What is the “great salvation” of Heb. 2: 3?
The words “how shall we escape if we have been negligent of so great salvation” (Heb. 2: 3) have often been rightly applied as a warning to all who neglect what God has secured at great cost to Himself for the eternal blessing of men through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, application is not interpretation. A passage of Scripture may have more than one application but there is only ever one interpretation. The correct interpretation is determined by noting the persons addressed in the passage, the time written and the context.
Those addressed in Hebrews were Jews (not men in general) of the believing remnant in the nation of Israel who had accepted the Lord Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ) but who, through various pressures, were in danger of giving up this belief and returning to Judaism. Accordingly, the doctrinal arguments presented in the epistle are based entirely on quotations from the OT and the present position of the Lord Jesus as the Man in heaven.
The Hebrew epistle was written when the Aaronic priesthood was still functioning in the temple and thus before Jerusalem was destroyed in AD70, probably within the time frame of the Acts.
Looking now at the context, the setting of the verse is “the habitable world which is to come, of which we speak” (Heb. 2: 5). The writer does not say ‘of which we are about to speak’, which would limit himself to what immediately follows. The Greek verb for speak is in the present tense and could equally well be translated using the English present continuous tense as “are speaking” as in Heb. 8: 1. Thus, the context is the coming millennial kingdom or “[the] age to come” (Heb. 6: 5).
Now the Jew knew only two ages: the present one of law and the future one when Messiah would reign in the Kingdom on earth and the Lord confirmed this view for He Himself spoke of “this age” and “the coming [one]” (Matt. 12: 32; see also Mark 10: 30; Luke 18: 30; Heb. 6: 5). The Jewish thought of the future and of salvation was not of eternity but the world to come. Hence, the disciples, on hearing of the difficulty of the rich of entering the Kingdom, “were exceedingly astonished, saying, Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19: 25; see also Mark 10: 26; Luke 18: 26). Their thought of salvation was clearly tied to the Kingdom, and the Lord Jesus, far from correcting them, only expanded on the Kingdom theme (see Matt. 19: 28–30). Note that the above quotations are from the synoptic Gospels only, for when John wrote his Gospel the Kingdom was in abeyance and so he does not mention its public proclamation.
Now Heb. 2: 3 goes on to say of this great salvation that it “had its commencement in being spoken [of] by the Lord”. What did the Lord speak of? What was the subject of His public testimony, a testimony limited to the Jews (see Matt. 10: 6)? What was the good news that he presented to Israel? It was the “glad tidings of the kingdom” (Matt. 4: 23). This was “the beginning of the Christ” referred to in Heb. 6: 1. These glad tidings could not be the salvation presented in “the glad tidings of the grace of God” (Acts 20: 24) for this was founded on the Lord’s death and He had not as yet died. The only glad tidings known in the Synoptics and preached by the Lord was “the glad tidings of the kingdom” accompanied by “healing every disease and every bodily weakness among the people” (Mat. 4: 23). This was the earthly Kingdom prophesied in the OT and testified to by the accompanying signs (see Is. 35: 1–10).
Heb. 2: 3, 4 further says of this salvation that it “has been confirmed to us by those who have heard; God bearing, besides, witness with [them] to [it]” (that is, the ‘great salvation’), “both by signs and wonders, and various acts of power, and distributions of [the] Holy Spirit, according to his will?” Now “those who have heard” were the Twelve and others, but particularly the former, for the signs performed were the signs of an apostle (see 2 Cor. 12: 12). Later on, Paul speaks of “[the] works of power of [the] age to come” (Heb. 6: 5) showing that these works belonged to the kingdom and hence the great salvation was for that time. It was this testimony that Peter gave to the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost saying “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus the Nazaraean, a man born witness to by God to you by works of power and wonders and signs, which God wrought by him in your midst, as yourselves know” (Acts 2: 22). This great salvation will yet be realised when Christ “shall appear to them that look for him” (that is, the faithful Jewish remnant) “the second time without sin for salvation” (Heb. 9: 28).