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In Heb. 5:1-10, the author (Paul, I believe) spoke about Melchizedek and how Jesus Christ became the high priest of the Melchizedek Order. Then he continues in Heb. 5:11,
11 Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.
Paul then interrupts his discussion of deeper things (meat) to chide his audience for still needing the “milk” of the word. In Heb. 5:12 he calls this milk “the elementary principles of the oracles of God.” In Heb. 6:1 he calls them “elementary teachings,” and he goes on to list those basic teachings.
It seems that little has changed since the first century. The church continues to teach these elementary topics week after week. I recall from 50 years ago the church where I was attending had the same problem. The pastor would often start his sermon by saying, “I think we should just stay with the milk of the word today…”
The Holy Spirit within me responded with “groanings that cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26), and I resolved never to be worthy of Paul’s criticism. Over time, I came to see that some of these “elementary teachings” on Paul’s list were also being misunderstood and were in need of explanation so that our foundations were secure.
Paul writes in Heb. 6:1, 2,
1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings [“baptisms”] and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal [aionian] judgment.
These are six teachings about Christ that Paul wanted to leave, so that he could teach the deep things of God. It must have been frustrating to Paul that so many believers still had difficulty with the foundational teachings of the gospel. Perhaps he often found it necessary to reduce the size of the class in order to leave “the elementary teachings about the Christ.”
The six elementary principles (milk) are:
1. Repentance from dead works
2. Faith toward God
4. Laying on of hands
5. The resurrection of the dead
6. Aionian judgment
To repent is to “turn” in a new direction. It signifies a change of thinking, having a new viewpoint, a new understanding, and a different path and goal.
What new direction is this? It is a change from “dead works” to faith. The world at large thinks that its good works will make them righteous and will justify sinners. Christians have often been taught that if their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, then they will be saved. Non-Christian religions teach their own manner of salvation through doing good works. Some even emphasize inner discipline that provides a better way of life.
All of these can be commended in that they promote inner integrity—at least according to the laws that are written in their holy books. Some of these laws differ from those found in the Bible, but perhaps about 90% of them are at least similar. Most religions recognize the need for love, so their laws are based on their definitions of love.
The main difference between those religions and genuine Christianity is not so much their laws for living but rather the basis of salvation. True Christianity differs from all others in that it is not based on good works, which Paul says are “dead.”
Paul does not discourage good works, “for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). Furthermore, James 2:17 says, “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”
We see, then, that there is a difference between good works and dead works. Some good works are dead because they are not based on Abrahamic faith; but faith-based works are expressions of faith and give life to all recipients.
How do we distinguish between dead works and faith works? Those who define faith in terms of one’s religious affiliation (such as “What faith are you?”) cannot properly make this distinction, because their “faith” is in the church, not in Christ Himself. To such people, good works is going to a particular denominational church and giving tithes and offerings to support that church, believing that if they remain in good standing with the church, they are saved.
But Paul classifies this as “dead works.”
There are other sincere believers who see the importance of God’s law and strive to follow its precepts. Hence, they do not steal, do not murder, do not covet, etc., thinking that this change of lifestyle is what saves them. By the same reasoning, those who are lawless are not saved.
But this too can be based on “dead works” if one does not understand the two covenants.
One of the least understood principles is the biblical definition of faith. Without understanding faith, which is the second item of Paul’s list of elementary principles, we cannot understand its contrast—“dead works.”
The essence of faith toward God is understood only by its contrast. Abrahamic faith is our prime example, seen in Rom. 4:20-22,
20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.
Here Paul showed the meaning of Abrahamic faith, which he had mentioned earlier in Rom. 4:3,
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
To believe God is to believe that God is able to perform that which He has promised. Whoever makes a promise, or a vow, oath, or covenant, is the one who is responsible to fulfill (make good on) his word. This was not Abraham’s promise to God, but God’s promise to Abraham. Hence, Abraham was not responsible to keep the promise, for it was not based upon the will of Abraham.
