For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-2)
Continuing the practical exhortation begun in verse 1 of chapter 2, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews invites the reader to consider with pressing urgency the grave consequence of neglecting salvation through Jesus Christ. One interesting feature of this epistle, in terms of style, is that the writer repeatedly interweaves orthodoxy and orthopraxy, or right belief/worship and right action/praxis. So here (i.e., Hebrews 2:1-2), following the (in a sense) culmination of Jesus the Son of God's supremacy over angels, we encounter words that encourage us toward a right response. A correct response that accords with Jesus' reality is wholly appropriate in light of who Christ was/is and what He did/does. The clear expectation is that we Christians, who bear the name of Christ, not only "pay much closer attention to what we have heard" from and through Him, we must strive to not neglect these things (2:1; see also 1:1-2). Though we can do nothing outside of God's grace and strength (see Philippians 2:12-13; Hebrews 13:20-21), there is a strong burden on the hearer in these verses, and this theme of a right response is inculcated throughout chapters 2 through 4 especially (as well as throughout the entire epistle; see, for example, 3:1, 6, 12-14; 4:1, 11, 14, 16; 6:1-2; 10:19-29, 35-36; 12:1-3, 12-14, 25, 28-29; 13:1-9, 13, 15-19). The very reason that the consequence of neglect is so severe is that in such an action we treat with indifference "so great a salvation" in which God Himself condescends to our sinful estate in order to reconcile us to Him through Jesus Christ and His cross (Ephesians 2:16; 1 Peter 3:18; Colossians 1:19-20). God has gone to great lenghts, and with great sacrifice, to offer us the highest good, that of Himself; Jesus perfectly reveals God to humanity, which is why we cannot afford to neglect Him.
The second verse in this chapter has a unique phrase that relates to our understanding of the greatness of salvation through Jesus. Namely, the phrase "the word spoken through angels" is somewhat enigmatic. From this passage, we know that this word has the following for its attributes: it is "unalterable," and "transgression" of and "disobedience" to this word resulted in "a just penalty." There are, it seems, two potentially valid interpretations that can each receive biblical support.
The first of these interpretations is to take the phrase at face value. Under this sense, the author could be referring to the multiple times that God sent angels to humankind in order to communicate a particular message or messages. Thus, it could be said that the word spoken through them is "unalterable" since it ultimately has its origin as God. Notwithstanding, it may be odd to speak of these instances in the manner we find in Hebrews 2:2, wherein we would be predicating that "transgression" of and "disobedience" to the word spoken through angels (in the sense just mentioned) necessarily resulted in "a just penalty." However, we could cite examples such as Zacharias (the father of John the Baptist) losing the ability to speak because he did not believe Gabriel's words concernign the birth of his son (see Luke 1:8-20).
A second interpretation holds that the phrase "the word spoken through angels" is a more or less unique reference to the law that Moses received on Mt. Sinai (and perhaps extended more broadly to the Old Testament as a whole). If correct, this use may seem counterintuitive to us, but it is also not without biblical support. St. Stephen, who is regarded as the first martyr in the Church, mentions of Moses that he was "with the angel speaking to him on Mt. Sinai" in addition to noting that God spoke to Moses directly (Acts 7:38, 44; see also the role of the "angel" spoken of in Acts 7:35). Furthermore, Stephen rebukes his audience's disobedience to the law of God by saying: "[Y]ou who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it" (7:53, emphasis added). Notably, the phrase that Stephen employs is unique even in the New Testament, but it is clearly in reference to the Mosaic law. Moreover, predications of this word/law as being "unalterable" and receiving "a just pentalty" for every act of "transgression" and "disobedience" are abundant throughout Scripture (see, for examle, Psalm 119; Matthew 5:18). If this second interpretation is correct, it also fits in well with the theme in Hebrews that "Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant" now that the "former commandment because of its weaknesses" has been set aside, so that the strength may be found in Jesus, "according to the power of [His] indestructible life" and His ability "to save forever those who draw near to God through Him" (Hebrews 7:18-19, 22, 25). As Paul, inspired by God, crucially notes, the law (for our present purposes we might say either the law itself or the word of angels recorded in the law) could make no one perfect - it was only "a tutor to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24). Similarly, the author of Hebrews later argues that while "the law made nothing perfect," there is, "on the other hand...a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God" (Hebrews 7:19). This "better hope" is only entered into through Jesus Christ.
I mention these two options (and here I must apologize for those readers whose interest does not lie in hermeneutics!) because, while it may for us be unclear which is better, it is inconsequential to the larger point of how much greater the salvation that Jesus offers truly is. Regardless of what came beforehand (though keeping in mind that obedience in times past was justly required), the words spoken from and through Jesus are of infinitely greater significance and import than "the word spoken through angels." Not suprisingly, then, Jesus rightfully declares:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. (John 5:24)
Whatever "the word spoken through angels" ends up being, it is definitively clear that the word spoken through Christ, and the salvation that in Him is found, is unsurpassable in its greatness. This is the point to which we need to give all our focus and attention, and indeed our very lives with pure obedience by the grace of God.
As we consider this, let us turn then to the entire question with which we are confronted: "[I]f the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" If "the word spoken by angels" brought with it "a just penalty" for disobedience, of how much more severity ought we to consider it when we neglect "so great a salvation" that is offered by Christ, who is in every way better than the angels? This all-important question is one of three similar questions and statements put forth in Hebrews that necessitate reaction on behalf of the hearer. Elsewhere, we read:
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of Grace? (10:28-29)
See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. (12:25)
In each of these passages, the conclusion is that to neglect what God offers through Christ is to neglect the greatest opportunity that humanity has ever received. Because of the greatness of what is offered (which is nothing less than God Himself), the consequence for our rejection is of the utmost severity. As John Piper sums up the insight of Puritan writer Jonathan Edwards, "Degrees of blameworthiness come not from how long you offend dignity but from how high the dignity is that you offend" (Piper 2003:122). Neglecting the Divine Christ and His salvation is so detrimental and results in grave consequence because, as Edwards writes:
"Our obligation to love, honor and obey any being is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority...But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellence and beauty." (124)
Yet, in Christ there is endless mercy. In Christ there is forgiveness of sins. In Christ there is "so great a salvation," for He is our salvation.
There are countless examples of seemingly insignificant events in our lives that, if we fail to give heed to them, our action is essentially one of neglect. And here I have in mind basic and mundane things, such as washing dishes and clothes, cleaning the house, eating and drinking, or even car maintenance. Nevertheless, we would never consider neglecting them, or at least neglecting them for too long, in part because we are aware of the consequences. Isn't Jesus (and His "so great a salvation") of much, much more importance than these temporal things to which we give so much care? If we will but consider our actions, we will find how we truly answer this question, though our answer may disturb us. May God help us each to realize the enormity of our indifference, so that we do not neglect so great a salvation that He lovingly offers to us.
Piper, J. (2003). Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.