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The sure word of God.
It is the declared and attested Word of God which keeps us anchored.
In the first four verses of Hebrews 2, we are introduced to the first among several “warning passages” which appear throughout the rest of the epistle book (Heb. 3:7—4:13; 5:11—6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–29). Each of these warnings are in keeping with the same theme — namely, “pay attention or else you might drift or risk falling away.” Mounting pressures from within and without resulted in a siphoning of this congregation, with some leaving the faith altogether. Believing in Jesus as Lord, after all, had become an incredibly unpopular and unfavorable (and in some cases even illegal) prospect. In fact, many who testified to such were threatened under penalty of death to recant. Which is just to say, before we judge this church too sharply for their supposed waffling, we might pause to consider their situation.
No doubt you are aware of the apparent uptick in mistreatment lobbed at congregations around this country and all over the world. Such affronts are, I think, a testament to what St. John says in his first New Testament letter: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). It shouldn’t come as a shock that the world reacts with such hatred, vitriol, and antagonism to the church’s message and mission, especially since the church’s Head warned us of this: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me they will also persecute you” (John 15:18–20). I would hasten to say, though, that what we’ve experienced of late is nowhere near the level of torment that this Hebrew congregation faced.
The summer of A.D. 64 was particularly grievous. A massive fire broke out in the city of Rome, reducing massive amounts of the sprawling metropolis to ash. Pockets of Roman citizens began blaming the erratic Emperor Nero for the fire. Thus, to save face, Nero shifted the blame to the church; those blasted Christians were the arsonists! Arrests and torture ensued, as much of Roman community began to regard the church and its followers as dangers to society. First century Roman senator and historian Cornelius Tacitus records much of the horrors that were instigated by Nero during those days, writing his Annals:
To suppress the rumour, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities . . . Accordingly, first those were seized who confessed they were Christians: next, on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race. And in their deaths they were also made the subjects of sport, for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when day declined, burnt to serve for nocturnal lights. (363)
The old phrase “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” hails from these events, as that despicable emperor chuckled while staring at the corpses of Christians, using them to light the streets of Rome. This is persecution. And I don’t say that to dismiss or diminish what you or others have endured because of your faith. Rather, I say that to say that we have all the reason in the world to hold fast to what we believe in the gospel (Heb. 3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23–24). But how and why should we hold fast? And what is it that keeps us from drifting?
A grievous warning.
The “watchword” of this text is, quite literally, a word of warning which admonishes this church to “watch out,” to “pay attention,” or else risk “drifting away” (Heb. 2:1). “A strong current or wind,” comments R. C. H. Lenski, “was threatening to make these Jewish Christians drift away from the harbor of ‘salvation’” (64). This warning of drifting is a particularly significant counsel, since the word is only used in this one instance in the entire New Testament. It’s indicative of a “slipping away from,” or “declining from,” or, worse yet, “forfeiting” what you say you believe. This, the writer says, is what’s at stake if the church’s vigilance for the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) decays and falls to the wayside. A forfeited faith is a neglected faith. Such is the devastating result of a slow “drifting away” from that which “we have heard,” a.k.a. the truth of the gospel — culminating in a faith that is disregarded altogether.
This word of warning is reminiscent of Paul’s words to his disciple Timothy, where Paul encourages his “son in the faith” to hold fast to faith and to “wage a good warfare” against those thoughts, notions, and opinions that threaten to make “shipwreck” of his faith (1 Tim. 1:18–19). The point being, there is an enemy which threatens to derail the faith of all those who are in the church, and this enemy is painfully, devastatingly real. That enemy, of course, is that vicious adversary “the devil,” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The writer’s words, then, constitute a call to “be on guard,” for there is a lion on the loose, whose pernicious objective remains to instigate your “drifting away.”
