Pastor Kyle McIver
Recently I was working through a challenging situation with my son Asher. I won’t go into the exact details, but it was a situation parents often find themselves in: there was a behavior that needed to stop, and we’d been talking about it for a while without making much progress. We eventually got to the point where I had to warn him that if the behavior continued, discipline would follow. And like most kids, he wasn’t very happy about this. He looked at me and said, “Dad, that’s a mean promise!”
And to be honest, this caught me off guard. I had to think about what he said before responding. I said something along the lines of “Asher, in one sense you're right. It’s hard to hear that you’re going to receive discipline. But I’m not being mean to you. I love you. And because I love you, I warn you about certain types of behavior so that you’ll grow into a gentle and self-controlled man one day.” Now, at that moment he still felt like I was being mean. To be honest, I remember feeling exactly the same way toward my parents when I was younger too!
And this moment actually helps illustrate what we’re going to hear this morning in the book of Hebrews. Jesus is speaking to us in this book, in the book of Hebrews, and in the entirety of the Bible. He makes declarations, teaches truth, and gives promises to his people. He also warns us. He warns us of the dangers we will face on the narrow road of following Him as disciples during this life. And like many children, our initial response to such warnings might be to think that they are “mean promises” or to wonder why someone so loving speaks to his people with such severity.
This morning in Hebrews 2 Jesus is warning us. The tone of our text is direct and sober. So let’s ask for help before we get started:
Jesus - we know that you love us. The cross is the eternal proof of the profound love you have for sinners. Help us see clearly and hear your word this morning that we might be shaped by it, and be kept by you, so that we may not fall away. In your name we pray, Jesus… Amen.
Alright, so we have Hebrews 2:1-4 this morning and we’re going to walk through this short passage by asking and then answering three questions:
What is it we need to pay attention to? (2:1)
How do we know the message is reliable? (2:1, 3b-4)
What happens if we fail to pay close attention? (2:2-3a)
We’ll take those in order, beginning with the first question, “What is it we need to pay attention to?”
As you’ve heard from Pastor Dan over the last few weeks, the theme of the book of Hebrews is “Jesus is better.” That is the overarching message of the entire book, the main point that the author is persuading us to embrace. And within the book and alongside the message that Jesus is better, the author issues five warnings. Our passage this morning is the first of those five warnings.
Hebrews 2:1 says, Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. There is imagery at play in this passage that helps us understand the nature of the very real danger we’re being warned of, and how we can go about navigating safely through it. The picture we’re presented with here is a ship. There are two nautical terms in this first verse, so to get the feel of this passage we’re going to imagine together that we are on a ship out at sea. Now this is something I admittedly have no experience with, so I’m very much borrowing from the wisdom of others here.
But imagine with me that we are on a ship. We’re out on the sea sailing toward our destination, which is the port of a very beautiful city set along the shoreline of the sea. We know where we’re going, but the trouble is that this sea is full of strong currents. The currents move in many different directions, all of which could pull us off course and cause us to end up lost. The phrase “pay attention” in verse 1 denotes “staying on course” or “securing the anchor” - both definitions fit very neatly with the idea of not being blown off course. This paying attention is the means by which you navigate strong currents in the sea and keep the ship pointed always toward the port, sailing in the right direction. And when it’s time to rest for the night, you put down the anchor so as not to drift to an unknown location, waking up to find that you are now lost at sea. And that’s the second nautical term, “drift away” - it gives the image of a boat drifting off course and losing its way.
So as Christians, how do we stay on course? How do we keep ourselves from getting swept away by the current and becoming lost at sea? We pay close attention to what we have heard. Remember that we’re answering the question, “what is it we need to pay attention to?” The answer in Hebrews 2:1 is, what we have heard. Which leads us to ask another question, what is it that we’ve heard? Keep in mind that 2:1 starts with the word “therefore,” indicating a link between what we’re reading now and what came just before our passage. So what is it that we’ve heard in the verses preceding our passage? We can summarize the answer by looking at chapter 1 as the message of salvation through God’s Son, Jesus.
