Isaiah 40:3, as cited in Matthew 3, was fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptist. Isaiah promised a bulldozer of a man to build a proper road for the Messiah, “crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
In John’s day the imagery of carving a proper road might suggest leveling the dips and trimming the meandering corners. Not so—at least not in physical terms. Instead he faced a moral and spiritual challenge that called for strong words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The problem he and the Messiah, Jesus, faced were the meandering paths of religion in his day. Jewish hopes for the promised Messiah were still captured by wistful memories of David’s kingdom. David had been a pious and powerful king: famous for his Godly psalms; and for his ability to defeat all his enemies. So they longed for a Davidic king who could replace the Herodean and Roman rulers with God’s true kingdom. This was an easy aspiration to adopt since it represented security.
Memories of the glory days of Ezra and Nehemiah also would have defined that vision. These men had helped reestablish a temple-centered worship in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. And later there had been a brief era of relative independence under the Hasmonean clan—the Maccabees. And all they needed now was another strong leader to overthrow Romans and obey God’s laws.
The spiritual reforms of Ezra came with this vision. The Bible-composing scholars of Ezra’s era set out clear distinctions between good and evil kings in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
Yet, despite the great benefits in these books, a problem emerged. Their call to God-centered worship was often heard to be a call to behavior-centered religion. Jeremiah, in 2:13, warned against this as he charged Israel with carving broken cisterns of social morality while ignoring the living water God offered.
So by the time of John and Jesus the moralistic tendencies of the Pharisees were dominant. Alternatively the Sadducees had accommodated the Jewish priesthood to the political realities of the day: chasing their love of power rather than living by the power of God’s love.
So John faced a spiritual and political mess when he took up his ministry. And one word applied to all: “Repent!” Which was his way of saying, “Abandon all your misguided notions, values, and ambitions—and change your direction in life!” Part of the warning was his call to abandon false visions of the coming Messiah.
The ministry of the Messiah, John warned, would not be that of a conquering king but more like a farmer at harvest. John used a vivid agricultural analogy from daily life: “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.”
Picture, then, a farmer piling crushed grain stalks on the upwind side of a smooth, swept threshing floor. When a proper breeze was blowing he would use a long pronged fork to throw the stalks into the air. The heavier seeds would drop out near his feet while the lighter chaff—the debris of broken stalks—would be blown farther along the threshing floor into a separate pile. Once the pair of piles formed—the useful grain and the useless chaff—the farmer gathered the grain into storage bins and then burned the chaff.
We get the burning part—the certainty of judgment—but what about John’s reference to the Spirit? A likely context would be the promise in Ezekiel’s prophecy to Israel of a new era to come, after the return from Babylon, when God “will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez. 36:26-27).
The plan, in other words, was for the Messiah to offer a ministry that featured an inward work of the Spirit to bring about changed hearts. Those who received the Spirit’s ministry would be the “wheat” while the chaff would consist in those who resisted or rejected the Spirit. The kingdom of heaven, then, would consist in the Father sending his Son and the Spirit to create and then to collect “wheat.” The Spirit’s work did the creating and the Son’s work was to separate those with the Spirit from those who dismissed him.
In the balance of Matthew, then, we see Jesus warning against “blaspheming” the Spirit. Such a dismissal or misattribution, he warned, was unforgiveable (in Mt. 12:31-32). The misattribution in this context was the charge by religious leaders that Jesus did his miracles by the demonic powers of Beelzebul rather than by the Spirit.
So what do we make of this today? For one it presents faith as the Spirit’s work of affirming Jesus as the Messiah: he calls hearts to believe. And Jesus, then, merely sifted the crowds around him to discover who would respond to the Spirit’s call. And he warned all who dismissed the Spirit’s wooing in the strongest terms possible.
Is this two-stage arrangement still at work in the church today? Is the Spirit still changing some hearts so that our work in evangelism calls for winnowing rather than winning converts?
Yes – it seems to be exactly what Jesus had in mind, both then and now.