Warning: Retribution Awaits the Neglectful
Years ago I helped organize a sports camp for middle school kids. We had about 85 sign up. We bused them to the hill country. A number of coaches and college athletes invested in these kids, serving them, preaching Christ as opportunities came. A place called Deer Creek hosted us—a beautiful property along the Medina River. But we encountered a problem.
The final three days—it rained night and day. The Medina River flooded and destroyed the roads leading into the camp. Food trucks couldn’t get in so we could restock. The buses couldn’t get in to get the kids out. So the head guy made a plan. The next time the river subsided, he was going to canoe one kid at a time across the river. Once three made it across, these 12 and 13 year olds would hike together about a mile or so up the road where the buses could get to. That’s what we did.
We had a sending team of adults on one side of the river. We canoed over a receiving team of adults on the other. The current was swift. Nevertheless, one by one he canoed these kids across. All 85 made it out safely. But one thing I’ll never forget: had he stopped paddling and persevering, had he neglected his duty and decided to drift, very likely the river would’ve taken lives. Being neglectful was not an option for anybody. Drifting with the current, instead of persevering, was deadly.
In Hebrews 2, we encounter the first of several warnings. The warning here is that retribution awaits the neglectful. God’s judgment falls on those who drift away from Christ. In Hebrews, Christians are wavering in their commitment to Jesus. Some are on the verge of apostasy. Part of that is due to persecution. Enemies do terrible things to persuade them to forsake Jesus.[i] But the other part is due to their own passivity. They’re drifting away; they’re neglecting their salvation (Heb 2:1, 3).
Hebrews exists to address this problem. Hebrews exists to keep you and me enduring to the end. It does this primarily by magnifying Jesus’ person and work; and then he exhorts the church in light of Jesus’ greatness. We find a very clear example of this in chapter 2. Chapter 1 introduced us to Jesus’ greatness. As God’s Son, he is heir of all things, Creator, Sustainer, the radiance of God’s glory, he purified our sins. Now he’s enthroned above all. As the God-man, he is superior to angels. “Therefore,” chapter two begins. Therefore, here’s how you must respond. Verse 1…
1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we’ve heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 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? Pay Much Closer Attention to the Gospel
Let’s answer a few questions. First, what must we do in light of Jesus being far superior to angels? Answer: “we must pay much closer attention to what we’ve heard, lest we drift away.” An action, a message, a purpose. The action: we must pay much closer attention. It’s not optional. Christians must pay closer attention. That means so giving our mind to the message in view here that we understand it truly, we appreciate its weight and importance, and we conform our lives to it.
The message in view is, “what we’ve heard.” Well, what have they heard? In verse 2, it’s the message declared by angels. It’s the old covenant. It’s the stories of the Old Testament. It’s what Ben has been preaching in Samuel the last couple years. But it’s also the message of the new covenant as well. If your eyes will drop down to the second half of verse 3, he says, “It was declared [that is, “a great salvation was declared”] at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard.” The Lord Jesus declared a great salvation. Eyewitnesses heard Jesus speak this great salvation. Then they told the Christians addressed here. In sum, then, what they’ve heard is the word of God—both as it was spoken by angels under the old covenant and by Jesus under the new.
We must so give our minds to God’s self-revelation in Scripture and in Jesus that we understand it truly, we appreciate its weight and seriousness, and we conform our lives to it. For what purpose? Verse 1 says, “that we don’t drift away.” Growing up in Corpus, we’d go to the beach. One thing we’d do is see how many sandbars out we could reach. About the fourth or fifth sandbar, you’d turn around to see where you began and you can’t find the car or the picnic table anymore. You’ve been having all kinds of fun. But without even realizing it, you’ve drifted hundreds of yards down the beach from where you started. That’s the idea here: drifting is subtle.
It happens slowly over time, until one day you look up and don’t know where you are. Imagine a ship setting out to sea and about halfway through the journey, the captain kills the engine. You know what’ll happen. That ship will drift away and never reach its destination. Hebrews is saying that will happen to you, if you don’t pay much closer attention to God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus.
