1 Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, let we drift away from it. 2 For if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just recompense, 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 him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will.
Having spoken at length about the wonderful Son by whom God has spoken in these last days, about His superiority to all of God’s words by the prophets because now, in the Son, we have the very self-revelation of God, and about His superiority to the angels, the author now issues the first of five warnings he will give his readers in this letter.
Now, I think that we are often tempted when reading passages like this, to let our fears fill in the meaning. We fear that this passage, and similar passages, means that God really is looking to condemn us, and that we had better keep on trying to stay on His good side if we want to prevent that from happening. And I usually find that what people think staying on His good side means is trying really hard to be perfect—i.e. to always be following His commands, serving Him well, being a good asset to the kingdom.
We need to be very careful, in reading warning passages like this, to listen carefully to what is actually being said and in the context in which it is being said. So, first let’s take a look back at the last line of the previous section. In 1:14, the author says “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” As we know, he is speaking here of angels. He has been reciting passage after passage from the Greek Old Testament to show that the Son, the eternal Son, is not just a great angel, but is superior in every way to these heavenly beings. They are, like us, on the side of creation—they are created. He is the eternal creator.
And in this closing statement of his argument, the author asks his readers a rhetorical question, in other words a question he assumed they knew the answer to. Are angels sent to serve us, those who inherit salvation? He is asking them this to show the emptiness of adding a trust in or worship of angels to their trust in the Son. And notice how he describes them, and us. The Greek translated here “who are to” is one word that means “about to”. So, the author is referring to all of them as “those about to inherit salvation”.
How are they getting salvation? By inheriting. They are not those about to earn, buy, make real, or work for salvation. To inherit something is to be given it by another, usually a relative. It is truly ours, but we may not have full use of it yet, or be experiencing the full benefits. But it is ours, and it is a gift that is bestowed on us, not earned by us. So the author reminds them that who they are, are people who have an inheritance of salvation, it is truly theirs and they will receive it, they are about to come into their inheritance.
Now there is one more part of this sentence we need to consider before we can go on to the warning that follows. The author says that they are about to inherit salvation. Well what is salvation? Is it primarily a “get out of hell free card”? Well we can look at a couple of things here to help us look more deeply at this concept. But it will be unfolded through the rest of the letter, so we are just beginning our look here. First of all, salvation is connected to the earlier statement about purification or cleansing from sin. This the Son accomplished as God’s word spoken to us. Uncleanness was understood as not just the absence of cleanness, but as the power to positively defile and to make communion with/receiving from God impossible. It disrupted, then, one’s relationship with God. Purification restored this communion; it allowed real relationship with God again.
The Greek work translated “salvation” has a particularly rich and full meaning. It is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to translate more than one Hebrew word. First of all, it means “to make roomy or spacious”. Someone needing to be saved was thought to be hemmed in, constricted, or choked. Salvation is not something one does for oneself—it must be done for you by another, who opens up the way out, the way to freedom. To grant salvation and help was understood to be the task of God’s rule and action on earth. There is a strong emphasis in the Old Testament on the limits of any salvation not given by God.
So, what is it that the readers have heard that the author now warns them to give more heed to? They have heard this Word that God has spoken, His self-revelation in His Son, who gives us His complete salvation as our future, our inheritance. And this word that contains their salvation is unique and superior to all that has come before it; all those words were signs pointing to the reality that has come in Christ.
It is this word that they need to give more abundant heed to “lest we drift away from it.” The word translated “drift” describes a boat that is unmoored and is drifting away aimlessly. The Greek philosopher, Plato, used it to describe something slipping away from memory.
The author then goes on to compare the message, or word declared by angels and this word, “such a great salvation” declared by the Son and testified to by both those who were with Him and by God with various signs and miracles. The message from the angels was most likely the law. Both Paul (Gal. 3:19) and Stephen (Acts 7:53) speak of the part that the angels had in the giving of the law. The author first upholds the truth that this angelic message was valid or firm and that therefore every “transgression or disobedience” received a “just recompense”. In other words, the author is reminding them of the reality of what they had received from God in the law. Isn’t it true, he is asking them, that disobeying the law always had just consequences?
So, if this is true of God’s message given by angels, then what does that mean for this great and wonderful salvation that God has wrought for us in Christ? This salvation is done, it is the accomplished reality. And this word given to us in the Son, has addressed us. Where can we go if we neglect this reality?
I think, from looking over the whole letter to the Hebrews, that the original readers were people who had first received the good news of God’s love for them in Christ with joy. But, for various reasons they were now not content to trust completely in the Son. Maybe they were impressed with the various ideas current about angels and wanted to be “with it” or “super-spiritual”. Or maybe they wanted to find ways to get God to do what they wanted Him to do. Isn’t this what happens to us? When we are struggling, don’t we hope that some new program, some new technique in prayer, will be “more effective” in our spiritual life? Or maybe they feared that the difficulties they were encountering in their lives were proof that God wasn’t pleased with them. So, maybe they need to add back the sacrificial system to their faith.
The author attempts to help his readers in two ways, and he will continue this through the rest of his letter. The first, and most primary thing that he does is to help them to focus again on the wonderful person and work of Jesus, and therefore, on the astounding grace of the triune God. He seeks to feed their weak trust by inviting them to look deeply and fully at the character, purposes and work of God. He doesn’t chide them and tell them to just “have more faith”. In showing them the greatness of Jesus, they can see more clearly the foolishness of their doubts, anxieties, fears, and efforts to add to their trust in Christ. This look at Jesus is what most of the letter is about.
Secondly, the author issues intermittent warnings. He wants them to see the danger of counting on lesser things, or believing and acting on their fears. Because when they do these things they are drifting away from a real, vibrant living trust in the living God, which means they are drifting from reality. Later he will warn them that this drifting can lead to actual rejection of the grace of God. But here he wants them to understand that when they try to add something else to their trust in Christ, they are actually moving away from Christ. C.S. Lewis spoke of this in his essay, “First and Second Things”. He says there that when we put “second” things first: family, friends, our attempts to please God, etc., we end up losing the first thing, which is God Himself, and also losing the second because nothing can truly take the place God occupies and so ruin it by trying to make it into something it is not. The Hebrews were losing their proper appreciation of angels and their Jewish heritage by trying to put them on the same level as Christ. But they were also losing their relationship with the Son, because they were not fully resting in and relying on Him.
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