The First Principles of the Oracles of God

The First Principles of the Oracles of God

It may be of some surprise (it was to me) that the phrase “first principles” is used only once in scripture.

(Heb. 5:12)  "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat."

A similar phrase starts the next chapter accompanied by a list of six foundation principles.

(Heb. 6:1-2)  "Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, {2} Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment."

So the term “first principles” that Christadelphians use quite often is scriptural but not frequent.  Furthermore, based on the context it refers to Law of Moses, or what we consider to be the first five books of the Bible.  John Carter comments that, “the six items enumerated as belonging to the foundation are thus seen to be elements of the Jewish religion.  They are not called foundation truths of the Christian religion, although some of them, in amplified form, find a place there.”[1]  Brother Carter has good reasons for drawing this conclusion but in this article I want to bring out other reasons why we should still regard this passage as referring to Christian “first principles”.

The Context

At this point in Hebrews the writer goes into a lengthy digression of reprimand and exhortation.  He has spent time considering the aspects of the Sabbath (ch. 4) and now is developing some key principles on the priesthood (ch. 5, 7ff).  It is this subject that he admonishes them that they have “become dull of hearing” (RSV), need to be “taught again” and have “become such as have need of milk.”  So it seems these believers had been regressing on these aspects of the Old Testament.

Word Study of “First Principles”

The phrase “first principles” is translated from the words arche and stoicheion.  The word “first” (arche) has the meaning of chief in order, time, place or rank.  Most modern translations say “basic” or “elementary” but the literally meaning is more likely in relation to timing[2], like the NET Bible’s, “beginning elements.”

Vine’s dictionary says that “principles” (stoicheion), “primarily signifies any first things from which others in a series, or a composite whole, take their rise; . . . it was used of the letters of the alphabet, as elements of speech”[3]  It is a word used six other times in scripture (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20; 2 Peter 3:10, 12) translated as “elements” or “rudiments”.  In Galatians and Colossians it obviously refers to the ordinances in the Law of Moses and it can be argued to be the same in 2 Peter.[4]

The phrase “oracles of God” emphasizes the connection even more because it refers directly to the Law of Moses in Acts 7:38 and Rom. 3:2.  Would the “oracles of God” then be a contrast with the “words of righteousness” (v. 13) with which they were unskillful?  He must be emphasizing the familiar argument of justification by faith versus works of the law.

The word “principles” in Hebrews 6:1, “the principles of the doctrine of Christ” is a translation of the word arche.  This is confusing as the same word is translated as “first” in 5:12.  Literally then the phrase can read “the word of the beginning of Christ.”  Despite the chapter break this has the same meaning as 5:12.[5]

Context and consistency in word usage would indicate then that the phrase “first principles” in Heb. 5:12 and “principles” in Heb. 6:1 refer to the initial basic teachings in the Law of Moses.  How then could the Law be “the principles of the doctrine of Christ”?  Simply, in that every aspect of the Law we see Christ taught.  Jesus himself said in John 5:46,

"For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me."

This, essentially, is what the writer to the Hebrews is trying to do.  He is taking the basic elements of the law and showing how the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled them.  The Sabbath, priesthood, day of atonement, sacrifices and tabernacle are all used in the teaching of Hebrews.  The first principles established in the Law then become essential teachings in understanding the faith as it is in Jesus Christ.


The key exhortation is for the believers to continue to grow from a babe on milk to a grown up on solid food.  Milk is good but if that is all an adult consumes then they will be unhealthy.  The milk in this case represents a following of the Law simply based on external observance.  The meat represents the ability to discern the deeper spiritual meanings and use these to make right judgments.  We do not work on a set of rules but principles that must be exercised to discern between good and evil.  In essence, the word must live in the heart, the conscience.  With this exercising our senses, being not dull (cp v. 11), will be so sensitive as to pick up and differentiate between good and evil.  This is perfection.

This is not the perfection of being completely 100% pure and sinless.  The truer sense of the word is being mature or complete.  That is why it is translated as “full age” in 5:14.  Therefore, when he says “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” (6:1) it must be kept in the context of growing unto maturity in the doctrines first established in the Law.

Perfection is something the writer to the Hebrews continually stresses throughout the letter[6].  First of all, it was something that Jesus had to attain.  

