In 1989, Michelle Hamilton, a teacher from Australia, planned a getaway trip for herself and her mother on the small Philippine island of Boracay. The island was a tiny tropical paradise only four miles long and a mile wide. After getting acclimated to her surroundings Michelle rented a small canoe. The little boat, called a bunca, was only about seven feet long (2.13 m.) with outriggers attached to its sides. Michelle, only 22 years old and full vigor and daring, decided to paddle the little canoe to the end of the island. She was having a wonderful day enjoying the lush tropical scenery and listening to her favorite music on headphones.
However, as Michelle began rowing back toward the harbor she realized that she was caught in a very strong ocean current. With a sick feeling in her stomach she began rowing with all her might only to see the harbor and at last the whole island slipping away from her and finally disappearing from sight. Michelle, clad only in a bikini and with almost no provision found herself a captive of the vast Pacific Ocean.
To make bad matters worse, on her first night at sea the bunca was overturned in a terrifying storm and Michelle was left helplessly clinging to the wreckage of her little boat. For three days she drifted some 100 miles (160 km.) as she was battered by the waves, blistered by the sun, parched by thirst and threatened by sharks. At last, through several direct miracles from God, she was rescued by Philippine fishermen. Michelle, who became a believer in Jesus on that harrowing trip, later began a ministry telling others of her Jonah-like experience and of the God who can rescue those who drift away.
Dangerously drifting away is what our passage is about today. We are in Hebrews 2:1-4.
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.
This is the first of five admonitions (2:1-4; 3:7— 4:13; 5:11— 6:12; 10:19-39 and in 12:14-29) scattered throughout the book of Hebrews. Their purpose is to encourage the readers to pay attention to God’s Word and not to let go of Jesus Christ, not to go back to trusting in law keeping to save them. This largely Jewish constituency was in danger of going back under the law, believing that Jesus and His obedience and work for them on the cross was not enough.
These admonitions will become stronger and more serious as they progress. Here, the problem is drifting from what was heard while the last warning regards defying God’s Word (Heb. 12:14-29).
As we look at this first warning passage it is divided into three parts:
First, a statement concerning the danger of drifting and the safeguard against that drifting by paying careful attention to the apostolic message, the gospel (2:1).
He then gives his rationale for this caution by making a comparison between God’s judgment against the Israelites for their failure to pay attention to the Old Testament law and prophets, which shows the more dangerous possibility they face of judgment for neglecting the New Covenant message (2:2-3a).
That message is then described in vv. 3b and 4 as a more authoritative and authenticated word to believe in.
Our passage begins with the word “therefore,” and we should always ask, “What’s it there for?” This word shows us that our admonition is based upon the doctrinal teaching of chapter 1—that Jesus is superior to the angels and therefore deserves the highest attention. The Scriptural fact of Jesus’ superiority over the angels has lifechanging implications about how one should respond to that.
Doctrine forms the basis for practice. Orthodoxy precedes orthopraxy, or as I like to say it here at Grace Bible Church—the indicative (what God has done for us) precedes and forms the basis for the imperative (what we are called to do for God). If we get these out of order, we fall back into legalism, which is exactly the problem being addressed here in the book of Hebrews.
You might have noticed that most of Paul’s epistles begin with several chapters of doctrinal teaching before getting to any exhortations about how to live. Sanctification is important. But sanctification flows out of justification. These are inseparable, but distinct, and should not be confused.
This admonition is written for believers. Notice three times in verse 1 and once in verse 3 the writer addresses this admonition to “we,” not “you” or “they.” “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” and “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation…?”
We will have to look closely at who is being addressed in each of these admonitions. At this point, the writer includes both genuine Christians and those who seem to be Christians, or at least deem themselves to be Christians. All of us have the possibility of drifting away from our salvation by failing to pay closer attention to it. This is a warning that we should take seriously and it is a very real possibility for all of us. Even though this is the mildest of the five rebukes, it is still a very stern warning for us all.
We are challenged to “pay much closer attention,” which is actually in the superlative degree and might be better translated, “pay most closest attention,” even though we rarely say it that way. That is because eternal issues are at stake.
