“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.”
This is a sobering verse. It’s John the Baptist answering questions about whether or not he is the Christ. And he’s saying, “No, I’m not. I’m pointing you to the Christ, to the one who will baptize you, not just with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
And then this description: 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. The meaning here is unquestionably clear. Jesus divides all people into two categories: those who trust in him, he welcomes into his father’s house for eternity. He gives eternal, abundant life reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, adopted as a child of God. These are all gifts, rewards, grace that is given through trust in Jesus.
This verse shows us the severity of not trusting in Jesus for salvation. May we spend our lives proclaiming the gospel that many will be gathered into His barn to enjoy Him forever and ever.
And then those who turn from Jesus, those who do not trust in Jesus will burn, John the Baptist says, with unquenchable fire and so we have this picture from the very beginning of Luke and we will see it all throughout Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Luke, then in the rest of the New Testament, this picture of unquenchable fire, that this is the destination for all those who do not trust in Jesus, an eternity and everlasting picture of fire that never goes out.
And people wonder, “Was that literal? Is hell a place of literal fire?” And it certainly seems to be a prevalent image that Jesus uses, that the Bible uses, to talk about hell. But even if, just for a second, even if hell is not literal fire, even if it’s symbolic, then what’s it a symbol for? A nice summer vacation or a wintry retreat? No, it’s a symbol for a horrifying place to be. Unquenchable fire is not a place, even if that’s symbolic, that you want to go to, it should bring no comfort to us that maybe it’s symbolic language. The whole point of a symbol is to express in words that which can’t be expressed in words.
Just let this soak in today, in a fresh way, in your heart, Jesus determines people’s eternity. Whether or not people trust in Jesus affects everlasting destiny, either in eternity with God in heaven, joy, and restoration and redemption and all things new and all things glorious or separation from God’s grace and love and mercy, experience of God’s judgment for all of eternity in what the Bible calls unquenchable fire.
God, help us to live with the urgency of eternity today. God, help us to realize that this is not a game, whether or not people trust in Jesus. And this is not just a matter of religious routine, this is life forever, either in everlasting joy or ever lasting suffering. God, give us your compassion, we pray, just as we see all over John the Baptist and Jesus, you are compassion for those who are a part from Jesus right around us.
God, give us the urgency, we pray, to share the gospel to people right around us, that they might be saved from sin, they might be saved from hell. God, we pray this for people right around us, we pray this for people far from us, from the Barwala people, Muslim people in Pakistan, over half a million of them, no known followers of Jesus all right now on a road that leads to unquenchable fire. God, please, please, please cause the gospel to go forward to the Barwala of Pakistan. Help us in our churches to send the gospel, to send laborers to give sacrificially so that the gospel would go to the Barwala in Pakistan.
God, we pray. We pray for the spread of eternal life in the gospel, through Jesus, right around us to people right around us that we work with and we live next to. God, please give us urgency to share the gospel with and give us boldness to share the good news of Jesus’ love for them, of life in Jesus, with him. God, please help us to do that today, this week, this urgency in evangelism, in sharing the gospel, help us to feel the weight of what we’re reading in Luke 3:17. Jesus will gather the wheat into his barn and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.