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Sermon preached on Hebrews 2:1-4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/8/2018 in Novato, CA.
“So Great a Salvation”
There’s the hymn with the line, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” That’s a real temptation. It’s addressed right here in this passage too, right in verse 1. There is the concern of drifting away from the faith. Yes, reformed Christians affirm the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, that a true believer will not ultimately and finally fall away from the faith. Yet, the reality is that some who are outwardly in the visible church, who claim at some point to believe, who even seem to bear fruit, do fall away. Our doctrine of the perseverance of the saints rightly would say that such people never really knew the Lord. And yet that’s the issue before us. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints only applies to the elect. There can be people who at one point profess faith, are baptized into the church, and then fall away. This passage reminds us of this threat. Therefore, as in the words of the Apostle Peter, we must all be diligent to make our calling and election sure. How can we go about that? Well, one way is to do what today’s passage in Hebrews is telling us to do. Today’s passage calls us to persevere in faith in the revelation we have received from Christ. As we look at that today then, recognize the context for this exhortation. Verse 1 begins with the word “therefore”. In light of everything we saw in chapter 1 about Christ and the superior revelation he has brought us, “therefore” let us persevere in faith in this message.
So then, in our first point for today, I want us to observe what this exhortation is saying in terms of perseverance and faith. Notice how this exhortation begins in verse 1. “We must give the more earnest heed.” These are strong words here. We “must” do this; the wording is saying it is necessary. What must we do? Give heed; pay attention to; be concerned about this gospel message and the Christian faith. Interestingly, the word for “heed” here can be used as a nautical term for bringing your ship to port and anchoring there. That becomes colorful imagery when we remember that the end of the verse talks about the concern of drifting away. Imagine a ship in the ocean in the open waters, without an anchor in the water. It will drift away. It will be tossed to and fro. The solution to not drifting away into sea for a boat is to bring the ship back to port and anchor down. Well, we are called here to bring our attention back to Christ and his words. That’s the heeding talked about here. The Bible’s teachings, our doctrine, should anchor us. And don’t miss the words “more earnest”. Not only must we give heed, we must give “more earnest” heed. Whatever we’ve been doing in terms of holding to the words of Christ we need to do it all the more. We need to be more closely holding to Christ’s words. We need to be more carefully following his teachings. We need to be greater in our zeal in following Christ.
Verse 3 continues to describe the perseverance and faith we need by speaking of the opposite. There in verse 3 it speaks against neglect. We should not neglect the great salvation we have been offered in Christ. The word neglect could also be translated as to disregard or to pay no attention. Don’t disregard or become distracted when it comes to this great salvation. We need to become renewed in our interest in Christ and the gospel. We need to be refocused. We need to hear and receive this exhortation today to recommit ourselves all the more to following Christ and the gospel.
Think of counsel of Deuteronomy 6. There, speaking of remembering the law, it says this: Deuteronomy 6:7, ”You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” That’s a colorful picture about how to remember the revelation received in the Old Testament. How much more should we be practical like this regarding what we are told here to hold onto. Let us daily and throughout the day think of Christ and his words for us. Let us think of them, speak of them, post them all around. May we have this careful and close attention to them. May we be practical like this, even, in finding ways to keep the Word always before us.
Let us take this counsel to heart here in Hebrews 2. How easy and common it is that through the years our Christian zeal wanes. Maybe it even waivers. There are many forces that would try to make us drift off course. We need to be anchored. We need to be firmly rooted.
So then, in our second point, let’s look here at what we are to be anchored and rooted in. We’ve been saying it already, that we are talking about Christ and the revelation that’s he brought us. That’s what we need to heed all the more. We’ve been saying that, but let’s observe it in the text, because there is more is said about this revelation. Start in verse 1. There it talks about things which we have heard. This goes back to chapter 1, verse 2. It references how in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son. That is restated in today’s passage in verse 2: the things that at the first were spoken by the Lord. Verse 2 summarizes what we heard as this “great salvation”. That should make us especially think of the gospel.
