What does Luke 3:17 mean?
ESV: His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
NIV: His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.'
NASB: His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.'
CSB: His winnowing shovel is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out."
NLT: He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.'
KJV: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.
NKJV: His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Verse Commentary:
When asked if he was the Messiah, John the Baptist always clearly indicated that he was not (John 1:19–20; Luke 3:15–16). In the prior verse, he used a dramatic image to show that the Christ would be much, much greater than he. In an era were the lowliest servants washed the feet of travelers, John the Baptist claims he's not even worthy to untie the Messiah's sandals.

Another part of John's explanation of Christ was the kind of baptism which would be involved. John's baptism was an outward ritual involving water—the Greek term baptizō literally means "immersion." The "baptism" of the Messiah would involve both the Holy Spirit and fire. The combination of that statement, with this verse's emphasis on God separating believers from nonbelievers, leads many to conclude John was speaking of two separate effects of Christ's ministry. Some would respond in faith (Acts 1:5; 2:38), others would respond with rejection and face judgment (2 Peter 3:7; John 3:36).

The metaphor used here involves the process of separating usable grain from inedible husks and stems. The first step is threshing, to knock grain loose from stalks. Next is winnowing. A farmer would use a pitchfork or similar tool to throw threshed grain into the air. This would allow wind to blow the light chaff to the side, while the good grain would fall back into the pile. Inedible or useless material would be collected and burned. Symbolically, this represents God sorting humanity into those who will be saved and those who will be consigned to the fires of hell (Matthew 25:30–31). The same Old Testament works which prophesied John the Baptist's ministry (Malachi 3:1; 4:5–6) make similar remarks (Malachi 4:1).
Verse Context:
Luke 3:7–22 is a relatively brief explanation of John the Baptist's ministry. John's preaching calls on people to repent and turn from their sins. At the same time, he is careful to declare that he is not Christ—John is only a herald of the Messiah. Luke's account quickly summarizes this message, John's conflict with Herod the Tetrarch, and the baptism of Jesus. Parallel accounts are found in Matthew 3, Mark 1:1–11, and John 1:19–34.
Chapter Summary:
The early part of Luke's gospel shifts back and forth between the histories of Jesus and John the Baptist. Chapter 3 starts with historical and prophetic context about John. It then depicts some of John's interactions with local religious leaders. Luke gives only a brief description of Jesus' baptism. He also touches on John's criticism of Herod the Tetrarch, which would eventually result in John's execution (Matthew 14:10–12). The chapter ends with a genealogy of Christ.
Chapter Context:
Chapters 1 and 2 provided early history for both John the Baptist and Jesus. Chapter 3 establishes John's preaching ministry and its connection to Jesus Christ. The chapter ends with a genealogy which some believe runs through Mary's side of the family. Chapter 4 transitions from Jesus' baptism into His public ministry, by describing His fasting in the wilderness and temptation by Satan.
Book Summary:
Luke was a traveling companion of Paul (Acts 16:10) and a physician (Colossians 4:14). Unlike Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke writes his gospel as an historian, rather than as a first-hand eyewitness. His extensive writings also include the book of Acts (Acts 1:1–3). These are deliberately organized, carefully researched accounts of those events. The gospel of Luke focuses on the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Luke's Gentile perspective presents Christ as a Savior for all people, offering both forgiveness and direction to those who follow Him.
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