Pay Close Attention
We hear a lot of messages, many of which are not worthy of our close attention. But what message is worthy of such close attention? The message of salvation declared by Jesus.
Hebrews 1-8 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
In our densely populated city with many neighbors, in our technological age with various media, we hear a lot of messages from a lot of different messengers, so much so that we simply cannot pay close attention to most of them. Most of us do not pay close attention to commercials on television, for example, unless maybe it’s the Super Bowl. When your phone rings and you see that little “potential spam” label, most of us do not pay close attention to that call; we probably don’t even answer it. But when you or someone you love is in the hospital, and the doctor comes in to give you the diagnosis and explain the treatment plan, most of us pay close attention to that message. I think of times when my wife and I have spoken with our kids’ doctors about which inhalers to give them, how many times per day, how many puffs, and how many hours apart. Not only do we pay close attention in that first conversation, but as the weeks go by, we feel the need to continue paying close attention to what we have heard, because we sense that the speaker of the message is worthy of our attention, and the consequences of ignoring the message could be dire.
We’re on week two of our series of sermons through the book of Hebrews, and the recipients of this letter also had heard a message of great importance that was originally delivered by a great messenger. In the opening to the letter, which we looked at last week, the author said that God has spoken to us by his own son, Jesus Christ. The recipients of the letter became Christians because they heard that message and believed it, but they had their share of other voices, and some time had elapsed now since they first heard the message and believed. Many of you here today have heard the same message and believed it; that’s how anyone becomes a Christian. But as time goes on, we too face the temptation to stop paying close attention to that message. So in this passage, the author exhorts us to pay close attention to the message of salvation declared by Jesus. And much as the hospitalized patient pays close attention to the message declared by their doctor because of the qualifications of the messenger and the consequences of not paying close attention, we will see in this passage that we must pay close attention to the message of salvation declared by Jesus because Jesus is the greatest messenger, and because if we do not, we will drift away into judgment.
Jesus is the greatest messenger
We began reading in verse 3 by way of review from last week. In the opening to Hebrews, the author asserts that though God spoke to the fathers of the Jewish people at many times and in many ways by the prophets, in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, and then, in the verses with which we began, he asserts that after making purification for sins he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. He’s saying this Son, by who God has spoken to us, is superior to angels. And that is significant because the law of Moses, the law God gave to the fathers of the Jewish people in the days of Moses, was delivered through angels, and the recipients of this letter were tempted to return to living under that law, rather than reading that law in light of its fulfillment in the Son. So in the first set of verses on which we are focusing, verses 5-14 of chapter 1, the author will show that the Son, Jesus Christ, is superior to the angels.
Now, I’ll probably say this a lot throughout Hebrews: I understand that for most of you, conversion to Judaism is not an existential temptation. In fact, you couldn’t even convert to the Judaism of the law of Moses, because it simply does not exist anymore. Even orthodox Jews of today do not offer the animal sacrifices prescribed in the law of Moses, for example. Nonetheless, we are constantly assailed by other messages besides the message of salvation declared by Jesus, aren’t we? Whether explicitly or implicitly, whether clearly explained through speeches like this one, or conveyed more subliminally through film and television, we hear messages about the “big questions” of life: How did we get here? What are we as humans? Do we have a purpose; what is it? What’s wrong with the world? Can it be solved? What is the solution? What must you now do? Here we can think of messages of liberal progress, communist revolution, Christian nationalism, the American dream, Islam, Buddhism, and many more. Which should you believe? One way to come at that is to compare the content of the messages; the Bible commonly does that. But there are also limits to our ability to do that. There simply aren’t enough years in your lifetime to do a deep dive on every message out there, thoroughly compare their content, and rationally decide which is best, nor should you feel great about staking your eternal future on your ability to do so. So another way to come at deciding which message is most worthy of your close attention is to compare the messengers. Chapter 1:5-14 looks to do just that. It compares Jesus the messenger to the angelic messengers, and what it shows us about Jesus can just as easily be applied to the particular messengers to whom you might be tempted to pay close attention.
The first thing the author shows us about Jesus in comparison to angels in verses 5-6 is that Jesus is God’s Son, while the angels are ordered by God to worship God’s Son. For, to use his words, to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you?” Here the quote is from Psalm 2:8, where God is addressing the Davidic king, meaning the king of Israel descended from David, the greatest king in Israel’s history prior to the coming of Jesus. The king of Israel descended from David was particularly significant because of a promise God made to David, which is quoted next in verse 5: I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. That’s taken from 2 Samuel 7, where God promised to give David a son who would reign on his throne forever, only this son would not merely be David’s son, but God’s son. Immediately the son God gave David was Solomon, who did indeed reign on the throne of David in Israel. But in his latter years Solomon turned from the LORD, died like every other king, and shortly thereafter, the kingdom of Israel was divided within itself, and then defeated by foreign nations.
