We come this morning to the first in a series of five urgent warnings. This one is the briefest and most restrained of all of them, but it is nonetheless solemn.
As we saw in our last study, Biblical Theology, we must begin our exposition by asking a very important question: "To whom and for what reason is this warning being made?" We must understand that the writer is not talking about losing everlasting life. Salvation cannot be lost. Neither is he speaking to unconverted, professing Christians. He wouldn't admonish them to hold fast and not let slip a false profession. He is speaking to believers, warning them of the dangers of turning from Christianity.
Look at the repeated use of the pronoun "we".
Hebrews 2:1 (NKJV) Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.
Hebrews 2:3 (NKJV) how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,
The writer includes himself within the admonition. There is not the slightest suggestion that he intends the warning section for any but his entire readership. He doesn't place himself outside the pale of the danger he sees. Believers, we also need to take this warning to heart. We live in a different time and a different culture, but the danger of turning from Christianity is still very real.
In chapter one of Hebrews, there are no commands for the church. They are not told to do anything. The whole chapter is a declaration and celebration of God's final word to the world - Jesus Christ the Son of God. The chapter begins:
Hebrews 1:1-2 (NKJV) God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son"...
This is the point of chapter one: something utterly stupendous happened in the coming of the Son of God.
This is Hebrews' way of saying what John said in his gospel,
John 1:1 (NKJV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:14 (NKJV) And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
In other words, God the Son took on human form as God's final, decisive Word to the world. Not final in that God has not spoken since then, but final and decisive in that, since Jesus came, all that God has to say is rooted in Jesus and points toward Jesus. All the fullness of God is in Jesus (Colossians 2:9). All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Jesus (Colossians 2:3). Beyond what the Old Testament told us, whatever we need to know about God and how he relates to our lives we learn from what we hear and see in God's final, decisive Word, Jesus Christ.
That's what Hebrews 1 is all about; this final word of God, Jesus Christ. In summary, chapter one says that the Son of God is the heir of all things (v. 2), he made the ages (v. 2), he is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of God's nature (v. 3), he upholds all things by the word of his power (v. 3), he made purification for sins (v. 3), he sat down at the right hand of God's majesty (v. 3), and he is greater than any angel (v. 4) because angels worship him (v. 6). He is the mighty God (v. 8). That's the message of chapter one; God has spoken by his Son, and this Son is Creator and Sustainer and Owner and Ruler and Redeemer of the world. There are no commands given here, only declaration and celebration of the greatness of Jesus, the final Word of God.
But in chapter two, he begins with a command or a duty - something they and we must do. And the connection with chapter one is very important.
Hebrews 2:1 (NKJV) Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.
Chapter two begins, "Therefore" or "For this reason." In other words, chapter two begins by telling us that chapter one is the reason for this duty.
Because God had spoken by his Son in the last days, and because he is the Creator and Sustainer and Owner and Ruler and Redeemer of the world - above all angels - therefore, "we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard."
So the first command in this book, the first duty mentioned, is that we give heed to the Word of God in his Son. God has spoken by his Son, so listen, listen very carefully. Now here is a command that we need desperately to hear in our day. What do you listen to? Whom do you listen to? God has spoken through his Son, do you listen to him? How does your listening to him compare to your listening to other things? When we want to listen to someone, we make provisions for listening. If we want to listen to a musical group, we make sure that we get tickets to the concert no matter what they cost or how hard they are to get. We also buy their CD's and tapes. If we want to listen to the news, we make sure that we are in front of the TV at the right time. On and on it goes. We all want to listen to something. And we make plans for our listening, and we buy things and go places and make sure we are not distracted. So how does all this compare to our listening to God's Word to us in his Son? Are you listening to that? Are you making provisions for that? Is your life structured so that you are listening to the Word of God? Do you spend time on a regular basis reading the Word of God?
What Hebrews is saying here is that in the Christian life we must go on listening to God's Word in Jesus. And we must do this with very close attention. We cannot treat this casually. We cannot act as if we already know all we need to know, or that we have nothing to gain from listening to Jesus.
