In my ministry, I have often had people tell me that I’m more of a teacher than I am a preacher.
Sometimes, people have told me this in a positive way, like, “I’ve been preached at all my life and told what to do and made to feel guilty and I like the way you present a more reasoned, thoughtful message.”
Other times, it’s a word of disappointment, like the man who once said to me, "You spend so long setting the table that by the time you bring out the food I'm not hungry anymore!"
Actually, we use the words “preaching” and “teaching” differently than they are used in the Bible. We think of it as the difference between content and application – the teacher gives the content of the truth; the preacher makes an application of the truth to our lives - that's how we look at it. But, in the Bible, as far as I can tell, the word “preaching” refers to a person explaining and applying the gospel message; teaching is the process of informing and calling Christians to live out the gospel. So, we use it a bit differently than in the Bible.
But whatever weaknesses are when it comes to imparting the truth of the scriptures, we find out this morning that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews did not have that problem. He both explains and applies the text; he both informs his hearers and exhorts them… strongly!
The letter to the Hebrews is a written sermon – an exposition of various passages of the Old Testament that the writer both explains and applies. In fact, the writer sees the readers as being in great danger; so he’s not just explaining the Bible as an interesting historical relic. He’s not making (as one of the puritans said 300 years ago), “the drowsy request of someone who does not even seem to mean what he says.” He warns them of the danger they face.
The letter to the Hebrews contains five warning passages that grow in intensity through the first twelve chapters of the book. The writer’s approach is interesting – he first gives an exposition of a theme, based on Old Testament texts; then the makes a strong application warning the hearers of their danger; then, he turns back to exposition again of the same theme.
The book starts by underlining Jesus’ superiority to the angels in chapter one, quoting and explaining verses along the way. Then, we come to the first warning this morning in chapter 2.1–4. Then, he will turn back to same the subject of the superiority of Christ to the angels again in 2.5–18 before taking up a new subject in chapter three.
Essentially, up to this point, he has said that the angels are merely the servants of God. In fact, they are the servants of the people of God. Chapter 1 ends with these words: “Are they (the angels) not all ministering spirits sent out to the serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” The Son on the other hand is the agent of creation and the head of the people of God. The agent of creation is far superior to the mere servants of the created order.
And, having underlined this truth, the second chapter opens with the word, “Therefore,” or literally, “Because of this.” Because the Son is so superior to the angels, he says, “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”
He uses a nautical term that refers to the anchoring of a ship. You may have experienced this in a boat of any size, even a rowboat that you’re trying to secure to one spot so that you can do a little fishing. If the anchor doesn’t hold, the boat begins to drift away from where you want it to stay.
His image, however, is not a rowboat but a ship on the ocean that is not firmly anchored to the seabed so that it drifts. In the ancient world, few places had developed harbors that you could actually enter and dock at. Ships had to anchor offshore and then ferry people in smaller boats to the land. If the anchor didn’t hold firmly, the ship was in danger of drifting into the shoals, the shallow water close to land, or into the rocks at the shore where the ship would run aground and be broken up by the surf.
This is meant to be a vivid image to us of the danger of not firmly gripping the truth through careless negligence. And the writer’s insistence is that there is real danger of doing this. And the danger is stated clearly in the third verse:
“How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”
In other words, it is our very salvation – our deliverance from eternal hell – that is at stake in neglecting this message.
Our whole understanding salvation by grace comes into play here. Can I really have assurance of final salvation if I need to be warned against missing it? Is it possible for a person to only assume that he or she has this gift, but not yet have it? What exactly is the danger of the hearers? What is the nature of the warning? Unfortunately, that’s not the writer’s point yet – he’ll come to that later. But for now, we just need to hear the word of warning: Don’t drift! Hold fast!
Trace with me the writer’s thought to get us to the danger. What he does is compare two things – the old covenant, the Old Testament religion we might say, and the new covenant, the New Testament religion. The people of God under the law and the people of God under grace. The Old Testament system and the New Testament system.
Now, I know the common idea is that the Old Testament system was demanding and exact, it was based on the law that God gave for people to keep. The New Testament system is based on grace – and most people think that means it’s easier than the law. God is not exacting like under the law. He was demanding, intolerant and angry; now he’s tolerant and merciful and kind because of Jesus. I understand the feeling, but it’s not correct. The person who approaches the Bible in this way is in danger of misunderstanding both law and grace. A half-truth is no truth at all; that simple understanding of the distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament is not based on enough truth to carry you through a life of true discipleship. You need to fine-tune that understanding with some of what the writer to the Hebrews is teaching so that you have a full grasp on the truth of the gospel.
Here’s what he says:
2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 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, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb. 2.2–4)
The writer uses an argument common in the Old Testament and among the rabbis – it’s called “an argument from the lesser to the greater.”
I met my wife when we were 15 so we sort of grew up together. She has six siblings and sometimes when we’re all together they tell stories about growing up in their household. If their father disciplined one of the children – like you got sent to your room, or you couldn’t talk on the phone for a day, or whatever – if you cried, he would say, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” I’m sure no one else ever heard that!
That’s an argument from the lesser to greater. It means, “If you think that consequence is big, just wait until the next one comes along. That one will look like peanuts in comparison.”
Here, the writer compares the Old Testament message and the New Testament message.
First, the Old Testament message was binding: “Since the message proved to be reliable.” That means it was fixed, you could count on it, it had binding authority over your life. You were obligated to keep it.