So the author here rightly recognizes that Solomon was not the ultimate son of David. Rather, Jesus is the one who not only died, but rose again, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the majesty on high, at which time he inherited the name of Son, as Psalm 2:8 says, “you are my son; today I have begotten you.” Of course, Jesus was already the son of God in one sense, as the one eternally begotten of the Father, the radiance of his glory and the exact imprint of his nature, just as Solomon was already the son of David when he became king. But in Jesus Christ, the eternal son of God became man, and he was only enthroned in his flesh as king when he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the majesty on high. It was this man, the God-man Jesus Christ, by whom God spoke the message of salvation, and it is to this man and this man only God has said, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” To no angel has God said that, and to no messenger in our day has God said that.
But, God did say something to the angels in verse 6: Let all God’s angels worship him. Here at the beginning of verse 6 the son is referred to as the firstborn, which in the scriptures denotes the one who is first in honor. We learn in 2:5 that the world here referred to is the world to come, present now in heaven. So the narrative up through 6 is this: The eternal Son of God, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature, became man, and after making purification for sins on the cross, that God-man rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven to right hand of the majesty on high, at which time God declared him to be his Son and therefore commanded his angels to worship him. Notice, then, that God does not treat his Son as simply the greatest among men. There is no other man, no other messenger, whom God has commanded his angels to worship. In fact, throughout the Bible one of the clearest and most consistent commands is to not worship anyone but the true God. Yet here the angels are commanded to worship the Son because he is not only truly man, but truly God, one in being with the Father, and worthy of a worship of which no other messenger is worthy. Whatever messengers to whom you’re listening ought to be worshipping Jesus, the greatest messenger.
Jesus’ divine nature comes out even more clearly in the next set of verses that follow, verses 7-12, where we’ll see that the angels are creatures, while Jesus is the creator. So we’ve already seen that Jesus is the Son, while angels are commanded to worship the Son; now we see that the angels are creatures, while Jesus is the creator. First, we see that angels are creatures in verse 7: He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire. The simplest point being made here is in the first two verses of the quote: He makes. The angels are made by God; they are not God. When it says he makes them winds and flames of fire, it does not mean literally that the angels are wind and flames. Rather, it compares them to them: Just as wind and fire are made by God and under God’s control (they go where he sends them), so angels are made by God and swiftly go where God sends them. Not only that, but God does sometimes make this visible by using his angels to produce wind and flames, and it seems this is what was happening on Mt. Sinai when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. We read in that narrative in the book of Exodus of fire and wind, and the author, along with other New Testament authors, interprets that as being carried out by angels. Ok, so angels are made by God and ruled by God; they go where he sends them.
But remember earlier in Hebrews 1, how the author said the Son was the one through whom all things were made, and who upholds all things by the word of his power? Now he’s going to prove that claim from scripture, just as he proved the claim that Jesus had inherited the name of Son from scripture in verse 5. So in verse 8 he quotes from Psalm 45, a Psalm addressed to the king of Israel, and see in it a reference to an eternal throne of God, a divine king, who was also anointed by God with the oil of gladness, appointed to a throne above his companions. The author is noticing that on the one hand, the Psalm is addressed to God: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” while on the other it speaks of that God’s God anointing him. He rightly sees here that the Psalm could not have been about a mere earthly king. Rather, it was about the Son, who is himself truly God, and who in his ascension into heaven and enthronement at God’s right hand has been anointed with the oil of gladness beyond his companions.
And then from there, now that he’s demonstrated the divine nature of Jesus the Son, he applies a Psalm about God to him, when he quotes from Psalm 102, which tells us that the Lord made all things, and while they perish, he will remain. In reality, there are two orders of existence ultimately. If something exists, it must be one of these two things: God, or something God made, creator, or creature. So let’s compare messengers: The angels? They’re firmly on the creature side of that division. They are made and governed by God. Like wind and flames of fire, their presence is ephemeral and fleeting. The messengers to whom you and I might be tempted to listen? Firmly on the creature side of that division. They too are made and governed by God, their influence also here for a moment, then gone, and as mere mortals like us, they are one day destined to perish. How many of the great messengers of the past are now entirely forgotten? How many are little more than a Wikipedia stub? How many are no longer famous, but infamous?! You know, a lot of people in Adolf Hitler’s day found him to be a pretty compelling messenger. Verses 11-12 go so far as to say that not only will creaturely messengers perish, but earth and the heavens themselves will perish, wear out like a garment, and be rolled up like a robe. Have you ever had an article of clothing literally wear out? You start to notice some holes here and there, the fabric becomes a bit translucent, your spouse starts making comments on it. That is what is going to happen to literally everything your eyes see on this earth and above it. And yet, aren’t the messages we hear besides the message of salvation declared by Jesus catered toward bettering our lives in this creation, or even bettering the creation itself, as though we can somehow avoid this fate? Don’t be fooled by it. Such messengers will perish, this entire creation will perish, but Jesus will remain. For those of you here today who are not Christians, have you faced this honestly? How do you deal with the fact that one day your life will end, and even what you leave behind will one day end as well? Have you honestly faced your creatureliness? On the other hand, when it comes to the creator/creature question, scripture places Jesus firmly on the creator side, and therefore his years will have no end.
