An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Call to Hear
(Hebrews 12:25, 26)
"See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh: for if they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven" (verse 25). In these words we find the Holy Spirit moving the apostle to make a practical application unto his readers of what he had just brought before them in the previous verses. The degree or extent of the privileges enjoyed, is the measure of our responsibility: the richer the blessing God grants us, the deeper is our debt of obligation to Him. "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12:48): it was of this principle and fact the Hebrews were now reminded.
The apostle had just completed drawing his final contrast between Judaism and Christianity (verses 18-24), in which he had again shown the immeasurable superiority of the latter over the former, and now he uses this as a basis for an exhortation unto faith and obedience, or faithfulness and perseverance. Herein we have another example of the apostolic method of ministry: all their teaching had a practical end in view. Their aim was something more than enlightening the mind, namely, the moving of the will and ordering of the walk. Alas that there is so little of this in present-day teaching and preaching. The design of the pulpit now seems to be entertaining the people, and rarely does it go further than instructing the mind—that which searches the conscience or calls for the performance of duty, that which is solemn and unpalatable to the flesh, is, for the most part, studiously avoided. May it please the Lord to grant His servants all needed grace for deliverance from a compliance with this "speak unto us smooth things."
The grander the revelation which God is pleased to make of Himself, the more punctual the attendance and the fuller the response which He requires from us. In the verses which are now before us we find the apostle improving his argument by pointing out the weighty implications of it. Therein he returns to his main design, which was to urge the professing Hebrews unto steadfastness in their Christian course and conflict, and to steadily resist the temptation to lapse back into Judaism. This deeply important and most necessary exhortation he had urged upon them again and again; see Hebrews 2:1, 3; 3:12, 13; 4:1; 6:4-6; 10:26-29; 12:1, 15. Therein the servant of God may learn another valuable lesson pointed to by the example of the apostle, namely, how God requires him to go over the same ground again and again where the practical duties of the Christian are concerned, and hesitate not to frequently repeat the exhortations of Holy Writ! This may not increase his popularity with men, but it will meet with the Lord’s approval; and no faithful minister can have both!
"See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh." The Greek word for "see" is rendered "take heed" in Hebrews 3:12; the word for "refuse" signifies "deprecate"—do not disregard, still less reject. Now not only is this argument based upon the statement made in the preceding verses, but the motive for complying with it is to be drawn therefrom. It is because we "are not come unto the mount that might be touched and that burned with fire" (v. 18), that is, unto that order of things wherein the Divine righteousness was so vividly displayed in judicial manifestion; but because we "are come unto mount Sion," which speaks of pure grace, that we are now thus exhorted, for holiness ever becometh God’s house. It is in the realization of God’s wondrous grace that the Christian is ever to find his most effectual incentive unto a godly walk; see Titus 2:11, 12.
"See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh," which is the negative way of saying "Hear Him"—Heed Him, by believing and yielding obedience to what He says. This exhortation looks back to "I will raise them up a Prophet, from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put My words in His mouth: and He shall speak unto them all that I shall command Him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto My words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him" (Deut. 18:18, 19); cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37. This is what the apostle now reminded the Hebrews of: take heed that ye hear Him, for if you fail to, God will consume you with His wrath. A similar charge was given by God after Christ became incarnate: "This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him" (Matthew 17:5).
"This is the foundation of all Gospel faith and obedience, and the formal reason of the condemnation of all unbelievers. God hath given command unto all men to hear, that is, believe and obey His Son Jesus Christ. By virtue thereof, He hath given command unto others to preach the Gospel unto all individuals. They who believe them, believe in Christ; and they who believe in Christ through Him, believe in God (1 Pet. 1:21), so that their faith is ultimately resolved into the authority of God Himself. And so they who refuse them, who hear them not, do thereby refuse Christ Himself; and by so doing, reject the authority of God, who hath given this command to hear Him, and hath taken on Himself to require it when it is neglected; which is the condemnation of all unbelievers. This method, with respect unto faith and unbelief, is declared and established by our Savior: ‘he that heareth you, heareth Me; and He that despiseth you, despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me:’ Luke 10:16" (John Owen).