(Heb 2:10 KJV)  "For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings."

(Heb 5:9 KJV)  "And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;"

Perfection therefore became an attainment for the believers as the law could never have done.

(Heb 7:19 KJV)  "For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God."

(Heb 10:1 KJV)  "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect."

The Law’s shortcoming being that it did not purge the conscience.

(Heb 9:9 KJV)  "Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;"

It is only through the sacrifice of Christ that one can be perfected.

(Heb 10:14 KJV)  "For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified."

The Foundation

Earlier he had said they needed to be taught again (5:12).  He doesn’t really want to have to do this as he now says, “let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation.”   The foundation must be the doctrines exemplified in the Old Testament as fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone, and as witnessed by the Apostles.  Vine’s Dictionary says that the word foundation when used metaphorically stands for “‘the ministry of the Gospel and the doctrines of the faith,’ Rom. 15:20; 1 Cor. 3:10, 11, 12; Eph. 2:20, where the "of" is not subjective (i.e., consisting of the apostles and prophets), but objective, (i.e., laid by the apostles, etc.).”[7]

Surely, the use of the word “foundation” indicates that the following six items are key essentials for our first principles.  He has already taken some of the Christian teachings from the “first principles” of the Law of Moses and expanded upon them.  These would include such things as the priesthood and the mediatorship of Christ and the Sabbath as typically of the kingdom age.  So in this further list of six elements we would expect him to expand upon them from the Law of Moses as he will do if God permits (6:3). 

The Six Elements

There is no reason to expect that the six elements in 6:1-2 where meant to be a complete list.  They seem rather to be paired in couplets to give good examples of foundation principles.   Following are the groupings:

  1. repentance from dead works,

Internal experience

  1. and of faith toward God,



  1. the doctrine of baptisms,

External rites

  1. and of laying on of hands,



  1. and of resurrection of the dead,

Future facts

  1. and of eternal judgment.


If they are essential Christian doctrines then we would expect to see them preached in the Acts.  Brother John Martin[8] shows how all six are in Acts 2.

Christian Fundamentals

Acts 2


v. 38

Faith (belief)

v. 41, 44


v. 41

Laying on of hands

v. 38


v. 32


v. 40


The first two are mentioned together as the foundation of Paul’s preaching in Acts 20:21,

"Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ."

Less noticeable is Paul’s use of four of the six in Acts 17:30-31,

"And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: {31} Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance[9] (mg. “offered faith”) unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead."

Repentance and Faith

Repentance has to be the initial reaction of anyone who wants to follow Christ.  Therefore, the first foundation element is appropriately “repentance from dead works” or, as in Acts 11:18, “repentance unto life.”  “Dead works” is a term repeated in Hebrews 9:14,

"How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"

It is hard to tell from this verse if “dead works” means just the acts of the law.  Similar wording of “wicked works in the mind” is used of Gentiles in Col. 1:21 (see also Eph. 2:1, 3; Tit. 1:15-16).  This fits with Heb. 9:9 and 10:2, 22 where we see it is also a matter of the conscience or mind.

(Heb 10:22 KJV)  "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water."

Hebrews 10:22 has an important connection between the purging of the “evil conscience” and “our bodies washed with pure water”.  Washing away sins is baptism (Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21) which is our next foundation element.


The astute reader will notice the word “baptisms” is in the plural.  The other three places it is used it refers to ceremonial washings connected with the law (Heb. 9:10) or the traditions of men (Mark 7:4, 8).  This has led some commentators to see this as only referring to Jewish rites and not Christian fundamentals.

The single usage of the word can also refer to ceremonial washing (Mark 7:4; Luke 7:30) as well as Christian baptism.  So, it is possible that the writer could also have in mind various New Testament baptisms such as John’s baptism, baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit.  It is true that there is only “one baptism” necessary for salvation but during the first century all the baptisms came into question.  A good example of this is in Acts 19:1-5 where we have the baptism of John, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

(Acts 19:3-6 KJV)  "And he [Paul] said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism. {4} Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. {5} When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. {6} And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied."

It is very likely that in Hebrews the writer is not drawing a distinction.  Rather, in the style of Hebrews, we would expect some sort of lesson or connection between washing in the Old Testament with baptism in the New Testament as in Heb. 10:22, “our bodies washed with pure water.”

