Please note that this article is derived from a sermon series on Hebrews given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.
There is a story in Mark’s Gospel that illustrates where we are in the book of Hebrews. At the start of Mark 9, Jesus chooses Peter, James and John, his three closest disciples, to ascend a high mountain with him. When they reach the summit of this mountain, we are told that Jesus is ‘transfigured’, radiantly transformed, before them. His face shines like the sun and his clothes became as white as light (Matthew 17:2). Writing in 2 Peter 1:16, Peter remembers the sight and declares that they were ‘eyewitnesses of his majesty’. That day they saw who Jesus truly was. The very Son of God was revealed before their eyes. In that moment a voice came from heaven declaring, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’ (Mark 9:7). Having received a revelation of Jesus, they were told to pay attention to Jesus. Because of who Jesus was, they were to listen to what he had to say.
Having been through Hebrews 1 together, we have had Jesus Christ transfigured before us. Hebrews 1 has revealed the Son of God to us. ‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…’. We have been given a glimpse of both his message (Hebrews 1:1-3a) and his ministry (Hebrews 1:3b). We were eyewitnesses of his majesty as he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high and inherited a more excellent name (Hebrews 1:4). The Name of the Superior Son was taken up in the seven quotations expertly arranged to prove that he is the Divine Son, the Eternal Son and the Royal Son (Hebrews 1:5-14). We have received a revelation of who Jesus is. Now we are told to pay attention. The word of God says the same to us as it did to those disciples on that mountain top 2000 years ago – ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’ (Mark 9:7).
That is the simple summary of our passage for today. Listen to him. Or in the exact words of the writer, ‘we must pay much closer attention….’ We are to pay attention! Are you paying attention? That is not only a question for daydreaming children in school. It is a question we all must answer today. Are we paying attention to Jesus? To what we have been told about him? To what he is saying to us? The writer reveals two reasons for us to pay attention. First, we are to pay attention because drifting is dangerous (2:1). Second, we are to pay attention because the declaration is dependable (2:2-4). Pay Attention! Drifting is Dangerous. Pay Attention! The Declaration is Dependable.
1. PAY ATTENTION! DRIFTING IS DANGEROUS
When we see a warning sign, we know that danger is ahead. The kind of danger is usually pictured on the sign and becomes clear when we look at our surroundings. At a shooting range, we are in danger of stray bullets. In a lab we are in danger of exposure to chemicals. If we are on a beach and there is a large sign saying ‘Swim Carefully, Strong Currents’ we know what the danger is. The sign has been erected to tell us drifting in this water is dangerous. If we are swept out to sea, our drifting will lead to our drowning. And so we are to pay attention, allowing ourselves to drifting here is dangerous.
If the writer were to draw a sign for our passage, it would look very much like that one. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the writer will warn his readers. These passages are known as the warning passages and involve the application of what the writer has explained to our lives. Many argue that this is the first warning passage. A beach illustration is appropriate because the language used by the writer here is nautical in nature. The picture he paints for us with his words is a ship at sea. It has found a rock, a safe place, to anchor itself to in the midst of a storm. And yet the pull of the sea is great, the tide is strong and the sailors are tired. Their concentration slips, and the ship is slowly allowed to drift away from safety towards danger, towards the waves, the rocks and the reef. Drifting will leads to destruction. And so the captain, noticing the danger they are in, cries out – pay attention! Look where we are going. Strengthen the anchor. Hold fast to the safe place we have found. The image is colourful but is it clear? Do you understand what the author is trying to tell us?
A. What is the danger?
We are in danger of drifting away from what has been declared to us. The imagery of drifting is clear, of a slow, gradual drawing away from something. But what are we in danger of drifting away from? The author tells us. ‘We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.’ The danger is that they would drift from that which was declared to them. All that was contained in Chapter 1 about who Jesus is and what he has done. They must not drift from that. They must remain fixed, founded, focused on that message. That message that the author describes as a message of ‘great salvation’ (verse 3). That is what they must pay attention to, lest they drift away from it.
The author isn’t calling us to pay attention like a school teacher wanting us to keep your eyes on the board. It is not just drifting away in your imagination that the writer is worried about, but drifting away in your faith. He wants you to pay attention so that you will stay attached. Remain hooked to what they have heard. Not drift or detach from what has been declared to you.
This is the purpose of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews gives us a message and calls us to hold fast to it. It explains the message and ministry of Jesus Christ, the great salvation that can be found in him. And it takes this and applies it to us. The constant exhortation of book is to ‘hold fast’. In chapter 3 the writer calls them to ‘hold fast our confidence and boasting in our hope.’ (3:6), in chapter 4 to ‘hold fast our confession’ (4:14), in chapter 6 to ‘hold fast to the hope set before us’ (6:18) and in chapter 10 to ‘hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering’ (10:23). The message of the book of Hebrews is to hold fast. And it starts here in Chapter 2 with the caution against drifting and the call to pay attention.