Why? Four Motivations to Pay Much Closer Attention
We’ll circle back to this in a few minutes and develop what paying attention looks like. Verse 1 is the main exhortation. But verses 2-4 answer why we should pay much closer attention. Verses 2-4 reveal several motivations to obey verse 1.
God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus is true.
For starters, you should pay careful attention to God’s revelation because it’s true. It’s historically reliable. God acted in history in undeniable ways. Second half of verse 3: “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard…” ESV has “attested;” others have “it was confirmed.” The word means to put something beyond doubt. Same vocabulary appears in verse 2 about the old covenant—the message delivered by angels proved to be reliable. So whether it was historical events in Israel’s history or the eyewitnesses to Jesus: God’s word is historically true. Christianity isn’t a mere philosophy; it’s historically reliable.
Even more, he goes on to say that God himself bore witness in history. In part that came when he punished transgressions under the old covenant—verse 2. But also, God confirmed Jesus’ words by signs and wonders. Verse 4, “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” Where’ve we seen that before? In the book of Acts. Peter says in Acts 2:22 that God attested to Jesus with mighty works and wonders and signs. Then we find the apostles doing the same as the gospel message penetrated new people groups.
Signs and wonders had an undeniable apologetic function: they authenticated Jesus and the apostles.[ii] This is why the Jewish authorities get so perturbed. How can anyone deny the healings? It was so obvious to the people that God was with Jesus and his apostles. These weren’t just random displays of power either. The signs gave concrete expression to their message.[iii] It’s one thing to announce that Jesus heals the broken, rescues the oppressed, and then you zap a bird out of the sky—it’s got nothing to do with your message. But it’s another thing when you announce that Jesus heals the broken, rescues the oppressed, and then the lame start leaping and unclean spirits flee in Jesus’ name. That’s how the signs authenticated the apostles’ message.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit function likewise. Hebrews means to keep these Christians paying attention to God’s word because it’s true. History bears this out. Eyewitnesses confirmed it. God acted in undeniable ways to authenticate his words.
God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus is authoritative.
Another reason we must pay much closer attention: God’s revelation is authoritative. When the people didn’t obey the old covenant, they were punished. God was just and had the authority to do so. Note also how he calls Jesus “Lord” in verse 3: “it was declared at first by the Lord.” Who is this Lord? Chapter 1 told us. He’s the rightful heir of all things. He’s the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He’s the radiance of God’s glory, the exact imprint of his nature. He’s enthroned above all. He’s superior to angels. This Lord delivered a message.
But the emphasis here isn’t that he delivered that message from heaven again, through angels again. Something new has happened. A greater, fuller revelation transpired in that the Lord himself took on flesh and spoke these words as a man. He embodied what the Law and Prophets anticipated. We must pay attention because Jesus isn’t just another prophet. He is Lord. He spanned heaven and earth to bring us God’s final, decisive revelation in the flesh.
God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus reveals a GREAT salvation.
Why else should we pay much closer attention? Because God’s message in Jesus reveals a great salvation. That’s what he calls it in verse 3: “a great salvation.” The nice thing is that Hebrews demonstrates why God’s salvation in Jesus is great. The whole book explains the greatness of Jesus’ work, especially as that work ushers in a new and better covenant. But let me give you just a taste from chapter 2 alone.
Jesus is the new Adam who comes to restore the dominion our sin destroyed; he comes to rightly order the cosmos and subject all things to his lordship (Heb 2:5-9). Also, though he ruled angels, he became lower than angels. He became a man to suffer and die to sanctify many sons and bring them to glory (Heb 2:9-11). Also, the devil uses the power of death to enslave people. But God’s Son took on flesh and blood, so that through death he might destroy the devil and deliver his people from that slavery (Heb 2:14-15). In 2:17, he becomes the faithful high priest who makes propitiation for our sins—that is, he satisfies God’s wrath against our sin. But even that’s not all. By resurrection, he’s alive and able still to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:18).
