Heb. 2:3, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” Commonly quoted to prove that men decide their destiny by accepting or rejecting salvation; and therefore employed as the basis of appeals to the unregenerate to avoid the consequences of sin, by at once receiving Christ. But—
The people addressed were Jews who had professed to be saved by Christ. They were exposed to continual temptation to relax the boldness of their Christian profession, and even to renounce the Saviour, and return to Judaism. The text is not, therefore, a warning to sinners as sinners, but an exhortation to converted Jews, and must not be employed as if it referred to the careless disregard of ordinary persons when salvation is presented to their notice in the preaching of the gospel.
The peril from which no escape is possible is popularly stated to be eternal punishment. This erroneous interpretation arises from the supposition that “neglecting”* here is tantamount to “rejecting” or “abandoning”, and that “neglecting so great salvation” is similar to “drawing back unto perdition” (chap. 10:39).
[The word in the original means to neglect or disregard what one has. (See Matt. 22:5). They had the invitation, but attached no value to it. (1 Tim. 4:14) He had the gift, and was not to be negligent in using it.]
The Apostle, however, is here not contemplating the results of apostatizing from Christ (this he does elsewhere); but the sorrowful consequences of neglecting by sloth, carelessness and inattention, the salvation in which the persons referred to—“we,” himself and others—were eternally interested. That true Christians are in danger of thus “neglecting” salvation none will deny, and the propriety of the exhortation in its connection is obvious (see chap. 4:14).
The Apostle draws a parallel between the sins committed and the punishments endured by the Jews of old, and the sin and punishment he was contemplating.
“God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers in the prophets, hath at the end of these days (the end of the Jewish dispensation) spoken unto us in [the person of] His Son. Therefore it behooves us to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should slip or drift away [Lest haply we should drift away from them.—Revised Version] (like a vessel carried away by the force of the current through the negligence of those who ought to manage it). For if the word spoken by angels (very possibly human and not divine messengers are intended, i.e., the prophets of chap. 1:1), proved steadfast (i.e., was confirmed by what followed), and every transgression and disobedience received just retribution, how shall we escape if we (suffer ourselves to drift away and) are negligent of so great salvation?
Observe that “the analogy is between that rest in the land of Canaan, of which the stiff-necked and rebellious Jews were deprived as a punishment for their sins, and the gospel rest into which believers enter by Christ (Heb. 4:3, 5, 11). Every transgression and disobedience on their parts received (not shall receive) its fitting retribution in this world. Aaron and Moses were eminent instances, who, though saved in the Lord, were not suffered to enter into Canaan’s rest on account of their dereliction of duty. Now if they suffered at the hands of a holy God, and lost so much through neglect of His claims, how shall WE—saved though we are—escape darkness, disappointment, vexation and chastisement, if, forgetful of our high calling we neglect one branch of salvation, slight one privilege, or omit one duty.” Slightly altered from Charles Drawbridge.