What Is Biblical Hearing? Kevin Vanhoozer on Hearing and Doing

Photo by Ilya Ilford on Unsplash

By Kevin Vanhoozer

In perhaps the most famous Arabian Nights story, Aladdin discovers a magic lamp that, when rubbed, produces a genie who invariably responds, “Your wish is my command.” It is the classic response of a servant to his master: “To hear is to obey.”

But in real life there is often a gap, sometimes a yawning chasm, between hearing and obeying. Not everyone is as fortunate as Aladdin: sometimes servants hear, and do half-heartedly; at other times, they hear and do not do at all. Jesus told his own equally compelling stories that illustrate the all-important difference between hearing and doing.

Unusual teaching

The Gospel of Mark introduces Jesus as a teacher who astonished his hearers, “for he taught them as one who had authority” (Mark 1:22). He taught in the synagogue and, later, offered free seaside lectures (Mark 2:13; 4:1). The form of Jesus’ teaching is significant: “And he was teaching them many things in parables” (Mark 4:2).

A parable is an extended metaphor (“the kingdom of God is like …”), a metaphorical narrative—a story in which something extraordinary happens that subverts the ordinary way people think about things.

The first such story Mark recounts is the parable of the sower, which is about different kinds of hearers, represented by the different kinds of soil on which the seed of God’s word falls. Even the disciples did not understand it at first, and this despite Jesus’ obvious hint at the end: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). The parable they are to hear is itself about hearing God’s word. In particular, the parable explains the kind of hearing Jesus is after: a hearing in which God’s word takes root in a singular and wonderful way. Indeed, this is the extraordinary element in the parable: that a word-seed can multiply its growth a hundredfold.

To hear rightly is to correctly grasp the content of Jesus’ teaching, namely, the strange new world of the kingdom of God.

— Kevin Vanhoozer

This is also a parable of the kingdom of God. Jesus subverts his hearers’ conventional picture of a kingdom as something that can be established by swords and soldiers. Jesus instead proclaims a kingdom established by the right reception of the gospel—the right kind of hearing—rather than military conquest.

Jesus’ parables of the kingdom challenge the prevailing social imaginaries of power, be it ancient Roman imperialism or present-day geopolitics. Jesus taught with authority precisely by announcing a new picture to live by. To hear rightly is to correctly grasp the content of Jesus’ teaching, namely, the strange new world of the kingdom of God.

Hearing and doing

One qualification for being a disciple of Jesus is to be able to follow Jesus’ stories. Yet hearing, even with understanding and apparent agreement, is not enough. Toward the end of his longest lesson, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes an explicit contrast between hearing and doing: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matt 7:24, 26).

True disciples must be hearers and doers of Jesus’ words. The Greek term for the rock on which one builds—bedrock—shows up again later in Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says he will build his church “on this bedrock.” In other words, he who would build Jesus’ church on a rock rather than sand must build it on the bedrock of Jesus’ words. This is confirmed in Luke’s Gospel where, just after the parable of the sower, Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

As rabbi or Master, Jesus did not want his followers simply to listen to his lessons and then continue living as before. To hear and not do is both to flout the authority of Jesus’ words and to flaunt oneself as lord. Moreover, to hear and not do is the opposite not only of obedience but also of learning. No one learns to swim or ride a bike simply by reading an instruction manual. Jesus desires followers who both listen and learn.

This post is adapted from chapter 3 of Hearers and Doers by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Lexham Press, 2019).