So then, there is a contrast here again in terms of old covenant revelation. Remember, that’s how chapter 1 started out. It compared how in these last days God’s spoke through his Son, whereas in the former days he spoke through prophets. Now we see that revisited, but this time with the older revelation as being described in verse 2 as coming through angels. That’s how the Old Testament came: through prophets and/or angels. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see similar language. Like in Acts 7, Stephen says of how Moses received the law from angels of God. And notice how verse 2 describes that former revelation. It describes what the angels gave in terms of law. Laws that had sanctions for disobedience attached. In contrast, what Jesus brings here is put in terms of salvation. Now, yes, to be fair, the prophets of the Old Testament received a lot of revelation about salvation. And the revelation Jesus brought also contained laws. But I think it is very fitting that here it uses a broad brush to summarize the old revelation in terms of law and the newer revelation in terms of salvation or gospel. The old covenant has an emphasis on law with a great promise of gospel and salvation that would come to fruition when God sent the Son. The new covenant still has laws but first and foremost it is founded upon the gospel of salvation which calls for faith in Jesus Christ.
There is one last contrast here that can be made about the former revelation and the newer revelation. We already said in our first sermon that Christ came as a better prophet. But in light of last sermon, we also see he came with revelation as one superior to any angel in the past who brought revelation. So, again, we see Christ exalted.
This passage yet further tells us about this revelation we have in Jesus Christ. It speaks of how it was confirmed to them and to us. Verse 3 says that Jesus’ words were confirmed by those that heard Jesus personally. That especially refers to the apostles as the official eye witnesses of Christ, though we know others also saw and heard Christ during his earthly ministry and bore witness to that. Like the five hundred mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 to whom Jesus appeared to all at once after his resurrection. But this passage says it wasn’t just the apostles who confirmed Jesus’ words. They weren’t the only ones to bear witness. Verse 4 says that God also bore witness with them. The word there is very specific. It’s a joint witness going on. These eye-witnesses and God together testified to Christ and his message. Look at how God bore witness to Christ and his revelation. Two sorts of things. First, by signs and wonders and various miracles. Second, by gifts of the Holy Spirit, giving in varying measure. I would think the gifts of the Holy Spirit especially reference the supernatural gifts, like tongues and prophecy. The point is the same point we made recently in our sermon series on cessationism. The purpose of such miracles was to confirm revelation, in this case the revelation that Jesus brought to humanity while he was here on earth.
And so, in this second point, we are reminded of what we are to be persevering in. Not only in God’s Word in general, but especially in the message Christ brought. We are to be holding fast in faith to Christ and the gospel. Let’s turn now to our third and final point for today. I want us to see how this passage says there is great danger in not doing this. If we don’t persevere in our Christian faith, we are threatened here with destruction and great loss. He makes this point first by considering the sanctions under the old covenant. In verse 2, he refers to the old revelation, to the law given by the angels. He said it proved steadfast. This is legalese in the Greek. This angelic revelation was legally valid and binding. When we see the legal language here and the talk of a “just” reward we should think covenant. The language of witnesses in the next verses continues this legal, covenantal tone. So, we have in view here the old covenant mediated through angels and prophets. Verse 3 says that violation of the law under that covenant met such transgressions with a just reward. There were legally valid punishments given under the old covenant. The word for just is also a legal term referring to what is in keeping with justice. The word for reward is about giving someone their wages. In other word the punishment envisioned for breaking the law is what their transgression has earned under the law. So many examples can be seen of this in the Old Testament. Remember Nadab and Abihu struck dead for going into the tabernacle with strange fire in their prevision of worship. Remember how Achan was stoned to death for taking some spoil from Jericho which God had devoted to destruction. Remember how Israel suffered the various covenant curses repeatedly under the time of Judges the for their breaking of the law. I could go on. The Old Testament is a large record of such sanctions.
