What are the basic teachings of Messiah mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-3? Discover the meaning of “repentance from dead works” in this eighteenth installment of sermons on the epistle to the Hebrews.
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. And this we will do if God permits.
I recently finished reading Lancaster’s book Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity (It’s also available free through a special offer through June 3rd), so I’m getting this material both in the audio recordings from last year’s sermon series and in writing. In fact, yesterday, I read all of the material in the book that I listened to this morning (as I write this), so it’s all been reenforced.
But maybe you haven’t heard the audio or read the book, so I’ll be glad to review this for you.
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
–Matthew 22:1-14 (NASB)
I’ve never understood what the wedding clothes this fellow lacked had to do with anything, so I was glad yesterday (more than a week ago as you read this) when Lancaster answered that for me.
But first things first.
Lancaster says this parable of the Master is pretty easy to understand (except for the clothes part). A father is holding a wedding feast for his son and invites many guests from all walks of life. In the parable, the father is God and the son is Messiah. The banquet is the Kingdom of God, the Messianic Age. But the wedding clothes?
We’ll get to that.
Lancaster paused to do a brief summary of last week’s sermon about the rather anemic gospel preached by much of the Evangelical church and how what Lancaster preached last week would require a major paradigm shift for most Christians (Lancaster referred to himself as a “recovering Evangelical”).
Although the Church typically preaches salvation through grace, often they miss the very first elementary principle in the Gospel: repent!
The first elementary principle cited in Hebrews 6 is to repent from “dead works.” What are “dead works?”
From an Evangelical point of view, that’s easy. Dead works are works of the Torah. Easy answer and dead wrong, based on a two-thousand year old mistake made by the ancient “Church Fathers” which, according to New Testament scholar Magnus Zetterholm, may not have been a mistake at all but a set of deliberate acts designed to separate Gentile Jesus-belief from its Jewish counterpart and create a wholly new and separate religion called “Christianity.”
So it stands to reason if the basic foundation upon which our Christian theology and doctrine rests is an effort to make a faith stripped of its Jewish origins and original meaning, then we’ve probably got it all wrong.
So what is Messianic Judaism’s answer for “dead works?” After all, the Jewish writer of the Hebrews epistle addressing Hellenistic Jews in and around Jerusalem who were in danger of apostasy and falling away from faith in the Jewish Messiah could hardly be expected to increase their faith by being told to repent of observing the mitzvot of God, could they? Would that have made any sense at all? Did Jesus replace the Torah of Moses with a truncated gospel of “believe in me and when you die, you’ll go to Heaven?”
So if dead works aren’t works of the Law, what are they?
For the wages of sin is death…
–Romans 6:23 (NASB)
Repent, not from works of Torah, but from works of sin because they lead to death. It was the Master’s central message.
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
–Matthew 4:17 (NASB)
In Christianity, we are taught that we will die, not because of our own sins, but because of Adam’s. If we do nothing at all and never come to faith in Christ, we will die, be condemned by Jesus at the final judgment, and go to Hell forever.
Lancaster says in Judaism, there is a close association between human mortality and sin as well, but not Adam’s sin.
“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”
–Deuteronomy 24:16 (NASB)
Lancaster also uses Numbers 27:3, Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 5:12, and Romans 6:16 to expand on this point. We are all, each and every one of us, responsible for our sins, and the Law of sin is death. The only thing this has to do with the Torah is how we define sin.
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
–1 John 3:4 (NASB)
So according to John, the law (Torah) isn’t bad at all, and in fact, those who disobey the Torah practice lawlessness, which is the same thing as sin. Violation of Torah or lawlessness equals sin. Conversely, observance of the Torah mitzvot, as they apply to us (and they apply differently for Jews and Gentiles in Messiah), equals obedience to God.
How the Torah does and doesn’t apply to different groups is beyond the scope of this discussion, but know, as I’ve just said, that lawlessness or disobedience to God’s covenant conditions is equal to sin and we are required to repent from lawlessness (sin) as the absolute first step in responding to the true Gospel message. “Repenting” from the Torah, that is, forsaking observance of the commandments (as Evangelical Christians believe Hebrews 6:1 should be interpreted), for a Jew, believer or otherwise, constituted sin in the days of the apostles, just as it constitutes sin for Jewish people today.
I found it interesting, in mentioning his childhood and being raised in an Evangelical Christian home, that some of the “sins” Lancaster was taught to avoid were smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, dancing (presumably with girls), and going to the movies.
You can’t find any of those actions prohibited in the Bible.
…but Lancaster, though he made fun of these prohibitions as a teen, sees them now as “fences.” Christians often criticize Rabbinic Judaism for putting “fences around the Torah,” which means taking the basic prohibitions we find in the Bible and adding more prohibitions around them. For instance, Biblically, Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday night, but Rabbinically, it begins a certain number of minutes before sundown. Why? Because if people are taught it starts sooner, they won’t be tempted to “push the limit,” so to speak, trying to get one more thing done before the sun goes down, and thus avoid accidentally continuing to work when Shabbat actually arrives.
So smoking, drinking, dancing, and movies aren’t inherently sinful, but Lancaster can see, especially for young people, how each of these activities could potentially lead to actual sins. It’s an interesting principle to me, mainly because we see Christianity of a generation ago behaving just like Judaism.
Today, we often see almost no difference between the behavior of a Christian and a secular person. We go to the same movies, engage in the same recreation, do the same things pretty much, and except for going to Church on Sunday and maybe a Bible study on Wednesday, most Christians are exactly the same as most other people.
But aren’t we saved by grace? Who cares what we do? We aren’t saved by what we do, only by what we believe. Is that what the Bible says?
