There’s an intriguing note at the end of Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He writes, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10). Now, when we read that text, we don’t say, “Really? Demas deserted you?” because we really don’t know much about Demas. He only comes up in two other places in Scripture, both of which are merely Paul giving a list of people who send their greetings, and he includes Demas in both lists. So the most written about this individual named Demas in any one text of Scripture is this note that he loved this present world and deserted Paul.
But before we are tempted to start thinking about what a lousy person Demas was, we should stop and think about the little we do know about him positively. For one, it seems that he accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. That, of course, implies at a minimum that he was a professing believer, willing to profess faith in Christ in a time in the history of the world where doing so could invite much persecution. Moreover, his profession of faith was followed by him joining Paul’s missionary team. And lest we forget, joining Paul’s missionary team would be risky. You’d be pairing up with a guy who was beaten more times than he could count. Multiple times Paul was beaten near death, once was stoned, was shipwrecked three times, was adrift at sea, was hungry, was thirsty, and on and on. And it’s hard to imagine that Demas could be one of Paul’s companions and be exempt from that. Surely when Paul found himself hungry and without food, Demas wasn’t sitting next to him, eating a sixteen ounce steak. Paul’s sufferings were no doubt shared by his entire missionary team. So, here is a professing believer, so outwardly committed to following Christ that he joined Paul’s missionary team, and who suffered much for the sake of the gospel. Yet Paul describes him in 2 Timothy 4:10 as one who has deserted him because he was “in love with the present world.”
What happened? Obviously we can’t know specifically. At some moment Demas looked like one of the more committed believers on the planet, and at a later moment he’d fallen in love with the world and deserted Paul. But my guess is that this love for the world didn’t happen in an instant. That is, I doubt that one second Demas was singing hymns with Paul while under persecution, and the next second he was chasing after the things of this world. Rather, I imagine, there was a slow and gradual development of disobedience, a drifting away from what he once professed to treasure to a love for the world and the things therein. And this reality that many professing believers have walked this path of drifting from the Lord should sound an alarm for us because we are not immune to these temptations as well. The slow drift away from Christ can characterize any of us in this room the same way it has characterized many in history. And for that reason we need texts that provide a sharp piercing in our hearts and call us to wake up from our slumber and drifting. One text that does that for us is Hebrews 2:1-4.
This is the first of the warning texts that we often think of when we consider the book of Hebrews. We’ll see more of these texts later in the book, as they are especially strong in chapters 6 and 10. But we see the first one right here. I mentioned when we started this book that these Jewish believers were being tempted to walk away from Jesus and put themselves back under the regulations of the old covenant, with its regulations regarding the priesthood, temple, and sacrifices for sin. And the author of Hebrews wants them to see that turning away from Jesus to go back to these old covenant practices is not simply another way to practice Christianity. It is a departure from Christianity altogether and will lead to their damnation.
Therefore, for these first two weeks through this study, I’ve noted that we might anticipate the author of this letter coming out of the gates with severe warnings. But instead, he began by building a positive case for the supremacy of Jesus to all things. Considering that these professing believers were tempted to turn back to the old covenant law, which Scripture tells us was delivered by angels,i he spent the first chapter showing us that Jesus is superior to angels, and he’ll return to the issue of angels in 2:5. But it’s as if he couldn’t go on without throwing in a warning about the seriousness of their situation right in the middle of his argument. After all, this isn’t an issue of mere academic debate, but one in which the souls of his hearers were at stake. So, right in the middle of the argument regarding angels, the author of Hebrews throws in a warning against turning away from Jesus.
And, as I’ve noted, it is a warning that we all need to hear from time to time and maybe some of us desperately need to hear this morning. Therefore, I want to walk us through this text and ask us to contemplate this warning and see if there are things in our lives we need to turn from or give more attention to. But as we work through the text, I’m going to work through it a bit backwards. I’m going to start in verse 4 and generally work my way up through the text to verse 1, and the reason I want to do that isn’t because of some crafty technique I’ve learned in some preaching class (in fact, most preaching books would probably tell you not to do this) but is because this is how the logic of the text makes most sense to me. So, as we work through the argument of 2:1-4, the first point I want us to see is that the gospel message is glorious, sure, and certain.
The gospel message is glorious, sure, and certain
As we read through the text a few minutes ago, you saw that in verse 3 the author begins to speak of the salvation that is found in Christ. He begins by asking how we shall escape if we neglect the salvation that comes in Christ (a point I will get to shortly). But then he speaks of the message of salvation revealed in Christ, saying, “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” (vv. 3b-4).
