The Lord's Day Morning
January 20, 2013
“Better — Neglecting So Great a Salvation”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 2. We’re going to be looking at verses 1 to 4 this morning as we continue our way through this great letter together.
Last week and the week before we were looking at Hebrews chapter 1 and we saw from the very beginning that Hebrews is a book about Jesus. You can't get out of the first three verses without seeing that this is a book focused on the person and work of Jesus. And over and over in this book there is a theme that Jesus is better, that He is greater, that He is more excellent than, that He is superior to. In fact, I had an interesting conversation with one of our elders last week. He said, “Why is that word, ‘better,’ bothering me?” He said, “Jesus isn't just better, He's in an entirely different category!” Well that, in fact, is precisely the point that the author of Hebrews is making with that comparative, “better,” because he knows that the people that he is writing to — this is a congregation populated with Hebrew Christians. They have been reared on the Torah, they have an enormously high respect for the Law of God, the Word of God, for Moses’ deliverances, for the miracles of the Old Testament, and they have such a high opinion of that that some of them are tempted not to realize how great Jesus is. And so the comparative comes in there — Jesus is better. The whole point is to press home the supremacy and the all sufficiency of Jesus Christ. And so we saw that as we studied the first chapter of this book together over the last two Sundays.
This morning, the author gets to his first exhortation in the book. You will see a pattern in this book of doctrine and then application, of theology and then exhortation. The Bible never leaves its theology hanging in the air. It always brings it to bear on the practical and eternal issues of life and that's exactly what happens in this passage. Having spent a chapter arguing for the superiority of Jesus Christ, for the supremacy of Jesus Christ, for the all sufficiency of Jesus Christ, the author of Hebrews is now going to answer the question, “So what? What's the significance of that? What's the implication of that? What's the practical effect of that truth in our lives?” He's going to press that home in the passage today.
And I want you to be on the lookout for four things that we're going to see as we read these verses together. The first thing is this. In verse 1, the author of Hebrews is going to stress the importance of the message of Jesus. He's just spent a chapter giving you a message about Jesus’ person and work. Now he's going to press home the importance of it. You’ll see that in verse 1. Then, as you look at verse 2 and 3, he will say that the consequences of ignoring the message of Jesus are enormous. So first he stresses the importance of the message of Jesus; then in verses 2 and 3 he shows the enormous consequences of ignoring the message of Jesus. Then, at the end of verse 3, he will confirm the message of Jesus; or rather he will show you how the message of Jesus has been confirmed. And then in verse 4, he will show you the divine testimony to the message of Jesus. So the importance of the message of Jesus, the consequences of ignoring the message of Jesus, the confirmation of the message of Jesus, and the divine testimony to the message of Jesus. Be on the lookout for that as we read this passage together today. Let's pray before we do.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. You mean it for Your glory and our good. Help us, we pray, not to miss a thing that You say to us and want us to understand in the hearing of this Word today. We ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 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, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
My guess is, this morning, that there are not many of us who are gathered here who are ready to deny or reject Jesus outright, but we may be in danger of drifting away from Him, of underestimating Him, of not adequately appreciating who He is and what He has done, of taking Him for granted. And the author of Hebrews is concerned to address just that kind of thing in this passage. And I want you to see three things this morning that we learn here.
THE GOSPEL MUST BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY
The first thing that the author of Hebrews says is that the Gospel must be taken seriously. That's what he's about in verse 1. Look with me at verse 1. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” What he's saying is that the Gospel must be taken seriously. What he has outlined for us in Hebrews chapter 1 is the Gospel. He's pointed us to Jesus, he's told us who Jesus is and what He accomplished in His work. So he's pointing to the person and work of Jesus and that is the essence of the Gospel message. It's a declaration from God to us about who Jesus is and what He has done for our salvation. And the author of Hebrews is, in the very first verse of chapter 2, saying, “You've got to take that Gospel seriously. You must not ignore that Gospel message. We must,” as he says, “pay much closer attention to what we have learned.” He's stressing the importance of our paying attention to what has been heard — the Gospel message, the message about Jesus.
And he stresses it because in this congregation there are apparently some people who are being tempted to abandon Jesus and go back to their Jewish heritage. They have come out of Judaism into the discipleship of Jesus Christ and they have acknowledged Jesus Christ and they've been baptized and they've been enfolded into the congregation, but now some of them, perhaps under the influence of fellow Jewish teachers in the time, have been saying, “You know, you can have everything you have in Christianity without rejecting your Jewish heritage just by coming back and following our brand of Messianic Judaism.” It's entirely possible that the kind of teaching that we know that was happening amongst the Essene community — you remember when we found the Dead Sea Scrolls, fifty, sixty, seventy years ago? We found out that they had been housed in an Essene camp of Jews. This is a special kind of Judaism and it taught a lot of things that are very, very similar to the things that you find in the New Testament but there's no emphasis on Jesus Christ. And it's entirely possible that this congregation has people in it that have been tempted to abandon Jesus and go back to their Jewish heritage. And the author of Hebrews says, “No, no, no. You've got to take the message of Jesus seriously. You cannot neglect it; you cannot drift away from Him.” And in the face of that temptation, this preacher is stressing the seriousness of the Gospel.
