“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1)
A DANGER: DRIFTING AWAY
It is to this matter that the writer of Hebrews now turns in the first verse of chapter 2, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” This is the first of five major warnings in Hebrews, all of which deal with the danger of falling away from faith in Christ and therefore from salvation. The Book of Hebrews is a sermon on the theme “Do not fall away.” These Hebrew Christians were being persecuted by the Jewish community around them, and the apostolic writer urgently warns them not to renounce Jesus Christ under pressure.
The author focuses on the danger of “drifting away” from the message they had heard. The Greek word here is a nautical term, pararreo, describing a ship at sail that has drifted off course, or a ship in harbor that has slipped its moorings. In other contexts it is used to describe something that slips from our minds, or even a ring that slips off a finger. One of the key ideas here is that this drifting away is something that happens largely unnoticed. While it is happening the changes are imperceptible; only later do its consequences become clear. This is a grave danger, against which we must respond with careful attention.
Some years ago, when my family was vacationing in Hawaii, my brother and I went snorkeling in a bay that was breathtaking in its beauty, with its coral reef and multicolored fish. Before we entered the water, our guide warned us against straying beyond a certain point because of the strong current that would pull us out to sea. He concluded with stories of people who had failed to pay attention and had been pulled out by the current, only to have their bodies wash up on other islands miles away. It was an effective deterrent, to say the least! This is what the writer of Hebrews wanted for his teaching. There is a current to this present evil age, pulling strongly out from the safe harbor of salvation in Christ. We do not have to actively betray Jesus or renounce our faith. Simply by not paying attention, by becoming preoccupied with the sights and sounds of this world, we can be easily drawn out until we are swept away forever.
Do you realize that? Do you realize that if you do not pay attention to your spiritual condition it will deteriorate on its own? Do you realize, given the corrupt nature of this world and of your heart, that you naturally become dull and then deadened spiritually, steadily believing the lies of this evil age? Without giving heed to the spiritual resources God provides, your heart will revert to greed, pride, avarice, sensuality, and malice—all those characteristics that define our natural state in sin and lead to destruction.
The Book of Hebrews is notable for confronting us with the reality of apostasy. To be sure, the Bible teaches the eternal security of all true believers in Jesus Christ. Jesus taught: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Yet it is also true that not all who give profession of faith are true believers. Judas Iscariot is one infamous example. He walked with Jesus for three years. Apparently the other disciples never suspected he was a fraud until he had betrayed our Lord. Another excellent example is Paul’s one-time companion Demas. At the end of Colossians and Philemon, Paul adds his name to the list of his close companions. But in 2 Timothy we read these sober words: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Tim. 4:10). Here are the cases of a disciple of Jesus and a fellow-laborer with the apostle Paul. If they could fall away, we can, too.
We are secure through faith in Jesus Christ. But like a good tree, true faith is revealed by its fruit (Matt. 7:17–19). Therefore Peter tells us to “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). “Examine yourselves,” Paul adds, “to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). We must therefore persevere and use the resources God gives us to bear fruit and thus not to drift away.
A COMMAND: PAY ATTENTION!
Mindful of the danger of apostasy, the author of Hebrews gives the accompanying command: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1). “What we have heard” is the message of salvation in God’s Son, as the preceding chapter declared.
The Greek word for “pay attention,” prosecho,m is another term with nautical implications; it was used to denote holding to a course or securing an anchor. There is a danger, the writer argues, and there is also a remedy. To avoid drifting off course you hold the wheel of the ship in line; to avoid slip- ping out with the current you make fast the anchor.
Drifting away happens on its own without much effort on our part, but staying on course is quite the opposite. It requires constant diligence! C. S. Lewis was typically perceptive when he wrote, “We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in your mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”*2 In the matter of our belief, as in all other matters, Christianity requires hard work; the New Testament describes the life of faith as a fight, a race, and a field in which a farmer labors. Paul says in various places: “I press on . . . I follow after . . . I strive . . . I fight.”
When it comes to the past tense of our salvation—to what is already finished and secure, namely, our justification through faith in Christ—there is no place for our works. We receive forgiveness of our sins not by our work but by Christ’s work. Faith is, first, essentially passive; we do not act but receive, resting upon Christ’s saving action on our behalf. But when it comes to the present tense of our salvation—that which is worked out progressively, namely, our sanctification—this is extremely active. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains it well: “In the matter of our righteousness and justification we can never say too often that we do nothing, we can do nothing, it is entirely the work of Christ. But once we are saved and given this new life, then the progressive work of sanctification does not call for passivity, and we are exhorted to activity.”*3
J. C. Ryle, in his masterpiece on the Christian life, a book titled simply Holiness, added this:
I will never shrink from declaring my belief that there are no “spiritual gains without pains.” I should as soon expect a farmer to prosper in business who contented himself with sowing his fields and never looking at them till harvest, as expect a believer to attain much holiness who was not diligent about his Bible-reading, his prayers, and the use of his Sundays.*4
2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 119–20.
3. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Peace (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 89.
4. J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Darlington, U.K.: Evangelical Press, 1979), 21.