I’ve always particularly enjoyed Luke’s Gospel, because Luke is a Greek historian and I’m a bit of a history nerd myself. So as a historian, Luke begins his introduction of John the Baptist by detailing when John began his ministry (Luke 3:1-20). He notes who was ruling as emperor in Rome – Tiberius Caesar – who was governor of Judea – Pontius Pilate – who the tetrarchs were over the surrounding regions – Philip and Herod Antipas and Lysanias – and who was serving as high priest in Jerusalem – Annas and Caiaphas. All these details place the beginning of John’s ministry at 28 or 29 AD.
So at this time the word of God came to John and he went out to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John was calling people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:3). So, when he saw the crowds who came out to him to be baptized in the Jordan River he warned them not to trust in their ancestry. They could not rely on the fact that they were children of Abraham, because “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
It is not physical descent that makes someone a child of Abraham. Jesus makes this point in chapter 8 of 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. So, it’s not physical descent that makes someone a part of the Church Israel; it is faith, 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.
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” (John 6:43-44). Jesus also uses another analogy in chapter 15 of John’s Gospel where he compares himself to a vine and his disciples to the branches on the vine. You produce good fruit because you are grafted onto Christ.
The crowds also ask John, “What then shall we do?” In response, John urges them to share with one another and take care of each other. Since we have been justified by God’s grace, we are now freed to look out for our neighbor. Our good fruit that we produce, our good works that we do, are for the benefit of our neighbor.
What follows next in the text flows from all this. For then the tax collectors and soldiers also ask John what they are to do. The Jews of this time hated the tax collectors and soldiers, because they were seen as instruments of Roman control, and the Jews hated the Romans, wanting to get rid of them from their territory. But, notice what John says and doesn’t say. He doesn’t say to the tax collectors and soldiers that they have to quit these vocations in order to be saved. No, instead he encourages them to be faithful in their vocations. To the tax collectors he says, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” And to the soldiers he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
John is telling them to fulfill their vocations dutifully and faithfully. For these vocations are of benefit to the neighbor. God has called us all into vocations, and we all have multiple vocations at the same time: parent, child, employer, employee, tax collector, soldier. Since we have been freely reconciled to God through Christ then we are free to carry out these vocations with concern for our neighbor. We help care and tend for God’s creation through our vocations, because these are tasks that are beneficial to the world. In the case of the tax collectors, they help to raise funds to keep civil government functioning. In the case of soldiers, they help to keep and enforce the peace and keep the country safe.
These are proper roles for God’s left hand realm of civil government, because God is in charge of all things. And He uses civil government to maintain order and peace in the world, because the world is fallen and contains all sorts of evil. Civil government helps to restrain this evil; that is its God-given task. And as a result of faithfully carrying out this task it also creates room for God’s right hand realm of the Church to operate. Even in the pagan, idolatrous Roman empire, the Roman government kept peace and order in the world that gave room for the Church to spread. Rome had cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates, built good roads, and maintained peace and order; these things allowed the apostles and disciples to spread throughout the empire to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, John encourages everyone in their vocations while also warning them not to depend upon works or genealogy to be saved; for God is able to raise up children for Abraham from the very rocks. God makes children of Abraham through faith in Christ.
And since the people were looking for the coming of the Christ, they wondered if John might be the Christ. John explained that he is not, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John says that the coming Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He then says that the Christ will separate the wheat from the chaff.
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 refuge on the stalk – while the good wheat remained. This allowed them to get the wheat grains while removing the bad parts of the stalk. People used what were called threshing floors to do this, 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 Christ’s death and resurrection, given the forgiveness of sins that comes as a result of what Christ has done, and bestowed the fire of the Holy Spirit to give them faith in this promise. They will remain, 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. But, even though Christ has come, the judgment and separation has not yet arrived. There is a span of time between the first coming of Christ and his return to separate the wheat from the chaff.
This is why John, after he is arrested, later sends messengers to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This is related in Luke chapter 7. John proclaimed the coming of Christ, he pointed people to him, and yet later he wonders if Jesus really is the Christ. It’s because he thought that Christ would bring his judgment with him. But, Jesus answered John’s messengers by healing people and then telling them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus quotes from Isaiah’s prophecies concerning him and does the acts that Isaiah said that the Christ would do. Then, he tells John’s messengers to return to John to tell him what they saw with their own eyes: Jesus the Christ healing and restoring his creation. The judgment will have to wait.
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 has delayed the judgment and separation. 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, gathering together a community 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. You will remain with Christ in his newly restored creation. You have been brought into this promise with the seal of the Holy Spirit. You have been baptized by him into this promise 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. 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. Amen.
(Image: The Preaching of St. John the Baptist. By Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41616896).