"See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh"—note carefully the present tense: not "that spoke." Christ is still speaking through His Gospel, by His Spirit, and instrumentally through His own commissioned servants, calling upon all who come under the sound of His voice to serve and obey Him. There are many ways in which we may "refuse" to hear and heed Him. First, by neglecting to read daily and diligently the Scriptures through which He speaks. Second, by failing to attend public preaching where His Word is faithfully dispensed—if so be we live in a place where this holy privilege is obtainable. Third, by failing to comply with the terms of His Gospel and yield ourselves unto His authority. Fourth, by forsaking the Narrow Way of His commandments and going back again to the world. Fifth, by abandoning the truth for error, which generally ends in total apostasy. How we need to pray for an hearing ear, that is, for a responsive heart and yielded will.
"For if they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth. much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven." In these words the apostle continues to emphasize the contrast which obtains between Judaism and Christianity. What we have here is an echo from the keynote struck in the opening words of our epistle: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son" (Heb. 1:1, 2). It is in the light of that statement our present verse is to be read and interpreted. The Speaker throughout is one and the same, namely, God (the Father), but the mouthpieces He employed differed greatly: under Judaism He spoke through mere men, the "prophets," but in connection with Christianity He speaks in and by His own beloved "Son."
This difference in the respective mouthpieces employed by God was in accord with and indicative of the relative importance of the two revelations given by Him. Judaism was but a religion for earth, and a temporary arrangement for the time being: accordingly, human agents were God’s instruments in connection therewith. But Christianity is a revelation which concerns a heavenly calling, heavenly citizenship, a heavenly inheritance, and exhibits eternal relations and realities: appropriately, then, was the everlasting Son, "the Lord from Heaven," the One by whom its grand secrets were disclosed. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him" (John 1:18). The primary reference there is a dispensational one. Under Judaism God dwelt behind the veil; but under Christianity "we all with unveiled face" behold, as in a glass, "the glory of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18). Under the old covenant men were unable to go in to God; but under the new covenant God has, in the person of Christ, come out to men.
But blessed and glorious as is the contrast between Judaism and Christianity, equally solemn and terrible is the contrast between the punishment meted out to those who refuse God’s revelation under each. God speaks now from a higher throne than the one He assumed at Sinai: that was on earth; the one He now occupies is in Heaven. Therefore it must inevitably follow that the guilt of those who refuse to heed Him today is far greater, and their punishment must be the more intolerable. Not only do higher privileges involve increased obligations, but the failure to discharge those added obligations necessarily incurs deeper guilt and a heavier penalty. This is what the apostle presses here, as he had in "For if the word spoken by angels (at Sinai) was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" (Heb. 2:2, 3). If, then, we in any wise fear God’s vengeance or value His favor how it behooves us to most seriously heed the grace proffered in the Gospel!
Though Christianity has in it far less of what is terrifying than had Judaism and far more in it which exhibits the grace and mercy of God, nevertheless, apostasy from the one cannot be less terrible in its consequences than was apostasy from the other. There is as much to be dreaded in disregarding the authoritative voice of God now as there was then; yea, as we have pointed out, the rejection of His message through Christ involves a worse doom than despising of His word through Moses and the prophets. "He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God?" (Heb. 10:28, 29). True, God does not now speak amid thunderings and lightnings, but rather by a tender appeal to our hearts; yet the rejection of the latter is fraught with more direful consequences than was the refusal of the former.
Alas that this weighty truth is so feebly apprehended today, and so little emphasized by the pulpit. Is it not a fact that the idea now generally prevailing is, that the God of the N.T. is far more amiable and benevolent than the God of the O.T.? How far from the truth is this: "I change not" (Mal. 3:6) is the Lord’s express avowal. Moreover, it is under the new covenant (and not the old) that we find the most awe-inspiring and terror-provoking revelation of the righteous wrath of a sin-hating God. It was not through Moses or the prophets, but by the Lord Jesus that the everlasting fires of Hell were most vividly depicted: He it was who spoke the plainest and the most frequently of that fearful place wherein there is "wailing and gnashing of teeth." If Christ was the One to most fully reveal God’s love, He was also the One who most fully declared His wrath.
"They escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth." No, even though they had enjoyed such unparalleled privileges. They had been brought out of the house of bondage, delivered from the enemy at the Red Sea, ate of the heavenly manna and drank of the water from the smitten rock; yet we are told "But with many of them God was not well-pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness" (1 Cor. 10:5). The apostle had already reminded the Hebrews that it was of them God had declared, "They do always err in their heart, and they have not known My ways. So I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest" (Heb. 3:10, 11). And this was because "they refused Him that spake" to them. They were disobedient at Sinai, where, so far from submitting to the Divine authority to have "no other gods," they made and worshipped the golden calf. They were unbelieving at Kadesh Barnea, when they listened to the scepticism of the ten spies.
