Summary: Sometimes things that hurt are those things that cause the most good in our lives.
Last week we started our new series on baking bread with the harvest. We learned that in order to make bread, we need to follow four steps: harvest , threshing, grinding into flour, and finally combining with other ingredients to bake into bread. We also learned, more importantly, that the time for harvest is now, but only through the harvest can we actually begin to live in Christ.
Tonight we will continue this series by discussing the second step -- threshing. Threshing wheat simply means separating the actual wheat kernel from the chaff, which is a coarse, dry, and scaly covering. The chaff is not edible and really doesn’t have any use as far as humans are concerned. A good example of chaff for those of us who have never been on a wheat farm is that dry, papery stuff around a peanut right after it’s shelled. That’s the chaff of a peanut! Unfortunately, in order to get rid of chaff, you need to do a lot of hard work.
One of the first methods people used to get rid of the chaff involved animals -- they would spread the wheat on hard ground -- either rocky or hard-packed dirt. They would then make oxen or donkeys walk in circles on the kernels. The weight and force of the animals stepping on the wheat would force the chaff to separate. Afterward, the people would gather up the wheat kernels in baskets for the next step.
If oxen, donkeys, or other large animals were not available; they would thresh the wheat by hand. This was accomplished via a threshing flail, a long pole connected to a shorter rod by a short chain. The dimensions were different depending on what they needed to thresh (wheat versus rice versus barley, etc) but wheat flails typically had a 5-foot handle connected to a 3-foot rod. People would pile the wheat kernels up on a wooden or stone floor and beat it with the flail until the chaff had separated. One could expect to thresh around sixty pounds of wheat per hour -- that’s about 480 pounds of wheat threshed by hand per day.
This is a brief video that shows the old method of threshing.
As a side note -- threshing flails are thought to be the origin of nunchucks. Japanese and Chinese farmers would use their threshing flails as makeshift weapons against bandits, robbers, or overzealous tax collectors sent by the emperor.
Back to threshing. Farmers have already done a lot of work -- but they weren’t done yet! The oxen and the threshing flails couldn’t get all of the chaff separated -- there were still several bits stuck onto the kernels. In order to remove the last pieces of chaff, they would toss the kernels using a pitchfork-type tool or a special basket to let the wind blow away the remaining pieces of chaff. The heavier kernels would then fall back down to the ground. This is called winnowing.
Compare this to what a modern combine harvester can accomplish. One man with a harvester and one man with a truck can harvest, thresh, and winnow more than five tons of wheat per day, compared to 480 pounds per day when doing it by hand.
Farming is hard, even with the help of today’s advanced technology. But it was still something that was understood by everyone at that time. Even people who were not farmers -- like all of the disciples -- understood what threshing and winnowing meant. This is why John the Baptist used it as an example when describing Jesus. Turn to Luke chapter 3. Here, John the Baptist is doing his thing, baptising people in the Jordan river. He’s already started to get quite a name for himself, drawing crowds of followers. At one point, John is asked if he is the Messiah! John answers them starting with verse 16: “John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His 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.’”
Well, that’s vivid, isn’t it? There is a lot going on here, especially in verse 17. Let’s hear it again, “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.”
At first glance, this verse seems fairly straightforward. It sounds similar to the harvest I described last week -- God is separating His people from the world’s people. His people go into the barn (meaning Heaven) and everyone else is burned with an unquenchable fire (meaning Hell). Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right?