The Danger of Drifting from the Word
From Gospel Translations
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
In the Beginning Was the Word
In chapter 1 of Hebrews there are no commands for the church. We 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, "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in his Son." This is the point of chapter 1: something utterly stupendous happened in the coming of the Son of God.
This is Hebrews' way of saying what John said in his gospel, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14). 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, and is proven by conformity to 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 1 says that the Son of God is the heir of all things (v. 2), he made the world (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 1: 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 for us here. Only declaration and celebration of the greatness of Jesus, the final Word of God.
The First Command in Hebrews—Listen!
But in chapter 2 the first thing is a command or a duty—something we must do. And the connection with chapter 1 is very important. Chapter 2 begins, "For this reason . . . " (or: some versions have, "therefore"). In other words chapter 2 begins by telling us that chapter 1 is the reason for this duty. Because God has spoken by his Son in these last days, and because he is the Creator and Sustainer and Owner and Ruler and Redeemer of the world—above all angels—therefore ("for this reason . . . ") "we must pay much closer attention to what 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. We could boil down the two chapters so far to this: "In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son . . . for this reason we must pay closer attention to this word that he has spoken." In other words, 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 have a tape player in the car and that we have the tapes. If we want to listen to the news, we make sure there is a radio in the kitchen or that we have a TV and that we have it turned on at the right time. If we want to listen to a missionary who is in a critical situation overseas, we make arrangements to have email and pick up our mail often during the day. If we want to listen to John Grisham tell his latest tale, we buy a paperback in the airport and have it with us on the airplane.
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? Are your kitchen and your car and your den and your reading devoted to that?
It Is Exceedingly Necessary
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 have a crisis in front of you or if you are at camp or if you need to prepare some lesson. 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 says, "Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider 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 in Hebrews 12:1–2 the author says, "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus." There it is again: "Fix your eyes on Jesus." Consider Jesus! Listen to Jesus!
One of the great burdens of this book is that we the 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. It is not a difficult command: Listen! Consider! Look! These are not hard things to do—unless we don't want to do them. The first command of this book is not "labor for Jesus," but "listen to Jesus." He is not commanding us to work for him, but to watch him. All our spiritual life-changes come from that (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Pay Attention, so You Don't Neglect Such a Great Salvation
And the whole first chapter is intended to make this a light burden and an easy yoke. The one we are to pay close attention to is the Creator and Sustainer and Owner and Ruler and Redeemer of the world. And what he has to say to us is a "very great salvation." Do you see that in verse 3: "How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" So if we choose not to listen to Jesus every day and consider him and fix our eyes on him, then we are scorning his importance described in chapter 1 and we are neglecting a "great salvation." Now why would anybody want to do that? The only reason would be if we regard something else as more important to listen to and consider and fix our eyes on. But what distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian is that a Christian has been born again with a new nature that regards Christ as supremely valuable. And so we find the argument of chapter 1 powerfully compelling. God has spoken in these last days by a Son . . . For this reason we must listen and we want to listen all the more closely to what he says.
The Christian life is first and foremost a life of contemplation—listening to Jesus, considering Jesus, fixing the eyes of the heart on Jesus. Everything else in the Christian life grows out of this. Without this the Christian life is simply unlivable.
This is why the next phrase in verse 1 is a warning: " . . . lest we drift away from it." "For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it." The first reason for paying close attention to what we have heard in God's word through his Son is that the Son is infinitely greater than angels: Creator, Sustainer, Owner, Ruler, Redeemer. Therefore how could you not want to be vigilant in listening and considering and fixing your eyes on him?
Pay Attention, so You Don't Drift into Destruction
Now comes a second reason for paying close attention to what we have heard of God's Word through his Son: if we don't do this, we will drift into destruction. Consider this word "drifting." It means float by. It's what a piece of bark or a leaf or a dead fish does in the river—it floats by the boat that is being rowed up stream. It takes no life and no motion to float by. One need only do nothing, and you will float by.
Hebrews says that if we do not vigilantly pay closer attention to the Word of God, we will float by—we will drift away from God's Word. We all know people that this has happened to. Some are in this room. Some are reading this sermon. 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. This is not a hard stroke to learn so that we can swim against the stream of sin and indifference. The only thing that keeps us from swimming like this is our sinful desire to float with other interests. But let us not complain that God has given us a hard job. Listen, consider, fix the eyes—this is not what you would call a hard job description. It is not a job description. It is a solemn invitation to be satisfied in Jesus so that we do not get lured downstream by deceitful desires.
Our "Job" Is to Be Satisfied with the Love of God
One of the most powerful words to me in Kenya as I was teaching was the simple prayer in Psalm 90:14, "O satisfy us in the morning with your lovingkindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days." That is our "job" as Christians: being satisfied in the morning with the love of God spoken to us in the Son of God, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days—and so be free from the deceitfulness of downriver desires.
O the danger of drifting away from the word of God's promise in Jesus Christ!
Verses 2 and 3a tell us why this is so dangerous.
For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 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 judgment of God (Hebrews 12:25; 1 Thessalonians 5:3). We will be lost. We will not inherit eternal life. We will perish in hell.
Drifting Is Infinitely Dangerous
Drifting is infinitely dangerous. O that I could waken you all to be joyfully vigilant in living the Christian life of looking to Jesus, and considering Jesus, and listening to Jesus. His yoke is easy and his burden is light—as easy as listening and as light as looking. But if we neglect this great salvation, and drift into the love of other things, then we will not escape. We will perish. The mark of the true child of God is that that he does not drift for long. If you are drifting this morning, one of the signs of hope that you are born again is that you feel pricked for this—a rising desire in your heart to turn your eyes on Jesus and consider him and listen to him in the days and months and years to come. And one of the signs that you may not be born again is that you hear what I am saying and feel no desire to guard against drifting.
The argument given in verse 2 for why we will not escape if we drift and neglect our great salvation is that "The word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense." In other words, 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.
Now something much greater has come: God has spoken to us not through angels, but unmediated through a Son. God himself stood forth from heaven in Jesus and spoke a great salvation with his lips and his life and his 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.
So, as always in the Bible, God graciously is giving us in this book positive and negative incentives to embrace our great salvation and listen to the great Savior. Negatively, he says that we will perish if we drift away from the Word of God and neglect our great salvation. Positively he says that this Word is such that how could anyone not want to listen and linger and live in this Word—the Creator of all things, the Upholder of all things, the Heir of all things, the Ruler of all things from the right hand of Majesty, and the Purifier of all our sins, if we will trust him? How could we not want to pay attention to this Word and consider him and fix our eyes on him!