The Priority of Expositional Listening in the Life of the Christian, Part 1
Last week, we continued looking at the subject of “expositional listening” and turned to examine its priority for Christians. We took a brief look at this priority in the life of the gathered congregation and saw both God’s pattern of gathering his people around his word, and the emphatic stress on preaching found in the New Testament. For the next two weeks, we’ll keep looking at the priority of listening, by moving from how sermon hearing fosters the life of the gathered assembly to how it fosters the individual believer's spiritual life.
The Very Act of Listening is a Lesson in Itself
The regular practice of attending gatherings of believers and listening to preaching isn’t valuable just because it helps us understand the text being preached. Preaching isn't just about understanding and applying the text. The very act of expositional listening is a lesson in itself.
There’s several things that the Christian learns and is reminded of as he gathers with others to hear the Word. Today we’ll look at how the act of expositional listening helps an individual believer relate to others; next week we’ll examine how listening fosters an individual believer’s private and personal growth in grace. As we go forward, it’s important to understand that “expositional listening” here means listening in the context of the gathered, physical assembly of believers. Many of these benefits simply can’t happen if you’re listening to a podcast alone in the car! That’s not to say that’s wrong at all—it’s a great practice and I heartily commend it, as a supplement. It’s merely to say that such listening can’t be primary in your Christian walk, for the reasons below.
Expositional Listening Gathers You With Others
First, in expositional listening, the hearer has gathered alongside other believers who are hearing the same word. Even if you’re the only listener, you’re still there with a preacher, right? Listening is central to the “habit of meeting together” that we are commanded not to neglect. Remember that God’s people gather to him in order to let them hear his words (Deut. 4:10). Listening to God's Word creates a community of God's people. And it is alive, this divine Word, in Jonathan Leeman’s words, “reverberates” in the life of that community as everyone thinks about, discusses, and seeks to apply what we at Calvary Grace call the “word heard together.”
See, the Christian life isn’t a solo effort. It’s war. And no one fights a war by himself. We need one another. God gathers his people by his Word, and so when we gather to listen, in God’s mysterious providence, we’re being gathered with the very people we need in our lives.
Expositional Listening Summons You To Be Attentive To Others
The value of humble, active, attentive, receptive sermon hearing isn’t merely that it puts us in the same room with others. It’s more than that. Because the Word we gather to hear is the Word of a Triune, gracious, self-giving God, this very act of gathering to hear it summons us as hearers to be attentive to others, not merely self-focused. It reminds us to gather with the intention of loving and being loved by the others who gather with us. It forces us to gather with people who may have offended us or stepped on our toes, or who we think are annoying or needy. It exposes us to the needs of others. It opens us up to the possibility of accountability or rebuke, since because the same word was heard by all, the congregation is able to hold you to account for what you have heard.
Expositional Listening Teaches You To Follow Others
Third, the very act of listening means learning from another person. In listening, the hearer is depending and waiting on the preacher. He enters a text chosen by another believer. He is walked through the text of Scripture by another guide. He has to follow someone else’s argument. Expositional listening turns the hearer into a follower.
The Christian life is, at its root, a life of following. The Lord we serve is the archegos, the forerunner or pioneer, of faith and life, the one who went before us into death and resurrection (Heb. 2:9-11, Acts 3:15). The Lord we serve calls to us: “Follow me” (Matt. 16:24, 19:21, and many other texts). This same Jesus therefore commanded his disciples to make disciples, not mere converts.
Disciples follow the one who disciples them. In listening, we follow and imitate the other believers in the gathering, even as we follow the preacher through the text. And the very act of listening—giving one’s time and attention fully to another, mentally and spiritually following another through the text of Scripture into application—is one way in which we follow—and even imitate!—Jesus, who as a boy was in the Temple “listening” to teachers (Luke 2:46). In listening, we follow Jesus and set an example for others to follow.
Expositional Listening Reminds You It's Not About You
Fourth—and this is a crucial lesson in our age of individualization and customization—in expositional listening the hearer is, almost always, given a message that wasn’t prepared especially for him, but rather for a larger gathering. This is one more reason why the Christian’s primary listening can’t be self-directed, self-selected podcast listening or TV watching.
There’s great value in understanding that a given sermon is not designed particularly and specifically for you personally and for your unique needs. Let’s say that you think yourself mature and skilled in the Word. Say you may be impatient with parts of sermons that seem “basic” to you. Maybe the preacher isn't as deep as you'd like, or the sermon's not as profound as you'd prefer. Well, listening to such preaching alongside others reminds you that you're not the only one there--that others in your fellowship may not be so skilled as you think you are, and that they need time and instruction, too. Maybe you need to disciple someone! Or, when listening, if you feel that you're having trouble keeping up and understanding, this experience of hearing exhorts you to remember that there is a level of doctrinal maturity to which you still need to aspire, and the effort required to follow the sermon is one thing the Spirit uses to grow you. Maybe you need to find someone else to disciple you--a more mature member of the congregation, perhaps. If you, perhaps, don’t think the applications in the sermon apply to your life, listening tells you that the preacher--who cares for the souls around you--still thinks that it’s necessary for your flock to stress these things. This means that maybe you need to look around and see if there's anyone you can help to grasp and apply those things, or even if there's someone who's even better at applying those things than you are that you could learn from! The fact that the sermon is not custom-fitted to your own precise desires and needs is a reminder that it’s not all about you.
More on that next week, as we move from how expositional listening helps us relate to others to how it helps us grow in our personal spiritual walk with Christ.
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