Spoken, Confirmed, Witnessed: a Great Salvation
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
The point of this paragraph of God's Word is that there will be no escape for any of us who neglects our great salvation. Verse 3: "How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" What's the answer to that question? The answer is, There is no way we will escape if we neglect such a great salvation.
Now this is a sobering word for the world and for the church, because most people do neglect the greatness of salvation. How many people do you know who give serious, sustained attention to the salvation accomplished by Christ—who love it, and think about it, and meditate on it, and marvel at it, and feel continual gratitude for it, and commend it to others as valuable, and weave it into all the lesser things of their lives, and set their hopes on it? Do you live this way? Is it not astonishing how neglectful even professing Christians are of their great salvation?
Is there a sense of greatness in your mind about your salvation? When something truly great is happening, there is an appropriate response to greatness. Do you respond to the greatness of your salvation? Or do you neglect it? Do you treat your salvation the way you treat your will or the title to your car or the deed on your house? You signed it once and it is in a file drawer somewhere, but it is not a really great thing. It has no daily effect on you. Basically you neglect it.
So this is an astonishing word to the church and the world. To neglect our great salvation is to come into judgment and there will be no escape. Being a Christian is very serious business. Not sour business, but serious, very serious.
A Great Salvation
It's not as if he is saying, Don't neglect your arthritis. Or: Don't neglect your dandelions. Or: Don't neglect your spinach. He is saying don't neglect your salvation. Your great salvation. So it's as if he said, Don't neglect your steak dinners. Don't neglect your cancer-healing therapy. Don't neglect your sunrises and sunsets. And don't neglect your Butterfinger Blizzards or your new baby's smile, or your Rocky Mountains, or your Boundary Waters' breezes under the full night sky, or your safe warm bed. It's like that.
Only what is it really—this great salvation? What he's really saying is: Don't neglect being loved by God. Don't neglect being forgiven and accepted and protected and strengthened and guided by Almighty God. Don't neglect the sacrifice of Christ's life on the cross. Don't neglect the free gift of righteousness imputed by faith. Don't neglect the removal of God's wrath and the reconciled smile of God. Don't neglect the indwelling Holy Spirit and the fellowship and friendship of the living Christ. Don't neglect the radiance of God's glory in the face of Jesus. Don't neglect the free access to the throne of grace. Don't neglect the inexhaustible treasure of God's promises. This is a great salvation. Neglecting it is very evil. Don't neglect so great a salvation.
Because if you do, you will perish without escape. So being a Christian is a very serious business—not a sour business, but a serious business. We are simply blood-earnest about being happy in our great salvation. We will not be deflected by this world into the fleeting and suicidal pleasures of sin. We will not neglect our eternal joy in God—which is what salvation is. We will gouge out our eyes rather than be lured away from eternal life.
Now the opposite of neglecting our great salvation is mentioned in Hebrews 2:1, "We must pay closer attention to what we have heard." What we have heard is the message of a great salvation delivered by the Son of God (see Hebrews 1:2). And "paying closer attention" is what "not neglecting" means. That's what we looked at last week.
A True Salvation
Now this week we look at the reason given in verses 3 and 4 why it is such a contemptible thing to neglect our great salvation. And the reason is that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by a cluster of reliable witnesses. It is true and its truth has been witnessed to in sufficiently diverse and trustworthy ways that it is evil to reject it. This is the point of verses 3 and 4: Our salvation is not only great, it is true. Of course it could not be great unless it were true. But the focus here is not on how great it is to be saved, but how sure you can be that it is great to be saved. Look at these two verses with me:
How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord [contrast "through angels" for the law in verse 2], it was confirmed to us by those who heard [that is, the apostles, the eyewitnesses who heard the earthly teaching of the Lord Jesus], 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
Now what is the point of these two verses? The point is to highlight how bad it is to neglect so great a salvation. But not by focusing on the greatness of the salvation but on the sufficiency of the confirmation of the greatness of the salvation.
In other words there are at least two reasons you might neglect something. One is that it is not really great, and so you neglect it and spend your time and energy on something that you think is really great. The other is that, even though it might be really great, you may not have access to sufficient evidence that it really is great. In the first case, you may know the salvation, but you don't think it is so great. In the second case, you neglect it because you don't know the salvation.
Witnesses to the Truth of This Great Salvation
Hebrews 2:3–4 are intended to say to the original readers—and, I think, to us—there have been more than enough confirmations of the truth of this great salvation for you to believe it and embrace it and love it and not neglect it.
Let's outline them and then ask how our confidence rises from these things.
There are four stages of witness:
When verse 3 says, "It was at the first spoken through the Lord," it implies that God the Father was the first speaker of this salvation. God spoke this great salvation "through the Lord." "Through the Lord" implies that Christ was a go-between for this great salvation. This is the same wording as in verse 2 where the word of the Old Testament was "spoken through angels." So the first witness is God the Father, which is exactly what you would expect if you recall Hebrews 1:1–2—God spoke first through prophets and in these last days he has spoken by a Son. The first witness to the greatness of our salvation is God.
2. The Mediator, Christ Jesus
Then the second witness is the Mediator, the go-between, Christ Jesus. "It was at first spoken through the Lord," that is, through Jesus. This is a reference to the earthly ministry of Jesus as he taught and healed and cast out demons and preached the kingdom of God and died and rose again. In Acts 10:36, Peter says to Cornelius that the gospel is, "The word which [God] sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)." So the great salvation was spoken by God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
Therefore whatever stamp God the Father leaves on this testimony bears witness to its divine origin and whatever stamp the Lord Jesus leaves on it bears witness to its endorsement by the Son.
