Elementary Principles Bible Study, Lesson 1.

The Elementary Teachings of Messiah

The label “Christian” says quite a bit about the one who accepts it upon himself. One who bears this title associates their own identity with Messiah, the Messiah of Israel whose coming was proclaimed by the Scriptures. In calling themselves Christian, they declare that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah and so they will follow Him; their lives will belong to Him.

There is much that this title does not say, however. Within Christianity there are subgroups and individuals who view their association with Messiah (and what this means in the practice of their faith) through drastically different lenses. Many have noted in truth how different today’s church looks from the example portrayed in Scriptures. Doctrinal and cultural developments throughout history have led to discord, strife, and division. Where did we make a wrong turn, and how do we get back onto the right path? 

Perhaps the best way to progress is to ensure that we have truly understood the basics. As a follower of the Messiah, what essential doctrines form the root of our faith? It is obvious from the very title “Christian” that the Messiah is the foundation which our faith is planted on, but accepting the death and resurrection of Yeshua on our behalf carries with it implications for how we live our lives. Scripture tells not only of the life He lived, but it also speaks of how we are to submit to the governance of God in our lives. Naturally, this is no small task. The single decision to follow Messiah requires a lifetime of further decisions as we experience progressive closeness to our Creator and Redeemer. 

This journey toward God does not just happen behind-the-scenes with the natural progression of time. It requires a concentrated effort. In order to get to the right destination, we must start with our feet firmly on the path of truth. Corrections must be made along the way as new obstacles arise and distractions tempt us away from the path of righteousness. As long as we continue to entrust our steps into God’s hands, knowing that He remains with us to work in our hearts as we allow Him, then we can be assured of the fact that we are growing and maturing according to truth. 

It is a great mistake to measure maturity based on how much time has passed rather than on whether true progress has been made. As a result of a faulty understanding of this concept, our churches are full of many people who sit in the pews for years without becoming any closer to God: not maturing, but merely growing old. The cost of faith for the early believers was high, and often was payed with their own blood. Comfort and ease, instead of providing a stronger platform for following Yeshua, have merely made us more comfortable in the world, greatly hindering our ability to dwell in deep communion with God: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). It is of great importance to examine ourselves and the ground on which we have built our faith lest when the storms come, we find ourselves to have been rootless.

With all of this in mind, we want to take a closer look at what we must do to make sure we, both as the body of Messiah and as individual parts, are on the right path—not stagnating, but truly maturing in knowledge, understanding, and love.

Maturity Problems

The writer of the book of Hebrews had a similar concern for the audience his epistle was addressed to. We see that in chapter 5, he expresses his hope to begin a deep explanation of the role of Yeshua as a heavenly high priest in “the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10). This was going to be an intensive teaching which would require a substantial foundation to already be laid. 

Apparently, the foundation he had hoped to build upon was in a state of disrepair. The writer of the epistle expresses his dissatisfaction with the spiritual growth of the community he was writing to, as he interjects in verse 11, “Concerning him [i.e. Yeshua in His role as high priest] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”

This “dullness of hearing” seems to indicate a regression, a falling from a former state. Just as the ear is prone to grow dull as the body begins winding toward its final stages, so too a spiritual deafness, a slowness of understanding in spiritual matters, signifies growing old unto spiritual death rather than maturing in Messiah unto strength and glory. The language of the verse naturally points us to Isaiah 6, where the prophet is instructed to tell the people, “Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.” This is the dullness of senses, the callousness, which is condemned in our passage in Hebrews. Although the people were continually being exposed to God’s words, they were unable to understand what they truly meant or how to apply them; their eyes glazed over and their hearts turned to simpler matters, similar to how some of us may have trudged through math class when faced with concepts beyond our understanding. For Isaiah’s audience, the continued instructions spoken to them only served to make “their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” Better things were hoped for in the community of the Hebrews.

He continues to say in Hebrews 5:12, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” Once again the language implies that the community had been making progress, but perhaps became wise in their own eyes, feeling no need to press on toward further knowledge, and so their knowledge began to fade. Progress is not made only for personal education, but with the end in mind of teaching and exhorting others in the body of Messiah. Learning is not undertaken only to be held in the mind, but to be lived, shared, and used for the glory of God. We can only train others if we ourselves have been trained and built up beyond the basics, ingesting the solid food rather than the milk.