In Hebrews 1 we see that Jesus made purification for sins, is now seated at the right hand of God, and that he is superior to angels. This message that Jesus is the Son of God, the exalted Savior of all who trust in him, is the message we’ve heard. And we must pay close attention to it, lest we drift away. This gospel message that King Jesus saves sinners is the north star by which we navigate the stormy seas of everyday life. Each of us is so unique - we have different goals, different struggles, a past that has shaped us and helped form us for better or worse into the person we are today. And within the uniqueness of individual human experience, we’re called to navigate by the same message, to look to a single point that guides each one of us: the gospel of Jesus Christ. So that’s the answer to our first question: we must pay close attention to Jesus and the central message he declared that sinners are reconciled to God by repentance and faith in his name.
This brings us to the second question for our passage: how do we know the message is reliable? If you’re navigating a ship across a vast sea full of currents that can pull you off course, you had better know which direction your heading. You need to have complete confidence in your tools - maps, instruments, and knowledge of the sea and the stars if you have any hope of remaining on course. So the question of how to know that we can trust this message is of vital importance. If Jesus is calling you to build your entire life around the gospel - which he is - you want to be certain that it is trustworthy. And the author of Hebrews himself seems to anticipate this question, because he provides us with a logical, robust reason we can have confidence in the message we have heard.
There are several proofs in our passage that answer this question of reliability. Let’s look at verses 3-4, where we read: 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. What we’re seeing here is the pattern, the progression of revelation. This is the historical summary of exactly how we received the gospel message from God himself. There are four elements to this pattern of revelation, and I want to look at each one of them briefly.
The first element from verse 3, it was declared at first by the Lord… this is pointing to Jesus’ life and ministry. He came into public view preaching “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Remember the opening lines of Hebrews 1, where we read that God has now spoken to us through his Son. Jesus’ own teaching serves as the foundation for the revelation of the gospel. Jesus took what had been hidden for the entire history of God’s people and began to unfold it for his disciples.
Second, the message was attested to us by those who heard. The apostles lived with and walked and talked and listened to Jesus day by day for several years. They were eyewitnesses to his miracles and the most reliable sources for his teaching. The New Testament is written by those who either lived in very close proximity to Jesus during his life, or else knew someone who had done so. The gospel is not a message we’ve received through a crazy, multi-generational game of telephone whereby the message you end up with sounds little if anything like the original. Jesus himself promised his disciples in John 16:4-11 that the Holy Spirit would both help them to remember, and further reveal gospel doctrine to them after Jesus was gone. So the authors of the New Testament are the most reliable witnesses to Jesus’ life and teaching that we could have asked for.
Third, God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles. At the risk of being overly brief, consider the historical pattern by which God has revealed his Word to his people. Moses, who most believe to be the author of the first five books of the Bible, was marked by miraculous events. His call to lead God’s people came from a burning bush. He was God’s mouthpiece and the hands through which he worked the 10 plagues upon Egypt. In Moses’ case, God’s revelation to him was accompanied by an outpouring of signs, wonders, and various miracles that authenticated his verbal and written message.
Prophets in the Old Testament were similarly often marked by the capacity to work wonders among God’s people as well as among his enemies. We also see similar works in the book of Acts, very early in the life of the church while God’s revelation of the New Testament is still in progress. There is an outpouring of miracles: people being healed, dramatic escapes from prison, and even some who opposed the gospel being struck blind or even dropping dead for attempting to lie to God and his apostles.
And the fourth point builds directly on top of this one, that there were gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. The gift of tongues was used in a very dramatic way right at the outset of the apostle’s public ministry to proclaim the gospel to many different ethnicities in many different languages all at once in Acts 2. We get glimpses of Christians with the gift of prophecy as well throughout the book of Acts, along with those who were able to heal or else discern the truth of a situation simply because God made it clear to them.