Well, there may be very few of us here this morning that are being tempted to abandon Jesus and to go to Judaism, but though that may be less of a danger than an outright or overt rejection of the Gospel, it is entirely possible that we are vulnerable to apathy or to indifference to Jesus or to Gospel truth. And the author of Hebrews is speaking to us today and he's saying, “You must not neglect the Gospel. The Gospel must be heard, it must be believed, it must be embraced.” That's the first thing. And really, that's the one point of the message; he's just going to emphasize it in these next two points that we cover.
SOMEONE GREATER THAN MOSES
The second thing that I want you to see you’ll see especially in verses 2 and 3. And the point here is, the Gospel must be taken seriously because someone greater than Moses is here. The Gospel must be taken seriously because someone greater than Moses is here. Here, he's addressing not just the importance of the Gospel message; he's addressing its consequence. Look at verse 2. “Since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” His point is this. If the disobedience of God's people in the Old Testament resulted in God justly judging them for their sins, what will happen if you reject the way of salvation that He has provided for you so that you are not condemned for disobedience to His Word?
We read about this, this morning. Turn with me to Jeremiah 14 and 15 again. Did you hear those chilling words that Ralph read during the Scripture reading? For instance, in Jeremiah 14 verse 11, God says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Do not pray for this people.” Does that not send chills up your spine? God says to His prophets, “Don't pray for these people.” Why? Because they’re hypocrites! You know, they make a noise about believing in God but they break His laws and they’re not repentant and they don't care! And so God says to the prophet, “Don't pray for them,” and then He announces that he is going to pronounce judgment on them. Look at verses 13 and following. What's the judgment going to be? “Famine, pestilence, and sword.” And then He even specifies, after saying “famine, pestilence, and sword” again in chapter 15, if you look in verse 3 of chapter 15 He even tells you specific kinds of destroyers that He is going to appoint for them — “the sword, dogs, birds, and beasts” are going to be used as the instruments of His just judgment on them. Well the author of Hebrews is saying, “If God brought just judgment on the people in the Old Testament who disobeyed His Law and you neglect the way of salvation He is providing, do you think things are going to go better for you? You must take the Gospel seriously! It is the way God has provided for your salvation!”
Some of you have been following the fascinating story of Lance Armstrong and I know some of you are not and you have no idea what I'm talking about; I met a number of them after the first service. So let me just say, Lance Armstrong was an American cyclist who won the Tour de France, which is one of the most important bicycle races in the world, he won it seven times. He appeared in Olympic races; he was the most famous American cyclist maybe ever. But over the years, he has been dogged by accusations that he was using illegal performance enhancing drugs, that he was doing blood-doping to get his oxygen level up so that he could perform at a higher level than the other cyclists were able to perform and thus he was cheating. And he has recently been stripped of all of his titles by the cycling federations here in the United States and in the world and has come under intense legal scrutiny. But all along, he has denied the truth of the allegations. This week, he went to the high priestess of American culture, Oprah Winfrey, and he made a confession. And he admitted – and now understand that he has actually sued people, he has litigated against people who have accused him of doing this illegal blood-doping, and he admitted it. Maybe some of you saw those programs; I wonder what you thought about what you've heard.
But here's the interesting thing. He wrote an autobiography seven or eight years ago; I think it's called, It's Not About the Bike. In that autobiography at one point he's musing about God. He says he's not affiliated with any particular church and he's musing about God. And he says something like this, “If I am going to be judged someday by some-Body,” and he puts the “B” in a capital, “by some-Body, if there's a judgment for me by some-Body, I hope it won't be on the basis of what church I've joined or whether I've been baptized, but I hope that He will take into account the whole of my life.” Do you want to think about that again? And you see, the author of Hebrews is saying, “When you’re standing there that day you don't want the basis of your innocence or your guilt, your acceptance or your condemnation to be that some-Body taking into account the whole of your life because you will be condemned.” You know, we see in our voyeuristic culture, every once in awhile the curtain pulled back on major celebrity figures. But you know, most of us in here would not want the curtain pulled back on our lives and the whole world looking at us. And I think if we know ourselves we wouldn't want to stand before God and say, “God, accept me because You've taken into account the whole of my life.”
The author of Hebrews is saying, “You have got to take the Gospel seriously because I’ll show you what happened to some people who were judged on the basis of God taking into account the whole of their lives.” When you’re standing there on that day you want to be standing there robed in the righteousness of Christ, you want to be clothed in the cleansing, forgiving blood of Jesus Christ, you want to be standing there in who Jesus is and what He has done for you, not in your own deserving, not in your own works. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Surely, surely if the Old Testament people of God were judged justly for their sins, how much worse will the judgment be for us? We've heard the Gospel, we've heard the claims of Christ, and yet we've rejected Him and we've said, ‘You know in the last day I hope we're judged taking into account the whole of our lives.’” And he said, “Do you think that's going to go well for you? No.” We've got to take the Gospel seriously.
