This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
he original apostles of Jesus were instructed by our Lord to:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing
them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have
commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20a). They were to
teach, and they were to baptize. The content of their teaching was to
include all of the things Jesus had taught them.
The apostles went out into the then known world, a world
dominated by the Romans, and did as they were told. First they taught the
basics. They preached the Gospel (Good News) – the same message that
Jesus himself had preached. They announced to the world that God had
sent a Savior, one who would deliver mankind from itself and from the
devil and all his works (I John 3:8). They told everyone who would listen
of God’s redemptive plan, and of how they could participate in it. Then
they elaborated on the particulars. They explained that now that Jesus the
Messiah (Anointed One) had arrived, the Kingdom of God was going to
continue to expand right on up to the time when Jesus returned to make it
universal. “Kingdom of God” simply means the sovereign rule of God in
people’s lives. It does not, as some teach, have to involve “territory”.
Later, after the Church had been established, some began to lose
their first love. Instead of growing in Christ, they began to atrophy
spiritually speaking. They began to lose sight of the basics. The author of
the book of Hebrews (we don’t know who he or she was) admonished the
addressees of that letter by writing: “In fact, though by this time you ought
to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of
God’s word all over again…” (Hebrews 5:12).
Ideally, mature Christians ought to be able to teach newly minted
believers the basics of the Christian faith. Sadly, they often do not
understand those themselves; let alone know how to pass them on to others.
This series of articles will re-establish these foundational doctrines so that
new Christians can easily learn them, and so that older believers can review
and reinforce them. The list of these “first principles” is found in Hebrews
6:1-2: “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and
go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts
that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the
laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment...”
Here we see listed six principles that are fundamental to the
teaching of Christ. Once these were established in the hearts and minds of
believers, they provided a platform for further spiritual growth. In this
series, we will discuss them one by one, in the order in which they appear
in Hebrews. We will, in the course of this process, focus on Jesus’ own
teaching, for that is what he instructed the apostles to pass on to others. In
understanding Jesus’ doctrine, we will examine the origins of his very
Jewish approach to these teachings.
If we do not understand Jesus’ Jewishness, we will not fully grasp
the intent of his teaching. As R. Steven Notley wrote in his Forward to
Prof. David Flusser’s book on Jesus: “Often, we Christians read the stories
and sayings of Jesus with little knowledge of the contemporary issues,
personages and nuances of language that provide such an important
element in molding our understanding of his life and teachings” (Jesus, by
David Flusser, p. 9). In approaching these fundamentals of the faith, we
will not neglect to consider Jesus’ Jewishness.
The Need for Repentance and Atonement
The ideas of repentance and atonement are rooted in the history of mankind
as recorded in the Bible. The story of Eden, whether you believe it to be
literally true or sacred myth, is in the Bible for a reason: it offers an
explanation for how sin entered the world. It helps us understand why the
writer of Hebrews used the term “dead works” (KJV) or “works that lead to
“Works” are what we do. In Old Testament times, how we live or
conduct ourselves was often described as the way we “walk.” Our spiritual
walk is either toward, or away from, God. When we are operating fully
within the will of God, we are said to be moving Godward – deeper into
the Light (I Thessalonians 1:8 – 9; Ephesians 5:8).
When we sin, we step away from God and we begin moving into
darkness. When we are converted, or changed, we move from the realm of
darkness into the realm of light (I Peter 2:9b). It is ha Satan – the
Adversary – who presides over the darkness of this world (Ephesians 2:2b;
Our “works” – in other words the way we conduct ourselves in the
world – can either be life-affirming, or “dead.” Why “dead? Dead works
are sinful works, works that are done in disobedience to the divine will. In
the Eden story, God told Adam: “And the Lord God commanded the man,
‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will
surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Eating of the forbidden fruit was a “work” or a behavior that would
lead to death. Of course we know that both Eve and Adam – in that order –
disobeyed God and ate of the fruit. In doing so, they had turned their back
on God’s will and walked away from it. They had moved from light to
darkness in a single act. The death they experienced was not immediate
physical death. It was the death of the inner man. By disobeying God, they
had now qualified for his “death row” and forfeited their right to eternal
life. That’s why the apostle Paul could later use the expression “dead in
your transgressions” to describe the pre-conversion state of the Ephesian
Christians. He wrote: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions
and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this
world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at
work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:1-2).
