Many Christians reading Hebrews 2:1–4 believe that the text is somehow not applicable to them, but only to unbelievers or apostates, but I believe that the text is applicable to all believers.
In the Reformed theology, this text is often interpreted in the context of the perseverance of the saints, which is one of the five points of Calvinism. We emphasise the fact, that those whom God has truly saved will persevere in their faith to the end. Let’s examine Hebrews 2:1–4 and how it might apply to saved Christians in this theological framework under two broad headings:
- The Command (vv. 1–2)
- The Warning (vv. 3–4)
We start by considering the command in the text: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution” (vv. 1–2).
Our text starts with “therefore,” which hearkens to Hebrews 1:5–14 where we see the author describing Christ as our Mediator. We must keep in mind that, during the Old Testament days, the word was given through angels; therefore, we have a much greater responsibility today because we have received the word from the Son of God himself!
The purpose of this passage is to encourage all readers to pay attention to God’s word and obey it. In this paragraph, we find the first of five warning passages (exhortations) in the letter (2:1–4; 3:12–13; 6:4–8; 10:26–31; 12:25–29). The warnings grow stronger as we progress through the letter, from drifting from God’s word to defying God’s word (turning your back on it [12:14–29]).
Drifting Away from God’s Message of Truth
In v. 1, the author focusses on the practical consequences of the previous chapter, where he proved that Christ is superior to the angels by whose ministry the law was given (Deuteronomy 33:2). The gospel is, therefore, more excellent than the law.
The author of Hebrews positively encourages his readers to “pay more careful attention … to what we have heard” (v. 1). Negatively, he warns against drifting away, like people in a boat that has lost its moorings and is moving rapidly towards a waterfall. Drifting has disastrous consequences.
Neglecting the Great Salvation
We see in v. 2 that, based on Christ’s superiority to the angels, and his divine, messianic nature, readers are called to pay careful attention to the message they have heard. The threat is great for those who neglect the great salvation the Lord has revealed, because, in Old Testament times, disregard of (disobedience of) God’s revelation (the law) was severely punished, and therefore, disobedience to the Christian message of salvation would not go unpunished. Hebrews 2:1 reflects the major difficulty with the readers: They were drifting away from Christ, back to the shadows of the old covenantal system (the law). Think of Deuteronomy 28:15–18:
But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock.
The warning in Hebrews 2 is written to believers, for the writer includes himself when he writes “we.” The danger that the author wants to point out here is that of neglecting our salvation. It is important to note that the author did not write “rejecting” but “neglecting.” He is not encouraging sinners to become Christians; rather, he is encouraging Christians to pay attention to the great salvation they have received from the Lord.
More spiritual problems are caused by neglect than perhaps by any other failure on our part. We neglect God’s word, prayer, worship (fellowship) with God’s people (10:25), and other opportunities for spiritual growth and, as a result, start to drift away from Christ. The anchor does not move; we start to drift. That is why the apostle warns us in 10:25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The danger is that, if they would not, “pay much closer attention to what we have heard” they might “drift away.” We see in 5:11–12 that the author’s readers were marked by immaturity and spiritual sluggishness (dragging or laziness), and if they would not repent of this, there was danger of them slipping away from what they had heard. The author may have had the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Old Testament) rendering of Proverbs 3:21 in mind, where the Greek translators used the word for “drift away” that is found here: “My son, do not slip away, but keep my counsel and intent.”
In vv. 3–4, we find the warning that flows from the command: “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, 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 2:3–4).
The message Hebrews has in mind is the gospel of salvation that was “declared at first by the Lord” (Jesus) and was confirmed “by those who heard” him (the apostles). The readers were not part of the first generation of Christians, but they certainly received the gospel from those who were. They received the gospel from the apostles, who had received it from Jesus, as God testified to its supernatural origin “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
The gospel is of greater significance than the message spoken by angels to Israel at Mount Sinai. It is the message delivered by the Son of God himself, concerning eternal salvation and how it is to be obtained. If every violation and disobedience received its just punishment under the terms of that earlier revelation, how can there be any escape for those who ignore or neglect the terms of God’s ultimate revelation? Once we have received God’s word and turn our backs on it, we cannot plead ignorance. If angels rebelled and were punished, then we must respond seriously to what God is saying in Christ.
