“John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: 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.” (Luke 3:16-17)
John makes a very bold statement about the Messiah in these verses. He is declaring that the Messiah is both Redeemer and Judge. He is saying that the One coming will be God Himself!
John, upon observing a spirit of repentance in some, baptized them seeing their confession as evidence of the work of God in their hearts. When some unbelieving Pharisees came to him, John refused to baptize them because they were impenitent. Their belief that they had no sin was evidence to John that God had not worked repentance in their lives.
John now addresses the entire congregation gathered in the wilderness of Jordan. He states that when the Messiah comes, all truth will come to the surface. John could only judge outward actions as evidence of the Spirit but Christ will judge the hearts of men! He compares this to a man with a winnowing fan as he separates the good wheat from the weeds and other chaff.
Even today there may be some who make a profession publicly but are lying. John says, “You may have lied to me when I baptized you, but God knows your heart.” Jesus tells about these in His ministry as well.
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:21-23)
These are those who seek their own promotion not the benefit of others.
Having said that, we must not forget the overall focus of John’s preaching must be one of “Comfort ye my people.” Therefore, I do not believe that judgment was a major focus of John’s preaching. The wrath to come simply refers to the destruction of Jerusalem which would occur in 70 A.D. I think the major focus in these verses should not be on the surety of judgment but the surety of redemption.
Remember that, before John speaks of judgment, John says the Christ will “gather the wheat into his garner.” This means when the Messiah comes He will not just try to redeem. He will redeem His people from their sins!