Elementary Principles, Part 1
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 the Christ, 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.
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 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 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 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.