Scripture, in many places, compares eating to acquiring knowledge and growing closer to God (Psalm 119:103, Jeremiah 15:16, Ezekiel 3:1-3). Beginning even in Eden, the knowledge of good and evil was acquired by eating from the fruit of the tree (Genesis 2:9, 3:6-7). This concept is further expanded as God instructs the Israelites, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Just as the food we eat goes into our innermost being and gives us what we need in order to keep our physical bodies alive, so too we must ingest the teachings of God, allowing them to permeate our hearts and keep us on the path of life. Yeshua Himself declares, “I am the bread of life,” and Peter, when questioned about this, affirms, “You have words of eternal life” (John 6:48, 68). 

When we were babies, we were not capable of eating solid, dense foods like meat and bread, but survived off of milk. As we grew, however, we needed to progress on to foods which contained more nutrients. An adult cannot survive off of milk, nor can a baby survive off of anything but milk. Such is the case spiritually as well, which we see as we return to our passage in Hebrews. The author is concerned that this community will choke on what he wants to feed them, but he is also concerned that if they continue only on a diet of milk that they will begin to starve: “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14). 

Progression on the path of life requires knowledge of good and of evil in order to conduct oneself only according to the good. By learning from God’s word to discern the evil from the good, we are able to apply these lessons to our lives and teach others how to avoid the pitfalls of sin as well as how to bear fruit for God. The initial teachings received after becoming a believer are not enough to sustain us through this journey, although it is essential that these teachings be received. They are our foundation, the first steps of the journey. Hebrews 6 begins by describing six foundational principles that the author of the epistle considered to be the initial, elementary lessons for a follower of Messiah:

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Messiah, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. (verses 1-3)

These six foundational topics of instruction will form the basis of this study. Through close examination of Scripture and early religious documents, we will discover whether or not our foundation in Messiah has been established firmly on the sound doctrine which the author of this epistle assumed of his readers. This we will do if God permits, so that we may continue on into maturity. 

Interestingly, the book of Hebrews is not the only place where we notice this type of instruction for new initiates into the faith, what has in popular terms become known as a “catechism.” Several early Christian documents have emerged which contain this style of instruction for new believers, and we are going to examine some of what they have to say in order to shed light on our central passage here in Hebrews 6:1-2

The Two Ways

Literature produced in the first few centuries of Christianity provides us with an interesting perspective into the lives of early believers. It gives us insight into how the faith we hold today has developed and shifted over time. On the other hand, we ought to be careful when reading some of these documents, keeping in mind that they are not Scripture, but do serve to give us a look into the different views present among those who considered themselves followers of Yeshua, and perhaps we can glean some valuable insight from them. 

As mentioned above, there are some such documents which seem to expand on the topics that Hebrews 6:1-2 introduces as the basic instructions about the faith for new believers, the “elementary teaching about the Messiah.” The author of Hebrews briefly provides a list of terms in these verses, assuming that his readers already know what he means when he refers to these teachings. This would seem to indicate that he is referring to some external body of teaching that the believers already knew about and had received as part of their catechism, their beginning education into the faith. 

While the exact teachings they received in this catechism are not indicated, we can make some assumptions when we examine similar literature produced by the early believers. An interesting theme that appears in several early documents is known as “The Two Ways.” This is a body of instructions for how a follower of Yeshua is to live in order to remain on the path of righteousness once they have received baptism and are considered to truly be a member of the community of believers. The teaching begins by explaining that the many choices we make and the deeds that result from these choices can be broken down generally into two categories, signified by two paths: the way of life or light, which is the way of righteousness, and the way of death or darkness, which is wickedness. The deeds associated with these two ways are then explained in detail, and believers are exhorted to follow the way of life while avoiding the way of death. 

The ways of life and death are presented in a similar fashion in Scripture. For example, in Deuteronomy 30, the people of Israel are presented with an ultimatum: 

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it” (verses 15-16).

