“For if the message spoken through angels was legally binding and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? This salvation had its beginning when it was spoken of by the Lord, and it was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever read a note meant for another person? There’s a good chance that note made reference to things you weren’t able to fully understand without some additional context. Often, reading things in the Scriptures can be a little like that. We can understand all the words (at least, we can once they’ve been carefully translated into the language we actually speak), but without additional context, it is not immediately apparent what they are talking about. Let’s add some more context to what we see here to make sure you understand it.
Yesterday we talked fairly generally about the warning passages in Hebrews and this passage in particular. Here, the author of Hebrews gets more specific about the nature of this warning. The author opens by talking about “the message spoken through angels.” What on earth does that mean? We could try to just skip over it and guess about the rest, but given the phrase’s prominence at the front of the passage, it seems like we’re unnecessarily handicapping ourselves if we don’t get some clarity on it out of the gate.
The author here is talking about the Law of Moses. But wait! I thought the Law was given to Moses by God. After all, doesn’t Exodus talk about Moses’ receiving the tablets inscribed by God’s own finger? Didn’t he go up on Mount Sinai and receive the various laws directly from the big guy Himself? Isn’t it a pretty brazen contradiction for the author of Hebrews here to talk about Moses’ having received it from angels?
That’s a great question, and the answer is no. This statement reflects the common Jewish belief about the Law in the first century. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Paul both cite this idea (Acts 7:38,53 and Gal. 3:19). They said specifically that Moses was given the Law by angels. Okay, but again, how is this not a contradiction from what Exodus says? Part of your answer to that question is going to depend on the perspective you bring to Scriptures in the first place, but here’s one explanation.
Think about the way governments communicate with their people and with the broader world. Statements are regularly phrased in terms like, “The President said ________.” Did the President actually say whatever happens to fill in that blank? Probably not and at the very least not in those words. Someone took an idea he expressed and wordsmithed it into the form on the press release. Or, someone else had an idea to which the President gave his blessing. He never said anything like that at all in this case. He merely agreed with an idea someone else had. Furthermore, when you see something phrased as “the President said,” it’s only rarely that the President physically spoke those words at all.
Well, given that this is the case, is the President’s administration lying when they say, “the President said”? Not at all. Everyone understands that what the particular official doing the speaking is doing is serving as a mediary between the President and his intended audience. For the Exodus narrative to record that Moses received the Law from God, and guys like Stephen, Paul, and the author of Hebrews to say he received it from angels is not a contradiction in terms at all. Instead, they are expressing the same thing but in different ways. It was absolutely God who gave the Law to Moses, but He expressed it to him through the ministry of His messengers. No contradiction here at all.
That’s all well and good, but what does this warning actually mean? That’s an even more important question. Remember, this is a warning given in light of the brief argument in chapter 1 that Jesus is greater than the angels. What the author is getting at here is this: If the Law of God, given by angels, was binding on the people, and if it brought with it severe consequences for faithlessness and disobedience, would it not make sense for the Law of Christ, given by Jesus Himself, the second person of the Triune Godhead, to carry with it even greater consequences for disobedience and faithlessness? If Jesus is greater than the angels, then the Law He gave is greater than the Law they gave. Therefore, we should give greater attention to keeping His Law than keeping the Law from the angels.
The original audience here was actually struggling with that. They were sorely tempted, as we talked about yesterday, to let go of the Law of Christ (to love one another as I have loved you) in favor of keeping the Law of Moses. After all, it came with pretty strict consequences for their failure to comply. The author was urging them to let go of that mindset. Jesus and His law are more significant than Moses and his. Therefore, you should give greater attention to the former instead of the latter. All the Law offered was righteousness. What Jesus offers is salvation. And there is no other offer like it. If we neglect His offer of eternal life, we aren’t going to find it anywhere else. That is, Jesus is our only hope of salvation. If we reject Him, there is no other pathway to it.
Well, while we aren’t likely to be tempted into keeping the Law of Moses as the original audience of the letter were, we do struggle rather mightily with the temptation to try to operate under our own definition of right and wrong instead of Jesus’. We are tempted just like they were to think we can manage righteousness on our own. In some ways, then, our position is even more illogical and tenuous than theirs was. At least they were being tempted back into operating under a standard given by God (through His angelic servants). Our temptation is to a standard we made up on our own. It doesn’t come even close to what Jesus offers. If we reject His law in favor of our own, this is a much worse outcome even than the first century Jewish background Jesus followers were flirting with. How will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation indeed? Erring in the direction of faithfulness is always the best way to go.