Elementary Principles, Part 9
In the first lesson of this study, we began by bringing attention to the root of our individual faith and the way that we may live that faith in our daily walk. As believers, we have been redeemed from the old sinful practices of the world and are called to walk in newness of life. After the initial act of putting our faith in Yeshua for the forgiveness of our sins, we begin a new life governed not by ourselves, but by our Redeemer.
Historically, there have been many conceptions about the correct way to be a disciple of Yeshua. Although most Christians make great efforts to be genuine and led by the Spirit when formulating doctrine, careful to base beliefs off of the teachings contained in Scripture, somehow different groups come to drastically different conclusions. Each competing viewpoint strives to carry on the ancient teachings passed on from the Messiah and His apostles. In the process, we view things through the lens of undetected cultural and theological bias, unable to clearly focus on what the apostles truly envisioned for the future disciples of the Master.
This study does not claim to have transcended such bias. Try as we may, a completely objective view is not easily achieved. In spite of this, hopefully by placing things in their historical context we have arrived at a closer understanding of what the audience they were speaking to interpreted from their teachings. As we have set out to interpret the Scriptures used in this study, we have compared them to other works from the period which hopefully give us some insight into how the people of that time may have understood the words contained in Scripture.
While the interpretation of many passages of Scripture is aided by approaching them from this perspective, we specifically focused on a passage found in the book of Hebrews. The author of this epistle was trying to teach a very profound lesson about the Messiah, but felt he was hindered by the infantile state of the believers he was writing to. While he had expected them by this time to be capable of understanding deeper truths and in fact to be capable of teaching others the same, this expectation was not met as he had hoped: “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” (Hebrews 5:12).
The author of Hebrews does go on to teach this lesson, but not before he reproves them for their lack of growth. It is perhaps an exaggeration on his part to claim that the community needed to relearn the elementary principles, because he does not proceed to teach them any lessons on these basic principles. Instead, he simply lists off the teachings which this community must have received as its introduction to the teachings 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. (Hebrews 6:1-2)
One of the ways we approached this list was by understanding it as referring to a series of lessons which the community received as a catechism, or introductory period of instruction before joining the faith. We perhaps have a glimpse of this catechism in the early work known as the Didache, the title of which is the Greek word for “instruction.” The six teachings listed in these verses are present in the work. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that Hebrews is referring to the Didache itself, but it is perhaps referring to an oral tradition which the Didache itself was also based off of. Since we do not have this oral tradition, however, the Didache provides us with a glimpse into what it might have looked like.
The full title of the Didache actually makes the claim that it contains the teachings of the twelve apostles, supposedly as passed down to them from Yeshua. Whether this is true or not is heavily debated. There exist many documents from early Christianity which claim to be written by the apostles or other important figures, but due to their content obviously were not. The Didache is different from these other forgeries in that it is from an early stage in Christianity that was still largely influenced and rooted in Judaism. While later works were more focused on fleshing out a theological framework, the Didache presents itself as an instruction manual for everyday life in a community of believers.
In this study, we broke this list down into its six parts and attempted to understand what type of teachings the author of Hebrews assumed his readers would have received about these teachings. Obviously our main source of inquiry was Scripture, since this is the foundation of all sound teaching. We also examined how these Scriptures were interpreted by those within Judaism as well as early Christianity. We will briefly summarize what we learned about each of these lessons.
Repentance From Dead Works
Since repentance is the first teaching mentioned in these verses, it is probably regarded as the most important. In reading Scripture, it is obvious that the doctrine of repentance is indeed central. In the Hebrew language, the word for repentance is based on the root which means, “to return.” In Greek, the word translated as repentance means, “to change one’s mind,” but from context it is clear that the same meaning is intended. A change of mind which is truly a change must result in decisive action. These words indicate that to repent is to turn to God. In another sense, to repent is to turn away from sin and unbelief.
Repentance is sometimes understood as a one-time event which occurs when one comes to believe in Yeshua. While it is true that this type of repentance only happens once, there is also another behavioral aspect to repentance which ought to become a habitual practice in the life of the believer. Most will readily acknowledge along with Scripture that although we are redeemed and receive the righteousness of Messiah, we still make mistakes, we still indulge our fleshly, sinful nature, although repeated and frequent failure to overcome specific sins may be the sign of a larger problem. When this happens, we are to confess and repent, that is, return to God and obedience to His will. In turning to Him, we trust that He will remove our sins from us and continue to change our hearts.