THE GOSPEL HAS BEEN CONFIRMED
AND GOD HIMSELF HAS TESTIFIED TO IT
And then he doesn't just throw that out there. He doesn't state that case; he presses it home by showing the proof, the evidence, the testimony that God has given to you for it. And I want you to see this in verses 3 and 4. Look at the end of verse 3 and then verse 4. “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.” Isn't this fascinating? What he's saying here is that we need to take the Gospel seriously because it's true. We need to take the Gospel seriously because it's true. It's been confirmed and God Himself has testified to it. That's what the point of the end of verse 3 and all of verse 4 is — God has confirmed it through the witness of the apostles. It's interesting — by saying what he says in verse 3 you know that this congregation is not a congregation of early Christians who had had direct or firsthand knowledge of Jesus. They had learned what they knew about Jesus from the preaching of apostles or apostolic helpers. So the message about Jesus they had heard, they had not heard from Jesus directly but just like you and I have heard it, through the witness, through the testimony of apostles.
And the author of Hebrews presses home that as a very good thing. Because isn't it interesting, it's not just one person who's made a claim to you, it's all of these apostles have witnessed to, they've confirmed the message that I'm preaching to you. You know when I stand up on Sunday morning and preach the Word of God to you, I am not preaching to you a revelation that I got in my closet this week and that I, only I, among all the mortal beings on earth have ever heard. I'm preaching the same Bible that thousands of other Gospel preaching ministers are preaching around the world and that two thousand years of Christians, based on the apostles, based on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit have been preaching. And that ought to encourage you.
CONFIRMED BY SIGNS AND WONDERS AND MIRACLES
And then he says in verse 4, not only that, but God Himself has confirmed the truth of this by signs and wonders and miracles. Now understand, people back then were not just more gullible than we are. You know sometimes you look at the miracles in the Bible and you say, “Well we're so sophisticated and smart. We know that those things don't happen.” No, they were not more gullible than we are. You know if you think we're more sophisticated and intelligent and less gullible than they are just pick up your major daily newspaper and turn to the cartoon page and read the horoscope. We’re very advanced in our culture; we're not gullible at all. I mean, I thought that Manti Te’o had a girlfriend! We’re not gullible!
But understand this — miracles didn't just happen all the time in Bible times. You didn't just wake up in the morning and have a miracle. If you've studied the Bible, over the six thousand years of history that it covers, there are only three major periods in those six thousand years when miracles happened. Miracles happened in the time of Moses, they happened in the times of Elijah and Elisha, and then they happened in Jesus’ ministry. Even John the Baptist didn't do miracles. He was right on the forefront of Jesus’ ministry; even John the Baptist didn't do miracles. Miracles didn't just happen every day. These people weren't gullible. When they saw a miracle they knew they were seeing something special. And the reasons, the author of Hebrews tells us, that God gave those signs and wonders and miracles, was to attest the truth that was being proclaimed. You see, we believe that the message of Jesus is true and we accept it not just because it's good, not just because we want to be forgiven, but because it's true. C.S. Lewis, sixty or seventy years ago, stressed it's so important for us to understand that we embrace Christianity not just because it's good but because it's true.
And I want to say, that's especially important today. Things have changed a lot in the last thirty years. I've thought about this a good bit. And one thing is this. I am almost certain that the acid of unbelief and the toxic allergy to truth that exists now was not as pervasive and was not as powerful thirty years ago. You know, you wake up in the world that we live in today and it is almost immediately implausible to scores and scores and hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of people that the Gospel is true. It's implausible to them. It seems impossible to them that this could be true. And here's the author of Hebrews, two thousand years before that toxic unbelief ever took hold of our culture saying to Christians, then and now, “The Gospel is true. It's attested; it's confirmed. God Himself testified to it.”
It's very interesting. If you look at two other major world religions, if you look at Islam and if you look at Mormonism, the central books that contain the truth of those religions, the Koran and the Book of Mormon, came from one man each over a very short period of time. And the entire religion is based upon what that one man says was revelation to him personally from God. Which, incidentally in both cases, no one else could witness to, confirm, or attest — no one. No one around them was in a position to confirm anything that went on. Whereas the Bible was given over a fifteen hundred year period written by dozens of different authors and had hundreds of witnesses attesting to the same message. That should encourage you, Christian. God even gave the Word to the world in such a way that its message could be attested. Why? Because He's concerned about truth! He doesn't want us to live our lives believing fairy tales! He wants us to live our lives believing the truth! And so the author of Hebrews is saying, “The Gospel must be taken seriously because it's true, it has eternal consequences, and it's the only way of salvation.”
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Work it into our hearts. Grant us to believe in this generation where there is toxic unbelief in the air that we breath, grant that we would believe. Especially our young people, Lord God, grant that they would see through the cynicism of their day and time and that they would embrace the Gospel, that they would walk by the old paths and that they would cling to the old rugged cross. We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now Margaret Clarkson, in her wonderful hymn, if you’ll turn to number 181, really hits on all of these points — “We Come, O Christ, to You.” Let's sing it to God's praise.
Now receive the blessing from the only one who can bless you and you be truly blessed.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.