An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Two Classes of Professors
Our preceding article was entitled "The Twofold Working of the Spirit". This was suggested by the contents of the first six verses of Hebrews 6. In them we find persons belonging to two entirely different classes are spoken of. The former, one in whom a work of Divine grace had been wrought, effectually applying to them the "great salvation" of God. The latter, one upon whom a work of Divine grace was also wrought, transforming its objects to a considerable degree, yet falling short of actually regenerating them. "The Lord is good to all: and His tender mercies are over all His works" (Ps. 145:9), but the richness of His "mercy" is reserved for the objects of His great love (Eph. 2:4). So too God puts forth His power in varying degrees, proportioned to the work which He has before Him. Thus, Christ referred to His casting out of demons "with the finger of God" (Luke 11:20). Speaking to Israel, Moses said, "With a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt" (Ex. 13:9). When referring to the amazing miracle of the Divine incarnation Mary said, "He hath showed strength with His arm" (Luke 1:51). But when Paul prayed that God would enlighten His saints to apprehend His stupendous miracle of grace in salvation, it was that they might know "the exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward".
God’s power was put forth and is displayed in the natural creation (Rom. 1:20). It will be made known in Hell, upon the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction (Rom. 9:22). It is exercised upon the reprobate in this life (in some more than in others, according to His sovereign pleasure) in subduing their corruptions, restraining their sins, reforming their characters, causing them to receive the doctrine of the Gospel. But the greatest excellency and efficacy of His power is reserved for His beloved people. His power toward them is such that it exceedeth all our thoughts: "Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us" (Eph. 3:20).
The recognition of only one of the two distinct operations of God’s Spirit upon men has divided theologians into two opposing camps. On the one hand, are the Arminians, who insist that Scripture teaches a common grace of God toward all men, a grace which may be despised. So far they are right, for Jude 4 expressly speaks of a class who turn "the grace of our God into lasciviousness". But they err when they teach there is no special grace, which is always efficacious upon those in whom it works. On the other side, the majority of modem Calvinists (the older ones did not) deny a common grace of God to all men, and insist in distinguishing grace to the elect only. In this they are wrong, and hence their unsatisfactory interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26.
Now as we have shown in our last article, James 1:17 tells us "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" etc. Two distinct "gifts" are here referred to. Scripture draws a clear line of distinction between that which God calls "good", and that which He designates "perfect". The main difference between them being that, usually, "good" is applied to something which is temporal, "perfect" to that which is spiritual. The operations of the Spirit upon the non-elect produces that which is "good", that which accomplishes a useful purpose in time, that which is serviceable to God’s elect. But His operations upon the children of God produces that which is "perfect", i.e. spiritual, supernatural, eternal. The difference between these two classes and their relation to God in time, was clearly foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The commonwealth of Israel was the type of Christendom as a whole; the "remnant according to the election of grace" in Israel (Rom. 11:5), represented the regenerated people of God now. Hence in both the Tabernacle and the Temple there were two distinct grades of worshippers; so there are today. Those who are merely nominal Christians are the outer-court worshippers; the regenerated Christians, who have been made "kings and priests unto God" (Rev. 1:6), worship in the holy place (Heb. 10:19). Both classes are contemplated in Hebrews 6.
In the short passage which is to be before us on this present occasion, the apostle sums up and makes a searching application of all that he has been writing about in the preceding verses, and this in the form of a parable or similitude. In the context two different classes of people are viewed, though at first it is by no means easy to distinguish between them, the reason for this being that they have so much in common. They had both enjoyed the same external privileges, had been enlightened under the same Gospel ministry, had alike been made "partakers of the Holy Spirit", and had all made a good profession. Yet, of the second class it had to be said, as Christ said to the young ruler, "One thing thou lackest", namely, the shedding abroad of God’s love in their hearts, evidenced by leaving all and following Christ.
The first class is addressed in the opening verses of our chapter, where the apostle bids the truly regenerated people of God "Go on unto perfection", i.e. having left the temporal shadows, seek to apprehend that for which they had been apprehended—live in the power and enjoyment of the spiritual, supernatural, and eternal. This, the apostle had said, "will we do, if God permit" (verse 3). Divine enablement was needed if they were to "possess their possessions" (Obad. 1:17), for the regenerate are just as dependent upon God as are the unregenerate. The second class are before us in verses 4-6, where we have described the principal effects which the common operations of the Spirit produce upon the natural faculties of the human soul. Though those faculties be wound up to their highest pitch, yet the music which they produce is earthly not heavenly, human not Divine, fleshly not spiritual, temporal not eternal. Consequently, they are still liable to apostatize, and even though they should not, they are certain to perish eternally.
