Jesus has been depicted in a number of ways. Love. Redeemer. Savior. Friend. Advocate. Mercy. All of these, and many more descriptions, are true. But one truth that we cannot forget is that He is just. And not simply just, but the embodiment of Justice itself.
I’ve been drawn to read through Matthew again, and one of the first things that John the Baptist says about the Messiah has caught my attention:
“As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:11-12 NASB
Fire. A small but powerful word used in numerous contexts. In this particular context I think fire has two meanings. First, fire purifies. If silver or gold is refined by fire this means that all of the impurities are burned away. In the same way, anyone who is a follower of Christ will not only be baptized with the Holy Spirit, an extraordinary gift, but he or she will be refined by fire. Fire is good because it gets rid of the impurities in our lives.
Second, fire destroys. Christ, with the winnowing fork in His hand, will save the wheat, those who are righteous. On the other hand, Jesus Himself will burn up the chaff, those who are wicked, with fire that can never be quenched. John the Baptist tells the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to be baptized, “‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’” (Matt. 3:7-10). In the context of vv. 10 and 12, fire is still good because it gets rid of the wicked: Those who bear bad fruit. Those who deny Christ as Lord and Savior. Those who actively work against God even though trying to look like sheep. Those who openly work against God.
What also stands out to me are the words “thoroughly clear.” The Greek word for this translation is διακαθαρίζω which occurs only once in all of Scripture. (In the Luke 3:17 account διακαθαίρω is an equivalent word for διακαθαρίζω.) The verb καθαρίζω means “to make clean” or “to cleanse” and is used 31 times in the NT and over 100 times in the Septuagint. I write all of this to point out that the rare occurrence of διακαθαρίζω indicates a more significant meaning. Christ isn’t simply cleansing something. He is thoroughly clearing HIS threshing floor. There is nothing left over. There is wheat. There is chaff. Nothing in between. No stragglers who hang in some sort of limbo (or purgatory). No gray areas. Similar analogies include the separation of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-33), the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), and the good and bad fish (Matt. 13:47-50).
All in all, John the Baptist sums up the Messiah’s ministry quite succinctly. First, He will come and baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire. This has already been accomplished through His death and resurrection. I believe that we are still being refined by fire—through various tests—as long as we are on this earth.
Second, John the Baptist reveals the end result of Jesus’ mission: the ultimate separation of the righteous and wicked. This will not happen until THE harvest, Christ’s return. Like the landowner tells his slaves in the parable of the wheat and tares, “Allow both (the wheat and tares) to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matt. 13:30). The landowner (a representation of Christ) didn’t want his servants to accidentally uproot the wheat with the tares (Matt. 13:29).
I don’t believe Christ desires anyone to perish. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). However, we also have to consider what Jesus says in Luke 18:7-8, “‘now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?’” What a question: Will He find faith upon the earth? May the Lord’s patience not be in vain!
Christ is the ultimate example of love. His mercy is evident in our own lives. But we cannot forget that He is just. When that moment of separation comes there is only right and left. The fire is not only reserved for those who have never chosen to follow Christ, but also for those who have fallen away. Hebrews describes this quite plainly:
“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” Hebrews 6:4-8
May we recognize that the Lord’s justice is good. Let us remain faithful and see that the harvest is plentiful. May we not be so entangled with the world that we forget Christ’s mission.
Christ’s justice will prevail!