“No In Between: The Sifting of Our Souls” (Matthew 3:12 sermon)

I saw a very interesting chart the other day that listed dozens of media outlets by how conservative or liberal they were: on the left of the chart were the most wacko liberal news outlets, and on the right, the most staunch conservative. And most were somewhere in between: moderate, pretty conservative, or a little liberal, etc.

But there are some things about which there is no “spectrum”; there is no “in between.” Someone has said you can’t be “a little bit pregnant”; you are either pregnant or you are not! You are either dead or you are alive. There is no in between. You are one or the other.

There are a number of areas in life like that — and despite the way that some people try to live, it is that way spiritually as well. Jesus said in Matthew 12:30, “He who is not with Me is against Me.” There is no “in between.” You are either a genuine Christian, and you belong to Him — or you do not. And one day soon, Jesus Christ will reveal which you are.

Last Sunday we saw how John the Baptist said that Jesus, when He came, would bring the very presence of God Himself into the lives of His followers through the Holy Spirit. But that is not all that Jesus came to do, John said. In verse 12 he described His ministry further, saying:

“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.”

I. The Sifting: The Wheat or The Chaff

“His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor.”

Here John describes further the ministry of the Messiah when He would come. He said He would come with a “winnowing fork” in His hand. Now this is symbolic, of course. He didn’t mean that Jesus would literally be carrying a winnowing fork around during His ministry. He was saying that Jesus’ ministry would be a ministry of “winnowing” in His “threshing floor.”

What is the “threshing floor”, and what is a “winnowing fork” that John was talking about?

Some of us may be familiar with this, but increasing numbers of us, as we move to a less agrarian society, are not. This is an agricultural picture. The “threshing floor” was a place that was up high, often on a hill, where the wind could blow across it. The farmer would bring the sheaves of wheat he had harvested up to the threshing floor, where he would have oxen pull a sled across them, which would separate the kernels of wheat from the stalks. The big stalks are easily picked out, but there would still be all kinds of “chaff” — small pieces of stalk, leaves, dust & dirt, attached to the kernels of wheat. So the farmer would “winnow” it: he would take a winnowing shovel, which would have 2 or more prongs on it like a fork, and he would toss the grains and chaff up into the air. The heavy wheat would fall to the floor right beneath him — but the wind would blow the light pieces of chaff downwind. So after doing this winnowing for a while, the farmer would have 2 piles: a pile of wheat just in front of him, and a pile of the chaff where it had blown downwind. That is the process of winnowing.

Now this ”winnowing” is, of course, symbolic. Jesus is not going to literally “toss everyone up in the air” and see where the wind blows us and where we land! “Winnowing” is a picture, that helps us understand that the Lord is sifting the souls of people in our world:

— First of all, it reminds us that there are basically two kinds of people in this world: just like there is wheat, and there is chaff, so there are two kinds of people: there are people who belong to God, and there are those who do NOT belong to Him. There is no “in between.”

— Secondly, it reminds us that the Lord is going to “sort out” those two kinds of people through a process.

— And third, it reminds us that the two groups have two entirely different destinations.

We are going to talk about the two destinations here in just a moment. But let’s focus on the process right now. The Bible speaks repeatedly of a process of judgment, by which the Lord will separate people into those who are His, and those who are not:

— Here John says that Jesus will “winnow” the souls of men into the wheat and the chaff.

— Similarly, in Matthew 13 Jesus said: “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went away.” (Tares are a weed-like plant that at first looks like wheat.) Jesus said the landowner would allow both to grow together until the harvest, and then “I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them up in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
Jesus said His Kingdom is like that parable; He said “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His Kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” So here Jesus describes how He will one day separate the “wheat” from the “tares.”

— In Matthew 25 Jesus said that “all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep will inherit the Kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, but the goats will be cast into eternal punishment of fire.

All of these scriptures basically portray the same thing: that one day Jesus is going to “sift” the souls of everyone in the world into two groups: call them “wheat and tares”; call them “sheep and goats”; or whatever. But He will divide us all into two groups: those who are genuinely His and those who are NOT.

