Last week we began looking at the first warning passage in the book of Hebrews in the opening verses of chapter 2. The author is very concerned that his audience–mostly Jewish Christians or Jewish people curious about Christ–that they would stop paying attention to the apostolic message—the gospel—and began to listen to the siren call of the more familiar, more comfortable, Mosaic Law—with its rituals and regulations. So the author of Hebrews says…
1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Having established the supremacy of Christ to the angels in chapter 1, our author reminds them that the Old Covenant was “declared by angels” and that those who disobeyed it received “just retribution”—severe punishment—for that disobedience. But our gospel was “declared…by the Lord,” by the exalted Son of chapter 1, and thus will receive an even greater condemnation for those who disobey it.
C. H. Spurgeon said:
Seeing Christ is so excellent in His person, and seeing the Gospel has such a glorious Author, let us take great care that we esteem His person, revere His authority, reverence His ministry, and believe His message; and let us take heed that our memories be not like leaking vessels, suffering the word at any time to slip or run from us.
The writer wants to drive this point home in an even more forceful way to his wandering friends. So he uses a Hebrew argument style called qal wa homer (literally, “light and heavy”), which employs the reasoning that if something is true in a light or lesser way, it is even more true in a heavy or greater way.
We see it at work in a backwards way in Romans 8:32, where Paul says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
God giving us “all things” that we need to be glorified (v. 30) may seem like the more difficult thing, but it pales in comparison to the greatest difficulty of God giving up His one and only Son for us. Thus, we can be certain that if God has already done the most difficult thing, that giving “us all things” is a cinch.
Here the writer of Hebrews argues from the lesser to the greater. If disobeying the Old Covenant–“declared by angels (v. 2),” by the way—brought “just retribution”—which we will see in a moment involved some pretty terrible judgments—then disobeying and disbelieving the gospel message “declared by the Lord” (v. 3) will bring even greater condemnation and judgment.
The qal, the less heavy argument from the Law, is stated in verse 2 and then flows into the great question in verse 3: “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”
The writer refers to the common view in contemporary Judaism and in the New Testament that the angels mediated the giving of the law.
For example, Stephen, in his famous sermon, referred to Moses as being “with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers.” Speaking of that memorable event, Moses said that God came “with myriads of his holy ones” (Deut. 33:2). The Greek translation of the text, which was the Bible the pastor read, added these words: “angels were with him at his right hand.” He received living oracles to give to Israel (Acts 7:38; cf. Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19). In the midst of all the fire and lightning on Sinai, God the Father spoke through an honored angel who in turn dictated to Moses. Josephus also repeated this idea in his ancient history (Antiquities, 15.53).
The Old Testament Law and Prophets were “proved to be reliable.” God has always been, and ever will be, faithful to keep His promises. Even in the midst of the horrific judgment upon Jerusalem, Jeremiah reminds us that God’s faithfulness is “great” (Lamentations 3:23) and when God brought victory to Israel against all their foes as they came in to possess the land God had promised to Abraham, we read this refrain near the end of the book:
43 Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. 44 And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. 45 Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
No promise failed, every one of them came to pass. That is true of the New Covenant promises as well. In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus Christ].”
Since God is faithful, even His promises of judgment would come to pass. Yahweh had warned Israel that He would bless obedience and curse disobedience. Thus we read in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 that Yahweh enumerates all the different judgments that could come upon them, from crop failures to barren wombs to sicknesses to exile from their homeland. Penalties for breaking the Old Covenant were temporal and largely physical.
These were serious and painful consequences because of their “transgression” and “disobedience” to the covenant made with Moses through angels. “Trangression” likely refers to a positive offense—doing something that they had been commanded not to do—while “disbobedience” refers to the negative offense of failing to do something they were supposed to do. Disobedience is that unwillingness to heed God’s voice.
The sanctions which attended the law given at Sinai were severe and inescapable. Every commandment had the appropriate penalty prescribed for its infringement, and for those who deliberately defied or disregarded the law of God there was no reprieve—no escape from judgment, sometimes the death penalty.