"Much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven." Again we say, how greatly at variance with this is the idea which now obtains so generally. The great majority of professing Christians suppose there is much less danger of those bearing the name of the Lord being severely dealt with under the milder regime of Christianity, than there was for renegades in the days of Moses. But our text says, "much more shall not we escape!" Though it be true that Christianity is essentially a system of grace, nevertheless the requirements of holiness and the claims of justice are not thereby set aside. The despisers of grace must be and will be as surely punished as were the despisers of Law; yea, "much more" so because their sin of refusal is more heinous. It is "the wrath of the Lamb" (Rev. 6:16) which the despisers of the Gospel—its invitations and its requirements—will have to reckon with: so far as mount Sion excels mount Sinai so will the punishment of Christ-scorners exceed that of those who despised Moses.
Ere passing on to our next verse we must anticipate a "difficulty" which our passage is likely to raise in the minds of some readers: How are we to harmonize the eternal security of the saints with this "much more shall not we escape if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven?" Alas, that such a question needs answering: those who frame it betray a lamentable ignorance of what the "security of saints" consists of. God has never promised any man to preserve him in the path of self-will and self-pleasing. Those who reach Heaven are they who follow (though stumbling by and with many falls) the only path which leads there, namely, the "Narrow Way" of self-denial. Or, to put it in another way, the only ones who escape the everlasting buntings are they who heed Him that speaketh from Heaven, for "He became the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him" (Heb. 5:9).
The writer believes firmly in the blessed truth of "the eternal security of the saints," but by no means all who profess to be Christians are "saints." This raises the question, how may I know whether or not I am a saint? The answer is, By impartially examining myself in the light of Holy Writ and ascertaining whether or no I possess the character and conduct of a "saint." The Lord Jesus said, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (John 10:27). A "saint" or "sheep" of Christ, then is one who hears HIS voice above all the siren voices of the world, above all the clamorings of the flesh, and gives evidence that he does so by following Him, that is, by heeding His commandments, being regulated by His will, submitting to His Lordship. And to them, and to none other, Christ says, "And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand" (John 10:28).
Should it be asked, But was not the apostle addressing the "saints," "sheep," "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1) here in Hebrews 12:25? And if so, why did he present before them such an awful threat? First, these solemn words were addressed to all who come under the sound of the Gospel, and the response made by the hearer or reader serves as an admirable test. The proud and self-confident, who rely wholly upon a profession made by them years ago, ignore it to their own undoing, supposing those words have no application to them; whereas the lowly and self-distrustful lay it to heart with trembling, and are thereby preserved from the doom threatened. Second, in the preservation of His people from destruction God uses warnings and threatenings, as well as promises and assurances. He keeps His people in the Narrow Way by causing them to heed such an exhortation as this, "Be not high-minded, but fear; for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee" (Rom. 11:20, 21).
What is meant by turning away from "Him that speaketh from Heaven"? First, it describes the attitude of that large class who come under the sound of the Gospel and dislike its exacting terms: Christ is far too holy to suit their carnal hearts, His call for them "to forsake all and follow Him" pleases not their corrupt nature; so He is "despised and rejected" by them. Second, it depicts the conduct of the stony-ground hearers, who under the emotional appeals of high-pressure evangelists "receive the Word with joy," yet have "no root" in themselves, and so they quickly "fall away:" the scoffings of their godless companions or the appeal of worldly pleasures are too strong for them to continue resisting. Third, it denotes the lapse of those who having "escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ are again entangled therein and overcome" so that "the latter end is worse with them than the beginning" (2 Pet. 2:20). Fourth, it announces the apostasy of those who, under pressure of persecution, renounce the Faith.
"Whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven" (verse 26). There are some points about this verse and the one immediately following which are far from easy to elucidate, yet their main purport is not difficult to determine. In ceasing to "speak on earth" and in now "speaking from Heaven" God gave therein intimation that the old covenant had been supplanted by the new: that He had done with Judaism and established the "better thing" in its place. This was what the pious Hebrews found so hard to perceive, for Judaism had been instituted by God Himself. Nevertheless, He only designed it to fulfill a temporary purpose "until the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:10), and that time had now arrived. It was to demonstrate and establish this important fact that God moved His servant to write this Epistle.