Understanding the Role of Satan
Satan is a spirit, and he is at work among those who chose to live in
disobedience to God. It is sometimes said that the Adversary fulfills three
roles in the world: 1). He seduces or tempts mankind to sin; 2). He then
accuses the sinner before God; and, finally; 3). He destroys those who fail
to repent. We can certainly see his role as tempter in the story of Eden. We
can view his role as accuser in the Book of Job; and Jesus himself called
Satan a “murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).
Satan preys on our weaknesses, our desires, our hopes, wishes and
dreams. According to the Apostle Peter, Satan prowls the earth “like a
roaring lion” looking for prey (I Peter 5:8). In nature, lions prey on
weakness: sick animals, the young, the old, animals trapped in water holes,
mud or brambles. Satan too looks for weakness. In Judas Iscariot, he found
it in the man’s desire for money. Following the Lord’s last supper with his
disciples, including Judas, we read: “And supper being ended, the devil
having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray
him” (John 13:2). All it took was thirty pieces of silver to put Judas over
In Genesis 4, we find the story of the murder of Abel, Adam’s son,
by his brother Cain. In the original account, we read nothing of the role of
Satan. Yet, many centuries later, the apostle John made it clear that Satan
had been involved when he wrote: “In this the children of God are
manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness
is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message
that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as
Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore
slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s
righteous” (I John 3:10-12).
Murder is a devilish act. It is the devil who seduces men into
committing it. Satan first lied, then he murdered. Cain, the first offspring of
the first man, committed the first human murder. As Jesus said, Satan is the
father of murderers (John 8:44). Hatred of mankind, or any particular class
of mankind, is not of God, it is of the devil. John also wrote: “Whosoever
hateth his brother is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath
eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3:15). If one murders another, one
forfeits his own right to life (Genesis 9:6).
All of us, in one way or another, have been children of darkness.
We have all, wittingly or unwittingly, followed the way of the devil. As a
result, we have incurred God’s wrath, represented by the death penalty.
Paul made it clear that what we earn by sinning is the death penalty
The English word “sin” is perhaps an unfortunate “catchall” word to use to
translate the Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture. It doesn’t really
convey the meaning of the original. In Biblical Hebrew, more than thirty
different words are translated “sin” in our English versions. The three most
common words are het’, pasha’, and avon. These words mean essentially
the same thing, though they are not exact parallelisms. The word het’
comes from the root ht, which occurs in the Bible 459 times. The original
meaning of the verb hata is “to miss” something, or “to fail.” (Cf. Genesis
31:39; Leviticus 5:15-16; Numbers 14:40 and other passages.) A “sin” can
be a failure in relations, or failure to reach a standard, hit a target or reach
an ideal goal. For further detail, look up the word “sin” in the Encyclopedia
Judaica, from which the above comments were derived.
As scholars Quell, Bertram, Sahlin and Grundmann suggest: “…the
Old Testament offers no neat doctrine of sin; qualifications are always
necessary, and all sorts of subsidiary questions are involved in the general
problem of sin…our word ‘sin’, represents four different Hebrew roots,
each with its own nuance, which it is difficult for us to reproduce.”
The same authors later write: “There are a few places in the Old
Testament where the word literally means missing the mark, and this must
be the clue to its religious, legal and ethical significance” (Sin, by Gottfried
Quell, Georg Betram, Gustav Stahlin & Walter Grundman, pp. 5 & 7).
In the New Testament, a Greek word commonly translated sin is
‘amartia. It means “every departure from the way of righteousness, both
human and divine” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by
Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich, p. 43). Strong’s Concordance, which is not
authoritative for establishing word meanings, defines ‘amartia as “missing
the mark.” This isn’t far off the Old Testament meaning of “sin.”
