Simply Listening...or Really Hearing

Dr. Brian Allison

We have many things for which to be thankful-physical health and strength, soundness of mind, family and friends; our homes, our cars, our possessions. We should also be thankful for one another. I trust that you are thankful for your brothers and sisters in Christ, thankful for the grace of God that is evident in their lives and in their hearts. That was the case with the apostle Paul. He was thankful for the grace of God evidently displayed in the Thessalonian believers. We read, "And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe" (1 Th. 2:13). Paul was typically, and honestly, thankful for the spiritual grace and power in the lives of believers. He had a pastor's heart. Recall his words written earlier in this epistle, "We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers" (1:2); and he reveals why he was moved to give thanks, saying, "Constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father" (1:3). Paul says, in effect, "As I think of the grace of God in your lives, manifesting itself in spiritual virtues, holy characteristics, I am constantly giving thanks to God." In writing his second epistle to this same group of believers, we read in 2 Thessalonians 1:3, "We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater." Again, as Paul thinks of the grace of God abounding in the lives of believers, manifesting itself in greater love, greater hope, and greater faith, he says, "We always give thanks to God for that." Isn't that tremendous?

Thankfulness is an expression of joy. When someone gives you a gift, or shows you an act of kindness, you usually experience the emotion of gladness; and you naturally express that gladness in thanksgiving. Thus notice Paul's evaluation of these believers in 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20, "For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy."

Accepting Biblical teaching as God's Word

Notice specifically what Paul was thankful for, as he saw the grace of God in the lives of these believers. He was thankful for their humble and obedient response to Biblical instruction or teaching. More specifically, he was thankful that these believers recognized and accepted his instruction, his teaching, as coming from God, and thus as carrying divine authority – "And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God" (2:13). Paul was rejoicing not so much in their submission to him, as in their submission to God. He was thankful not so much for their obedience to him, as a mere man, as for their obedient response to God. He rejoiced and he gave thanks to God for their teachable spirit.

This should be, I believe, the spiritual leader's concern and delight – that God's people respond obediently, humbly, and reverently to the taught Word of God. Now, the astounding fact, and the great encouragement, is that people actually, and spiritually, do recognize the Word of God, and thus respond to it. I say that it is an astounding fact, and an encouragement, because one cannot respond to the Word of God unless God enables that person to do so, and that requires grace. God must move in someone's life in order for him or her to perceive the spiritual and divine character of instruction. One cannot respond to the Word of God unless the Holy Spirit enables. Simply put, one must be born again, and have his spiritual eyes and ears opened so as to acknowledge and accept Biblical instruction as the very Word of God. Accordingly, the recognition and acknowledgement of Biblical instruction or teaching as God's Word is proof that one is a child of God, that one has been born again. John 8:39ff. clearly indicates that this is the case. We read, "They [the Jews] answered and said to Him, 'Abraham is our father.' Jesus said to them, 'If you are Abraham's children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.' They said to Him, 'We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.' Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand [Why can you not acknowledge that I have come from the Father, that I speak the words of God] what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word [you do not have the spiritual sensitivity, you do not have the spiritual endowment, you do not have the spiritual enablement, to hear My Word].'" Thus, our Lord further says, "He who is of God [he who is aligned with God, he who has the Spirit of God] hears the words of God; for this reason [and make no mistake about it] you do not hear them, because you are not of God" (Jn. 8:47).

Hearing God's Word

You can only acknowledge God's Word as being God's Word if you are of God. There is a difference between listening and hearing. In receiving oral instruction or teaching (e.g. the sermon), many listen, but fewer hear. Different ones may go away from a church service, saying, "That was a good message. He had some interesting points. One thought was particularly helpful." They may simply go away having listened, but not having heard; that is, not having felt any conviction that God has spoken. To simply listen to oral Biblical teaching is to remain essentially unchanged; but to recognize that God 'has spoken' results in a sense of moral and spiritual obligation, whereby you say, "God has spoken, I must respond." Hearing God's Word is a question of obedience.

Do you receive Biblical teaching outwardly, but remain untouched inwardly? Let us consider the nuances of our text – "And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message [that term "receive" has the connotation of receiving something delivered, the emphasis is on the external], you accepted it [you received it] not as the word of men." This second term "accept" or "receive" means to welcome something. It is the image or picture of receiving a guest into your home and making him feel comfortable. That is what it means to really hear the Word of God – you warmly welcome it into your heart; you feel a moral and spiritual obligation to embrace it. Some can receive instruction or teaching, whether it be in an adult Sunday School class, a midweek meeting, or in a preaching service, and simply see a person speaking. But to recognize and accept sound, accurate Biblical instruction or teaching as the Word of God is the response of one who knows God; and that is a cause for thankfulness.

In this same epistle, the apostle Paul writes, "You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received [i.e., 'welcomed'; same word in the original] the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit" (1:6). Even though persecution may be fierce, and the opposition and trials formidable, in hearing the Biblical teaching or instruction as the Word of God, one still welcomes it with the joy of the Holy Spirit. He cannot do otherwise. He receives the Word as God Himself speaking.