Beloved, that’s a great salvation; and that’s just skimming chapter 2. We must pay much closer attention to God’s revelation in Jesus because it reveals a great salvation. To drift away from God’s revelation in Jesus is to drift away from this great salvation. It’s to drift away from the only One who gives this great salvation.
Neglecting God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus leads to judgment/condemnation.
Which leads us to one further motivation: we must pay much closer attention to God’s revelation because serious judgment awaits those who don’t. Look at 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 [i.e., a just retribution] if we neglect such a great salvation?” See the connection to verse 1? Neglect is the opposite of paying much closer attention. Neglect is what leads to drifting away. And why doesn’t he want you to drift away? Because if God’s word through angels proved reliable, how much more reliable is the word through the One who made the angels.
If you wondered why he developed Jesus’ superiority to angels in chapter 1, this is why. He was going for this warning all along. Later in Hebrews, we learn that these Christians are contemplating a return to the old covenant. Acts 7 and Galatians 3 teach that God delivered the old covenant through angels. Acts 7:38, “[Moses] was with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai.” Acts 7:53, “You who received the law as delivered by angels...” Galatians 3:19, “The law was put in place through angels…”
That’s how God delivered the old covenant—through angels. And that covenant proved reliable. How do we know? Every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution. At breakfast, the kids and I are reading through Numbers. Again and again, we’ve seen this play out. The people rebel against the covenant; and God responds with punishments. Everybody over 20 has to die in the wilderness, they’re defeated in battle, a Sabbath-breaker gets executed, the earth swallows Korah’s household. God’s history with Israel proved his word was reliable. Haven’t we seen this in Samuel as well? Hasn’t Ben shown us the severity of God’s judgments?
How much more when God doesn’t merely deliver words through angels, but becomes the Word incarnate? It moves from the lesser to the greater. If they experienced judgment when they neglected the Law, how much more will we experience judgment by neglecting the Law’s fulfillment? God’s fuller and final revelation has come. The person and work of Jesus Christ bring the types and shadows to their fruition. You have more revelation in Jesus. You have the picture complete. You don’t just have redemption anticipated; you have redemption accomplished in Jesus.
But to whom more is given, more will be required. If you neglect this great salvation in Jesus and drift away, only judgment awaits you; and it’s a worse judgment than the kind experienced under the old covenant. The punishments under the old covenant were but shadows of the judgment to come.
This is not a loss of rewards. Some argue that he’s talking to Christians, so it must be talking about a loss of rewards. But this warning comes alongside numerous others that form a coherent whole. They describe this judgment as “falling away from the living God” (Heb 3:12); “failing to enter God’s rest” (Heb 4:1); a “fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:27). It’s a punishment worse than dying under the law without mercy (Heb 10:28-29).
This is no mere loss of rewards; this is drifting away from a great salvation. If you drift away from Jesus Christ, the only sacrifice for your sins, then you are without atonement, without salvation. That’s his point. That’s written for you and me, beloved.
Please hear this, because there are many people playing out in the waves, telling themselves “Once saved always saved,” and they don’t even realize that they’re miles from where they need to be. They’re not paying attention to God’s word at all. They’re paying attention to the world and then tacking Christian clichés on the end of their day to keep living the life they would’ve lived anyway without Jesus—and all the while drifting away. The Bible gives no assurance to people who cease looking to Jesus, who cease chasing hard after Christ and his glory.
Don’t misunderstand me. Once you’re truly saved, God will keep you and preserve you and enable you to persevere to the end. But God uses means to keep you persevering; and this is one of them—his warnings. The Holy Spirit uses warnings to keep our eyes on the prize of God’s glory in Christ. All those who are truly saved read a warning like this, and you know how they respond? “Then help me not neglect this great salvation! Lord, help me pay much closer attention! Your judgments are right; your words are true! So help me know Christ more! He is my only hope for a great salvation!” God’s warnings are one of his means to get you across the finish line.
