The primary audience for the book of Hebrews were the Jews who had converted to Christianity but did not have a complete understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. The emphasis on the Levitical priesthood, sacrifices, and a lack of reference to the Gentiles allows us to come to this conclusion. You will also notice the comparison between the old and new covenants, the imperfect and incomplete provisions in the old covenant under Moses, and the magnificently better covenant offered by our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Keeping the primary audience in mind, we will also need to read the surrounding passage of Hebrews 6:1-3 to understand its meaning entirely. We must read from Hebrews 4:14 onwards, where Hebrews 4:14 to 5:10 teaches Jesus Christ as the great high priest, and from Hebrews 5:11 to 6:12, a warning against apostasy.
Hebrews 6:1-3 says, “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.”
This passage begins with the word ‘Therefore‘, meaning we must pay careful attention to what was said before this verse. In Hebrews 5:11-14, the author tells the audience that by this time, they ought to be teachers; instead, they need someone to teach them again the basic principles of the oracles of God. As the primary audience is Jewish believers, the oracles of God would refer to the Old Testament scripture, which laid the foundation for the gospel. The basics of the Old Testament law were to lead them to faith in Jesus the Messiah; by now, they also knew the New Testament gospel, but they were still unlearned and could not comprehend or have the ability to teach the word of God. Galatians 3:24 says, “Therefore the Law has become our guardian to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” (NASB).
In light of this, or ‘therefore’, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity (Hebrews 6:1). The reference here is to the Jewish Christians needing to build on the foundation, requiring them to re-learn the basics of the faith. Notice that the author is not asking to abandon the basics of faith; instead, that is where they must begin and build onward to maturity. There is no point stopping at this foundation, being the OT law, and laying again the things that were only intended to be the foundation. Now, the author explains the foundational aspects by grouping them into six items, each considered in the light of the New Covenant.
Firstly, repentance from dead works.
In the Old Testament, repentance was turning away from evil to Jehovah via good works in keeping the law. In contrast, New Testament repentance toward God is connected with faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). The difference is works vs. faith. Often the Jews had a superficial repentance where the inner person was still dead, but did works on the outside as fulfilment of the law to outwardly show the evidence of repentance. This does not bring salvation or spiritual life. It is only religious. Only through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, by faith in Him, can we be saved from dead works. The law pointed to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
Secondly, faith in God.
The “Faith in God” is in respect to the Jewish faith in God, as the God of Israel, or God the Father. In the new covenant, faith in God the Father must be coupled with faith in God the Son, Jesus Christ. As it says in John 14:1, “…believe in God; believe also in me.” Also Acts 4:11-12 says, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Thirdly, instructions about washings.
Many ceremonial washings in the Old Testament Levitical system were outward signs of the heart cleansing (Exodus 30:18-21). However, in the New Testament, we are regenerated, and the inner washing cleanses our hearts by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11). Titus 3:5-6 says, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,”
Fourthly, laying on of hands.
Again, while reading this, it is easy for us to link ‘laying on of hands to the Christian practice, but the Jews already practised this. In the old covenant, a person would bring a sacrifice and place his hands on it to associate himself with the sacrifice as his substitute (Leviticus 1:4; 3:38, 13; 16:21)
Fifthly, the resurrection of the dead.
The resurrection of the dead was a doctrine that was fiercely debated among the first-century Jews. We can see examples of this in passages such as Matthew 22:23-33 and Acts 23:6, where this issue bought division among the Sadducees and Pharisees. Although the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, they were, in fact, spiritually dead themselves.
Sixthly, eternal judgment.
The Jews also believed in eternal judgment, that our bodies go to the grave after death, but our souls go before God to be judged. Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
So, in light of these, the author of Hebrews is saying that these are “foundational” items. Not that they are unnecessary, but they are the beginnings of the teaching about and of Christ, and now it is time to build on it and go on to maturity. The following chapters go on to these more profound things, talking about:
- The certainty of God’s promise (Hebrews 6:13-20),
- The priestly order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-10),
- Jesus compared to Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:11-28),
- Jesus being the High Priest of a better covenant (Hebrews 8),
- The earthly holy place, and the Redemption through the blood of Christ (Hebrews 9),
- Christ’s sacrifice for all (Hebrews 10:1-18),
- The full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:19-39),
- Faith and Jesus being the founder and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 11-12:1-2),
- Not to grow weary and the discipline of the Lord (Hebrews 12:3-17),
- About the kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-29),
- Sacrifices pleasing to God (Hebrews 13), etc.
The author of Hebrews wants these Jewish believers to be well prepared for Christian living, progressing from the first things of faith, withstand persecution, grow in their faith, and get a deeper understanding of Christ and salvation in Him.
Likewise, many Christians today stay at the foundational levels of their faith in Christ. Many churches do not go beyond the superficial aspects of faith. They are more concerned about how they present themselves, such as worship styles, buildings, worldly wisdom to make the church appealing to all people without preaching the truth and depth of the gospel, etc. They are unwilling to preach the truth because it may be offensive to our current culture. Examine yourself to see whether you remain at this level, or are you going into a deeper understanding of Christ? Are you growing in maturity by reading His word, spending time in prayer, understanding what it means to walk as a believer so that when the storms come, when persecution arises, when you are disciplined by the Father, that you may remain in Him by the power of His Spirit, and in His strength, and by your love for Him. Amen!