How did you know that it was binding? Well, because, second, every violation brought an appropriate punishment: “every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution.”
But – though it was binding and its violation brought consequences – it was merely mediated by angels. When the law was first given you don’t have this fact underlined – there, in Exodus 20, you see it as just a transaction between Moses and God. But later in the Bible it becomes evident that angels were the mediators of the law to Moses. This is stated in the book of Deuteronomy which speaks of God coming to Sinai with myriads of his holy ones. It’s referred to in Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin before he is martyred in Acts 7. Paul makes a special point of it in Galatians 3. These all underline the special importance of the law; it was so significant that God used his special agents to carry the message to human beings.
The law was brought by angels and it was binding and it brought consequences. But then look at the New Testament message:
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb. 2.2–4)
If you thought the law was important, binding, authoritative, demanding of attention and careful obedience… think of the gospel.
There’s a common idea from the Old Testament, often repeated, that for a matter to be legally binding, there had to have two or three witnesses to confirm it. This made a murder conviction very difficult to obtain under the Old Testament system and it’s why we regard capital murder as requiring specific proof today - “Let every matter be confirmed by two or three witnesses.” Fingerprints on the murder weapon alone were not sufficient to convict someone of murder (using our modern terms); you had to have at least two and preferably three forms of testimony.
The gospel comes with three witnesses:
- It was declared at first by the Lord – that is, Jesus himself;
- It was attested to us by his eyewitnesses, some of whom at the point of writing are still living (though the writer is not one of them);
- God also bore witness through the holy Spirit in visible ways.
Now, the sentence doesn’t even need to say that the gospel is the authoritative message from God and it demands punishment for rejecting it. That’s understood. That’s the argument from the lesser to the greater – the point is, how much greater than a message conveyed by angels is the message which came with such attestation, such testimony – Jesus, the eyewitnesses, and God through the Holy Spirit?
That's why the writer says:
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, let we drift away from it” (Heb. 2.1).
So, apparently it is not a one-time acceptance of this message that matters. It is holding fast to this message; it is absorbing the meaning of the message – “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” To “drift” apparently, means to not be firmly anchored into the message, to have only a superficial grasp of it – like an anchor might be dropped into the mud bottom where it only rests until the slightest wind pulls it in away.
In American Christianity, we have this tendency to ask “What is the bare minimum that a person must believe in order to be saved?” We’ve come up with John 3.16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And it’s true! Whoever believes in Jesus as the only Son of God and Savior of sinners has eternal life! But that is not merely describing an experience that is in the past that is only represented by a memory – it is a promise made to a living faith that goes on; faith in Jesus as the Savior, willingness to listen to his word and respond to it.
- Salvation is not a prayer you prayed with Mom at bedtime when you were six that she wrote in the front of your Bible. Thank God, your salvation may have commenced at that time but you only know that because it is a faith that continues – it doesn’t have to be reminded by looking in the front of the Bible.
- Salvation is not that list of sins that you threw in the bonfire in ninth grade. You can’t look back to that as though that were the reason God loves you. Thank God, your relationship may have begun at that point – or it may have been just a memory of childhood that you have but it didn’t continue to direct anything about your thinking or living after that.
- You are not saved because you had an emotional experience at some kind of meeting in college, because you felt the presence of God, and heard what the speaker was saying and decided it was for you. If that has not resulted in a change of direction, a sense that things are different for you and you can’t just go on like everyone else doing whatever seems right to you or the people around you. Thank God it may have been a real experience – but you only know that because of what is going on now.
In other words, faith – true faith in Christ – is not merely an historical memory of an experience in the past. It is a living relationship with Jesus Christ. It is possible that such an experience was just a casting of the anchor overboard in real hopes of grasping the Savior of sinner – but it can’t hold in the mud-bottom o the human heart. The heart must be changed.
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, let we drift away from it” (Heb. 2.1).
Before we finish, let’s look at the last warning in the book of Hebrews. It is in chapter twelve. The writer again contrasts what we have in Jesus with what was found in the Old Testament, now in very graphic terms, beginning in verse 18. In the gospel, in God’s final word through his Son, you have something much greater than our ancestors had in the law. Then, he says in verse 25:
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12.25–29)
So, let’s be clear about what you are I are doing when we meet like this in this room on a Sunday morning, and the scriptures are opened and read, and I stand up to explain and apply them.
Well, I’m seeking to help you adopt and apply a certain mindset in life. What is that mindset? It is an approach to life that says, “This world is not my final, true home.” This world, in its present form, is part of God’s creation – it is important and to be valued. But, its present form is only temporary. That isn’t true only of the physical state of the world; it is even more true of the values and the standards and the behaviors that are connected with this world. All of those things are destined for the trash-heap of the universe – all the pomp of this world, all of the valuing of external appearance over internal substance, all of the vanity of life that concentrates on possessing things rather than loving people, all of the structures of the world that promote one class over another. It is all destined to change.
We’re all caught up in it – at least, if we’re left to ourselves. We’ll adopt those philosophies, and we’ll live by those standards, and we’ll behave in those ways. But I’m here, with this book, to tell you that God is calling us to a better world, a different world. In reality, it will be this world – made of the same material, but re-made, re-constituted, re-fashioned into new heavens and a new earth.
So, what I’m trying to do here is to convince you not to spend all of your time and attention on this world; not to be enticed by its trifling little decorations and not to be caught up in its supposed values. I’m trying to convince you to lay hold of that “kingdom that cannot be shaken” and to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”