In order to return, we must have something to return to. Forsaking sin requires a knowledge of the right path to walk on. Only by staying in God’s word and allowing it to change our lives can we truly repent and return to the way of life. All of God’s ways are life and peace, and so we ought to strive to allow all our deeds to be filled with life and peace in conformance with His will. “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 6:4).
Faith Toward God
Faith is a firm belief and trust which evidences itself through action. According to this definition, it is possible to have faith in something other than God. We can have a firm conviction of an unseen idea or concept and allow that to change our deeds. We can devote our lives to a particular cause, thinking this is the highest aim for humanity. Perhaps we put faith in our own abilities to sustain ourselves, in a political system, or in acts of philanthropy. Without a firm base in the sovereignty of God and His ultimate purposes for mankind, our faith in anything else may become idolatry if we serve it in the way we ought to serve God.
In Scripture, faith is never presented as something flimsy or subject to rapid change. It is a conviction which is firmly seated alike in the head and the heart based on an accurate knowledge of God’s will. Abraham believed that God would fulfill the promise He had spoken, regardless of the physical circumstances which he was in. For this reason, his belief was credited to him as righteousness. God’s will is that we will all likewise not only believe that He exists, but that His words have meaning and relevance in our lives. If we believe that Yeshua has redeemed us from sin, and if He has told us what we ought to be doing in His word, then true faith will lead us to confirm in our hearts and minds to act according to our convictions. Faith bears fruit, it has physical results, and is far from being merely an acknowledgment of the mind which has no effect on the way we orient our lives.
Messiah is the object of our faith, our only hope for salvation. We believe that He died, and we believe that He rose again. We believe that His work atoned for our sins so that we may receive forgiveness and redemption. We believe that just as He was resurrected to life, so too He will raise us up in the last day. These things are what we believe, and these beliefs will necessarily affect the way we live. God’s faithfulness to all mankind overshadows anything we could ever do in return. As we are conformed more into the image of Messiah, let us continue to be steadfast in faithfulness to Him and to our fellowman.
Instruction About Washings
Different translations reflect different views regarding this phrase. The title we chose to use for this section is from the New American Standard translation of the verse. Others, such as the King James, may say something like, “doctrine about baptisms.” The Greek word translated as “baptism” throughout the New Testament is not reserved only for use in the context of Christian baptism. Literally the word speaks of immersion or dipping. The Greek word may be used to speak of the ritual washings associated with purity in Judaism.
As we learned in this section, the practice of immersion which came to be associated with acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah and Lord was not a new or innovative practice in its external form. Neither was John the Baptist the first to associate immersion with spiritual renewal. While the Torah does not speak of ritual washings outside of the Levitical purity laws, as time progressed ritual washing became more associated with spiritual purity outside of what was prescribed directly by the Torah. External immersion as described in the Torah was not for cleansing from sin, but from physical defilement, such as would occur after coming into contact with a dead body or after giving birth. In time it also became associated with conversion to Judaism or as an outward sign of a spiritual renewal or cleansing. This is the sense which baptism became associated with for the followers of Yeshua, as a one-time unrepeatable induction into the body of Messiah.
Instruction about washings could be understood several ways. We determined that the most likely was either instructions about how to prepare for baptisms (what type of water to use, to fast beforehand, etc.) or instructions which were received prior to conducting baptisms (such as the Two Ways teaching). In either case, it is obvious that baptisms were not to be rushed into, but those who were going to join the body of Messiah needed to first count the cost and recognize what type of life they were immersing themselves into.
Laying on of Hands
We broke down the Scriptural practice of laying on of hands into three categories: blessing, substitution, and ordination. Generally speaking, laying hands on a person, from a physical or symbolic perspective, creates a connection or union between the parties. The first mention of laying on of hands is associated with blessing, as the patriarchs laid their hands on their sons while giving them blessings. This practice continued throughout Jewish history, and we see Yeshua laying His hands on the children to bless them. Hands were laid on animals in the sacrificial system as a sign that the identity of the owner was transferred to the animal. Likewise the congregation of Israel laid their hands on the Levites, signifying that this tribe was to serve in the tabernacle as a substitute for the firstborn sons of the whole nation of Israel.