The discussion of the nuances of the many words translated “sin” in
our versions could become encyclopedic. Our purpose here is to establish a
basic working definition of “sin” as we understand it in English, and go
from there. To sin is to fail to live up to the divine standard; to miss the
target of ideal behavior as defined by God; to transgress God’s Torah
(Instruction). John defines sin very simply when he writes: “Sin is the
transgression of the law (I John 3:4b).
Behind the Greek word nomos, usually translated “law” is the
Hebrew word Torah, which means “instruction” or “direction.” Torah, in
turn, is derived from the Hebrew verb yara, meaning to “cast” or “throw.”
If, for instance, you asked a person for directions: “Tell me, which way is it
to Jerusalem?” and a person responded by pointing northward, “It’s that
way,” he has given the other person “directions” or “instruction” (Torah).
To cast one’s hand in a direction is yara. To throw a spear or shoot an
arrow at a target is yara. God has given his Torah -- that is his instructions
or directions -- to mankind from the beginning. When God told Adam not
to eat of the forbidden fruit, that was God’s Torah – His instruction. When
Adam disobeyed, his missed the mark, he failed; he sinned. Torah is the
noun form of yara. We have the written Torah and the Jewish people have
oral Torah (Mishnah & Talmud). To walk, or live, within the boundaries of
God’s Torah is to live in the light, to walk in righteousness, to be in “The
Way,” to move Godward. To step outside of that light is to move away
from God, into darkness, into sin and into the realm of the Adversary.
From the time of Adam to the present, every human being except Christ
himself has sinned (Genesis 6:11-13; Jeremiah 17:5-9; Job 4:17-21;
Romans 7:14-25). The writers of both Testaments recognized this painful
reality: “God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if
there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is
gone back; they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth
good, no, not one” (Psalm 53:2-3).
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans
“If we say that have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is
not in us…If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and the
word is not in us” (I John 1:8,10).
Sin is universal. The realm of sin is “the world” (kosmos) – the
system over which ha Satan presides. As John also wrote: “He that
committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For
this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the
works of the devil” (I John 3:8). What are the “works of the devil”? In
context, sin and its deleterious effects. We are either children of God, or we
are children of the devil. If we do the works of the devil, we are his
children. The work of the devil in the world necessitated the coming of the
Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Jesus is the centerpiece of God’s
redemptive plan. One of his very first acts following his baptism was to
defeat and disqualify Satan as the ruler of this spiritually darkened world
The Human Condition
The Gospel is good news in the face of all the bad news about human
nature, the human condition, man’s inhumanity to man, and Satan’s role in
the world. The present state of mankind is the result of concrete cause &
effect factors, most of which have to do with some form of sin. Jesus Christ
is The Answer to all of the world’s ills. He is God’s designated Savior or
Deliverer. To him has been given by the Father “all authority in heaven and
on earth” (Matthew 28:18). He has the power to forgive sin, and the power
to judge those who refuse to repent of it when invited to do so.
Jesus came to deliver the world of sickness, demonization, and the
effects of sin. Immediately after his triumph over the devil, Jesus got to
work. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues,
preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and
sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and
people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those
suffering severe pain, and demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the
paralyzed, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:23-24).
This was God’s work through Jesus his Anointed One. The first,
most basic, and most oft-repeated part of Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for
the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Prior to his death and
resurrection, Jesus sent his own talmidim (disciples) out on a trial run.
They operated under his authority. A key component in their Gospel is
revealed in the statement: “They went out and preached that people should
repent” (Mark 6:12).
One of the Hebrew words for “repentance” is teshuva. It means
“turning around.” It is from the root shuwb, meaning “turn.” The prophet
Ezekiel used it when he conveyed God’s message to the elders of Israel:
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and
renounce all your detestable practices!” (Ezekiel 14:6). In adopting
idolatry, they had turned away from the Lord and stepped into the
darkness. By repenting, they would turn from idolatry, renounce it, and
turn back to the Lord in humble obedience to his Torah. This is repentance.
