Hebrews 6:1-3 First Principles.
Roughly half way through his letter, our author wanted to move on from “the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ” (v. 1a), what he also called “the first principles of the oracles of God” (5:12). He uses the expression translated ‘let us’ quite often. ‘Pherometha’ is what is called a hortatory subjunctive, where it always occurs in the first person plural of the subjunctive mood. It means that the author is urging, even commanding himself and his readers to join together in the action spoken about. So he wants his readers to join him in moving beyond basic principles to the solid food of the word-which is what this letter does. This progression to deeper truths is a progression to perfection, or maturity, which must be our goal. We must not remain stagnant or immature in the faith.
However, before doing this, he tells us what some of these first principles were. Two of these principles were foundational-repentance and faith. Dr. Murray called these the twin sisters at the beginning of our salvation. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot have faith without repentance. There can be no looking to the Son as Saviour if we do not repent before Him as Lord. We must repent “from dead works” (v. 1b). Literally, these are works that are nekron-lifeless. It is not just sinful works, but it is any works one might trust in for salvation. All our works are dead works, lifeless as far as providing any hope of being justified through them. This is the foundation which must be laid before anything else. Salvation is by grace through faith “toward God” (v. 1c Cf. 10:38).
What will strike many as being something beyond the basics, is the whole subject of “the doctrine of baptisms” (v. 2a). Two things stick out with these words. Firstly, there was some established doctrine concerning baptisms, which the apostles regarded as basic and foundational. Secondly, our author uses the plural-baptisms, not just baptism. What this should tell us today are a couple of things. Firstly, we must understand, teach, and embrace as part of our first principles this doctrine of baptisms. Secondly, we must recognize that there were evidently more than one kind on baptism, and what made them different is something we must understand. We know that John, who is called John the Baptist, declared that there was One coming, namely the Messiah, who would have a different baptism than his (Mt. 3:5-11).
John’s baptism was only a baptism of repentance, the Messiah’s would also represent a turning to God in faith, by the Spirit. We must always bear in mind that this was a time of transition. Every generation that has followed the apostolic one, is guilty of reading one’s present generation back into the text, as well as forgetting that it was a time of transition. The very structure of the letter as new covenant renewal, at the same time as old covenant lawsuit, itself makes this point. John himself confessed that his baptism was temporary, with the sole focus on baptism and preparing people for the Messiah. The Jews had these “washings” with water for Gentiles who wanted to join the covenant community. It was an act symbolizing repentance. John was different in that he taught that this was also required of Jews in preparation for the Messiah.
Paul, in Acts, reiterated this point with respect to the baptism of John, and in this historical account of the spread of the apostolic message, we see the transition taking place. Paul had to baptize some new converts who had only been baptized with the baptism of John, one of repentance, but they needed to be baptized into the name of the One in whom they had faith for forgiveness-Christ Jesus (Acts 19:3-5). It in no way implies that John’s baptism was not from God, because it certainly was. Jesus made this point with the proud apostate Jewish leadership that had refused John’s baptism (Mt. 21:23-27). However, John also did not dream up something new from his own imagination. John’s baptism was of God, not because he was given something totally new by God, but rather he engaged in what the old covenant called ‘washings’.
Again, it is easy for some to imagine that Christianity only begins with the gospels. However, the gospel writers, along with the rest of the New Testament writers, with one voice say that they are simply writing about the fulfillment of which the authors of the Old Testament wrote, because there is but one God and one Spirit who inspired both. This point of OT precedent is reinforced by the word which our author uses here, that being ‘baptismos’. As Hughes points out in his commentary, this was not the usual word for baptism, rather “the regular word used of Christian baptism is ‘baptisma’.” (Comm. p. 199) Also, where the NT addresses the subject elsewhere, it uses the singular and not the plural. “The same noun, it may be added, is found again in 9:10 below and in verses 4 and 8 of Mark 7, each time in the plural and designating Jewish ceremonial washings or absolutions.” (Ibid. p. 199).
It is very likely that our author is actually referring to this time of transition from Jewish ceremonial washings, to the baptism of John, and ultimately to the baptism instituted by the Lord (Mt. 28:19 Cf. Acts 1:5; 11:16). Given his repeated references to the old covenant context of the Temple etc., he also would have in mind the washings or absolutions in the law. (Cf., Ex. 30:18ff.; Lev. 6:27; 13:54; 14:8; 16:4, 24, 26, 28; 22:6; Nu. 19:7ff.). These “baptisms” then, find their ultimate fulfillment in what Christ established. However, it also shows that there are similarities, and hence why this reference is in the plural. Hughes also made the point that those of the Dead Sea community, which he proposed as the first audience, had the following in their ‘Manual Of Instruction’.
“The eschatological triumph of truth is awaited when, “like waters of purification [God] will sprinkle upon [man] the spirit of truth, to cleanse him of all the abominations of falsehood and of all pollution….” Old testament prophecies like Isaiah 44:3 and Ezekial 36:25ff. (cf. also Num. 19:19) lie behind these teachings.” (Ibid. p. 201.) This background is very significant in that it shows that there is something of the act itself which ties these various baptisms together. There is one thing which was universal about the washings or baptisms in the old covenant-they were all sprinklings. In fact, later our author will indicate that he wanted to also go into greater detail about those items found in the temple precincts, and one of those items was the laver, which Aaron and his sons were to use with water for their washings (Cf. 9:1-5; Ex. 30:18ff.).
