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An Exhortation Against Drifting

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 6, 1998

Hebrews 2:1-4

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews, chapter 2.   As you look through Hebrews, chapter 1 and you see the arguments laid out there the focus is on the superiority of Christ, Christ is given various titles in the first few verses of the first chapter of Hebrews.  He is called the heir of all things. He’s called the One through whom God made the world.  He’s called the radiance of God’s glory.  He’s called the exact representation of God’s nature.  He’s called the upholder of all things by the word of His power.  These titles or phrases are being heaped by the author of Hebrews upon Christ in order that no one would get the idea that He is a mediator simply like a priest would be a mediator, an earthly human priest.  He is someone of all together a different order of magnitude. 

And in verses 4 through 14 of Hebrews, chapter 1, the author continues to instruct us in the person of Christ.  The whole of the first chapter is preoccupied with who Christ is, because understanding who Christ is is absolutely essential for understanding what He has done for us in salvation.  So the author of Hebrews wants us to understand the exalted nature of Christ.  And the goal of that passage is to convince and to remind everyone in the congregation that Christ is better than the angels.  And you’ll see a number of times how the angels are mentioned in Hebrews, chapter 1 because there were apparently some people in this congregation who were swayed by the contemporary preoccupation with angels and angel worship.  And the author of Hebrews wanted to make sure that they understand that Christ was more than an angel.  He was the very Son of God. 

Now as that theme runs throughout the first chapter of Hebrews, the theme of the superiority of Christ also runs throughout the whole of the book of Hebrews, but especially the first ten chapters.  And the author, having introduced us to the person of Christ in Hebrews, chapter 1, now begins to draw some implications for that.  And I’d like to look at these with you.  First in verses 1 through 4 of Hebrews, chapter 2, and then we’ll look at verses 5 through 9.  Let’s begin today in Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 1 through 4:  

Hebrews 2:1-4

Father, we thank You for this word, we thank You for this passage, and we ask today as we contemplated and it’s importance for gospel ministry that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful truth from Your word.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen. 

If you were to engage in a detailed study of Hebrews, chapters 1 and 2, you would find a number of links between those chapters.  For instance, the theme of Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King is present in both of those chapters in the book of Hebrews.  If you look back to Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 2, “In these last days he has spoken to us in His Son.” There’s the role of Jesus as Prophet.  Then if you’ll look over to Hebrews, chapter 2, verse 3, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord,” the Lord Jesus there.  So there’s the parallel.  Jesus as Prophet.

But He’s also Jesus the Priest.  If you look at verse 3:  “When He had made purification for sins, He sat down.”  So this is the One who made purification for sins.  He has a priestly function.  And if you look over at chapter 2, all the way to verse 17, “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest.”  So there’s the priesthood of Christ. 

But the kingship of Christ is present as well.  Again, if you look back to Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 3, “When He had made purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of Majesty on high,” having inherited a much more excellent name than the angels.  He is reigning at the right hand of God.  And if you look over at Hebrews, chapter 2, verse 9, you’ll see the same thing again.  “We do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor.”  So Jesus is Prophet, Priest and King.  That’s a theme that continues to run from Hebrews 1 to Hebrews 2. 

You also continue to see exalted names and titles given to Christ in Hebrews, chapter 2, just like you saw in Hebrews, chapter 1.  He’s called the Son.  And again, not a Son in the sense of Him being inferior to His Father, but He is called the Son in terms of the uniqueness of His relationship to the Heavenly Father in Hebrews, chapter 1, verses 2, 5 and 8.  And then He is referred to as the Lord in Hebrews, chapter 2, verse 3.  And then again He’s simply called Jesus in Hebrews, chapter 2, verse 9. 

Notice also the linkage between the teaching and the exhortation in these passages.  Chapter 2 begins with these words: “For this reason.”  So all that we had learned in Hebrews, chapter 1 we learned not because it was interesting doctrinal detail that people who teach systematic theology need to know, but nobody who has to live a practical Christian life needs to know.  No.  Everybody needs to know this, and for this reason we ought to do this.  So he links the teaching to the exhortation by saying, okay, in light of what I’ve just told you, because of that, for this reason we ought to do this.  So there’s a practical linkage between truth and light in this passage. 

And Hebrews 2, verses 1 through 4 is the first of a number of exhortations in the book.  Very often the Apostle Paul will spend the entire first half of his books giving you his theological teaching.  And then he will go into his exhortation and application at the end of the book.  The author of Hebrews intersperses his exhortation in the midst of his teachings.  Sometimes he gets so excited about what he is teaching you, he can’t wait until the second half of the book. 

