Hebrews: Recapture the Wonder

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on August 23, 2020

Hebrews 2:1-4

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If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Hebrews chapter 2 or look there as it’s printed in the bulletin. Last week, we began a sermon series on the book of Hebrews and tonight we come to the first four verses of Hebrews chapter 2. The writer of this letter or of this sermon says that what he has written is a “word of exhortation.” Hebrews 13:22, “I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation.” Throughout this book the writer alternates between teaching and warning, between proclamation and application. There is a truth to understand and there is a danger to avoid. Last week, we were reminded right from the start what the truth was to remember. It was the truth about the uniqueness and the surpassing excellence and greatness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Well tonight we come to the first warning in this book. It’s a warning that’s targeted at one of the main problems that needed to be addressed among the recipients of this letter. It’s a warning that I need to hear. It’s a warning that we all need to hear. It’s that exhortation to hold on to the message of salvation in Christ, to treasure it, and to pay much closer attention to the things we have heard so that our faith would grow, that our lives would be marked by perseverance, that our lives would be marked by faithfulness to God. So we’ll consider from this passage, from these four verses, two points. And they’re basically taken from two phrases that are in these verses. First is, “lest we drift” and then secondly, “such a great salvation.” “Lest we drift.” “Such a great salvation.” Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Our Father, we thank You for Your Word, for the truth of Your Word, and for the sweeping beauties with which we were confronted last week – thinking of Christ as our Prophet, Priest and King, so much greater than the angels. And we thank You for the warnings of Your Word that confronts us in our complacency and that arrests us from our drifting and brings us back to Christ to depend upon Him and the work of the Spirit in our lives. We pray that You would do that tonight – that as we read Your Word and hear Your Word, that Your Holy Spirit would help us to see Christ – His greatness, our need for Him, His sufficiency, and the call to persevere. Would You do that for Your glory. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Hebrews 2, verse 1:

“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.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

Lest We Drift

The warning of Hebrews chapter 2, verses 1 to 4, is a warning against drifting. It’s a warning against drifting away from Christ and away from the message of salvation. If you remember last week what David Felker said were really three of the main problems or dangers that were facing this congregation that was receiving this letter, it can be captured in three words – drifting, hardening, and dulling. Well here’s the drifting. Here’s the warning against drifting. And this word for drifting is a nautical term. It refers to a boat that’s carried about aimlessly on the waves and by the currents. It has no chance of reaching its destination.

This summer, my parents and my brother’s family and my family spent an afternoon picnicking and playing along the Watauga River. And after we were done, when it was time to go, we sent our sixteen year old and fourteen year old down the river on tubes and we went down and picked them up about forty-five minutes later downstream. They were fine. They could navigate through the river. They could even stand up and walk around rocks and branches and anything that got in the way. But think if we had done that for my brother’s three and five year old. Well that would have been foolish, to say the least, because they would have been drifting along aimlessly, unable to get out of the way of danger. They would not have made it forty-five minutes down the stream to the bridge where we got them out. They would have been in real danger. It’s kind of scary to even think about it.

But that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about Christians who are in danger of drifting. For the Christian, for the Church, drifting is a serious problem and it poses a real danger. And page after page has been written about the background of this book of Hebrews – about who wrote it, who was it written to, and what were the main problems that were going on in that church. One of the commentaries that I looked at this week had one hundred fifty seven pages of introductory material talking about just those sorts of issues. And what the writer says is that nothing can be known for certain about those questions. He says that whether the root of their problem was the delay of Christ, social ostracism or impending persecution, or just a waning of enthusiasm, it’s all up for debate. But what can be known for certain was that this was a community in crisis. They were in trouble, they were in real danger, and they needed correction.

But did they know it? Do they know that they are in trouble? That’s what’s so dangerous about drifting, isn’t it. It happens so slowly and so gradually and in such subtle ways that it may not even be noticed. These Christians could have been way off course and they may not have really recognized the danger that they were in. It’s one thing for us to look back over all these years and study the book of Hebrews in depth and say, “This was the main problem they were facing. It was this, this, this and this.” But would they have recognized it for themselves at that time? Would they have recognized that in the midst of work and family and day to day struggles and social pressures? Would they have noticed when they were surrounded by, they were enmeshed in a culture that was not at all conducive to the Christian way of life, to the way of godliness? Would they have realized the danger of drifting and the danger of going off course?