But HOW will this happen?
John tells us here in Matthew 3 that JESUS is the winnower. And that is true in a very literal way: we are winnowed by Jesus; by our response to Him. Luke 2 tells us that when Mary & Joseph took the baby Jesus to the temple, the elderly Simeon prophesied of Him; “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel.” He said Jesus would cause some to fall, and others to rise; depending on their response to Him. Jesus said in Matthew 10 that He had come to bring “a sword” to this world, that would divide people — even families — against each other based on their response to Him. Jesus said in John 14:6 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” You either believe He is the only way to God, and that He is your Savior, or you do not. There is no in between. Jesus said I am going to divide people based on their response to Me.

See, God made us to know Him and spend eternal life with Him in what John the Baptist calls here, “his barn” — which is heaven, as we will see. But all mankind chose to rebel against God — that is what sin is — choosing our own will, and our own ways, instead of following God’s will and ways. Thus we ALL (because we have all sinned) we ALL deserve to spend eternity separated from God forever, in punishment. But God is gracious and merciful — He loves us with a love we didn’t deserve — and He sent Jesus to earth to die on the cross and pay for our sins, so that if we would turn away from our rebellion, and turn back to Him, He would forgive us, and give us the eternal life with Him in heaven that He wants us to have.

When we repent of our sins and trust Jesus as our Savior, we call this “being saved” or becoming a Christian. When a person does this, several important things happen:
— As we saw last week, the moment this happens, God sends His Holy Spirit into our lives to “seal” us as His (Ephesians 1:13). The Holy Spirit is God’s “mark of ownership” on our lives.
— And when we are genuinely His, we will also bear fruit. Jesus said in Matthew 13 in the Parable of the Sower that when the word of God really finds good soil in a person’s heart, it will bear fruit: “some 100 fold, some 60, and some 30” — in other words, there may be different amounts of fruit in different people’s lives, but there WILL be fruit. Jesus said in Matthew 7:16, “You will know them by their fruits.” In that Parable of the Wheat & The Tares in Matthew 13 that I mentioned a bit ago, some preachers & teachers are fond of saying things like “the wheat and the tares look exactly alike” — and they may for a time — but Jesus said something very important in :26, “when the wheat sprang up and bore fruit, then the tares became obvious also.” Did you hear that? Is there any difference between the wheat and the tares, according to Jesus? YES: the wheat will eventually bear fruit; but the tares will not.

So what will happen at the judgment is that Jesus will inspect each of our lives:
— How did we respond to Him? Did we accept Him or reject Him as God’s salvation for us?
— And if we SAY that we confess Him as our Savior, He will look for the presence of His Holy Sprit in our heart. Were we truly sealed with His Holy Spirit, because we really belonged to Him?
— And did we do more than just “confess” Him; were we really “wheat” that bore good fruit and showed by the actions of our lives that He was really in us?

So Jesus will sift us and sort us into two groups; there is no in between: there will be those who really trusted Him as their Lord & Savior, who were sealed with His Spirit and brought forth the fruit of it — and those who did not.
Only He knows this perfectly:
— Only HE knows if we really trust Him as our Savior in our heart
— Only HE can see if His Holy Spirit is really in us.
— Only HE can see all the fruit — or lack of it — in our lives. We saw that the parable in Matthew 13 said that hearts with good soil bear different amounts of fruit: “some 100 fold, some 60, and some 30.” Only HE knows if there is really some fruit or not. We may see some of a person’s fruit; but we can’t see it all; and we can’t see hearts — which is why only Jesus can judge in the end. But judge He will. And you can be sure, He will do it perfectly.

When I am in my office studying I often eat a snack at midmorning. I “TRY” to eat healthy snacks from time to time. The other day I was eating a bag of pistachios. You may have had some like these before, where they have half-cracked the shell, and the kernel of the nut is still in it, so you have to finish cracking the shell and pull the nut out to eat. I’m not sure why they do that; unless it is to make sure you use up more calories prying the nut out than you do eating it! Well, I know that they have inspectors who evaluate these nuts before they pack them, to make sure they look good, that the shells are cracked, and that they still have the kernel inside, but in one case, they really missed it: I picked one up, and at first it looked like a good pistachio that had been cracked. But as I looked more closely at it, it was NOT. It was actually two EMPTY SHELLS that had somehow come together, and neither one of them had a nut in it! It looked like a good nut at first — and I am sure that is why the inspectors missed it — but it wasn’t.