Now again, all of that was incredibly brief - I feel that the connection between signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit and the way they corroborated God’s revelation is worth it’s own sermon. But suffice it to say, now we see what the writer of Hebrews is getting at: Jesus, God’s own Son, preached this message. His own chosen apostles and those close to them preached and taught and were used by God to fill out the rest of his revelation. And if there was any doubt about their authenticity, God himself provided overwhelming evidence alongside the message in the form of signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is how we know the message is reliable.
So we’ve seen that we must pay close attention to the message of salvation in God’s Son. We’ve seen how this message was delivered to us and we know that it is trustworthy. Now let’s consider the last of our three questions: what happens if we fail to pay close attention?
Remember in verse 1 we saw the image of a ship. The ship needed to stay on course and be careful to drop anchor at the right times, lest it drift away. Drifting is a very real possibility at sea, as well as in the Christian life. Now listen to verse 2: for since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? The link between verse 1 and verse 2 here is that if we do not pay close attention to God’s message of salvation through his Son, we will drift. And if we continue drifting, we run the risk of neglecting this great salvation. And if we neglect God’s great salvation… how shall we escape? … How shall we escape, the author asks. I think that question is meant to hang in space. To echo in our thoughts and in our hearts. How shall we escape?!
Now, the natural question to ask is “what?” How shall we escape… what? Look at the phrase immediately preceding our question in verse 2: ...and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution… The idea here is judgment. If under the old covenant, delivered by angels, every sin was punished, what do you think will happen if you neglect the great revelation, the better Word, declared to us by the Son of God?
To be honest with you all, I hear that question and it haunts me. So many today see Jesus as an optional add-on, a nice guy who surely approves of us when we do whatever we feel is right. Surely Jesus understands how much I need this relationship… surely Jesus understands how hard that temptation was for me… surely Jesus understands how busy I am…
But here’s the problem with this line of thinking: it exposes the faulty reality of our own making in which Jesus exists to excuse us so that we can attain salvation without the cost. Paying attention, like a captain at sea, isn’t a casual endeavor. If you take the sea and its currents lightly, you invite disaster for the entire crew. If you take Jesus lightly, you invite the disaster of judgment for neglecting such a great salvation.
Jesus does not exist to excuse us, to make us happy on our way to doing whatever we want in life. Jesus is the Son of God. He is exalted above us and above the angels. He is worthy of our obedience, our money, our time, and our effort. He is worthy of our worship. Yet we fall woefully short, don’t we? Each one of us is aware of the sins that nag us, of the ways in which we’ve shrunk back from full obedience to Jesus. So what do we do? How do we know we aren’t adrift at sea because of our own sins and shortcomings?
I want to remind you all of the good news. The gospel is not about your good behavior or your efforts to stay on course. The gospel is the good news that Jesus saves sinners. And not the clean and tidy sinners… the messy ones. The afraid sinners, the weak sinners, the addicted sinners, and the struggling sinners. Simply being a sinner does not mean that you are drifting away! Jesus loves the weak and the struggling and the afraid and the addicted. He welcomes us into his family with grace upon grace upon grace. And, we need to understand that this welcome comes on Jesus’ terms.
He welcomes us through repentance and faith. He offers not to excuse our sins, but to forgive them. This means we must confess our sins to him, admit the wrong we have done, and seek his forgiveness. This will be a lifelong process during which we begin to walk in the newness of life because of the grace he gives while we walk the road of repentance and faith. Listen to Titus 2:11-13:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. Grace brings about salvation, the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. And, grace trains us. Grace trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. It trains us to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives. Grace is for all of life! How do you know you aren’t drifting? By availing yourself of the grace of God day by day. By walking in repentance and faith, regularly confessing your sins.
The warning in our passage this morning is meant to keep us from falling away. It is aimed at apostasy, which is a fancy word for someone who abandons the faith. And I want to press in on this warning against apostasy by demonstrating how it commonly occurs, and both warning and exhorting you all to be on guard against it.