Peter Greer and Christ Horst wrote a book a number of years ago called, Mission Drift, and they write about what they call “the unspoken crisis” that faces all Christian leaders, Christian organizations, and even churches. They say it’s the crisis in which the Gospel becomes cursory or expendable, even forgotten. The drift, they say, is oftentimes unintended. It’s the result not of a major decision or a sudden shift in direction. No, it’s the result “of unchosen and unreflective assimilation.” In other words, it’s the result of small choices, of small shifts, of trying to fit in, trying to fit in and to survive. That book, it was intended as a warning, as a wakeup call to the subtle danger of drifting away from what Jesus has called us to do. That’s what this is in Hebrews chapter 2, verses 1 to 4. It’s a warning and it’s a wakeup call. It’s a warning to the Church and it’s a warning to us.

And there’s a sense of urgency in these verses that we read tonight. We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. When we hear that warning do we ask ourselves, “Are we in danger of drifting? Have we already gone off course in some way and not recognized it? Have we gone off course in our calling or in the blessing of salvation in Christ Jesus?” It can happen. It happens both with individuals and with congregations. You think about what was written to the book of Ephesus in the New Testament. Paul calls the church of Esphesus in his letter to the Ephesians, he says they are “faithful in Christ Jesus.” But then go to the end of the Bible and to the book of Revelation. What is said to the church in Ephesus then? It says they have lost their first love. The letters in Revelation say, “Remember, repent, and do the works that were done at the first.” What happened? What happened in the church of Ephesus between what Paul wrote to them in Ephesians and what is written to them in the book of Revelation? They drifted.

And what about Demas? Demas was one of those who is listed in the list of greetings at the end of some of Paul’s letters, those names that we oftentimes overlook and disregard. But it says about Demas, Paul says about Demas in Colossians 4, he says, “Luke, the beloved physician, greets you, as does Demas.” Now fast forward to the end of Paul’s life as he’s writing to Timothy. He says this. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” What happened to Demas between Colossians 4 and 2 Timothy? He drifted away. Both Demas and the church in Ephesus drifted in some way.

I wonder if we notice any of Demas in our own lives, that in a love for this world, have we lost a hunger for God’s Word? Is there joy in our worship or is there joy lacking in our worship? Have we lost a sensitivity to sin in our lives? Do we keep up a heart of compassion for our neighbors and for the lost? Are we growing in our faith and becoming more like Christ? Do we pray? Those are all concerns for my own life. I am all too aware of the tendency to drift, the tendency to coast in the Christian life and therefore to drift in the Christian life. And if that’s true for me, I’m sure it’s true for at least some of you here tonight as well. We need this warning. We need this warning individually. We need this warning as a congregation as well, because how often do we drift from ministry to meetings, and our worship can become about punctuality and predictability, and serving God can become about committees and planning events. There’s always a danger in our personal discipleship to become inwardly focused and forget about the need to disciple and the need to evangelize the lost and those around us. There’s a danger with being concerned about current events, about politics even, rather than about the kingdom of God and the concerns of Christ. We can, and sometimes do, drift away from our calling as Christians, our calling as God’s people. And oftentimes it happens without us even realizing that it happened, without us realizing that we are in real danger.

Such a Great Salvation

So thank God for the warnings of His Word that jolt us out of our complacency, they grab our attention and they say to us, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it! We must not neglect such a great salvation!” That’s the reason that the writer of Hebrews started out in Hebrews chapter 1 with the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature. He begins this letter with the excellence of Jesus because he wants us to see the excellence of our salvation. He wants us to recapture the wonder of our salvation, to persevere in it, and to stay on course until the end. The treatment, you see, for drifting, is to recapture the wonder of Jesus and to recapture the wonder of the Gospel.

Everything in this warning in chapter 2 is based on what was said in chapter 1. If you look at chapter 2 verse 1 it says, “Therefore.” “Therefore” is how chapter 2 verse 1 begins. Or in other words, “On account of this.” Or, “On account of what has just been said about Jesus.” Here’s how the Amplified Bible puts it. It says, “For this reason, that is, because of God’s final revelation in His Son, Jesus, and because of Jesus’ superiority to the angels, we must pay much closer attention.” The writer wants us to hear God’s revelation of Christ and to see what Jesus is so much greater than the angels and therefore to pay attention and not drift. It seems like, with the discussion of angels in chapter 1, it seems like this congregation had a fascination with angels, maybe too much of a fascination. But us on the other hand, we hardly think about angels at all. I don’t have one book on my bookshelf about angels. I don’t really remember studying anything about angels in seminary. We read through the Scripture, we teach through the Bible, and really sort of gloss over the angels. But whenever we’re confronted with the writing of the report of an angel appearance in the Bible, what happens? What are they usually saying first of all? They’re usually saying, “Do not fear.” Why are they saying that? It’s because the people to whom they appear have fallen down on their faces and they’re unsettled by the appearance of the angels.

