A Word of Warning and Exhortation (Hebrews 2:1-4)Related Media
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).1
It was just a year ago (August 1, 2007) that the bridge which spanned the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, resulting in the death of 13 and injuring 145. It was a 40-year-old bridge, and quite obviously there were hidden weaknesses that went undetected until it was too late. Sad to say, it can also happen to Christians. When I spoke at a seminary this past year, one of the professors came up to me and said something like, “Bob, I’m so encouraged to see men like you who are still faithfully proclaiming God’s Word.”
This started me to thinking. It was as though this professor was indicating that a number of seminary students do not persevere. A fellow-graduate and I were discussing this not long ago, and he proceeded to list a number of men in his class at seminary who had failed to persevere. I am aware of some who have denied the faith, of others who just got weary and threw in the towel, and of some who failed morally. Even graduating from a conservative seminary is no guarantee of ending well.
The problem is not a new one. How many Old Testament saints failed to finish well, falling to one kind of evil or another? I believe that when the author of Hebrews warns us of the danger of “drifting,” he is speaking of the same problem. This is a danger that every Christian faces, and thus we would do well – as our text exhorts us – to listen more carefully to the message that God has for us in the person and work of His Son. As our text urges us, let us listen well to the Word of God, lest we drift into dangerous waters.
We should observe that this is the first “warning passage” in the Book of Hebrews. The writer has changed from exposition to exhortation. It is very important that we get this text right because it will set the course for our future studies. In particular, this is true so far as to whom the author has written this epistle and to what the dangers are that he addresses. We will therefore take some extra time to assure that we are right in our conclusions regarding these matters.
Where Are We in Hebrews?
The first two chapters call our attention to the message which God has conveyed to us in His Son. There are essentially three major sections, the message of which can be summarized as follows:
Exposition: God has spoken through His Son Who is higher than the angels (1:1-14).
Exhortation: Listen well to what He says! (2:1-4)
Exposition: The Son became “lower than the angels” to save sinners (2:5-18).
The Danger of Drifting
Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away 2 (Hebrews 2:1).
“Therefore” looks back to chapter 1. The author is tying this exhortation to what he has just said: “Therefore, since God has spoken finally and fully in His Son, who is vastly superior to any other being, we should listen most carefully to what He has said.”
There are two particularly important questions we must answer before going any further. First, who is meant by “we” (three times)3 in verse 1? And second, “What is meant by the expression ‘drift away’?” We have several possible answers to the question, “Who is the author referring to when he says ‘we’?
1. The “we” refers to Jewish unbelievers who have heard the gospel, but have not really embraced it for salvation.
2. The “we” refers to believers.
3. The “we” refers to the members of a particular church, a few of whom might be unsaved.
The first view is held by John MacArthur, who writes:
“To whom is the warning directed? It cannot be to Christians. They can never be in danger of neglecting salvation – in the sense of not receiving it – since they already have it. They can neglect growth and discipleship, but they cannot neglect salvation. Nor can the warning be to those who have never heard the gospel, because they cannot neglect what they do not even know exists. The warning must therefore be directed to non-Christians, specifically Jews, who are intellectually convinced of the gospel but who fail to receive it for themselves.”
“But if the warning is to unbelievers, why does the writer speak of ‘we’ and ‘us’? Does he include himself among the intellectually convinced but uncommitted? Is the author saying that he himself is not a Christian? No. The ‘us’ is the us of nationality or of those who have heard the truth. The author’s willingness to identify himself with his readers does not mean he is in the same spiritual condition as they are. He seems simply to be saying, ‘All of us who have heard the gospel ought to accept it.’”4
“We believe this warning is to those who have heard the gospel, know the facts about Jesus Christ, know that He died for them, that He desires to forgive their sins, that He can give them new life, but are not willing to confess Him as Lord and Savior. This surely is the most tragic category of people in existence.”5
This definition of “we” certainly makes the warning texts of Hebrews less of a problem. But it simply does not correspond with what we read in Hebrews. Look at those texts in Hebrews in which the author gives us some information about his readers:
1 Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, partners in a heavenly calling, take note of Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess, . . . 6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. We are of his house, if in fact we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope we take pride in (Hebrews 3:1, 6).