There is an urgency here in Hebrews 2:1. Literally it says, "It is exceedingly necessary that we give heed to what we have heard." It is not just an option that you can do if you are especially spiritual or are experiencing a crisis. This is a word to all Christians: it is "exceedingly necessary to give heed" to Jesus as the Word of God.
This is not an isolated command in the book of Hebrews. This concern to get the readers to wake up and listen closely to God is repeated. For example:
Hebrews 3:1 (NKJV) Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,
Consider Jesus! That's the point of Hebrews 2:1. Listen to him. Consider him. Focus on him. Stay close to him and keep him in your thoughts. Learn more and more from him every day - what he is like and what he says and the way he sees the world.
Then again the author says:
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NKJV) Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
One of the great burdens of this book is that its readers will see how serious it is to listen to Jesus, the Word of God, and consider Jesus, and fix our eyes on Jesus. This is the first commandment in the book: Listen! Consider Christ!
It is exceedingly necessary that we give heed to what we have heard "lest we drift away." The words "drift away" are translated from the Greek word pararrhueo. It is constantly used of things which slip away, as a ring from a finger, or take a wrong course, as a crumb of food passing into the windpipe. But it is most often used of something that has carelessly or thoughtlessly been allowed to slip away.
It can be used of a ship that has been carelessly allowed to drift past the harbor. It contemplates Christians as in peril of being carried downstream past a fixed landing place and so failing to gain its security. As later warnings sections reveal, he is concerned with major defections from the Christian life. We need to be aware that major defections can be the result of a drift. Major defections from Christianity don't happen over night. Usually they are preceded by neglecting the Christian disciplines: A lack of Bible study, prayer, church attendance.
If we're honest, we'll admit that our tendency is to drift along with earthly things, moving away from the things of God. It takes no life and no motion to float by. One need only do nothing, and you will float by. There is always a real danger of slipping away from the things of God.
The writer of Hebrews is warning believers that if they do not vigilantly pay closer attention to the Word of God, we will float by - they will drift away from God's word. We all know people that this has happened to. There is no urgency. No vigilance. No focused listening or considering or fixing the eyes on Jesus. And the result has not been a standing still, but a drifting away. That is the point here: there is no standing still. The life of this world is not a lake. It is a river. And it is flowing downward to destruction. If you do not listen earnestly to Jesus and consider him daily and fix your eyes on him hourly, then you will not stand still, you will go backward. You will float by.
Drifting is a deadly thing in the Christian life. And the remedy to it, according to Hebrews 1, is "Pay close attention to what you have heard." That is, consider what God is saying in his Son Jesus. Fix your eyes on what God is saying and doing in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The only thing that keeps us from this is our sinful desire to go with the flow. This is a solemn invitation to be satisfied in Jesus, so that we do not get lured downstream by deceitful desires.
Verses 2 and 3a tell us why this is so dangerous.
Hebrews 2:2-3a (NKJV) For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation"...
Failing to pay close attention to God's Word and the drifting away that results is described in verse 3 as "neglecting a great salvation." And this is said to be extremely dangerous.
How dangerous? So dangerous that if we go on in the way of neglecting this great salvation - not listening to Jesus day by day, and not considering Jesus, and not fixing our eyes on Jesus - the result will be that we will not escape. That is, we will not escape the temporal judgment of God.
The argument given in verse 2 for why we will not escape if we drift and neglect our great salvation is:
Hebrews 2:2 (NKJV) For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward,
The "if" here is a first class condition in the Greek and should be translated "since." "The word spoken through angels" is a reference to the Old Testament law. This is an a fortiori argument, an argument from the lesser to the greater.
In the Old Testament God did not yet speak directly through his Son on the earth. He spoke through intermediary messengers. Hebrews says angels were involved in the revelation of God's word. Nevertheless, the firmness of this mediated word was so great that every neglect and rejection of it was punishable with a just recompense.