Now it is true that the second half or the second part of the book of Hebrews majors on exhortation or practical application.  But he breaks into application at different points during the first ten chapters of the book of Hebrews as well.  So I’d like to look with you today at three or four things in this passage that are important for us as we prosecute gospel ministry. 

I.  The gospel must be taken seriously.

The first is this.  If you look at verse 1, we see the words, “For this reason we must pay closer attention to what we have heard so that we do not drift away from it.”  And one of the things that we learn in that verse is that the gospel must be taken seriously.  For this reason we must pay closer attention to what we have heard.  In light of the truth that I’ve set forth, the author is saying in Hebrews, chapter 1, we must pay closer attention to this truth.  The stress here is on the importance of paying attention to the gospel message.  What has been heard, that which we heard from Christ, that which we heard from the apostles, we need to pay close attention to it.  And it’s stressed because of the danger of the congregation neglecting it or drifting away from it.  And I can’t think of a more contemporary warning.  When we live and grow up in churches where we are accustomed to hearing the gospel message, all of us get to the point where we tend from time to time to slip into a mode where amazing grace is not amazing any more.  In fact, it’s down right boring and routine.  It’s expected.  And that is a danger for everyone, especially those who grow up and are blessed in churches where the gospel is preached regularly.  You become complacent about the gospel message.  And the author of Hebrews here seems to be more concerned about those who are not going to outright reject the gospel, but those who might drift away from it.  Look at his words.  “So that we do not drift away from it.”  He’s concerned about apathy or indifference to the truth.  He’s not so concerned about people who are going to stand up in the middle of the sermon and say I don’t believe the gospel; that’s a bunch of rubbish.  And we don’t have too many people around here that would stand up and do that.  I wouldn’t guess that there would be many Baptist churches in town where folks would stand up in the middle of the preacher’s sermon and say, “We just don’t believe this gospel stuff; it’s a bunch of rubbish.”  But I bet there are a lot of people that are in danger of neglecting the gospel or drifting away right in our midst.  And the author of Hebrews is speaking right to that situation.  In the face of that temptation what he wants us to remember is the seriousness of the gospel. 

And that is important for us to remember today because the model on which almost all public speaking is patterned today, including the pattern of church life, is the entertainment industry.  We attempt to emulate what the entertainment industry does in almost every area of public speaking today, including the conveying of the gospel.  And what that tends to do is to trivialize the gospel itself.  As C.H. Spurgeon says, “God does not call us to amuse the goats.  He calls us to feed the sheep.”  And when we attempt to amuse the goats, we cease to be able to feed the sheep.  And this also applies to our personal demeanor and conversation of the gospel.  It is very possible to trivialize the gospel by the way we refer to it in personal conversation.  And people are all too willing to do that anyway. 

Andrew McGowan was quoting that famous quip on Sunday evening where a person shares the gospel with someone, and he says,  “Well you know, this is great, because I love sinning, and God’s business is forgiving, this is a match made in heaven.”  What a trivial approach to the gospel.  And I’ve heard a variation of that where a group of businessmen are sitting down at a Rotary Club luncheon and the minister comes and sits down.  And it’s so typical when the minister sits down, certain little quips and quotes are made by the businessman as if the minister is from another planet and can’t relate to anything that normal men would relate to and there’s a bit of nervousness about having a “spiritual man” around and you get sort of these sorts of comments.  “Well Lord, I’m a big sinner, but you know, thank heaven God is in the business of forgiving sin.”  As if God is bound by obligation to forgive that particular person’s sins, no matter how arrogant and apathetic he is about them.  And that type of attitude trivializes the seriousness of the gospel. 

I’ll never forget a phrase from Knox Chamblin during a baptism one Sunday morning where he said, “It’s a serious thing to receive the grace of God.”  That’s so true.  It’s a serious thing to receive the grace of God.  And we need to restore a sense of gospel seriousness, even in our casual relationships.  If we have friends who know that we work at a church, and they make quips about that, there’s a place in our conversation to call them to seriousness about the gospel.  You say, “I don’t want to be a spoiled sport today, and I don’t want to rain on your parade, but you know, I think that you should think twice before you make fun of the work of the gospel ministry.  It’s deadly serious. It’s the difference between life and death.  Would you like to talk about that?”  The gospel is not a matter that we can allow people to be flippant and trivial about.  The gospel has gravitas, it has weight, the ultimate weight.  And the author of Hebrews is saying here’s the first thing that we need to know to keep us from drifting away from the gospel, and that is that it is not something to be quibbled with.  It’s not something to trivialize. 

II. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation.

The second thing we see here, you’ll see in verses 2 and 3; really 2 and the first part of verse 3.  “If the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, every transgression and  disobedience received a just penalty, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”  Now this is a very interesting phrase, because this phrase makes it clear that the blessings and cursings of the New Testament are both greater than the blessings and cursings of the Old Testament. 

Very often we are told that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and anger, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  The Old Testament is about wrath and judgment.  The New Testament is about forgiveness and love and mercy.  This is a false contrast.  The author of Hebrews says if you reject the gospel message given under the New Testament, you are liable for a greater cursing than the people of God would have been liable to under the Old Testament.  The illusion here is to the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  And you will remember that one of the Scriptures that was set forth there is ‘do not come and touch this mountain, for if you touch this mountain you will die.’  Rather serious.  And the author of Hebrews says, if you reject the word of God promulgated by the Lord Jesus Christ, the judgment will be more serious than that.  So this contrast between the Old Testament is the God of wrath and the New Testament is the God of love  is a false contrast.  Both the Old and the New Testament set forth a God of justice and mercy, of love and judgment, of condemnation and justification.  It all depends upon whether we embrace His gracious overtures in the gospel.  Disobedience to the law in the Old Testament led to a just retribution and the book of Deuteronomy is filled with warnings.  In the end of Deuteronomy  Ebal and Gerizim were filled with very clear promises of blessings and very clear promises of curse if we’re disobedient to the law.

But the author here says that neglecting the gospel of salvation in the New Testament leads to no escape from the wrath of God. The gospel can’t be sidestepped.  It’s serious.  It’s weighty.  We can’t be neutral about it.  We’re either for it or against it. 

There are a lot of people who want to be on the sidelines with regard to the gospel.  They don’t want to have to make a decision.  They want to go through the motions, they want to be part of a social group that calls itself Christian, but they don’t want to commit themselves to the gospel.  They think that they can establish a third position with regard to the gospel.  There are some people that are against it; those are atheists.  And we don’t like them in the south.  I mean, you might find a few of them at the university, but they’re at the university anyway and they’re sort of eggheads, and they have a lot of pens in their pockets and they don’t count.  So, you know, I don’t want to be an atheist, but on the other hand I don’t want to be one of these Bible carrying Christians.  I’m not going to commit.  I’m just going to stand on the sideline.  I’ll go to church occasionally, not make a big fuss about it, but God is going to be peripheral in my life.  I’m not going to campaign against Him or for Him.  I’m going to sneer a little bit when I see these “right wing extremist fanatic Christians” taking their religion too far, but I’m not going to go with the atheists either.  I’m going to stand on the sideline.  And the author of Hebrews says there is no sideline.  You can’t be neutral about the gospel.  You’re either for it or against it.  And the New Testament says the judgment for rejecting the gospel is not lesser than the judgment for rejecting the law.  It’s greater. 

III.  God has confirmed the truth of the gospel.

And the third thing we see in this passage is that God has confirmed this gospel to us by His Son and by the teaching of the apostles.  Look at the end of verse 3.  After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirm to us by those who heard.  The gospel, in other words, was announced in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Then it was confirmed to us, and the author is speaking here as if he were in a second generation of Christians.  The gospel was first spoken in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Then it was confirmed to us by His apostles.  In other words, we first heard this gospel, He’s saying, through the mouths of the apostles.  They are the ones who preached to us this gospel, but it was confirmed in Jesus’ life, and it was confirmed in the apostle’s ministry.  So these people had heard the gospel from those who had heard it from Christ.  That’s actually kind of a stirring thought, isn’t it? 

I’ll never forget one day in Edinburgh reading through a text from the late second century from the early church father, Irenaeus.  And he recounts being, and I can’t remember if it was in Smyrna or in Ephesus,  places which are now in modern day Turkey, and he talks about being in a room and listening to a man named Polycarp teach him theology.  And he says that in the midst of one of Polycarp’s lectures, Polycarp says, “Now, not many years ago, John was sitting there and he was teaching me these things.”  And chills ran up my spine as I thought of this man teaching in this book who had heard Polycarp, who had heard John teach him these things.  Just the closeness of this to the Lord Jesus’ ministry was overwhelming.  And of course the reason he was sharing this was that he was saying, “Look, I’m not confused about what the gospel is.  I heard it from Polycarp, who heard it from John, who wrote it.”  And that’s exactly what this guy is saying.  He’s saying, “Look, we heard this from the apostles and they were the ones Jesus spoke this to, and did these things in the midst of.  I’m not confused about who Jesus is. I heard it from the apostles.  They told me these things.” 

