“trees” is the figure of speech hypocatastasis (E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible), and in this context “trees” are people, and in fact the word “trees” is often used for the powerful people in the society (Judges 9:8-15; Song of Solomon 2:3; 7:8; Isa. 56:3; Ezek. 17:22-24; Dan. 4:10, 20-22; Zech. 4:3-14; 11:1-3; Rom. 11:16-24). In this context, John the Baptist is talking to the religious leaders of the Jews, who certainly considered themselves to be high and mighty, and the pillars of the community, so John’s reference to “trees” is certainly warranted. There are times when a tree is used for a nation (Ezek. 31:2-9), but that is not the case in this context, because nations are judged by God by what happens in and to them, but only people are judged in the future Judgment.
[For more on the religious leaders at John’s baptism, see commentary on Matt. 3:7. For an explanation of the figure of speech hypocatastasis, see commentary on Revelation 20:2].
“will be cut down.” The Greek is the present perfect form of the verb ekkopto (#1581 ἐκκόπτω), and “is cut down” is a very literal translation in this context, which involves “trees.” This verse can be confusing because the present tense of the verb “is cut down,” makes it seem like the cutting is being done now, when in fact the cutting is actually future, at God’s Judgment. This is clear even from the first part of the verse which notes that the cutting has not begun, but the axe has been placed down near the root of the trees in preparation for the cutting.
Translators recognize the confusion that the “is” can cause, and thus some versions actually transpose the present tense to a future tense in their translations, using “will be cut down” (HCSB; NIV; NJB; Moffatt; REV). Although the present tense verb is used, the cutting will be done in the future. This is the idiom some scholars refer to as the “prophetic present,” and it takes an event that is future but certain to happen and coming soon, and treats it as if it is present. The present tense verb being used for an event that is future is also referred to as the futuristic present (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 535-36). Writing in the prophetic present typically emphasizes either the certainty and inevitability of something happening in the future, or the fact that the event will occur very soon. Other examples of the prophetic present include Matthew 3:10; 17:11; Mark 9:31; 1 Corinthians 15:26; 16:5; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:9, 11. The prophetic present idiom is closely related to the prophetic perfect idiom (see commentary on Eph. 2:6, “prophetic perfect”).
“and thrown into the fire.” John is giving these leaders a very serious warning. God expects people to have faith in Him, obey Him and do good works, and those who do not are in danger of being thrown into Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, which is the “second death” and is everlasting death (Rev. 20:14-15). [For more on annihilation in the Lake of Fire, see Appendix 5, “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire”].