I like William Barclay’s rendition of this section: We must, therefore, with very special intensity pay attention to the things that we have heard.
Maybe your Mom or Dad has said to you, “I want your full and undivided attention.” That is what God is calling for here.
Why? God has spoken in His Son. We must continually hold to the Words of Truth spoken by the Son Who alone is Truth. There is nothing else to that needs to be said! No more revelation is forthcoming for none is necessary.
William Newell reminds us: If the Old Testament prophets should be heard, how much more the Lord of glory Himself! He having come to earth, become Man, and speaking to men!
Not only that, but the particle “must” is here used to indicate that this is a moral obligation placed upon us. This is not optional. We can’t take it or leave it.
Also, the present tense is used to convey the idea that this is to be a continual activity—we must never stop paying attention to the apostolic message. In today’s words, we must constantly “preach the gospel” to ourselves.
It is also in the active voice, meaning that it was the personal responsibility of each person to take action for themselves. No one else could do this for them.
To have heard the gospel before, but not to give its life-giving, Christ-exalting message the utmost daily attention is to face the danger of drifting into great peril.
We are also exhorted by Peter, having already brought up cleverly devised tales and mountain top experiences like the Mount of Transfiguration and seeing a slight glimpse (although still overwhelming) of the glory of Jesus, that
19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, (2 Peter 1:19)
Don’t pay attention at all to cleverly devised tales (v. 16) and don’t put all your confidence in your glorious experiences, rather “you do well to pay attention” to the prophetic word made “more sure” because it comes through the Spirit’s revelation (vv. 20-21).
Pay attention to the Word you have heard. “Hearing” is a key idea in Hebrews (2:1; 3:7; 3:15; 4:7; 5:9, 11; 11:8). Verses 3 and 4 show us that these were second generation Christians, hearing the gospel message and doctrine from the first generation of eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry and resurrection. They needed to pay attention to what they had heard.
We may not always perceive the supreme importance of listening. It might seem optional to us, simply because in daily life we don’t usually listen very well to those around us. We are constantly distracted by noises around us or our own voice inside our heads. Biblically, hearing included obeying. In other words, if you didn’t obey you didn’t really hear what was told to you.
He is not encouraging unbelievers to become Christians here, but encouraging Christians to pay very, very close attention to the Word that had been taught to them, the apostolic teaching, the gospel teaching.
They faced the very real danger of neglecting their salvation and drifting away from Jesus Christ. The late New Testament Greek scholar, William Barclay, notes that both words used here have a nautical sense dealing with current and tide. The words “to pay attention” (Gk. prosechein) means “to moor a ship,” while “drift away” (Gk. pararrein) speaks of a ship allowed to drift due to wind or current.
The word used here, pararuomai, could signify objects that are slipping away, like a ring that slips off a finger, or objects that go in the wrong direction, like a golf ball when I play.
It makes me think of the story about the explorer Edward Perry who took a crew to the Artic Ocean. They were endeavoring to move further north in some of their chartings, so they charted their location by the stars and began a very difficult and treacherous march north. They walked and they walked, hour after hour after hour, for multiple hours. Finally, in total weariness and utter exhaustion, they stopped and took their bearings again from the stars and found that they were actually farther south than when they had started. The reason: They had been walking on an ice floe drifting south faster than they were walking north.
This reminds me of the uselessness of legalism, like that of a hamster on an exercise wheel, working, working, working, and getting nowhere.
In the case of Michelle Hamilton there were many points along the island where she could have easily returned. There were other points after she realized her dangerous position that she could have swallowed her pride and signaled for help from the islanders. She did neither but tried vainly to save herself after it was already too late.
Drifting away is a gradual process that doesn’t even register to us—we don’t even realize it is happening. The nautical image likens this process to a boat whose anchor was never dropped, or has broken loose, and the boat just gradually and silently slips away into dangerous waters.
Drifting often happens slowly, without splash or fanfare.
Paul speaks of those whose faith had been “shipwrecked” in 1 Timothy 1:19.
In his autobiography, Charles Darwin wrote: “I came to gradually disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation …. Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but at last it was complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct.”
Jesus told us that the seed can be sown into different types of soils, or hearts. Some reject it outright, some can’t stand the heat of persecution and others get their faith choked out by the cares of this life.