Just think about it. What would happen if an angel appeared here tonight? Or maybe we could say it this way. What if we could see angels that may in fact be here right now? What would happen then? Some of us would fall onto the ground. Some may even head to the doors out of fear. Children would be crying. Grownups would be crying. We can’t really imagine what it would be like to have an appearance of an angel. And what Hebrews chapter 2 is saying to us is that Jesus is so much greater than the angels. He is more amazing, He is more awesome. It is not even worth comparing Jesus to the angels because of His greatness over them. Yes, He may have been made lower for a time than the angels in His earthly ministry, but there’s no comparison between Jesus and the angels. I read somewhere last week that someone said, in really a sort of attempt to be thought-provoking, that when we read about Jesus in the New Testament we read about Jesus at His worst, if we could say it that way. That for all of His greatness there’s Jesus in the New Testament at His worst, in His lowliness, in His humiliation, in His rejection and His suffering. We see Jesus on the cross and all the horror of the cross. We see the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief.

But, the writer of Hebrews wants us to see, Jesus is much greater than the angels. In fact, angels bow down to Jesus. One day every knee will bow down to Jesus and call Him, “Lord.” Whatever it is that may capture our affections or may capture our imaginations, they are nothing in comparison to the wonder and glory of Jesus. We need to look again at the beauty and the wonder and the glory of Jesus. We need to recognize that we have “such a great salvation” because we have such a great Savior. It’s because of the wonder of Jesus that we need to pay much closer attention to the things we have heard about Him and heard of Him. Pay much closer attention to the wonder of the Gospel. That’s basically what the writer is saying to us. He’s saying in these verses, “Do you want to guard yourself? Do you want to guard your congregation against drifting away? Then look to Jesus. Look to how much greater He is than anything else.”

And where do we look to Jesus? Where do we find Jesus? We find Him by hearing and reading the Word of God. It’s to the Word of God, it’s to the revelation of Jesus to which we are to pay much closer attention. Notice how the writer here, he basically points us to the Old and New Testaments. If you look at verse 2 it says that there is “the message declared by the angels.” What is that? That’s the law. He’s talking of the law. But in doing so, he’s referring to the whole Old Testament, the way that, “Long ago, in many ways, God spoke to us by the prophets.” That message of the Old Testament, it proved to be reliable by the coming of Jesus. And he says that this great salvation was declared. The Gospel was declared – if you noticed verse 3 says, “first by the Lord.” It was declared first by the Lord Jesus. Jesus came preaching and teaching the kingdom of God. He came preaching the good news of salvation in the synagogues and to the crowds and to His disciples through His many parables and in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Upper Room Discourse. Jesus said, “I have come for this purpose. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth, to bear witness to the truth of salvation.”

And then that message, it was attested, verse 3 says, “by those who heard.” It was attested by the apostles – by Peter and John and Paul and the others who had seen and heard Jesus. And their message was confirmed by the signs and the wonders and the various miracles. Not only Jesus’ signs and wonders and miracles, but most decisively by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That was the vindication of the Gospel message, of Jesus’ message and the message of those who were witnesses to Him. It was the resurrection which confirmed the message. Jesus is raised from the dead. And then that message was, as it went out through the early Church, was confirmed also by signs and wonders and various miracles. By the speaking in tongues and healing the sick and raising the dead, the church grew. It multiplied. The Church continues to grow by the power of the Holy Spirit, by what verse 4 says “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to God’s will.”

You see that? This is the message of the New Testament – the ministry and teaching of Jesus, His miracles and His signs, His life, death and resurrection, the witness of His followers of the forgiveness of Jesus and of salvation by faith in His name, along with all the signs and the wonders that accompanied their message and the growth and spread of the Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t let the Word of God grow dull because of familiarity. This is an amazing message that we have in God’s Word that God has revealed to us. There is a wonder to the Gospel.