Neglect -vs- Paying Closer Attention: What do they look like?
So, if we’re going to persevere, let’s get a better hold on what it means to neglect a great salvation and pay attention to a great salvation. I could go to a number of places in Scripture to develop this. But let’s stick with Hebrews and ask next, what does neglecting a great salvation look like?
What does neglecting our salvation look like?
We neglect a great salvation and risk drifting away when we become dull of hearing and don’t press on to maturity in the Scriptures. I get that from chapter 5. They’ve been Christians for a while. They should’ve been teachers by this point. But they’ve been lazy in knowing and understanding their Bibles. Scripture doesn’t inform their minds such that they can barely distinguish good from evil. They don’t sense the weight and importance of the things God’s word reveals.
I wonder if some of us are like that. You’ve claimed to be a Christian for years. You claim to know Jesus. But you’re not in the word regularly. You show little interest in improving your knowledge of the Bible. Some of you should be teaching others the Bible by now. But you can’t, because you haven’t made it a point to know it yourself. Why is Leviticus in your Bible? What did it mean for Israel? How does it point to Christ? In what ways should it nourish the church when we read it?
Do you know the answers? If not, what’s your plan to know them? What are you going to do about it? The elders are ready to help you figure that out. We could point you to other brothers and sisters who are mature in the Scriptures to help you figure that out. Come to the Bible studies, Discipleship Hour. Form another men’s group. Visit the Book Nook. The point is that we can’t just coast. We must press on to maturity in the Scriptures. Does the weight of God’s judgments under the old covenant cause you to tremble when you read them? Do you sense the glory of his holiness? Or do you just write them off as not all that important? To do so is deadly. It’s deadly because if you don’t grasp the importance of things under the old covenant, you’ll miss the importance and significance of the new covenant in Christ.
We also neglect a great salvation and risk drifting away when we treat the world’s fleeting pleasures as greater treasure than what we gain in Christ. I get this from Hebrews 11:25-26. Moses “chose to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”
Jesus Christ is an infinitely valuable treasure. He’s infinitely valuable, because he’s infinitely glorious. No other pleasure in this world compares to the pleasure of knowing him as he is. But I wonder if our coworkers would know that based on the things we usually seem most excited about—a pay raise, a new car, a new home, a better boss, an easier schedule, your team won on Saturday, a baby’s first steps. Don’t get me wrong—those things are great! Some of them ought to tickle us silly. But all of them together don’t hold a candle to the glory of our Lord Jesus. Can people tell that from interacting with you on a regular basis?
I wonder if our spouses and children would know that your greatest treasure is Jesus when they hear us complain about the things we often complain about. When we’re groaning about the weather and to the so-called inconveniences of love, but express hardly any grief over the lost state of your neighbor’s soul. I wrote that one for me. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
We further neglect a great salvation and risk drifting away when we abandon God’s grace and embrace strange teachings for our spiritual strength. Hebrews 13:9 says, “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.”
What have they done? Over time, they’ve placed more confidence in special foods than in the grace of God. But as Paul says elsewhere, “Food will not commend us to God.” Abstaining from some or eating others—it makes no difference. We’re accepted before God by grace alone in Christ alone.
The question, though, is how’d they get there? How’d they get to the place where their commitment to various food laws became their source of spiritual strength versus the grace of God? By neglecting a great salvation. By not paying careful attention to the gospel of grace, they were slipping away from the new covenant in Christ.
Are we so bored with grace that we’ve become vulnerable to some very strange teachings? Is it possible that—in a desire to commend what is good about our country—some of us have begun equating godliness with patriotism, loyalty to the flag, even where that loyalty skews ones devotion to the gospel? Is it possible that—in a good desire to seek justice in society—some have mixed the gospel of grace with divisive rhetoric that denies our common identity in Adam and looks to effect change by a political activism devoid of the grace and forgiveness in the cross?