Here God gives the people a choice between two ways. They can walk in the way of life by following His commands, which reaps the rewards of life and prosperity, or they can walk in the way of death by following the evil desires of their hearts on a path that leads to destruction. The book of Proverbs also utilizes this theme extensively in presenting the choices we must make in regard to acting either with moral wisdom or immoral foolishness (Proverbs 2:6-20, 4:10-19, 25-27). Other references abound in Scripture, proving that this was a commonly used method of presenting how the righteous conduct their behavior (Psalm 1:6, Jeremiah 21:8, Matthew 7:13-14). 

Since this format was so popular in the Old Testament, it should not surprise us to find that it was used in other forms of Jewish literature in a similar fashion. One example of this is found in the words of a rabbi who was alive during the early first century named Yochanon ben Zakkai. He is recorded as saying to his disciples, “Go out and see what is a straight path that a person should cling to.” After his disciples answer him, he commends one of them, who had answered that a good heart is the straight path that a person should follow, for from a good heart comes all good actions (m. Avot 2:9).

Another example of Jewish literature containing this theme is found in the Qumran scrolls of the Essenes. The Essenes were a sect of Judaism during the time when the second temple stood, thus they were around while Yeshua walked and taught. Because of the corruption and worldliness in the priesthood of the Sadducees, these Essenes seceded from society and formed a separate community in the caves of Qumran, an area near the Dead Sea. 

A scroll found in these caves gives instructions and regulations for community members to follow if they wish to stay in the community and live righteously. Part of this teaching utilizes the imagery of the two ways, albeit somewhat altered in order to match the unique theology of the Essenes:

He has created man to govern the world, and has appointed for him two spirits in which to walk until the time of His visitation: the spirits of truth and falsehood. Those born of truth spring from a fountain of light, but those born of falsehood spring from a source of darkness. All the children of righteousness are ruled by the Prince of Light and walk in the ways of light, but all the children of falsehood are ruled by the Angel of Darkness and walk in the way of darkness. (1QS III, 17-21)

After this brief introduction to the two types of people who walk on two different paths, the specifics of these paths are explained:

These are their ways in the world for the enlightenment of the heart of man, and that all the paths of true righteousness may be made straight before him, and that the fear of the laws of God may be instilled in his heart: a spirit of humility, patience, abundant charity, unending goodness, understanding, and intelligence; (a spirit of) mighty wisdom which trusts in all the deeds of God and leans on His great lovingkindness; a spirit of discernment in every purpose, of zeal for just laws, of holy intent with steadfastness of heart, of great charity towards all the sons of truth, of admirable purity which detests all unclean idols, of humble conducts spring[ing] from an understanding of all things, and of faithful concealment of the mysteries of truth. These are the counsels of the spirit to the sons of truth in this world… But the ways of the spirit of falsehood are these: greed, and slackness in the search for righteousness, wickedness and lies, haughtiness and pride, falseness and deceit, cruelty and abundant evil, ill-temper and much folly and brazen insolence, abominable deeds (committed) in a spirit of lust, and ways of lewdness in the service of uncleanness, a blaspheming tongue, blindness of eye and dullness of ear, stiffness of neck and heaviness of heart, so that man walks in all the ways of darkness and guile. (1QS IV, 2-12)

This example is particularly interesting because of how closely the early Christian literature which contains the two ways teaching mirrors the format found here from the Essene community: first the two ways are introduced, and then the deeds associated with each are listed. 

It is natural that the early believers in Yeshua, who saw themselves as a sect within Judaism, would produce similar literature to what we find in the Judaism of that time. Naturally they would also develop a form of the two ways teaching where the words of Yeshua are the central focus.

The foundation Christianity initially had within Judaism has not been emphasized or understood fully in the mainstream practice of the religion, that is, when it has even been acknowledged at all. Many translators and theologians have operated on the assumption that Yeshua and the apostles set out to form a new religion separate from Judaism and to form a new people of God separate from the old one. We cannot in truth understand the full message of the Scriptures until we are able to recognize that, the Gentiles who have believed in Yeshua do not form a separate religion, but become part of the “commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2:12-13); the Torah (Law/teaching) of God is “spiritual, holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12, 14); Paul walked in a lifestyle of Torah-obedience (Acts 21:24, 24:14,17-18, 25:8, 28:17); and “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Torah until all is accomplished… [and] whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19). The similarities between the two ways of teaching found at Qumran and in early Christian writings is an outgrowth of this early station of Christianity within Judaism. 