Faith, then, is in “the promise of God,” not in the promise of Abraham. God, by the counsel of His own will, made a promise apart from Abraham’s will. Abraham believed that “what God had promised, He was able also to perform.”
For this reason, John 1:13 says,
13 who were born [“begotten”] not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
This does not mean that man has no will. He certainly does have a will. But the promise of God (to beget sons of God) does not depend upon man’s will, nor the will of the flesh, but His will alone. Anything that depends upon the will of man or the will of the flesh is a dead work, no matter how good it is on the human level.
One cannot separate dead works from man’s will, for man’s will is part of his soul. The soul is mind, will, and emotion. But “the soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4), and “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Every soul that has sinned, then, has received the sentence of death and is incapable of saving itself by the “dead works” emanating from its own will.
Most Christians fail to grasp this. God has made two covenants with mankind. What we call the Old Covenant is man’s vow/promise to God, based on Exodus 19:8, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” The Old Covenant could save no one, because no none was able to fulfill this vow, except in limited ways.
But fortunately for us, God made a promise, vow, and covenant earlier, even before the Old Covenant. This “New Covenant” was the promise of God to man—specifically, to Abraham. Abraham’s belief was a secondary response to God’s will. Abraham did not initiate this; he only responded to the promise of God.
Faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17). Abraham heard and responded. His response proves that he heard. In other words, he received divine revelation of the promise of God. He responded with good works which were not “dead.”
Paul expands our understanding of Abrahamic faith by telling the story of Jacob and Esau. Esau represents “the children of the flesh” (Rom. 9:8), while Jacob represents “the children of the promise.” Paul goes on to explain in verses 11 and 12,
11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.”
He goes on to explain the principles that could be known as the “meat” of the word—things difficult to understand, such as we see in Rom. 9:16 and 21,
16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy… 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use [Jacob] and another for common use [Esau]?
This sets forth god’s rights as the Creator (or Potter). Theologians have wrestled with this passage for centuries, trying to limit God’s rights by asserting man’s “free will” rights, as if man created himself.
Theologians also wrestle with the apparent injustice of God in choosing Jacob over Esau before either had done either right or wrong. The answer is not difficult, if one believes Paul’s teaching about the love of God in Rom. 5:7-10 and about the justification of all men in Rom. 5:15-19. That includes Esau and Pharaoh, who, as vessels of dishonor, are temporarily denied the revelation of the promise of God. Ultimately, every knee will bow.
Understanding the rights of the great Potter (Creator) is a major key in understanding the deep things of God. The will of the Creator reigns supreme, because He owns that which He created. In the laws of liability in Exodus 22, owners are responsible (and liable) for that which they own.
Hence, God is responsible for the outcome of history, and He will not fail to put all things under His feet (1 Cor. 15:26-28). Every knee will bow in the end, including the knees of Pharaoh and Esau (Phil. 2:10). Every tongue will profess Christ to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).
Esau and all of the children of the flesh will, in the end, see the truth and will glorify God. They will miss the glory of the first resurrection, but when all of the dead are summoned to the great White Throne (Rev. 20:12), the truth will be revealed to them.
They will then profess faith in Christ to the glory of God, and then they will undergo that last great baptism of fire (Matt. 3:11, 12) that will purify them, burning away all the chaff (flesh) until the Creation Jubilee sets all of creation free (Rom. 8:21)
Many Christians need a fresh revelation of “faith toward God” that is based upon the Abrahamic pattern of faith. I have found that most Christians do not really comprehend the nature of their own faith, because they have been led to believe that their faith is based upon their own “free will” decision to follow Christ.
But if this were so, then their faith would be in themselves and not in God. Why? Because whoever makes the vow is the one responsible to keep it. We make many well-intentioned promises to God, but because our souls are “dead,” we find it impossible to meet our obligation perfectly. We always fall short of the glory of God, because that is what dead people do naturally.
Making a decision to follow Jesus is a very good thing to do, of course, but do not attach your salvation to it, or else you may become discouraged when you find it impossible to fulfill your vow. Always know that your decision, based on your will, is important only as a response to God’s will to reveal His promise to you.
