Fire is a good thing, even when it’s in the Bible.
Have you ever eaten an ear of wheat? I hope not. You’d be spitting out chaff or worse. The closest we get to a grain of wheat today is in a bowl of Wheat Chex, or Shredded Wheat, or Whole Wheat Bran. We’ve gotten so far away from agriculture as part of everyone’s life that it takes some explanation to understand this particular story in the Bible.
This is what the ear of a wheat plant looks like:
The ear of wheat forms at the top of the stem. An ear of corn has leaves that cover all the kernels. But each kernel of wheat has three different kinds of scale-like leaves that cover the kernel. They are called the ‘chaff.’ They protect the underlying fruit while it’s developing.
When the time for harvest comes, the chaff must be removed from the kernel. This was classified as “work” and wasn’t allowed on the Sabbath. That’s why Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees when he allowed his disciples to pick and roll the ears in their hands to remove the chaff.
When cleaning a larger quantity, the wheat goes through a threshing process. In the first part, the ears are broken away from the stalk of the wheat. Then they are beaten with sticks to remove the chaff from the grains.
You and I fit somewhere in this analogy. Are we the wheat or the chaff? Or both?
We are both. The chaff is an integral part of the kernel of wheat. The wheat and chaff are not two kinds of people. They are part of the same fruit. So what does it mean that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, and burn the chaff?
Let me back away from 4th century Christian theology for a minute and look at the words more closely. Some theologians decided we should capitalize every combination of “holy” and “spirit” so that there is greater proof of the Trinity. If you weren’t trying to prove that particular doctrine, the passage could be translated as “he will immerse you with a spirit that is holy (i.e., worthy of reverence/awe/praise) and fire.”
Fire in the New Testament is mostly about purification rather than punishment. Jesus will dip you repeatedly and cleanse you with a holy spirit, and the chaff, the exterior components that ultimately aren’t needed anymore, will be burned away through trials and other kinds of tribulations of the body.
Once the grain was threshed, farmers would wait for a breezy day and toss the threshed grain in the air. The wheat kernels are heavier. They fall and bounce at your feet, while the light and useless chaff is blown away.
The life we live today is the threshing process. Life experiences break the connection of the flesh away from the spirit so the Wind can blow it away. The parts of us that helped us develop to a point, those desires of the flesh that keep us attached to the things of the world need to be shaken loose so they can be removed.
When the threshing process is over, selfishness and immaturity will no longer exist. The sanctification and purification process will be complete. And the goodness that is God within us, will be brought into His kingdom where we will desire only what is good for each other and pleasing to God.
Our job is to submit to the threshing process so the inner fruit, the goodness of God can be released. We are still a work in progress. We are simply to trust that God knows the best way to remove the chaff from us, trusting what we are to go through in this life will be for our benefit and the benefit of all people one day.
As St. Paul said, give thanks for all things – they are intended to help you grow as a person. The fire of life that might bring pain is part of the purification.