The apostle’s design in this 6th chapter was to exhort the Hebrews to progress in the Christian course (verses 1-3), and to persevere therein (verses 12-20). The first exhortation is presented in verse 1 and qualified in verse 3. The motive to obedience is drawn from the danger of apostacy: (verses 4-6, note the opening "for"). His purpose in referring to this second class (of unregenerate professors, who apostatize) was, to warn against the outcome of a continuance in a state of slothfulness. Here in the similitude found in verses 6,7, he continues and completes the same solemn line of thought, showing what is the certain and fearful doom of all upon whom a regenerating work of grace is not wrought. First, however, he describes the blessedness of the true people of God.
"For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it and bringeth forth herbs meet for them for whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God; But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned" (verses 7,8). In taking up these verses we shall endeavor to give, first, an interpretation of them; second, make an application of their contents. The interpretation respects, in its direct and local reference the Jews, or rather, two classes among the Jews; the application belongs to all who come under the sound of the Gospel.
The two verses quoted above are designed to illustrate and confirm the solemn admonition found in the six preceding verses, therefore are they introduced with the word "for". In the context two classes of people are in view, both of which were, according to the flesh, Jews. This we have sought to establish in our previous expositions. With the first class the apostle identified himself, note the "we" in verse 3; from the second class Paul dissociates himself, note the words "those" in verse 4 and "they" in verse 6. So, too, two different pieces of ground are now described: first, fruitful ground, which depicts those who have been truly regenerated, and who in consequence, had received the Word into good and honest hearts. Second, unfruitful ground, which represents that class against whose sin and doom the apostle was warning the Hebrews; namely, those who, however great their privileges and fair their professions, bring forth only thorns and briers, who, being rejected by God, are overtaken with swift and terrible destruction.
"For the earth which drinketh in the rain". The prime reference is to the Jewish nation. They were God’s vineyard (see Isaiah 5:7,8; Jeremiah 2:21 etc.). It was unto them God had sent all His servants, the prophets, and last of all His Son (see Matthew 21:35-37). The "rain" here signifies the Word, or Doctrine which the Lord sent unto Israel: "My doctrine shall drop as the rain" (Deut. 32:2 and cf. Isaiah 55:10, 11). Note how when Ezekiel was to prophesy or preach, his message would "drop" as the rain does (Ezek. 21:2 and cf. Amos 7:16). The figure is very beautiful. The rain is something which no man can manufacture, nor is the Word of human origin. Rain comes down from above, so is the Gospel a heavenly gift. The rain refreshes vegetation, and causes it to grow, so too the Doctrine of God revives His people and makes them fruitful. The rain quickens living seeds in the ground, though it imparts no life to dead ones; so the Word is the Spirit’s instrument for quickening God’s elect (John 3:5; James 1:18), who previously had (federal) life in Christ.
There is nothing in nature that God assumes the more into His own prerogative than the giving of rain. The first reference to it in Scripture is as follows, "For the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth" (Gen. 2:5). All rain is from God, who gives or withholds it at His pleasure. The sending of rain He appeals to as a great pledge of His promises and goodness: "Nevertheless He left not Himself without witness, in that He did good, and gave us rain from heaven" etc. (Acts 14:17). Whatever conclusions men may draw from the commonness of it, and however they may imagine they are acquainted with its causes, nevertheless God distinguishes Himself from all the idols of the world in that none of them can give rain: "Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain?" (Jer. 14:22). Hence the prophet said, "Let us now fear the Lord our God, that giveth rain" (Jer. 5:24).
The high sovereignty of God is also exhibited in the manner of His bestowal and non-bestowal of rain: "Also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereon it rained not withered" (Amos 4:7). Thus it is absolutely in connection with His providential sending of the Gospel to nations, cities, and individuals: it is of God’s disposal alone, and He exercises a distinguishing authority thereon. "Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia, After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not" (Acts 16:6, 7). God sends His Gospel to one nation and not to another, to one city and not to another—there are many large towns both in England and the United States where there is no real Gospel preached today—and at one season and not at another.
The natural is but a shadowing forth of the spiritual. What a contrast was there between Egypt (figure of the world), and Canaan (type of the Church)! "For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou sowedst thy seed, and waterest with thy foot, as a garden of herbs. But the land, whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven: A land which the Lord thy God careth for; the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year unto the end of the year... I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain" (Deut. 11:11, 12, 14). Thus,—there were two special wet seasons: the first in October (the beginning of Israel’s year), when their seed was cast into the ground: the other in March when their corn was nearly grown. Hence we read, "Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest" (Josh. 3:15, and cf. 1 Chronicles 12:15). Besides these, were many "showers" (Ps. 65:10).