In light of how sure God’s law was in the Old Testament, and how its sanctions were so clearly enforced, the question then turns in verse 3 to think of the new covenant. How then “shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” This is a “how much more” type argument. If under the old testament, such disobedience was met with God’s wrath, how much more destruction will come upon those who turn away from the gospel of Jesus Christ? Remember why this is a “how much more” argument. It’s comparing the law given through angels versus the gospel given through the Son. Since that angelic revelation proved sure and reliable and came with the power to enforce it, how much more when the bringer of revelation stands far above these angels. I think of the parable of the wicked tenants that Jesus told in Mark 12. The wicked tenants wouldn’t give the owner his share of the land’s produce. The owner sent servant after servant to collect whom they beat or killed. Finally, the owner sent his very own son, thinking they would surely respect his son. Clearly, there was something greater there acknowledged about the owner sending his very own son. In the parable, the wicked tenants still wouldn’t listen and they kill the son. But the point Jesus makes is that then the owner will surely come in great wrath because of how they treated his son. So then, this warning stands for us today. God was serious about his revelation being heard and heeded under the old covenant. Surely, this is all the more the case under the revelation that he has sent through his Son. Think of this imagery of not being able to escape. Think of that day of wrath. Imagine trying to flee, trying to run away from the Lord as he comes in judgment in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
This may sound like just another fire and brimstone sermon, but it is the warning given here. Yet, I love how it puts this warning. Yes, we’ve been warned how bad it will be if we disregard the gospel of salvation. It says this is bad because of how firm even the old covenant was as delivered by angels and prophets. It says its bad especially because this revelation has now been delivered in the new covenant by the Son of God himself. This all tells us how greatly to fear if we turn away from this gospel. If we ignore it, and disregard it, we can be absolutely certain that God’s terrible judgment will befall us. Yet, flip that around. If that judgment and wrath is so certain, what does that say for those who do continue in faith in this great salvation? It means we can have absolute certainty of being saved! If the saints of old could hope on the promise of salvation given by prophets and angels – which they did, see Hebrew 11; if they could hope like they did, then how much more us? How much more firm, more sure, is the promised salvation which has been spoken to us by the Son. If we heed his gospel, if we trust in Jesus by faith, then we can be fully certain of our salvation. And how great of a salvation it is!
And the firmness and certainty of this salvation message is not only because Jesus came better than prophets and better than angels. The firmness and certainty of this salvation message is not only because he came as the Son with this message from heaven. The firmness and certainty compared to the older revelation is because of what it meant in his coming; because of what he did in his coming. In the older revelation, they received promises of the salvation to come in a promised messiah. But with Jesus coming, the salvation has arrived! In the older revelation, they had types and shadows that said how God would deal with our sin and guilt. But with Jesus coming, the real sacrifice and the real solution for sin came; purification for sins has been made. And so, though the gospel of grace could even be found under the old covenant in promises and types and shadows, now it has arrived in substance with the Son coming out of heaven and the Son making purification for sins. This is why this great salvation is so firm and certain!
My friends, this gospel encouragement is so important because like the saints of old, there is still a dimension of waiting for us. We still need patience. Christ accomplished so much in his first coming. The end has been inaugurated; our salvation has fundamentally been secured. Yet, we still must live as pilgrims here and now until Christ’s return. That is why we have the encouragement of this passage. On the one hand, we must persevere in faith in Christ and the gospel until the end, lest we face God’s certain wrath on the day of judgment. On the other hand, the other way of looking at it, is to be encouraged that for those who continue in faith until the end, we have the certainty and guarantee of an eternal blessed life in the glory to come. These are two sides of the same coin. May both the firmness of the warning and but especially of the hope encourage us and spur us on today.
So then, in conclusion brothers and sisters, we have the application today to keep faith in God’s Word. We have the application to heed it, and to heed it all the more. The description here of the older revelation via the angels and prophets points us to the value of the Old Testament. The description here of the message from the Son confirmed by the eye witnesses points us to the value of the New Testament. Let us recommit ourselves today to the attention we give to our faith and to the Bible. Let us resolve with renewed focus to make the Scripture our guide, our trust, and our hope. Let’s not just say with lip service that the Word is a lamp unto our feed and a light unto path. Let’s actually use it like that. Let’s see daily how it tells us to live and walk accordingly. Let’s not just give lip service to Psalm 1’s admonition to delight in the Word and to meditate on it day and night. Let’s actually do that; really look to love what’s here in this book; look to really think about it daily, throughout the day. Let us become recommitted to the close and careful study of the Scriptures and see that we are looking to live in faith and obedience to their teachings.
Surely, this application especially applies to what we do here each week when we gather for the reading and preaching of the Word. The Reformed tradition rightly has emphasized not only personal Bible study, but especially to see the value of the preached Word. Westminster Shorter Catechism 89 teaches that, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.” As we are reminded to pay closer heed to God’s Word today, we are especially reminded to pay closer heed to the preached Word today. That point comes out again in Hebrews 10:25 as it encourages the saints to keep assembling together, especially as the day of Christ’s return draws ever nearer. By the grace of God, may you heed this Word even now this day, unto this great salvation. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.