The author is certainly not speaking to unbelievers here. He is speaking to those who are “partners in a heavenly calling.” Now look at our next text in Hebrews.
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception. 14 For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end (Hebrews 3:12-14, emphasis mine).
These are “brothers and sisters.” The danger is “becoming hardened by sin’s deception.” And the solution is not “repent and be saved,” but “exhort one another each day.” It sounds to me like the author is speaking to believers.
11 On this topic we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14, emphasis mine).
Once again, the author is addressing believers. Granted, they are not as mature as believers should be, but they are believers. They have not refused to hear; they have become “sluggish in hearing.” They are immature so that they need “milk” rather than “meat.” Sufficient time has passed that some of the audience might have become teachers, but they did not. These folks need “solid food.”
After some very serious words of warning in Hebrews 6:4-8, the author has these words of reassurance to his readers:
9 But in your case, dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things relating to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. 11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:9-12, emphasis mine).
The issue here is not their salvation, but rather their endurance. In his words, the author wants his readers to “demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of their hope until the end.” We might say that he wants them to “keep on keeping on.”
In chapter 10, we come to yet another sobering warning text in verses 26-31, but immediately after this he writes these words of encouragement:
32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession. 35 So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. 36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised. 37 For just a little longer and he who is coming will arrive and not delay. 38 But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him. 39 But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls (Hebrews 10:32-39, emphasis mine).
Their conversion (enlightenment) is assumed, and beyond this, these saints endured a good deal of persecution for their profession of faith. They gladly endured. Now, the author says, they need to endure. They need to fix their eyes on their eternal reward. There is good reason for optimism that the readers will do just this.
If the original readers of this epistle were unbelievers, then you would expect the author’s application to be evangelistic. But when we get to chapter 12, that is not the case at all:
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you. 6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.” 7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed (Hebrews 12:1-13).
The suffering these saints are experiencing are not an indication of divine distance, as though God has forsaken them and left them to their own devices. The author deals with their struggles as the “normal Christian life” and as God working in their lives. He is not raising doubts in their minds about their faith, but is explaining that their trials and tribulations are from the hand of a loving Father. Their difficulties are a proof of their relationship to God as Father, rather than being evidence of God’s lack of concern for them. These are evidence of divine discipline, not for our destruction, but for our growth.
Now look at some of the exhortations in chapter 13. Do these sound like the words you would expect the author to be writing to unbelievers?
Let love of brethren continue (13:1)
Don’t neglect hospitality (13:2)
Remember the prisoners (13:3)
Purity in marriage/sex (13:4)
Live free of the love of money (13:4-6)
Remember your leaders (13:7)
Don’t be carried away with strange teachings (13:9)
In Christ, offer up a sacrifice of praise (13:15)
Obey your leaders (13:17)
And does the author’s conclusion lead us to believe he is writing to unbelievers, or to saints?
20 Now may the God of peace who by the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 equip you with every good thing to do his will, working in us what is pleasing before him through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen. 22 Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, bear with my message of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you briefly (Hebrews 13:20-22).
And so it is that I am forced to conclude that the “we” of Hebrews 2:1 refers to a particular group of believers – a church (perhaps a house church). It is possible that there may be an unbeliever or more in the group, but by and large, the recipients of the letter are believers. I believe this needs to be understood throughout the letter.