Furthermore, these washings were directly related to the sprinkling of blood (Lev. 6:27), which our author sees as fulfilled in the Son. The old covenant required the sprinkling of blood, Moses sprinkling both the word and the people. “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission” (9:23). Even so, the new covenant has the sprinkling of blood which is better than these, to which the old point to (9:23ff). We can be very thankful for our author, who is so steeped in the understanding of the old covenant scriptures, that he saw these connections, and the continuity with the new covenant administration as the fulfillment of it.
Speaking of the new covenant, God through Ezekiel, stated the following. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you” (36:25-26). This is also one reason why this writer agrees with those who believe that this letter was actually written by Apollos, because he is described as “mighty in the scriptures,” but needed to learn about the different baptisms (Acts 18:24ff.). Paul’s instructions about baptisms came just after the encounter of Apollos with Priscilla and Aquila. Further to this point, was the need for Apollos to also be instructed in the matter of the laying on of hands, which he will touch on next in his first principles (Acts 19:5ff.).
Apollos would have both his interest in the washings or baptisms of the old covenant, but also added to these would have been that of John and that of being baptized into Christ-even as He had instituted. “The author “would have had to have instruction on the two water rites and also on the laying on of hands.” This, again, would seem to fit Apollos well.” (Ibid. p. 202 Hughes quoting Montefiore). It would seem that these two things were closely associated with each other (Cf. Acts 8:16f.; 9:17f.; 19:5f.). However, they are not always so connected, and there are other instances in which the laying on of hands is used (Cf. Of blessing Mt. 19:13-15; healing of the sick Mk. 6:5; 16:18; Lk. 4:40, etc; Acts 28:8). “Together with prayer, it seems to have been customary in the ordination or commissioning of persons for various kinds of service (cf. Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim. 5:22; 2Tim. 1:6).” (Ibid. p. 203).
However, many throughout church history have actually read back into this practice things which may not have been present at the time our author wrote. It may be that our author simply sought to highlight this history as we find it in the New Testament witness. However, given how he goes back to the law and the prophets throughout this letter, it is highly probable that he also, like with baptism, also had the old testament in view as well. There were instances where it applied to ordination to some office or task (Gen. 22:12; Ex. 7:4; 24:9-11; Lev. 24:4; Dt. 13:6-10), associated with consecration (Nu. 8:5, 15; 27:18-23; Dt. 34:9), and special blessings (Gen. 48:2-20; Ps. 139:4-6; Mk. 10:13-16; Lk. 18:15-17). However, there is also a group of verses which may have a direct reference to the structure and content of this letter-and that is the laying on of hands in sacrifice and covenantal blessing and cursing.
The Aaronic priests laid hands on a sacrificial bull to purify themselves for service (Cf. Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:15; Ex. 29:10). In particular, on the Day of Atonement Aaron would take a bull as a sin offering for himself and his house, but then he would also take two goats, with one being offered to the LORD as a sin offering, but the other was kept alive and released as a “scapegoat” into the wilderness. It was this blood from the bull and the goat dedicated to the LORD that would provide the blood for the sprinkling of the items of the temple, the book, and the people (Lev. 6:6-19). However, Aaron would then take the live “scapegoat” and place both his hands on this goat, and “confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgression, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness” (Lev. 16:21-22).
As Moses will state later in Leviticus, this was an act of covenantal cursing. Anyone who blasphemed the LORD would be taken outside the camp, and the people would lay there hands on him in an act of covenantal cursing (Lev. 24:13-16). In light of the Day of Atonement the application there appears much clearer. Anyone who did not look to the sacrifice offered to the LORD for their sin, would be cast into the wilderness to suffer the curse for their own sins, and the fact that this goat was released alive speaks to the reality that such a person will live with their curse forever. This fits in perfectly with the structure and message of this letter. Those under the old covenant curse have rejected the sacrifice made to the LORD, and as such they are under the covenantal curse. On the other hand, those who confess the Son as their sacrifice for sin, have this covenant renewed to them with sins forgiven.
Writing to those who knew the old covenant scriptures, as our author did, these would have indeed been basic first principles. Coupled with this is the prominent place which the Day of Atonement and the activity of the high priest plays here. This comes as a warning to his audience, whom he hopes of better things for, just prior to expounding the third part of the covenant lawsuit structure at 6:4-9-The Recital Of The Plaintiff’s Benevolent Acts And Indictment. Of course, every bit as foundational as Christ’s death, was His resurrection, and the promise of the resurrection to eternal life for those who put their trust in Him. Also equally foundational is the knowledge of eternal judgment for those who reject Him. So these were the first principles our author believed he had to emphasize, because his audience were “dull of hearing” (5:11), when they ought to have been teachers (5:12). He would move on, but only “if God permits”. In His providence, it was our author’s hope that they could move on from these first principles.