Our main focus was on the third category, ordination, as this is likely the one which is intended to be understood in our Hebrews passage. Moses was instructed to lay his hands on Joshua, who would succeed him as leader of the Israelites. Laying hands on a person to transfer authority continued in Judaism into the period of the first century, and where the physical act is not performed, the essence is carried on. In this context, laying on of hands signifies a transfer of authority or identity, and in some cases a special gifting of the Holy Spirit to aid in leadership.
The Didache does not specifically mention the symbolism or ritual of laying on of hands, but it does touch on the authority structure or hierarchy of the assembly of believers which was a result of this symbolic act. In order for new believers to be able to function correctly in the tight-knit community, they would need to know who they were accountable to and who they were to trust for support and guidance. Spiritual leaders such as bishops/elders and deacons were to be treated with reverence because of the office they held. Those who were seated in these roles were to recognize that they represent Messiah and His words, and must understand the authority entrusted to them for the purpose of caring for His flock. Laymen, despite honoring these positions, were to pay attention to what they were hearing and discern, as far as they were able, whether they were being taught truth.
Resurrection from the Dead
If there is no resurrection our hope and faith are in vain, for then not even Messiah has been raised. Resurrection gives us a hope for the future, that the grave is not our final destination. If He was raised from the dead, then we also can remain confident that He will lift us up from the dust.
In examining what Scripture had to say about resurrection, we first had to understand the various opinions about death and resurrection which were contemporary in Yeshua’s day. The souls of the deceased were understood to go to an other-worldly realm called Sheol. There the righteous were sustained in happiness while the wicked suffered, with each group being held until the resurrection or the day of judgment. Scripture doesn’t go into detail to describe this place, and so we can understand that the meaning we are supposed to take away is that our souls remain conscious until the day they will be reunited with our resurrected bodies.
As we walk out our faith and grow closer to Yeshua, we experience a type of resurrection. Our old sinful nature has passed away, and we are to walk according to the new life which has been given us in Messiah Yeshua. This is only possible in part in this age, but when that day comes and the righteous dead are raised, then we will experience the fullness of our calling, when the old will truly have passed away and nothing will remain but the pure, holy, and glorious.
The concept of a judgment only makes sense after establishing the way God wants us to walk. Only after explaining the way of life which God has established for His people to walk on can we then fully understand what the judgment is about. In this section, we began by looking at the connection between judgment and justice, finding that judgment is the means of attaining justice. The Lord is a God who loves justice, and His people also are to love and pursue justice and righteousness.
Although justice and judgment are sometimes viewed negatively or with anxiety, this is usually due to a concern that we may receive a guilty verdict. We know that eternal life is not merited by doing good deeds, but that our faith in Yeshua is the basis by which our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, ensuring that our eternity will be spent with Him. Although this is certainly the case, Scripture is clear that all men will be judged by their deeds in order that justice which went undone in this world might be accomplished.
This fact ought to motivate us to keep our eyes on the reward which lies ahead. Although we are not to serve God only because we desire to be rewarded, nevertheless Yeshua does encourage His disciples to store up treasures in heaven. Our primary motivation should be a love for God which is reward enough of its own, but we should always act in a way which reflects our knowledge that God looks on us and sees all of our words, thoughts, and deeds.
For each of the above principles, there is obviously much more that could be said. Since these principles are described as the foundational teachings, it makes sense that all other teachings would build off of these in some way. Once we have a basic understanding of faith, for example, we can continue to receive deeper teachings on faith and recognize more opportunities to exercise such faith.
What is so special about these six teachings? Why does Hebrews specify these particular teachings as constituting the proper foundation? The first two, faith and repentance, are fairly obvious. Arguably, faith and repentance are what the entire weight of Scripture consists of. If we don’t have faith and if we refuse to repent then by definition we cannot consider ourselves Messiah’s disciples. Everything we do should be done in faith, and when we fail in this regard then we must repent.
The next two, baptism and laying on of hands, seem to have to deal with understanding our place in the body of Messiah. Baptism is a sign that we have been united with Messiah in His death. We are joined with Him and with everyone who has put their faith in Him. Together we are His body. Once part of the body, we are to understand that each part has a different role and what that means for us as we seek to allow Messiah to be evident in the midst of our congregation. It is important that we understand this so that we accurately reveal His will to the world.
