We have now come to the first great warning of this epistle. As the force of the warning makes clear, this is not an exercise in academic theology. True theology is never merely academic. How we think is important to how we live, but how we think must never be taken as a substitute for how we live.
Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
The writer has been demonstrating the greatness of Christ over the angels, His supremacy over the entire created order. But the nature of His supremacy is important; the writer is not troubling us with arcane details of the celestial hierarchy. Christ is so much greater than the angels that we must guard against drifting away from Him — this doctrine directly addresses our behavior; it is the foundation of our faithfulness. If the law, delivered through angels, was hedged and protected through just penalties, how much more will our great salvation be so protected through much more striking penalties? The word of the law proved steadfast; the gospel is also steadfast. The Lord spoke it first, those who heard the Lord also confirmed it, and God from heaven confirmed the message with miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The miracles are signs and pointers showing something far greater; they are not to be sought after for their own sake. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign. A faithful generation reads the signs and goes beyond them to the thing signified. If a miracle is a great thing, how much greater is the Christ vouched for by the miracles? The person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is to be central as the object of our attention.
Now here is the danger. These saints, the recipients of this exhortation, are warned against drifting away. In order to guard against this, it is necessary to give earnest heed. The problem is one of neglecting a great salvation, taking it for granted. While the crisis is one of a looming apostasy, this break with the faith has (seemingly) small beginnings. The careful reader is compelled to wonder — in what ways can modern Christians be sinfully resting, too at ease with what they know? Great unfaithfulness begins with small driftings. To receive a great salvation with less than the attention it merits is to be guilty of neglecting it, which is to treat it with contempt. How many Christians treat the message of salvation with contempt, through their omission of an earnest attention? One of our great enemies in our walk with God is the force of gravity.
But God is not mocked. When He judges, in order to deliver His blow, He pushes against His revealed Word. He judges us for those things which He told us, and which we neglected. With the greater clarity of the New Covenant comes a greater strictness in judgment. In the New Covenant, covenantal judgments do not disappear. They are greater. Too many Christians have accepted the entirely unjustifiable notion that the New Covenant is a covenant without sanctions. In the older covenant, the thinking goes, there were strict sanctions. But in the New Covenant, God has decided to do the grace thing, and so there are no covenantal sanctions. The theory is quite pretty, and naturally comforting. The problem is that it collides with text after text after text. The New Covenant has stricter sanctions, as we will repeatedly learn as we work our way through this epistle.
And these are covenant warnings to covenant members. This is not primarily a warning against an unbeliever outside the Church who fails to respond to the preaching of the gospel. This is a warning against members of the covenant community of God, who are in danger of drifting away from it. Two points must be made here. First, the Bible plainly teaches that the elect (taken in the theological sense) cannot be separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. No one can remove the elect from the Father’s hand. If someone is genuinely regenerate, if he has been effectually called, then God will complete the good work which He has begun. Secondly, nothing can be plainer than that professing Christians who have some real covenant attachment to Christ can and will be removed from Him because of unbelief. We have this warning here, we have Christ’s warning in John 15, and we have Paul’s in Romans 11. When this happens, such covenant members fall under the sanctions of the New Covenant, which bring a much stricter judgment.
Take someone who has confessed the name of Christ. The warning comes to him; has he been paying earnest heed to the word of his great salvation? Has he been baptized into His people? The warning comes to him; has he been drifting away? Has he grown up among God’s people? The warning comes to him; has he neglected this message? Does he think that he will be protected by nodding his head? The conclusion of the matter is that we must pay earnest heed to Christ. We must never stop paying attention to the glory of His person and the merit of His work. To do anything else is the source of all spiritual sloth. And as we have seen here today, God judges all such sloth.