Another excellent passage in Ezekiel that makes clear the meaning
of repentance is found in Ezekiel 18:30-32: “Therefore, O house of Israel,
I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign
Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your
downfall. Rid yourselves of the all the offenses you have committed, and
get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For
I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Repent and live!”
Paul wrote the Romans: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift
of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Jesus’ whole purpose was to rescue us from the penalty of our sins,
and to give us life. He said, “…I have come that they may have life, and
have it to the full” (John 10:10b).
In Jesus’ day, as in our own, most people had unwittingly chosen
for themselves the way that leads to death – the way of sin. Perhaps this is
why Jesus taught: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate
and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few
find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Sin is the natural result of Satan “touching” us. He is a corrupting
influence in the world, as he was in Eden. In fact, the word “serpent”
(Genesis 3:1) is nachash. It can mean “poisoner” or “corrupter.” Satan was
the first to suggest that human appetite should be a guide to human conduct
(Genesis 3:5, 6, 22). One of the Adversary’s roles in the scheme of things
is to set up choices for us so that we can exercise our free will. Of course
he tilts us toward the down side of things – to the way that leads to death.
In the end, however, the choice is always ours, not his.
The Two Impulses
In Judaism, the religion of Jesus and the apostles, it was taught that man is
torn between two impulses – the yetzer hara, and the yetzer ha tob. The
former is “a force which drives to wickedness and as an endowment of man
which proves a formidable obstacle in the way to a righteous life.” The
latter is the impulse to do good. As Abraham Cohen writes, “The belief that
in every human being there are two urges – one to evil and the other to
goodness – figures prominently in Rabbinic ethics” (Everyman’s Talmud,
both quotes above from page 88).
All it takes is a single act of sin – as in the case of Adam and Eve –
to qualify for the death penalty. Yet most of us don’t sin most of the time.
Some of us live a reasonably clean life spiritually speaking, and others of
us are utterly subverted to evil. Cohen explains: “The character of a person
is determined by which of the two impulses is dominant within him. ‘The
good impulse controls the righteous; as it is said, “My heart is wounded
within me” (Ps. Cix.22). The evil impulse controls the wicked; as it is said,
“Transgression speaketh to the wicked, in the midst of the heart; there is no
fear of God before his eyes’ (ibid. xxxvi.I). Both impulses control average
people’ (Ber.61b)” (ibid. p. 88).
To summarize, no one is perfect. Every one of us has sinned in
some way, at some time. We have all followed the pattern of our father,
Adam. But not everyone serves evil as a way of life. The world has seen
many unquestionably evil people: Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi
Amin, Saddam Hussein, Usama Bin Ladin, Richard Ramirez, to name a
few. These men served evil as a way of life. To them, human life had no
value. They could take the life of a human being as easily as they could
take that of a fly. They were without conscience. They had no fear of the
God who commands: “You shall not commit premeditated murder”
(Exodus 20:13). They were, or are, controlled by the evil impulse, and that
in turn is associated with Satan. It seems that each generation of mankind
finds itself fighting an evil that arises from the sick mind of some tyrant,
religious fanatic, or homicidal maniac. In the last century, it was Nazism,
Fascism, and Communism. In this century, it is Islamic terrorism. Should
that be defeated, newer versions of communism are again asserting
themselves. Evil is forever waiting in the wings.
On the other hand, most people are not utterly evil. Some are
basically good people. Their behavior is either morally neutral, or
constructive and helpful to mankind. They leave the world a little better
than they found it. While they are here, they are blessing to all with whom
they come in contact. Yet, they are not perfect. They are sinners in need of
Most people are a mixture of good and evil. The average person
does some good and some evil. We all have skeletons in our closets of
which we are ashamed and embarrassed. Devout Christians and Jews
repent of these sinful acts. They cease committing them, renounce them,
and return to God in deep humility. Where possible, they make restitution.
