This paragraph is the first of several “exhortations” from author to drawing practical implications of the theology he is presenting. These are not secondary afterthoughts to make the theology look practical, they are the logical outworking of the theology and are probably the real reason he is writing, to exhort his readers to live a proper Christ-like life. (See Hebrews, 13:22, the entire book is intended as a “word of exhortation.”)
This is a logical a fortiori argument. The writer starts with an accepted truth, then moves to a logically related truth which has even more reason to be accepted. His argument is: if our salvation is greater than what Israel experienced under the Law, then so too the judgment will be greater if someone drifts away. He offers warning, then the reason for the warning, then he offers evidence from Scripture and experience.
First, the writer gives a stern warning: Pay careful attention and do no drift away (2:1). “Pay careful attention” is the command given based on the deity of Jesus. This is not a clear break from chapter one, it is based on the logic of chapter 1. If Jesus is truly the Son of God, and God himself, then the message that he brought is worthy of attention. In the New Testament the word translated “pay attention” is used for devoting oneself to a task, such as prayer and scripture reading (1 Tim 4:13) , or even an individual listening to the Gospel and accepting Christ (Lydia, in Acts 16, for example.)
The reason for the careful attention is the possibility of “drifting away.” Since the writer raises this issue in his first exhortation, he may be addressing a real problem his readers were facing. The word for “drifting away” (παραρρέω) is only used here in Hebrews 2:1. It refers to something floating aimlessly on the surface of the water. The word is used for allowing a ring to “slip from one’s finger” (Bruce, Hebrews, 27).
The image is carelessness and lack of attention. This is not a person who suddenly recants their faith in a moment of fury, but rather someone who makes many tiny compromises over a long period of time. Instead of being careful devoted to their faith, this person just floats along with the tide. In fact, in verse 3 this is described as neglect (ἀμελέω). The writer thinks this drifting away is as bad as apostasy, denying the Lord.
After stating the warning, he now proceeds to tell us why it is important that we do not drift.
Second, this “drifting away” is a serious problem. If our salvation is superior, then so is the consequence for ignoring it. (2:2-3a). The first part of this argument is based on the idea that the “Great salvation” that we have is greater than the salvation of the Old Testament. The writer says that the Law was delivered by angels. The Old Testament says nothing about angels being involved in the delivery of the Law, but they are active in other passages doing service for God. It was a Jewish tradition that angels were the ones that delivered the Law to Moses.
The law was binding to the Jews, and there were “curses and blessings” promised based on the obedience of the people. The judgements for disobedience were certain, just as the rewards were. Therefore, if the salvation that we have is a better salvation than in the Old Testament, the judgement for drifting from that salvation will also be greater.
Finally, the writer offers evidence for this warning. Jesus revealed our salvation, and it was testified to by the apostles and signs, and by the Holy Spirit (2:3b-4). There is a pattern of revelation similar to the law, it came through Christ to the apostles (including Paul), and then to the generation reading the letter. The writer includes himself in those who received the revelation from the apostles, rather than from the Lord.
The message of salvation was witnessed by signs and miracles. The miracles themselves do not prove that Jesus is God, since he would be God even if he did not do miracles. The miracles were intended to verify that Jesus and disciples were in fact from God. The Jews expected the Messiah to do miracles, some even ask Jesus to show a miracle to prove he is the Messiah (which he does not do, interestingly enough!)
The final step in his argument is that the salvation is witnessed to by the gifts of the Spirit. The word for gifts here is not the more common charismata, but rather a word that is used to emphasize the distribution of the gifts. Not that the miraculous gifts are not in the mind of the writer, they may or may not be. The main idea here is that the salvation that we share in was first witnessed by Christ, then the apostles, and then through the function of spiritual gifts in the church.
The writer’s warning, then, is the readers need to carefully devote themselves to spiritual growth because the judgment for drifting away and spiritual negligence is great indeed.
But what does “drifting away and spiritual negligence” look like from a contemporary perspective? What sorts of things can be safeguards against this drift? I am sure this will be different in various cultures, so a Christian in a non-western culture will struggle differently than a young, western (American) Christian.