B. Who is in danger?
We are all in danger, whether we claim to be Christians or not. The writer tells us that we are all in danger. ‘We must pay must closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.’ The author of realises they are all in danger of drifting, himself included. And so, we can say that everybody needs this warning, myself included. Indeed, if you think you are safe, strong and secure enough to ignore this warning, then you may need it most of all. Paul warns us ‘let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12). Do you realise the danger you are in?
If you are not a Christian, you are in danger. If you have not responded to the Gospel, this message of great salvation, by turning away from your sin and trusting in Christ be in no doubt that you are in danger. It is a dangerous thing to fail to pay attention to the only hope you have of salvation. God’s word tells us that ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12). There is great salvation available in Jesus Christ and nowhere else. If you turn away from the Gospel, you are like a captain of a ship who, upon seeing a shelter from a gathering storm, a safe harbour for him to hide in, decides to turns his ship away from it and direct it straight into the storm. That is a dangerous, disastrous thing to do. ‘How shall [you] escape if we neglect such a great salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:3).
However, the warning is wider than that. We are all in danger, whether we claim to be Christians or not. Even if you claim to be a Christian, you are still in danger. Indeed, you are who the writer is trying to warn. When writing these warnings, the author quite clearly has a congregation of believers in mind. He includes himself in this warning and writes to those who confess to be Christians. This is a caution for those who claim to be Christians. Drifting is a danger for disciples. Indeed, it is the greatest danger that disciples deal with. ‘The greatest danger in the Christian life is the danger of drifting.’ (John Piper) Ultimately, the Devil and death are not dangerous to Christians. Later in this chapter we will be reminded of our Captain of Salvation, who destroyed the Devil and delivered us from death. Ultimately, they can do nothing to us. The great danger for disciples is drifting. And so the author of Hebrews calls us to pay attention lest we drift away. If you claim to be a Christian, do you appreciate that you are in danger?
Once saved, always saved. It a phrase that is often used within Christian circles to provide comfort and assurance of salvation. It is a great and glorious truth that is built upon the doctrine of the Preservation of the Saints. John 10 sets it out clearly. ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.’ (John 10:27–29) The saved are safe and secure in the hands of God. He will keep them until the end. Nobody whom God has saved will perish. The Preservation of the Saints.
And yet, there are two sides to this coin. For God’s word not only has a word of assurance, but also a warning of endurance. Those great truths of calling and election that Paul outlines in Ephesians 1, Peter will take and plead about with his readers, ‘Brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election…’. (2 Peter 1:10) They are not to be hidden realities in our life, but are shown, displayed, proved, confirmed. The Christian life is a life of diligence, not drifting. A life of careful obedience, not careless coasting. Paul explains this when he says ‘one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal’ (Philippians 3:13-14) and calls the Philippians to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12).
The New Testament speaks not only of the Preservation of the Saints, but the Perseverance of the Saints. Not only is phrase ‘once saved, always saved’ true, but so is the phrase ‘once saved, always being saved’. We are told that God will preserve us in our faith. We are called to persevere in our faith. If you are wondering how these two pieces of the jigsaw fit together, look how Paul joins the dots so perfectly for us in Philippians 2:13.
If you are not growing in godliness, if you are not being conformed closer to the likeness of Christ Jesus, you should do what Paul instructs the congregation who claimed to be Christians in Corinth to do, ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.’ (2 Corinthians 13:5) If you are coasting in your faith, you need to consider this caution from Hebrews . Pay attention. Don’t drift from what has been declared to you. Hold fast in your faith, to what you have heard. Stay glued to the gospel, and keep growing in the godliness that comes from it. Hebrews will soon tell us that our perseverance in faith points to the genuineness of our faith. ‘For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.’ (Hebrews 3:14)
Perseverance is what Jesus said would take place in the life of his disciples. The seed of the word of God would be sown in the soil of this world. Some would reject it straight away. Some would accept it, would appear to be Christians, before drifting away, carried off by the cares and concerns of this world. But ‘as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience’. (Luke 8:15) If you confess to be a Christian, hear this caution. You are in danger of drifting. There are an endless number of ways you can drift. We drift morally through sin, theologically through error, emotionally through experiences and relationally through conflict. Drifting in any of these ways is dangerous, so pay attention. Hold fast to what you have heard and believed in. Don’t turn back now.
