11 “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. 12 His winnowing fork is 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 ESV)
John’s baptism was a baptism for repentance. Repentance (μετάνοια; metanoia) means a change within the inner man. It is God wrought change in the soul of the individual. Repentance may mean four things in Scripture.
First, repentance can refer to forsaking wickedness. Second, repentance may be synonymous with conversion. Third, repentance can refer to a way of life for the believer in Christ. Finally, repentance can refer to a time when a believer in Christ, or even a church, returns to God after a period of time of cold or lifeless faith.
Today’s text not only mentions John’s baptism of repentance but also two others; a baptism with/or by the Holy Spirit and with fire. In this preaching, John directed the crowd’s attention away from himself and placed it upon the coming Messiah; Jesus Christ. John strongly expressed that he was unworthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit involved those who God converts by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone (I Cor. 12:13). The baptism of fire may well refer to the judgment of God upon unbelievers (Psalm 1:5-6).
The metaphor of the winnowing fork supports this concept of judgment, or separation. The winnowing fork was the tool farmers used for tossing grain so that the chaff was blown away (Matt. 13:24-30). Therefore, John was saying that the separation of the repentant from the unrepentant would begin with the advent of the Messiah.
Believers in Christ are likened to wheat. Unbelievers are compared to the chaff that will be burned with fire. Chaff (ἄχυρον; achyron) is the dry, scaly protective casing of the seeds of cereal grains or similar fine, dry, scaly plant material. Chaff is indigestible by humans, but livestock can eat it. In agriculture it is used as livestock fodder, or is a waste material ploughed into the soil or burned.
I liken chaff to the residual dust in the air when farmers harvest their sow bean crops in northern Indiana. The beans are thrown into the truck containers but the chaff blows into the air.
The harvest has begun. Jesus is Lord of the harvest (Matt. 9:35-38).
Soli deo Gloria!