The First Warning to Remain Faithful (A Study in Hebrews)

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We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. (Hebrews 2:1–3)

Key Observation: We often think of the vastness of God’s grace, but equally staggering to contemplate are the consequences of drifting away from him.

Understanding the Word

Today’s verses are the first of several interruptions the author makes to the train of thought in order to make clear to the audience of Hebrews what is at stake. The author regularly interrupts his teaching in order to do some preaching. Each time he interrupts, he warns the audience about the consequences of not continuing in faith. By these warnings, he urges them to keep going in faith until they finally make it to the end.

Hebrews 2:1–3 is the first of these interruptions, the first of these warnings. It follows closely on Hebrews 1, where the author has shown in exalted terms that Jesus is greater than the angels. Now he comes to the implication. If Jesus is more exalted than the angels, as Hebrews 1 says, then the word he has delivered is an even more serious matter than any word that the angels might have delivered.

Hebrews 2:2 passes on the Jewish tradition that the Law of Moses was delivered to Moses by way of angels. The “message” about which it speaks is the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. These laws were binding on Israel. When someone in Israel disobeyed them, they were punished, at times quite harshly. For example, a number of violations of the Jewish Law were punishable by death, such as if a person committed adultery.

This Law delivered by angels was very weighty. We can read about some of the consequences of disobeying this “message spoken through angels.” Hebrews 12:20 mentions that any animal had to be stoned that even accidentally touched the mountain where the Law was delivered.

If the first covenant was that serious, then the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus must be even more serious, since Jesus is greater than the angels. This way of thinking may be foreign to some of us, but Hebrews is probably suggesting that the punishment for abandoning Christ will be much more severe than the punishment for violating the Law of Moses.

This is a major theme of Hebrews. The audience cannot turn back from Jesus because the consequences are extremely dire. They cannot let themselves “drift away.” They need to pay attention. They need to continue in faith. They will not escape if they do not. The judgment is coming, and salvation is only possible through Christ.

God also has given them every reason to believe that this coming salvation is real. He verified it with the miracles that Jesus did while he was on earth (2:4). This is a theme we find in Acts 2 as well. The signs and wonders that followed Jesus and the early apostles were proofs from the Holy Spirit that Jesus and these individuals were, indeed, from God.

On a side note, Hebrews 2:3 is one of the strongest hints that the apostle Paul was not the author of Hebrews. In his letters, Paul makes it very clear that he is a direct witness to Jesus (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:1). It would be unusual for Paul to put himself in the second tier of those in contact with Jesus.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Hebrews 2:1–3 can be jarring to a culture that has largely lost a sense of the seriousness of abandoning God. How do these verses make you feel? What is your immediate reaction?
  2. What would our communities of faith look like if we took these verses seriously? How would they change?
  3. How would the urgency of our mission to the world around us change if we took the message of these verses seriously?

Did you find this entry helpful? It is part of Ken Schenck’s Bible study, The Letter to the Hebrews (OneBook Daily-Weekly). This eight week book study with accompanying video sessions is perfect for Sunday School or small groups. It is a perfect study for anyone seeking to: 1) Be encouraged to press on in the midst of a culture that’s unfriendly to the Christian life, 2) See more clearly Jesus’s sacrifice and what it meant for abolishing the Jewish system of the Old Testament. Quantity discounts are available for group studies. Get your copies from our store here.

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Ken Schenck (PhD) is dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University, as well as a professor of New Testament. An ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church, he is the author of more than thirty books, including Understanding the Book of Hebrews; Paul: Soldier of Peace; and Jesus: The Mission. He and his wife, Angela, have four children: Stefanie, Stacy, Thomas, and Sophia.

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