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 3:12 ESV)
In an agricultural society, such as the one in which the New Testament took place, farming metaphors painted vivid pictures of reality. And this is just what John the Baptist uses in his final comments to the hypocritical Jewish leaders to describe to them the future actions of the coming Messiah.
Various grain seeds, such as wheat, are encased in husks. The seeds are desirable because they are edible. These husks are undesirable because they are indigestible by humans. So farmers have to separate them using a process known as threshing.
Essentially, this entailed placing the wheat stalks on a threshing floor where the husks could be broken by using animals. The farmer would then use winnowing fork to pick up batches of the wheat and toss them into the air allowing the wind to carry away the broken husk (now known as chaff) but allowing the heavier seed, which the farmer wanted to keep, to fall back down to the ground.
In a similar way Jesus will someday separate those people who belong to Him from those who don’t. This will take place at the end of the world.
Notice John the Baptist used the present tense when talking about Jesus and His metaphorical winnowing fork – is in his hand. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, John the Baptist understood that the Messiah would judge all people. But like these prophets, he failed to understand that the Messiah would first come to be a sacrifice and that He would come back a second time to judge.
When Jesus came to earth 2,000 years ago He did not come to condemn; He came to save [John 3:17]. But He will return a second time [John 14:1-4; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. When He does He will establish a worldwide government over which He will preside. This government will last 1,000 years during which He will reign with absolute fairness and honesty – the first, and only, ruler ever to do so. After those 1,000 years (which is known as The Millenium) the earth will be destroyed and it will be time for judgement [Revelation 20:1-5; 12].
Notice that Jesus will clear his threshing floor. There will be no one who falls through the cracks. Every human being who ever lived will end up either in the barn or end up burnt with unquenchable fire. Those who think they will end up annihilated, or in purgatory or in some other not-quite-heaven-but-not-so-bad place are mistaken.
Those who belong to Jesus are His and end up in the safety of the metaphorical barn (heaven). The rest, who found Jesus undesirable, and who He in turn will find undesirable, end up removed from the blessing of His presence forever (we call that “hell”), like the chaff carried away by the wind.
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