Monday, March 10, 2008

A Short Theology of Listening

In a world scrambled by aimless philosophical speculation and ever-more commercial and marketable religious apostasy and crass superstition, we should exult in our knowledge that we personally bear the very image of God (imago Dei). Consequently, we have the God-given capacity to reasonably and spiritually respond to the Creator-God’s revelation and to know Him personally. We can further rejoice that our Lord Jesus Christ, through His costly grace, has died for the sin that previously blinded our eyes and deafened our ears to spiritual reality (2 Cor. 4:3-6). The Lord has spoken: in creation, in the Bible, and by his Son—and we have heard and obeyed, by His grace. Jesus preached: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

Yet how do we listen to Christ’s prophets and teachers and preachers? How do we respond to the spoken word of biblical teaching and preaching? Do we really hear?

In his classic text, Biblical Preaching, Dr. Haddon Robinson affirms the centrality and power of preaching the authoritative word. He says of the Apostle: “Preaching in Paul’s mind did not consist of a man discussing religion. Instead, God Himself spoke through the personality and the message of a preacher to confront men and women and them to himself.”

God has specially appointed teachers and prophets for equipping the saints and for the building up of the Body (Eph. 4:11, 14). They must be heeded, for they are no less than the spokespeople of God. In an age rebelling against all legitimate authority, during a time when error is enthusiastically embraced and Truth largely shunned, we must become disciplined, earnest listeners to the Truth. It is our privilege; it is our responsibility.

Our worship does not end with the last hymn or chorus before the teaching; rather, our worship shifts from vocally praising God to actively listening to Him. “Hear O Israel,” cried Moses, God’s prophet, “The Lord our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4).

Listen . . . with all your might; hear the living and active word. The teaching and preaching of God’s imperishable word is truly a sacred event whereby the Truth penetrates hearts and minds, consciences are quickened, sin is disclosed, salvation is offered, wisdom is imparted . . . if we listen, if we actively engage ourselves in hearing, if we participate as the Holy Spirit works in our midst.

We are all too accustomed to being entertained and passively amused. Television often hypnotizes or anesthetizes us; it demands little response and by its very nature stimulates stagnation, not spiritual encounter. Video games, cell phones, and Internet access offers an endless source of possible distraction. But when we come together as the Body of Christ we come as participants not as spectators, we come to hear and obey the Truth not to be entertained. Neither Moses nor Paul captured their audience through eloquence or style. They were not entertainers but Truth-tellers: they spoke God’s word with a power that provoked response. Our Lord, when teaching by parable, alerted his hearers: “Therefore, consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18). We are to be engaged in listening, intent on hearing.

Just as it is ethically incumbent upon the teacher or preacher to diligently hunger and thirst after an exegetically and theologically correct message (James 3:1; Matt. 12:36, 37), so it is ethically imperative that the hearers receive and respond to the word—always considering the message according to Scripture. For no human is infallible, and all must be corrected biblically; yet God in His mercy uses these earthen vessels “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Sound biblical teaching and preaching when illumined by the Spirit is a transaction of grace: needed Truth is dynamically imparted to both redeemed and unredeemed sinners through the spoken word—a momentous event! It’s not just another Sunday’s half hour, not just another “religious” routine. The gracious gifts of the Spirit are to freely operate with the wind of the Spirit filling our sails and refreshing our hearts.

Practically, we must regain a biblical reverence, a fear and trembling before our Maker (Prov. 1:6). As a teacher and a preacher, I know the meaning of the congregation’s eye contact, facial expressions, and posture. Yes, in a way it is the speaker’s responsibility to provoke the interest of the hearers. But it is equally our responsibility to listen and to help the speakers by demonstrating an interest. This may require a sacrifice if you are not naturally captivated—but is not that the essence of following Christ—a sacrifice placed on God's altar for his own use(Romans 12:1-2)?

We obey what we have truly heard; we truly hear what we dedicate ourselves to hearing “and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). “Hear O Israel.” “Let everyone be quick to hear” (James 1:19) that the Lord may be honored, revered, and obeyed.


Anonymous said...

Very well said. Amen and amen!

Paul D. Adams said...

Very good post. However, it's so difficult to "hear" when the preacher or teacher is off on a tangent that the text does not warrant. Let me explain...

A few days ago I received an email from a dear friend who was encouraged by a message from John 11. The preacher took 44b, where Jesus said, "Unbind him, and let him go", as a call for us to unbind each other from the things of the world that hold our attention away from Christ.

I simply could not let this go. My response is as follows:

"Funny I’ve heard that same application from this passage on a few occasions.

Although I’ve not heard the sermon and may be pretentious here, I’m unconvinced that John had in mind some kind of metaphor for our sanctification when he documented this account. Clearly it is a biblical notion not to become worldly and to stay focused on Christ; there are plenty of other passages that speak directly to this (Heb. 12:1-3 comes to mind). Instead, John’s goal is to highlight the power of Jesus over death and thus point to his divine ability to do the humanly impossible, viz., raise someone from the dead. In the larger pericope (chapters 2-11), John is highlighting Jesus' divine power before leading up his death and resurrection, which chapters 12 and following deal with in detail. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the grand finale of Jesus’ miracles and it foreshadows the glory of the His resurrection (hence 11:25); Ironically, applying this passage as your pastor did ends up taking the focus off of Christ and makes us the focus! Hum...

There’s actually a lot more at stake here. So often preachers have the right biblical idea but the wrong biblical passage in support of it. Consequently, they end up teaching others how to misinterpret the Bible and look for hidden meanings and “deep insights” where none may actually be. Of course, no preacher who is faithful to Scripture intends this, but I find that so many are so bent on making Scripture “practical” (a new postmodern god of this age) that they lose the original idea of the author. And, I would go so far as to say that where we mistakenly apply a passage, that application has no spiritual power to change. The wrong application of a passage may have huge emotional appeal, but in the end it yields no genuine spiritual change. The bottom line is that Scripture can never mean what it never meant. Those charged with proclaiming the Word must prayerfully seek to understand the author’s intent and labor hard after context and original meaning before offering application. The correct order is and always will be first “meaning,” then “significance.” We cannot afford to skip step one and move right to step 2. Positively, when we rightly discover and proclaim the mind of God from Scripture, the power of God to change will naturally (rather, supernaturally) flow from it.
...end of rant"

Yossman said...

After reading and thoughtfully evaluating so many of your blog entries on the negative effects of modern communication technologies and heard you wage war against tv in your apologetics course and your excellent book Truth Decay, I've come to the conclusion that you are right.

I'm also not in the least inspired by the example of the puritans - most notably Jonathan Edwards - in their resolve to redeem the time, focus on God and think through the great divine truths revealed in God's Word.

Thank you for this truthful entry that corresponds to the reality of a speaking God.