As in chapter 1, verses 1 and 2, the validity of the Old Testament is presupposed. Our writer is not denying the validity of the Old Testament as if it were now false and the New Testament was true. Rather, he is arguing from the lesser to the greater.
We also see that God is always consistent in bringing about punishment for sins, whether under the law or under the grace period delivered through His Son, transgressions will still be confronted and punished.
Paul tells us that the law is holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). “The problem lies not with the law,” writes Philip Edgecombe Hughes, “which is the divine standard of life…, but with the sinful man who is the law-breaker. With the consequence that the law stands over against him as an ordinance of condemnation and death” (A Commentary on the Epistle of the Hebrews, p. 76). It is at this point that the comparison is enjoined. “For the glory of the law is completely surpassed by the glory of the gospel because the latter brings life where the former brought death” (Hughes, p. 76).
A greater word brought by a greater Person having greater promises will bring a greater condemnation if it is neglected. Whereas the penalty for violating the Old Covenant was temporal and mainly physical, the penalty for neglecting the great salvation we have in Jesus Christ would be eternal and primarily spiritual.
There is no escaping that judgment, as the next verse reminds us with the question, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation…?” He will go on to tell us why this is such a great salvation but for now let’s just linger on the reality that he is telling us—you and me—that there is no escaping the penalty for neglecting this apostolic message, the message of the gospel. There is greater judgment, in other words, if we go back under the law after learning about Jesus Christ, entertaining the idea that He is such a great Savior, and then trading that all in to go back under the law.
We like escape stories against impossible odds. Your favorite might be The Great Escape, or Shawshank Redemption, or escape from Alcatraz. Mine is The Count of Monte Cristo.
Edmond Dantes is falsely accused and unjustly convicted of a crime. He is sent forth to the most dreaded prison, Château d’If. There he suffered for years in solitary confinement, until one day he met a co-prisoner, an aged priest who had been there for decades and had spent much time trying to dig a tunnel to escape. But he didn’t do his math correctly and ended up burrowing into Dantes’s chamber. So the two met and had fellowship together. The old priest became Dantes’s mentor and counselor, teacher of science and philosophy and theology. The priest also told Dantes about a map that led to a vast treasure, hidden under the waters in the sea. The old priest died in prison. Through an extraordinary series of circumstances, the death of the priest led to the possible escape of Edmond Dantes from Château d’If. Dantes found the vast treasure that financed the remainder of his life and his nom de plume became the Count of Monte Cristo.
We have NO ESCAPE if we neglect this great salvation. There is a much more dire and dreadful kind of captivity to those who neglect this salvation through Jesus Christ.
Alcatraz could possibly be escaped from, or Devil’s Island, or even the Château d’If. But the one prison from which no one ever escapes is hell. There’s no escape route. You can’t dig under it. You can’t climb over it. No guard can be bribed. The sentence cannot be amended.
Now this is a sobering word for the world and for the church, because most people do neglect the greatness of salvation. How many people do you know who give serious, sustained attention to the salvation accomplished by Christ—who love it, and think about it, and meditate on it, and marvel at it, and feel continual gratitude for it, and commend it to others as valuable, and weave it into all the lesser things of their lives, and set their hopes on it?
John Newton, near the end of his life, while lying on his death bed, was visited by a young ministerial student named William Jay, hoping to gain some nuggets of pastoral wisdom. But Newton said: ‘My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.’” John Newton, Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., Ed. Grant Gordon (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 401.
Of course, he was the one who wrote Amazing Grace. Are you still amazed by grace? Is your salvation great in your estimation? Do you treasure it?
John Piper helps us out in understanding what’s at stake here:
Only what is it really—this great salvation? What he’s really saying is: Don’t neglect being loved by God. Don’t neglect being forgiven and accepted and protected and strengthened and guided by Almighty God. Don’t neglect the sacrifice of Christ’s life on the cross. Don’t neglect the free gift of righteousness imputed by faith. Don’t neglect the removal of God’s wrath and the reconciled smile of God. Don’t neglect the indwelling Holy Spirit and the fellowship and friendship of the living Christ. Don’t neglect the radiance of God’s glory in the face of Jesus. Don’t neglect the free access to the throne of grace. Don’t neglect the inexhaustible treasure of God’s promises. This is a great salvation. Neglecting it is very evil. Don’t neglect so great a salvation.