Jesus is the Son, while the angels are commanded to worship the Son. The angels are creatures, while Jesus is the creator. And, finally, in verses 13-14 we see that Jesus rules with God, while the angels are servants of God. In verse 13 the author appeals to Psalm 110, where once again we see God saying something to the Son that he has never said to any angel: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. That quote in the original Psalm begins with the introduction: “The Lord said to my Lord.” So David, the author of the Psalm, says these words were spoken by the Lord to his Lord. So, once again, we have in the Psalms, the scriptures given before the coming of Christ a reference to a conversation between Lords, alongside the consistent affirmation that there is only one Lord. And, once again, the author of Hebrews rightly interprets that to be a conversation between God the Father and God the Son, who when he sat at the Father’s right hand, was given authority to rule over his enemies.
On the other hand, there are angels. Some angels are evil; the Bible calls them demons, but the angels spoken of in verse 14 are not those angels. They are, rather, ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation. We learn from this that angels are spirits. They do not have a body like humans do, and therefore they are not visible like humans are. From the fact that they are sent, we can also infer that they are not omnipresent. Remember, they are creatures, not creator, and though their presence is not tied to a body, nevertheless they cannot be present in all places at once. But more to the point of this text, they are sent as ministers of God, not those who rule with God, and their ministry in particular is to help those who are to inherit salvation. The angels are not the heirs of salvation. Some of them sinned against God and were consigned by God to eternal condemnation. Others never sinned, and therefore need no salvation. But we do need salvation, so God makes use of angels throughout scripture to serve that end. And in case you are wondering, no, that does not mean each of us has a guardian angel; that’s a mix of Roman Catholic superstition and Lifetime movies, not something arising from scripture. They are servants of God, while Jesus rules with God. Even the best of messengers to whom you could listen on earth, even those who proclaim to you the word of God, are nothing more than servants of God. They are creatures, while Jesus is the creator. They are commanded to worship the Son, while Jesus is the Son. Jesus is the greatest possible messenger. Therefore, in a world full of messengers, pay the closest attention to the message declared by Jesus. That’s the inference the author draws for us to begin chapter 2, and he adds another reason to it: If you don’t, you will drift away into judgment.
If you don’t, you will drift away into judgment
In 2:1 he says, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” He doesn’t say, “the most spiritual among you will pay much closer attention to what you have heard, but I wouldn’t expect that of all of you.” Rather, he says we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard. Why must we? Why the urgency, the severity even? The first reason he gives in verse 1 is because if we don’t, we will drift away from it. When a boat is no longer tethered to its anchor, what does it do? At first, perhaps nothing. To the naked eye, it may look like it’s still in the same position. To the person on the boat, you may not even sense its motion. But eventually, over time, the boat drifts away. The author says that’s what will happen to you and me if we do not pay much closer attention to what we have heard.
He proves his case in verse 2, again with an appeal to the scriptures, and here’s where we really see the relevance of all this discussion of angels: The message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, and here he’s speaking of the Law of Moses summarized in the Ten Commandments. You can see the same thing in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:53, where he says the law in particular was delivered by angels, and in Galatians 3:19, where Paul says the law of Moses was put into place by angels. And so far in Hebrews the author has been showing us how utterly superior to the angels Jesus is, and yet even the message delivered by angels did prove to be reliable! It pronounced blessings on obedience, and curses on disobedience, and guess what? When people disobeyed that law, they received the promised curses. Just after it was given, when they disobeyed the command to not make idols by making a golden calf and worshiping it, God ordered the execution of 3000 of them (Ex 32:28). When the nation of Israel disobeyed God’s law, God brought upon them the promised curses, ultimately culminating in the destruction of their city at the hands of Babylon, the destruction of their temple, and their removal from the land.
