Taking the time and effort to dive into the weeds on the interpretation and meaning of the central warning passage from Hebrews chapter 6 is an exercise in futility if it is left on the doorstep of application. Thankfully, we don’t have to travel far for application as the next set of verses from the chapter apply this difficult teaching by way of agricultural analogy. Before reading this post, it may be helpful to go back and read some of the previous posts in order on the Hebrews 6 passage. They are: The Old Testament and the challenge of Hebrews 6, The Context, and The Warning. Below are verses 6:7-8:
“For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
Language like this may be less familiar to us, but because of the agrarian societies that dominated the region in biblical times, particularly with respect to Israel, agricultural imagery is often employed to help convey spiritual realities. We read of this commonly in the Psalms and Prophets, and we should be familiar with its regular occurrence in the teachings of our Lord during His earthly ministry, such as in Matt. 13, which draws a parallel with our verses under consideration here. Looking towards Hebrews we see in this passage two distinct groups who share some common interests among them, the first of which is the soil.
Obviously, as with any biblical parable, analogy, etc., we do not want to force meaning into every individual part. That said, interpreting who represents the soil in the analogy from Hebrews will likely tip one’s hand to how the warning passage in the previous verses was to be interpreted. For instance, the Reformation Study Bible conflates the two groups into one by calling the soil “the people of God.” In the midst of sound interpretation elsewhere on chapter 6, they take a theological shift here to consistently support their own view of the New Covenant, specifically as it relates to its participating members. Because paedobaptists view their children as members of the New Covenant, they must by necessity view “those who fall away” as members of the New Covenant, not merely those who have an association with the New Covenant. In their view, it’s not that members lose their salvation, but their falling away reveals that they never had it, on this point we would agree. However, we would disagree over their presumption that New Covenant membership consists of a mixed covenant community, believers and unbelievers, just as that under the Old Covenant. Subsequently they interpret the soil generically as the people of God who are members in the New Covenant.
Recall that in our exposition of Hebrews 6 we concluded that “those who fall away” were not defined in terms of having actual salvation, but were instead related by way of association to the New Covenant community, though not through actual membership. Paedobaptists, like in the Reformation Study Bible, fail to make this distinction seeing instead a 1:1 relationship between the Old and New Covenant. Put succinctly, their convictions mean that one can be a member in the New Covenant, but not necessarily be saved, hence their belief in infant baptism and its correspondence with Old Covenant circumcision.
A better conclusion to interpreting the meaning of the soil is one that is similar to the parable of the weeds from the previously referenced Matthew 13. The soil is a generic reference to people, not exclusively the people of God. It would be all those who have by way of experience some relationship to the New Covenant blessings of God, for example hearing the Word of God or the Gospel preached. A similar cross reference would be the soil from the Parable of the Soils in Mark 4:1-20, where the soil is a generic reference to the heart of man.
The second commonality between the two groups is an implied seed, simply the aforementioned message of God’s Word or other covenant community blessing such as those outlined in this previous post. While not specifically mentioned here, the implication of the imagery analogy lends itself to an understanding that seed has been sown in the soil. Again, a close parallel is possibly Matthew 13 where the Sower sowed the good seed and an enemy came along and sowed bad seed.
Third, we find a point of coincidence with the rain that has fallen. Heeding our earlier warning about making every point in a parable or analogy have meaning, we must be cautious with the ones being used here in Hebrews 6. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that rain corresponds to experiential blessing that the soil (people) receive. As a result, there are two responses noted and this is where the distinction between two groups may be made.
The first response given is the soil that bears fruit, or “produce a useful crop”. With this group, three additional points may be noted 1) This soil was cultivated for the purpose of bearing fruit 2) The fruit was for the benefit of others and 3) It receives a blessing from God. Conversely, in the second response we see the soil bears “thorns and thistles”. Note that there is no mention of cultivation for this soil and instead of benefiting others, it is described as worthless. Its end result is not blessing, but cursing, specifically it is “near to being burned.” It would appear that the cultivation, an external action on the soil, makes all the difference in the response.
The language of blessing and cursing being used here is to purposefully draw our attention once again to the “Wilderness Generation” that has so often been referenced in this glorious letter. Specifically we see the covenantal blessings and cursings that accompanied entrance into the Promised Land, the former given for obedience and the latter a punishment for idolatry and apostasy. Note specifically the language of Deuteronomy 11:13-17
“13 And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.”
The utilization once again of the Wilderness Generation experiences is further confirmation that they have been in view the entire time in the warning from Hebrews 6 and generally speaking since the warning from chapter 3. In bringing to conclusion the entire warning pericope (section) here, we see that for those who are merely satisfied with an external experience, whether that be church membership or attendance, committees or cookouts, there is a real danger of falling away unto eternal destruction. Conversely, those who have a genuine saving experience will manifest themselves by producing a crop that is useful to others, “some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some a hundred-fold” Mark 4:20 but make no mistake you will know them by their fruit Matt. 7:20.