Being a disciple of Yeshua, one of our primary responsibilities is in regard to memorization. We are to memorize, properly interpret and transmit his teachings. However, in order to properly interpret his teachings, we must have the proper filter and foundation with which to interpret his instructions. There are some basic assumptions Yeshua and his apostles make when they give instructions. They assume we have a fundamental understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with a sense of cohesion as to how these relate to our life in Messiah. Some of the very basics of these assumptions are found in the book of Hebrews.
In the sixth chapter of the book of Hebrews we have listed for us six foundational principles with which every disciple of Yeshua should be well familiar. As a matter of fact, the author of Hebrews mentions these at a point of frustration, referring to them as “milk” and not “solid food.” But I’m afraid that the bulk of Believers today are still choking on the milk due to our lack of understanding of these, what the author of Hebrews calls the most “elemental” of all the doctrines of Messiah. So let us take time to understand these six things which comprise the “elementary doctrine of Christ” as found in the book of Hebrews in order begin rebuilding a proper and firm foundation upon which we can build without the risk of our theological house collapsing.
The passage under examination is as follows:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1-2)
Needless to say, as we read through the end of chapter five and the beginning of chapter six of the book of Hebrews, we find the author is a little put out by his audience. He tells his readers that although at this time (the time of his writing) they should be teaching others, they, themselves, needed to be taught the very “basic principles of the oracles of God.” They were not ready for solid food (spiritually speaking) and in a sense he felt that he was wasting his breath (and ink) on these who were “dull of hearing.” In this passage he is urging his readership to move beyond these “elementary” doctrines, and press on to deeper spiritual truths.
Up to this point, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews has been explaining to his readers the superiority of Yeshua above Abraham and Moses, and even above the angels. He has been leading his readers logically through an argument which will eventually lead to a full explanation of his subject, introduced in the previous verses:
And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:9-10)
His intention is to show how Yeshua functions in this heavenly realm as both the high priest and as the eternal sacrificial offering. He desires to delve deep into some difficult subject matter regarding the priesthood of Yeshua; how that he is an eternal (and spiritual) priest not after the order of Aaron, but after the order of Melchizedek and how his atonement is far superior than that offered by the blood of bulls and goats. However, he knows that much of his argument will be wasted on their lack of understanding, so he takes an aside to express his frustrations with the community to which he is writing. He says that they are “dull of hearing” and that by the time of his writing they should be teaching, rather than learning foundational elements of faith. He says that he doesn’t want to have to go back and explain these very fundamental teachings, but that hopefully his readers should at least have a grasp on these basic principles. He then goes on to list six things which he feels encapsulate the “elementary doctrine of Christ,” with the assumption his readership at least understands these most basic teachings.
We should consider these six “doctrines” the bedrock on which we can build a firm foundation in regard to discipleship. Once we have a good grasp on these principles, we will have a better frame of reference by which we can understand the context of our Master’s life, his mission and his teachings. For if we do not understand these “elementary doctrines,” it will be said of us the same as for the audience to whom the book of Hebrews was written:
… you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)
Traditionally, the church teaches that “repentance from dead works” means that Jewish followers of Yeshua must no longer follow the Torah (the Law). To actually do what God had previously told the nation of Israel to do is now unacceptable and “dead works,” a legalism that is equivalent to forsaking Messiah. According to the traditional interpretation of Hebrews 6:1-2, keeping the Law of God is expressly forbidden. It is reasoned that since Yeshua fulfilled the Law he thereby annulled it, making it not only unnecessary in the life of a Believer. Therefore, theologians teach that the author of Hebrews is communicating the need for Jewish Believers to forsake the Torah in light of the revelation of Christ, warning them that their return to these “dead works” is not only unprofitable, but spiritually dangerous.
But let’s examine this carefully to see if this is what the author is trying to convey. In order to understand this first “Elementary Doctrine” we must first understand the proper, biblical definition of repentance. It is important that we do so, because over the last century or so this term has lost its biblical anchoring and has been redefined in various, subjective ways. But as followers of Yeshua it is critical that we properly understand this “element” of the first of the six Elementary Doctrines of Messiah. If we are to truly understand the author’s use of “repentance from dead works,” then we must first understand repentance and how this term is used by the Scriptures.
At the beginning of Yeshua’s ministry we find him picking up the same message that John the Immerser carried — a call to repentance. As a matter of fact, it was his Gospel Message, his Good News of the Kingdom which he proclaimed continually throughout his earthly ministry. Matthew records for us that Yeshua came out of the wilderness temptation experience preaching this message of repentance.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
But what did he mean when he was calling people to repentance? Was he merely calling people to believe in himself? Was he calling people to confess their sin nature? Or was he calling his listeners to some kind of action? In order to understand Yeshua’s primary message we must first properly understand repentance.
First, we need to understand that repentance is not merely a mental shift as the Greek implies. It is a change of behavior resulting in a changed life. The job of each of the prophets after Moses was to turn the children of Israel back to the covenant, back to the Torah. Not back to a mere legal code, but back to their covenantal obligations towards loving both God and man through their actions which are defined within the parameters the LORD established at Sinai when He took them to be His “am segulah,” His “treasured people.”
The Torah itself warns the Israelites against straying from the commandments and that they have been given these commandments for their benefit, contrary to what many theologians teach.
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deuteronomy 10:12-15)
Hundreds of years later, the LORD speaks through the prophet Ezekiel to remind them of the goodness of His commandments and how they bring life to the one who adheres to them.
So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned. (Ezekiel 20:10-13)
But unfortunately, as a nation Israel walked away from God’s instructions and paid the penalty through exile. To clarify my point - sin, as defined in biblical terms, is the transgression of God’s commandments — whether intentional or unintentional. Torah is the standard of righteousness which defines sin and the parameters of right and wrong, because if there is no standard against which sin can be measured, there can be no repentance. If this is the case then, what is involved in actual repentance? Is it merely a mental acknowledgment or a verbal confession of wrongdoing?
