In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes about how the internet is changing our ability to think.
“Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic. They’re very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.”
Wisdom is associated with deep concentration. Scholarly intellectuals, or any knowledge worker, requires significant periods of the day that are devoted to thinking, reading, and processing information. They must learn to overcome the seduction of our distracted age.
That’s also true of Christians in general. We are called to meditate upon the Word of God (Ps 1:2), to think about things that honor the Lord (Phil 4:8), and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).
His argument wraps up the case he has made in the first chapter. Opening with “therefore” ensures that we don’t miss this connection. Christ is superior to angels, so “we must pay much closer attention” to the message we have heard about him. That’s how the author of Hebrews states his argument in Hebrews 2:1. He begins by stating it positively, but he goes on to put it negatively as well. This is the first of five major warning passages in Hebrews. He is concerned that some of his readers will “drift away” from the message they heard.
Professing Christians will not escape God’s judgment if they neglect the gospel by their indifference. The word “neglect” (Heb 1:3) is basically the opposite of “pay attention”. They can expect God’s judgment if they lose interest in “such a great salvation.” That’s how I would state it negatively, but we can also make the same point positively. Those who keep their focus on the gospel will never be in danger of drifting away from it.
Read Hebrews 2:1-4.
A Message that is Worthy of Our Attention (1-3a)
The problem was not so much that these believers were actively rebelling against the gospel, but they were losing their focus. They were in danger of neglecting the gospel due to their indifference. They were “drifting away” or literally allowing themselves to “flow by” or float along in the general direction of the culture. Instead of standing firm, they were sliding along with the crowd.
Drifting takes no effort at all. It’s like laying on your surf board in the ocean. If you don’t pay attention, before long you’re a mile further down the beach. You have to continually take note of where you are and swim against the current in order to remain in the same general area.
The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers to pay better attention to the message of salvation that they have heard. They will drift away from the gospel if they lose their focus. Throughout the rest of this chapter, the author will continue to support his case, that Christ is superior to the angels. Here however, his concern shifts to the content of the message.
What is the message that was declared by angels? This is a reference to the law given at Sinai (Deut 33:2; cf Ps 68:17). This belief was emphasized by rabbinic teaching (Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus). It was also something Stephen mentioned the sermon that got him killed (Acts 7:53) and Paul taught it to the Galatians (Gal 3:19).
The author devotes the rest of this section supporting the need to pay closer attention. If Jesus is superior to the angels, and if what the angels declared was completely reliable, and if every disobedience to the law received a just punishment, then we must take the message of the Gospel all the more seriously.
It is an argument from the lesser to the greater. If the message of the law declared by inferior angels proved to be reliable, how much more reliable is the message of salvation declared by the superior Lord? Likewise, if every transgression was punished under the inferior old covenant, how much more will sin be punished under the superior new covenant? Putting the argument together: If the message gets better and clearer, the judgment will be more severe.
If the covenant community in the Old Testament was judged for their apostasy, how much more will “we” face judgment “if we neglect such a great salvation”? This community will not escape judgment if they reject Jesus and return to Judaism. This is repeated in an expanded form in Heb 10:28-29. The judgement will increase in severity (“worse punishment”) because they would be guilty of rejecting the most superior messenger.
The Increasing Value of our Attention
Cal Newport piggybacks off the phenomenon that Nicholas Carr described in The Shallows. While Carr ably diagnoses the problem, Newport proposes some practical solutions. He argues that the distracted nature of our world will increasingly favor people who are able to prioritize deep work. This kind of work can only take place in an undistracted environment that allows for extended periods of concentrated focus.
“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction…it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where…it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”
So what does all of this have to do with Hebrews 2? If this community of believers in the first century needed to prioritize their attention better, how much more do those of us who have grown up in the age of the internet and social media?
Pay Much Closer Attention!
This original audience would have been quite familiar with the guilt of their ancestors, who seemed to be continually distracted by the success of other nations. God had separated them from the world and given them his special grace, but they lacked the gratitude that should have resulted from the favor they were shown.
We have to admit that the Church in the West is often guilty of going with the flow. Christians have always been in the world, but we are called to stand apart from the world as well. There should be a contrast between what enamors the world and what attracts the believer. Casually going with the flow, indifferent to the direction it’s heading, will quickly lead you and your family away from God.
All types of meditation require the elimination of distractions, but Christian meditation is different than Eastern and mystical meditation. Whereas, Eastern meditation involves emptying your mind, Christian meditation involves filling it with whatever honors God.
So we need to evaluate what is capturing our interest and pulling us away from thinking about what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). Pay closer attention to the message of salvation that is revealed to you plainly in God’s Word! It’s not enough to maintain faith, if it is nothing more than a casual indifference. An occasional trip to church is not going to provide the foundational support you need to anchor your faith. Our concern ought to deepen and grow up to maturity.
True wisdom is found by keeping your undivided attention on Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:21–24 ESV
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
When our hearts are stirred by the gospel, we will fight against the tide to remain there.
Isaiah 40:31 ESV
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
› The gospel message…
A Message that was Witnessed by Extraordinary Confirmation (3b-4)
The covenant community in the Old Testament was punished because they grumbled and rebelled against God’s provision of salvation from Egypt. While they neglected the message that was declared by angels, we would be neglecting the message declared by the Lord!
In the second half of v.3 the author places himself among those who had not heard the Lord’s message directly, but “it was attested to us by those who heard” it from the Lord. So he was not an apostle, but he heard the gospel from the apostles. This not only eliminates the original apostles who were with Jesus during his three years of ministry, it also eliminates Paul, who repeatedly affirms that he received his ministry directly from Jesus (Acts 9).
God provided four kinds of witnesses to confirm the message of salvation:
3. Various miracles
4. Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The miraculous gifts have ceased since the canon of Scripture was closed (Heb 1:2). John Calvin’s commentary is helpful on this point:
“As to the word, bearing witness, or attesting, it points out the right use of miracles, even that they serve to establish the Gospel. For almost all the miracles done in all ages were performed as we find for this end, that they might be the seals of God’s word…The words, according to his will, remind us, that the miracles mentioned could not be ascribed to any except to God alone, and that they were not wrought undesignedly, but for the distinct purpose of sealing the truth of the Gospel.”
When God told Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he was commanded to go before Pharaoh and demand that he let them go. What did Moses request before going? He asked for a sign in order to prove that God sent him. So God gave him two miraculous signs. His staff was able to turn into a snake and he could make his hand leprous by putting it into his cloak (and heal it by repeating the process). That is just one example of God’s purpose for miracles. They are found in Scripture clustered around the delivery of new revelation (prophetic ministry).
The need for miraculous signs and wonders has ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture. The purpose for confirming new revelation is no longer needed.
The Gospel of Jesus
Professing Christians will not escape God’s judgment if they neglect the gospel by their indifference. One of the ways we combat indifference to the gospel is by remembering who declared it at first.
The Lord Jesus Christ left the riches of heaven and took upon himself the rags of humanity, in order to provide a way of escape. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life that we could not live, so that he might die the death that we deserved. The way of escape from the wrath of God is available to all who place their faith in Christ alone for their salvation. Receiving his message means radical transformation of our priorities. Indifference is simply not an option for those who have been struck by the weight of the glory of the gospel.
This is the message that we need to pay much closer attention to whenever we are tempted to drift along with the culture. It might ease the tension to coast along, but before we know it, we will be miles from where we once were. However, those who keep their focus on the gospel will never be in danger of drifting away from it.