And of course human inspectors will never be perfect. There will always be things that we will miss or get wrong — in whatever it is we are evaluating. And that is why we cannot be the judges of each other’s souls — Jesus is. But when He judges, the Bible says, He will judge perfectly. He does not guess; He knows:
— He knows our hearts. He said in Jeremiah 17:10, “I the LORD search the heart.” He knows exactly if His Holy Spirit is in our heart or not.
— He does not have to guess at what the fruit of our life is; He knows everything we do: Psalm 139 says He knows when we sit down down, and when we rise up, and every word before we say it! He knows every fruit of our life, and He will perfectly sift us into those two groups: those who are really His; who really have His Holy Spirit; who have some fruit of genuine salvation — and those who did NOT.

The question for you today is: which one are YOU?
— Are you wheat, or are you chaff?
— Are you a sheep, or are you a goat?
— Are you a wheat, or are you a tare?
— Do you have the seal of God’s Holy Spirit in your heart, or do you not?
— Do you have the fruit of a soul that truly belongs to Him, or have you just “said, ‘Lord, Lord’ but haven’t really done what He said?
When Jesus perfectly judges you, will He find that you are “wheat”, or “chaff”? You WILL be one or the other; there is no “in between.”

This is the most important question of your life, because John tells us here that these two kinds of people have two entirely different destinations for eternity:


II. The Destinations: The Barn or the Fire

Just like there two types of people, there are only two eternal destinations. There is no “in between.” You will either go to the “barn”, or to the “fire.”


A. “He will gather His wheat into the barn”

The word “barn” here is very picturesque. It is a compound word in Greek (“apo/thyky” from, to put, or to put away from.) It describes the place where you “put away” what is valuable to you for safe-keeping. For the farmer, the “treasure” he wanted to keep safe was his wheat, and the “barn” was the safe place where he would keep it. So to follow that analogy out, “the wheat” here is the people of God, who are precious to Him, and “the barn” is the safe place where God will “store” them for eternity — in His presence forever in heaven. The Bible repeatedly teaches us that those who are God’s people will go to be with Him:

— David said in Psalm 23:6 that the last great blessing of having the Lord as his shepherd is that “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

— Speaking to His disciples in John 14:1-3 Jesus said: “Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
Jesus told His disciples that they were precious to Him, and that He was going to take them to be with Him forever. A lot of people get excited about going to their “mansion” in heaven — folks we ought to get excited NOT because Jesus said there are many mansions there; we ought to get excited because Jesus said that HE is going to be there — and we are going to get to be with Him!

— Revelation 21:3 “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will DWELL AMONG them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.”

The Bible says that God’s people are precious to Him; He loves them and paid for their salvation with the precious blood of Jesus on the cross; and one day He will take us to be WITH HIM forever.

I remember one time Cheryl & I were trying to figure out what we were going to do, and she said: “I don’t care where we go; I just want to be with you!” That’s a sweet sentiment, isn’t it? But that’s how it is when you love someone; you want to be with them. The Bible says that, amazingly, despite our sin, despite our rebellion, despite all our shortcomings, God LOVES us — we are PRECIOUS to Him, and He wants us to be in his “apo-thay-cay” — in His barn — in His storehouse for precious things, WITH HIM forever in heaven! And if you love Him, that’s where you want to be as well.

But not everyone is going to be in that barn. The Bible says there is a second destination:


B. ‘But He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The second picture here is that of the chaff being burned up with fire. That is, of course, what we do with unwanted leaves and pieces of plants from the yard; we burn them up. Cheryl & I did a lot of that last week before I got sick — some of you all probably did too. What is not “wheat”; what is not the “good stuff” from your farm or garden, gets burned up.

And that is symbolic here of a very real reality: those who are not the Lord’s “wheat” will face a judgment of unquenchable fire. People don’t like to talk about this, but it is one of the clearest teachings of the Bible:

— Psalm 11:5-6 says “The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence, His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain snares; fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.” Those words, “the portion of their cup” are significant. Psalm 16:5 says of the righteous, “The LORD is the portion my inheritance and my cup.” The godly person can expect to inherit the presence of the Lord in heaven as their “portion”; their “inheritance.” But Psalm 11 says the “portion”, the “inheritance” of the wicked is “fire and brimstone and burning wind” forever.

