What are the fundamentals?
Discover the six basic teachings of Messianic faith from Hebrews 5:11-6:3. This sermon presents and introduction and overview 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).
Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
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, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits.
–Hebrews 5:11-6:3 (NASB)
As someone commented recently on another of these reviews, in this sermon, Lancaster takes a break in teaching about Messiah as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, but frankly, so does the writer of Hebrews. Lancaster says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews became frustrated with his readers. Why? Because he wanted to get into the deep mysteries of the priesthood of Melchizedek but he felt his audience wasn’t up to the challenge. They were still struggling with the very basics, the fundamentals of faith in Messiah. They were still consuming milk when they should have been dining on t-bone steaks by now.
Lancaster pauses to say something I don’t think many Christians, including Christian teachers and Pastors, are going to like.
If you’ve been reading this review series regularly and (hopefully) been listening to the previous recordings of these lectures, you know that within the first five chapters of Hebrews, we discover a multi-layered storehouse of meaning that is not evident on a surface reading, especially in English. The level of knowledge and education required to get this far exceeds, in Lancaster’s opinion, what is being taught in most (or all) Christian seminaries today.
In my opinion, all the various expressions of the Christian Church are so married to the static doctrine of their faith, that they can’t allow themselves to seriously examine the perspectives necessary to plunge into the hidden depths this Epistle possesses.
The Hebrews writer considered the readers of his letter to be infants needing milk, unable to consume solid food, much as Paul addressed his own readership in 1 Corinthians 3. But if the original readers could follow the first five chapters of Hebrews and understand the deeper meanings are considered babies (since the writer to the Hebrews must have assumed he was being understood by his readers), then what does that make us in the Church today? Less than infants? Tiny, newborns? Undeveloped babies still in the womb? That’s hardly flattering at all. But what if it’s true?
Moving back to the text, Lancaster says this part of Hebrews outlines the basic foundations of Christianity or, in this case, Messianic Judaism as it was understood, taught, and practiced in the first century. He teases out a list of six items:
- Repentance from dead works
- Faith toward God
- Instructions about washings
- Laying on of hands
- Resurrection of the dead
- Eternal judgment
Even the summary Lancaster presents in today’s sermon is dense with information, and yet, these were the very, ground floor, teachings of what we think of as early Christianity among the Jewish believers. However, as you’ll see, every one of these fundamentals of the faith are completely Jewish teachings and were endorsed by the Pharisees.
And Lancaster says that even these fundamentals are almost completely beyond the comprehension of Christians today.
Repentance from Dead Works
When most Christians, including Pastors and teachers, read “repentance from dead works,” they believe, almost by reflex, that this is talking about repenting from works of the Law, that is, repenting from performing the Torah mitzvot.
Lancaster used some pretty strong language here and says the Protestant interpretation of “dead works” is dead wrong and in fact, the exact opposite of what the letter’s writer was trying to say.
For the wages of sin is death…
–Romans 6:23 (NASB)
We covered a lot of this last week. Obedience to God doesn’t bring death. Sin brings death. These were Jews the letter writer was addressing. It would have been insane to tell a bunch of Jews longing to return to bring offerings at the Temple that observing the Torah was “dead works”. Dead works equals sin, according to how Lancaster reads this. He not only called the current Church interpretation of “dead works” wrong, he said the teaching was satanic. This is the first time I’ve ever heard Lancaster go this far in “calling out” a traditional Church teaching.
What was the basic teaching of Jesus? Did he say, “believe in me and you’ll go to Heaven when you die?”
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
–Matthew 4:17 (NASB)
Jesus taught repentance of sins, not repentance of Torah obedience. He taught teshuvah. He taught turning away from sins and turning back to God. In Lancaster’s teaching about the New Covenant, he says over and over that Covenant is all about having a relationship with God by obedience to the mitzvot, which is what the Jewish people, including the believers, were doing. The first mitzvah is repentance, and it’s a mitzvah we must perform daily, lest we slowly, subtly fall away from the teachings of the Master and thus, fall away from God. Remember, Lancaster believes the letter’s readers were in grave danger of losing faith in Messiah and apostatizing.
Faith Toward God
You’d think this was a no brainer for the readers of the letter and for us, but faith is a lot more than just believing God exists. True, we must believe God exists before we can do anything else, but belief isn’t the goal, it’s just the starting line in the race.