The writer did not spell out the nature of the disobedience referred to in our passage, but it would be unwarranted to think he was talking about hell. The “we” which pervades the passage shows that the author included himself among those who needed to pay close attention to these truths.
Note that v. 3 does not say, “How shall sinners escape if they reject?” but, “How shall we [believers] escape if we neglect?” Spiritual deterioration begins when Christians start to neglect this great salvation. From the admonitions in 10:19–25, it seems that these Jewish believers were guilty of neglecting prayer and united fellowship with God’s people.
We sometimes have the idea that believers today “under grace” (saved Christians) can escape the chastening hand of God that was so evident “under Law.” But to whom much is given, much shall be required (Luke 12:48). Not only have we received the word from the Son of God, but that word has been confirmed by apostolic miracles (v. 4). The phrase “signs and wonders” is found eleven times in the New Testament. Here, it refers to the miracles that witnessed to the word and gave confirmation that it was true. These miracles were performed by the apostles (see Mark 16:17–20; Acts 2:43). Today, we have the completed word of God; so, there is no need for these apostolic miracles anymore. God now bears witness through his Spirit using the word (Romans 8:16; 1 John 5:1–13). The Spirit also gives spiritual gifts to God’s people so that they may minister in the church (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11ff).
The word translated “disobedience” literally means “unwillingness to hear.” Saints who will not hear and heed the word of God are disobedient and will not escape the chastening hand of God. After all, God confirmed his word through signs, miracles, and powers (v. 4; see Acts 2:22, 43). This word is not to be treated lightly! In fact, the word translated “neglect” is rendered “made light of” in Matthew 22:5.
But together with this is the fact that those who have heard the gospel message, but turn their backs on it and on Christ, will experience judgement far greater than any punishment experienced by Israel in Old Testament times. The writer says more about this in 10:26: “For if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”
In the beginning, I referred to two kinds of listeners to this message: in short, saved and unsaved people. What are the consequences for both these groups?
First, believers should be warned against drifting away. The author warns believers to pay close attention to what they have heard, lest they “drift away” from it. The Reformed view suggests that, even though true Christians are eternally secure in their salvation, they are still called to persevere in their faith. This warning is seen as an exhortation to continue in faithfulness and not become complacent.
Believers should also guard against neglecting salvation. The passage highlights the seriousness of neglecting “such a great salvation.” Reformed theology teaches that salvation is a precious gift from God and Christians are called to cherish it, not take it for granted. Neglecting salvation can be seen as a warning against falling into unbelief or apathy, which would be inconsistent with the perseverance of the saints.
Third, believers should be warned to bring forth evidence of salvation. The passage emphasises that the evidence of true salvation includes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, sanctification, and a life characterised by good works. While salvation itself is by grace alone through faith alone, the ongoing evidence of salvation is important, and this passage can be seen as a reminder of that.
Therefore, we ought to give the more diligent heed to the things which we have heard (v. 1). We must embrace them in our hearts and affections, retain them in our memories, and finally regulate our words and actions according to them.
But there is also a warning here to unbelievers—to those people who think or pretend that they are saved and those who know that they are not saved. The judgement facing those who turn their backs on Christ must be greater than any punishment experienced by Israel in Old Testament times. The writer says more about this in 10:26–31:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
In summary, then, Hebrews 2:1–4 serves as a reminder to saved Christians that they should not become complacent in their faith but should persevere in it. It emphasises the seriousness of neglecting the great salvation that has been granted to believers and underscores the importance of the evidence of salvation in the life of a Christian. While salvation is secure for the elect, believers are still called to live faithfully and obediently as a response to God’s grace.