For an example of the severity of the punishment that came as a result of breaking the Old Covenant, look with me at:
Numbers 15:30-36 (NKJV) 'But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people. 31 'Because he has despised the word of the LORD, and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him.'" 32 Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. 34 They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp." 36 So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.
This man was gathering sticks on the Sabbath and because of this, he was stoned to death.
Now, this writer says if we neglect this great word, we are much more guilty than the Old Testament people who disobeyed the word of God given through angels, and therefore, we will not escape the chastening hand of God.
Hebrews 2:3a (NKJV) how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation...
"How shall we escape?" The rhetorical question expresses a denial. There will be no escape! Escape from what? Hell? No! The writer is speaking to Christians. There will be no escape from the temporal judgment of God.
Now, this is a sobering word for the church, because many Christians do neglect the greatness of salvation. How many people do you know who give serious, sustained attention to the salvation accomplished by Christ - who love it, and think about it, and meditate on it, and marvel at it, and feel continual gratitude for it, and commend it to others as valuable, and weave it into all the lesser things of their lives, and set their hopes on it? Do you live this way? It is astonishing how neglectful Christians are of their great salvation.
Is there a sense of greatness in your mind about your salvation? When something truly great is happening, there is an appropriate response to greatness. Do you respond to the greatness of your salvation? Or do you neglect it? Do you treat your salvation the way you treat your will or the title to your car or the deed on your house? You signed it once and it is in a file drawer somewhere, but it is not a really great thing. It has no daily effect on you. Basically, you neglect it.
So this is an astonishing word to the church. To neglect our great salvation is to come into temporal judgment, and there will be no escape. Being a Christian is very serious business.
What he's really saying is: "Don't neglect being loved by God. Don't neglect being forgiven and accepted and protected and strengthened and guided by Almighty God. Don't neglect the sacrifice of Christ's life on the cross. Don't neglect the free gift of righteousness imputed by faith. Don't neglect the removal of God's wrath and the reconciled smile of God. Don't neglect the indwelling Holy Spirit and the fellowship of friendship of the living Christ. Don't neglect radiance of God's glory in the face of Jesus. Don't neglect the free access to the throne of grace. Don't neglect the inexhaustible treasure of God's promises." This is a great salvation. Neglecting it is very evil. Don't neglect so great a salvation.
In the case of the original audience, this is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. These first century Hebrew Christians were tempted to forsake Christianity and return to Judaism. Judaism was about to fall under the judgment of God. If, therefore, they turned from Christianity and went back to that which was about to be destroyed, how could they "escape"? This was the question which they must face.
Now, let's look at the reason given in verses 3 and 4 as to why it is such a contemptible thing to neglect our great salvation. And the reason is that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by a cluster of reliable witnesses. It is true, and its truth has been witnessed to in sufficiently diverse and trustworthy ways that it is evil to reject it. This is the point of verses 3 and 4: Our salvation is not only great, it is true. Look at these two verses:
Hebrews 2:3b-4 (NKJV) which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
Now, what is the point of these two verses? The point is to highlight how bad it is to neglect so great a salvation. But not by focusing on the greatness of the salvation but on the sufficiency of the confirmation of the greatness of the salvation.
Hebrews 2:3b-4 intended to say to the original readers (and, I think, to us) "There have been more than enough confirmations of the truth of this great salvation for you to believe it and embrace it and love it and not neglect it."
Let's outline them and then ask how our confidence rises from these things. There are four stages of witness:
1. When verse 3 says,"Which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord", it implies that God the Father was the first speaker of this salvation. God spoke this great salvation "by the Lord." "By the Lord" implies that Christ was a "go-between" for this great salvation. This is the same wording as in verse 2 where the word of the Old Testament was "spoken through angels." So the first witness is God the Father, which is exactly what you would expect if you recall Hebrews 1:1-2 - God spoke first through prophets, and in these last days he has spoken by a Son. The first witness to the greatness of our salvation is God.
