Hebrews 2:1 – 4 — “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. 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?”
In keeping with the theme of the epistle, the reader must understand the plural personal pronouns (“us” and “we”) of this epistle to arrive at the proper conclusions and to make correct application.
This epistle is written to people who are very familiar with the things that happened regarding our Lord and Savior.
We read as the epistle opened that God had spoken in the past by prophets to the fathers. The fathers are without any shadow of doubt the fathers belonging to the people of Israel, the Hebrews, as such. In these last days, not necessarily the last days of prophecy, but in these last days in which the writer and recipient are living, God has spoken to “us” — “us Hebrews”, the children of the fathers — by His Son, Who, to sum up chapter 1, is so much greater than the prophets, and even the angels. As the brightness of the glory of God and the “express image of His person”, He is “by inheritance”, or because of who He is by relation and position as Son, greater than all of God’s mighty angels, for all of the angels of God WORSHIP HIM!!
So we read as we open this chapter:
“Therefore” — because the Son is so much greater by inheritance — “we” [Hebrews] “ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we” [Hebrews] “have heard, lest at any time we” [Hebrews] “should let them slip.”
What things are being spoken of here? It is the fact that the people of Israel, God’s covenant people, received a message from God, the word spoken was His Son. And what could it mean to let them slip, but to ignore the word of God spoken and to let it slip away and not take effect because it is not mixed with faith, or in other words, to continue in unbelief.
“For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward…”
Ignoring the word spoken by angels was not tolerated! The nation of Israel received this rebuke during the message given by the Lord’s prosecuting attorney, Stephen, when the days of forbearance were coming to a close:
Acts 7:51 – 53 — “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”¹
“How shall we” [Hebrews, to whom God has spoken to by His Son] “escape” [the just recompence], “if we neglect so great salvation”² is a rhetorical question to the hearers. The obvious answer would be that we Hebrews will not escape the just retribution of neglecting Him that “speaketh from heaven”.
Hebrews 12:25 — “See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven…”
We will again look at the verse above much later in our study, but notice how this comes back to the thought that we are now studying in chapter 2. In the epistle to the Hebrews, the message is not, as it is in John’s gospel, to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His Name” (John 20:31), but that since He is the Son, and He is speaking, it is imperative that “we” (again, the Hebrews³) take note and listen.
This great salvation “which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord”, must be understood as the entirety of the Lord’s message, both before the cross and after His glorious resurrection. This answers to what we find at the end of Mark:
Mark 16:15 – 18 — “And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
This message was spoken. Did the Hebrew nation neglect this “so great salvation”? Yes they did. Again, that is what I believe the entire purpose of this epistle is to address. The nation rejected God’s Christ: in His incarnation, as the prophet spoke, He was “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3); “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” is how John the apostle opens his record of the True Light in the world. As Pilate presented the people of Israel their King:
John 19:15 —“But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.”
In resurrection, as the apostles were sent “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). The apostle Peter, speaking to the nation of Israel said this regarding this “so great salvation”:
Acts 4:10 – 12 — “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Whom ye crucified, Whom God raised from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
Israel was getting no other savior, for they would find salvation in no one else. There would not be another redeemer to save them from their sins. There never will be. As His finished work of redemption is offered to us, we should also take heed to not neglect so great salvation. As those who were strangers to the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12), we (Gentiles) ought to take heed also to not neglect this great salvation offered to us freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24).
The nation and especially its leaders straitly commanded that they should not preach in His Name (Acts 5:28), and as the apostles suffered for His Name, the nation further rejected Him and His message to them through His apostles who were filled with the Holy Ghost.
In so doing, they fulfilled that which He spoke by parable: “But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14).
When great persecution against the church in Jerusalem arose, the merciful Savior reached down from heaven and met the persecutor on his path to persecution. Rather than strike him down in swift judgment, Christ the Savior, able to save to the uttermost, chose another vessel to bear His Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and “the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). What did the very nation of which the Lord of Heaven called as His peculiar treasure do as He spoke to them from heaven through His apostle Paul? They rejected this message too (Acts 13:46; Acts 18:6; Acts 28:23 – 29).
There was, however, a “remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5), and the remnant did not fall away with the nation. “We”, referring to the nation at large, did neglect the great salvation, and as such will not escape, but though the remnant must wait on the fulfillment of the promises made to the fathers, they are not to wander aimlessly and give up hope. They are to “go on unto perfection” (Hebrews 6:1), and as we find out in the Gentile epistles , Jews and Gentile are reconciled in the one Body of Christ by the cross (Ephesians 2:14 – 18, 3:6, 1 Corinthians 12:13, etc.).
The great salvation also “was confirmed unto us” [again, us Hebrews, including Saul of Tarsus, i.e., Paul] “by them” [the Twelve] “that heard Him”. The confirmation was the act of “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…”
Again, if we look to the last chapter of Mark’s gospel:
Mark 16:20 — “And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.”
These “signs following”, confirming the word are important to remember when we get to chapter 6 and the so-called “hard passage” when discussing the security of the believer. We will get to that “down the road a ways”4.
