Chapter 3 of Matthew’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist. “In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,” saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew explains that John is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke (Matthew 3:3); he is the one who would prepare the way of the Lord’s coming. That is, John is sent out ahead of the Lord Jesus Christ to call people to repentance and to look to Christ for salvation.
This is John’s purpose. As a prophet sent by God, he preaches the Law in order to bring people to repentance to prepare them to receive the Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ. John is totally dedicated to preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight so that people may receive the Good News of Christ, the forgiveness of sins.
And John is drawing many people to him, who are being baptized by him and confessing their sins. This baptism of John’s is something new. The Jews of the time had many ritual washings. The priests had to wash before their temple service, and everyone was expected to wash before eating. Converts to the faith – called proselytes – had to undergo a baptism before entering into the faith. But here John is baptizing Jews, which was something new. His baptism serves as a demonstration that all people, Jews included, need to be washed clean of their sins. All people need to repent and be turned from sin; all people need Christ for salvation.
So, the point to the Jews of John’s baptism is that they could not trust in their ancestry to be saved. They couldn’t rely on their descent from Abraham. John makes this point clear to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him. He calls them a brood of vipers and asks them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. That’s pretty harsh, but John wanted to get the point across that they too had to repent and trust not in themselves, but rather in Christ to be saved. For “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
It is not physical descent that makes someone a child of Abraham. Jesus makes this point in chapter 8 of the apostle John’s Gospel and St. Paul makes the point also in chapters 3 and 4 of his epistle to the Romans. All those who have faith in Christ are children of Abraham. It is God that does this; it is God who makes children of faith. So, it’s not physical descent that makes someone a part of the Church Israel; instead, it is faith in Christ, and this faith is a gift from God.
John also says that judgment is imminent and that every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).
To bear good fruit it is necessary to be a good tree. Jesus says later in Luke’s Gospel, “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43-44). Jesus uses a similar analogy in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel where he compares himself to a vine and his disciples to the branches on the vine.
The point is that we produce good fruit because we are grafted onto Christ. He is the one who makes us as a good tree through faith and then everything else flows from this. Thus, our good works flow from our faith in Christ. And these good works, these good fruits, are for the benefit of those around us. Since we have been justified by God’s grace, apart from any works of our own, we are now freed to look out for our neighbor. God has no need of our good works, but our neighbors do, and we have been freed to benefit our neighbor through our works. As we carry out our vocations which God has given us in the world, our fruit benefits His creation.
So, we trust not in our works to be saved, since our works are the result of what God has done for us. Nor do we trust in our ancestry or physical descent to be saved. And, in fact, we do not trust in anything residing in us to be saved. Instead, we are pointed outward to look to another from whom our salvation comes.
And this, again, is the mission of John the Baptist. He points us to the one through whom we are saved. He points us to the Lord who is coming and has, in fact, come: Jesus Christ. This is the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: a shoot from the stump of Jesse, a branch from his roots that has borne fruit (Isaiah 11:1-10).
And even as Jesus is man, descended from the line of Jesse and his son king David, he is also God. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon him” (Isaiah 11:2); he was conceived of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. He is both fully God and fully man, the eternal Word of God come in the flesh. And he has brought with him righteousness for his people, and will return to bring judgement for those who are not his people. He will “stand as a signal for the peoples;” he has been raised up to draw all people to himself through his cross. Yet, “his resting place shall be glorious,” because he has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven and sits now at the right hand of the Father (Isaiah 11:10). His resting place is with the Father until he returns in power and glory.
So, this Lord Christ is the one to whom all the prophets pointed the Church Israel to look for. The eyes of God’s faithful people were not directed inward at themselves, but rather outward at the Christ who was to come. Here in Matthew’s Gospel this Lord Christ is coming, and John the Baptist has been sent ahead to prepare his way.
John’s message is a word of warning that the Lord is able to cut down the bad trees at the very root, to remove them from the land. John says, “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 with fire. 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.”
In the ancient world, and even in some places today, people would use a large forked tool – a winnowing fork – to separate the chaff from the wheat. Basically, they take the wheat stalks and beat them and toss them in the air to allow the wind to carry off the lighter chaff – which was basically the refuse on the stalk – while the good wheat remained. This allowed them to get the wheat grains while removing the bad parts of the stalk. The chaff wasn’t meant to remain, while the wheat was stored up since it was the cherished part. So, people used what were called threshing floors to do this separation, which were basically flat spots of land in a place with some good wind. In fact, the temple in Jerusalem was built on a threshing floor.
So, John compares the good and the bad to the wheat and the chaff. Those baptized with the Holy Spirit are the good wheat, because they have been baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, given the forgiveness of sins that comes as a result of what Christ has done, and bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit to give them faith in this promise. Those baptized with fire are the chaff, because they remain outside of faith and are burned up in the judgement. So, John notes that the wheat will be gathered up to be saved, while the chaff will be burned in the fire.
John kinda expects this all to be imminent. He expects the judgment and separation of the faithful and the unfaithful – the wheat and the chaff – to come soon. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” and “his winnowing fork is in his hand,” he says.
And yet, this judgement and separation has not yet happened. We still live in a world with sin and death, with the chaff still among us. We live in the span of time between the first coming of Christ in the manger and his return in power and glory to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is the time of Christ’s hidden advent where he is veiled in Word and Sacrament. This is the time that we have been given to proclaim God’s Word of Law and Gospel to all people, to call them to repentance with the Law and forgive them of their sins with the Gospel. We continue the work that Isaiah, the prophets, John the Baptist, the apostles, and all the saints engaged in – that is, pointing people to Christ – until the day of Christ’s return.
For God is gracious and wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), so God is delaying His winnowing judgment. Christ came the first time to deal with sin by dying and rising for us. He came to begin the healing and restoration of all creation. And he is with us now in Word and Sacrament as he continues these acts of healing and restoration by bringing us to faith in him, giving us his righteousness as a gift that justifies us before God, gathering us together as a community of faith around him, and reconciling us to God and each other. And he gives this community, His Church, the commission to go among all nations and proclaim His Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins and restoration to God that comes through Christ.
And so this Gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations so as to expand the harvest of God. When Jesus Christ returns on the Last Day he will end the growing season and bring in his harvest to separate the wheat from the chaff. The chaff will be cast out of his creation so that only the wheat remains. Then, what Isaiah spoke of will be completely fulfilled as all of God’s creation is in peace, and you will remain with Christ in his newly restored creation.
Even now, you have been brought into this promise with the seal of the Holy Spirit. You have been baptized by him into this promise, given the Lord’s righteousness as your own, and fed with the Lord’s body and blood to keep you in this promise.
So, when Christ returns you need not fear whether or not you are the wheat or the chaff. You are the wheat. You can be sure of it, because God promises that you are, and this promise is for you, all of you. You have been freely forgiven by God through Christ, made children of Abraham by faith, and promised that you will dwell with the Lord and each other forever. And Christ is returning to fulfill this promise he has made to you.
(Image from Public Domain – John the Baptist. 1st half of the 18th c. Wood, tempera. The Prachystsienskaya Church, Dubieniets, Stolin district, Brest region. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Іаан_Хрысціцель._Дубенец.jpg )