1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 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. – Hebrews 2:1-4 ESV
As the author of Hebrews made clear in the opening of his letter, angels were “ministering spirits” sent by God “to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14 ESV). It was an angel who declared the coming of the Messiah to a young Hebrew girl named Mary.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:30-33 ESV
It had been a host of angels that declared the birth of the Messiah to a group of trembling shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11 ESV
And 30 years later, it was two angels who encouraged Jesus’ stunned disciples as they stood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, staring into the sky where their Lord and Savior had just disappeared out of sight.
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:11 ESV
Angels were messengers but they weren’t the Messiah. As ministering spirits, they could encourage, inform, and deliver good news, but they were unable to provide forgiveness from sin or victory over death and the grave. Both Paul and Peter described the essential role that angels played in the deliverance of the Mosaic Law.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
The Jewish people believed that angels were present when God gave Moses the law on Mount Sinai and they base this belief on a verse found in the Torah. In this passage, Moses records his recollection of that day.
“The Lord came from Sinai
and dawned over them from Seir;
he shone forth from Mount Paran.
He came with myriads of holy ones
from the south, from his mountain slopes.” – Deuteronomy 33:2 NIV
And centuries later, Stephen preached a sermon to a gathering of Jews in the city of Jerusalem, in which he reminded them of the role that God’s ministering servants had played on that memorable day.
“This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.” – Acts 7:37-38 ESV
And as Peter wrapped up his sermon, he confronted his unbelieving Jewish audience about the danger of dismissing the message concerning the new covenant. They were running the risk of rejecting God’s message of hope and deliverance yet again.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT
This bold declaration by Stephen was not well received. The angry mob, offended by his words, dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. As Stephen made clear in his sermon, the Jews had a habit of killing the messenger. Over the centuries, they had shown their predisposition for rejecting the word of God delivered through His messengers. The law had been delivered to Moses through the mediation of angels, but the people had ended up rejecting it. The prophets had delivered God’s call to repentance, but the people had rejected it. And Jesus, the penultimate messenger from God, had delivered the news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Him alone. But they had not only rejected His message but they eventually killed the messenger.
In the book of Hebrews, the author is writing to Hebrew Christians who find themselves under pressure to reject the good news regarding Jesus and return to their former status as covenant-keeping, law-abiding Jews. But He warns his readers against slipping away from the truth regarding salvation. That message of salvation came from the lips of Jesus Himself and was fulfilled by His bodily sacrifice on the cross. Jesus had clearly taught, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV).
He claimed, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9 ESV). He had told Martha, just before he raised Lazarus from the dead, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26 ESV). And Jesus told Nicodemus, the Pharisee, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).
So, the author tells his readers, “…we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Hebrews 2:1 ESV). The message of Jesus, carried on by His disciples after His ascension into heaven, had been circulated among both Jews and Gentiles, resulting in many people coming to faith in Him as their Savior. But there was always the real possibility of drifting away by those who had embraced the good news of the gospel.
The Greek term the author uses is pararreō and it means to “let slip, glide by.” Rather than remain anchored to the truth regarding their salvation, they were beginning to drift away, carried by a current of moral subjectivity and doctrinal heresy.
In chapter six of this same letter, the author reminds his readers, “So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary” (Hebrews 6:18-19 NLT).
We will not drift as long as we remain firmly attached to the truth of the gospel. Those who fled to Jesus for refuge from condemnation and the penalty for sin can have great confidence that He will one day return for them. Drifting always begins with doubt. When our assurance weakens, the likelihood of our drifting increases.
That church’s experience 2,000 years ago intersects our lives in this way: drifting is the besetting sin of our day. And as the metaphor suggests, it is not so much intentional as from unconcern. Christians neglect their anchor—Christ—and begin to quietly drift away. There is no friction, no dramatic sense of departure. But when the winds of trouble come, the things of Christ are left far behind, even out of sight. – R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews
The author compares the message concerning Jesus with “the message declared by angels,” which refers to the Mosaic law. Look closely again at the words of Moses recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.
The Lord came from Sinai and revealed himself to Israel from Seir. He appeared in splendor from Mount Paran, and came forth with ten thousand holy ones. With his right hand he gave a fiery law to them. – Deuteronomy 33:2 NET
The author of Hebrews says that message, the law, proved to be reliable. What it said about sin and punishment was accurate, just, and righteous. It revealed that all men are sinners and incapable of living up to God’s holy standard. So, the author asks, “So what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?” (Hebrews 2:3 NLT).
This passage is not suggesting that Christians can lose their salvation. It is talking about drifting away from the truth and the hope found in the gospel. It is talking about allowing doctrinal drift to subtly creep into your life, causing you to doubt the veracity of God’s promise of eternal life through faith in Christ.
The message of salvation declared by Jesus was carried on by the apostles. It was supported by signs and wonders. It was proven by the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the church. But despite all this, there is always the temptation to lose our grip on the solid rock of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The issue has to do with doctrinal drift that begins with doubting the promises attached to the gospel message.
When we begin to wonder if faith alone is enough, we will begin to add to the gospel. This usually begins when we allow present circumstances to define the veracity of the gospel message. If things don’t appear to be going quite the way we expected, we begin to wonder if something is missing. We question whether there is more that we need to be doing. Difficulties can bring doubt. Doubt can lead to drift. Drift can result in shoddy doctrine. And we end up neglecting or discounting the “great salvation” made possible through faith in Christ. As soon as we start doubting our salvation, we will find ourselves prone to doctrinal drift, a subtle, but dangerous unmooring of our faith in the one thing that can truly provide us with hope. It doesn’t mean we lose our salvation, but we will most certainly lose our ability to enjoy peace in the storm, joy in the midst of sorrow, hope in spite of setbacks, and assurance in the face of uncertainty.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.