So we have found the answer to the first question: “Who is the author writing to?” We must now answer a second question: “What is the danger about which the author warns his readers?” Using the author’s choice of terms, “What does it mean to “drift away”? Let’s seek to follow the author’s line of thought. The “therefore” of verse 1 turns us back to chapter 1. Since God has spoken finally and fully in His Son, and this Son is superior to the angels, then “therefore” we should “pay closer attention to what we have heard.” It is evident that some attention has been paid to the New Testament Scriptures (including Hebrews), but not enough attention. Wives will quickly grasp this. Husbands may pay a measure of attention to their wives as they sit at the breakfast table, drinking their coffee and reading the paper, but not enough. Husbands may give some attention to their wives as they sit in front of the television, watching a football game, but not enough.
The problem that the author calls “drifting away” must therefore be associated with not paying sufficient attention to God’s Word, and also with “neglecting so great a salvation” (verse 3). So what does it mean to “drift away”? George H. Guthrie sums up the various nuances of the term:
“The image of ‘drifting’ is an especially potent one. The word used here (panaruomai) could signify objects that slip away, such as a ring that slips off the finger, or objects that go in the wrong direction, such as a piece of food that goes into the windpipe. Perhaps the image closer to our author’s intention in this passage is that of a ship drifting, missing a harbor it intended to enter because of strong currents or winds.”6
R. Kent Hughes defines “drifting away” in very practical terms:
“That church’s experience 2,000 years ago intersects our lives in this way: drifting is the besetting sin of our day. And as the metaphor suggests, it is not so much intentional as from unconcern. Christians neglect their anchor – Christ – and begin to quietly drift away. There is no friction, no dramatic sense of departure. But when the winds of trouble come, the things of Christ are left far behind, even out of sight. The writer of Revelation uses different language, but refers to the same thing when he says to the ostensibly healthy Ephesian church, ‘Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love’ (Revelation 2:4).”7
So, the danger is that Christians may grow cold in their love for Christ, drift from their dependence upon the nourishment of His Word, and by this neglect, put themselves in danger. The nature of that danger will now be addressed in the verses which follow.
The Consequences of Drifting
2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:2-3a)
The author is about to employ a “much more” argument. He will show the severe consequences for Israelites who disregarded the requirements of the Law of Moses. And then he will reason that neglecting the later and fuller revelation of God in Christ is even more dangerous.
Let’s begin by considering the consequences of disregarding the Old Testament law. Here it is identified as “the message spoken through angels.” How could the law be said to have been spoken through angels? The answer comes to us in several biblical texts: Deuteronomy 33:2 (LXX8); Acts 7:38, 53; Galatians 3:19.
2 He said: The Lord came from Sinai and revealed himself to Israel from Seir. He appeared in splendor from Mount Paran, and came forth with ten thousand holy ones. With his right hand he gave a fiery law to them [LXX: on his right hand were his angels with him] (Deuteronomy 33:2).
“This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you” (Acts 7:38).
“You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it” (Acts 7:53).
Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary (Galatians 3:19).
There was, then, some angelic involvement in the giving of the law, and that is exactly the point that the author draws upon. Beginning in chapter 1, he has been showing the superiority of Christ to the angels and that continues to be his point here. If the consequences for neglecting God’s Word were severe in the Old Testament, how much greater will the consequences be for neglecting God’s Word in the New Testament? One vastly superior to the angels has brought the good news to men. Surely disregarding the message God has revealed by His Son will have more severe consequences.
