The Study of Salvation

By James T. Bartsch,

7 "For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned." Hebrews 6:7-8

Controlled Prairie Burning near Cottonwood Falls, KS

What is the Significance of the Agricultural
Illustrations in Hebrews 6:7-8?

This is the sixth installment of a larger treatise entitled,

Does Hebrews 6:1-8 Teach Us We Can Lose Our Salvation?

by James T. Bartsch


    To this point in this series of articles, we have argued that the audience of the writer of Hebrews consisted of Hebrew Christians who were being tempted to revert to Judaism; that the writer is urging his readers, who are genuine believers, not to revert to Judaism, but to forge on to maturity in Christ (Heb. 6:1); that there are six foundational teachings he does not wish to lay again (Heb. 6:1-2); that the six statements made in Heb. 6:4-6 identify genuine Christians who apostatize in the sense of reverting to Judaism, forsaking faith solely in Christ. In other words they wish to add the components of Judaism to their faith in Christ; that if they fall away from trusting solely in Christ, but revert to Judaism also, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (Heb. 6:6). Their loss is not their eternal salvation, but rewards and opportunities for ministry that would otherwise come their way. Now, here in Hebrews 6:7-8, the author uses two agricultural illustrations. He spoke of ground that drinks in rain and bears useful vegetation, and receives a blessing from God. But then he spoke, in an ominous tone, of land that yields thorns and thistles, that is worthless and close to being cursed, and ends up being burned. What did he mean?