The last two, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment, teach us about the end and about our hope. They describe what we are to expect of our walk of faith: that our souls will be restored into our transformed bodies and we will spend eternity with our Lord. All of our struggles, hardships, and toil will be rewarded. Wrongs will be made right. Death cannot separate us from the love of God, and so we have no reason to fear death. Far from making us complacent, these teachings call us to action so we can be confident in knowing that we have wisely invested this short time which God has entrusted to us.
Perhaps the reason these six teachings are asserted as forming the foundation are because they start the believer out with knowledge in these three essential areas. A new believer must be acquainted with the basics of maintaining a personal relationship with God, a community relationship with other believers, and they must have a motivation to pursue growth in each of these areas. The six foundational teachings listed in Hebrews accomplish this goal.
Admittedly, in this study we have not focused so much on providing a catechism for new believers. The main goal of these teachings in the current study is to stress the need for spiritual maturity. Although this particular study is not necessarily targeted for new believers, it provides a clear basis for how we ought to lay a doctrinal foundation for new believers which is based in Scripture. Since these teachings are specifically pointed out as being the basic, elementary principles, we ought to pay attention to these teachings. Can we honestly say that we have, at the very least, a basic understanding in each of these areas? If we have been believers for a while, have we progressed past the milk and begun to partake of the bread and meat? Could we explain to a new believer the necessary doctrines relating to these elementary topics?
As believers, we are called to grow and never cease. So often we hear the walk of faith compared to a journey or a road. We understand that progress is essential, but progress can be defined in a way that misleads us. In order for us to gain ground in our personal walk, we must forsake the world and the things of the world, making it our aim to grow closer to God through obedience to His will. What we learn from Scripture is directly applicable to our current behavior, whether it be how we look at the world, how we interact with others, or the way we think about God and what types of deeds He wants us to be busying ourselves with.
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… For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Messiah, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Yeshua the Messiah. (Philippians 3:12-14, 18-20)
Paul reflects with tears on those who, although claiming to have fellowship with Yeshua, do not demonstrate such faith by their actions. They serve the world and the things which it contains. Instead of following their example, we ought to always remember what lies ahead of us. The same attitude which Paul exhibits here in these verses is what has motivated countless men and women of faith, both in Scripture and throughout history. They remained steadfast and faithful and beckoned that all who were called would follow them as they followed Messiah on the path of life.
Even in equating our life with walking on a path, when we separate this from the allusion too far it can become confusing. How do we know if we are moving forward on the path? How can we tell if we are actually making progress? And what does progress look like?
We have seen that to progress on the way of life is to walk in righteousness, obeying God and growing closer to Him. The way of life is about consistency and victory over sins. It is about obedience through all situations. The paths of life and death are behavioral patterns, they are lifestyle choices. Progress might mean being able to maintain your trust through a difficult situation, or it might mean remaining consistently faithful to God in a certain area of your life, or finally being able to forgive. From moment to moment, we may not be conscious of the fact that we are making progress on this path, but if we are growing closer to God then we will be made more and more into the likeness of His image as He molds us, each at the pace which He knows is best.
Those of us who have experienced growth and maturity are not to forget that this path is not one we walk alone. There are others in the body who can benefit from the lessons which we have learned. Not everyone is a teacher, nor should all be teachers, as James says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Nevertheless, we all are students. We each receive what has been given us from the Lord, and we ought to share that with others rather than hoarding it to ourselves. We all live life. We all walk this road and ought to encourage one another, spurring each other forward toward holiness, love, and good deeds.
In conclusion, we hope that this study has been a blessing to you as a source of enlightenment, encouragement, or exhortation. For some, the concepts presented here may be new or difficult to digest. Others may feel confident in their knowledge and experience with much of what we have covered. We are all at different levels, experiencing different rates of growth. Instead of comparing ourselves against others, let us measure the progress we have made in our relationship with Messiah against the bounty with which He has blessed us individually. May we never be content to indulge in sloth or vanity, but rather keeping our eyes fixed on the hope we have in Messiah, may we run with endurance the race that is set before us.
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Yeshua has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek… 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 6:19-20, 11-12)