The Purpose of Hebrews
Chapter 1 raised a question: will we listen to Jesus? He’s better than the angels, and the angels were important. They mediated the law from God to man through Moses. Their words proved true. Will the words of Jesus prove true? Can Jesus lay claim to our attention?
Every book is written for a purpose, and we begin to see the purpose of this book as chapter 2 opens. The problem is that for some of these sluggish, second-generation Christians their thoughts of Jesus have stooped too low. They’ve stopped listening and started wondering if Jesus was worth it anymore. That makes this book thoroughly relevant to our times.
Surprisingly, the author doesn’t begin his book by articulating the problem. Instead, we have only seen the solution to the problem, namely, looking at Jesus. Chapter 2 begins to zero in on the issue at hand: we must pay attention.
This book is a call to consider Jesus. He has spoken. We must listen.
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.
“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”
The message Jesus has brought is non-ignorable. We must pay close attention. At every moment, we are vacillating between two realities. We are either tightening our grip to the anchor in heaven, or we are loosening our grip on the anchor. We are never neutral. If we aren’t tightening, we’re drifting.
How do we drift? Let’s think that through. We don’t drift because we set out to drift. We drift because we set out not to not drift. We drift because we become sluggish (Heb. 6:12). We drift because, though we know the gospel and we have Bibles and we belong to a church, we sit on the sidelines, satisfied to get our weekly fix of a sermon and some songs as we segment our spiritual lives from our “regular” lives. We who should be teachers by now are like babies (Heb. 5:11-12) still asking for a simple Christianity, as if there ever was such a thing.
We can drift for a long time and never know it. And then suffering comes and we’re shaken awake and we wonder how we got where we are. We wonder why God doesn’t seem real to us. Instead of growing stronger in faith through suffering, we begin to waver in the face of suffering (Heb. 12:3-4). Jesus seems distant and mythical, if not distant and mean.
Drifting happens as we begin to take our eyes off Jesus and onto something else. The Greek word is pararuomen. It describes a boat which is allowed to drift away aimlessly, missing the landing point. If we allow ourselves to drift, we are allowing ourselves to walk in danger.
I love “lost at sea” stories. In each of these stories, it is vitally important that you know which direction you’re heading and that you stay pointed in that direction. You don’t want to drift off course. Why? Because to do so could cost you your life. You have only so much food and water in reserves. The sun beats down relentlessly. You have no help coming. Sharks are circling, just waiting for you to fall overboard. It’s a perilous situation. To stray could mean to die.
When you’re lost at sea, or lost in life, and you begin to drift, you aren’t staying neutral. There is no such thing as neutral in life. You are moving further, not closer, to your destination. To drift is to lose your way. And even if you were to realize you’re drifting and make course corrections, you can’t simply pick up from where you left off. You must get back to where it all went wrong and then make headway. You’ve lost ground, and the path is all the harder now.
That’s what the author is trying to communicate. We need a moment by moment awareness of our standing with God. We need moment by moment reality with him. We can’t simply sit on the sidelines of the Christian life. Jesus didn’t call us into that. He called us into a life that must be lost to be found, a life that requires bearing a cross daily. To follow Jesus is serious business. Therefore, to drift from him is serious business.
(Let me just break in here and say a few words on warnings in the Bible. We can get pretty weird around them. Biblical warnings are kind of like annual reviews at your job. You don’t want to think about it, then it pops up so you have to think about it, then you just try to endure it and hope for the best. But we don’t have to think that way about these portions of scripture. We will have more to say on this in the future because the book of Hebrews has five major “warning passages”, but for now let me just say this: we have no need to fear these passages. They are not trying to leave us with less assurance, but are trying to give us more. Let’s press on, and I think this will become clear.)
So how did these people drift? Two ways. One way is to neglect the truth. The author exhorts us not to neglect such a great salvation. That word “neglect” is the same Greek word Jesus uses in Matthew 22:5 in his parable about those who failed to attend the wedding banquet because they had other things to do. The second way we drift is to allow a substitute message to enter in. When truth vanishes, something will fill the void.
Here’s what the author is saying in bold, clear terms: Pay attention! Don’t drift! Don’t ignore the message that has come to us in the Son of God! What God said through the angels was reliable! How much more so is the message from his Son. We can’t neglect this. It’s too important. Keep listening. Consider Jesus.
These Hebrews run the risk of staking their future on something unstable and untrue. They need to reorient their hearts to see Christ for who he is and what he has done. Raymond Brown says, “The gospel is not only genuine and reliable, but also distinctive. In almost every period of Christian history there have been those who have offered a substitute message.” They, like we, need to flee the substitute message and cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We must fight the drift. But how do we do that? First, identify the substitute messages taking us captive. Second, turn our attention to someone who can help.
This book is presenting to us the Savior of the world. He’s not just a good man, or a good idea, or a great hope for the future. He’s a kingly priest who, through his prophetic word, has proclaimed salvation to our hearts. What are we doing with plugs in our ears?