"The rain that cometh oft upon it". The reference is to the repeated and frequent ministerial showers with which God visited Israel. To them He had called, "O earth, earth, earth, hear the Word of the Lord!" (Jer. 22:29). It was looking back to these multiplied servants which Jehovah had sent to His ancient people that Christ said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together" (Matthew 23:37). This then was the "earth" in which were the plants of God’s husbandry.
In what follows to the end of the passage the apostle distributes the plants into two classes: "herbs" (verse 7), "thorns and briers" (verse 8). The former, represent those who, having believed and obeyed the Gospel, brought forth the fruits of practical godliness. These constituted that "remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 11:5), which obtained mercy, when the rest of their brethren according to the flesh were blinded. These still continued to be the vineyard of the Lord, a field which He cared for. They formed the first Gospel church, gathered out from the Hebrews, which brought forth fruit to the glory of God, and was blessed by Him. The latter, were made up of obstinate unbelievers on the one hand, who persistently rejected Christ and His Gospel; and on the other hand, of those who embraced the profession of the Gospel, but after a season returned again to Judaism. These were rejected of God, fell under His curse and perished.
"And bringeth forth herbs". Several have noted the close resemblance which our present passage bears to the parable of the Sower, recorded in the Gospels. There are some notable parallels between them; the one of most importance being, to observe that in both places we have men looked at, not from the standpoint of God’s eternal counsels (as for example, Ephesians 1:3-11), but according to human responsibility. The earth which receives the rain, is a figure of the hearts and minds of the Jews, to whom the Word of God had been sent, and to whom, in the days of Christ and His apostles, the Gospel had been preached. So our Lord compared His hearers unto several sorts of ground into which the seed is cast—observe how the word "dressed" or "tilled" presupposes the seed. What response, then, will the earth make to the repeated rains? or, to interpret the figure, What fruit is brought forth by those who heard the Gospel? That is the particular aspect of truth the Holy Spirit here has before Him.
"And bringeth forth herbs". The verb here properly signifies the bringing forth of a woman that hath conceived with child, cf. Luke 1:31. So here the earth is said to bring forth as from a womb impregnated, the rains causing the seeds to issue in fruit. The Greek word for "herbs" occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It appears to be a general term for vegetables and cereals. It is found frequently in the Sept. as the equivalent of the Hebrews "eseb", which has the same extensive meaning. Now just as the cultivator of land has a right to expect that, under the providential blessings of God, his toils shall be rewarded, that the seed he has sown and the ground he has tilled, should yield an increase, so had Jehovah the right to expect fruit from Israel: "And He looked that it (His vineyard) should bring forth grapes" (Isa. 5:4).
"Meet for them by whom it is dressed". The Greek may be rightly rendered thus: equally so, as in the margin, "for whom" it is dressed: either makes good sense. "By whom" would look to the actual cultivator; "for whom," the proprietor. The apostle’s design here is to show the importance of making a proper use of receiving God’s Word: a "meet" or suitable response should be forthcoming. The ministry of the Gospel tests the state of the hearts of those to whom it comes, just as the fallen rain does the ground which receives it; tests it by exhibiting its character from what is brought forth by it. As it is in nature, so it is in grace; the more frequently the rain falls, and the more the ground be cultivated, the better and heavier should be the yield. Thus it is with God’s elect. The more they sit under the ministry of the Word, and the more they seek grace to improve what they hear, the more fruit will they yield unto God. Thus it had been with the godly in Israel.
"Receiveth blessing from God." The "blessing" here is not antecedent in the communication of mercies, for that we have at the beginning of the verse; rather is it a consequent upon the bringing forth of "herbs" or fruit. What we have here is God’s acceptation and approbation, assuring His care unto a further improvement: "A vineyard of red wine: I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment; lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day" (Isa. 27:2, 3). Three things then are included in God’s blessing of this fruitful field: First, His owning of it: He is not ashamed to acknowledge it as His. Second, His watch-care over it, His pruning of the branches that they may bring forth more fruit (John 15:2). Third, His final preservation of it from evil, as opposed to the destruction of barren ground. All this was true of that part of Israel spoken of in Romans 11:5.
"But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected" (verse 8). It is important to note that in the similitude there is a common subject of the whole, which is then divided into two parts, with very different events ascribed unto each. The common subject is "the earth," of the nature whereof both parts are equally participant. Originally, and naturally, they differ not. On this common subject, on both parts or branches of it, the "rain" equally falls. And too both are equally "dressed." The difference between them lies, first, in what each part of "the earth" (Israel) produced; and secondly, God’s dealings with each part. As we have seen, the one part brought forth "herbs" meet for the dresser or owner: a suitable response was made to the rain given and the care expended upon it. The other, which we are now to look at, is the very reverse.