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
–Galatians 5:19-24 (NASB)
But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
–Ephesians 5:3-5 (NASB)
Don’t worry. Lancaster isn’t saying that we save ourselves by what we do, but look at this. Paul isn’t saying “just believe and you’ll be righteousness.” Oh no. He’s saying if you do these things you’ll be considered righteousness. If you don’t, you have no inheritance in the Kingdom of God.
It all sounds so legalistic. But that’s what Jesus taught.
So what must we do to be saved? Repent. Without repentance, we have no part of Jesus or the Messianic Kingdom.
No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
–1 John 3:6 (NASB)
Our righteousness isn’t “filthy rags” at least the way we have typically been taught. You might want to read Derek Leman’s commentary on the matter.
OK, repentance isn’t exactly an unknown process for many Christians and I bet a lot of believers repented of their sins when they came to faith. But for some people, that was a long time ago. If you repented once in 1976 or in 1998, what does that mean? Have you sinned lately? For some people, they repent only once a year, on Easter or Yom Kippur. Have you sinned recently?
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. (emph. mine)
–Luke 9:23 (NASB)
Lancaster mentioned the example of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in his audio sermon, but I’m going to take the quote from the Elementary Principles book to make sure I don’t leave out anything:
The famous Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to repent every night before saying his evening prayers (Maariv). Every evening, the rabbi of Berditchev examined his heart, what he had done on that day, and repented over every flaw he discovered. For each sin that he discovered, he said, “Levi Yitzchak will not do this again.” Then he chided himself, “Levi Yitzchak said exactly the same thing yesterday!” And he added, “Ah, but yesterday, Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth. Today, he does speak the truth.”
-Lancaster, pg 41
Many Christians have been taught a false gospel, one that says they only have to believe and they will be saved. Evangelical Christianity is good about teaching us what to believe but not what to do. The Church has experienced a significant and even (eternal) life-threatening mission drift, failing to make the much-needed course corrections for the past twenty centuries since we were first set upon this journey as the body of Messiah by the Jewish apostles and disciples of our Master.
I’ve written a great deal about repentance lately, and I don’t think enough can be said on this. Neither does Lancaster, even though repentance should be a pretty elementary teaching of the Church. It was in the Messianic synagogue in the mid-first century, but much of that Jewish doctrine has been lost.
The path of repentance leads to joy. “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). The rabbis said, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world to come.” In his book Love and the Messianic Age, Messianic Jewish pioneer Paul Levertoff says, “The sinner, in whose soul the light of the divine fire has been quenched, is greater, when he repents, than the righteous who have no need for repentance.” The place of the penitent sinner is even greater than that of the righteous person who does not need to repent, because the sinner throws himself entirely into the arms of God.
-ibid, pg 45
Now what about those wedding clothes?
“Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’”
–Revelation 19:7-9 (NASB)
The wedding clothes are the righteous deeds of the saints, the tzadikim. One who enters the banquet without wedding clothes can be compared to one who attempts to enter the Kingdom of God without repenting of sin, turning to God, and doing good in his life.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
–Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)
The words of the Master recorded by Matthew make so much more sense when put in their proper context, don’t you think?
Repentance and salvation cannot be separated. One does not receive salvation unless they repent and repent often.
Some think life is all about doing good and keeping away from evil.
To them, struggle has no purpose of its own—to have struggled is to have failed. Success, they imagine, is a sweet candy with no trace of bitterness.
They are wrong, tragically wrong. Struggle is an opportunity to reach the ultimate, when darkness itself becomes light. In the midst of struggle, an inner light is awakened. Light profound enough to overwhelm the darkness, encasing it and winning it over.
But if darkness never fights back, how will it ever be conquered?
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Although this is the end of the chapter in Lancaster’s book, in the sermon series, Lancaster isn’t finished with the topic of “repenting from dead works.” He presents the second part next week…and so will I.
What Did I Learn?
I learned about wedding clothes and the close connection between sin, repentance, forgiveness, a life dedicated to God, and the joy, not only of someday entering the Kingdom, but of (in some ways) entering the Kingdom right now.
It’s easy to forget to repent. I know that sounds strange. Maybe that admission on my part makes me sound like a terrible person. Maybe all of you reading this, like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, repent daily and on a regular evening schedule. Frankly, by the time I’m ready to end the day, my brain and attention span isn’t worth much. Some nights, I can barely recite the last few paragraphs of the Bedtime Shema.
But as you know if you’ve been reading this blog regularly, repentance is something I’ve been focusing on a great deal, not only in my writing but in my life. I can’t say that I’m really good at it. For some things, even approaching the idea of repenting feels threatening and scary. I don’t know what I’m afraid of exactly. Who’d be afraid of getting closer to God? But we’re all afraid of change, even if the change is beneficial.
What I learned, though, is that I won’t get into the banquet without dressing for the occasion, none of us will. That’s more than just saying “I’m sorry” to God. That’s more than just changing my mind about something. Repentance is a dedicated and detailed process that like any skill (yes, I think it’s a learned skill), takes practice, practice, practice.
I fall down and go ker-splat dozens of times a day. Thank God at the end of each day (or several times a day), I can turn back to my Father and turn my heart inside out, spilling all the regret, anguish, pain, and sorrow at His feet and in my own way say, “James will not do this again,” but “James said exactly the same thing yesterday! Ah, but yesterday, James did not speak the truth. Today, he does speak the truth.”
Today, let me repent and let me speak the truth, and let me continue to speak the truth as the day ends and the shadows gather. For in repentance, the shadows are swept away and in joy, there is light.