HEBREWS 2:16 AND LIMITED ATONEMENT

Some proponents of particular redemption appeal to Hebrews 2:16 to defend their man-made tradition:

“For surely it is not angels he helps (epilamBanetai), but Abraham’s descendants.” NIV

Note, also, the various renderings of this text:

“For no where doth he take hold of the angels: but of the seed of Abraham he taketh hold.” DRA

“Clearly, it is not angels that Jesus helps. He helps the people who are from Abraham.” ERV

“for, doubtless, of messengers it doth not lay hold, but of seed of Abraham it layeth hold,” YLT

The argument goes that Jesus could not have made reconciliation for every creature in heaven and earth, even though that is precisely what Christ did according to Paul in Colossians 1:16-20, since this verse supposedly states that Jesus didn’t come to help or save angels.

There are a few glaring problems with this desperate attempt of pitting Scripture against itself.

For starters, here is the lexical meaning of epilambanomai, from which the word epilamBanetai is derived:

Strong’s Concordance

epilambanomai: to lay hold of

Original Word: ἐπιλαμβάνομαι

Part of Speech: Verb

Transliteration: epilambanomai

Phonetic Spelling: (ep-ee-lam-ban’-om-ahee)

Definition: to lay hold of

Usage: I lay hold of, take hold of, seize (sometimes with beneficent, sometimes with hostile, intent).

HELPS Word-studies

1949 epilambánomai (from 1909 /epí, “on, fitting” intensifying 2983 /lambánō, “aggressively take”) – properly, lay hold of something, showing personal initiative (“focused resolve”) that “matches” the seizing (i.e. laying hold of what is “apt, meet”).

Example: 1 Tim 6:19: “Storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of (1949 /epilambánomai) that which is life indeed” (NASU)…

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon

STRONGS NT 1949: ἐπιλαμβάνω

ἐπιλαμβάνω; 2 aorist middle ἐπελαβόμην; to take in addition (cf. ἐπί, D. 4), to take, lay hold of, take possession of, overtake, attain to. In the Bible only in the middle; the Sept. for אָחַז and הֶחֱזִיק;

a. properly, to lay hold of or to seize upon anything with the hands (German sichanetwasanhalten): τῶν ἀφλαστων νηός, Herodotus 6, 114; hence, universally, to take hold of, lag hold of: with the genitive of person, Matthew 14:31Luke 9:47. (Tr WH accusative); (Luke 23:26 R G); Acts 17:19Acts 21:30, 33; with the accusative of person, Luke 23:26 L T Tr WH, but in opposition see Meyer; for where the participle ἐπιλαβόμενος is in this sense joined with an accusative, the accusative, by the σχῆμα ἀπό κοίνου, depends also upon the accompanying finite verb (cf. Buttmann, § 132, 9; (so Winer’s Grammar, (edited by Lünem.) 202 (190))): Acts 9:27Acts 16:19Acts 18:17, cf. Luke 14:4. with the genitive of a thing: τῆς χειρός τίνος, Mark 8:23Acts 23:19; of a leader, and thus metaphorically, of God, Hebrews 8:9 (cf. Winers Grammar, 571 (531); Buttmann, 316 (271)); with the genitive of a person and of a thing: ἐπιλαμβάνειν τίνος λόγου, ῤήματος, to take anyone in his speech, i. e. to lay hold of something said by him which can be turned against him, Luke 20:20 (Tr λόγον), 26 (WH Tr marginal reading τοῦ for αὐτοῦ); ἐπιλαμβάνειν τῆς αἰωνίου (others, ὄντως) ζωῆς, to seize upon, lay hold of, i. e. to struggle to obtain eternal life, 1 Timothy 6:12, 19 (cf. Winers Grammar, 312 (293)).

b. by a metaphor drawn from laying hold of another to rescue him from peril, to help, to succor (cf. German sicheinesannehmen): τίνος, Hebrews 2:16; in this sense used besides only in Sir. 4:11 and Schol. ad Aeschylus Pers. 739. In Appian. bel. civ. 4, 96 the active is thus used with the dative: ἡμῖν τό δαιμόνιον ἐπιλαμβανει. (Biblehub, Strong’s Greek 1949)

As the readers can see, the basic meaning of the word is to lay hold of, and can be used in reference to taking hold of something in the sense of possessing it, such as we find in the following example:

“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold (epilaBou) of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses… In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold (epilaBontai) of the life that is truly life.” 1 Timothy 6:12, 19

To take hold of eternal life or life means that an individual has come to possess eternal life.

In a similar manner, Hebrews may actually be indicating that Christ did not take hold of angels in the sense that he did not come to possess or to take to himself the nature of  an angel. Rather, he chose to take on human nature instead.

This is precisely how some translations render the verse in question:

“For in no place does he take on him the angels, but he takes the seed of Abraham on him.” NMB

“And he took [to] never angels, but he took [to] the seed of Abraham.” WYC

“We all know he did not come as an angel but as a human being—yes, a Jew.” TLB

“For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” AKJV

“For, truly, he does not take on the life of angels, but that of the seed of Abraham.” BBE

“For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” BRG

“For he in no sort took on him the Angels’ nature, but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” GNV

“For He in no way took on the nature of angels, but He took on the seed of Abraham.” RGT

“For not yet does he take upon himself the nature of angels, but he takes upon himself the seed of Abraham.” Godbey

“For he verily took not on him the angelic nature, but assumed that of the seed of Abraham.” Haweis

“For verily he did not take the angels, but he took the seed of Abraham.” JUB

“For, indeed, he has not at all assumed the nature of angels; but he has assumed the seed of Abraham.” Living_Oracles

“For he did not assume a nature from angels, but he assumed a nature from the seed of Abraham.” Murdock