"But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected." Everything here is in sharp antithesis from the terms of the preceding verse. There, the good ground, "bringeth forth", the Greek word signifying a natural conception and production of anything in due order and season. But the evil ground "beareth" thorns and briers, the Greek verb signifying an unnatural and monstrous production, a casting out in abundance of that which is not only without the use of means, but actually against it. As God said of His Israelitish vineyard, "He looketh that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes" (Isa. 5:2). The Greek for "thorns and briers" is identical with the Sept. rendering of Genesis 3:18, which, in our Bibles, is rendered, "thorns and thistles". Three thoughts seem suggested by the term here given to the product of this evil ground. First, it brought forth that which was of no profit to its owner, that which promoted not the glory of God. Second, "thorns and briers" are of a hurtful and noxious nature: see Ezekiel 28:24, etc. Third, these terms tell us that all which is brought forth by the natural man is under the curse of God: Genesis 3:18, 4:11, 12.
"But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected". Land which, after cultivation, brings forth only such products, is abandoned by the farmer as worthless. The Greek word here for "rejected", signifies the setting aside as useless after trial has been made of a thing. The application of it here is to by far the greater part of the Jewish people. First, Christ had warned them "the kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matthew 21:43). Second, after their full and open rejection of Himself and His Gospel, Christ told them, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Matthew 23:38). Third, proof that the Nation as a whole had been "rejected" by God, is found in Acts 2:40, when, on the day of Pentecost, Peter bade the believing remnant, "Save yourselves from this untoward generation".
"And is nigh unto cursing". This is in sharp contrast from what was said of the good ground: "receiveth blessing from God". The word "cursing" here, means, "given over to execration", or "devoted to destruction". It was given over to be "burned", which, according to the analogy of faith, means, it would be visited with Divine judgment. Israel had become a barren tree, a cumberer of the ground, and the word had gone forth, "Cut it down"(Luke 12:7, 9). Further proof that Israel as a nation was given over to "execration", is found in the solemn incident of Christ’s cursing of the "fig tree" (Matthew 21:19), figure of the Jews, see Matthew 24:32. True, a short respite had been granted—another "year" (Luke 13:8)—hence the "nigh unto cursing".
"Whose end is to be burned". In Eastern lands, when a husbandman discovers that a piece of ground is worthless, he neglects it, abandons it. Next, he breaks down its fences, that it may be known it is outside the bounds of his possession. Finally, he sets fire to its weeds, to prevent their seeds being blown on to his good ground. Thus it was with Israel. In the last chapter of Acts we see how the apostle Paul warned the Jews how that God had set them aside (Acts 28:25-28), and shortly after, the solemn words of Christ in Matthew 22:7 were fulfilled, "He sent forth His armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city".
The contents of Hebrews 6:7, 8 are not to be restricted to the regenerated and unregenerated Jews, for "as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (Prov. 27:19). "This is a similitude most appropriate to excite a desire to make progress in due time; for as the earth cannot bring forth a good crop in harvest except it causes the seed as soon as it is sown to germinate, so if we desire to bring forth good fruit, as soon as the Lord sows His Word, it ought to strike roots in us without delay; for it cannot be expected to fructify, if it be either choked or perish. But as the similitude is very suitable, so it must be wisely applied to the design of the apostle.
"The earth, he says, which be sucking in the rain produces a blade suitable to the seed sown, at length by God’s blessing produces a ripe crop; so they who receive the seed of the Gospel into their hearts and bring forth genuine shoots, will always make progress until they produce ripe fruit. On the contrary, the earth, which after culture and irrigation, brings forth nothing but thorns, affords no hope of a harvest; nay, the more that grows which is its natural produce, the more hopeless is the case. Hence the only remedy the husbandman has is to burn up the noxious and useless weeds. So they who destroy the seed of the Gospel, either by their indifference or by corrupt affections, so as to manifest no sign of good progress in their life, clearly show themselves to be reprobates, from whom no harvest can be expected. The apostle then, not only speaks here of the fruit of the Gospel, but also exhorts us promptly to embrace it, and he further tells us, that the blade appears presently after the seed is sown, and that grain follows the daily irrigations". (Dr. John Calvin).
