Repentance from Dead Works
Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.—Acts 20:21
The Apostle Paul was not one to mince words when it came to warning the brethren of an impending danger in their chosen path of conduct. He felt an urgency to shake the brethren from complacency. They needed to get out of a rut and move into growth as followers of Christ. Others could say the same thing, but it would not carry the same weight as the Apostle. Others could urge a change, but it could be argued and left to the individual to decide his course of action. But Paul’s life was a testimony of consecration. His knowledge of the Lord’s plan was worthy of imitation. His background knowledge of Scriptures and the Law combined with the Holy Spirit was a powerful source of guidance to the early church. Those whose ears were pricked by his admonitions would be greatly blessed. Those who ignored his words would be left at a loss.
In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul is addressing Jewish Christians who had been familiar with their Laws and customs. They had accepted the Law as a schoolmaster leading them to Christ. Paul didn’t have to convince them of Jewish history or the importance of the services in the tabernacle or roles of the priesthood. They were already familiar with the structure of the Jewish religion. With this background they had accepted Jesus and had chosen to follow him. These were not Jews looking in from outside the flock. They were Jews that had already converted to Christianity. These were Paul’s brethren (Hebrews 13:22) to whom he made this appeal in love for their welfare. We wouldn’t expect anything less from Paul. He cared.
A Proper Foundation
It is necessary to be firmly established in basic principles of truth. A proper foundation will affect the whole structure.
“With whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little.” —-Isaiah 28:9, 10
“What then of the man who hears these words of mine and acts upon them? He is like a man who had sense to build his house upon rock. The rain came down, the floods rose, the wind blew, and beat upon that house; but it did not fall, because its foundations were on rock.”—-Matthew 7:24-25 (NEB)
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed thousands of homes in southern Florida. Yet, in an area where wreckage looked like a war zone, one house remained standing . . . still firmly anchored to its foundation. When a reporter asked the homeowner why his house had not been blown away, he replied, “I built this house myself. I also built it according to the Florida state building codes. I used whatever the codes called for. I was told that a house built according to the codes could withstand a hurricane . . . and it did.”
Jesus talked about the importance of building our lives upon a solid foundation. The person who obeys is like a wise man, “a man who had sense to build his house upon rock.” If we build according to his code of obedience, we will not be swept away when crises hit with a hurricane-like force. The tempests of temptation and the storms of suffering will not be able to sweep us off a solid foundation of faith. Adversity may come, but because we have built according to the code of the unshakable, Jesus Christ, we can emerge with our character strengthened.
The Apostle Paul was trying to instill a similar lesson to his brethren. Jesus is the rock and foundation upon which our faith is built. Principles of truth are added a stone at a time upon this foundation; then a structure can be built. Unfortunately, the Hebrew brethren were having trouble getting the building program to progress. After laying the foundation, Jesus Christ, they appeared to continually dig up Jewish Laws and traditions they had put aside and tried to fit the stones in another way. At this rate they were not moving ahead. There must come a time, before we build, when we are confident that the foundation is good and properly laid. With full confidence in that foundation, we may proceed with our building, going on to perfection or completion. “Let us not lay over and over again the foundation truths” (Heb. 6:2 Phillips) While showing the necessity of a firm establishment on first principles and the impossibility of reclaiming such as had left these principles entirely, the Apostle assured the church that they had not rejected the favor of God. He says “But beloved, we are persuaded better things of you . . . though we thus speak” (Heb. 6:9).
Paul’s words were to guard early Jewish Christians on a dangerous point and show them the uselessness of constant disputing with rejecters of first principles. Paul discouraged their spending valuable time and effort in the fruitless attempt reclaiming such. Once the principles of truth are established, settled, made plain . . . it is time to move on to deeper truths. This is not saying that we should not give first principles of truth, the milk of the word, to babes, or help a weak or stumbling brother by re-enforcing him with the power of truth which he may have let slip. Our constant aim and effort should be sensitive to such needs. This is different from trying to convince those who are willful rejecters . . . those who Paul says are impossible to reclaim.
Truth Has All The Answers
Everyone wants to think that the truth has all the answers and solutions for the world’s questions and problems. It does. But only those who have been blessed to have their eyes opened are able to recognize the all-encompassing features of God’s plan. The world’s eyes have been blinded to these deeper things. This is not the time to expect their understanding on these points. The rejection of truth is not necessarily the fault of the bearer of the truth, but the hearer. The Apostle Paul had experienced this as he was transferred from court to court bearing witness to the truth. The greatest orator of the early church could not convince all to whom he spoke. He almost persuaded King Agrippa to be a Christian; but he did not. (Acts 26:28). With only 144,000 in the little flock, the church will see a great deal of rejection in witnessing and even the falling away of some who have accepted the truth.
