Hearing the Word in the Modern World, Part 2

Gregory E. Reynolds

Attitudes and Practices to Cultivate

"Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law." (Ps. 119:18)

Elizabeth Elliot[1], in discussing worship song, speaks wisely about our attitude toward the parts of worship, especially that singing is not the whole of worship,

Hymns constitute a crucial part of worship, but not by any means the whole. In churches which use almost exclusively what are called 'praise songs,' that part of the service is usually referred to as 'Worship,' as though prayer, preaching, offering, and listening were something else.[2]

As I said at the outset, the reading and preaching of Scripture is the supreme act of worship, and should thus be approached with great seriousness. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Question #160) gives hearers of the Word excellent comprehensive instruction in this matter:

What is required of those that hear the word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

How seriously our forefathers took the responsibilities of the listener. In light of the following suggestions, meditating on the Scripture references provided by the authors of the Larger Catechism will be an important aid to becoming a better hearer: Proverbs 8:34; 1 Peter 2:1-2; Luke 8:18; Psalm 119:18; Ephesians 6:18-19; Acts 17:11; Hebrews 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:10; James 1:21; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Luke 9:44; Hebrews 2:1; Luke 24:14; Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Proverbs 2:1; Ps. 119:11; Luke 8:15; James 1:25.

Come Prayerfully Expectant to Worship

Prayer in preparation for worship is essential. It should be noted, as we will see below in connection with the Scriptures, that praying in the Bible, even in private, was with the voice. David in countless places in the Psalms says that he cried out to the LORD with his voice. The voice lends concreteness to our words and to God's Word. Paul pled with the Ephesian church: "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak" (Eph. 6:18-20). As the Larger Catechism instructs, we are to come to attend to preaching with diligence, preparation, and prayer. Certainly both diligence and prayer must be part of our preparation. Preparing with prayerful reading of God's Word, especially on the eve of the Lord's Day, will cultivate the diligence to hear when the public worship begins. We will come expecting to hear from our Good and Great Shepherd.

Be Engaged in Listening as a Reader

The regular habit of good reading will help prepare you to be a good listener to good preaching. The very act of reading helps us to think more clearly, logically, and cogently. It helps the reader to develop depth through contemplating what is being read. It provides a counter environment to the simultaneity of the electronic media, which tend to bypass thought processes. The non-reader will be prepared only for content-light preaching. Like Bud Lite, lightweight preaching is nonfattening, and will not build the soul in Christian faith. This, of course, is especially true of Bible reading. Disciplined Bible readers will bring a store of knowledge of biblical concepts and teaching to their listening. They will also bring the art of worshipful meditation to the pew, which is a requirement for engagement in biblical preaching. The Bereans profited from Paul's ministry precisely because they were good readers of God's Word.

Listen for the Voice of the Good Shepherd

"The 'book religion' of the Hebrews, as Siegfried Morenz points out, lay in the Hebrew 'genius for hearing.' "[3] In the modern world there are many other voices competing for our attention. This has always been the case since Adam and Eve listened to the wrong voice in the Garden. The environment of this world is cultivated by the voices of communication. The world now has a heightened ability to impose its environment of thought, one which is contrary to the Word of God, on the church.

Psalm 1 is instructive in this regard. The psalmist frames his inspired poem in negative terms. The believer is distinguished by his opposition to the entire environment of unbelief. He does not walk in the counsel, stand in the way, or sit in the seat of the scornful unbeliever. He has a whole different approach. The world is the environment into which he is born. That environment is the given. But as a person of the covenant he is part of the LORD's invasion of history through the seed of the woman. The psalmist cultivates an "anti-environment" by meditating on the Word of God day and night. Through redemption the believer is to develop a completely different approach to God and to all of life. He is to work at the development of a Christian mind so that he can withstand the environment of this "present evil age," based on the written Word of God.

One of the elements of poetry in the Bible which is largely lost on contemporary people is that it was written to be read aloud. The correlation between the written and the spoken word in the Bible is essential to cultivating the anti-environment. Its writtenness protects the Word from the corruption of the fallen mind. But the individualizing tendency of writing/print, while important in its own way, needs to be balanced with the hearing of the Word, as well as the seeing/touching/tasting of the Word in the sacraments. Along with preparation for hearing God's Word read and preached each Lord's Day, as outlined above, it is important to read the Word in private and family devotions. Remember, catechizing, in oral culture, meant to teach by "sounding in the ear." Oral instruction was the staple of ancient pedagogy. God has made us to know him through all of the natural media of communication.

In listening for the voice of Jesus Christ, the committed listener must cultivate respect for his ordained under-shepherds. Many in our day believe that reading the Bible on their own is sufficient. But if you believe Paul's great statement: "faith comes by hearing" (Rom. 10:17), you will recognize the absolute necessity of the preacher in his office as minister of the Word. In fact, we would be hard-pressed to find instances of conversion through mere reading the Bible, in the Bible. What we find, rather, are people like the Ethiopian eunuch, who need an interpreter or preacher to explain its meaning. You should always take the position of the eunuch who, when asked "Do you understand what you are reading?" answered, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:30, 31). Even the Scripture-searching Bereans received the gospel by hearing Paul (Acts 17:10-11).

One of the dangers we have seen in the printed book as a medium is that there is a tendency to undermine the authority of the spoken word, and the authority of the speaker. This should never be the case in the church, because God has designed the means of grace, as well as the church itself, to overcome this democratizing, privatizing tendency. Long before printing, this sinful tendency of the human heart was addressed by the writer of Hebrews: "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25).

In hearing the voice of your Savior you should be prepared to obey all that he says. Whatever attitudes, ideas, words, and activities need to be repented of, changed, or practiced, be ready to respond in repentance and faith. Remember that the biblical idea of "hearing" is obedient response to the Word of God, "Speak Lord for thy servant heareth." If he is the Lord of your life, this should be your only response to biblical preaching. An unrepentant attitude tends to create bitterness toward preaching and the preacher (Heb. 12:14-17).

Worship, with its covenantal order, is meant to provide an anti-environment to the ordinary life of the fallen world. The Sabbath is God's antidote to idolatry, as it teaches us our connection with heavenly realities (Leviticus 26:1-2). It is God's way of cultivating his call, in the life of God's people, to live connected with Christ. We are called to reenact the heavenly pattern of Lord's Day worship in everyday life. Careful attention to God's Word preached is meant to inculcate moment by moment hearing and heeding of the Word of God as the applied Scripture rings in our ears in everyday life. Our attitude as worshippers, and thus as hearers, is summed up by the hortatory refrain of the glorified Lamb to the seven churches: "If anyone has an ear, let him hear" (Rev. 13:9). The power of the electronic environment is no match for this voice. The power of modern images in their tendency toward idolatry is nil for a people of the Word.


[1] Adapted from Gregory Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 345-353 (under the section "Hearts of Flesh: The Committed Hearer").

[2] Elisabeth Elliot, "Whatever Happened To Hymns?" http://www.elisabethelliot.org/newsletters/1999-05-06.pdf.

[3] Walter Ong, Review: Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (William A. Graham) in America (Mar. 4, 1989): 204.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, April 2010.

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Ordained Servant: April 2010

God's Profitable Word

Also in this issue

In What Sense? A Review Article

Reconciling the Two Covenants in the Old Testament: A Review Article

Review of God's Word in Servant-Form

Review of Exploring the Origins of the Bible

Seven Stanzas at Easter

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