A particular form of the two ways of teaching is present in several prominent early Christian documents: the Didache (c. 50-120), the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 80-120), and later in the Apostolic Constitutions (c. 370-380). All three of these texts contain a similar expression of the two ways passage. Scholars therefore believe that they are all drawing from the same source when they include their two ways of teaching, although each has minor variations to the text. Another perspective is that the Didache was the earliest of these documents and the rest based their versions off of the one included in the Didache. Pointing to how rooted this form of instruction is in Judaism, some have asserted that all three are basing their two ways text off of an oral teaching that circulated around among the earliest believers, possibly even originating from the apostles themselves. Because of how obvious the Jewish influence is on this document, it is estimated to be fairly early, before Christianity and Judaism began to go their separate ways.


Of the three documents listed above, the most interesting and relevant to our current study is the Didache. The word didache is Greek for “teaching/instruction.” The full title of the work is translated as, “The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles.” This title indicates that the body of instruction contained in this document claims to have originated with Yeshua and passed on to the twelve apostles, who either put together this body of instruction themselves or passed the same teaching down orally to others who compiled these oral teachings into the present document. Education of Gentile converts seems to be the particular aim of these instructions, implying that the author assumed a faith otherwise centered within a Jewish context. Many documents from the early years of Christianity erroneously claim to be written by the apostles, but this one is interesting due to its early composition date and obvious connection to Judaism. 

Several early church leaders reference and quote sayings found in this work in their writings, lending credence to the validity of this document. For example, Clement of Alexandria authored a work around AD 200 which quotes the Didache and equates it with Scripture. Speaking of those who adopt ideas from other cultures as their own, he says, “It is such a one that is by Scripture called a thief. It is therefore said, ‘Son, be not a liar; for falsehood leads to theft’” (Stromata I, 20). The quote he uses here, which he introduces as Scripture, is taken directly from the two ways section found in the Didache: “My child, do not be a liar, because lying leads to theft” (Didache 3.5). 

On the other hand, Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (c. AD 323-324), while discussing which books are accepted or rejected as canonical, says the following: “Among the rejected writings must be reckoned… the so-called Teachings of the Apostles… which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books” (Ecclesiastical History III, 25). By the time this was written, numerous changes had taken place within Christianity, and the remnants of Judaism that remained in the Didache were seen as an unneeded relic. Rejecting the canonicity of the Didache does not mean it became forbidden, but merely that it would not be considered to have been written through divine inspiration. Eusebius also tells us that there was some level of debate whether this and other writings were to be accepted or rejected, indicating that there were some who, similar to Clement of Alexandria, believed the Didache to be on the same level as Scripture.

As time went on, more advanced forms of catechism and ecclesiastical literature evolved, building off of the Didache and other such works while adapting them to account for updates in theology and cultural conditions. Documents belonging to the genre known as “church orders” began to spring up in an attempt to provide authoritative evidence for certain organizational structures in the church. These church orders often claimed to be developed by the apostles, influential church fathers, or even Yeshua Himself. One such example of this is the document which we mentioned in passing earlier titled the Apostolic Constitutions. This document from the late 300s builds off of earlier church orders, including the Didache, and serves to show that during this period attempts were being made to consolidate different literature into a single body of doctrine which could be used in governing the church. The Didache’s focus on personal morality and community-focused living did not provide the extensive, intricate doctrine which the church was looking for.

Within the Didache, a framework for how to live as an individual in the fellowship of believers is established. Such issues as moral conduct, interpersonal relationships (both within the community and toward outsiders), mealtime blessings, and ecclesiastical authority structures are explained for the new believer, providing a solid foundation to be built off of once these teachings were mastered. 

If we understand the section in Hebrews 6:1-2 as referring to an extra-Biblical catechism that early believers were brought through, then we have no better source of inquiry than the Didache. All six principles are explained in this document, and although the teachings in the Didache are not categorized according to these principles, they nevertheless form the backbone of the catechism. Earlier we mentioned how the Didache may be based off of an early oral instruction, and it is possible that the passage in Hebrews 6 was referring to this oral instruction, a strain of which may have developed into the Didache as we have it today. Considering all of these things, we can see that there is potentially great value in examining the principles of Hebrews 6:1-2 alongside their practical application as explained in the Didache.

