Distributions of the Spirit
The first literary section of the Letter to the Hebrews concludes with an exhortation to hold fast to the apostolic tradition, and an ominous warning against the failure to do so. The believer who disobeys the superior “word” of the “Son” will suffer even “sorer punishment” than any Israelite who violated the regulations of the Mosaic legislation. God Himself validated the word of “salvation” delivered by Jesus and his apostles with signs, miracles, and the “distributions” of the Holy Spirit.
The passage begins with the phrase, “for this cause.” This points the reader to the preceding paragraph that details how God “spoke” His definitive “word” in His Son, Jesus. He achieved what none of his predecessors could - the “purification of sins” – and therefore, God exalted him to be the “heir of all things.”
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Moreover, this “Son” is vastly superior to even God’s most powerful angels, glorious beings that are appointed to minister on behalf of the men and women who are going to “inherit salvation” – (Hebrews 1:1-14).
WORD OF SALVATION
And Chapter 2 picks up the term “salvation” from the end of Chapter 1, not only telling us what the content of this supreme “word” is but also what believers risk losing if they fail to heed it.
- “For this cause, it behoveth us, with unwonted firmness, to be holding fast unto the things that have been heard, lest at any time we drift away. For, if the word through messengers spoken became firm and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape, if so great a salvation as this we have neglected, — which, indeed, having received a beginning of being spoken through the Lord by them who heard, unto us was confirmed, God jointly witnessing also, both with signs and wonders and manifold mighty works, and with distributions of Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” - (Hebrews 2:1-4) – (The Emphasized Bible).
The Greek verb rendered “drift away” suggests a gradual process of departing from this sonly “word,” not a sudden decision to abandon Jesus and the faith. It is a nautical term. The image is that of a ship that begins to float away slowly after being disconnected from its anchor, perhaps unnoticed at first by its crew.
Fortunately, the Letter tells us how to avoid this condition – by “more abundantly giving heed to the things that have been heard,” namely, the apostolic teachings the congregation now possesses. And here, the Greek verb translated as “giving heed” is in the present tense - An action in progress - believers must do so constantly.
The reference to an earlier “word spoken through messengers” is not identified, though it most probably refers to the body of legislation given. And the Letter is contrasting the earlier and partial “word” given “in the prophets” with the full revelation that God is now giving “in a son upon these last days.”
The description of “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense” points to the entire body of the Mosaic legislation with its varying levels of punishment for violations of specific statutes and ordinances, especially as represented in the Book of Leviticus with its regulations for sacrifices, the priesthood, purity codes, and the like.
The reference to “messengers” refers to angelic beings. In Chapter 1 the noun “messengers” refers to the angels of God, and it is so used in the remainder of Chapter 2, beginning in verse 5 (“For not unto angels has he subjected the coming habitable earth of which we are speaking”).
Moreover, verse 5 provides a direct literary link to verse 6 in Chapter 1 which is speaking of God’s angels - “But whenever he again introduces the firstborn into the habitable earth, he says, and let all God’s angels worship him.”
Throughout the Letter, the Author consistently uses the Greek Septuagint version when he includes an Old Testament citation or verbal allusion, and this is the case in Hebrews 2:1-4:
- (Deuteronomy 32:43 - Septuagint) – “Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him.”
- (Deuteronomy 33:2 - Septuagint) – “The Lord is come from Sinai, and has appeared from Seir to us, and has hasted out of the mount of Pharan, with the ten thousands of Cades; on his right hand were his angels with him.”
And the Greek rendering of the passages in Deuteronomy explains the later Jewish tradition that angels mediated the Law to Moses and the nation of Israel, a tradition reflected elsewhere in the New Testament – (Compare Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19).
GOD JOINTLY WITNESSING
As to the “word” that was first spoken by “the Lord” and borne witness to by his apostles, it was the word of “salvation.” It was confirmed not only by human witnesses who heard Jesus teach, meaning the apostles who accompanied him, but also by God Himself via “signs and wonders and manifold mighty works, and by distributions of Holy Spirit.”
There are different nuances implied by the several terms used though the passage draws no significance from them (“signs and wonders and manifold mighty works”). But the term “distributions of Holy Spirit” is unique, found only here and in 1 Corinthians 12:11 (“But all these energizes the one and the same Spirit, distributing to each one individually even as it is disposed”).
And the use of the term, “distributions of Spirit,” may suggest the Author’s familiarity with the Apostle Paul’s teachings on the gifts of the Spirit. The Greek term rendered “distributions” means “impartation, distribution,” something that is given. In 1 Corinthians, Paul clearly means the gifts of the Spirit by “distributions” (e.g., speaking in tongues, prophecy).
Whether Hebrews also means specific gifts of the Spirit or the Spirit’s gifts and provisions, in general, is not stated. However, this is not especially relevant to the point being made, that God validated the words of the Lord with supernatural acts. Interestingly, the Letter elsewhere attributes scriptural passages it cites to the Spirit that is now speaking to the church through them:
- “Wherefore, even as the Holy Spirit is saying, Today if ye shall hear his voice” - (Hebrews 3:7).
- “The Holy Spirit making this evident—that not yet hath been manifested the way through the Holy place, so long as the first tent hath a standing”- (Hebrews 9:8).
- “But even the Holy Spirit beareth us witness; for after having said…”- (Hebrews 10:15).
And this word of salvation, “UNTO US was confirmed, God jointly witnessing also.” This description indicates that some, at least, of these supernatural “signs” occurred among the believers addressed by the Letter in addition to what the apostles witnessed previously. In other words, the supernatural activities of the Spirit were not limited to the original apostles or only those men who held apostolic office; they occurred also in the early churches.
And these several supernatural manifestations were “according to his will.” In the Greek text, the pronoun “his” is masculine and can only refer to the “God who jointly witnessed” the word of the Lord. The Greek noun rendered “spirit” is neuter and is always used in the New Testament with neuter pronouns according to Greek grammatical rules (i.e., “it”).
But the point of the exhortation is that believers must cling tightly to the word of “salvation” that was first “spoken” through Jesus, then through “those who heard,” and finally, confirmed by God’s Spirit. The failure to do so will result in catastrophe for any follower of Jesus who refuses to heed the Son’s “word of salvation.”