In the previous chapter, we saw that Christ’s word is the final word and that He alone upholds all things by the power of His word. We have discovered that if we really believe in Jesus as Lord, we will choose Him over school, work, hobbies, free-time, and anything else. None of these things has the power to uphold our lives, but we often treat them as though they do. The truth is that Jesus Christ is the only one who has absolute authority. We rise and fall, succeed and fail, by His words and not by our work. This is why we see straight-A students who cannot keep a job and drop-outs who earn six figures annually.
We live in a culture which formal education and financial success are highly prized along with a few other things. Parents keep their children from church if they are too busy doing homework or participating in athletics, art, band, choir, agriculture, FFA, or any number of other activities. Sundays have become a day of rest rather than worship, or merely another work day. If something “comes up,” people are so willing to skip the genuine church gathering. We fill and fill our schedules with the things we think are important, and as a result, Jesus Christ is the one waiting like a stood up date, “Where were you. I was waiting for you. What was more important than me?”
Please don’t misinterpret my words, here. I am not saying that people are evil because they miss church. I am claiming that our tendencies reveal the state of our hearts. This is the very cultural mentality that the author(s) of Hebrews is addressing. These truths are the same for us as they were for the Hebrews-preacher’s original audience. What does God say to those who are too busy for or have other priorities than participating with His body?
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will 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, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
Pay closer attention (v. 1)
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.
When the author(s) writes, “For this reason,” he is about to apply the theological truth that has already been worked out. Jesus is the final and perfect revelation of God, the Father. Because the Father has spoken finally in and through Jesus Christ, we pay closer attention to what we have heard so that we do not drift from it.
The substance that the author(s) refers to, here, by “what we have heard” is the word of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is the one who upholds all things by the power of His word (1:3), then His word is the word we hang on, and we hang on every letter and every nuance. This means much for the way that we consider Christ’s words.
Firstly, we pay much closer attention to Christ’s word. This means so much in a world where we have so many options and where we assume that any number of things is capable of establishing us and upholding us. In a world where it is tempting to devote our time to school, careers, athletics, and status, God’s instruction to His people is to pay closer attention to Christ’s word, not neglecting it in favor of this other stuff.
Secondly, we do this so that we do not drift from Christ’s word. I love weekends. Saturday is our family day at the Cannon household. As important as ministry is and as busy as I can be, I guarantee the members of my family that I will be with them on Saturdays. Before anyone asks; no, it’s not the only time I spend with them. Sometimes we have to substitute another day of the week. Every family day is the same in this way: I have to think differently. I do so much during the week that it is difficult for me to wind down. I wake up early on Saturday mornings ready to get to work. It takes much effort for me to wind down. The same is true on my day of rest in the middle of the week. Those of you who work hard sympathize with this experience. In the same way, a lazy person can’t get motivated to get much done. When we drift from Christ’s word and make a habit of giving our attention to other stuff, it’s just difficult to get back without much frustration and exhaustion. Those of you reading this who haven’t been to church in a while but know you should experience this. I’m not condemning you, here, it’s just difficult to get back into the habit of participating with Christ’s body after being absent for so long.
This is why the author(s) of Hebrews is urging the congregation to pay closer attention. In a world that is constantly giving us other stuff to give our attention to, we are encouraged to remain diligent as we yearn to sit under Christ’s teaching. Because we love Christ and desire His sustaining word in our lives, which is the only word by which our lives are both established and upheld, the first thing we schedule is time with Christ and with Christ’s body sitting under Christ’s teaching. All the other stuff is secondary so that we do not drift from the only word that establishes and upholds all of creation, especially God’s people.
The price of neglect (v. 2-3a)
For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?
Any time we see the word “angel” in the New Testament, it is a word transliterated from the Greek αγγελος, meaning “messenger.” This word can refer to a heavenly angel or a human messenger. In the first chapter of Hebrews, the author(s) have referred to both the prophets (1:1) and heavenly angels (1:4-14). Since “angels” has not been a word used to describe the prophets, it seems that the use, here, refers to heavenly angels. While there is no reference in the Old Testament that records heavenly angels other than the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ) speaking, it should be understood that the author(s) is referring to God’s word to and through the prophets, particularly the Law to and through Moses.