2. Then the second witness is the Mediator, the Go-between, Christ Jesus, "Which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord", that is, through Jesus. This is a reference to the earthly ministry of Jesus as he taught and healed, and cast out demons, and preached the kingdom of God, and died and rose again. In Acts 10:36, Peter says to Cornelius that the gospel is:
Acts 10:36 (NKJV) "The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ; He is Lord of all;
So the great salvation was spoken by God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. Therefore, whatever stamp God the Father leaves on this testimony bears witness to its divine origin, and whatever stamp the Lord Jesus leaves on it bears witness to its endorsement by the Son.
3. The third witness in the sequence is mentioned at the end of verse 3: "Was confirmed to us by those who heard Him." The author puts himself in a group with the readers of the letter and says, "us." And then he mentions a group called "those who heard." Heard what? Heard what was spoken by the Lord. In other words, he is referring to the eyewitnesses, the apostles, those who had spent time with Jesus and heard him teach, and heard him tell the storm to be still; heard him command demons to come out of people; heard him stump the Pharisees; heard him teach the incomparable words of the Sermon on the Mount; heard him interpret the Old Testament; heard him make stupendous claims about his own resurrection and his purpose to ransom many from sin; heard him speak from a resurrected body and command them to go and make disciples of all nations.
These were the ones who had come to preach to the readers of this letter. The readers had heard the stories of Jesus from the very mouths of eyewitnesses. They had heard God, and they had heard Jesus by hearing the very witnesses who were there when God spoke through his Son, Jesus Christ.
So, verse 3 says that the great salvation was "confirmed" by these eye-witnesses. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ - but a word mediated by personal eye-witnesses.
4. The fourth witness in this series is again God, himself. The sequence begins with God and ends with God.
Hebrews 2:4 (NKJV) God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
The words "signs, wonders, various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit" are all synonyms. They each refer to the supernatural things the apostles did. The purpose of sign gifts is that of confirmation, authentication and affirmation. Jesus Christ appealed to the works he performed as authenticating his message.
Matthew 11:1-6 (NKJV) Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities. 2 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples 3 and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" 4 Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 "The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 "And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."
John 5:36 (NKJV) "But I have a greater witness than John's; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish; the very works that I do; bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me.
John 10:25 (NKJV) Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me.
Acts 2:22 (NKJV) "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know;
The primary purpose of the gifts in the first century was not to alleviate distress and suffering, but to prove that the one performing the miracles spoke from God.
John 3:2 (NKJV) This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."
God spoke the great salvation into being through Jesus, and now God comes in again to witness to his own word and work. The way he witnesses is through signs and wonders and miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other words, when the apostles came to preach and witness to what they had seen and heard, God enabled them to do miracles, and he poured out on the new believers gifts of the Spirit. This was God's added testimony to the message of his great salvation.
Are the gifts of the Spirit still functional today? To answer this we must understand just what a spiritual gift is. A spiritual gift is a God-given capacity through which the Holy Spirit supernaturally ministers to the church. So, these gifts were a supernatural enablement.
There are several Scriptures that hint at the fact that the gifts were temporary.
Hebrews 2:3-4 (NKJV) "how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?"
Mark 16:20 (NKJV) "And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen."
In Mark 16:20 and in Hebrews 2:3, the main verb is past tense and the participle is relative in time to the main verb, "was confirmed." In both cases, the signs, wonders, and miracles are referred to as being in the past - at the time of the writing. All this was past at the time Hebrews was written.
The voice of history confirms the temporary nature of the gifts. If the miraculous gifts of the NT age had continued in the church, one would expect an unbroken line of occurrences from apostolic times to present. The miraculous gifts of the "last days" ceased when the last days ceased.
Chrysostom, a 4th century theologian, testified that the miraculous gifts ceased so long before his time that no one was certain of their characteristics. Are miracles the norm in Christianity?
A study of Biblical history shows that there were basically only three periods where miracles occurred.
Several years ago when we were on vacation, we visited a church, and the pastor said in his message, "the Bible is a book of miracles from beginning to end; therefore, we should expect miracles." Is that true? No, it is not! In reality, there are only three periods of miracles:
1. Moses and Joshua- God authenticated them by signs; these weren't normal occurrences, and we cannot do today what Moses or Joshua did.