Ezekiel chapter eighteen is a perfect example of what God expects us to understand in regard to repentance.
But if a wicked person turns away (ישוב - yashuv) from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent (שובו - shuvu) and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live. (Ezekiel 18:21-23, 30-32)
In Hebrew the word for repentance is תשובה (teshuva). It comes from the root, שוב (shuv) — to turn — and means to turn around and return to a particular thing. In the Hebrew Scriptures we hear the prophets continually beckoning the children of Israel to return to the Torah, the Law of God, the terms of the covenant made with them at Sinai. Ezekiel says that repentance is to turn away from sin as defined by the Torah. Based on this passage and others, the sages taught that repentance (in the sense of confession alone) was incomplete and insincere if not accompanied by action.
One who has sinned and confesses his sin but does not repent may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world his immersion is of no avail unto him; but if he throws it away from his hand then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se’ahs of water,immediately his immersion becomes effective, as it is said, But whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy. [Proverbs 28:13] (b.Ta’anit 16a)
In other words, confession of sins does not bring forgiveness. Forgiveness only comes through true repentance. Both John and Yeshua, however, already understood this connection, and had called the people to repentance. They each spent the bulk of their time proclaiming, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” In other words, “Turn back to God and to His Torah, because the King has arrived and his reign has begun!” And since the Torah is the embodiment of the commandments, repentance means to stop sinning and to turn back to Torah in obedience to God’s commandments. This was the message of the prophets. This was the message of John the Immerser. And this is the Message Yeshua picks up when he begins his ministry. This is the message of repentance. This is the message of the King and His Kingdom.
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works … (Hebrews 6:1-2)
Now that we’ve established a qualifying definition of repentance, we need to understand what it means to repent from “dead works.” After all, one cannot repent from something of which we do not know. The only way we are able to ensure that we have repented from “dead works” is to properly define what they are. Fortunately, the author give us a clue.
Just a few chapters further in chapter nine, the author of Hebrews uses this phrase “dead works” again — the only other time in all of Scripture — but this time in a manner that should bring clarity to his meaning. He says,
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:13-14)
In both passages the phrase “dead works” in the Greek can literally be translated as “works of death” or “works which result in death.” Unfortunately, Christian interpretation has turned these verses on their head and turned them away from their plain and simple meaning in order to force an unnatural meaning onto them which is in contradiction to the rest of Scripture. The simple meaning of the phrase “dead works” is “sin.” Dead works are what Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, also calls the “works of the flesh.” He gives us a short list, including: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). He warns us saying, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (verse 21).
The Didache —one of the earliest Christian documents which purports to contain the teachings of the Apostles to Gentile believers — says there are Two Ways, two paths a person can take. A path that leads to life and a path that leads to death.
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and the difference between the two ways is great. (Didache 1:1)
Paul says these “two ways” are the Life through the Spirit and the Death through the Flesh. In his letter to the Romans, he spends two and a half chapters discoursing on the struggle between the flesh and the spirit and the desires of each of these. In Romans 6 he begins his argument by asking if Believers should continue in a life of sin after having come to faith in Yeshua. He asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” He then declares that we are no longer slaves of sin, because the “one who has died has been set free from sin” according to verse seven. And in verse eleven he admonishes us by saying, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” He continues his argument by saying,
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Romans 6:16-19)
His point is that we can only serve one master. Either we can serve sin or we can serve God. Serving sin is lawlessness. Serving God is righteousness which leads to sanctification. He concludes his argument in chapter six by saying, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the next chapter Paul attempts to explain the relationship of the Law of God to both the regenerated and the un-regenerated. He admits that his flesh was in contempt of God’s Law and he struggled to obey it before coming to Yeshua. In chapter eight, however, he tells how the Spirit of God working within him allows him to submit to the righteousness. His argument is as follows:
For God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's Law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:3-13)
If we pay close attention to Paul’s argument we see a few things. First, we see that the flesh and the Spirit are in opposition to one another. One brings life, the other death. Romans 8:4 says that Yeshua condemned sin so “that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” There are two ways we can understand how the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. But outside of a rabbinic method of argumentation over proper interpretation, we only have one option — that is “to perform” or “to obey.” For example, Pirkei Avot uses this phrase almost identically.
He who fulfills the Torah in poverty shall in the end fulfill it in wealth. He who disregards the Torah in wealth shall in the end disregard it in poverty.
Paul confirms his meaning in verse seven by saying the flesh “does not submit to God’s Law; indeed it cannot.” However, in two verses later he says, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” The logic is as follows: If one is of the flesh, one cannot submit one's entire will to God’s Law and it only acts as means of condemnation. But if one has come under the influence of the Spirit of God, then the righteous requirement of God’s Law will be met through obedience to His standard of righteousness.
In a nutshell, “dead works” is simply the works of the flesh, namely sin. “Repentance from dead works” is to turn away from sin and walking in the righteous standard of the Torah. What that looks like for a Jew verses a Gentile may vary. But we need to know at the very least that one cannot repent from following God’s Laws any more than we can repent from following Yeshua. Let us therefore repent from “dead works” — the works of sin which seek to rule over our mortal bodies — through submitting to the Spirit of the Living God in obedience to His written instructions. If we take this to mean repentance from keeping God's Law, as the church has traditionally understood it to mean, then we are distorting not only the Scriptures, but the very definition of repentance itself. Therefore, let us "repent from dead works" and move on to more spiritual things that impart his Kingdom into the lives of men and women.
If you enjoyed this teaching, we are in the process of creating a six-part audio series expounding on these “elementary principles.” Part one is currently available by request.