Warnings & Exhortations in Hebrews: Forfeiting So Great Salvation

Neglecting So Great Salvation Has Implications (2:2-4)

“For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” (2:2-4).1

In our previous article, we considered the absolute necessity of giving heed to what God says in His Word because there is a consequence of failing to do so – drifting away, or backsliding.  Following this exhortation, our subject verses provide a warning against neglect because there are solemn implications. The opening conjunction “for” makes it clear that the warning is the reason for the exhortation in verse 1. The repetition of “heard” (vv1,3) and “spoken” (vv2,3) also emphasises that the aspect of neglect is paying no attention to divine revelation. The writer stresses the seriousness of such neglect by framing the warning as a contrast between two revelations. Specifically, note that each revelation has a message (“the word” vs. “so great salvation”), a messenger (“angels” vs. “the Lord”), is binding upon all who hear (“stedfast” vs. “confirmed unto us”), affirms possible violation (“transgression and disobedience” vs. “neglect”) and penalty (“just recompense of reward” vs. “[no] escape”).

In relation to the message, “the word” refers to the Law given at Sinai. This is clear from Acts 7:53 where we discover Israel “received the law by the disposition of angels.” The Law was temporary (Gal 3:19), weak (Rom 8:3), imperfect (Heb 10:1), condemning (2Co 3:9) and powerless to give life (Gal 3:21). In contrast, this “salvation” is “so great” (Heb 2:3). It is supernatural, unparalleled by anything known to man, and exceedingly glorious in contrast to what the Law offered. It is superior by an infinite degree. The expression “about to inherit salvation” (1:14 YLT) suggests that the aspect of salvation is prospective. It was theirs, but possession of it is yet future (see 10:34). They have a “living hope,” an “incorruptible and undefiled and unfading inheritance, reserved in the heavens” and, we emphasise, “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1Pe 1:3-5 JND). That we “shall be like him,” “see him as he is” and “behold [his] glory” on the basis of immeasurable grace, not law, is indeed “so great” (1Jn 3:2; Joh 17:24).

As to the messenger, the Lord is superior and infinitely better than angels. The letter opens with this very thought. God has spoken perfectly and finally “by his Son” (lit. “Son-wise”), who is the “radiance” of the glory of God (Heb 1:2,3 ESV). To demonstrate His superiority over angels, no less than seven OT quotations are given. While we don’t understand how the Law was transmitted from God to Moses “by” (lit. “through”) angels on Sinai (see Deu 33:2), it is clear that angels could only pass on divine truth. They are but agents or, as 1:14 says, “ministering spirits.” The Lord Jesus Christ, however, is the source of divine truth. He is “the Word,” who from “the beginning” was “with God” and “was God” (Joh 1:1). Thus, this salvation is “so great” because it has been given by God “manifest in the flesh,” the “author of eternal salvation,” the Son of God (1Ti 3:16; Heb 5:8,9). To disregard Him is perilous (see 10:25-29).

The message of the Law was “stedfast,” meaning that it was binding upon all who heard it. Likewise, the message spoken by the Lord was “confirmed” (the verbal form of “stedfast”). But note the emphasis – it was substantiated by three outstanding and unmatched pieces of evidence. Firstly, the message was confirmed “unto us by them that heard him” (2:3). The things which the writer and his readers heard came directly from believers who personally heard the Lord Jesus. Secondly, God gave abundant and unmistakable evidence through signs, wonders and various miracles to authenticate the Messenger and His message (see Mat 11:2-6; Act 2:22; 5:12). Signs (semeion) were tokens of divine authority designed to cause people to believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Joh 20:30,31; see 12:37, lit. “signs”). Wonders (teras) were designed to astonish and awaken people to the reality that God was speaking (see Mat 15:31). Miracles (dunamis) were abnormal, supernatural manifestations of power in natural and spiritual realms, demonstrating that God was behind it all (see Mat 8:26,27). Thirdly, God gave substantial evidence during the period of the Acts through the manifestation of spiritual gifts. Space forbids elaboration, other than to say that the message of salvation “spoken by the Lord” is binding upon all who hear it.

“Transgression” simply means violation or infringement. The base of the word for “disobedience” (see Rom 5:19) means “neglect to hear” (Mat 18:17). The former arises from the latter, which is a wilful, deliberate ignoring of God’s voice. Such was the binding nature of the Law that “every” violation resulted in severe penalty (e.g., Num 15:32-36). Enforcement was inevitable. The consequences were inescapable. With this background, the writer asks a rhetorical yet most solemn question: “How shall we escape if we neglect” a Messenger who is infinitely superior, His message which is of incomprehensible value, and both Messenger and message are substantiated with abundant evidence?

The word for “if we neglect” is translated in Matthew 22:5 as “made light of” (KJV), “paid no attention” (ESV, NASB) and “disregarded” (YLT). The tense implies a case of already “having neglected” what has been spoken. It is deliberate, wilful or conscious negligence rather than an unintentional slip. The argument is simple: If violating the law given by angels was met with severe penalty, then a deliberate disregard of the message spoken by the Lord Himself will attract a much more severe penalty. The logical extension is that disregarding the message of God’s beloved Son will bring its own “just recompense of reward.” There is no escape.

While the “recompense of reward” is not defined, its root signifies the payment of wages due, or an equal requiting, reward or return, either positive or negative. Hence, God will justly reward according to our exercise and expense. He rewards the seeker (Heb 11:6) and the sluggard (Pro 20:4). If we harbour an attitude of indifference and are unwilling to heed His Word, then we must expect God to respond commensurately. His “reward” might be chastening, scourging and/or rebuke (Heb 12:5-11). In any case, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal 6:7). Let us heed the warning, for “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required” (Luk 12:48).

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.