John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I am is coming – I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”
Luke 3:16 – 17 NET
(See also the parallel in Matthew 3:12.)
John the Baptist was answering people who asked if he was the Christ. In his response he wasn’t just denying that he was the Christ… he was pointing forward to the Christ and (more importantly) what the Christ would do. On the surface his metaphor appears to be saying that the Christ would separate the wheat (the useful people) from the chaff (the useless people). Without digging any deeper this seems like it would apply to the whole world, and one would assume that God’s people, the Jews, were already “in”. But is there more to the story? I haven’t been able to find anything about this in any commentary I have so this is just my observation, take it or leave it. YMMV.
We’re not supposed to read too far into metaphors because they eventually break down. But looking a little deeper at the metaphor I think it gets a little richer and tells a little more specifically of what the Christ would do. John didn’t just talk about separating wheat from chaff; notice that said the Christ would “clean out his threshing floor”. I wonder, does God even HAVE a threshing floor? (God, as the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, owns everything… but does he have a threshing floor that he “owns” in a more specifically literal sense outside of his ownership of the whole cosmos?)
It turns out that he does. When David took the census and God punished him, the place where God told the angel to stop the plague was the threshing floor of man named Arauna (2 Samuel 24:16). God told David to build an altar there, and in response to David’s sacrifice on that altar God stopped the plague.
Then what became of that location? In 2 Chronicles 3:1 we learn that this is the site where Solomon would build a house for God, the Temple.
This depth of the metaphor is likely lost on modern readers. But I don’t think it would have escaped John the Baptist’s listeners, identified in Matthew 3:7 as Pharisees and Sadducees, men who took pride in knowing their Scriptures inside and out. If the Christ was going to separate the wheat from the chaff in his Temple, who was he talking about? Who was allowed inside the Temple? That’s right… ONLY JEWS. John wasn’t focusing on the Christ judging the Gentiles or the “other people”. I’d argue that that message would be unbecoming of a prophet because it would be too comfortable for John’s listeners. It is what they already believed. I believe that John was saying, as the Christ would soon say, that not all Jews were right with God and that God would judge the Jews, the people who always had his word and should know better, first.
As is common throughout the Bible, God’s prophet spoke directly AGAINST his listeners, and that should remind us to examine ourselves as opposed to pointing the finger at the “other guys” like modern day Pharisees and Sadducees.