Ancient Jewish rabbis sometimes disputed which was more important – to speak the word of God or to hear it. Despite what may have been well-meaning debate, it’s the kind of question that common sense might answer “both.” But in our own personal lives, many rabbis agreed, while speaking the word of God is mainly God’s responsibility – listening to it is ours.
The Word and His word
As Christians, we must listen to both the “word” of God – the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and the “Word” of God – Jesus Christ (John 1:1). In fact, as Jesus himself showed, the one testifies to the other: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39, emphasis added here and below). But Jesus’ point in saying this was that we can be studying – even diligently – and still not hearing.
The Bible has much to say about how we listen to the Word and his word. Just as Moses told the ancient Israelites: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me …You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15), so in the New Testament, the four Gospels often show us the connection between the Word of God and our listening. We see this, for example, when Jesus’ divinity was revealed in the Transfiguration: “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). In the Parable of the Good Shepherd recorded in John 10, Jesus repeatedly describes his “flock” as those who listen to him, and Jesus habitually concluded his teaching by saying “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (for example, Mark 4:9). But one Gospel in particular focuses on our hearing.
Listening in Luke
The Gospel of Luke stresses listening more than any other. While all the Gospels show Jesus exhorting people to listen to his message (for example, Matthew 15:10: “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand.’”), Luke provides fascinating insights into this aspect of Jesus’ teaching. For example, apart from a single instance in Mark 12:37, Luke is the only Gospel writer who remarks (some five times) about whether people were, in fact, listening to what Jesus said.
Notice, for example, what Luke tells us regarding some among Jesus’ audience: “When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening…” (Luke 7:1). A little earlier he records how Jesus himself commented: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). This clearly shows that Jesus was aware that some people were listening to what he said, while others were perhaps hearing but not listening.
In fact, Luke seems to indicate that Jesus may have paced his teaching according to the degree people were really paying attention to what he said. He tells us that “While they were listening … he went on to tell them a parable…” (Luke 19:11). It was precisely because people were paying attention in this instance – really listening – that Jesus extended his teaching to give them more understanding.
Strategies for Hearing
We can apply this principle in at least two aspects of our study of God’s word. First, it is imperative that we do in fact listen and not just read. Despite the best of intentions, it is possible to sit and read the Bible without really hearing what is being said, just as our minds may sometimes drift as we listen to someone speaking. The primary safeguards against reading and not hearing are to pause frequently to analyze or summarize what we read, and to review it when finished. Second, we should ask ourselves questions about what we are hearing – a principle we see in the life of Jesus himself: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). “Listening and asking questions” in our own study helps us go beyond simply reading. This kind of intensely focused study isn’t always necessary, of course, but the more often we can do it, the more it can help us to effectively listen. If we are truly desirous to understand more of God’s word, we need to be frequently using strategies that focus on listening at the deepest level.
Making it Meaningful
There is also another aspect of listening to God’s word. Meaningful Bible study should always begin in submission and end in transformation – because ultimately, true listening implies accepting and applying what we hear. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for “hear” (shema) also means “obey.” For example, after Moses recited the laws of the covenant to Israel, the people replied: “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (Exodus 24:7). But the Hebrew is literally “All that God spoke we will do and we will hear.” We find the same connection between hearing and doing many times in the New Testament (for example, Matthew 7:24, Luke 11:28, James 1:22).
This is vital because God listens to those who listen to him (John 9:31). And our listening must be ongoing. Throughout the ages, many Christians have found that if we stop applying what we learn at any point, we often will not learn more until we start to apply what we already know. The more we apply, however, the more we come to understand.
Truly listening to what we hear is vital to our spiritual growth, and we should always remember the striking words of Christ in this regard: “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8:18). It’s a cardinal principle of successful study of the word of God: we may have been given much, but it is only to the degree that we listen that we will be given more.