Enlightenment and Life Lost

Since we are going to be talking about practical instructions and commandments as they apply to a believer’s life, it would be dangerous to proceed if there exists any misunderstanding about the role and purpose of these actions. Scripture is clear that the means of salvation for a man can not be found within himself or through his own deeds. There is only one way for righteousness to be attained, and that is by being washed in the blood of the spotless Lamb of God, Yeshua the Messiah. God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son to redeem us through His sacrificial death and suffering on the cross. Faith in Him is the only hope we have for salvation.

One aspect of this work of Yeshua is to redeem us from our own sinful nature, our lawless desires: 

Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Messiah Yeshua. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God… For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. (Romans 6:11-13)

Responding to Yeshua’s sacrifice, we too sacrifice ourselves and our desires in conformance with God’s will:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

It is no longer a matter of “trying to do better” by relying on whatever few and fleeting changes we ourselves are able to work in our lives, but the Holy Spirit will lead us, working in and with us in order to draw us nearer to God in holiness: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). 

This process is known as sanctification, and it is not found in a memory of a single decision made many years ago, nor is it a process that we can avoid if we claim to have faith. It is a lifestyle which is full of highs and lows, discipline and joy. On the path to God, we will inevitably stumble, but not so as to fall, for His grace empowers us to continue in obedience to His commandments even through the darkest, most difficult of times. The refinement of our character will not be completed until our Messiah returns or calls us to Himself. Therefore we ought to press forward in joy, never losing sight of the price that was paid for our redemption and our glorification if we indeed hold to our hope and faith.

This topic of sanctification was one which the author of the epistle to the Hebrews felt they needed to hear. The community he was writing to had not been allowing God to do this work of sanctification within them. As such, after reminding them of the basic principles which they learned of in the beginning and encouraging them to move toward growth in God, he issues a warning concerning those who would choose to persist in unfruitful behavior:

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)

What exactly are these verses saying? What does it mean to “fall away” in this context, and why is it impossible for one who has fallen away in this manner to be renewed again to repentance? How would coming into this repentance be like crucifying Yeshua over again? Scripture tells us that repentance is essential when we sin. While a person is still alive, how could repentance ever be forbidden? What exactly is going on here? Many have had a difficult time understanding the point of this passage, but if we examine it with the Didache and the process of catechism in mind, a clearer interpretation arises. 

The first term that must be looked at closer is “enlightened.” The Greek word which is used is based on the word photizo, Generally this word can mean to illuminate, enlighten, or bring to light. In the passage in Hebrews, the term seems to be referring to an event that happened one time in the believer’s past and cannot happen again. A similar use is also seen later in Hebrews 10:32. Does this term serve to indicate a general recognition of religious truth on the individual’s part, or is there something else that the author had in mind? We find an interesting possibility in the words of Justin Martyr, written somewhere between AD 155-157. In explaining the concept of baptism, he says:

“And this washing is called illumination, because those who learn these things are illuminated in their understanding. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology 61)

The word translated “illumination” is from the same root word used in Hebrews 6, photizo. While the later date of Martyr’s text doesn’t prove anything about the book of Hebrews, it does show that enlightenment or illumination was related to baptism fairly early in the development of the faith. In addition, the two ways teaching contained in the Epistle of Barnabas introduces the two ways as the “way of light” and the “way of darkness.” Therefore the term “enlightenment” may refer specifically to baptism and what it meant for the believer: they were now beginning their journey on the way of light and life. 

Continuing in verses 4-5, we see several other first steps that the believer would take once they were baptized. The next thing we see is that the believer has “tasted of the heavenly gift.” Usually this is interpreted as referring to a metaphorical tasting of the goodness of God. But since we are comparing this passage to the Didache, we find another interpretation. If becoming “enlightened” does indeed refer to baptism and initiation into the body of Messiah, then it follows that “tasting of the heavenly gift” refers to partaking of a literal meal. 

In Judaism and the early Christian community, communal meals were more than just for filling their bellies. Meals were elevated into holy events when they were associated with sacrifice or covenant-making (Genesis 31:44-46,52-54, Exodus 18:12, 24:9-11). In Ezekiel 11:16, God says of His people, “Though I had removed them far away among the nations and though I had scattered them among the countries, yet I was a sanctuary for them a little while in the countries where they had gone.” The rabbis interpreted this to mean that even in the absence of the temple, the worship of the temple, yet continued, since God’s sanctuary was yet with the people. Thus the worship which happened through the eating of sacrifices was said to be carried on when people devoted their meals to God.