Now, the modern American therapeutic impulse at this point is to say something like, “right, and that was in the Old Testament, before Jesus came. But now that Jesus came, God loves us no matter what we do or believe and will never punish us like that.” Notice, though, that the logic of scripture is the opposite. Instead, the author says in verse 3 that if even the message delivered by angels proved to be reliable, and those who did not pay close attention to it received a just retribution, how much less shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation as the one declared to us by Jesus? I mean, the message the fathers neglected was just the message delivered by angels, and even they were punished for it. How much less, then, will we escape if we neglect the message delivered by Jesus, who is far superior to the angels, as we saw in chapter 1!
Here we do also learn something of the content of the message declared by Jesus. Verse 3 describes it as “such a great salvation”. The message declared by Jesus is fundamentally a message of salvation. The message delivered by angels was not. It was a message of what you ought to do, and what you ought not to do, with blessings promised for obedience, and curses promised for disobedience. It said things like, “You shall have no other gods before me” and “you shall not murder” and “you shall not covet”. Such commands were never given by God so that by them we might be saved. Rather, such commands serve to show us that we need salvation! If you are here today and you don’t yet believe, did you know that? Did you know that the commandments of the Bible are not first there so that you will just go do them? Instead, they are first there to show you and me and every other mere human who has ever lived that we don’t do them, and therefore we deserve the curse, the just retribution of God of which verse 2 speaks. When Jesus comes, then, he doesn’t just give us a message with more commands, better commands, or even easier commands. The message of Jesus is not most fundamentally a call to you to do your best to live a good life. The message of Jesus is most fundamentally a message of great salvation to we who have already refused to live a good life. It is a message that guilty, sinful people, people who worship other gods, people who murder with weapons, hands, words, and thoughts, people who covet what God has given to others, you and me, can be saved from the just retribution such sins deserve, because on the cross, Jesus Christ himself, the only sinless human, suffered that very retribution in the place of, as a substitute for, all who would believe in him, and then rose again, taking our humanity with him into eternal life. If you are here today and you have not yet believed this message, do not neglect such a great salvation. Turn from your sins, receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation, and you will be saved.
Perhaps you’re wondering, “but how do we know that’s the message Jesus proclaimed?” We know because as verse 3 continues, it was declared at first by the Lord himself in his human flesh when he dwelled on earth. He’s the one who said, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And then, the author says it was attested to him and to his audience by those who heard. Don’t get hung up on the fact that Jesus isn’t on earth in bodily form to tell you this message directly; the Hebrews didn’t hear the message that way either. Instead, it was attested to them by those who heard, and God validated the message by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will, as verse 4 says. And those who attested to the Hebrews also wrote down their attestation, as did the author of this letter, in what we now know as the New Testament, the part of the Bible written after Jesus came. That’s where we read the message of salvation declared by Jesus, and that’s how we can know whether the messages we are hearing from others, and even from pastors, is the message of Jesus.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters who do believe this message, we must pay much closer attention to it than the fathers paid to the message delivered by angels. For if they did not escape when they neglected it, how much less will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? Think of it like this: If you violate the law, you deserve the curse, but God has made a way of salvation: Christ bearing the curse in your place, so that you can join him in the blessing of eternal life. If you have disobeyed, and we all have, there is still hope for you in this message of salvation declared by Jesus. But if you not only neglect the law, but neglect the message of salvation, what hope is left for you? You are guilty, and you have neglected the one hope of salvation, the only one who bore the retribution your sins deserve. If you drift away from that message, you will drift away into judgment. If you get bitten by a poisonous snake, you are in dire straits, but there is still hope for you: We have antivenom. But if you neglect the antivenom, how will you escape? If you are on a regimen of medication prescribed for week, and a few weeks in you just stop paying attention and drift from it, how will you escape the illness?
Now, perhaps some of you are thinking, “But I thought you could never lose your salvation. I thought once you were saved, you were always saved.” It is true that those God saves, God keeps to the end, so that they do not drift away into judgment. We’ll see that later in Hebrews even. However, what this is showing us is the means through which God keeps us: Our paying close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. Perseverance, the theological term for enduring to the end, is not automatic, though it is assured to all who sincerely believe. The word auto-matic means self-acting. So if by “once saved, always saved” you mean I pray a prayer once and then live however I want, trusting that by virtue of that prayer I’ll be saved in the end, you have been led astray. That’s like saying once I get in the car to go somewhere, I just put the keys in the ignition, put my foot on the gas, and take a nap until I reach my destination. If you do that, your car will drift away right off a cliff. If you want to reach your destination, you must pay close attention. Salvation is not a self-driving car. It is a message concerning Jesus, declared by Jesus himself, to which you must pay close attention, or you will drift away into judgment, a judgment from which there is no further salvation.