We have a great Savior who saved us from a great penalty because of our great sin.
And we “don’t neglect” it by paying utmost attention to it (2:1).
How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord [contrast “through angels” for the law in verse 2], it was confirmed to us by those who heard [that is, the apostles, the eyewitnesses who heard the earthly teaching of the Lord Jesus], 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
Why is this great salvation neglected? One reason might be because we don’t value it as much as something else, so we spend our time and effort valuing whatever it is that we find more valuable—which the Bible calls an “idol.”
Another reason is that we just might not know how great this salvation really is. Maybe we don’t have the evidence. That is what vv. 3 and 4 address.
Besides being “great,” why should we devote such attention and affection to this salvation?
First, it is announced. It was declared to us “by [or “through”] the Lord” Jesus Christ. While angels mediated the Law, Jesus Christ proclaimed the gospel. That makes His communication infinitely superior and absolutely true.
“The good news of salvation, then, derives from the Lord, whose mediatorship is absolutely other than that of angels” (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 77, 78). “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6).
That it was “through” the Lord Jesus Christ means the revelation of this great salvation comes from the Father (the source), but it comes through the mediation, not of angels, but through Jesus Christ.
In Acts 10:36, Peter says to Cornelius that the gospel is, “The word which [God] sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all).” So the great salvation was spoken by God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
Second, it was confirmed. Next the text says that the salvation “was attested to us by those who heard” (v. 3c). This primarily refers to the apostles attesting what Jesus said and passing it along from faith to faith through the succeeding generation (cf. Luke 1:2). The apostles were the first generation eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, while these were second generations recipients of the apostolic message.
Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History , has preserved an autobiographical fragment from Irenaeus of Lyons that relates how the Apostle John passed along the story of the gospel to Polycarp who, before his martyrdom in AD 155 or 156, passed along the story to young Irenaeus. Irenaeus says of his experience:
And as he [Polycarp] remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the “Word of life” [John], Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures. These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God’s grace, I recall them faithfully. (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. , V.xx.5ff., A. C. McGiffert’s translation.)
Remember that Paul, wanting to establish the credibility of the resurrection, mentioned more than 500 eyewitnesses, most of whom were still living. This gospel could be fact checked.
Now, just consider for a moment how critical and strategic these witnesses were. Without them, there would be no faith communicated to the next generation. These peoples’ faith rested on the testimony of these witnesses. Many people today will not hear of this great salvation without the testimony of witnesses.
Finally, God authenticates the gospel message.
“God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (v. 4).
The testimony was dynamic. “Signs” pointed beyond themselves to the mighty hand of God. “Wonders” brought awe and amazement to those who saw. “Miracles” (literally “powers”) showed the power of God beyond human ability. And “gifts of the Holy Spirit” were given according to God’s will to minister to the church.
These spectacular gifts served to get people’s attention and attest to the authenticity of the one giving this “new, strange message” about Jesus Christ as Messiah and salvation by grace through faith.
To neglect a salvation announced by Jesus, confirmed through multiple eyewitnesses and authenticated through signs and wonders is very serious indeed! The neglecting of God’s “great salvation” deserves the severest penalty “in view of the greatness of the grace which is offered in it….God wishes His gifts to be valued by us at their proper worth. The more precious they are, the baser is our ingratitude if they do not have their proper value for us” (Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter , trans. William B. Johnston (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 19).
We, too, must take action to guard ourselves against this impertinence. It is not necessarily an intentional act, but something that happens through inattention and laziness, through lack of vigilance regarding our own hearts. It comes through a little neglect of reading and meditating on God’s Word, a little neglect of one’s prayer life, a little neglect of fellowship and accountability. If we are not actively and studiously availing ourselves of these opportunities, we are in danger of drifting away…and that is very dangerous!
For most of us the threat of life is not so much that we should plunge into disaster, but that we should drift into sin. There are few people who deliberately, and in a moment, turn their backs on God; there are many who day by day drift farther and farther away from Him.
Don’t let that be you!