The book of Acts seems to indicate that the early believers understood the possibility for communal meals to be sanctified as well (Acts 2:42, 46). The Didache also is not silent about these meals. After giving instructions on how to bless before eating bread, it says the following: “But do not let anyone eat or drink by means of your giving of thanks except those immersed in the name of the Lord, for the Lord even said concerning this, ‘Do not give what is holy to the dogs’” (Didache 9.5). The reason the meals were not to be partaken of by non-baptized people is because of the holy nature of the meal: it was equated to the sacrificial meals which were only to be eaten by those who had been purified (Leviticus 7:6, 19-21). This concept is developed further in a later chapter of the Didache which uses the symbolism of sacrifice while speaking of breaking bread and sharing in one of these holy meals:

On the day of the Lord, being gathered together, break bread and give thanks after having confessed your transgressions, so that your sacrifice may be pure. But do not let anyone who has a quarrel with his fellow come together with you until they have reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be impure. For this is what was spoken by the Lord: ‘In every place and time, offer me a pure sacrifice … because I am a great king,’ says the Lord, ‘and my name is awesome among the Gentiles.’” (Didache 14)

Therefore it is likely that Hebrews 6:4-5 are referring to the first steps a believer would take in beginning their path of sanctification: baptism, partaking of a holy meal, joining together in prayer and worship, and receiving moral instructions. 

If all of this is true, then how does this help us understand what is meant by “falling away?” When we think of falling away from faith, our thoughts turn to those who claim to have believed, but then return to an extended, overtly sinful lifestyle. This seems to be the way this English phrase is used, for example, in Luke 8:13 and Hebrews 3:12. The Greek word used in these verses is from the root word aphistemi, which usually indicates a removal, withdrawal, or departure, as also in Acts 15:38

The passage in Hebrews 6, however, seems to be talking about something else, and as such uses a different word to indicate that it is not talking about such blatant apostasy. The Greek word used here is parapipto, used only once in the New Testament. This word is not so much about removing oneself from the faith entirely (as would likely be meant by aphistemi) as it is a falling to the side or taking a misstep on a path. Considering what we have seen about the two ways teaching, this clarified definition makes sense in the passage. In this case, the danger is not of falling, but of taking a wrong turn, of straying from the way of life onto the way of death.

Now we come to the part of the passage that has caused great difficulty in interpretation. If anyone were to step off the path of life, we are told, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” This seems to run counter to the whole message of Scripture. Repentance is exactly for those who step off the path. It is only when we stray from God’s ways that we are even in the position to repent and return to the path. So what does this mean?

As we have examined this passage, we have seen the use of certain terms which the author intended to be defined in a particular context, while the term itself could also be used generally (e.g. “enlightened”). Keeping this in mind, as well as the context we are dealing with of a catechism or entry-level faith discussion, what could repentance signify here, and what relation does it have to crucifying the Messiah over again? 

Scripture alludes several times to the symbolism of baptism and its relation to the crucifixion. Paul explains:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Messiah Yeshua have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Messiah was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4).

He says again in Colossians, “Having been buried with Him in baptism… you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God” (Colossians 2:12). Baptism into the faith was symbolic of the death and resurrection of Yeshua. Descending into the water symbolizes Yeshua’s crucifixion and descent into the grave, and rising from the water represents His resurrection. This is why we are only baptized once and not every time we sin: we have already symbolically been resurrected. According to Scripture, being baptized again would only serve symbolically to crucify Yeshua over again. It is definitely possible that the term repentance is used here as a shorthand name for the convert’s initial repentance into the faith as symbolized by baptism (Mark 1:4, Acts 2:38).