What does it look like, then, to pay much closer attention to the message we have heard? Most obviously, it means to keep hearing it! This is one of the basic reasons we gather every week and spend a significant chunk of our service paying close attention to a particular set of verses in the Bible, and even pay a pastor to pay close attention to those verses throughout the week and then proclaim the message of salvation from those verses in our gatherings, because we realize we need to hear it again and again and again, or we will drift away from it into judgment. That being so, it really is astounding to think how casually many professing Christians in our day skip church gatherings. It’s been a temptation in all ages; later in Hebrews we even get the command to not giving up meeting together, as is the habit of some (Heb 10:24-25). And why do we do it so casually? Why did I for many years as a Christian? Isn’t it in part because we really don’t think we’re in this kind of danger if we don’t pay close attention to what we have heard? Don’t we kind of assume, “eh; it’s not a big deal if I go a few weeks here and there without hearing this message”? Don’t let me be Lord of your conscience, but honestly evaluate: How does that attitude compare with the attitude of chapter 2, verse 1, that we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it?
In addition to hearing this message preached in your church by those God has set apart to proclaim it, we have historically unprecedented access today in the age of technology to ways to pay close attention to what we have heard. Most obviously, we have printed Bibles. Thinking back to times the doctor has told us how to care for our kids, one thing we do to help us keeping paying close attention to what we have heard is we ask them to write it down. That’s what God has done for us in the Bible. We now even have Bible apps. In addition to these, we have printed books that can help us better understand and apply our printed Bibles. Those you can also read on a screen. In addition to those, there are many good sermon podcasts and other podcasts even that proclaim this message and/or help us pay closer attention to it. Does your use of these things suggest that you feel you must pay much closer attention to this message of salvation?
Of course, there is also a lot of junk out there in print, on screens, and coming through your headphones. There is even a lot of junk out there in gatherings that call themselves churches. And, just as professing Christians can be casual in their church attendance, they can be casual in which church they choose to attend. Sad as it is for me to think, many of you here today will at some point in the future need to look for another church. Others of you here today are perhaps in that process right now. And I can’t tell you whether our church is the best option for you or not, but I do want to at least say this: Don’t choose a church just because you like the music, it reminds you of your old church, or definitely doesn’t remind you of your old church, because the people are your age, because it has a good kids program, or even because it’s close to where you live, while sacrificing the clear proclamation of the message of salvation. Don’t choose churches about which you have to say, “Yeah the preaching isn’t great, but you can find the gospel in there somewhere if you try really hard.” That’s like planning to feed yourself on a diet of junk. That may feel good for a bit, but in the long run, it will kill you.
It probably won’t kill you right away; most unhealthy diets don’t. Remember the drifting boat: At first it may be imperceptible, but it’s drifting, and if keeps going, it will drift right off a cliff and land on the rocks beneath. That’s how falling away from Christ generally works. Almost no one wakes up one day and says, “Yep; I’m done with the whole Jesus thing.” It starts by drifting from what you have heard. Visibly, it often does start showing itself by missing church gatherings more and more frequently. Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” You say you’re going through a hard season, but then you start turning to other messengers who are inevitably inferior to Jesus, but who seem to you to be “working better” right now. Of course, you aren’t thinking of it as a departure from Jesus; it’s just broadening your horizons, learning from other sources of wisdom, becoming aware of your own biases. Then these other messengers do start saying things that contradict Jesus’ message, but now it’s been a while since you really paid close attention to Jesus’ message, so you barely even notice it. You don’t drop your profession of faith in Jesus; of course you’d never do that, but do we really have to make such a big deal about this doctrine Jesus taught or that one? You make some new friends whose lives are more oriented around these other messengers, a new church of sorts, though maybe you still pop into yours occasionally. Then the Sundays keep coming, and 10am sure is early, and wouldn’t it be nice to just have a second Saturday? Work is stressful after all, and now your felt needs are being met by your new messengers and your new community. Why insist so much on some of those old commands of the Bible you used to be so stressed out about obeying? Isn’t the important thing to be happy? And then, eventually, you realize, “Why keep saying I believe this?” It served its purpose in my life for a time, but I can move on now.” And only then does it become clear that you have neglected this great salvation, and you will not escape the judgment of God when it comes.
Whatever you do, for the sake of your own soul, don’t leave here today saying, “Welp; glad that’ll never be me.” Leave here today saying, “Wow; that’ll definitely be me…unless I pay much closer attention to the message of salvation declared by Jesus.”