What we see is that he’s referring back to what he spoke of in 1:1-2. To open the book of Hebrews, he wrote, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” And as I explained when looking at those verses two weeks ago, what the author is saying is that in the Old Testament we read of the words that God spoke to his people through the prophets. But when Jesus came, God spoke to us a better word. He revealed himself not merely by using prophets as mouthpieces of God, but God the Son actually came to us himself. The Son is the revelation of the Father to us. And as he spoke, he spoke the words of God, for he is himself God the Son. And then the Spirit took Jesus’ words and brought them to remembrance in the minds of the NT authors and led them into all truth so that the NT is not merely Jesus’ words as he spoke during the time prior to his ascension, they are also Jesus’ further words, revealed by the Spirit to the NT authors. Therefore, we can look at the NT and say nothing less than that these are the words of the Son of God, who is the final, clear, and full revelation of God.
Therefore, when we get to 2:3b-4, the author of Hebrews wants us to see how glorious and sure and certain the message of salvation in Christ is. So, he first notes that this salvation that his readers are being tempted to turn from was “declared at first by the Lord.” In other words, the gospel message was first declared explicitly by the Lord himself. Jesus was the one who first spoke of himself as the fulfilment of everything the OT pointed to. He was the one who came preaching that he would die and rise from the dead. He was the one who called people to repent and believe in him so that they might know forgiveness of sins and eternal life. He came declaring this message of salvation. But that’s not all.
The author of Hebrews also adds that “it was attested to us by those who heard.” That is to say, the author of Hebrews and the initial readers of this letter weren’t among those first group of believers who walked with Jesus, heard him, and saw him. But they heard the gospel message declared to them by those who were eye witnesses. So the very people who first preached the gospel to these professing believers were able to say things like, “I know Jesus rose from the dead because I saw him after his resurrection.” After all, we know that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time after he’d been raised. The testimony that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead was not something that a group of people came up with sometime in the fourth century. It was attested to by people that saw Jesus live, die, and rise from the dead. It was attested to by eye witnesses and those who heard Jesus teach, who were able to reach out and touch him.
Finally, God bore witness to the truth of this gospel message that the apostles and first believers were teaching by performing “signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (v. 4). We see this in those early days of gospel preaching in the book of Acts, don’t we? It was an extraordinary time. We evangelize, but they were preaching and 3,000 were coming to Christ or 5,000 were coming to Christ. We see the Spirit give us gifts and work in miraculous ways in our lives, but they were seeing his work so miraculously that people were trying to get in Peter’s shadow so that they might be healed (Acts 5:15), and others were simply touching handkerchiefs or aprons that had been handled by Paul and were being healed and freed from demonic oppression (Acts 19:11-12). This was an extraordinary time, and the author of Hebrews says that God was working in those extraordinary ways in order to attest to the truthfulness of the gospel message that forgiveness of sins and eternal life is found through faith in Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection alone.
Now, if we put that all together, there’s no way you should reasonably question the gospel preaching and teaching that we find in the pages of the New Testament. It was spoken by the Lord, delivered to others by those who were eye witnesses to Jesus’ life and teaching, and attested to by God working miraculously through the Holy Spirit. This New Testament is clearly the words of God himself to us, telling us of the salvation that we have through faith in Jesus. That’s point one of the argument that I want us to see. The second is that the law of Moses was reliable, God-given, and God-executed.
There might be a temptation for us to say that if the new covenant has come in Christ so that we have the NT and we’re under a new priest (Jesus v. the priesthood of Aaron) and a new law (the law of Christ v. the law of Moses), then perhaps the law of Moses that we see in the Old Testament Scriptures really wasn’t from God, really wasn’t reliable, and wasn’t really taken seriously even by God himself. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The author of Hebrews writes in verse 2, “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution . . .”, and we’ll stop there for a second. But do you see what he’s saying?
The Old Testament is God’s Word. Yes, God gave Moses some regulations about the work of the priests and animal sacrifices that were merely shadows and have become obsolete because Christ has fulfilled them. Yes, God gave Moses some laws for the people of Israel that were administered only under the old covenant so that we no longer have to fear picking up sticks in our yard on Saturday, wearing clothes made of two kinds of thread, or eating pork or catfish. They were temporarily given. In the words of Paul in Galatians, the law “was added . . . until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made,” and that promised offspring was Jesus (Gal. 3:19), who has come.
But the temporary nature of the old covenant God gave to Israel doesn’t mean that it wasn’t something serious. The author of Hebrews says that it was reliable. That is, it was God’s Word. It is God’s Word. When we read the law of Moses we rightly say, “These are the words of God.” And everything God said under the old covenant, he expected to be obeyed. If you did pick up sticks on the Sabbath, there was serious punishment. If you refused to bring your sacrifice for the priest to offer at the tabernacle or the temple, you would face the wrath and judgment of God. We read, for example, in Numbers 15:32-36 that the people of Israel found a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath day, so they brought him to Moses and asked what should be done, and the Lord said to Moses, “’The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses” (vv. 35-36). Again, as the author of Hebrews says, “Every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution” (v. 2).
