In Hebrews 1, we saw an introduction (Hebrews 1:1–4) that tells us about a Son of God. Then, seven quotations from the Hebrew scriptures form an argument that this Son is greater than the angels. That this Son is distinct from the Father, but nonetheless fully deity.
The author breaks off his argument to give a short aside and application of his argument in Hebrews 1. He will move forward with stage two of his argument in verse 5. While verses 1–4 are an aside, they are important. Theology without application is useless. Take a step back and hear these words from the author of Hebrews. Challenge yourself to hear these words anew.
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Pay Attention (v. 1)
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
— Hebrews 2:1 (ESV)
The “therefore” tells us that what is being said is based upon what came before. The Son is greater than angels, therefore…well, we’ll see in verses 2–4 below.
But I also want to key on the word “drift.” This word, “pararreō” in Greek, is only used here in the New Testament. It means to drift away, or to flow by, which gives us a picture of getting into a boat and simply letting the river carry you where it will. No effort is given to go in a specific direction. You simply…drift.
Apathy, the author of Hebrews—together with the Holy Spirit—tells us is not how we must approach the message of salvation. We do not know the precise circumstances that the first recipients of this letter were in, but they were probably being persecuted. They were probably Jewish converts to Christianity and their Jewish brothers and sisters may have been involved in persecuting them. The author of Hebrews implores them to not become apathetic and drift away from the message given to them.
But how about us? In modern western society, we do not face hardship and persecution like the first recipients of this message, nor like our brothers and sisters in the East. Yet how apathetically do we approach our faith and our life? Do we approach it with intention and purpose? Do we approach learning the scriptures, doing justice and mercy, loving God and neighbor, discipling others and our children, with intention? Or do we drift?
Disobedience Brings Justice (vv. 2–3a)
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?
— Hebrews 2:2–3a (ESV)
Now the author expands on why we should not allow ourselves to drift from what we have heard. He starts with, “…since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable…” To which, I responded, “Uh…what message declared by angels?” I think the answer is the Mosaic Law, but if that sounds strange to you, I don’t blame you. Exodus 19–20, the narrative about the giving of the law, makes no mention of angels’ involvement. But other parts of scripture and ancient Jewish writings do mention it in passing.
“The LORD came from Sinai
and dawned from Seir upon us;
he shone forth from Mount Paran;
he came from the ten thousands of holy ones,
with flaming fire at his right hand.
— Deuteronomy 33:2 (ESV)
…you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
— Acts 7:53 (ESV)
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.
— Galatians 3:19 (ESV)
Additional places that it’s mentioned include Jubilees 1:27 and Acts 7:38. So while angels being involved with giving the Mosaic law to Israel isn’t mentioned much, it is mentioned. This helps to explain why the author of Hebrews has been spending so much time arguing that Jesus is greater than the angels. The Mosaic law had defined the Jewish people for thousands of years, and angels played a big role in giving that law.
Christians claimed that the Mosaic law had been superseded by Jesus, so the author of Hebrews needs to show that the one who gave the law of liberty (James 1:25, 1 Corinthians 9:21) is greater than those who gave the Mosaic law.
I also want to touch on the second part of this quote, “…every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”
The first part of this sentence reminds readers that “transgressions and disobedience” under the Mosaic law “received a just retribution.” The Mosaic law was filled with curses and promised punishments for Israel if they failed to live up to their end of the covenant bargain (Deuteronomy 28).
The author of Hebrews then makes an argument “from the lesser to the greater,” a common form of Jewish argumentation that Jesus and Paul also used. If the Mosaic law, the lesser law, had such serious curses attached to it that the temple was destroyed and Israel was sent into exile, how much worse will the punishment be for disobeying the greater law?
The word “neglect” here doesn’t require active disobedience. Like “drift away” in verse 1, all that neglect requires is to do nothing. If we are not actively pursuing holiness through the power of the Spirit, we will not escape the death that is our just due (Romans 6:23).
The Trinity Bears Witness to the Son’s Salvation (vv. 3b–4)
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
— Hebrews 2:3b–4 (ESV)
Verse 3b is probably the number one reason that I don’t think Paul wrote the Book of Hebrews. Paul saw himself as one of the apostles who received the gospel directly from the Lord (Galatians 1:11–20). The author of Hebrews is identifying with his readers that they both heard the gospel from the original apostles—“those who heard.”
The message of salvation was confirmed by all three members of the Trinity.
Jesus our Lord declared the good news of salvation and these Christians heard the good news through the apostles who walked with him. God the Father acted as a witness verifying the ministry of Jesus through empowering Jesus to perform signs and wonders on earth and through raising him from the dead.
After Jesus, God also verified the message of the Apostles to Jewish and Gentile peoples by sending the Holy Spirit to empower believers with various gifts. Much more could be said about these gifts, but that must wait for another, dedicated study.
Remember the point of this section: that we believers must pay attention. Jesus didn’t declare a new covenant by himself. He proved that God the Father—the same God who used angels to declare the old covenant—sent him by showing that he was empowered to perform miracles by God. And the author of Hebrews reminds his readers that gifts were being given to believers through the Holy Spirit to continue to verify the message of salvation.
The author of Hebrews is telling these believers, probably Jews tempted to turn back to Judaism and the old covenant, that they would be making a huge mistake to turn away or to let themselves drift. They need to remind themselves of what they have seen and heard. They need to turn their eyes upon Jesus and the salvation he declared once more. There is no turning back. There is nothing to turn back to. The Mosaic covenant declared at Sinai is gone. The new covenant in Jesus’ blood has come.