Burning Timber and Blazing Chaff

In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist speaks twice of fiery destruction. As fruitless trees and worthless chaff are both destined for the flames, so the unrepentant children of Abraham face what John calls “the coming wrath.” (Matthew 3:8) This post explores John the Baptist’s metaphors in the contexts of Old Testament prophecy and Matthew’s own kerygmatic framework.

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And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

Matthew 3:9-12

In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist speaks twice of fiery destruction. As fruitless trees and worthless chaff are both destined for the flames, so the unrepentant children of Abraham face what John calls “the coming wrath.” (Matthew 3:8) John is not saying anything new. His words follow very much in the line of prophets who went before him.

God’s promise to Abraham is not a blank check for Abraham’s descendants. As the covenant relationship between God and Abraham’s family developed throughout the ages – through Moses and the prophets – God established the expectation that his people would live holy and righteous lives. The prophets of the Lord denounced Israel’s sins and announced that he would judge the world in righteousness. Most of the prophets envisioned God’s judgment coming on the nation as a whole, often in the form of a military invasion. John the Baptist, on the other hand, emphasized God’s judgment of the individual.

In his first metaphor, John the Baptist describes God as being like the owner of an orchard who cuts down trees that no longer bear good fruit. The orchard metaphor recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah:

I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. Isaiah 5:1-7

John envisions God’s judgment somewhat differently than Isaiah. Yes, God will cut down trees which no longer bear good fruit. If they are no good as fruit-bearing trees, at least they can be useful as fuel for the furnace or the cooking fire. Left unspoken is the converse: the good, fruit bearing trees remain intact. In fact, the removal of the barren or diseased trees is good for the orchard. It is the individual tree – not the orchard as a whole – that bears the owner’s judgment for salvation or destruction.

John’s second metaphor comes from the wheat harvest. The farmer separates the wheat from the chaff by tossing the threshed grain into the air with a winnowing fork. The wind blows the lighter chaff away from center of the threshing floor, while the heavier grains of wheat fall back to the ground. The grain is collected; the chaff is burned.

John the Baptist’s use of the phrase “Holy Spirit” is a play on words. The same word that means “spirit” also means “wind”: ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek. Matthew, of course, would have heard John’s words as referring to the Holy Spirit, the same spirit by which the virgin conceived the messiah, by which Jesus endured temptation, by which Jesus cast out demons and into whose name disciples are baptized. In the Baptist’s usage, however, God’s spirit is an agent of judgment. It blows away the chaff so that it can be burned.

Here, John adds that the fire which burns the chaff is unquenchable. This is not the natural state of flaming chaff. It burns up quickly. In the confined space of a grain elevator, tiny particles of chaff are often explosive. John’s language is reminiscent of the last verse in the book of Isaiah the prophet:

As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord. And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Isaiah 66:22-24

In Isaiah, the image of the unquenchable fire stands as a permanent emblem of God’s justice. It is a perpetual reminder of the fate of those who brought misery and judgment on Israel, and it symbolizes humanity’s rejection of the evil doers. The dead rebels are treated with contempt instead of honor.

John’s use of fiery metaphors also points to irreversible destruction. There is no hint here of conscious eternal torment. The trees that are burned are destroyed, as are the bits of chaff blown into the fire. Eternal destruction is a sad end for any human being, but that is basically the fate which cold science says awaits us all – apart from the grace and power of God.

With all this talk of fiery judgment, Matthew’s readers may be confused by what comes next. Jesus is clearly the one “whose sandals [John] is unworthy to untie,” but Jesus doesn’t come chopping down bad trees or blowing the chaff of humanity into eternal fire. Like John, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He pleads with people to repent and he calls some fishermen to help him fish for people. He heals the sick and casts out demons. He preaches “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Certainly there are strong words of judgment in Jesus’ teaching, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. Like barren trees and inedible chaff, salt-less salt is destined to be discarded (Matthew 5:13). The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel has some of the harshest words of judgment recorded by any of the four evangelists. Matthew brings the teaching portion of his gospel to a close with the parable of the sheep and the goats. To the condemned, the king will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) Matthew begins with fire on the lips of John the Baptist. He concludes the teaching section of his gospel with fire on the lips of Jesus. One need not take fire as anything more than a metaphor of final judgment to feel the sharp edge of Matthew’s gospel.

Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel is the story of mercy more than it is the story of judgment. Jesus moves the kingdom’s call beyond John’s simple demand for repentance. In Jesus, God offers the power of the kingdom itself. Jesus embodies the father’s mercy and love for his children. Jesus’ works of power are signs of the kingdom’s presence, and his word makes forgiveness immediately real. Jesus himself is the focal point of both God’s offer of salvation and the penitent’s response to the Father’s mercy.

And while Matthew doesn’t give us enough information about the Baptist’s teaching for us to know exactly how John envisioned God’s coming wrath being executed, Matthew does give us considerably more information about Jesus’ point of view on the matter.

Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Matthew 24:30-31

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Matthew 25:31-32a

In Matthew, the framework of Jesus’ teaching is thoroughly apocalyptic. God’s final judgment for life or death takes place when the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory

When the Son of Man comes, some will be judged to be wheat while others will be judged to be chaff. Eternal destinies will be forever sealed. As I hear the Baptist’s words, however, I recognize that there is still both wheat and chaff within me. There are parts of me that need to be burned away and parts that need to be purified, preserved and completed. In this situation, I find my prayer in the words of Henry Alford’s great hymn Come Ye Thankful People, Come (which draws on another of Jesus’ parables).

All the world is God’s own field; fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade, and then the ear; then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away;
Give His angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come; bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come; raise the glorious harvest home.

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