The Old Testament gives just a glimpse of that judgment; but the New Testament makes it very clear:
— John says here that Jesus will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Someone might suggest that this is symbolic language — and it is — but see what Jesus Himself teaches about it later:
— In His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:22 Jesus speaks of “the fire of hell.” The word “hell” there is literally “Gehenna”, the name of a deep valley southwest of Jerusalem, where they used to sacrifice children, and where they would burn trash and the bodies of criminals. It was a place of burning, smoke, and fire, and Jesus was saying this is what the place of eternal judgment will be like.
— Jesus said later in Mark 9 that it is better to have eternal life having been blind, or crippled, here on earth, than “to be be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Jesus described hell as a horrific place of eternal torment: where the worm of destruction never stops; and the fire never ends.”
— Jesus said in Matthew 25:41 that when He separates “the sheep” from “the goats” in the judgment, that He will say to those “goats” on His left: “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” He went on to say in :45 that “These will go away into eternal destruction, but the righteous into eternal life” — thus indicating that the time for both destruction and life are the same: eternal.
— The Apostle Paul says in II Thessalonians 1 that one day, “The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire” where “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
— Jude 7 speaks of Sodom and Gomorrah “as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”
— Revelation 20:10 speaks of the lake of fire and brimstone, where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever”. And :15 says: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Folks, this is serious business, and it demands your attention. There is nothing in your life that is more important than this.
In fact, the devil will to do everything he can to distract you from thinking about it. I think that’s one reason why there is so much television, movies, music, video games, everything in the world to keep your mind occupied 24/7 if possible, so that you don’t have quiet time to stop, and think, about the single most important issue of life: where are you going to spend eternity: in the Lord’s home in heaven, or in unquenchable fire?

Last week I was listening to one of my favorite radio programs, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They had a New Testament scholar from England on the show, N.T. Wright, who was saying how he believed that most Christians have really missed the point of the New Testament, that it wasn’t about just following Jesus and going to heaven and missing hell, but about being the Christian community here on earth. He kind of “brushed off” eternity in hell, as if it might not even exist. So I looked him up on the internet later and discovered that he has become well-known for saying: “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?”

When I read this I couldn’t believe it. “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?” N.T. Wright has a doctorate, and studied at Oxford & Cambridge, some of the most respected institutions of learning in our world, but folks, how much intelligence do you have to have, to understand that if there is a real hell where you burn in fire and brimstone with smoke and dark blackness forever, it is pretty important to make sure that you don’t go there?!

Listen: heaven and hell are not some “irrelevant fixation”; they are not some “side issue.” Don’t you ever let someone tell you that. Our whole life here on this earth isn’t even a “blip” on the chart compared to all eternity. God created you as an eternal soul. And your soul will live somewhere forever and ever. And that “somewhere” will be determined by your response to Jesus. He will “winnow” your soul, based on your personal response to Him. You will either be wheat, or you will be chaff; there is no in between. Your eternal destination will either be heaven, or it will be hell. There is no in between.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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4 Responses to “No In Between: The Sifting of Our Souls” (Matthew 3:12 sermon)

  1. Pingback: Nazarene Commentary Matthew 5:21-26 – 1. The Nazarene’s Commentary on Exodus 20:13 | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

  2. Hosea Mbipeh says:

    Thank you for this sermon. I was blessed with a deeper understanding of that text. Hell and heaven are not just a fixated place. It serious that there is punishment for sin and there’s a way to escape that punishment, through Christ Jesus. Heaven is the wonderful and glorious place for believers in Christ Jesus. I believe

    • Shawn Thomas says:

      I am grateful to hear of your belief, and also thankful if the message helps your understanding of God’s words. God bless you as you follow Christ.

  3. Pelagie says:

    This sermon is powerful… “There’s no in-between” Noted 👌 May God help us to make right decision of our final destination…let’s not be carried away by the things of the world

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