Or maybe it’s various forms of legalism. It’s not beyond us to sometimes raise our personal preferences to a level that says, “Our ways are more acceptable to God than yours. Or, what he or she deserves for their sins is worse than what I deserve for mine.” And slowly, over time, we drift away from strengthening one another in the grace of God, valuing human attainments instead.
What does paying attention to our salvation look like?
Dull hearing, fleeting pleasures, strange teachings—just a few ways we can neglect a great salvation and risk drifting away. The solution he mentions to combat this neglect, though, is paying much closer attention. What does that look like? Hebrews isn’t silent about that either. We pay much closer attention when we devote ourselves to understanding the Scriptures and how they reveal Christ.
Several times we’re commanded to consider Jesus; and then he uses the Scriptures to explain Jesus’ greatness. We’re told in 6:1 to press on to maturity, a maturity that includes building further on the basic doctrines in Christ we already know. The great thing about Hebrews is that he shows us how. He takes his readers along with him, as if to say, “Come with me in this. I want to show you how to mature in the Scriptures.” Then he equips them in how to read and understand the Old Testament in light of Christ. He helps us sense the weight and importance of the old covenant as well as its greater fulfillment in the new.
See, he expects them to be already so impressed by the old covenant—by that which was lesser—that the new covenant should just floor them. But they’re not even quite there yet with the first. They’ve become like someone who might’ve blown off the Wright brothers when they got the first plane off the ground. They saw the first flight and thought, “Big deal. Was it really worth it?”—not realizing the importance of that moment, nor that it would lead to something like the F-35. They were so bored with the first covenant, that they can’t really see the significance of the new covenant. Hebrews helps us not to be like that. Take your cues from Hebrews, and then devote yourself to understanding how the Scriptures reveal Christ.
We also pay much closer attention when we exhort one another with the implications of Jesus’ person and work. Hebrews 3:13 says, “Exhort one another every day…” Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not neglecting to meet with one another, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” How do we do that? The same way Hebrews does it. He proclaims Christ’s person and work; then he shows them what that means for their lives. Sometimes it comes in the form of warnings, like here. Other times it comes in the form of promise. At others it’s a matter of teaching how the old covenant relates to the new, and how that affects our day-to-day. We know we’re paying attention when Jesus’ person and work compels moral transformation and kingdom action.
Paying utmost attention to our great salvation also includes laying aside every weight and sin to gain more joy in knowing and following Jesus. That’s Hebrews 12:2—running the race—combined with Hebrews 11:25—the reproach of Christ was greater wealth than all the treasures of Egypt. Remember, it’s a great salvation, greater wealth! God isn’t calling us to pay attention to something boring, like a statistics textbook. He’s call us to give our minds to God’s self-revelation in Jesus because that’s where true joy is found. That’s where infinite blessing comes. When you see him as he truly is, folks, you want more. You do! You really do! Such that everything keeping you from having more of him must go.
And one more, we pay more careful attention to our great salvation when we draw near to the throne of grace for help in time of need. That’s Hebrews 4:16. By the new covenant in his blood, Jesus has given us free and confident access to the Father. It would be seriously neglectful to ignore the amazing opportunity to pray. But to pay attention to what God actually achieved for us—a way into the most holy place(!)—is to run to the throne of grace often in prayer. These are but a few ways Hebrews teaches us to pay more careful attention to what we’ve heard, lest we drift away. May he accomplish such a work in us, as we consider Jesus’ greatness and our great salvation.
[i] Heb 10:33-34; 13:3.
[ii]Throughout Acts “signs and wonders” are performed through the apostles, as well as a few others. See those performed by all the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12, 16), Peter and John (Acts 3:1-10), Peter alone (Acts 5:15; 9:32-34, 39-41), and Paul (Acts 15:12; 19:12; 20:11). Others included Stephen (Acts 6:8), Philip (Acts 8:6-7), and Ananias (Acts 9:17-18).
[iii]For more on how signs and wonders legitimate the apostles intrinsically, see the helpful treatment by Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 248-54.
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