Having established once more the superiority of the new covenant to the old covenant (Heb. 12:18–24), the author of Hebrews in today’s passage begins his final warning to his readers about falling away from the faith. He proceeds by arguing from the lesser to the greater: “Since it was bad to violate the old covenant, it will be much worse to violate the more glorious new covenant.”
In 12:25, the author explains that the Israelites did not escape when they did not heed “him who warned them on earth.” The “him” in this verse is God, who warned them on earth from Mount Sinai when He came down to the mountain and gave the law to Moses (Ex. 19–24). In that moment, the people of Israel said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (19:8), but their words soon proved hollow. They worshiped the golden calf (ch. 32), rebelled when they heard the report of the spies (Num. 13:1–14:12), and otherwise rejected God and His covenant law. Consequently, they did not escape divine judgment. God barred that generation, except faithful Caleb and Joshua, from entering the promised land (14:20–38). Moreover, although the Lord remained faithful to His covenant with Israel, the later generations of Israel continued to break His commandments impenitently. Thus, they suffered the greatest of the covenant curses: exile from the promised land (Deut. 28; 2 Kings 17:7–23; 2 Chron. 36:15–21).
The new covenant is greater than the old, and one of the signs of that is that God warns us from heaven under the new covenant. For instance, the Father spoke from heaven at the baptism of Jesus and in the transfiguration to identify His Son, revealing that He is the One to whom we must listen (Matt. 3:13–17). Because of the greater revelation of the new covenant and the clearer understanding of God’s holy and redemptive purposes, the consequences for rejecting Jesus will be all the more severe. John Calvin comments, “The severest punishment awaits the despisers of the Gospel, since the ancients under the Law did not despise it with impunity.”
Therefore, let us soberly reflect on our responsibilities. Sin remains present in us, so we may be tempted to take God’s grace for granted, thinking we can sin with impunity. Yet, there will be severe consequences for those who impenitently break the law of Christ. It will be worse for those who have heard of Christ but reject Him than for those who have never heard the name of Jesus.