FIRST PRINCIPLES

T. PIERCE BROWN

Among those who are familiar with the language normally used in churches of Christ, when one speaks of first principles, there usually comes to mind the idea of faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. So, when one reads Hebrews 6:1-2, his mind almost automatically assumes the author is talking about the fundamentals of the Christian religion. He says, “Wherefore leaving the doctrine of the first principles of Christ, let us press on unto perfection; not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the teaching of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

Most of the preaching I have done about the matter, and most of the comments I have read emphasize that as Christians, we should no longer be babes, continuing to re-learn the first principles, but go on to the meat of the word. There surely is no question about the advisability of doing that. However, it is my firm conviction that this is not what the Hebrew writer had in mind in these verses. The following are some of the reasons for my conclusion.

First, the verb translated “leaving” is not as the NIV translates it, “let us leave,” but is “aphentes,” which is an aorist participle, and means, “having left.” Those to whom he wrote had already left the principles of the doctrine of Christ, as the KJV puts it. They were Jews who had learned from the Old Testament about Christ, and had therefore accepted Him.

Second, keep in mind that the author is talking to those who had been Jews, and were being warned not to go back to the Jewish religion, for everything about the Christian religion is better. It is wise to keep in mind the old saying that an explanation of a verse out of context is but a pretext.

Third, whenever we find “wherefore,” or “therefore,” we need to know what it is there for. He had just told them that they had need that someone teach them again the rudimentary things about the oracles of God, which had reference to the fact that the Jewish system was but a temporary arrangement, typical of the Christian system. They had already been taught that. They were apparently trying to go back to that system. Now he specifies the things that were in that first system which is spoken of as “the beginning of the words about Christ.” This is what God made known of Christ under the Jewish system. He then says, “Let us be carried on to perfection.” That is, the old system could not bring them to perfection. The new one could (Heb.7:19, Heb.10:14).

Note now the things he mentions which are often assumed to be the first principles of Christianity, but which, we feel confident, refer to the elements of the Jewish system which laid a foundation for Christianity. This is the same foundation Paul mentions in Ephesians 2:20 which includes the apostles and prophets. Surely no one assumes that the prophets are related to what we think of as the first principles of Christianity except in laying the foundation for them. To “lay again a foundation” would be to go back to the Mosaic system, which is what the Hebrew letter is attempting to prevent.

Notice the things that were in that foundation of the Mosaic system. First, there was repentance from dead works. One may note that he did not say, “Repentance from sins” which is in the plan of salvation. The “dead works” of which he speaks is that which he mentions in Heb. 9:14 where he is speaking of the impossibility of the blood of bulls and goats in the Mosaic system purifying them. The “dead works” would probably include all the works of the Mosaic Law that could not take away sin.

Second, it is interesting to note that he says, “faith toward God.” The Christian system would involve faith toward Christ, but the foundation of which he speaks in the Mosaic system had faith toward God. This surely needs no proof for any that will read this.

Third, he speaks of the doctrine of baptisms. Those who understand this to be speaking of the Christian system usually try to explain the “baptisms” as the Baptism of John, Holy Spirit baptism and water baptism. However, they fail to show how plural baptisms are in the “first principles” of Christianity, when God clearly shows that there is one baptism. However, if we realize that the word “baptismos” here is found only four times in the New Testament, and in each case it has reference to the washings (as in Hebrews 9:9-10) of the law of Moses. Note the reference, which not only includes the idea of “going on unto perfection” that we have just mentioned, but clearly shows that these washings (baptismos) had to do with the fleshly ordinances under the law of Moses. “–According to which are offered both gifts and sacrifices that cannot, as touching the conscience, make the worshipper perfect, being only (with meats and drinks and divers washings) carnal ordinances, imposed until a time of reformation.”

Note next, “the laying on of hands.” Those who think this passage refers to the “first principles” of Christianity find some references to “laying on of hands” in the New Testament, but find it very difficult to show the importance of this with regard to the plan of salvation. However, when we understand the importance of the laying on of hands in the Mosaic system from such passages as Lev. 16:21 and other related passages, it is easy to see why this is mentioned in this context.

Then, “of resurrection of the dead.” I am not aware of any of my brethren who have written or spoken of this matter who have noted an interesting fact. As Paul points out in Acts 24:15, the Jews (at least the Pharisees) believed in the resurrection of the dead. However, although the disciples knew about that, they did not know what Jesus meant when he spoke of the resurrection out from among the dead ones (Mark 9:9-10) (which is a different expression and concept from the resurrection of the dead). Any person who has a Greek Testament can check those expressions and see that they are different, but space prevents me from giving a definitive explanation of what is involved in the two expressions.

Also, we will not now go into detail about the difference in the concept of the Jew about the eternal judgment, in which he believed, and the eternal judgment on the basis of Christ’s word as is abundantly taught in the New Testament. One needs to go beyond the Jewish concept and realize that God will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained. It makes more difference than one might assume just by a cursory reading. But all those things were in the foundation that prepared men to come to Christ. The Hebrew writer is urging them to be carried beyond that rudimentary knowledge they had already possessed, and to go on to the perfection that is in the Christian system.

 

T. Pierce Brown

1068 Mitchell Ave.

Cookeville, TN. 38501

e-mail: tpiercebrown@multipro.com

Phone: (615) 528-3600

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