Neil Postman wrote in this book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that oftentimes you’ll notice that newscasters on TV will use this phrase, “And now this,” to transition from one story to the next. And he says that that’s basically a trivializing of what the story that they were just speaking of – that you can package it, be done with it, and move onto the next thing and not even think any more about it and start to think about the next story. “And now this…”

How often do we do that with the Word of God? That we read about Jesus feeding the five thousand and calming the storm and walking on water, we read about His resurrection from the dead, the empty tomb, we read about the growth of the Church in the book of Acts and we close our Bibles and we say, “And now this…” and we pull up the next thing to distract us and we don’t let it sink in and shape us. “And now this…” There’s a danger of being dull to the message because of its familiarity. This is an amazing message. It should capture our attention. It should fill us with wonder. God’s Word tells us about Jesus, it tells us about the good news of the forgiveness of sins and of salvation in His name, and it does it in such a way that we can never exhaust the contents of this message. We can never reach the limits of our understanding of God’s Word. There is always more for us to hear. There is always more for us to learn, more for us to cling to, more to reveal to us about God and about ourselves, more for us to grow and to change in our worship of God and our love for Christ and our service to Him. There’s always more to which we should give our attention, a much closer attention.

Sometime in my early 20s at the start of marriage and family and work I had a realization. I thought to myself, “I’m a Christian, and I say that the Bible is the most important instruction for my life. It is God’s Word. But I don’t read it and there’s so much of it that I don’t understand.” And I went to the library – this was the Memphis Central Library – and I found a commentary to check out. It had been donated from somebody’s personal library. There were several; I think there may have been a set of this commentary. And I don’t remember the person’s name but I owe him a debt of gratitude for donating it, just for donating it to the library. But I checked it out and it was from “The Bible Speaks Today” commentary series by John Stott and Alec Motyer. And as I read, Scripture and commentary, the lasting impression that it made on me was that yes, the Bible speaks today. The Bible speaks today of my sin and of my salvation. The Bible speaks today of marriage and family and work and finances. The Bible speaks today about compassion to the poor and the lost, about love for the immigrant and the refugee. The Bible speaks today about Jesus and the need to trust in Him and the need to persevere in faith in Him.

The writer of Hebrews, he wants us to pay much closer attention to what the Bible speaks today, to what we have heard about Jesus. Because if we are not paying much closer attention to what we have heard, and not just paying attention with our minds but paying attention, closer attention with our lives, with how we live, if we’re not doing that then we are in the danger of drifting. In fact I think we could say that if we are coasting in the Christian life then we are likely to be drifting in the Christian life. And then we’re in serious danger. We may even be consistent with reading and hearing God’s Word and yet not being very good at delighting in it, not being very good at being shaped by God’s Word. There may even be a particular danger to us in this congregation because we are a Word-focused church. We, of course, value God’s Word. We hold it to be important. But how easy is it to take that for granted and to think that that will just be the case because it’s the case already. How easy is it to turn to God’s Word and to turn it into a form of entertainment or self-help. We must pay much closer attention with what we hear and what we do, how we live.

The prophet Amos, the Old Testament prophet, Amos, he preached to a people who heard the Word of God, they had God’s Word, and they said that they wanted to know, “When was the Sabbath over so we can get back to work? When’s the Sabbath over so we can get back to oppressing the poor?” They knew the Word of God, they knew the call to keep the Sabbath, but they had no heart for it. Their lives did not reflect it. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” – Amos 8:11. That’s a scary prospect to neglect such a great salvation, to take God’s Word for granted, and to slowly drift away so that it’s no longer even heard.

We have a great Savior, a great salvation. Let’s not neglect those things, but let’s remember how amazing they are so that we will not drift away, so that we will instead be filled with awe and wonder and praise, so that we will be moved to persevere in the Christian life and to live lives which glorify God – lives which are full of joy and delight. Let’s commit to do that tonight. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Father, we can say with the hymn writer that we are “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” Would You “take our hearts, take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” Would You, by Your Spirit, move and work in our hearts to reveal Christ to us more and more, that in each new word from Him and of Him, and each new hearing of Him, that we would see something new and be moved to wonder and awe, to bow down before You in Your love for us; that You would not leave us in our sin, that You would not leave us in our lostness, that You would not leave us condemned but that You would reveal Yourself to us, that You would send Your Son, that You would make Yourself known that we might know You and You would call us to Yourself. Do it again, over and over, call us to Yourself, fill us with wonder at Christ and of the Gospel, and help us to live for Your glory. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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