Dr. R.C. Sproul (1939 — 2017) preached his final sermon on November 26, 2017, at Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida. The title of the sermon was “A Great Salvation” from Hebrews 2:1-4. He concluded that sermon with these words: “I pray with all my heart that God will awaken each one of us today to the sweetness, the loveliness, the glory of the gospel declared by Christ.”
This morning we will continue our study of the book of Hebrews. We are beginning a new chapter, chapter 2. I will be reading from Hebrews 2:1–4 as we hear the Word of God:
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 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, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
These are the words of God—not just the Word of God, but the words of God. God gave these words to the author of Hebrews. We are to receive them with fear and trembling and with an earnest desire to respond obediently to them. Please be seated. Let us pray.
We thank You, Lord, for the glorious message that we hear in the pages of this book of Hebrews that so richly declares the absolute supremacy of Christ. We thank You that in Him we have received not a little salvation, but a great salvation. We ask that You open our eyes and hearts to fully understand and embrace this glorious gospel. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pay Close Attention
After completing the seven testimonies from the Old Testament in chapter 1, where the author of Hebrews declares the superiority of Christ over the angels, he then begins the second chapter.
I always get a little annoyed by how the chapter divisions were made by somebody whose name remains anonymous. The second chapter begins with the word “therefore”—what a word to start a new chapter with. The word “therefore” indicates the conclusion of an argument based upon the propositions stated beforehand. After these propositions were set forth in chapter 1, chapter 2 begins with the word “therefore,” signifying a coming conclusion.
Let me just pause for a second. The author of Hebrews is getting at the perfect marriage between doctrine and practice. If we believe what he has declared in the first chapter, then that has radical implications for how we live our lives. He begins to show that when he says, “Therefore, we must pay much closer attention.”
There is a small grammatical problem in the words of that particular translation. There is tension in these words because it is not certain grammatically whether the author is using a comparative or a superlative. The author sort of crunches them both together when he speaks of a “much closer attention.” I would prefer that he would simply say that we therefore must pay “the most possible attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”
Think of that image of drifting. Some people go fishing in boats and do not set the anchor down; they allow the boat to move with the current. They just drift. Where they end up can be somewhat problematic. Scripture uses this kind of figurative language elsewhere when it talks about an “anchor for our soul,” which is the hope we have in Christ. In our text, the author is negatively saying, “Don’t allow yourselves to drift aimlessly away from what you’ve heard here.”
The author is speaking about the marvelous comparison he has given about the superiority of Jesus over the angels and over all created things: “Do not drift away from what you have heard, but pay the closest possible attention to it . . . the message declared by angels proved to be reliable”—this is a reference to the Old Testament idea hinted at in Deuteronomy 33 regarding the law being mediated by the angels. When Moses received the law from God, there were myriads of angels present on that occasion. So, the author of Hebrews says that if the law that came from the angels was ignored by people in the Old Testament and they received a just retribution, how much more responsible are we to that which has come to us from Christ, who is superior to the angels?
A Prison with No Escape
Beloved, the central theme of this chapter, or at least this portion of the chapter, is the theme of escape. When you think of escape, you think of some kind of deliverance from a dire and life-threatening situation, like escaping from a kidnapper, or soldiers being surrounded in battle and finding a way to retreat safely. That is an escape. But the most common idea with which we associate the idea of escape is imprisonment; not just from jail, but from those prisons that are the most notoriously inescapable, such as the former condition of Alcatraz, Devil’s Island, or the most dreadful of all French prisons, the Château d’If.
Do you remember the story? It is my second most favorite novel. In this story, Edmond Dantès was falsely accused, unjustly convicted of a crime, and sent to the most dreaded prison—the Château d’If. There he suffered for years in solitary confinement. One day he met a co-prisoner, an aged priest who had been there for decades and had spent much time trying to dig a tunnel to possibly escape, but he did not do his math right and ended up instead entering Dantès’ chamber.