So just what are the consequences for neglecting the revelation which has come through the Son? MacArthur, assuming that the “we” of Hebrews 2:1 refers to Jewish unbelievers, concludes that the author speaks of an eternity in hell:
“Hell is undoubtedly full of people who were never actively opposed to Jesus Christ, but who simply neglected the gospel. Such people are in view in these four verses. They know the truth and even believe the truth, in the sense that they acknowledge its truthfulness, its rightness. They are well aware of the good news of salvation provided in Jesus Christ, but are not willing to commit their lives to Him. So they drift past the call of God into eternal damnation.”9
But we have seen that the “we” of whom the author speaks are Christians. Surely he is not saying that they will lose their salvation, is he? Certainly not! In both the Old Testament and the New, there are severe consequences for disregarding God’s Word. Think, for example, of Uzzah, who reached out and touched the ark and was struck dead for his irreverence.10 In this instance, the law had clearly instructed the Israelites as to how the ark was to be transported (by the priests, carrying it by the use of poles, and not in a cart drawn by oxen). Ignorance of the law was no excuse for disobedience, and thus Uzzah was struck dead. So, too, some of the men of Beth-shemesh died because they “looked into the ark.”11 Then there was David, and the severe consequences resulting from his sin against Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12). Think, too, of the consequences of Miriam’s sin – leprosy.12 Likewise, we should not forget that Moses was kept from entering the land because of his irreverence.13
We can see the same thing in the New Testament, where believers in Jesus suffered severe consequences because of their sin. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for “lying to the HolySpirit.”14 Some of the saints in Corinth were stricken with illness, and some died because of their irreverence at the Lord’s Table.15 The man who was living with his father’s wife was handed over to Satan for judgment, but this did not include the loss of his eternal salvation:
3 For even though I am absent physically, I am present in spirit. And I have already judged the one who did this, just as though I were present. 4 When you gather together in the name of our Lord Jesus, and I am with you in spirit, along with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:3-5).
I must admit that I was somewhat puzzled by the change from “what we have heard” in verse 1 to “such a great salvation” in verse 3. It seems apparent that the author is using these expressions interchangeably, but why the change? Here is a suggestion for you to consider. Based upon Paul’s teaching in the New Testament, we can safely say that the law could never save; it could only condemn:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).
The law brings condemnation, while Jesus Christ brings salvation:
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:21-26).
It is not surprising, then, for the author of Hebrews to speak of the Old Testament revelation (the law) as bringing condemnation and the New Testament as bringing salvation. This is consistent with the teaching of the New Testament:
7 But if the ministry that produced death – carved in letters on stone tablets – came with glory, so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory which was made ineffective), 8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 11 For if what was made ineffective came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory! (2 Corinthians 3:7-11)
So it is that I must conclude that this first warning in Hebrews – like all the others – is directed toward Christians, who are in danger of “drifting away” because of their neglect. The consequences are serious, but not the loss of salvation. And so it remains for us to inquire as to just how we may discern that we are “drifting away” and what we should do to prevent it. That will come shortly, but first we must look at the rest of our text.
The New Testament Scriptures — Are They Reliable?
It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:3b-4).
The question that may be lingering in the minds of some might go something like this: “Okay, so God spoke through the Old Testament prophets, and then (finally and fully) He spoke to us through His Son. But we did not hear Jesus directly. The Scriptures have been passed down to us. So how do we know that these Scriptures are reliable?” We have seen from chapter 1 that the source of the Scriptures is both reliable and authoritative. The question before us is whether we have an accurate account of what our Lord (the Son) revealed to us. This is not a merely hypothetical discussion. Most all of the religions of the world have some kind of scripture on which they base their belief and practice. The Muslims would acknowledge Jesus as a prophet and His words as inspired, yet they believe that these words have been corrupted, so that they are not reliable. Postmodernists likewise are skeptical about any claim to an exclusive, authoritative “word from God.” So what we are able to consider is really important.
The New Testament Scriptures are the teaching of our Lord Jesus. It is God’s revelation to men that was “first communicated through the Lord.” This is entirely consistent with our Lord’s teaching:
25 “I have spoken these things while staying with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you” (John 14:25-26).
12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. 15 Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you” (John 16:12-15).
Our Lord’s teaching was then conveyed to us by those who heard Him directly.16 For this reason, the New Testament writers speak with authority:
14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known (John 1:14-18).
1 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life – 2 and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). 3 What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). 4 Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4).
16 For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” 18 When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, 21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21).
7:10 To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord – a wife should not divorce a husband 11 (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife. . . . 14:37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command (1 Corinthians 7:10-11; 14:37).
