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. Hebrews 2:1-4
In the previous blog, we introduced the first of several comparisons the author of Hebrews makes between the Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus is superior to angels in that he has inherited a more excellent name than theirs (Hebrews 1:4). He immediately quotes from Psalm 2:7 (1:5), in which God declares the Messiah is his Son, a designation never given to any angel (“You are my Son, today I have begotten you?”). This is followed by six other Old Testament quotations in which the author demonstrates the superiority of Messiah to the angels. We will not comment on each one, but I encourage the reader to carefully meditate on them, for they set forth the superior nature of the Son to the entire angelic world.
Hebrews 2:1-4 introduces us to the first warning found in this letter (see the others at Hebrews 5:11-6:12, 10:26-39). We should remember that these Hebrews were being tempted to return to the Old Covenant, abandoning their faith in Jesus the Messiah (neglecting such a great salvation). “These passages serve to demonstrate that the teaching of this epistle is not merely theoretical and unrelated to the realities of everyday life but is intensely practical and, therefore full of intense seriousness. This is true of all the doctrine of the New Testament, in which theology is unfailingly wedded to practice” (Hebrews, Philip, Edgecumbe Hughes, page 72).
These warnings alert the readers to the danger of turning away from the Gospel they have already heard. The danger is that unless they give careful attention to what they have heard, they might “drift away from it.” The writer uses a nautical term familiar to boat owners. Unless a vessel is tied securely to a dock, the current of waves will carry it away. The writer uses a similar metaphor in Hebrews 6:19, in which he speaks of having this as a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” The only remedy is to give more careful attention to what they have already heard. This is why the writer sees the need for the repeated exhortations found throughout the letter: “we must pay closer attention….lest we drift away”; “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (3:12); “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:11-12); “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain since you have become dull of hearing” (5:11); “Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1); “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance” (10:35-36).
What is the writer speaking of when referring to “the message declared by angels”? It was undeniably a reference to the Law of Moses which Stephen referred to in his sermon as that which was “delivered by angels” (Acts 7:53). If under the Law delivered by angels, “every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:2-3). The only remedy against this danger is to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (2:1). We should take careful attention to what we have already heard. Let us dig deeper into this exhortation.
We should first notice the word already in the first verse. The writer focuses on the need for them to pay more careful attention to what they have already heard. There is no need for them to hear something new but to return again and again to what they have already received. That is a far cry from the modern church’s obsession with wanting to hear something new. Jesus also tells the church at Sardis “remember, then what you received and heard. Keep it and repent” (Revelation 3:3). These Gospel exhortations must be heeded, especially because 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” (Hebrews 2:4). Notice the three levels that affirmed the truth of the Gospel; first it was declared by the Lord himself; secondly, it was heard by the author and others though the apostolic witness (‘by those who heard’); and finally, through the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed to the Church.