Elementary Principles, Part 2
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 be 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 they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. 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 of 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 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 feasible 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.