The signs following were indeed a sign to Israel, and if we keep this in mind, we will not have the need to debate “signs” or “cessation”. The word was confirmed to the Hebrews with signs, because the Jews require a sign (1 Corinthians 1:22). The popular notion among “cessationists” is that the sign gifts were for the establishment of “the Church”, but there is lack of Scripture to back that up. This would be an interesting “establishment”, that the very things that establish it would fade away. I would not wish to live in such a building, and neither would you. However, the establishment of the Church which is His Body is Paul’s gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery (Romans 16:25 – 26). The signs in Scripture are the “powers of the world to come” (Hebrews 6:5), of which the Hebrew nation tasted and refused. The confusion about the sign gifts could easily be cleared up if pastors and teachers would recognize this distinction, but instead they promulgate errors and cast off those who do recognize the difference as heretics. So we are now seeing more “conservative evangelical scholars” entertaining the teachings of “charismatics” and the possibility of the continuation of the “signs”, further confusing the people that they are teaching.
Another thought on this passage, many take this passage in Hebrews to be the fatal blow to the Pauline authorship of this epistle. It is absolutely true that Paul did not receive his gospel message from the Twelve. He received it from the Lord, directly:
Galatians 1:11 – 12 — “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
It is also interesting to note that the apostle of the Gentiles communicated to the Jerusalem council, as it is called, the gospel that he preached among the Gentiles:
Galatians 2:2 — “And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.”
Here, they learned from him!
But does that necessarily mean that Hebrews 2:1 – 4 could not have been written by the apostle Paul? Read carefully the apostle’s address to the synagogue in Antioch:
Acts 13:26 – 33 — “Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent. For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew Him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning Him. And though they found no cause of death in Him, yet desired they Pilate that He should be slain. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of Him, they took Him down from the tree, and laid Him in a sepulchre. But God raised Him from the dead: And He was seen many days of them which came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses unto the people. And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that He hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.”
In this address, who are the “them” who saw Him many days? Of course, they are his apostles. They are His witnesses unto the people (Israel).
Who is the “we”? That is the speaker, Paul, and Barnabas, who was with him.
Who are the fathers? The patriarchs of old.
Who are “us their children”? The same as in the epistle to the Hebrews. It is referring to the Hebrew people.
The message is so similar in this address to the synagogue as it is in the epistle, and as it is certainly true that Paul was the speaker at Antioch there is no reason that the same apostle was not the writer of the Hebrews epistle. We must remember that the apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13) was also of the “stock of Israel” and a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5), so in his address to the synagogue, as well as in this epistle to his brethren of the stock of Israel, he speaks to them as such. The question that we should ask is, did Paul (or Saul) learn nothing from “them that heard him”? Was not Saul of Tarsus a member of the covenant nation to which the twelve were sent? He certainly was, and as such, he is part of the “us” in this epistle. They, the Twelve, added nothing to Paul as apostle of the Gentiles, but that is not the issue here. It is the Lord’s word to the Hebrew nation that is in view in Hebrews 2:1 – 4, so keeping this in mind we do not have the fatal blow to the Pauline authorship of this epistle that many think there to be.
Where else, other than this epistle to the Hebrews, are Hebrew believers specifically being called to know the word of the Lord more perfectly, and to understand God’s present working in this dispensation of grace.
The “Jerusalem council” of Acts 15 was very clear regarding Gentile saints, that they are not to be put under the law of Moses. Nothing was said regarding Jewish believers. As late as Acts 21 in the inspired record, there were many thousands of Hebrew believers all “zealous of the law”, and when would that change? Where else would these Hebrew believers get a specific word from the Lord to give them the foundation to understand the great truths that we know from Paul’s “Gentile epistles”. The sacrificial system had an end, and the people of the old covenant needed to know its end. The end of it, and how, and in Whom it ends, is made known to the Hebrew saints in this epistle.
The truth that we are not under the law, but under grace (Romans 6:14), and the truth of the one body, with no distinction between the Jew and the Gentile, for the Hebrew believer, needs the groundwork of this epistle. The Hebrew saints, with the understanding they would get from this epistle, could go on to the truths found in the epistles, and the revelation of the mystery, the way in which God has said He will establish believers today.
- It is interesting to note that the writer of this epistle was also in the audience when Stephen gave this address, Acts 8:1. This same writer says of the Law: “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19).
- We who understand the dispensational distinction between the gospel of the kingdom and the gospel of the grace of God have been accused of teaching that we can indeed neglect “so great salvation” because we recognize the Lord’s distinct ministry as minister of the circumcision (Romans 15:8). Yes, we do not wrongfully apply all of the “red letters” to ourselves without taking into account who that the Lord is speaking to, about what, and why. God forbid that publishers would run out of red ink and would print all of the Scriptures in the same color, then we would have to understand all of it as the word of God! We have not neglected so great salvation! We have taken God at His word to us, that we are counted righteous when we believe — “by faith in His blood”, Romans 3:25 — that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again (Romans 4:5, 25; 1 Corinthians 15:3 – 4).
- Again, not to say that we simply ignore this if we are not Hebrews, but as addressed to Hebrews, we must understand the author’s intent, otherwise the message becomes confused.
- See the author’s essay “If They Shall Fall Away” for some thoughts on chapter 6:1 – 8 and “eternal security”.