Satan is a cunning adversary. He is wily and wise in the ways in which he carries out his scheme of making those within the church to forfeit their faith. He doesn’t go about it overtly; he is subtle. Falsehood is ushered in not with a garish neon sign but in the garb of truth. The threat of “drifting away” always begins innocently enough, through small decisions here and innocuous compromises there. But with each decision and every compromise, the ramparts of your faith are slowly chipped away, until you suddenly realize how much of what you once confessed has disintegrated. Like a rock in a riverbed, your faith has succumbed to the erosion that’s caused by the barrage of tiny raindrops. They’ve done studies on this, you know. There are essays that have been composed analyzing the effects a single drop of rain can have in the process of eroding rock. Geologists have come to categorize this as “splash erosion,” which is where a raindrop lands on the ground, creating a mini splash and displacing other sediments. It’s been found that a single raindrop has a role in the erosion of rock within a two foot radius. There is a lesson in this for the church.
Truth be told, there has never been an ideal time or opportune era to believe in Jesus as Lord Almighty. Every age of the church has been one of difficulty and strife, to one degree or another. Every generation is forced to reckon with the Word of God as declared and demonstrated by the Son of God, and either hold fast or drift away. We are not unique in the fact that we are facing difficulties because of what we profess we believe. Indeed, that has always been a part of faith. We are called to “pay much closer attention” to “what we have heard” because “what we have heard” is so much better.
A great word.
The writer, here, builds upon what he has previously expounded in chapter 1 in order to prove just how great this church’s confession truly was:
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 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? 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. (Heb. 2:1–4)
His “therefore” necessitates that we keep in mind all that he has just declared about Jesus being the true and better prophet, Son, and King, which, as he says, makes the message he has declared to us so much more “reliable” (Heb. 2:2–3). These verses, in many ways, expand upon what he said previously about how in the “former days,” the message God had for his people was transmitted by his angels, but in these “last days,” God’s message has been declared and revealed “by the Lord” himself (Heb. 1:1–2; 2:3). And that message has always been the message of salvation. God has always had a heart to deliver his people from the clutches of sin’s dark domain. The Word of God, writes G. Campbell Morgan, is “the literature of perfected salvation. It tells the story of the One through Whom salvation came” (7:143).
The point is, the angels’ message was without doubt “reliable.” All that the angels conveyed to Israel’s forefathers had proven true. Accordingly, those who disbelieved and dismissed the message which the angels declared were judged appropriately (Heb. 2:2). How much more responsible are we, he says, because of the message declared to us by God’s only Son himself? If the message declared by the angels “held water,” how much more “reliable” is the message that the Son of God has spoken to us? The writer, you see, is not just “warning” this church, he is inviting them to know, believe, and hold fast to the far better Word they were given in Christ — and not just because he said so, but because that Word is firm, certain, steadfast.
This great Word was first declared “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” (Heb. 2:3–4). The writer has just summarized all four Gospels and all of Acts in a mere two verses. The gospel of God’s salvation as revealed in the mystery of Christ was “declared at first by the Lord,” then it was confirmed and established by the apostles, then it was certified by countless “signs and wonders,” all of which serve as the foundation upon which the church rests. The reason this congregation of Hebrew Christians could “hold fast to the confession of their faith without wavering” (Heb. 10:23) was because their faith was firm. It was not make believe. It was not fiction. It was not the collective imaginations of a company of delusional men. No, their faith was tethered to word of the gospel, which was seen, declared, heard, and witnessed. Arthur Pink puts it this way:
In giving earnest heed to the Gospel, notwithstanding its unique and amazing contents, we are not following cunningly devised fables, but that which comes to us certified by unimpeachable witnesses. (1:92)
The “great word” to which our faith clings is the news of our “great salvation” in Christ alone (Heb. 2:3). Our “great” problem of sin is done away by an even greater Savior. Such is the Word to which we are called to hold fast, for it is this declared and attested Word which keeps us anchored. It is only as we get out of the Word that we become susceptible to “drifting.” Like a boat improperly moored, we can be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). This, once again, brings us back to the writer’s “watchword” (Heb. 2:1) of this text: be on guard. Give continual heed to the words of Christ above all else. Christ’s words are the sure words of our “great salvation,” the anchorage of our faith. Our safe harbor. Our certainty.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Hebrews (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1–10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954).
Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, Vols. 1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1963).
Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals and History of Tacitus: A New and Literal English Version (Oxford: D. A. Talboys, 1839).