Fruitful Earth: The writer first speaks of the analogy of fruitful earth. In the context of this discussion, this fruitful earth can only mean one thing – it refers to Hebrew Christians who resist the temptation to revert to Judaism, but instead, stay firmly fixed upon Jesus Christ only as the object of their faith. This fruitful earth possesses three characteristics:
  • It absorbs rain: "For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it" I was cautioned in earlier theological and exegetical classes in Bible College and Seminary, "Do not make a parable walk on all fours." By that, my instructors meant, "Don't make the analogy say more than the author intended." There is a simple explanation – leave it at that. So let me offer a simple explanation: the rain refers to the Word of God, descending on them in various ways. Surely by this time there were letters from various Apostles circulating around as New Testament Scripture. There were Bible teachers and elders who knew and taught the truths of God's revelation of the supremacy of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. In fact, that is exactly the tactic the present writer will take – to convince his readers of the superiority of Christ, His ministry, and the New Covenant He had ratified. There may even have yet been genuine New Testament prophets. Whatever the case, the people described as "ground that drinks the rain"  most likely are people who give attention to and heed the Word of God.
  • It yields produce: "and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled," The response of those that soak in God's Word is that they "bear fruit."
    • This ground is to be equated with the "good soil" of Jesus' parable, they that hear God's Word, understand it, and bring forth fruit, "some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty" (Matt. 13:23).
    • Jesus taught His disciples that He was the vine and they were the branches. He said, "The one remaining in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit, because without Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
    • The Apostle Paul reminds us that it is by grace through faith that we have been saved, and that this salvation is not of ourselves – it is the gift of God; and that this salvation does not come as a result of works, so that no one may boast. The fact is that we are God's craftsmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of good works – works which God has prepared beforehand in order that in them we might walk around (Eph. 2:8-10).
    • So the useful vegetation is the good works that Christians who remain in Jesus perform.
  • It is blessed by God: "receives a blessing from God;" People who listen to God's Word and obey it produce good works because they are continually receiving blessing from God. "Continually receiving" translates the Present Indicative of metalambánō (3335), which, when, as here, followed by the Genitive, means to receive or partake of. "Blessing," without the article, is eulogía (2129). It indicates, in this context, God's favor resting upon the person who listens to and obeys God's word and produces good works, through which he serves God. God causes that person to prosper in service. That person in turn becomes a blessing to others.
Unfruitful Earth: We will note the four descriptions of this unfruitful earth, then come to a conclusion as to what it means. In the context, preliminarily, it seems to refer to Hebrew Christians who conclude that Christ is not enough, that they must also revert to Judaism.
  • It bears thorns and briers: "but if it yields thorns and thistles," – "thorns" is the plural of ákantha (173), "thorn; by synecdoche, of prickly plants in neglected fields thornbush, prickly weed, thistle" (Friberg); "thistles" is the plural of tríbolos (5146), "from an adjective meaning three-pronged; plural, of various prickly plants thistles, briars, burrs, thorns (Matt. 7:16)" (Friberg). Taken together, these two nouns describe land that is really good for nothing. It is not good for farming, and it is not good for pasture. It is so filled with noxious weeds that even livestock cannot thrive on it.
  • It is rejected: "it is worthless" – the adjective adókimos (96) "strictly failing to meet the test; hence worthless, unqualified" (excerpted from Friberg). This land is really unsuitable for any useful purpose.
  • It is nearly cursed: "and close to being cursed" – "cursed" is katára (2671) "strictly failing to meet the test; hence worthless, unqualified" (excerpted from Friberg). Notice that the ground is not officially cursed, but close or near (engús, 1451) to being cursed.
  • It's end is burning: "and it ends up being burned." The word "burned" is kaûsis (2740), "as an action burning, consuming, being on fire" (Heb. 6:8) (Friberg). This noun is used only once in the entire NT, so it is difficult to get a feel for its definition from parallel passages. However, we do know that its corresponding verb is kaíō (2545), to kindle or ignite (Matt. 5:12) (adapted from Friberg). Elsewhere in Hebrews this verb is used in Heb. 12:18, where it is translated "blazing."
    • The big question is this: What did the author mean by this clause, "it ends up being burned"? Is he talking about Divine discipline, or is he talking about hell fire?
    • John Gill, for example, is adamant the author is speaking about hell fire. He writes, "whose end is to be burned; with everlasting and unquenchable fire, in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone." Clearly Gill takes the position that the individuals under consideration in Hebrews 6:4-6 are unbelievers. Superficially they may appear to be believers, or they have gone through the motions of trusting in Jesus, but they have never experientially done so. Their inevitable doom, according to Gill, is the Lake of Fire.
    • I, on the other hand, could not disagree more. I believe the individuals in question, according to the context of the book of Hebrews, were Jewish Christians who were contemplating reverting to Judaism. They were not giving up on Christ, but, under pressure, believed it was necessary to re-adopt Judaism.
    • So the people who actually did what the writer of Hebrews, in horror, contemplates, were not going to lose their salvation, but they would be disciplined fiercely by God, and their unbiblical works and efforts, no matter how sincerely wrought, would all be burned up. This is a purifying, cleansing fire, not the eternal Lake of Fire. This fire is that which is described in 1 Cor. 3:12-15, not that which is described in Rev. 20:14-15.
    • I lived for eleven years in the Flint Hills of Kansas. These beautiful, rolling hills consist largely of endless vistas of pasture lands. Cattle graze these pasture lands during a ninety-day grazing season every spring and early summer. The native grass is Big Bluestem, also known as Tallgrass, and it makes excellent forage for cattle imported into the Flint Hills before ending their journey at a feedlot. But there are noxious weeds that invade the bluestem pastures. So at least every other year, ranchers in the Flint Hills burn off huge tracts of pasture lands in late March and early April. They burn off the pasture lands not to destroy them, but to purify them. Without the competing noxious weeds, the native bluestem flourishes. The cattle love the new grass and devour it eagerly! To me this purifying fire accurately reflects what the writer of Hebrews is talking about. He is talking about a purifying fire, not a destroying fire.
The significance of the Agricultural Illustrations.
  • The writer of Hebrews is intending, through his agricultural illustrations, to motivate his readers to resist with great fortitude the pressure to revert to Judaism. He is urging them not to add Judaism to their faith in Christ, but to trust solely in Jesus Christ and his one sacrifice for sins.
  • If they revert to Judaism, they will encounter a terrible purifying process that will leave them bereft of rewards and ministry they would otherwise have enjoyed.
What expectations does the writer have about his readers? How does he think they will respond to his stern warning? That is the subject of the next article in this series.

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(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB 1995.)

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Updated February 28, 2022