We who live in the modern era are busy people, and the multiplicity of our cares and duties can overwhelm us. A snowflake is a tiny thing, but when the air is full of them, they can bury us. Just so, the thousand cares of each day can insulate us from the stupendous excellencies of Christ, causing us to begin a deadly drift.
How easy it is to be distracted. Statistics show that we spend almost 7 hours a day on screens—from television to computers to phones. We find it difficult to spend 7 minutes a day in God’s Word. How can we possibly be paying the most closest attention to God’s Word? We are in great danger of treating God’s Word too lightly.
This idea of drifting away uses the same verb that is found in the Septuagint translation of Proverbs 3:21, where it is used in reference to someone gradually losing sight of God’s wisdom, suggesting that the fundamental nuance is a gradual departure rather than an abrupt one.
William Newell warned us: “The world is ever tugging at the believer, and that so often unconsciously to him, to go along with its false hopes. Satan likes nothing better than a neglecting Christian! We all know, too, that the tendency of our natures is to drift along with earthly things away from the gospel” (Hebrews, Verse-by-Verse, pp. 35-36).
The writer of Revelation uses different language but refers to the same thing when he quotes Jesus as saying to the ostensibly healthy Ephesian church, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4).
When our anchors begin to lift from our soul’s grasp of the greatness and supremacy of life, we become susceptible to subtle tows. C. S. Lewis sagely remarked: “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?” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 124)
The writer of Hebrews was concerned for his readers. The danger of drifting was real for them, so he warns them: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” It seems that some of them were tempted to abandon Jesus and the new message of grace to return to the old ways of law-keeping, sacrifice, and systematic religion.
In Hebrews 6, we are told that
we who have fled for refuge [to Jesus Christ] might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
We have an anchor, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. That anchor is our hope in Jesus Christ, a hope that is fed by paying closest attention to what we have been taught. If we do not diligently remain in the truth—and to do so we must know it and remember it and put it into practice—we will depart from it. We live in a world that is striving to separate us from it. Satan also wants us to abandon it (cf. Gen. 3; Matt. 4).
Warren Wiersbe notes: “More spiritual problems are caused by neglect than perhaps by any other failure on our part. We neglect God’s Word, prayer, worship with God’s people (see Heb. 10:25), and other opportunities for spiritual growth, and as a result, we start to drift. The anchor does not move; we do” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, p. 807).
W. Griffith Thomas said, “The protection against drifting is to have Christ as once the anchor and rudder of life. The anchor will hold us to the truth, while the rudder will guide us by the truth.”
Again, as the metaphor is communicating, this apostasy from Jesus Christ is not intentional but arises from lack of paying attention.
Matthew Henry uses another metaphor, saying “we have received gospel truths into our mind, we are in danger of letting them slip. Our minds and memories are like a leaky vessel, they do not without much care retain what is poured into them…”
John Piper shares these insights:
We all know people that this has happened to. There is no urgency. No vigilance. focused listening or considering or fixing of their eyes on Jesus. And the result has not been a standing still, but a drifting away.
That is the point here: there is no standing still. The life of this world is not a lake. It is a river. And it is flowing downward to destruction. If you do not listen earnestly to Jesus and consider him daily and fix your eyes on him hourly, then you will not stand still; you will go backward. You will float away from Christ.
Drifting is a deadly thing in the Christian life. And the remedy for it, according to Hebrews 2:1, is: Pay close attention to what you have heard. That is, consider what God is saying in his Son Jesus. Fix your eyes on what God is saying and doing in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
This is not a hard swimming stroke to learn. The only thing that keeps us from swimming against sinful culture is not the difficulty of the stroke, but our sinful desire to go with the flow.
Let’s not complain that God has given us a hard job. Listen, consider, fix the eyes — this is not what you would call a hard job description. In fact, it is not a job description. It is a solemn invitation to be satisfied in Jesus so that we do not get lured downstream by deceitful desires.
One writer phrases it this way…
There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at its ebb, leads to victory; neglected, the shores of time are strewn with the wreckage.
That is the danger we face if we stop paying closest attention to the gospel.