Putting this all together, an interesting message emerges, one that ties in well with the Didache and catechism model and the overall context which our passage is contained in. In Hebrews 6:4-6, the author is saying that if one who has already been baptized and become a member of the body of Messiah should fall aside from the way of life either by failing to advance past the elementary principles or by actively engaging in the ways of death, it is impossible to be re-baptized and start over again at the beginning. Even if the believer came to live as if they were never baptized and completely forgot all the elementary teachings they had learned, if they were to repent and return to God there would be no second catechism, no second baptism. Therefore the writer of the epistle encourages his readers to be diligent and fruitful in their faith, otherwise they will find that their path has led them to judgment, and their baptism and early growth will have been to no avail:

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; 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)

Scripture tends to use agricultural imagery to teach us different lessons. Here we see believers compared to different types of soil which yield either good vegetation or bad vegetation. Believers who absorb the words of life, signified by rain, bring forth good and useful vegetation, meaning good works and obedience, as they are disciplined, or tilled, by the gardener, Yeshua (Luke 13:6-8). But that soil which rejects the rain and is hardened to the words of life, those who although having been baptized and coming to knowledge of the truth nevertheless persist in slothfulness and worldliness: the fruit produced by their deeds cannot be used by the Gardener, and if they persist in wrongdoing, their end will be destruction. 

In several other passages in Hebrews, this same point is stressed, urging us to stay on the path of righteousness and diligence (Hebrews 10:26-27, 12:15-17). The warnings are very strong against failing to live up to our faith, encouraging us to remain sober and alert so that we should always be found doing our Father’s will. There could be no misunderstanding about the truth that there is no safety in simply becoming part of a religious group. The individual exercise of faith is what makes us holy and sanctified, set apart from the world. It is our identity, and if we do not continue to live as redeemed people then we will reap the rewards of our actions. 

The author of Hebrews realizes that what he is saying may be difficult to hear. He continues to exhort his readers so that they will not be discouraged and so fall away further due to despair:

But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:9-12)

Rather than feeling as if they had already attained, the people are encouraged to increase in their love and good works until the end. Harsh warnings and discipline are for the purpose of urging on toward purity and holiness, not to judge or condemn. Although the people were apparently doing some good and did have a love for God which was evident by their actions, they were beginning to relax in their deeds. Yeshua Himself warns of this attitude. Comparing Himself to the master of a house who leaves his servants in charge while going on a long journey, He says:

Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. (Mark 13:35-36)

And again He says, “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34).

The same attitude which Paul expresses ought to be our desire as well: 

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Messiah Yeshua. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Messiah Yeshua.” (Philippians 3:12-14)

The Way Forward

Now that we understand the context of our passage in Hebrews, we will continue in subsequent lessons to break down the principles listed in verses 1-2 in order to make sure our foundation is indeed firm in these elementary, fundamental truths. Misunderstanding or having little knowledge in these areas will hinder our understanding of the Scriptures and prevent us from making the progress that God wishes to see made in our walk with Him.

As we continue we ought to ask ourselves, what would the writer of Hebrews have to say today if he were writing an epistle to our church? Would he be satisfied with our spiritual maturity? Have we made proper use of the instructions we have received in God’s word so that we may not only increase and bear fruit in our own lives, but minister to others in the body as well? Are our ears open and sharpened to hear the deep truths of God’s word and apply them, or have we grown all too accustomed and complacent to it all? Have we been sitting at the crossroads with one foot on the path of life and one on the path of death? If so, know that it is not too late to make amends with our loving Father. He has already paid the price for you to be forgiven and return to Him in repentance.

If we honestly examine the overall state of the church today, we will find that many who claim fellowship have not begun to have a firm foundation laid in their lives. Some circles of Christianity seem to be more focused on getting people to adhere to a certain confession than to actually follow the teachings of Yeshua. We hear much of God’s mercy and grace (which are indeed at the very center of our faith), but we do not hear so much about laying down our lives and our desires in order to please God and submit to His will and His discipline, whatever the cost may be. What is the use of sharing the gospel message if that gospel has been stripped of its potency in the individual’s life? Conversion and baptism were never an end, but these things mark only the beginning of a journey that lasts for a lifetime. The time to consider the cost of discipleship is not after conversion, but before, as Yeshua Himself says:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:26-28)

The choice to follow Yeshua is not placed to the side as a supplement to our will, but rather His will and His ways supplant our own. If we have counted the cost and are ready to accept this life, then let us begin to move forward. The way of life lies before us, a path that is paved by God, and we will find that not only has He been alongside us with every step, but He will be our eternal reward at the end. 

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