Only the Lord Reads the Heart
What does it take to convince someone of the Truth? What words can be said? What argument will answer their doubts or change the heart or prick the conscience to correct a chosen path or set of ideas? Only the Lord knows. Only the Lord calls and reads the heart. If the heart is open to the Spirit’s influence, it will perform that which is intended to please the Lord. If the heart is not open to Scriptural guidance, nothing can be gained by beating on the ears of the hearer.
Jesus told His followers in Mark 6:11, “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet . . .”
The Apostle John closes his letter with an interesting thought to consider: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written everyone, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” —John 21:25.
John knew that if what was written to convince an individual was not sufficient, then even considering every act which Jesus did that was not included in the writings would not make a difference. The world still wouldn’t contain or accept the accounts that should be written.
It’s encouraging to note that Jesus was not accepted by all, Paul couldn’t convince all, and John tells us that there is sufficient material in the Scriptures and epistles to work with in our witnessing. Beyond that, nothing can change a person’s viewpoint if they are not willing to change. Fortunately, the Lord knows our efforts. He is the judge of the hearts of those who hear as well.
Repentance from Dead Works
How do other translations render this passage? New English Bible—”repentance from the deadness of our former ways;” William’s— “repentance from works that mean only death;” Wilson’s Diaglott —”reformation from works causing death;” Living Bible—”trying to be saved by being good.”
Was the Apostle referring to the sins which are common among men morally? Surely the repentance from such is good. To continue in the practice of immorality would lead to the death of the New Creature. Early in a Christian’s walk not only are these sins acknowledged, but then turned away from at every moment with all possible strength the New Creature can muster in fighting the world, the flesh and the Adversary. Actions which are sinful by nature are to be left behind and progress towards righteousness is expected. However, considering the readers of this epistle being Hebrews, knowledgeable of the Mosaic Laws, it may be more likely that Paul was referring to the works of the Law. Works of the Law could not bring life to anyone.
“For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.” —Hebrews 7:19
No one was able to keep the Law perfectly except Jesus. What should have brought life had the Jews been able to keep it, actually became condemnation to death by the failure to keep it.
To the Jew, Religion was Life
To the Jew, religion was life. The forms of religion, the character of the traditions, the daily aspects of life were all one and the same. Where a Jew ranked in the Jewish community directly related to his effort to keep the law. But the Jew converted to Christianity had a new perspective on life. Accepting the fact that the Law could not bring life, the conversion included repentance for having relied on those works which led to death. This was not an easy step for individuals to take.
Arguments among the apostles on these points led to the decision recorded in Acts 15:28-29, “For it seemed good to the holy spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.”
Accepting these points was hard for many Jews. The discussion among the Hebrews was often centered around how the Law and their former lifestyle would now fit into their new found faith in Christ Jesus. It became such an overpowering theme, that it could easily dominate their gatherings and become a point of contention. The studies would start out on one theme and soon it would work its way into this area and continually consume the time and energy of the brethren. It brought the progress of the brethren to a near standstill. What should have been decided early in their Christian walk was holding them back from growth in other areas. On one hand was a persistent viewpoint only to be met by a stubbornness on the opposite side. It was time for Paul to wake them up to the fact that their time was being consumed on issues of the milk, keeping them from the meat necessary in their spiritual growth as New Creatures.
Strong Convictions Often Bring Intense Disagreements
Times have not necessarily changed. Discussions on matters of truth can become tense at times because the truth means so much to us. Where there are strong convictions there can be very intense disagreement. To the Jew, religion was life. To the Christian, our faith . . . our religion is to be life, also. “For me to live is Christ . . .” (Phil. 1:21)
Paul wanted the Christians in the early church to grow and not stop on points which stunt that growth. If we find our studies constantly becoming a sparring arena for opposing views slowing down our Christian growth, remedies must be implemented to relieve the pressure and allow continued harmony and growth. How can this be done?
One suggestion is to have the opposing views presented in a symposium where there is freedom from interruption and an opportunity to express the two sides calmly and in the best light possible. Then allow for each individual to decide on the matter for himself and move on. Having exhausted the two sides of an argument, the leader can cut short further discussion for the benefit of the whole in the interest of tolerance and Christian love for one another.
Paul’s aim was the growth of the brethren. It was time to move on from milk to meat. It was time to move on from the first principles, “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works.”