Not only is this a challenge, this is a comfort. As a local church, we are all in danger. And because we are all in danger, we can all help each other. This is why we gather together and don’t sit at home reading and praying by ourselves. We have gathered together in order to help each other endure. We have become sheep of this flock so that we are surrounded by brothers and sisters who can encourage and challenge us. We have placed ourselves under these shepherds so that they can watch over our souls. As a local church we must look after one another to make sure we hold fast to what we have heard. As much as Hebrews is filled with exhortations for us to hold fast, it is filled with exhortations to help each other hold fast. ‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’ (Hebrews 3:12–13) ‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.’ (Hebrews 10:23–25)
Pay Attention! Drifting is Dangerous. What is the danger? We are in danger of drifting away from what has been declared to us. Who is in danger? We are all in danger, whether we claim to be Christians or not. Why is there danger? There is danger because the declaration is dependable.
2. PAY ATTENTION! THE DECLARATION IS DEPENDABLE
Not every beach is as dangerous. Yes sometimes the drift can carry you out to sea and drowning is possible. However, in my experience drifting is usually more inconvenient than dangerous. I’m sure you have all had the experience. You are at the beach and go into the sea for a swim. Twenty or thirty minutes later you come out of the water to head back to your beach towel and realise that you are not where you thought you were. While in the water you drifted down the beach, away from where you started. It is inconvenient, your feet get a little sandier than you would like walking back up the beach. But it is hardly dangerous. What makes us think that the drifting the writer warns us about is so dangerous?
Why is drifting dangerous? The author tells us it is because we will be held responsible for our reaction. We will be held accountable for how we act. The author pulls this principle from the message given under the Old Testament. ‘For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution…’. The law given to Israel was ‘put in place through angels’ (Galatians 3:19) and ‘delivered by angels’ (Acts 7:53). This law proved to be reliable, when they obeyed they were blessed and when they disobeyed they fell under its curse. Every transgression, every time they broke the law, neglected, failed to pay attention, hold fast to it, they received a just retribution. If they did not pay attention, they were punished. Think of the man in Numbers 15:31-36 who ‘despised the word of the LORD’ and ‘broke his commandment’ (verse 31), he disobeyed by gathering sticks on the Sabbath and had to pay the price for that. He was stoned to death because he had not held fast to what he had heard. Drifting is dangerous because we will be held responsible for our reaction.
That is why we must pay attention. Indeed, the author of Hebrews tells us we must pay ‘much closer attention’ even than those who heard the law. For we have not just heard a message declared by angels, we have heard a message declared by the Son of God. The writer has spent the whole of Chapter 1 proving to us that the son is superior to these servants, that Jesus is greater than angels. And because that is the case, we must pay much closer attention. If they were held responsible for how they reacted to the message from angels, how much more will we be held responsible for the message from the Son of God. ‘How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?’ How shall we escape the just wrath of God, the right retribution for all who reject his Son, who do not hold fast to him? Jesus himself would declare, ‘The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.’ (John 12:48) We will be judged by the words we have heard but will not believe. How you react to the words you have heard this morning, whether you hold fast to them or drift away from them, matters.
Indeed, if the message declared by angels was reliable, how much more reliable is the message declared by Jesus Christ? The declaration is dependable. It is this dependability that the writer describes, ‘It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.’ (Hebrews 2:3–4) The author gives a three-fold proof of the dependability of this message. First, it was declared by Jesus Christ. Second, it was distributed by those who heard him (his disciples and the apostles). Thirdly, it was demonstrated by God himself through signs and wonders and miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
This message is not a fairy tale. First, you have the historic person of Jesus Christ and his empty tomb. Secondly, you have countless disciples who are historically recorded as prepared to give their lives to spread what they had seen and heard. Thirdly, you have the wondrous work of God from Pentecost on as he has worked in and through his people to show the superiority of this message above all others. If you are sceptical about Christianity, please consider the evidence. I promise you will find that the declaration of Christianity is dependable.
The declaration is dependable. It is reliable, therefore we are responsible. That is the bad news. But the Gospel, the good news is that because it is reliable, we can rely on it. Because it is dependable, we can depend on it. No wonder the writer calls it ‘such a great salvation’. Here is a rock amidst the current and courses of this world, the cares and concerns that come against us. Here is a message that has withstood 2000 years of history, millions of martyrs have died, empires and emperors have fallen, nations and cultures have been swept away. Ideas and moralities have come and gone. But for 2000 years the gospel of Jesus Christ has remained the same. Here we have a firm foundation, here the refuge of the lost; Christ's the Rock of our salvation, his the name of which we boast. Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on him their hope have built. (Thomas Kelly)
This message of great salvation is dependable. You can depend on it. If you are not a Christian, will you pay attention to it for the first time? Turn from your sin and trust in Christ. If you are a Christian, hold fast to it. Endure. Persevere. Don’t turn back. For ‘how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?’