The two met and had fellowship, and the old priest became Dantès’ mentor and counselor. He taught him all things about science, philosophy, and theology, and told him about a map to a vast treasure hidden under the sea. Then the old priest died, and through an extraordinary series of circumstances, the death of the priest led to Edmond Dantès escaping from the Château d’If. Then he found the vast treasure that financed the rest of his life with his nom de plume, the Count of Monte Cristo. What an escape story that one is.
As dire and dreadful as the circumstances were in the Château d’If, there is an even greater and more dreadful captivity than any human being can imagine. The author of Hebrews speaks of an escape from that captivity. He asks the question, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” Beloved, this is a rhetorical question. The answer to the question is simple. “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The answer is, we cannot.
Maybe one could escape from Alcatraz, or Devil’s Island, or even the Château d’If, but the one prison from which no one ever escapes is hell. There is no escape route. You cannot dig under it. You cannot climb over it. No guard can be bribed. The sentence cannot be ameliorated. So, the author of Hebrews is saying: “Do you realize what you’ve heard? We have heard from the Word of God Himself about a great salvation.”
Saved from What?
Let me pause and comment on the very idea of salvation. We use that word all the time in the church. What does it mean? When somebody asks me, “Are you saved?” the first question I want to ask in return is, “Saved from what?” The idea of salvation suggests the idea of some kind of escape or deliverance from a dire circumstance.
The verb sōzō in the New Testament is used in a variety of ways. If you are saved from a threatening illness, as people were in the New Testament by the touch of Jesus, Jesus might comment, “Your faith has saved you” (see Luke 7:50). He is not speaking about eternal salvation, but He is speaking about their rescue from the dreadful disease.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel went into battle, and God intervened on their behalf and saved His people from military defeat. That was rescue from a clear and present danger. So, this verb “to save” is used all kinds of times in all kinds of ways. The Greek verb uses virtually every tense: you saved, you were being saved, you have been saved, you are saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved. Salvation takes all these different tenses of the verb.
There is salvation in the general sense that has manifold applications, but when the Bible speaks about salvation in the ultimate sense, it speaks of the ultimate escape from the ultimate dire human condition. What does it mean to be saved? It means, as the Scriptures tell us, to be rescued from the wrath that is to come.
I get distressed when I see that sign on I-4 that says, “God is not angry.” That message, given to every motorist as they travel up and down I-4, is a pernicious heresy. If God is not angry—if God has no wrath and there is no wrath to come—then that is the gospel’s ultimate great news. Nobody needs to worry about anything, at least not about the anger of God if the sign is true, because it tells us that God is not angry. Not only is that not true but it is a pernicious falsehood to say that God is not angry.
God’s wrath, as we are told in Romans, is revealed to the whole world. But we are at ease in Zion. We are not afraid of His wrath because we have been told repeatedly that God is not mad, that God is not angry, that we do not need to worry about God, that God will save everybody, that all you need to do to get into heaven is to die.
The truth is that for nonbelievers, all a person needs to do to get into hell is to die. I wish that everybody who died went to heaven, but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that is not the case, and there awaits a judgment. The greatest calamity that anybody can ever imagine is to be sentenced to hell. The Château d’If is a luxury resort compared to hell.
How Shall We Escape?
Now the author raises this question: How do we escape? If you neglect that salvation, beloved, there is no escape. The question is this: To whom is the author of Hebrews speaking? He does not say, “How shall they escape if they neglect so great a salvation?” He is not talking about the run-of-the-mill pagan, who not only neglects the gospel of salvation but is utterly disinterested in it and may be outwardly hostile to it. We have multitudes of people that live in this country and around the world who despise the gospel; they don’t just neglect it.
But the author of Hebrews is not talking about those people. He uses the word “we.” That is us. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? Again, the answer to the rhetorical question is, we cannot. We will not.
You know the introit this morning that the youth choir girls sang? Did you pay attention to the words you heard? Let me refresh your memory about those words. Listen to what they sang: “O God, You are my God, and I long for You. My whole being desires You. Like a dry land, my soul thirsts for You. Let me see You in your sanctuary, and I will praise, and I will be satisfied as long as I live.”
Listen to these words. Do they sound like words that would come from somebody who neglects the gospel?
