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Sermon-listening in the Bible: Listening to God

When a preacher preaches, he must preach the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:1–4). Unfortunately, we know that’s not always the way it goes. From the beginning of time, false teachers have taught their own ideas instead of God’s. Jesus confronted the Pharisees and scribes of His day, quoting the prophet Isaiah, saying, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” And the Lord added, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6–8). False teachers are present throughout the entire New Testament. Sadly, in the book of Revelation, followers of Balaam, the Nicolaitans, and Jezebel were allowed by the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira to teach their false doctrine from inside the churches (Revelation 2:14, 15, 20).

Today, there are so-called preachers who continue to neglect the Word of God and instead peddle self-help tips, moral lessons, ecstatic experiences, political and social agendas, pseudo-Christian practices, and health and wealth promises—none of which have anything to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ which is a message of reconciliation between man and God. At best, they are distracting, man-centered talks. At worst, they are damning heresies taught by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

pulpitThere are of course many faithful preachers who have as their main goal the reading, interpretation, explanation, and application of the written Word of God. I trust you’ve settled into a gospel-centered church and submitted yourself to a pastor and church leadership who faithfully teach and preach the Scriptures each and every week. If your pastor is a faithful preacher of the Bible, your right response is to acknowledge that what you hear from his pulpit is in fact God’s Word, not just a man’s. In other words, when we listen to a sermon, we are not listening to the word of a man, we are listening to God Himself, through the agency of that man. Biblical preaching necessitates that we understand whose mind is actually being revealed—it is the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Several months after preaching the gospel in the city of Thessalonica, Paul wrote to the newly established church in that city. In that follow-up letter, the Apostle was constantly thanking God that when the Thessalonian believers received his message, they “accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). They didn’t dismiss Paul’s message as if it was his own manmade conception. They accepted his words as God’s words. We need to be like this when we go to church. Assuming our preacher’s goal is to correctly interpret and explain Scripture, then when we hear his sermons, we are listening to God’s Word, not a man’s. We need to acknowledge this reality every Sunday.

Martin Luther comments:

My dear friend, regard it as a real treasure that God speaks into your physical ear. The only thing that detracts from this gift is our deficient knowledge of it. To be sure, I do hear the sermon; however, I am wont to ask: ‘Who is speaker?’ The pastor? By no means! You do not hear the pastor. Of course, the voice is his, but the words he employs are really spoken by my God. Therefore, I must hold the Word of God in high esteem that I may become an apt pupil of the Word. If we looked upon it as the Word of God, we would be glad to go to church, to listen to the sermon, and to pay attention to the precious Word.[1]

To be sure, Christians can and should have a steady intake of God’s Word in their personal Bible reading. We have the privilege of owning our own copy of God’s written Word, and we do well to saturate ourselves with it. James calls it looking “intently at the perfect law” (James 1:25). But personal Bible reading does not replace the exercise of listening to God’s gifted representatives when they preach His Word. There’s a dynamic in the preaching event that God has determined to be necessary for every Christian. That’s why preachers must preach God’s Word, and listeners must humbly listen and respond to it.

The Apostle Peter makes the case that believers “have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). He then explains that “the word of the Lord abides forever. And this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). It’s through the faithful preaching of the eternal Word of God that sinners are regenerated. Something supernatural happens when the Word of God is preached. God is at work in that moment. Submitting ourselves to that preaching will have a life-changing effect on us because “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

So, to avoid preaching—to relegate the preaching event to an optional extra—to regard our pastor’s words as simply his own, and not God’s—is to undermine the purposes of God. We must approach the sermon event expecting God to speak.

Not only should we anticipate God’s voice in the preaching event, but we should demand it from our preachers. We must provide the context and support for our pastor to prepare a message from God. First Peter 4:11 says, “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God . . . so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

I graduated from a seminary that had one goal—to prepare men to preach God’s Word. I was involved in a Bible college training program in New Zealand that does the same. We believed we were doing a good job of training preachers to minister the gospel to the unsaved and bring the Word of God to bear on the lives of Christians. But one thing we came to realize is that the supply of Bible preachers needs to be matched by a demand from listeners. If churches don’t want their pastors to preach God’s Word, those pastors will soon be out of a job. If a church doesn’t demand that their pastor preach God’s Word, then that pastor is not encouraged to do God’s will. Over time that lack of support and accountability will bring about laziness in the pulpit. Instead, we must demand a message from God. The preaching event is the high point of our week. We need to hear from God. Our pastor must be encouraged to preach in this way.

Develop this kind of appetite for the preaching of God’s Word in the church. The key is to anticipate that God’s voice would be heard from the pulpit. We must demand it both for ourselves and for our pastor’s sake.

[1] Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1–4, vol. 22 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), 528.

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