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Mathew 3 10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

What was John referring to as the root of the trees? It seems to be a single root but out of it are many trees. How do you understand this verse?

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    An astute comment regarding the singular root and the plural trees. (Up-voted +1.) My mind cannot avoid being prompted in the direction of 'I am the vine, ye are the branches' and the consequence of not abiding in the vine. – Nigel J Apr 7 at 11:16
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The answer to this question is in the previous three verses, Matt 3:7-9 of which V10 is the summary and conclusion:

7 But when John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his place of baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit, then, in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

Thus, John the Baptist was warning the Jewish leadership, Pharisees and Sadducees, against their theological and spiritual arrogance and surly superiority. Then he bluntly warns them that just because they were the chosen people does not guarantee their salvation - God could raise up others in their place if needed!!

He then concludes using a common idiom of a tree symbolizing people:

The axe lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

That is, God has the axe raised and ready to cut down the chosen people and raise up others for the task unless you repent and "produce works in keeping with repentance".

Ellicott offers these comments:

The ax is laid unto the root of the trees.—The symbolism which saw in “trees” the representatives of human characters, of nations, and institutions, had been recognised in Isaiah’s parable of the vine (Isaiah 5:1-7), in Jeremiah’s of the vine and the olive (Jeremiah 2:21; Jeremiah 11:16), and the Baptist’s application of it was but a natural extension. Judgments that were only partial or corrective were as the pruning of the branches (John 15:2). Now the axe was laid to the root, and the alternative was preservation or destruction. For the unfruitful tree there was the doom of fire.

This is a very sobering thing. Jesus said something very similar later in His ministry in Matt 21:43 -

"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

Again, we have the same idea in Matt 23:37, 38 -

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Look, your house is left to you desolate.

Jesus like the metaphor of the plants symbolizing people as He uses it again, with the same idea in the parable of the vine as per John 15:1-8. Note V2 -

He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, and every branch that does bear fruit, He prunes to make it even more fruitful.

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Matthew 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This is how I imagine the symbolism. It is not about pruning. The trees symbolize people and institutions, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. The singular root binds and places in the same boat everyone that does not produce good fruit. John the Baptizer is talking about the wholesale destruction of bad characters. E.g., the Sadducee institution has completely disappeared and been replaced by other children of Abraham which now include the gentiles. The unfruitful are doomed to the fire.

Hebrews 6:8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

What did John mean in Mathew 3:10 the axe is laid on to the root of trees?

The axe aims at the singular root for the wholesale destruction of unfruitful people.

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