The Process of Conversion
The word “conversion” simply means “change.” The NIV translates Acts
3:19 as follows: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be
wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he
may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus.” Luke,
who wrote the book of Acts, put it in a very Jewish way when he said,
“Repent and turn…” As we learned earlier, when we perform teshuva, we
do an about face and turn back to God. The KJV renders “turn” as “be
This is what our Lord called upon all of us to do: repent and
change. When we “repent of dead works,” we simply stop doing them. We
halt in our tracks, turn around, and start marching Godward. We move
deeper into his will instead of farther from it. Paul explained that through
conversion we experience a spiritual renewal at the level of the inner man:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your
bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual
act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but
be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2a).
Conversion involves a transformation of the whole person. We
cease performing “dead works” and begin to produce the “fruit of the
Spirit.” Another name for these dead works is “works of the flesh.” Paul
lists a representative number of such works in Galatians 5:19-21: “The acts
of the sinful nature [Greek: sarkos = “flesh”] are obvious: sexual
immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred,
discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and
envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, those
who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is representative of
the kind of things for which we are called to repentance.
Once we have renounced such dead works, we then begin to
produce the fruit of the indwelling Spirit of God: “…the fruit of the Spirit
is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness
and self control” (Galatians 5:22).
Paul then summarizes the nature of the transformation that occurs at
conversion: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful
nature [flesh] with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let
us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:24-25).
An Ongoing Struggle
Most of us do not successfully crucify the dark deeds of the flesh in one
fell swoop. Throughout our Christian walk we continue to struggle against
the evil impulse within. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. This
struggle with our dark side is described in Romans 7. Paul, as a Torah-
observant Jew, describes his own battle to overcome the downside of his
flesh. In the end, Paul realizes that it is only in Christ that he will have
ultimate victory over his fleshly appetites. He writes, “Who will rescue me
from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our
Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
Jesus Christ, God’s Anointed One, the Lamb of God, and the one
on whom God has conveyed “all authority in heaven and on earth,” is the
“captain of our salvation” (Matthew 28:18; Hebrews 2:10). When all other
efforts fail, he will see us through. One of the most encouraging statements
in the Bible was made by Paul in a letter to the Philippian congregation: “I
thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I
always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the
first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work
in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”
God is good, faithful and consistent. As he said through the prophet
Malachi: “I the Lord do not change…” (Malachi 3:6a). He said to the
sinful people of Israel: “Return to me and I will return to you” (Malachi
3:7b). We too are called to “return” to the Lord – to perform teshuva. No
matter how far we have strayed from him, we can always return if we are
willing to give up our personal package of “works of the flesh.”
If we let it, our flesh with its unbridled desires, will drag us down,
into death. This is not mere physical death, but a “second death”
(Revelation 21:8). It is the death of which Jesus spoke when he said, “Do
not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be
afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew
10:28). The word translated “hell” here is Gehenna. It is the same place
described in Revelation 21:8, just cited.
God offers us life in Christ – eternal life. God is not anxious to
destroy the work of his hands. He is “not willing that any should perish.”
He has made a way for us to live. That way is Jesus Christ. John wrote:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be
lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God
so loved the world that he gave his one and only (Greek: monogenes =
“only begotten." The same term as used in Hebrews 11:17), that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send
his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through
him” (John 3:14-17).
If we repent of performing the dead works of the past, God offers
us eternal life in the world to come. Jesus Christ is the key to God’s
redemptive plan for mankind. When we repent of our sinful deeds, and turn
to God, we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ that lasts a lifetime.
Satan will continue to probe for weaknesses, seeking to exploit them. He
can only be as successful as we allow him to be. In Christ, we can defeat
him every time. We are called to life of victories, of regular overcoming.
Jesus defeated the devil, and we are called to defeat his efforts in our lives
as well. John recorded Jesus as saying: “To him who overcomes, I will give
the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with
my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit
says to the churches” (Revelation 3:21-22).
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?