2. Elijah and Elisha- these men were used by God to perform many supernatural acts.
3. Jesus and the apostles.
2 Corinthians 12:12 (NKJV) "Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds."
Miracles aren't the norm, they are the exception. This becomes clear as we study the Biblical history. What was God's goal for the church?
Romans 8:29 (NKJV) For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
It is that we be conformed into the image of Jesus Christ. That took place in AD 70, when the Lord returned. The reason that spiritual gifts are transitory is that when the Lord returned, we entered into a perfect maturity and there is no longer any need for spiritual gifts. Gifts were for the purpose of maturing the body, and when the body is completely matured, we will no longer need spiritual gifts.
Ephesians 4:11-16 (NKJV) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head; Christ; 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
According to this passage, the gifts were to be used to bring the church from a state of infancy to adulthood. The word translated "mature" in verse 13 is teleion. The purpose of spiritual gifts is to build up the body; once the body is mature, we no longer need spiritual gifts. In this passage in Ephesians, maturity is defined as "attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." This happened at the Second Coming.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV) For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Jesus Christ took our sin and bore its penalty on the cross, and he gives us his righteousness. We have been declared righteous by God for all eternity. It will never be reversed or changed. Christ's righteousness has been imputed to our account. Justification involves the imputation of Christ's righteousness. At the time of Paul's writing, righteousness was still a hope. The futuristic perspective of God's righteousness was clearly expressed by Paul:
Galatians 5:5 (NKJV) For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
If righteousness was already a fulfilled or completed event, Paul made a big mistake in making "righteousness" by faith a matter of hope. You don't hope for what you have.
Romans 8:24-25 (NKJV) 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? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.
If righteousness was a present reality, why would Paul hope for it? Look what Paul writes in:
Ephesians 2:19-22 (NKJV) Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom YOU ALSO ARE BEING BUILT TOGETHER FOR A DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IN THE SPIRIT.
The process was still occurring. They were "being built" for a dwelling place of God. But the clear blessing of the New Covenant was that God would dwell with His people:
Revelation 21:1-3 (NKJV) Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "BEHOLD, THE TABERNACLE OF GOD IS WITH MEN, AND HE WILL DWELL WITH THEM, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.
God's goal for the church was that it be like his son. To be like Him is to have His righteousness.
The charismatic gifts of the Spirit were to continue throughout the last days, according to Acts 2:16-20.The last days began at Pentecost and ended in AD 70. The gifts were to continue until the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. When the Lord returned, the gifts ended. There is a lot of confusion today about Spiritual gifts; do you know why that is? It's because they were for the last days, and when the last days ended, so did the gifts. This is why so many believers have no clue as to what their gifts are, they don't have one.
Listen carefully to the definition of spiritual gifts: A spiritual gift was a God-given capacity through which the Holy Spirit SUPERNATURALLY ministers to the body. If the gift of teaching was functioning today, wouldn't all teachers be saying the same thing? If it is a supernatural function of the Holy Spirit, would the Holy Spirit be teaching different things?
The talents and abilities that we have come from God and are to be used for His glory. God providentially leads, guides, and uses us for His glory. Spiritual Gifts were for the age of immaturity, they are no longer needed or given.
I have good news for you; you can stop wasting your time trying to figure out what you Spiritual Gift is, and just be busy serving Him with all the talents and abilities He has given you.
Hebrews 2:3-4 is saying that the witnesses have done their part. The historical, moral and spiritual reality of God's great salvation has been displayed.
If we neglect this salvation, if we drift away, we will not escape the chastening hand of God. Pay attention to what you've heard, spend time in God's Word and with God's people.
Have you neglected your great salvation? Are you living your life for the glory of God, walking in holiness and enduring the suffering that life brings? Or are you drifting from the great salvation that God has provided for you? Believers, if we neglect this great salvation, we will not escape chastening.
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