This word, the Old Testament, proved unalterable. Every time the people of Israel defaulted to their own nature in sin, God’s punishment according to the Law was a just punishment. The author(s) begs the question: If this was the case through the Old Testament and we can read about it, having a witness, what makes us think that we will escape God’s just punishment if we neglect so great a salvation found only in the power of Christ’s word, which is the only sufficient word by which all things are established and upheld, especially God’s people?
This rhetorical question is meant to shock us. If our priorities are off, even a little, this should cause us pause. If Christ’s word, the word of life, is the thing we neglect for all this other stuff, how will we, how can we, escape the justice of God revealed in the Old Testament? The sermon to the Hebrews just got really intense really quickly. The preacher wants us to understand that the difference between eternal life and death is Christ’s word. Nothing else. Christ’s word. This is serious business, and people approach it haphazardly. We choose other things, and we desire to water it down with people-centered stories or devote the time we spend gathered together doing other stuff. In love, I want to plea with you. Consider the seriousness of Christ’s word. This is life and death stuff. It gets to real things, things of the heart and of eternal salvation and real sanctification.
The evidence of salvation (v. 3b-4)
After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
God’s word is revealed finally and sufficiently in and through Christ alone. Those who heard Jesus confirmed what He spoke. The author(s), here, references the signs and wonders that accompanied the message by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost according to the Spirit’s own will. Notice the past-tense in this verse. It was confirmed. Furthermore, it was confirmed by those who heard Jesus (the apostles). God testified with them (the apostles) both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will. This is how God confirmed His word. Since it has been confirmed, these types of signs no longer accompany the preaching of God’s word. God’s word, remember, was finally revealed in and through Jesus Christ and written down by the apostles or under apostolic authority. The author(s) of Hebrews believes and here claims that these gifts were for confirming purposes and refers to these sign gifts in the past tense.
Since the author(s) is referencing what was fulfilled in the past, primarily in Acts 2, let’s look at that part of God’s story together.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.
They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”
And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
In Acts 1:14-36, Peter preached the Gospel to the gathering of people. In response to Peter’s sermon, God’s word correctly explained and rightly applied, the people asked, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s response was, “Repent, and… be baptized…” (Acts 2:38). It was the word of Christ, not the signs, that had the power in Acts 2. Only after repentance resulting from the hearing of Christ’s word do we see the local church actually functioning.
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The result of coming to know and love Christ was devotion to the things of Christ, most prominently to the correct teaching and right application of Christ’s word. This is exactly the message of the preacher in Hebrews. If we are truly in Christ, we devote ourselves to His word and to the fellowship of believers (c.f. Hebrews 10:24-25).
So, it is not the case that we should simply will ourselves to go to church or to read our Bibles. That would be works-based religion. The Gospel is a Gospel of grace. The text, here, pleas with us to examine our hearts. Where do our loyalties lie? Have we truly loved Jesus, or do we only like Jesus and love any of these other things?
When God did speak through the Old Testament prophetic office (1:1), what He spoke through the angels or messengers proved to be unalterable. God testified through the Old Testament prophets by angels about human depravity and wretchedness and about the salvation that would be, once for all, accomplished in Jesus Christ (chapter 1). God caused sign gifts, signs, wonders, and miracles to accompany the testimony of the Old Testament prophets according to His own will. God no longer speaks through the Old Testament prophets because He has spoken through His Son (1:1-2). Christ completed what the prophets could not. Therefore, those who are in Christ are devoted to Christ’s word rather than to all of the other stuff that they could be devoted to. He is our savior and our Lord, and this is a serious statement; far more serious than most self-proclaiming Christians would indicate by the way they live their lives. Will we repent, and turn back to the things of Christ, counting all other stuff as loss for the sake of knowing Him?