The Winnowing Fork
Matthew 3:12 – “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 3:7 But when he (John the Baptist) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (8) “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; (9) 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. (10) “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. (11) “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. (12) “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.”
Jesus had His winnowing fork at the time when John the Baptist announced His arrival. There is a sense of the present, and immediate future: The axe is already laid at the root of the trees…His winnowing fork is in His hand…
Question: From a straightforward reading of the text, was the winnowing process imminent, or something left for the distant future, thousands of years away?
Winnowing was the process of separating the (good) wheat from the (useless) chaff. The winnowing fork was the tool used to do this. Most importantly, winnowing was carried out after the harvest of the wheat.
This process of separation after the harvest was again used by Jesus Himself :
Matthew 13:24 – Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. (25) “But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. (26) “But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. (27) “The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ (28) “And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ (29) “But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. (30) ‘Allow both 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.”’”
The wheat would be gathered into the barn. Whatever was useless would be destroyed.
Matthew 13:39 – “…and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels .”
Were John and Jesus referring to two different harvests? We believe not. And yet the harvest, the end of the age, and the winnowing that would follow it, were what Jesus came to Earth to initiate then, not in our future.
Matthew 9:37 – Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
Matthew 9:38 – “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
John 4:35 – “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.”
Some common objections:
The harvest is a process that started then and continues now, until the end.
It is not enough to say that the harvest would be a process going on for thousands of years, since Jesus did not have a sickle in his hand (the harvesting tool), but the winnowing fork. What Jesus was ready to do then, would be done after the harvest.
The winnowing process of separation is also a process that started then, and continues even now.
I have seen this in some of the commentaries on this verse, that the winnowing was and is a separation process begun by Jesus and continued by the preaching of the gospel. However, winnowing is begun post-harvest. It is not an on-going separation that would illustrate the type of separation that the gospel performs. It is a major step that follows the harvest. The harvest is the end of the age. Therefore winnowing is begun after the end of the age.
We believe that John’s illustration pertains to the same event that Jesus’s did in Matthew 13: the separation of righteous from unrighteous at the end of the age. However John’s illustration portrays Jesus as ready to perform such a separation very soon. He was ready to judge.
Indeed, Jesus Himself said as much in Luke 12:49-50 — “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished !” The only thing He was waiting for was His death and resurrection.
John the Baptist was warning the people of imminent judgement. It was then the time of the harvest. Very soon, the winnowing would take place, the wheat gathered into the barn, and the worthless stuff would be burnt up.
Matthew 23:36 – “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”