Pastor and author Erik Raymond wrote that “the path to apostasy is paved by bricks of apathy toward Christ. If you want to persevere, then give attention to your affections.” This is exactly right. The path to apostasy is paved by bricks of apathy toward Christ. I want to unpack this as a means to exhort and warn us this morning. And, I want to give credit to Erik Raymond here because I’m borrowing some of the ideas that follow from an article that he wrote for The Gospel Coalition back in August.
Here’s what it often looks like to walk down this road of apostasy.
First, neglect. This is precisely what we’re hearing in Hebrews 2 - we must pay attention, lest we drift away. When we stop paying attention, we are neglecting God’s grace. Often we slowly begin drifting from the ordinary yet powerful means of grace in Bible intake, prayer, and gathering with God’s people. When this happens it may feel like you simply “need a break” or that you’re just going through a unique season. But drifting from God’s means of grace is an active disconnect. It is a conscious decision each day that begins paving your path away from Jesus.
Then comes apathy, the second step. After a season of neglect your heart begins growing indifferent toward Jesus. He’s no longer captivating. His Word is losing sway in the battlefield of your thoughts. You begin entertaining questions such as “does discipleship and following Jesus really require so much of me?” “Is sin really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things?” “Is it really that important that I show up for church every Sunday morning?” You’re drifting further and further from the love you had at first, from respect for God’s Word, and from a holy reverence for Jesus. And as this apathy settles into your soul, the danger becomes very great.
Third, comes anger or resentment. A heart that grows apathetic and cold can’t maintain the outward appearance of the Christian life forever. Stress and frustration build on the dissonance within your heart and it eventually spills over into anger directed toward the church or other Christian friends you’ve been close with. In this stage it is so easy to cast blame: on the church for not meeting your needs, on your friends for not understanding you, on God for the bad hand you’ve been dealt in life. And once anger or bitterness or frustration has gripped your soul, you’re on the precipice of giving up all together.
That brings us to the fourth and final step on the path to apostasy, which is falling away. Neglect fuels apathy which blossoms into anger that goes off like a bomb in your life, leaving you in danger of severing ties with Jesus and his church and walking away completely. This danger is real. Falling away ought to terrify us because turning away from Jesus means forfeiting everything!
Now having said that, I also believe that there is some encouragement here for us this morning. It is true that warnings are scary. They’re hard to hear and difficult to face up to. But consider the heart behind such a warning. Why does Jesus warn us against the dangers of falling away? Is he simply trying to scare you? Of course not! He warns you so that you will not fall away!
It’s like warning your child that if they run out onto the street, they could be hit by a car. Now that doesn’t always seem to land on the five year old mind with the seriousness that it should, so sometimes you have to press the point. You look at your five year old and ask: “do you know what happens if you get hit by a car?” Blank stare. “You could get seriously injured or even die!” Even bigger blank stare.
Is the goal in saying that to scare your child? Yes! Why? So that they don’t run out into the street! So that they stay safe and cared for and have the chance to grow up and learn and live and play and laugh! This is how we should think about the warning we’ve heard this morning. If we do not pay close attention, we invite drift. And if we begin drifting, we can drift much farther than we ever thought possible. Drift leads to apathy, which produces anger, which detonates into full blown apostasy - falling away. But Jesus, who loves us more deeply than we can dare to imagine, sees the danger and tells us the truth. He warns us because he loves us. He warns us as a means to keep us from falling away.
One final thought for you. I walked through four stages on the path to falling away: neglect, apathy, anger, and then apostasy - falling away. But hear this, Christian - you get to choose the battleground. You pick the fight. I want each and every one of us to fight this battle at the first stage, neglect. We’re all tempted to be lazy, we’re all tempted to take the easy route, to coast at times. If we don’t fight at this level, then you’ll find apathy setting in, which is a much harder battle. And more so if apathy gives way to anger. The battle will be fought where you choose to fight it. So fight for your heart’s affections toward Jesus. Stay engaged. Stay connected. Keep your heart each and every day. Never give in to neglect. Pay close attention to what you have heard, lest you drift away from it.