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Pay Full Attention!

Category Articles
Date April 3, 2002


‘If no sin was unpunished in the Old Testament, how can any be in the New?’

Every good preacher should be able to state things as succinctly as the writer to the Hebrews has done; but no preacher worth his salt is content with doing only that. He knows that things have to be unpacked for his hearers, because they may fail to appreciate their importance. That is what the author does in chapter 2 verses 2-4. He wants them to realize the importance of what they have heard and the danger of not adhering to it. So, he gives them an analogy.

He reminds them of what happened to those who did not give proper attention to what they heard in Old Testament days. This provides him with a platform for going on to show that something far worse is bound to happen to all who react in the same way to the greater message they have heard. The argument from the lesser to the greater here is very forceful.

The ‘word spoken through angels’

This is a reference to the giving of the law at Sinai which constituted the tribes of Israel as the people of God. Jews believed that angels were involved in this and there are statements in Old Testament poetry to this effect (see Deut. 33:2 and Psa. 68:17). Even so, angels were only instruments, acting at God’s command. But this revelation, though only anticipatory, had divine validity. It was therefore not to be treated disrespectfully. ‘Transgression and disobedience’ are ways of describing sins of omission and commission. Every kind of infringement of this ‘word’ was treated seriously by God, and all who set it aside received a just retribution. Examples of this are found in Exodus 32: 6, 28; Leviticus 10:1-2; Numbers 15:32, 36; 16:3,32, 35 and 20:12 and 34.

‘So great a salvation’.

Contrasted with ‘the word spoken through angels’ this is a summary of the final revelation. The inspired author knows that he just cannot describe this fully and he therefore writes ‘so great a salvation’, in order to give some idea of its incomparable greatness. He uses a similar expression in such a high priest (8:1) and of course the ‘salvation’ and ‘priest’ are inseparably bound together because Jesus is the eternal Saviour.

Salvation is to be viewed against the background of sin and all its effects (1:3) and includes a restoration of the glory which existed before the Fall (2:5). It is found in Jesus, the incarnate Son (2:10) because he did all that was necessary to procure it (5:9). It is eternal, that is, heavenly and everlasting (7:25) and, when he comes again, all its benefits will be fully received by all who keep on believing (9:28 and 10:39).

Its several speakers

Although this salvation is so great that words cannot exhaustively describe it, it is made known by means of words, or in a message. Like the law, it too is capable of being spoken because it is God’s wise plan (words convey thoughts), and it needs to be declared, since human beings are ignorant because of sin.

There are three messengers of salvation mentioned here, namely, the Lord Jesus, those who heard him (the apostles) and God himself. While they all speak about the same subject, something distinctive is said about each of them as messengers. Their combined testimony to the gospel is infinitely superior to that of angels to the law, even to countless myriads of them. We will consider each in turn.

i. The Lord

This is a reference to the Lord/Son who is about to be personally named as Jesus (verse 9). The focus is on his earthly ministry, a subject of considerable importance in this letter in relation to the message of salvation. He is said to have ‘first’ proclaimed salvation, not because no one before him had had anything to say about it (think, for example, of the
prophets) but because he actualized it in time and space. Prior to him, there could only be prediction and after him, only attestation. Strictly speaking, he was the first gospel-preacher because his coming inaugurated ‘the last days’ and his death and resurrection accomplished redemption.

ii Those who heard him

Those referred to here are not necessarily the apostles, but it is they who are primarily in view. The emphasis is on the fact that they had been ‘hearers’ of the Lord and so could guaranteed to others the historicity of his teaching, deeds, and especially his resurrection which confirmed his identity as Lord and Saviour. This of course is what the apostles did (see John 15:27; Acts 1:21-22; 5;32; ;2 Pet. 1:16-18; I John 1:1-3). They made known what they had seen and heard. Salvation is not an idea, myth or a theory. It is plain fact.

iii. God himself

While God was behind and present in his Son’s speaking on earth, he also bore testimony to the report that those human preachers of the gospel gave. As they spoke he worked in ways that were calculated to draw people’s attention to the message which they were making known, disclosing something of its nature – and not to the speakers themselves. ‘Signs and wonders and miracles’ form a recurring triplet in the New Testament. The words are not always found in the same order, but each of them carries its own shade of meaning. The word ‘signs’ points to the fact that ‘wonders’ are not just eye-catching but have something to say to mind and conscience, and ‘miracles’ indicates that these stupendous events are inexplicable on any other basis than that God is at work. Such interventions by God by way of an accompaniment to the preaching of the ‘saving word’ are not unlimited or haphazard. They are all ‘according to His own will’.


We have noted that there is an argument from the lesser to the greater in these verses with regard to the divine word, from law to salvation. This is also the case with regard to punishment or retribution, although that is not made explicit yet. Later on, the writer will speak of ‘severer punishment’ in 10:29. Here the emphasis is on certainty: the greater certainty of punishment implied in the question, ‘If no sin was unpunished in the Old Testament, how can any be in the New?’

The New is not just a disclosure of the love of God. Much less does it contradict the emphasis of the Old on his justice and holiness. In fact, the New Testament is clearer and fuller on this than the Old Testament, as can be seen by looking at what Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, taught about Hell, over against the prophets, for example. God’s justice will exact all that repudiation of his gospel merits. It certainly cannot be the case that a greater revelation from God will minimise the seriousness of a casual and superficial response to it. More light does mean more responsibility. Salvation from sin is a matter of life or death – eternally!

It ought to be underlined that the thrust of this warning is not directed to those who had never heard the gospel, and therefore never could profess to receive it. In their case punishment is no less certain, but it will not be as severe as it will be in the case of those who, having heard it and professed to receive it, then live carelessly.

Hywel R. Jones “Let’s Study Hebrews” a new paperback published by the Banner of Truth (pp.17-21).

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