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It is said scripture contains waters so shallow a young believer can comfortably wade and waters so deep as to challenge the most mature believer. Perhaps no Bible book better makes the case for that assertion than the book of Hebrews.
Its target audience is multifaceted. It is clearly intended to evangelize uncoverted Jews by showing how Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled every OT Messsianic prophecy, especially those related to the priesthood and sacrifices. If we accept an authorship date circa 64 A.D., thirty years after Jesus' earthly ministry, there may have been Jews still alive who were eyewitnesses of that minstry who had “tasted” of its supernatural powers. For Jews who had not actually seen Jesus but experienced apostolic, post-Pentecostal preaching, teaching and healing, this epistle is for them as well. Jews who professed faith in Jesus Christ, either by hearing him directly or by hearing the words of salvation from those who heard him, are admonished to hold fast to their profession. Gentiles, whether saved or lost, stand to benefit from its content, whether by the exploration of Christ's riches or by gospel exposition.
Our text is found in Hebrews 2:1-4:
The theme of Hebrews is encapsulated in three words: SO GREAT SALVATION (2:3). The content of the entire epistle revolves around this proclamation and explains why the salvation God offers is so great. In Chapter 1, for example, it's so great because of its PERSON, the Son of God, who is “so much better than the angels” (1:4, 8). In Chapter 2, it's so great because of its PASSION, exhibited in Christ's sufferings (2:9-10, 18) and its PREEMINENCE inasmuch as all things are in subjection to Jesus (2:7-8). In Chapter 4, it's so great because of its POWER unleashed by the Word of God (4:12). In Chapter 5, it's so great because of the PRIESTHOOD of Christ (5:1-6). In Chapter 6, it's so great because of its PROMISES to them who believe (6:13-18). In Chapter 7, it's so great because of its PERFECTION (7:17). In Chapter 8, it's so great because of its PITY toward sinners. (8:12). In Chapter 9, it's so great because of its PROPITIATION in Christ's blood (9:14). In Chapter 10, it's so great because of the PRIVILEGE it affords the believer to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus (10:19-22) and its PUNISHMENT of those who trample it under foot. (10:28-31). In Chapter 11, it's so great because of its POTENTIAL for believers (11:6ff). In Chapter 12, it's so great because of the PATIENCE it inspires in those who look to its Author-Finisher (12:1-3). In Chapter 13, it's so great because of the PERMANENCE, the eternal sameness, of Jesus Christ, upon whom our salvation rests (13:8).
The words so great are τηλικοῦτος (tēlikoutos), “of such proportions, size or magnitude.” It is only used four times in the NT. In addition to its usage here, scripture uses it to describe our deliverance from “so great a death” (2 Corinthians 1:10), a ship that's “so great” but controlled by a very small rudder (James 3:4) and an earthquake during the Tribulation that's “so mighty an earthquake” (Revelation 16:18). Perhaps no fact calls attention to “so great salvation” than its contrast with “so great a death” from which Jesus saves the believer.
In addition, the reader will notice the chain of custody that was established by (1) the words of salvation spoken by the Lord himself, (2) the same words passed on by those that heard him, and (3) the same words passed on to others who heard them as a third link in the chain. These words–the message of the gospel—were inspired and preserved in the pages of scripture. The chain of custodity is now in our hands. Generations of the faithful with scripture as their infallible guide have passed on these words of salvation concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, the one in whom so great salvation is found.
Our text admonishes hearers (1) to give the more earnest heed to these words, (2) to avoid neglect of them, and (3) to expect judgment from God, from which there is no escape, if we chose the path of neglect. This passage does have its interpretive challenges. We'll endeavor to arrive at a proper understanding by comparing scripture with scripture and considering the target audience. What does it mean to neglect so great salvation? Is it possible for a born again believer to be guilty of neglect? We'll seek to answer these questions.
I. The Matter of Giving Heed
The word ought is δεῖ (dei), a necessity in the nature of the case. In this case, the nature of the case is the salvation of the soul. The verb give heed is προσέχω (prosecho), a combination of pros (toward in terms of direction) and echo (to have, hold or possess). It was used of bringing a ship to land for the purpose of mooring it. It includes the idea of addiction. The picture is that of a hearer of the gospel literally mooring his life to the words of salvation, addicting himself to them. The present tense signifies continuous activity as a pattern of life. The writer further intensifies his admonition by adding the adverb more earnest. It is περισσοτέρως (perissoterōs), “to a greater degree, in superabundance.” How many ropes does it take to moor a ship securely to a docking platform? The words more earnest suggest we simply cannot have too many ropes mooring us to Jesus! The hearer of the words of salavation should super-addict bimself to them by every means available!
The writer juxtaposes the ideas of heeding and slipping as if failure in the first makes the second inevitable. The word slip is παραρρέω (pararreō), a combination of para (to the side of) and rheō (to flow). It means “to flow to side of, to drift or glide by.” One can picture a life preserver drifting by a drowning swimmer just beyond his reach. This is the only usage of παραρρέω in the NT. In the OT, however, the English slip is used four times. In every occurrence, it's used in relation to the feet as a spiritual metaphor. There's a causative relationship between the words of salvation to which one moors his mind and the steps one takes in life. Slippage in the former causes slippage in the latter. Contrariwise, heeding the former will prevent the feet from slipping.