The author does not claim to have heard Jesus directly, so how can he know with certainty that what he has heard from those who did hear it from Jesus is accurate, inerrant, and fully authoritative? God confirmed the words of these men, not unlike He did the words of our Lord.
20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does, and will show him greater deeds than these, so that you will be amazed. 21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:20-21).
“I testify about myself and the Father who sent me testifies about me” (John 8:18).
Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good deeds from the Father. For which one of them are you going to stone me?” (John 10:32)
29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously. 32 The group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all. 34 For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales 35 and placing them at the apostles’ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need (Acts 4:29-35).
7 The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. 8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (Acts 6:7-8).
Here is a point where Christians tend to disagree. Some believe that God still validates the witness of Christians through signs and wonders and miracles. Others believe that such gifts were only for the apostolic period. Personally, I believe that God is free to manifest His power whenever He chooses. From things I have heard, I believe that when the Word of God comes to a people group for the first time, God may validate the message by miracles. He is not obligated to do so, but I believe that it is a possibility.
But our text does not limit God’s validation of His Word to spectacular miracles:
While God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4).
I read these words in the light of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:
7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things. . . . 18 But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 18, emphasis mine).
I see no reason to restrict the gifts God has given that validate His Word to the so-called “temporary” gifts. This seems to be in keeping with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, and it is also consistent with these words from Ephesians 4:
7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:7-8).
Spiritual gifts are evidence of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand. As the body of Christ exercises the various spiritual gifts, the Word comes to life before our eyes, confirming the power and authority of God’s Son, and of His Word.
Our text has made it abundantly clear that every Christian faces the danger of drifting away from the Lord Jesus, from His Word, and even from fellowship with other believers. This is not just a danger for unbelievers who have heard the gospel; it is a danger for all who have heard and embraced the good news:
“The transcending concern of this warning text is for those who have heard. Even more, the concern is not for those who reject the gospel, but for those who ‘ignore’ it. The concern is for one’s attitude – the one who has let the greatness of Christ slip away – the one who no longer marvels at the atonement – the one who no longer has a desire for the Word – the one who really does not pray in his spirit – the one who is drifting back to where he came from and has little concern about his drifting.”17
If drifting away is a grave danger for every believer, then it is important for us to be able to recognize when we are drifting. What are some possible symptoms of drifting? Let me suggest a few. I am drifting when . . .
1. My sense of wonder begins to wane. When we went on vacation this summer, we saw a lot of magnificent scenery, much of which was the mountains on the West Coast. Mount Rainier or Mount Hood can be looming in the background, and some of the natives seem to have forgotten its beauty and majesty. Likewise, when we read the first verses of Hebrews 1, we are informed of the majesty and splendor of the Son of God, our Savior. Has the wonder that He came down to earth to save us (chapter 2) been lost on us? Is this not awesome? If we have lost the wonder of our Savior and His salvation, we are drifting.
2. My awareness of the nearness of God has become ancient history. If the intimacy I once knew and enjoyed is now a faint memory, I am drifting.
3. My love and desire for God’s Word falls short of what I find in Psalm 119.
4. The realities of heaven and hell seem distant and unreal.
5. I fall apart at the first sign of suffering or persecution.
6. I am unaware of the constant, downward pull of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
7. Prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and going to church are a duty, rather than a delight.
8. The Lord’s Table is dull, and preaching is boring.
9. Remembering the work of Jesus Christ on the cross does not emotionally move me.
10. I become autonomous, rather than deeply dependent upon other believers.
11. Theology ceases to be important to me, or (worse yet) when it is just an intellectual exercise.
12. My theology is derived more from the fiction section of the library than from the Bible, good commentaries, or books on theology. I know that I am stepping out on a limb here, but I believe this is a very real danger. The recent popularity of the book, The Shack, among Christians is distressing and disturbing. When professing saints say that they have learned more about God from this book than from their Bible or from preaching, something is seriously wrong. I think that too many Christians have found it easier and more enjoyable to read Christian fiction to learn about spiritual warfare or prophecy than to learn from God’s Word. In my opinion, that is drifting.