3. The Apostles
The third witness in the sequence is mentioned at the end of verse 3: "It [the great salvation] was confirmed to us by those who heard." The author puts himself in a group with the readers of the letter and says "us." And then he mentions a group called "those who heard." Heard what? Heard what was spoken by the Lord. In other words, he is referring to the eyewitnesses, the apostles, those who had spent time with Jesus and heard him teach and heard him tell the storm to be still and heard him command demons to come out of people and heard him stump the Pharisees, and heard him teach the incomparable words of the Sermon on the Mount and heard him interpret the Old Testament, and heard him make stupendous claims about his own resurrection and his purpose to ransom many from sin, and heard him speak from a resurrected body and command them to go and make disciples of all nations.
These were the ones who had come to preach to the readers of this letter. The readers had heard the stories of Jesus from the very mouths of eyewitnesses. They had heard God and they had heard Jesus by hearing the very witnesses who were there when God spoke through his Son, Jesus Christ.
So verse 3 says that the great salvation was "confirmed" by these eyewitnesses. Without these witnesses there would be no faith. These witnesses are the indispensable link to the speaking of God the Father and of Jesus Christ. The firmness of our faith rests on these witnesses. Without them there would be no rock to stand on. These are the foundation. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ—but a word mediated by personal eyewitnesses.
4. God Again
The fourth witness in this series is again God himself. The sequence begins with God and ends with God. Verse 4: "God also bearing witness with them [that is, with the eyewitnesses], both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will." God spoke the great salvation into being through Jesus, and now God comes in again to witness to his own word and work.
The way he witnesses is through signs and wonders and miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other words, when the apostles came to preach and witness to what they had seen and heard, God enabled them to do miracles and he poured out on the new believers gifts of the Spirit. This was God's added testimony to the message of his great salvation.
How Do These Witnesses Give a Firm Foundation to Our Faith?
Now here's the key question. How do all these witnesses give a firm foundation to our faith in God's great salvation? Why are we more guilty for neglecting this great salvation because there are these four kinds of witnesses?
The reason I ask the question is because coming to have a firm and reasonable conviction about the truth is not a simple thing. For example, if God speaks, you can always say, "How do I know it's God?" Or if Jesus speaks, you can say, "How do I know you are not a deluded prophet?" Or if an apostle speaks about seeing the risen Christ, you can say, "How do I know you were not hallucinating? Or maybe you are a con artist and are trying to make a name for yourself." And if someone does miracles, you can say, "Maybe it's magic, or maybe Satan is trying to deceive me."
If I told you right now that yesterday, as I was working on this message, I received over the email a story of a miraculous healing in Lyon, France, that led to the conversion of a skeptical unbeliever and former Tour de France cyclist, you could think of a lot of reasons not to believe the story. If I showed you the message on my computer this afternoon, you could say I concocted it or got someone else to for the sake of this illustration. If I said the story was told by the very person whom God used to perform the miracle and gave you his name and email address, you could still come up with a conspiracy theory or a theory of delusion that would make it possible for you not to believe that it happened. And I dare say that if you had been there in the restaurant when Ron Cohen prayed for this skeptic's injured knee, and you saw him lay his crutches aside and walk around the table and begin to cry, "C'est impossible," it would still be possible to imagine an explanation other than that God acted to witness to his great salvation.
So here's the question: since it is always possible to doubt a testimony, what causes a person to be properly persuaded? What happens in the mind that brings it to rest in the truth? How do you ever come to have a valid persuasion about someone's testimony—mine, or the apostles' or Jesus' or God's? How does skepticism get replaced with well-grounded faith?
This text does not give the whole answer. It simply assumes that God has spoken his great salvation. Jesus, the Lord of the universe was the one through whom God spoke, and so he adds his testimony. The apostles heard Jesus in the flesh and came and preached the great salvation to the readers of this letter. And God added the witness of miracles and gifts of the Spirit. In other words, well-grounded faith comes through a cluster of testimonies.
But how, since they can all be doubted if you want to doubt them?
The text does not say specifically, but I venture an answer on the basis of some other passages like 2 Corinthians 4:4–6 and Matthew 11:27; 16:17.
From Skepticism to Well-Grounded Faith
Two things have to happen to move from skepticism to a well-grounded faith: first, a testimony has to make clear something real—the historical and moral and spiritual quality of the reality has to be portrayed clearly; and second, the mind of the listener has to be careful and clean and humble enough to perceive and embrace what is real. In other words, coming to a valid conviction about truth from a testimony is ultimately the coherence or harmony between the mind's view of trustworthiness on the one hand, and the witness's embodiment and presentation of reality on the other hand.
Let me say it with a visual aid. The listening mind and the claim to truth in the witness are like a plug and a socket that are supposed to fit with each other so that the current of conviction can flow. On the side of the witness, the plug must be clear—it must show the sharp contours of the historical and moral and spiritual beauty of our great salvation in Christ. On the side of the listener, the socket must be carefully positioned, and clean from substitute realities, and humbly willing to be penetrated by spiritual reality. When this happens the plug approaches and—perhaps for the first time in your life—it fits into the socket perfectly and a deep and justified conviction is born.
Hebrews 2:3–4 is saying that the witnesses have done their part. The historical, moral, and spiritual reality of God's great salvation has been displayed. Any lack of conviction on our part—any neglect of this great salvation—is owing not to them but to us. We are the ones who need to change. Our minds are careless or defiled (clinging to false ideas and desires) or too proud to receive the message that we need salvation.
So my prayer for us this morning is that God would shine in our hearts and cause sockets to be careful and clean and humble—so that we receive and love God's great salvation and not neglect it.