In James 2:19 we learn that even the demons believe and they tremble, but we certainly can’t say that their belief somehow equals faith in God. Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a commentary about the difference between faith and trust based on a rabbinic midrash, and I think it carries Lancaster’s meaning well.
We must trust in God’s sovereignty, that He is in control, and that He rewards obedience and punishes sin, both in this life and in the life to come. That means what we do matters. Our actions aren’t worthless or, as Derek Leman once put it, our deeds are not filthy rags. A transformed life in Messiah reflects that transformation in what we do.
Having faith equals having a relationship with God and, as Lancaster states in the aforementioned “New Covenant” lectures, covenant is all about establishing relationship, in this case, between man and man and between God and man. Lancaster said it’s a false teaching that all we have to do is “believe” intellectually or emotionally and do nothing else and that we are saved. If we don’t lead a life that shows fruit, our belief means nada.
As it turns out, Judaism at its core, is not a “religion of dead works,” but instead, its a covenant of intimate relationship between Israel and God.
Instruction About Washing
Washing? What? Is this about the various ritual washings such as Netilat Yadayim?
Some English translations of the Greek “baptismo” render the word “baptism,” but the problem is the word in Greek is plural. If this is supposed to be about multiple water and spirit baptisms, then it becomes a theological problem, since we are baptized in water and receive the Spirit only once. How can immersion be “immersions?”
Remember, this is a Jewish audience, an audience that would immerse on any number of occasions in the mikvah in order to render themselves ritualistically pure. They’d immerse daily before going up to the Temple. They’d immerse before getting married, women would immerse once a month, and the Torah prescribed many other circumstances that required immersion by Jewish men and women.
So what about the immersion of John the Baptist? Didn’t that replace all of the others? Lancaster calls John’s immersion the “Immersion of Repentance” which is also immersion into the Name of Yeshua. We see the first Gentile immersed in Messiah’s name in Acts 10.
But why would a group of Jewish believers need instruction about the mikvah as a fundamental teaching Messiah? They would have already been well versed in mikvah instructions from Torah. The way that the Greek expresses it, “baptismo didacus,” Lancaster believes that these were the instructions a new disciple would be given about the teachings of Messiah before being admitted into fellowship and immersed. We may even have those instructions preserved for us in the Didache, the set of teachings provided to new Gentile disciples of the Master, probably within or soon after the Apostolic era.
Do we have this today? So many churches, according to Lancaster, are focused on getting as many people saved as possible, but the Bible doesn’t say to make converts, but to make disciples (see this book review, and this short video for more). Is discipleship a lost practice in today’s Church? For many churches, the answer is “yes,” especially when compared to the process of discipleship as it existed in the various first century Judaisms. What we may be creating instead is a body of false converts where only a small minority of people in church pews every Sunday are actual disciples who are leading transformed lives in Messiah. The rest are merely those who said “Christ is Lord” and “believe” but otherwise are unchanged human beings.
The Laying On of Hands
Besides in Pentecostalism, the Church isn’t into laying on of hands anymore. In the Bible, people were cured of illness through laying on of hands, but the practice is much older and in fact, based on the Torah and sacrificial system. The first step in offering a sacrifice at the Temple was for the person making the offering to lay hands upon it, transferring identity, if you will, so that in the case of a sin offering, the sacrifice would be made in place of the person.
Moses laid hands on Joshua to transfer authority over the tribes of Israel to him. Lancaster believes that after the mikvah, the last step in admitting a disciple into the fellowship of faith was to lay hands on the person, even as it was for the conferring of authority to a new elder in the community.
Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.
–1 Timothy 4:14 (NASB)
Presbytery is also translated as “board of elders.”
So the basic steps of training and inducting a new disciples would be:
- Education in the teachings of Yeshua
- Acceptance into the community
- Immersion of repentance and into the name of Messiah
- Laying on of hands by the board of elders or the head teacher
All basic stuff, according to the Epistle’s writer. Fundamentals of the faith, first century Pharisaic Judaism style.