Now, we’re getting to the logical conclusion of these first two points that the author of Hebrews gives to us in the form of a question at the beginning of v. 3, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” I’ll note this third point as a statement: if we don’t take hold of salvation through Jesus, we will not escape God’s judgment.
Turning from Jesus will result in divine judgment
Do you see how the logic works? If God’s Word that he has spoken by his Son is superior to the word he spoke to the fathers through the prophets, and if the words of the prophets were so serious that God severely punished all those who disobeyed them, then how in the world do these Jewish believers think that they’ll escape God’s punishment if they turn away from Jesus, God’s clear, full, and final revelation of himself to us?
If those who neglected offering their lambs faced God’s wrath (and they did), then how much more devastating will be the wrath received by those who neglect holding fast in faith to Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? If God condemned those who picks up sticks on the Sabbath under the old covenant, do you really think he’ll simply lavish mercy on those who reject Jesus, the bearer of the superior new covenant?
This kind of thing makes sense to us in real life. If the king tells one of his generals to issue a command and that command is disobeyed by the soldiers, those soldiers are punished. But how much more serious would it be for the king himself to come off his throne, issue a command to one of his soldiers, and that command be disobeyed right in the king’s face? That’s the way the author of Hebrews is arguing here. God the Son has come to us to make himself known and achieve salvation for his people. If we refuse to follow him in faith, then do we really think we’ll escape God’s judgment? Don’t for one second think that on the day of judgment God will refuse to judge those who have failed to obey the Son. There is no hidden mercy to be found on that day if we neglect salvation in the Son. And if you think you can somehow escape judgment, then read your OT again. When he commands that were temporary in nature, he severely punished those who disobeyed them. How much more will he punish those who disobey the Son—his clear, full, and final revelation?
The answer to the question, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” is clearly that we won’t. There will be no escape from judgment. The only escape is to bow the knee to Christ in faith now, before the day of judgment.
But the author of Hebrews doesn’t leave us merely with this argument and damning question. He gives us an exhortation. It’s up in verse 1, and it’s the exhortation I want us to hear this morning. He writes, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” And this lead us to our final point: make sure we’re not drifting from Jesus.
Make sure we’re not drifting from Jesus
This is the author’s concern. He sees a people drifting from Jesus. We don’t know exactly why. Maybe they were trying to escape persecution that was aimed at followers of Jesus? Maybe they just wanted to start sinning in ways they knew Jesus condemned. Maybe they were enticed by what looked like beautiful ceremonies under the old covenant. Maybe gathering with the saints and singing, hearing the reading of Scripture, hearing the preaching of God’s Word, and celebrating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper just felt a bit drab compared to a priest in his nice-looking garment, walking through ceremonial washings, and offering the sacrifice of blood. We don’t know why they were drifting from Jesus, but they were drifting from Jesus. And the author of Hebrews is telling them to open their eyes. Stop and pay closer attention to Jesus. Stop drifting because they were drifting toward hell.
Now for us this morning, I seriously doubt that any of us in this room are tempted to go back to the rituals of the old covenant with its regulations and sacrifices. But I don’t think this warning against drifting misses us. Rather, we simply need to ask ourselves what might cause us to drift? Hell is not going to be filled merely with those who were thieves and murderers. It will be filled with individuals who once professed faith in Jesus and then slowly drifted from him until their lives bore no resemblance to him at all. A profession of faith is just that—a profession—and our lives will prove whether that profession is accurate.
So what might cause you to drift? It could be that the pull of sexual pleasure outside of marriage is strong, and you’re engaging in sexual sin with the person you’re dating, or viewing things on your phone or computer or tv that you shouldn’t. And it’s slowly hardening your heart and pulling you away. Maybe you’re making a habit right now that when your pain and insecurities surface, instead of turning to Jesus, you’re turning to alcohol to try to numb your pain, and it’s callousing your heart more and more each day. Maybe it’s simply your desire to consume your heart with sports or searching the internet instead of praying faithfully. Maybe it’s whatever keeps you from gathering with the people of God on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps it’s that thought that you just need more time for yourself, and it’s slowly lessening your love for Jesus and his people. Drifting is more of a threat to us than any gross sin we might imagine, and I don’t know what might be specifically tempting you to drift, but my guess is that you do. You know what’s pulling at your heart.
So this morning I want us to “pay much closer attention to what we’ve heard” in Jesus, and turn from our drifting. Plant our feet firmly and turn our faces to Christ in repentance and faith. The Lord will lavish his grace on you in that moment. He abounds in steadfast love, but if we neglect Jesus, we will not escape his judgment. So let us this morning, turn and fix our eyes on Jesus in repentance and faith, even as we come to the table. Amen.
i See, for example, Acts 7:38, 53, and Galatians 3:19.