Laying on of Hands

The act of “laying on of hands” also draws equal weight from both Testaments.   In the Old Testament the laying of the hands was an act where the person sacrificing identified with the offering.  There are four main passages in the law connecting washings with laying on of hands.


Laying on of hands


Ex. 29:4

Ex. 29:10

Aaron and his sons at the dedication

Lev. 1:9

Lev. 1:4

The burnt offering

Lev. 16:4, 24, 26, 28

Lev. 16:21

The day of atonement coming into the holiest (cp. v. 2-3 with Heb. 9:7 and 10:22)

Num. 8:7, 21

Num. 8:10, 12

Consecration of the Levites


The main one here is the Day of Atonement in Lev. 16 where the high priest went into the Most Holy.  This is picked up in Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 and brings us back to the passage in Heb. 10:22 where the believer, by the act of association with Jesus, now has access into the very presence of God.  So once again, we see the author drawing first principles out of the Old Testament and providing the greater spiritual lesson in Christ.

The connection between baptism and laying on of hands is also prominent in the New Testament.  But is it really a Christian first principle?  Based on a survey of Acts (6:6; 8:17-19; 9:17; 13:3; 19:6; 28:8; also 1 Tim. 5:22) it would seem to have been even though the cessation of the spirit gifts has made it less so during our day and age.

The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment

This brings us to our last couplet of “the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”  The resurrection of the dead and judgment to come permeate the whole of the New Testament teachings (especially in Hebrews).  The resurrection of the dead is certainly a foundation of Christian doctrine. 

Jesus said to those who did not believe in the resurrection, the Saducees, “Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God? … ye therefore do greatly err." (Mark 12:24-27 cp. 1 Cor. 6:14).  This same dangerous belief confronted the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:12) and Paul brings out the dire consequences of their “faith being vain” (v. 17) if there was no resurrection.   Paul also defended the importance of the timing of the resurrection in 2 Tim. 2:18-19,

"And their word will eat as doth a canker [gangrene]: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; {18} Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. {19} Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure..."

Notice here the mention of the foundation of God, His truth, which stands sure in those who uphold the truth.  Faith in the resurrection is a basis of salvation (Rom. 10:9).  It is the foundation of our hope and of our godly life (e.g. Col. 3:1-5).

The phrase “resurrection of the quick and dead” is always in the context of the judgment to come.  For instance, the tandem is preached by Peter in Acts 10:42,

"And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead."[10]

Even in Acts 24:14 Paul’s preaching about the resurrection of the “just and unjust” imply a judgment.

"And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust."

Paul brought such power to this core teaching of judgment to come that it made the hearers tremble (Acts 24:25).

But no passage is more apt at showing the relationship and import of the resurrection and judgment then Jesus’ words in John 5:21-22,

"For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will. {22} For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:" (be sure and read the fuller context from 5:20-30)


The letter to the Hebrews has some great examples of first principles taken from the Law of Moses and put in the context for the believer today.  They are solid foundation principles upon which to build a more complete life in Christ.  So as we begin more studies in these basic doctrines let us never forget that these are more than simple lessons or debating points but are the power of God unto salvation.

[1] John Carter, “The Letter to the Hebrews”, 1939, The Christadelphian, Birmingham, UK, pg. 59.

[2] Arche is translated in respect to timing in Hebrews 2:3 “at the first” and 3:14 “beginning”.

[3] Vine’s Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “Elements”, World Bible Publishers, 1991, pg. 253

[4] See John Thomas, “Contending for the Faith”, Logos Publications, 1981, pg. 19ff

[5] John Morris argues that the phrases in 5:12 and 6:1 have different meanings but this is based on a dubious translation of 6:1 from the English Revised Version.  See John Morris, “A Letter to the Hebrews”, The Christadelphian Magazine, Vol. 123, 1986, pg. 21.

[6] The full list of verses in Hebrews mentioning perfection are 2:10; 5:9, 14; 6:1; 7:11, 19, 28; 9:9, 11; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:23.

[7] Vine’s Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “Foundation”, World Bible Publishers, 1991, pg. 326

[8] John Martin, “Hebrews Study Notes”, CSSS, 1976, pg. 43

[9] This is the only place the word for faith (pistis) has been translated as assurance.

[10] See also Rom. 14:9; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5.