He Who Has Ears…
He who has ears must hear. That is important in the church. But it is important how you listen. Some comments about that in this article.
Living before God begins with listening to him. After all, he calls us with his gospel. He is in charge of our lives. We are therefore taught from early on that we have to learn to listen. That begins at home, where Mom and Dad speak about God. That continues throughout our entire lives. For every Sunday again, we come to hear. There is a great decision in our lives regarding our listening attitude: faith is by hearing. When in the hearing something goes wrong, it can build barriers for our faith in God. That is why it is important that we are aware of the way we listen. Real listening means that you are open to what the speaker (in this case the Speaker) says. But it turns out that many people are not that open at all. They do hear, but they are deaf to things they feel do not apply to them. They opt for a selective listening attitude.
Nowadays choosing is in our blood. We need to make choices. Every day there is such a delivery of information that we cannot digest it. The media that grabs our attention has such a colossal overcapacity in this respect that we have to make a choice. Anything that is somewhat outside of your world of interest is soon left aside. You focus on that which is or looks of interest to you.
When we make choices while reading the paper or while watching television, that habit can easily continue in our listening attitude in church. You only accept that which you find important in your own life. Many people therefore expect from the sermon that they will receive a lesson for today, which they can apply in the upcoming week. Of course, you may expect from the sermon that you will receive enough to be able to work before God’s face in the coming week. But when that is the only criterion you use to measure the importance of the message, you are choosing in an irresponsible way. A narrowing of the mind then occurs, so that you are not really receptive to what God has to say.
Your listening attitude shows what your criterion is. If you listen from your own perspective, and disregard what is beyond that, you are a criterion to yourself. You listen to yourself. But that must frustrate the relationship with the Lord, because that relationship can only be pure when it is directed to him.
After all, the preaching should have as aim that the congregation knows her Lord. Of course, that cannot be left hanging in the air as an abstract message. It must always have its application in our daily lives. But that is quite different from when the message gets narrowed down to a practical lesson for the week to come. That was the character that the Mennonites always gave to their church services. They did not go to church, but to “the exhortation.” That was a striking indication. For Christ was not served there, but instruction for a pious life was given. When such church attendees surveyed their lives, the most important thing was not that they belonged to Christ, but that they always had been right to everyone.
Not many Reformed people will narrow down their religious lives that way, but it is striking that the view of Christ is more and more obscured as our vision in church is determined from our own position.
The preaching of the gospel is the key to the kingdom of heaven. But then it should be clear that more is involved than practical lessons. Christ himself said that it is a key of knowledge (Luke 11:52). Whoever knows him enters the kingdom. And that is more than just a lesson for today. That is a knowledge that counts for the long duration of a lifetime. He who selects from his own vision measures according to the short sight of his own life. And who is then even able to say what he needs for the coming week? But the preaching of the gospel is precisely a long-term affair, a matter of his Spirit. He makes us partake of Christ and thus directs our lives toward the relationship with God.
Listening and Reading
The church is not the only place where we listen to the Lord. If all goes well, our whole life will be carried by a permanent worship service for God. In our personal lives that finds its source in the reading of the Bible.
And just as in church you can listen selectively, so you can read at home your Bible selectively. That happens quite often in daily practice.
Many people ask at many parts of the Bible what they should do with that section. When you get to the genealogies, you tend to skip those quickly. The long chapters about the division of the land seem to have no message for us. But also the prophecies in Isaiah and Jeremiah against the people don’t seem to matter for our lives before God. Some people therefore avoid entire Bible books, because they don’t expect any return for their faith life. But sooner than you know, your Bible has become quite a bit thinner. Despite the fact that those books are still in your Bible, for you they have actually become outside of the canon, because they remain unread. There are even editions that have applied such a selection already in advance. The New Testament is in many editions available separately; sometimes the book of Psalms is added to it.
