“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. 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

IN THIS PASSAGE, GOD’S FIRE IS EITHER A TREMENDOUS BLESSING or a frightful curse. The Baptist tells us that some people, those who don’t believe the gospel, are like chaff. They are worthless to God. God will consume them “with unquenchable fire.” But the saints, those who believe the gospel, repent of their sins, and bear appropriate fruit, will also experience fire, but this fire is a mega blessing. Mark refers to it as a “baptism” in the “Holy Spirit and fire.” Here is a strange paradox. God appears as a fire that consumes and blesses in the same passage. How should we understand this?

Above all things, the modern world values inclusivity. No one left out, whether gay, transgendered, white, Latino, or Black, everyone is to be included. But the Bible does not value inclusivity. Although God doesn’t want anyone left out, many will be. Instead, John the Baptist divides people into two groups, wheat and chaff.

John’s metaphor is from the agricultural world. Before the wheat could be eaten, the external chaff membrane needed to be removed. It was a laborious process, but when finished the nourishing wheat was stored in a barn and turned into bread. The rejected (and useless) chaff was put on a pile and burned.

In the same way, our response to the gospel identifies us as either wheat or chaff. John’s point is that both wheat and chaff experience fire but in entirely different ways.

The Fire of God

The chaff is completely consumed by an “unquenchable fire.” The idea behind this striking imagery is eternal suffering. The fire never dies and the chaff is never consumed. It is an unpleasant picture. It pains me to write about it, but the Holy Spirit has designed this word-picture to motivate us, so we dare not miss the point.

Surprisingly, the wheat also experiences God’s fire. But, instead, it is a “Baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire.” John is thinking ahead to the Day of Pentecost when tongues of “fire” rested on the early church. In this case the fire is positive. It purifies the sinner. It comforts him. It generates new life. It is a reward. It is a burning flame of holy zeal, imparting a zealous faith that is ultimately fruitful.

What differentiates the wheat from the chaff is fruitfulness. Note that the chaff often believes the creed. It might even fill a pew on Sunday morning, but what exposes it to God’s fire is unfruitfulness. By contrast, God values the wheat precisely because it increasingly bears fruit, “and yields, in one case a hundredfold in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23). This is ultimately what makes the believer supremely valuable to God.

Ne one needs to be chaff. Jesus died to keep this from happening. So great is God’s love for the chaff that he sent his Son in the likeness of chaff. Figuratively speaking, on the cross he took the judgment our unfruitfulness deserves. He was consumed by the fire of God so that we could receive the fire of God’s love that he earned and deserves.

“Our God Is A Consuming Fire “

Hebrews 12:29

So which are you? The stakes are high. In the end there are only two types of people. Those who delight in the fire of his love, and those who suffer the fire of his eternal judgment.

You can never be good enough to merit this immeasurable blessing. You get it simply believing this Good News and turning from your sins in repentance.

With this in mind, Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).