“I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork in in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
I grew up in the country, the grandson of a beefmaster farmer, so I know a little bit about agriculture. I remember nummerable summers hauling hay bales onto the back of a truck and trailer, stacking them high and building forts. I remember picking a long stemmed grass with wheatlike fruit on the end and chewing on it while we worked the fields. The green stem of the grass was the chaff and the seeds would branch off near the top of the chaff in multiple directions but looked like wheat, but it was not. When this grass would age, it would even look like wheat at first glance, with its beige hue. This would eventually be cut down with the rest of the hay field and included into the bales that we would provide for the cattle to eat. It was a good source of protein for them, but not really something fit for human consumption. This was what is commonly known in scripture as tares.
When harvesting wheat for the grain stores in Biblical times, once the wheat was brought into the storehouse, a worker would take what is called a winnowing fork to harvest the grains of the wheat and separate it from the chaff so that it might be processed into flour for bread and other wheat-based products. A winnowing fork is essentially a primitive form of pitchfork where the harvester would pick up wheat, toss it into the air, and the wind would then separate the smaller wheat grains from the chaff. Once the wheat grains were separated, then the chaff was removed from the harvesting floor and thrown out into the fire since it was no longer of any use.The fruit of the wheat chaff – the grain – would then be used for multiple purposes, but primarily it would be ground into flour and then used for making bread.
In our Scripture today, we begin with the baptism of water. In the ministry of John the Baptist, the immersive baptism was symbolic of the washing away of our sins as a result of individual confession and repentance. The act was a total immersion within the water as a means of ensuring complete cleansing from head to toe so that no part of the body was left dry and unclean. The symbolism of baptism changed after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ to represent believers being buried with Christ and raised again to new life (Romans 6:4).
But John mentioned a different baptism by Jesus whereas He would baptize us with the person of the Holy Spirit and with fire, a spiritual fire that will burn away the chaff, the useless parts of our lives that are no longer needed once the fruit of the Spirit has ripened for harvest – the fruit of repentance.
Additionally, in keeping with the context of John’s criticism and condemnation of the hypocritical religious leaders in the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Holy Spirit would in effect be the “winnowing fork” that would separate the good wheat from the tares. He would separate the good fruit from the waste.
The heart of repentance is one that demands and inspires holiness. Grace also demands and inspires holiness. Grace by definition is the imparting unto us that which we do not deserve. This definition implies that we deserve something much worse. Romans 6:23 declares “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The old Hebrew word for death and even the Greek word represent a separation from life. The root definition implies a separation in relationship, but the context implies a deeper separation – a broken relationship with our Creator. A relationship broken by our sin. But a relationship that can be restored supernaturally as a result of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
It’s not enough to simply pray a prayer of forgiveness and then go about your life unchanged. If you still bear no fruit of the transformative power of grace, it is because repentance has not taken root in order to bear that fruit. In which case, when the time of harvest comes and the grains of wheat are sifted from the chaff, which pile will your life end up on?
Will you remain on the threshing room floor so that you might undergo the transformation from wheat to bread? Sure, it’s going to be a painful grind, but the end product is what provides nourishment to a world starving for the Bread of Life.
Or will you be tossed in the wind with the remainder of the chaff, separated into the pile of waste, to be burned away and forever separated from the saving knowledge of a relationship with the harvester of souls? Yes, hell is a reality. The lack of belief is not evidence for the lack of existence. Like Pascal, I’d rather gamble on the reality of spending eternity in the arms of my Savior. For if I am wrong, and there is no hell, then I have lost nothing. But if I am right, and I choose to reject Him, then I have lost everything.