Of course, it can be worse. There are people who are selective not only with the books, but also with the texts. You eventually live only according to separate words instead of with God’s Word. We have to ask ourselves therefore all the time the question of how thick our Bible actually is.
Is Everything Equally Important?
The question arises whether everything is equally important in the Bible. You can imagine that you are more often busy in the book of Psalms than in a book like Leviticus. And you see that also from the texts the ministers select for their sermons, certain parts are dealt with more often than others. I believe that that is rightly so. When we see the Bible as a whole, we see for instance that the Lord himself emphasized the history of Christ’s work on earth. The mere fact that there are four gospel stories draws our attention strongly to that. That distinction will therefore turn up in the preaching, but also in our Bible reading—so long as the other Bible books then don’t disappear from view. For when the Lord gives us the Bible in this extensive form, he also wants us to live with this extensive form.
Even when not every part of the Bible has an equally prominent place, each book is indispensable for the total of the gospel. And then we should not want to do without them.
Methods of Reading
It is strongly recommended to apply different methods of reading side by side. He who all the time selects at random what he will read will as a rule skip more than half. It is therefore anyway recommended to read the Bible from front to back. That can be done, for instance, at (one of the) mealtimes. By reading book after book, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, the one message in the multicoloured variety of prophets and apostles comes through. And you would not want to miss one colour from it. That would be a loss in your knowledge of God.
Another method of reading would be to examine the Bible on the basis of a certain theme. You are then of course busy selectively, but then it is not because you leave the rest aside, but because you want to get ahead on a certain point in your understanding of Scripture. It is important that you consider for yourself at what point you need to be more equipped in your life before God. It is possible that a married couple struggling with marital problems will focus especially on what the Lord says about being married in Christ, next to the regular Bible reading. You then select responsibly, because you are focused on the strengthening of your life before God. And there are many other methods to think of.
There is still enough left to ask about certain parts of the Bible. What to think of the reading of extensive genealogies? How essential is it to read all kinds of geographical names at the dinner table when it does not mean a thing to anyone? I think that that can sometimes have little effect. Often the reader is already happy when he gets through that without too much stumbling, but the hearers see little meaning in it, especially when a number of children are at the table. But skipping it is then not the best solution. In such a case, in my opinion, there is a lot to say in favour of sitting together at table at a certain time and to research that section via some tools.
He who has come to Genesis 14, for instance, wonders what all those names mean to him. But when you set aside half an hour to find out via a biblical atlas where all those places are, you come to the conclusion that after Abraham’s victory on the kings, the whole country of Canaan is actually at his feet. And especially against that background, the end of the chapter receives its meaning, when Abraham confesses that he wants to live only from the promise. And why not read with a section of Isaiah 10:28-34, the sermon that professor H.J. Schilder made on that text? He who carefully selects his tools with his Bible reading will less and less skip parts of it.
Devotionals and Rosters
There is a special kind of tools for Bible reading that is very popular. This is the so-called daily devotionals, as well as Bible reading rosters. Such a roster arranges a number of Bible sections around a certain theme, by which a clear picture of the message of a certain part comes to the fore. That can be very illuminating; furthermore, it stimulates people to be busy with reading the Bible.
Yet I think that you should not only read on the basis of such a roster. Separate attention to parts of the gospel should not be at the cost of the view of the great cohesion of the Bible.
This objection can even be strengthened in the case of the use of daily devotionals. Most of the time such devotionals offers a meditation on a certain text. Further, some Scripture sections are indicated to be read as well.
In practice, though, it happens that the indicated text is read and after that the meditation, but the Scripture section remains unread because it has to be looked up separately. But in this way the Bible actually remains closed. The text can at best function as a motto, and the devotional missed its goal by far.
He Who Has Ears
It is important that in the congregation we refresh one another in the listening to the Word. We live in a time where eyes and ears get to digest a lot. Screens offer a lot that requires our attention. As we carefully select what to read and what not, we will be more receptive to the only message that counts.