13. I lack joy and gratitude for all God has done for me.
14. I have ceased growing in faith, hope, and love.
15. I’m looking for something “more” outside Scripture, and outside of Christ. I see this in the carnal Corinthians. I also see this dealt with in Colossians 1 and 2. In Colossians 1, Paul declares the supremacy of Christ. In chapter 2, Paul writes that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). He then goes on to warn us about seeking wisdom that is not according to Christ.18
Let me end with some final words of exhortation. First, I have a word for those of you who have never “dropped anchor” by confessing your sins and trusting in the work of Jesus Christ for your eternal salvation. Being in close proximity to the gospel, or to Christians, does not save you. Listen to these words of our Lord (the One to whom the writer to the Hebrews is urging us to pay attention):
24 “Exert every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, then you will stand outside and start to knock on the door and beg him, ‘Lord, let us in!’ But he will answer you, ‘I don’t know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will reply, ‘I don’t know where you come from! Go away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves thrown out. 29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:24-29).
The time to confess your sins and to trust in Jesus is now. Knowing about Jesus is not enough; you must personally accept the gift of salvation that He offers. As the next verses in Hebrews 2 will inform us, the Son of God humbled Himself by taking on human flesh, thereby identifying with lost sinners so that by His death on the cross at Calvary, He could bear the punishment for our sins, thereby giving us eternal life. Don’t be among those who knew about Jesus, but who never entrusted their eternal future into His hands.
And finally, I have a word for true believers. The author of Hebrews has urged us to take the Word of God much more seriously. But just how do we go about this? Ron Maness, our excellent librarian, recently put a book into my hands entitled, What is a Healthy Church Member?19 The first chapter of this book deals with the first mark of a healthy church member: A Healthy Church Member is an Expositional Listener.20 The author, Thabiti M. Anyabwile, lists several steps to becoming an expositional listener. Allow me to pass them along to you (along with a recommendation to read his fine book):
1. Meditate on the sermon passage during your quiet time.
2. Invest in a good set of commentaries.
3. Talk and pray with friends about the sermon after church.
4. Listen to and act on the sermon throughout the week.
5. Develop the habit of addressing any questions about the text itself.
6. Cultivate humility.
May God grant that we beware of drifting away from Christ, and that we pay much closer attention to that which God has revealed to us through His Son, who is vastly higher than the angels.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 3, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Both the NASB and the ESV add “from it.” The NASB at least indicates that these words are supplied by the translators, and yet are not in the original text. Unfortunately, there is no such indication in the ESV. Personally, I believe the author is warning the reader about the danger of drifting away from Christ rather than only warning about drifting away from the Word of God, though the two are closely related.
3“We” is found five times in Hebrews 2:1-4 and “us” is found once.
4 John MacArthur, Hebrews (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 41-42.
5 MacArthur, p. 42.
6 George H. Guthrie, Hebrews – The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998, p. 84.
7 R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1993), vol. 1, p. 48. Hughes also cites this statement by C. S. Lewis: “‘And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?’” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1976, p. 124), as cited by Hughes, p. 48.
8 LXX stands for the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews, like most of the New Testament writers, more often quotes from the Septuagint.
9 MacArthur, p. 39.
10 2 Samuel 6:6-7.
11 1 Samuel 6:19-20.
12 Numbers 12:1-15.
13 Numbers 20:1-12.
14 Acts 5:1-11.
15 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
16 I believe this includes Paul. See Acts 9:1-10; 22:3-21; 26:1-18; Galatians 1:11-17. It would not, however, include the author to the Hebrews.
17 Hughes, p. 52.
18 See Colossians 2:8-10.
19 Thabiti M. Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008).
20 See pages 20-26.