Matt 3:12 reads:

whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.

So what/who is the chaff.?

Literally, when talking about wheat as a plant, it refers to the whole thing. But as in this parable, there's a distinction between the chaff (which holds the useful wheat) and the wheat (which is held by the chaff). If one says it has no significance but then why the explicit distinction?

The verse above seems to be related to the prophecy at Malachi 3. Verse 1 talks about

a voice in the wilderness

Which is John the Baptist's, who also is the one who uttered the parable at Matt 3:12.

Malachi 3:3 adds:

And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness

This also reechoed the idea of Someone (Messiah, obviously) doing a cleansing.


4 Answers 4


Wheat -

the OT doesn’t equate Israel directly to wheat but the NT does use this idea of wheat and barns with regards to the elect or those who believe on Him, who hear his voice, and follow Him.

Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather up first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.

The wheat is the Word of God. The only those who live by the Spirit can produce the fruits of the Spirit.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭8:11‬

If the wheat remains in us (the flesh, the chaff) then it can produce much fruit but only if we remain in the vine and allow the Spirit to flow into us because apart from Him we can do nothing. We have to remain IN HIM.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” ‭‭John‬ ‭15:7-8‬

There is also another reference to wheat/grain also in the context of the New Covenant

““For surely I will command, And will sift the house of Israel among all nations, As grain is sifted in a sieve; Yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground.” ‭‭Amos‬ ‭9:9‬ ‭

Other translations say not a pebble will fall which indicates that it’s a pure house of Israel or a true grain without contaminants. Hence the wheat or the grain in this case is referring to the restored house of Israel or the booth of David or the Church of Jesus Christ under the New Covenant.

Chaff -

this is referenced multiple times in the OT and it was always in relations to those who are either God’s enemies/the nations, are not adherents of God’s Commandments or the wicked.

  • The wicked are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

  • The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but he shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like the whirling dust before the storm

  • Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken in pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors; and the wind carried them away, so that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.

This text you quote from parallels in the OT from a combination of places.

Let them be as chaff before the wind, And the angel of Lord driving them on.

This title is specific to Jesus and here John the Baptist is equating Jesus with the Angel of the Lord.

Therefore they shall be as the morning cloud, and as the dew that passeth early away, as the chaff that is driven with the whirlwind out of the threshing-floor, and as the smoke out of the chimney.

This speaks about Efraim who in Hosea is one with the nations due to their certificate of divorce that God gave to the Northern Ten Tribes but which God would restore

Notice that the first example was not about wheat and chaff but about bearing fruits and trees.

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

This is repeated in the sermon on the mount by Jesus Himself

The sermon starts in chapter 5:2 and it ends in chapter seven with several illustrations, the wide and narrow way, the house on the sand and on the rock and the bad and the good fruit tree.

If one’s righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees he will by no means enter into the kingdom of God.

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:19-20‬ ‭

And Jesus explains who the good fruit trees are.

“"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:21‬

If you want to be a good fruit tree that has good fruits then it’s a matter of submitting to the will of the Father and living by the Spirit.

But the bad tree which produces bad fruits are those who live according to their own righteousness, they walk the broad way and build on an uncertain foundation of the Law. They attempt to attain entrance via their good works and unfortunately God’s imputed righteousness is the only acceptable means to entering into the kingdom.

So the chaff is a reference to anyone who produces bad fruits, lives by the law, attempts to gain right standing with God through their own works, enter through the wide gate, walk the wide and easy road, build on a sandy foundation and will be destined for burning and removal.

You risk complicating things when you say that the chaff holds the wheat.

True it does but no one enters via the works of the flesh. Even the wheat sheds the chaff. Even the righteous shed their mortal bodies and take on the immortal predestined glorified bodies.

In this case the distinction should be between the wheat that has grain and that which has none. When all is said and done, the empty wheat is chaff and the full wheat after separating the wheat out is also chaff. So unless there is something that carries over, it all burns up. And those who live by the flesh will have no good fruits or no wheat or no house left standing.


I believe it's important to consider the context of the previous verse. Matt 3:11 states: “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Here John the Baptist is making a contrast between two systems. The Old Covenant and the New. One of salvation through works and the other of Grace through Faith. One where you are expected to perform, the other that only Jesus can do for you. You can repent and turn to God, but ONLY Jesus can baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In Mat 3:12 John continues his thinking, "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.”

John hasn't suddenly shifted from describing these two systems, to then describing the judgement. He is still on the same point.

The chaff represents the old life of the believer, the flesh that is being purified by the Baptism of fire. This baptism of fire is given by Jesus Himself and begins upon salvation, continuing through the life of the believer and concludes at death when we finally leave the shell of this sinful body.

1 Cor 15:53 "...this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." One day we will finally be threshed forever from this sinful body and gathered into His barn.

The flesh, or "chaff" of my formal life will perish still smoking from the eternal flames of His presence and love.

A side note: Following this line of thinking, the threshing floor most likely represents our time with Him, in this life now, as He works to purify us who believe in His Son.


The point of a threshing floor is to separate the useful from the what was useful but now is not. Judgement is to do with separation as in the sheep going one way and the goats another. In this example both goats and sheep are useful but what is maintained is the principle of separation. i.e. different things having different destinies.

  • this is a completely different parable which focuses on the two extremes (good and bad) . In the parable of the wheat, the other extreme is the weed
    – Beveloper
    Aug 2, 2019 at 13:12

The wheat are his people, all those who will believe in Christ for salvation. If you like, all his elect. They shall be brought into his kingdom and ultimately into paradise.

The chaff are all those who do not believe in him for salvation. They shall be cast into the fires of hell forever.

John the Baptist's words are in the first instance directed against the Pharisees and Saducees who need to be reminded that "reputation for godliness" is not godliness. They were the ones to whom our Lord said

"How can you believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that comes from God alone?" John 5:44.

  • The important point is the usefulness and fruitfulness of wheat and the worthlessness of chaff which is only fit for burning. Faith without works is dead : it is of no profit to the Lord of the harvest.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 8, 2019 at 13:35
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    @Andrew Shank You should also remember that there exist the weed whose reward is reserved, and for the most part, when Jesus mentions reward for the wheat, he does same for weeds.
    – Beveloper
    Jul 8, 2019 at 15:13
  • @Nigel J - point taken. Jul 8, 2019 at 15:15
  • @Beveloper - I don't understand what you mean. Can you explain more please? Jul 8, 2019 at 15:15
  • @AndrewShanks the first paragraph of your answer made a good point. My point is that your second para seems to reference the weeds in Jesus' own parable. I don't understand why the chaff are seemingly equated to weed. Or do you mean by saying >"reputation for godliness " is not godliness" it means the chaff look reputable not really they are just useless,?
    – Beveloper
    Jul 8, 2019 at 15:23

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