I know a Christian brother who has been a Christian for some time. He often attends Bible conferences and conventions, desiring to listen to the Biblical preaching and teaching of the Word. He loves to listen to the Word of God; and it seems that that is all it is – simply listening, with no obedient response, no change in the heart, no leaving overwhelmed with a sense of conviction, having heard God. On the other hand, I think of a Christian sister who loves to sit under the preaching of the Word, who adamantly affirms that she is hearing God's Word, and she is often convicted and stirred. She evidences a holy fear. When someone 'hears' the Word of God, there is a holy fear, for there is the recognition that you are not listening to a man, but rather are being addressed by God, and you can't be indifferent; you must walk softly. Do you fear God when you hear His Word? Do you say, "God is speaking to me"? Or do you allow the human instructor to get in the way?

Paul spoke the 'word of God's message'. He communicated divine truth. The astounding truth is this: the divine Word is communicated through the human word. Human words convey eternal truth. It is not that the human word becomes a divine Word. We need to be careful about creating or condoning a Jim Jones or Sun Moon situation where apparently the human word becomes the divine Word. The person who stands up to instruct from God's Word does not speak as God, but for God. And in so far as he or she is faithfully declaring the Word of God, it is God speaking. In so far as one faithfully and accurately speaks or teaches the truth of the Scriptures, we have God's Word presented; and at that point, we are no longer dealing with an individual, we are no longer dealing with a man, we are dealing with God. And, again, those who recognize that it is God's Word, welcome it as such; and the result is change, the result is spiritual transformation. In this connection, 1 Thessalonians 4:1,2 reads, "Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk [live] and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus [or simply, by the Lord Jesus, it comes through Him]." Those who hear that word as God's Word, experience positive behavioural change.

Hearing is experiencing

To welcome, to gladly receive, the Word of God, that is, to be teachable, obedient, and receptive to the Word is to experience the power of the Word – "you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe" (2:13c). God's Word is powerful, and it works powerfully in those who receive it as the Word of God. In welcoming the Word as God's own Word, one is really allowing himself to be shaped and guided by that Word; and thus he will experience the benefits and effects of the teaching that the Word affords. There are times [here is a personal confession] when I begin to feel lazy; there is a lack of diligence. I felt that way a little while ago, but then I read and preached the text in 1 Thessalonians 2:9, "For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God." I read those words not as the words of a man, but I read those words as the Word of God; and I was humbled again, I was broken again, I was convicted again, I was put to shame again. I was changed again. So, in our openness, in our teachableness, realizing that God is speaking, we enter into the truth of that teaching; and there is the experience of power – power by simply recognizing that God is speaking, because in that recognition, one is really allowing the Word to get a hold of him.

But further, to welcome the Word is an act of faith. Any response to God's Word is an act of faith. Now, here is the critical point: In the mystery of life in the Spirit, faith unleashes the spiritual energy of the Word. I have seen this in different areas in my life. The Lord is teaching me again (and as you know, the Lord teaches us the same lessons again and again, but with each teaching, He takes us deeper) the need for love, and holiness, and prayer. I have discovered again that in responding to the Scriptures, which I read as God's Word, in an act of faith, there is a release of spiritual energy through that Word, which defies analysis and description, which effects a radical change – "...which also performs its work in you who believe." This term "performs" is the word from which is derived 'energy'. It simply means 'inward working'; and, more particularly, it means the inward working of God. This term often denotes spiritual and supernatural activity – God's own activity. For instance, 1 Corinthians 12:6 reads, "And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works [same term] all things in all persons;" also verse 11, "But one and the same Spirit works [same term] all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills." We find the same language in Philippians 2:13, "For it is God who is at work in [same term] you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." There is divine activity, supernatural activity, that takes place in the welcoming of the Word in faith. David Williams, in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians, writes, "Faith is the key that opens the door from the inside to God's Word and puts us in the path of God's salvation."

Faith activates the power of the Word in our lives. Hebrews 4:2 reads, "For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard." In listening to the Word, it must be united with faith in order for it to be effectual; and it is in that union that there is the release of power in the mystery of the life in the Spirit. If you are not welcoming sound Biblical instruction as God's Word or, for that matter, simply reading the Scriptures as God's Word, and if you are not being impacted, if there is no spiritual change in your life, if there is no sense of moral and spiritual obligation, if there is no fear of God, then may I say quite frankly, my friend, you have no faith. It does not matter how much you know. You can have much Bible knowledge, but be void of real faith. Faith naturally receives and embraces the Word, and enters into experiencing the power of that Word.

And so, Paul was thankful for the grace of God in the lives of believers; but particularly thankful that believers recognized that his instruction, his teaching, was the Word of God. They received it not as the word of men, saying, "Oh, that is just his idea...that is just what he thinks. That is a hobby horse he has. He wants people to practice that, and do this and do that...that is just what he believes." No, Paul was thankful that these people saw his message as coming from God, and as divinely authoritative, which they gladly received. Do you notice that it says he constantly gave thanks for this – that is, without intermission, unceasingly – "And for this reason we also constantly thank God" (2:13a). Obviously Paul was very encouraged, and full of joy; and I tell you that there is no greater joy for a pastor or teacher of the Word than to see God's people submissively obedient to the Word. Paul was full of joy, and thus he was constantly thankful to God. So, let us be thankful for the grace of God that is working in the lives and hearts of believers. Let us be thankful for their obedient, submissive response to the Word of God, because one cannot respond unless God allows him or her to do so, unless one is a child of God. A believer's obedient response to the Word is his or her badge, and seal, of salvation.