Do Not Neglect Salvation
What does it mean to be neglectful? To neglect something is to overlook it, to take it lightly, certainly not to devote yourself steadfastly to it. Somebody asked me a question a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about different congregations, and I was telling him how much I love the congregation of Saint Andrew’s. I said, “It’s a fantastic congregation.” He asked me, “How many people in the congregation do you think are really Christians?” I answered: “I don’t know. I can’t read the hearts of people. Only God can do that. I know that everybody who is a member of the church has made an outward profession of faith. So, 100 percent of our people have professed their faith.” He asked, “But how many do you think really mean it?” I said, “I don’t know, 70 percent, 80 percent.” I may be seriously overestimating or underestimating that, but one thing I know for sure is that not everybody in this room is a Christian.
How do you know if you are a Christian? Can you sing the words of this song: “Oh my God, You are my God and I long for You. My whole being desires You”? How can you be a Christian and neglect so great a salvation? Is that salvation not enough? Maybe you think it is alright, it is good, but not great. Do you neglect it? I cannot answer that question.
If you neglect this salvation and treat it lightly, it probably means that you have never been converted, that God has never quickened or awakened your soul from spiritual death. This salvation is unprecedented. It deserves our diligence and our energetic pursuit of it, certainly not neglect.
I think the author of Hebrews has in mind what happened in the Old Testament, where the people had their greatest moment of salvation in the exodus. They were prisoners. They were slaves. Pharaoh would not give them any straw for their bricks, and they were brutally beaten and virtually imprisoned by Pharaoh. They cried, they groaned, they prayed. God heard the groans of His people, sent Moses to Pharaoh, and said, “Let My people go.”
The horse and the rider were thrown into the sea. The multitudes of people fleeing from captivity came out. They got to Migdal, and in front of them was the sea and behind them were the chariots of Egypt. Their route seemed to be hopeless—there was no escape. But then, a mighty wind blew and dried up the Red Sea. Israel escaped, but the chariots of Pharaoh did not. That was a great salvation.
No sooner were the Israelites rescued from this tyranny than they started complaining about the manna that God provided for them: “Oh, I wish we were back in Egypt. Yes, we might have been slaves, but we had our leeks, onions, and garlic to eat.” They would trade their freedom, as if somebody in the Château d’If would want to go back to that jail.
The author of Hebrews has in mind throughout this book how the people of Israel in the Old Testament neglected their salvation. So, there were few who ever made it to paradise. That is where we are right now. We have heard the Word of God. It is a message of not just good news, but great news; not just great news, but the greatest of all possible news: those who believe in Christ will be saved from the wrath which is to come.
How Can You Neglect this Great Salvation?
“How can you possibly neglect this salvation in the first place?”—that is not the question the author asks. He asks: “How can you possibly escape? How can you possibly neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
God doesn’t ask you to believe in His gospel by taking a leap of faith into the darkness and hoping that Jesus will catch you. Nicodemus came by night and said, “Teacher, we know that You are sent from God, or You wouldn’t be able to do the works that You do.” Nicodemus’s theology was sound. We do not try to prove the existence of God by miracles. There could be no miracles if you did not first understand that God exists. The purpose of miracles is not to prove the existence of God; the purpose of miracles is to prove and attest to the truth of those declaring the gospel.
God certified Moses by miracles. He certified Jesus by miracles. He certified His Apostles by miracles, powers, wonderful signs, and even the spiritual gifts given to the pristine church to show so great a salvation. God announced to the world that this is the good news. Jesus declared it to us, not just the angels. If you neglect what Jesus says and what God proves, then we are back to the theme: no escape.
Beloved, if you come to church every single Sunday of your life and go to Sunday school every single week of your life, you may still be neglecting this great salvation. Is your heart in it? That is what I am asking you. I cannot answer that question for you.
You know if you are neglecting your salvation. I do not have to tell it to you. I just have to tell you what the consequences are if you continue in that neglect. So, I pray with all my heart that God will awaken each one of us today to the sweetness, the loveliness, the glory of the gospel declared by Christ.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.