Summary: What are the elementaty, foundational truths, referred to in Hebrews 6v2? (Baptisms and laying on of hands)
Chapter 6 vv 1-3 – Elementary my dear! (Part 1)
1 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
Last time we looked at the writer’s criticism of his readers’ spiritual immaturity. He continues this theme as he begins Chapter 6. This is because it is crucial to know where we stand and whether we are going forward in our Christian lives. Without such stock-takes it is easy for us to drift along.
This chapter is hard to understand. As I have studied it I have become increasingly convinced that we need to bear in mind its original audience and the problems and doubts that they were experiencing if we are to understand it properly. If we do this and read it in the context of the rest of the book I think we can avoid the confusion and anxieties that it has brought to sincere Christians. This book was written to Jewish believers, some of whom were wavering between Christianity and the old ways of the Jewish religion. This is exactly what the Jewish people had done at Kadesh Barnea (which was the writer’s focus in Ch 4:11) and this book was written largely to show these believers the folly of such an about face.
The first question that we have to think about is what the writer meant by the terms the elementary principles of Christ and the foundation in verse 1. Are they the three couplets listed in verses 1 and 2? When I began this study I thought that they were, but look at them
• repentance from dead works and faith toward God – 6:1
• baptisms and laying on of hands – 6:2
• resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment – 6:2
At fist glance that seems straight forward enough. I am sure that we would agree that repentance, faith, baptism, the resurrection and judgement are all elementary truths. Although, sadly many who call themselves Christians stumble over them, or even completely deny them.
But this passage doesn’t talk about baptism, it uses the plural. Why? Well different baptisms are referred to in the NT – John’s baptism, Christian baptism and the baptism of the Spirit (1Cor 12:13) are the main ones, but there is no other reference in Scripture to the doctrine of baptisms.
If we look at the Greek word used here – baptismos– it is found only 3 other times in the New Testament, where it is translated as washings. It is not the same as baptizo – normally translated as baptize. Two are in Mark 7:
4 When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. …8 "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do."
The other is also in Hebrews ch 9:10 and refers to various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.
These references look back to OT passages (Exodus 30:18, 19; Leviticus 16:4; Numbers 19:19) about the ceremonial washings of Judaism. They were designed to impress upon the Israelites that God is holy and that none who were defiled could enter His presence. They reminded everyone that sin must be dealt with before a priest or, indeed, any Jew could approach God. It seems very likely that this is what the writer was referring to.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day focussed on ceremonial ‘Purification’. A large part of the Jewish Talmud, including the largest book of the Mishna and no less than thirty chapters in the Gemara, is devoted to this subject.
Water jars were kept ready to be used before a meal. The minimum amount of water to be used was a quarter of a log, which is defined as enough to fill one and a half eggshells. The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upwards, and must run up the arm as far as the wrist. It must drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands, and, if it ran down the fingers again, it would again render them unclean. The process was repeated with the hands held in the opposite direction, with the fingers pointing down; and then finally each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A really strict Jew would do all this, not only before a meal, but also between each of the courses.