And of course the beautiful thing is we hear this from the apostles week after week.  Every time we open up our New Testament, we hear it from the apostles.  God has been so good to us, to give us a first-hand account of what Jesus did, not all the work of the skeptics in the world can undermine that, friends.

And why is he telling us that?  Because he’s not asking you to believe in fairy tales.  The gospel is serious, and so he knows that you need some confirmation that we have some reliable information before us.  And he says, look, these men heard it from Jesus, and they told it to us.  And in God’s good providence in that very first generation, they wrote it down so that the succeeding generations did not have to depend on second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth and ninth-hand testimony. So that even we today, 2,000 years later, can depend upon first-hand testimony as to who Jesus was and what He said and what He did.  We don’t have to wait for the Jesus Seminar in order to figure out what Jesus said and did.  We’ve already got the first-hand account.  And so the gospel was shared with us by the apostles themselves and that testimony of Christ and the apostles to the gospel message increases our responsibility to respond to the truth. 

On the last day no one is going to be able to say, “But you know, Lord, You did not make it clear.  Lord, You didn’t leave a testimony.  There was no message out there to explain this to me.” 

IV. God has confirmed this gospel by wonders and gifts.

And then one last thing, friend, as we look at verse 4.  We see that God has confirmed that gospel by wonders and by gifts.  It’s not just that God called these men from common work to holy work and that they faithfully proclaimed this truth that had been entrusted to them by the Lord Jesus Christ. It  is also that the Lord attested their work by signs, by wonders, by miracles. 

Look at this passage here in verse 4. “God also testifying with them both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His will.”  These signs and wonders and miracles, done by the apostles, which are recorded for us in the New Testament, were not just flashy events to catch the people’s attention.  They weren’t some sort of hors d’oeuvres, teasers to try and get people to listen to what the gospel writers were going to say.  They were attesting evidences.  They were things given by God to prove that what these men were saying was absolutely true.  They were there to prove the divine authority of Christ. For instance, when Christ performed a miracle, the function of that miracle was not simply to dazzle or impress the crowd, nor was it necessarily to convert anyone, because there were many people who saw Jesus’ miracles who didn’t believe in Him.  But those miracles were there to confirm that what He said was indeed the very truth of God.  And it was the same with the apostles.  Those miracles were delegated by Christ to the apostles and those miracles were performed by the apostles.  You remember, it got to the point in Jerusalem that people would bring their sick and they would hope that the shadow of Peter would fall upon them to be healed.  Those miracles were designed to attest that what the apostles were saying was true. 

And I want you to note how the miraculous was subservient to the word.  Because see in the many areas of Christianity today, that’s been separated, so there’s no relation to the word.  But in the early church, the miracle was a testimony to the word of truth, and the miracle was absolutely worthless apart from its testimony to the word of truth.  Its function was to confirm the gospel message itself.  The gifts of the Spirit, too, were signs that God is confirming the truth and the reality of the gospel that these men were preaching.  As Peter and those men got up at Pentecost, they got up with no credentials in the eyes of the world.  And so God attested them with His own credentials. 

Note here, Hebrews is concerned to stress the truth and the reliability of the gospel messages.  That’s why the author of Hebrews lists for us the credentials of the gospel message: “We heard it first hand, it was testified to by miracles.”  Why is he saying that?  Because you cannot embrace the gospel until you believe it is true. 

C.S. Lewis warned us that there are many people that attempt to evangelize others by convincing them that Christianity is good.  But he says, “It doesn’t matter if Christianity is good, if it’s not true.”  And he says we must not attempt to get people to embrace Christianity simply because it is good if they do not believe it is true.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who would say, “You know, I’m going to be a Christian to make my life better.  It doesn’t really matter to me whether any of this ever happened.  It’s going to make my life better.”  And Lewis says, “No, no, no, no.  You’ve got to embrace Christianity because it is true.  Because if it’s not true, ultimately it’s not good,” and that’s exactly where the author of Hebrews is here.  He’s saying, ‘Look this is true, and it’s so serious because it’s true.  So don’t drift away from it.’  May the Lord help us to bear testimony to the truth and the gravity of the gospel.  Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for Your word and we ask that we would take it with the utmost seriousness, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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