Resurrection of the Dead
Now this you’d think the Church would have down cold. I’m writing this on Easter Sunday so I’m sure Churches all over the world are preaching about the resurrection today. But according to Lancaster, many churches avoid talking about a literal, physical, bodily resurrection and instead, preach going to Heaven as a bunch of spirits. That’s eternal death (of the body) not eternal life.
The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t Heaven and it isn’t sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp forever and ever. It’s the Kingdom of God established on earth populated by a people who have been raised physically from the dead, which is why we call Yeshua our “first fruits from the dead.” It is his resurrection that is proof that we too will one day be resurrected in the faith through grace. Then we live here under the reign of King Messiah as living, breathing human beings under the New Covenant, with the Torah written on our hearts…and we will know God.
This too should be well understood in the Church, the fact that there will be a final judgment for all humanity, when we will have to give an account for every word and deed we’ve committed in this life. Like the Master said, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It was “at hand” or “imminent” because Messiah had entered the world and his death and resurrection flipped the “on” switch to start up the New Covenant. It’s on the edge of coming and is entering our world even now. And yet it will not have arrived until the Messiah returns.
We have time, but who knows how much. Repent now. Don’t wait. Repent and obey. Lead a transformed life. Exert every effort so that when the books are opened, your name will be written in the Book of Life and not in the Book of Death.
Basic teaching. Milk.
And each and every one of these six fundamentals is what the Pharisees taught and these teachings were despised by the Sadducees. But the Sadducees had control of the Temple and the Priesthood and had no reason at all to allow the Jewish Pharisaic believers in Messiah access to the sacrificial system. So who would be their priest?
What Did I Learn?
I’d never separated out six fundamentals of faith in Messiah during the Apostolic period from Hebrews before. But what made the biggest impression was how, if we are to believe Lancaster, the vast, vast majority of the people we call Christians today are misreading not only this Epistle, but misunderstanding the fundamentals of their (our) own faith that is taught by the Bible.
I’ve written about Christian Fundamentalism before, which can trace its origins in Church history back about a century, but it doesn’t look like what Lancaster taught today. In fact, if you click the link I just provided, it too presents six fundamentals of the faith. They are just six points that don’t resemble those points we read in Hebrews 6:1-2
I felt Lancaster was a little hard on the Church, a little too critical of their mistakes and errors. After all, Lancaster was raised in the Church and his father was a Pastor. How long did Lancaster have to study and how many of his previously cherished attitudes and beliefs did he have to painfully surrender before he got to the point where he could teach this interpretation of Hebrews at Beth Immanuel?
This may sound strange, but I have the good fortune of not having spent my entire life in the Church. I had much less to “unlearn” and not too many attitudes and emotional attachments to Church tradition to give up. I have had quite a long and interesting time of putting together the Hebraic viewpoints on the Scriptures in a way that actually makes sense relative to the entire Biblical record, and I freely admit that Lancaster’s teaching, both at Beth Immanuel and through First Fruits of Zion, have been highly instrumental in that unlearning and retraining process.
But successfully transmitting that information to long-term and life-long Gentile believers is the challenge. Even getting a Christian to the point of considering that teachings like this one have value seems all but impossible. Many believers are so cemented into their theology and doctrine, that it would take dynamite to blow them out of their viewpoint and move them to a perspective where the Bible looks like and teaches something that, in my opinion, is much more consistent across the board. Many Christians don’t even believe there is more than one perspective on the Bible, and for those who do, they see those alternate perspectives are representing error, cultish belief, and even heresy.
But the end result is still the same. We enter the fellowship of Messiah through faith by grace and undergo a transformation into a new being who we are now and who we are in the process of becoming, little by little, until Messiah returns and the New Covenant is completely enacted.
We just need to be willing to take the risk of listening to teachings like this one critically but with an open mind. Once we learn to accept that what we’ve been taught about the Bible isn’t what the Bible actually says, we are faced with the daunting task of changing the Church from within to be more consistent with what the revealed Word of God turns out to be.
Some will follow. Others will continue to resist, clinging to the doctrines they’ve come to love, regardless of how they misconstrue God’s intent, especially toward Israel.
“Sometimes you have to move on without certain people. If they’re meant to be in your life, they’ll catch up.”
To learn more about the six foundational principles of ancient Jewish Christianity, consider D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book Elementary Principles which is being offered by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) for free between now and June 3rd.