Ancient Jewish rabbis sometimes disputed which was more important: to speak the Word of God or to hear it. Despite what may have been a well-meaning debate, it’s the kind of question common sense might answer “both.” But many rabbis agreed that in our personal lives, 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 written Word of God, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16, 17), and the living 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 throughout). But in saying this, Jesus meant that we can study — even diligently — and still not hear.
The Bible says much 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 from among you . . . 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 described His “flock” as those who listen to Him, and He habitually concluded His teaching by saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9).
But one Gospel in particular focuses on our hearing.
Listening in Luke
Luke stresses listening more than any other Gospel. While all the Gospels show Jesus exhorting people to listen to His message (Matthew 15:10), 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 what Luke tells us regarding some among Jesus’ audience: “When Jesus had
finished saying all this to the people who were listening . . .” (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” (6:27). This clearly shows that Jesus knew some people were listening to what He said, while others were perhaps hearing but not listening.
In fact, Luke indicates that Jesus may have paced His teaching according to the degree people really paid attention to what He said: “While they were listening . . . he went on to tell them a parable . . .” (19:11). Precisely because people were paying attention in this instance — really listening — Jesus extended His teaching to give them more understanding.
Strategies for hearing
We can apply this principle in at least two aspects of studying God’s Word. First, we must listen and not just read. Despite the best intentions, we can merely sit and read the Bible without really hearing what it says, just as our minds sometimes drift when 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 review it when finished.
Second, we should ask ourselves questions about what we are hearing — a principle we see in the life of Jesus: “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 do it, the more it can help us effectively listen. If we genuinely desire to understand more of God’s Word, we need to frequently use strategies that focus on listening at the deepest level.
Making it meaningful
Another aspect of listening to God’s Word is meaningful Bible study. It 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.” 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 original Hebrew literally says, “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 (e.g., 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 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. 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 only to the degree that we listen will we be given more.