The Lord Jesus completed His parable of the Sower by saying, "Take heed therefore how ye hear" (Luke 8:18): how you profit by it, what use you make of it; be sure that you are a good-ground hearer. Such, are those in whom, first, the Word falls, as into "an honest and good heart" (Luke 8:15), i.e., they bow to its authority, judge themselves by it, are impartial and faithful in applying it to their own failures. Second, they "receive" the Word (Mark 4:20): they make personal appropriation of it, they take it home to themselves, they apply it to their own needs. Third, they "understand" it (Matthew 13:23): they enter into a spiritual and experimental acquaintance with it. Fourth, they "keep" it (Luke 8:15): they retain, heed, obey, practice it. Fifth, they "bring forth fruit with patience" (Luke 8:15), they persevere, overcome all discouragements, triumph over temptations, and walk in the paths of obedience. Upon such the "blessing" of God rests.
Now in contrast from the good-ground hearer, are the wayside, stony, and thorny-ground hearers. These, we believe, are they who come under the common or inferior operations of the Holy Spirit, spoken of in our last article. Let it be carefully noted, First, that even of the wayside hearer (the lowest grade of all) Christ said the Seed was "sown in his heart" (Matthew 13:19). Second, that of the stony-ground hearers it is said, "the same is he that heareth the Word, and anon with joy receiveth it" (Matthew 13:20), and "for a while believeth, and in time of temptation falls away" (Luke 8:13). Third, that of the stony-ground hearer Christ said, "Which when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection" (Luke 8:14). Yet none of them had been born of the Spirit. All that they had brought forth, under His gracious operations, was but the works of the flesh—"thorns and briers".
Above, in our interpretation, we called attention to the difference between the "bringeth forth" of herbs in verse 7, and the "beareth" thorns in verse 8. There is a like producing, but an unlike manner and measure. The former "Bring forth in their lives what was before conceived and cherished in their hearts. They had the root in themselves of what they bring forth. So doth the word here used signify, viz., to bring forth the fruit of an inward conception. The doctrine of the gospel as cast into their hearts, is not only rain but seed also. This is cherished by grace, as precious seed, and as from a spiritual root or principle in their hearts, bringeth forth precious fruit. And herein consists the difference between the fruitbearing of the true believers, and the works of hypocrites or false professors. These latter bring forth fruit like mushrooms, they come up suddenly, have oft-times great bulk and goodly appearance, but are merely a forced excrescence, they have no natural seed or root in the earth. They do not proceed from a living principle in the heart". (Dr. John Owen).
Thus, it should be most carefully borne in mind that the "thorns and briers" of verse 8 have reference not to sins and wickedness as men view things, but to the best products of the flesh, as cultivated by "religion", and that, as instructed out of the Scriptures, and "enlightened" by the Holy Spirit. This is evident from the fact that the thorns and briers, equally with the "herbs", are occasioned by the same "rain" which had come oft upon the earth, and from which they sprang. However fair the professions of the unregenerate may appear in the eyes of their fellows, no matter what proficiency they may reach in an understanding of the letter of Scripture, nor what their zeal in contending for the faith, loyalty to their church, self-sacrifice in their service; yet, in the sight of Him who searcheth the heart and taketh note of the root from which things spring, all is worthless. These products or works are only the fruits of a nature which is under the curse of a holy God.
"But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected" i.e., of God. Little did the Jews believe this when Paul penned those words. Their great boast was that they were God’s people, that He preferred them above all others. Nevertheless, though He yet withheld His wrath for a little space, He had disowned them. The sad analogy to this is found everywhere in Christendom today. Countless thousands who bear the name of Christ, and who have no doubts but that they are among the true people of God, are yet "rejected" by Him. Are you, my reader, among them?
What need is there for every professing Christian to heed that word in 2 Peter 1:10, "Give diligence to make your calling and election sure"! Those who sit under the ministry of God’s Word are upon trial, and it is high time that many of us who have been so long privileged, should call on ourselves to a strict account with respect to our improvement thereof. What are we bringing forth? Are we producing "the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God" (Phil. 1:11)? If so, all praise to Him who has made us fruitful. Or are we, though not notoriously wicked persons, yet so far as fruit for God is concerned, cumberers of the ground? If upon inquiry we find ourselves at a loss to be sure of which sort of ground we belong unto, and this because of our barrenness and leanness, unless we are hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, we shall give ourselves no rest until we have better evidences of our bearing spiritual fruit.
O let these solemn words search our hearts: "And is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned". Such is the awful fate confronting multitudes of professing Christians in the churches today, who resist all exhortations to produce the fruit of godly living. Corrupt desires, pride, worldliness, covetousness, are as plainly to be seen in their lives, as are thorns and briers on abandoned ground. O what a thought! professing Christians, "nigh unto cursing"! Soon to hear their last sermon. Soon to be cut off out of the land of the living. Afterwards to hear from the lips of Christ the fearful sentence, "Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41).