Your decision is the response of faith, not the cause of faith. By understanding this, your faith will be in God through Christ and not in yourself. Your faith will be in God’s ability to form Christ in you, not in your ability to shape yourself into the image of God.
Always remember the law of building an altar, which is the altar of your heart. Exodus 20:25 says,
25 If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.
An altar made by dead works or by the will of man is a profaned altar. It is unacceptable to God, even if the sacrifice itself is unblemished and spotless. Hence, many believers offer up the unblemished Lamb (Christ) on a polluted altar. Is this what disqualifies them from inheriting life in the first resurrection? One wonders.
The bottom line is that true faith is not in the promises of men but in believing that God is able to fulfill His promises. This is part of the milk of the word, yet it seems that most believers still need to understand this elementary principle.
Heb. 6:2 gives “baptismos teaching” as the third flavor of milk that believers should already know so that they can move on to the meat of the word. The first thing to note is that it is plural. This does not point to many people being baptized but to the many purposes for baptism that are found in the law.
Baptism was not a new revelation given to John the Baptist. As a priest—the son of Zacharias, the priest who was of “the division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5)—John was very familiar with the various baptisms that were performed daily in the temple.
Yet he baptized outside of the temple, probably because he objected to the corruption among the priestly leaders. He saw no reason to restrict baptism to the temple courts, so he went to the Jordan River (John 1:28) and at Aenon (John 3:23).
The gospels do not tell us his mode of baptism, but we can safely assume that because his critics made no objection to his manner of baptism, John followed the instructions in the law. If he had not done so, then surely the temple spies would have accused him of violating the law.
Mark 7:1-5 says,
1 The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed [unbaptized]. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash [baptize] their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse [baptismontai] themselves, and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing [baptismous] of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)
There was no law that commanded anyone to wash their hands before eating. It was instead a tradition of men, based perhaps on the example of Elijah. We are told in 2 Kings 3:11 that “Elisha… used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.” This indicated Elisha’s close association with Elijah, and it was his duty to baptize Elijah’s hands before he ate bread.
Hence, baptism was administered by pouring water, not by immersing Elijah’s hands in a bowl of water. They did the same with “cups and pitchers and copper pots.” It was done by a ritualistic sprinkling or pouring of water, not by immersing these in water.
The same principle held true at the laver in the tabernacle and temple, where the priests were commanded to wash themselves before entering the Sanctuary. If they had jumped into the laver to immerse themselves, they would have rendered the water impure/unclean and would have had to drain it out and replenish it with clean water.
The basic principle of baptism is found in Lev. 14:7 in regard to the cleansing of lepers whom God had healed.
7 He [the priest] shall then sprinkle seven times the one who is to be cleansed from the leprosy and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the live bird go free over the open field.
In this case, the ex-leper was to be sprinkled seven times with water to be cleansed. No doubt this was what Elisha commanded Naaman the Syrian leper to do when he told him to wash in the Jordan seven times (2 kings 5:10). The Hebrew word rachats (“wash”) gives us no real clue as to the manner of his baptism, but the law itself commands the priest to “sprinkle” ex-lepers for their cleansing.
Furthermore, two birds were needed to cleanse lepers. The first was killed, and the second was dipped (smeared) with the blood of the first bird and released into the open field. The first represented Christ in His first work in earth, which called for Him to die and shed His blood; the second represented Christ in His second coming, where He was to be released into the open field. “The field is the world” (Matt. 13:38). Hence Christ must return to the world “with a robe dipped in blood” (Rev. 19:13).
The laws of baptisms are mentioned in Heb. 9:8-10
8 The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly, both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [baptisms]… until a time of reformation.
In the Old Testament, the priests washed themselves as well as the sacrifices and other objects. Such baptisms could not cleanse the conscience, of course. No one today is saved by baptism, though the ritual is retained in the New Testament as a testimony of an inner faith.
In Lev. 14:3 we see that the priest would baptize a leper only if he bore witness that he had already been healed. So also, if a minister today discerns faith, he will baptize him as a testimony to all of the person’s inner cleansing.