II. The Matter of Neglect
Now we'll examine the neglect of so great salvation and whether a genuine child of God is capable of it. The word is ἀμελέω (ameleō), a combination of a (without) and meleō (to care about, to have regard for). It means “to have no regard for, no concern.” For one to neglect so great salvation, one must exhibit no concern or regard for it. Does this sound like a genuine believer could be capable of neglect?
The text of Matthew 22:1-14 lends light to this question. Jesus told a parable regarding the kingdom of heaven. A certain king (the Father) made a marriage for his son (the Lord Jesus). He sent his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding; but they would not come (22:2-3). Two verbs are instructive. Bidden (invited) is a perfect tense. Those whom God called had a standing invitation to attend the wedding. Would not come is an imperfect tense. The imperfect signifies continuous action in time past. The invitees continued in a state of unwillingness to attend. Their lack of responsiveness prompted the king to send other servants to reissue the call and provide additional detail—animals are killed, dinner is prepared, everything is ready (22:4).
Notice the shift in their attitude. The scripture says: “But they made light of it” (22:5). Made light of is the verb ἀμελέω, the same verb translated neglect in Hebrews 2:3. Their indifference to the first call (“Thanks, but no thanks”) turned into outright disregard for the second (“Get a clue, we've got better things to do!”). They went THEIR ways, spurned the invitation of the KING. Those better things included a farm and merchandise (Eng., “emporium”). But in some, disregard erupted in rage (22:6). The remnant (i.e., the ones who had nothing better to do than rain retribution on the servants) entreated them spitefully, killed them. We get our English word “hubris” from the same root. They were bothered enough by the second invite to treat the servants with rudeness, violence and death.
When the king got word the invitees had so treated his servants, his wrath was kindled (22:7). This time he sent forth his armies to destroy the murderers and burn their city. But the story doesn't end there. The wedding was still on, and the king wanted the wedding full of guests in honor of his son. So again he sent servants into the highways to invite whosoever to come (22:9). In the end, the wedding was furnished with guests (22:10). The parable was clealy intended to teach that the wedding invitation rejected by the Jews would be accepted by the Gentiles. But the use of neglect with regard to both so great salvation and the king's wedding invitation makes it difficult to believe a genuine believer could make light of the gospel. In our Lord's parable, believers would be those who say “Yes!” to the king's invitation, would they not? In other words, when they hear the message of so great salvation, they decide they have NOTHING better to do than give earnest heed to it. It seems a genuine believer would be incapable of the neglect Hebrews 2:3 warns against. But an unconverted Jew certainly would, as Matthew 22:1-10 affirms.
But that doesn't deliver the believer altogether from neglect. Hear Paul's words to Timothy: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee” (1 Timothy 4:14). Neglect is the same word, ἀμελέω. Timothy, whom I believe was incapable of neglecting so great salvation, was indeed capable of neglecting the spiritual gift vouchsafed to him by grace. A distinction must be made between the GIFT of the Spirit and the GIFTS the Spirit distributes at will within the body of Christ for the purpose of ministry. Paul admonished Timothy concerning the latter. In 2 Timothy 1:6, he gives the young pastor the antidote for neglect: “Stir up [fan the flames of] the gift of God, which is in thee.”
The sad fact is some believers live an entire life without ever discovering the spiritual gift the Spirit of God gave them. Others discover their gift and spend a lifetime of service in the church using it for God's glory and serving others. The rest lie somewhere between those two bookends. Most believers at some time(s) in their lives allow the flame of passion for Christ to wane for whatever reason. Fires turns to flickers, flickers to embers, embers to ashes. Revival is the business of the Spirit of God, the Giver of gifts, to rekindle the flame. If we fail to stir up the gift within us, we essentially neglect it. It is unseemly for one who has embraced so great salvation to neglect the gift that salvation gave him. But, alas, it happens all too often.
III. The Matter of Escape
“How shall we escape...?” begins a rhetorical question. The context provides a point of reference, as follows: “The word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward” (2:2). The mentions of trangression and disobedience, in my mind, are clear references to the Law of Moses. Scripture says the Law was “ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19). When God at Mount Sinai wrote the Law on tablets of stone, a host of angels were in attendance, probably as witnessess and future enforcers. The writer's point: If there was no escape for violating the Law given through the auspices of angels, how can there be an escape for neglecting so great salvation God provided through his Son, whom he made so much better than the angels?!
The word escape is ἐκφεύγω (ekpheugō), a combination of ek (out of) and pheugo (to flee). The prefix makes it intensive. It signifies fleeing out of harm's way, escaping to a safe place. Paul used this word to describe the inability of hypocrites to escape the judgment of God (Romans 2:3), his own escape at Damascus from a wicked governor as friends lowered him through a window in a basket (2 Corinthians 11:33) and the inability of sinners to escape the day of the Lord's wrath after the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 5:3). These usages paint vivid pictures concerning an escape out of harm's way or an inability to escape.
It's clear what no escape means for the neglect of so great salvation. It's so great a death, eternal separation from God in the Lake of Fire. The believer, however, whom God has delivered from so great a death and predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, should know that he or she will not escape the discipline of the Father if they neglect the gift that's in them. If Timothy was capable of such neglect, we are as well. And if it was possible for a believer to neglect (make light of) so great salvation, perhaps no one got closer to crossing that line than the prophet Jonah. He not only refused to use (neglected) his prophetic gift to preach repentance, but later lamented the fact God brought so great salvation to Nineveh.