But just telling you, “Jesus can help,” is not the same as showing you that Jesus can help, and that’s what the author begins to do now in verses 2-5, which is a quotation from Psalm 8:
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Psalm 8 is interesting. If we were to turn there now, we’d be surprised to see that this Psalm isn’t messianic – at least not in the way we typically think. It’s more man-centered than God-centered (in as much as the Bible can be man-centered rather than God-centered). Psalm 8 is about mankind. It is a proclamation of the human race – its history, purpose, and future. The problem is it seems wrong. It doesn’t sound like what we see.
We don’t see mankind crowned with glory and honor. We don’t see everything in subjection under our feet. This world seems to shout back, “Nonsense!” We can’t tame the storms. We can’t tame our hearts. We can’t tame our desires. How can Psalm 8 be speaking of us? God made all things good, and through one bite of a forbidden fruit, it was all spoiled. Adam destroyed us all.
So why quote this Psalm here? Because the author wants us to see how the person and work of Jesus is bringing reality to the promises of God for mankind. Jesus is undoing what Adam destroyed.
The author uses Psalm 8 as a passageway into the humanness of Jesus. We may not see the totality of Psalm 8 in our life right now, but we can see something of it in Jesus.
8 Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
We are far from rulers over the world. And yet, at the same time, we can see that, because of Christ, we, in fact, are rulers over the world. How do we know? Because we can see him. Who is this him? Interestingly, this is the first time the author has used the name “Jesus.” Everything he’s said so far has been building to this crescendo. Jesus, the earthly name of the Son of God, is the one through whom the human race gets its life back. We receive the blessing of God not from some ethereal spirit in the sky, but through a flesh and blood brother come down from heaven. We get our lives back through the God-man, Jesus.
We can see Jesus, and in him, see that one day everything will be in subjection to us. One day, we will be crowned with glory and honor. One day, we will no longer be lower than the angels, we will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3)!
Nothing is outside of our control because nothing is outside of the control of Christ. He upholds the universe by the word of his power (1:3). We have seen what God plans for mankind in sending Jesus to earth as a man on our behalf. He has entered in. He has been made like us so that we can see where we are headed. Our salvation was made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What Psalm 8 says about mankind came true – and is coming true more fully in the future – because Christ has suffered and died to give it to us. We ruined it. Jesus redeemed it. He was made perfect through suffering. We are made perfect through his suffering. He sanctifies. We are sanctified. He came from God and went back to God. We came from God and are going back to God because of him. He is not ashamed to call us brothers because he has done all that is necessary to restore us and to redeem us. As Tim Keller says, Jesus is the King that gets involved with us and he’s the brother who is proud of us.
Our life matters now and forever because Jesus made himself like us so that he could bring us to glory. That’s not simply a theory. That’s a loving, visible action. That’s not a formula. That’s a story of love and loss, and life and death, and sin and redemption. That’s something to pay attention to and to listen to and to believe. That’s what the book of Hebrews is about. We are being awakened from our slumber. We are rousing from our sluggishness and beholding the worthiness of Christ.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” 13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
We see in these verses how heroic Jesus, our older Brother, is.
- He suffered (2:10)
- He partook of the same things (2:14)
- He destroyed Satan (2:14)
- He took away the fear of death (2:15)
- He became a merciful and faithful high priest (2:17)
- He was tempted so that he can help us when we are tempted (2:18)
Psalm 8 is coming true, but not without a cost. The price was the sufferings of Christ. But we must not think Jesus did this begrudgingly. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:2) He suffered because of the great love with which he loved us.
His suffering was not a mistake. It was purposeful. Whether you realize it or not, the suffering of Jesus in his earthly body is some of the greatest help that you will ever receive, because in his suffering he was made the perfect high priest and the perfect savior. He can sympathize because he has been there.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplication, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).
The school of Christ’s suffering has become the nursery for your wounded heart. Where he was hurt, you can be healed. Jesus allowed his flesh to be broken so that when ours breaks his pierced hands can put us back together.
No matter what you compare Jesus to, he always comes out better. He entered human flesh to show us that he is better in every situation, at every turning point, in every crisis. He came in human form as the prophetic Son to become the Great High Priest that the angels could never be. Because of that, he was exalted to the King we’ve always needed. Jesus is our heroic brother.
Most of us live with some sense of shame and a strong pull toward temptation. Those feed off of one another. The more tempted we are, the more shameful we feel, and the more shameful we feel, the more tempted we are. In Christ, that cycle can be broken.
We need someone who can help us. We need someone to reach down into or mess – into our shame and temptation cycle – and like Moses, to lead us out of Egypt. We need our own emigration out of sin, slavery, and death. Who can provide such an exodus? Jesus. Only Jesus can help because he himself has suffered when tempted. Therefore, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
The Christian life is not easy. Distractions are everywhere. We are prone to drift. But Jesus is our great Captain – when the ship of our faith begins to drift, he is there to bring us to glory. Let’s listen to this warning. Let it awaken us to the glory of Christ and see that in him our salvation is complete. Perhaps what we need this morning is to hear afresh this word from God and respond, like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (John 6:68)