at the time of 1 Thessalonians 2:16 (written around Acts chapter 18, for Paul visited Thessalonica in chapter 17). Another passage to consider here is Romans chapter 11, penned in the opening verses of Acts chapter 20: “[11] I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. [12] Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness? [13] For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: [14] If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.”

Again, Israel fell in Acts chapter 7, and she diminished until the close of the Acts period. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle in chapter 9, his ministry overlapping with Israel’s fading. If we go back to the literal viper latching onto Paul’s hand in chapter 28, we see a picture of apostate Israel attacking him throughout the Acts period. His unbelieving countrymen plotted to arrest and kill him many times over a period of 30 years. Yet, Almighty God would not let him be destroyed. Even during dangerous and seemingly hopeless circumstances, Paul’s ministry continued. The viper—though venomous—could not annihilate God’s apostle of the Gentiles. Unbelieving Israel, under Satan’s control, under the Serpent’s influence, was unsuccessful in stopping the Gospel of Grace from spreading worldwide! Unharmed Paul, shaking off the viper into the fire, depicts God’s Apostle throwing off apostate Israel into the fires of Divine judgment. Paul’s provoking ministry to Israel—his Acts ministry—terminates at the end of that chapter.

Also see:
» Why does the Book of Acts end so abruptly?
» What about snake-handling?
» What about the “talking snake” in Genesis 3?
» Can you explain Paul’s “Acts” ministry?
» Who were “the strong bulls of Bashan?”
» Is Israel “fallen,” or not? Is Israel “cast away,” or not?