Once more we would call attention to the method employed: Paul did not simply press his apostolic authority, though that had been sufficient of itself; instead, he referred his readers to the written Word of God, quoting from Haggai—in this too he has left an admirable example for all ministers of the Gospel to follow: the words of God Himself are far more weighty than any of ours. At every vital stage of his argument the apostle had referred the Hebrews to the O.T. Scriptures. When he affirmed that Christ was superior to the heavenly hosts, he quoted, "Let all the angels of God worship Him" (Heb. 1:6). When he warned of the danger of apostacy, he referred them to Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:7-11). When he insisted that Christ’s priesthood excelled Aaron’s, he cited, "Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (Heb. 7:17). When he declared that the old covenant was an imperfect and temporary one, he reminded them that Jeremiah had foretold the "new covenant" (Heb. 8:8-10).
When he dwelt upon Christ coming to earth with the express purpose of supplanting all the Levitical sacrifices by offering Himself unto God, the apostle showed that Psalm 40 had fore-announced (Heb. 10:5-7) this very truth. When he called upon the Hebrews to walk by faith, he quoted Habakkuk 2:4, and then devoted the whole of the 11th chapter to illustrate the fact that all of the O.T. saints had so walked. When he admonished them for fainting under the chastening rod of God, he bade them remember the exhortation of Proverbs 3:11 (Heb. 12:5). When he would prove to them the inferiority of Judaism to Christianity, he dwelt upon the Exodus record of the terrifying phenomena which accompanied the appearing of the Lord at Sinai, where He entered into covenant with their fathers (Heb. 12:18-21). And now that he affirmed that God no longer spake to them "on earth," but rather "from Heaven," he appeals again to their own Scriptures to show this very change had been Divinely predicted.
What an amazing knowledge of the Scriptures Paul possessed! and what a splendid use he made of it! He did not entertain his hearers and readers with anecdotes or by relating some of the sensational experiences through which God had brought him, still less did he descend to "pleasantries" and jokes in order to amuse them. No, he constantly brought them face to face with the Holy Word of the thrice Holy God. And that, by grace, is the unvarying policy we have sought to follow in this magazine: not only do we sedulously avoid any cheapening of the glorious Gospel of Christ, but we endeavor to furnish a proof text for every statement we make; for we ask no one to believe any doctrine or perform any duty on our mere say-so. Some may complain that there is "too much repetition" in our articles, or that they are "too introspective," or "too Calvinistic," but their quarrel is not with us, but with Him whose Word we expound and enforce.
"Whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven" (verse 26). The simplest and surest way of discovering the meaning of this verse and the force of citing Haggai 2:6, is to keep in mind the particular design which the apostle had before him. That was twofold: to enforce the exhortation he had just given in the previous verse, and to continue emphasizing and demonstrating the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. We will consider its terms, then, from each of these viewpoints. First, Paul emphasizes the terribleness of turning away from God in Christ: if He who "shook" the earth is to be feared, much more so is He who "shakes" Heaven! Then let us beware of ignoring His voice: by inattention, by unbelief, by disobedience, by apostasy.
"Whose voice then shook the earth" is a figurative reference to God’s omnipotence, for His "voice" here has reference to the mighty power of God in operation: let the reader carefully compare Psalm 29:3-9, where he will find the wondrous effects of Providence ascribed to the "voice" of God. In particular, the apostle here alludes to the declaration of God’s authority and the putting forth of His great strength at the time the Law was given: Sinai itself was convulsed, so that "the whole mount quaked greatly" (Ex. 19:18). Yet more than the earthquake is included in the words of our text: the entire commotion involved, with all the particulars enumerated in Hebrews 12:18-21, is comprehended therein. It is designated "shook the earth" because it was all on the earth, and involved only earthly things—it did not reach to Heaven and eternal things.
"But now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also Heaven." This clause has presented a hard riddle to the commentators, and scarcely any two of them, ancient or modern, agree in the solutions they have offered. Personally, we think they created their own difficulties. First, through failing to perceive that the "but now" is to be understood in connection with the subject the apostle was then discussing, and not as something God was then promising to make good in the future. Second, through failing to give proper attention and weight to the term "promised," which is surely enough to show that the final destruction of this scene (when the doom of the wicked will be sealed) cannot be the subject of which Haggai was prophesying. Third, through a slavish adherence to literalism—recent writers especially—which caused many to miss the meaning of "the earth" and "Heaven" in this passage. But these are points of too much importance to dismiss hurriedly, so we must leave their consideration till the next article.