“For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.” Webster

This interpretation is even supported by one of the greatest Bible expositors and church fathers that ever lived, namely, John Chrysostom:

1. Paul wishing to show the great kindness of God towards man, and the Love which He had for the human race, after saying: Forasmuch then as the children were partakers of blood and flesh, He also Himself likewise took part of the same Hebrews 2:14— follows up the subject in this passage. For do not regard lightly what is spoken, nor think this merely a slight [matter], His taking on Him our flesh. He granted not this to Angels; For verily He takes not hold of Angels, but of the seed of Abraham. What is it that he says? He took not on Him an Angel’s nature, but man’s. But what is He takes hold of? He did not (he means) grasp that nature, which belongs to Angels, but ours. But why did he not say, He took on Him, but used this expression, He takes hold of? It is derived from the figure of persons pursuing those who turn away from them, and doing everything to overtake them as they flee, and to take hold of them as they are bounding away. For when human nature was fleeing from Him, and fleeing far away for we were far off— Ephesians 2:13, He pursued after and overtook us. He showed that He has done this only out of kindness, and love, and tender care. As then when he says, Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation Hebrews 1:14— he shows His extreme interest in behalf of human nature, and that God makes great account of it, so also in this place he sets it forth much more by a comparison, for he says, He takes not hold of angels. For in very deed it is a great and a wonderful thing, and full of amazement that our flesh should sit on high, and be adored by Angels and Archangels, by the Cherubim and the Seraphim. For myself having oftentimes thought upon this, I am amazed at it, and imagine to myself great things concerning the human race. For I see that the introductions are great and splendid, and that God has great zeal on behalf of our nature. (Chrysostom, Homily 5 on Hebrews)

With that said, the point of Hebrews is not that Christ didn’t make reconciliation for heavenly beings, but rather that Christ did not take on their nature in order to deliver them from their fear of death and destruction. After all, even fallen spiritual beings shall experience death, since the lake of fire or hell is called the second death:

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:’” Matthew 25:41

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” Revelation 2:11 NKJV

“And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years… The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:4-6, 10-15 NKJV

Rather, Christ became human to liberate the fallen children of Abraham from their bondage to the terror of dying.  

In my view, the J. B Philips’ translation best captures the point of the passage:

Since, then, ‘the children’ have a common physical nature as human beings, he also became a human being, so that by going through death as a man he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might also set free those who lived their whole lives a prey to the fear of death. It is plain that for this purpose he did not become an angel; he became a man, in actual fact a descendant of Abraham. It was imperative that he should be made like his brothers in nature, if he were to become a High Priest both compassionate and faithful in the things of God, and at the same time able to make atonement for the sins of the people. For by virtue of his own suffering under temptation he is able to help those who are exposed to temptation.” Hebrews 2:14-18

This leads me to my next point. Proponents of limited atonement fail to realize that their proposed interpretation of this passage ends up proving too much since it proves that Christ died only for the physical descendants of Abraham, i.e., the nation of Israel!

Pay close attention to the context one more time:

“But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again he says, ‘Here am I, and the children God has given me.’ Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, BUT ABRAHAM’ DESCENDANTS. For this reason he had to be made like THEM, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Hebrews 2:9-18 NIV

The human children whose nature Jesus took on are expressly identified as the descendants of Abraham, namely, the Israelites. Therefore, if the proponents of definite atonement were to be consistent then they would have no choice but to argue that Christ only came to help and save the physical nation of Israel.

This is further highlighted from the fact that the letter is addressed to the Hebrews. I.e., a careful examination of the epistle indicates that the inspired author was writing to a group of Jews who were on the verge of apostatizing from the Christian faith. It therefore makes sense that the writer would focus specifically on Christ coming to die to atone for the sins of the physical sons of Abraham.

In light of this, which defender of limited atonement would argue that Jesus only died to atone for the sins of the Jews? None that we are aware of.      

Moreover, the same epistle clearly states that Christ’s death doesn’t simply purify those which are on the earth, but also cleanses the heavenly sanctuary where God and the spiritual host dwell:

“It was necessary for the earthly reproductions of heavenly realities to be purified by such methods, but the actual heavenly things could only be made pure in God’s sight by higher sacrifices than these. Christ did not therefore enter into any holy places made by human hands (however truly these may represent heavenly realities), but he entered Heaven itself to make his appearance before God as High Priest on our behalf. There is no intention that he should offer himself regularly, like the High Priest entering the holy of holies every year with the blood of another creature. For that would mean that he would have to suffer death every time he entered Heaven from the beginning of the world! No, the fact is that now, at this point in time, the end of the present age, he has appeared once and for all to abolish sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as surely as it is appointed for all men to die and after that pass to their judgment, so it is certain that Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many and after that, to those who look for him, he will appear a second time, not this time to deal with sin, but to bring them to full salvation.” Hebrews 9:23-28 PHILIPS

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” Hebrews 12:22-24 NKJV

Why, then, do those who believe in particular redemption seek to limit the extent of Christ’s vicarious death to human beings or to things on earth, especially when Paul elsewhere speaks of the entire creation awaiting its redemption from its bondage to decay and corruption?

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.” Romans 8:18-25 NKJV   

And if we go with the majority reading of Revelation 5:8-10 then the problem becomes much worse for the advocates of definite atonement:

“Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And THEY sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed US to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made US kings and priests to OUR God; And WE shall reign on the earth.’” NKJV

Here we have the 24 elders and four living creatures explicitly praising Christ for not just redeeming human lives, but also for providing redemption for them by his shed blood, beings that are neither terrestrial nor human!

So much for the appeal to Hebrews 2:16 by the proponents of limited atonement.

4 thoughts on “HEBREWS 2:16 AND LIMITED ATONEMENT

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