We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
This letter was sent to Jewish Christians in Rome during the time of Nero’s persecution, and it has a theme that carries from front to back that screams. ‘Persevere in times of trial! Hold on firmly to what you have in Christ and don’t let go!’ As you might imagine with such a theme, there are several warnings in the letter, and here is the first one.
Like the opening of the first chapter, this one has an opening paragraph that is heavy on content. The content here is a contrast between the Old and New Covenants
|Old Covenant||New Covenant|
|A message spoken by angels||Announced by Jesus Himself|
|It was binding||It was confirmed by its hearers and by God Himself|
|It contained just punishment for every infraction||It includes no escape for ignoring it or even for just drifting away|
Simply stated, these verses are telling us that we must give our relationship with Jesus Christ (New Covenant) the highest possible priority. In fact, this is the thesis for the entire chapter. I know that I don’t need to ask (Well, do we?) of anyone, because if you are anything like me, we can all do a better job in this area.
Now, let’s think about this another way. The author has included a contrast between the Old and New Covenants here, as well as throughout this entire letter: Why?
I think the reason is a simple one, but maybe not as obvious to the modern reader as it would have been when it was written. Remember, it is written to Jewish Christians. Of course they would be interested in this comparison, just on general principle, but there is a deeper reason. Nero persecuted Christians in his day. Remember the story of the great fire in Rome that burned out the center of the city, and resulted in a whole new building program by Nero that seemed to be his way of immortalizing himself as a Roman Emperor? Who did Nero, who probably had quite a bit to do with starting the fire, blame for the fire?
Exactly: Christians! The Christians were the specific target of his persecution, not Jews. Thus, a Jewish Christian might have felt pressure to renounce Christ and just be an innocent Jew again to avoid Nero’s persecution. That, dear reader, is the historical context of this letter. Hold on to what you have in Christ. The author is constantly reminding his readers how much better their lot as Christians is, in spite of Nero… so this theme is oft-repeated.
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. (2:1)
We need to pay careful attention to what we have in Christ (what we have heard) lest we drift away. Thus “drift away” would mean going back to the old ways to avoid trouble in this life. He goes on in verse 2 to describe their situation under the Law with its system of rules and punishment for infractions, and then verse 3: how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? refers back to “drift away”. If they would be ignoring their great salvation and returning to the old system, they would find themselves in a world of hurt with God. On the one hand, they turned their backs on salvation, and on the other hand, they’d be returning to the condemnation of the Law; a lose – lose situation. Verse 4 underscores the fact that God Himself has confirmed to them the validity of the New Covenant in various ways. As we continue through the rest of the chapter, our author will build this case even more.
For the time being, I might suggest that each of us consider this warning. OK, we might not have been Jewish, and we might not be living under Nero’s persecution, but are we ever tempted to “drift away?” Are we ever tempted to slack off, get lazy, not care…? What will be running through your mind if this kind of temptation ever comes your way?