If we aren’t actively rowing, we’re drifting.
We rightly think of the letter to the Hebrews as jam-packed with exposition. Many key doctrines have solid anchors in this letter. Every time we return to it, if we’re paying attention, our faith is bolstered.
But there’s something else going on in this letter, something equally important: exhortation. The letter is just as jam-packed with encouragement and coaching in discipleship. Both positives, and cautions about things to watch out for.
We’re warned to beware of drift
Here’s an exercise I think you’ll find valuable: Over the next day or two, read the letter carefully, and write down the pitfalls that the writer is cautioning us to watch out for. You will assemble quite a list! Every item on it can be the beginning of a fruitful study. We’ll just look at one.
In the first verse of the second chapter, we’re warned to beware of drift: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1 ESV & many others; some translations have “let it slip”.)
Drifting in a boat is letting the wind and current take you wherever, rather than rowing or motoring or sailing in the direction you want to go. A drifter is someone who travels around mostly aimlessly, guided by circumstance and whim. You get the picture. So what would cause us to drift spiritually?
The next three verses show us what can happen. The “message declared by angels” is the Law of Moses (Acts 7:53, Galatians 3:19). The point made here is that every disobedience under the Law had a consequence, and if that’s so, then a much worse outcome will come to us “if we neglect such a great salvation.” Why? Because of the overwhelming evidence provided by God.
What’s the writer saying? I think it’s this: Drift is the result of neglect. The many positive exhortations in this letter relate in some way to focus. Staying engaged. Staying active. Passiveness, lack of positive and active effort, is neglect—neglect of such a great, such an enormous, salvation that’s been declared to us. If we stop rowing, we drift.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as drifting, or neglectful. We haven’t abandoned the faith, right? We aren’t engaged in the apostasy or immorality that the writer warns against later on, are we? We haven’t hardened our heart, thrown away confidence, allowed a root of bitterness to sprout. (You’ll notice these phrases from the list you created!)
We may not like to hear it, but here’s the thing. If we aren’t actively rowing, we’re drifting. For a while a bit of momentum may keep us moving in the right direction, but we’ll be slowing down, turning sideways, moving some other direction. Neglect isn’t active, it just happens. It happens when we lose the immediacy of our salvation. And there are winds and currents at work, inside us and around us, that will push us the wrong way if we let ourselves drift. You know this is true. It has happened to you, just like it’s happened to me. Time to grab those oars again and get back to moving the boat in the right direction.