Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

January 27, 2013


Some people do not understand what they hear


       Occasionally I come across a phrase in the Bible that gets me to thinking – and sometimes my reflection ends with tears. Such a phrase caught my eye in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. It was the words “those who could understand.”

          The Prophet Ezra, having found “the book of the law,” called the people together and read God’s Word to hundreds of people. Ezra read it “in the presence of the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive.” The writer is saying that many heard what Ezra said but not everyone understood what they heard.

          Sometimes I weep in my soul when, after preaching my heart out, I realize that many of my listeners did not understand the gospel I had just proclaimed. So the phrase – “those who could understand” – does not surprise me. In Nehemiah’s day and our own there are those in the audience who hear but do not understand God’s Word when it is read in their hearing.  

          Why this is true is no mystery. Every person hears what is said through their own set of “filters.” One filter could be the attitude that the Scripture is ancient history that does not apply to me. Another filter might be the belief that the Bible is just another book but hardly God’s Guidebook for living.  

          Jesus gives us a clue about why some people do not understand. He said that some folks are “confident of their own righteousness and look down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). These are the people who say to the preacher after the sermon, “I wish my Uncle Rufus had been here to hear that message.”  

          But Saint Paul offers the best explanation as to why some people cannot “understand” the gospel. Paul says there is a “veil” over their hearts, a veil that only Christ can remove. “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord,” Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:16), “the veil is taken away.” Humbly accepting the mercy God offers us in Christ opens our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to see how the Scripture applies to our lives. This response is what every preacher earnestly prays for every Lord’s Day.

          But let’s go back to Ezra. Those who understood the Scripture Ezra read realized they were not living as God wanted them to live. They mourned over their waywardness knowing they had drifted away from obeying the God who had delivered them. Ezra wisely invited them to move quickly from weeping to celebrating the goodness of God. It is Ezra who gives us this truth so precious to Christians: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Once you believe that you can celebrate the grace of God every Sunday and your worship will become a time of rejoicing.

          What happened as a result of Ezra’s reading the Word of God is worth shouting about. The temple had been rebuilt. The wall had been rebuilt. Now the people began to rebuild their faith. Through years of exile the Jews had succumbed to cultural influences. They had forgotten their sacred traditions. They had lost the zeal they once had to obey the commandments of God. Their faith, like the wall around Jerusalem, had crumbled. So God sent Ezra to help them rebuild their faith.

          It is interesting that God instructed the people to build “booths” made of tree branches. In each booth was a “group” of people. In these groups they listened for hours to the Word of God. They were guided by the priests and Levites to “study” the Scriptures. They concluded their study with a great “solemn assembly.” The purpose behind the study of God’s Word was to renew their covenant with God – to love God with all their hearts, their neighbors as themselves, and to keep God’s commandments.

          Today’s Christians are prone to drift away from obedience to God just as the Jews did. We break our sacred covenants with each other and with God. The solution is the same as it was in Ezra’s day. We need more than Sunday worship assemblies. We need to study the Word of God until we understand it – and then start obeying it. While individual study is useful, a more helpful way to study God’s Word is within a small group. When I study the Bible God can speak to me through one mind – my own. When I study with a group God can speak to me through the minds of every member of the group.

          God delights to release the life-changing power of Christ within small groups. People are more likely to be converted in a small group than in a worship service. The change that takes place in a small group can be celebrated in a worship service. The Word of God has the power to change us so that we choose to renew our covenant to live as disciples of Jesus.

          John Wesley called the Methodists to study God’s Word in groups known as “class meetings.” When they did, their lives were changed and they were more able to reach others with the good news of the gospel. God is ready to do it again if we are willing to swallow our pride and admit our need to study God’s Word in groups. When we make such study a priority, even if we have to give up other activities, the Spirit can help us “understand” the Scriptures and show us how to live by them in obedience to God.

          Participation in a Bible Study group can help us get to know Christ personally and become knit together in love with fellow believers. Then the joy of our Lord will truly be our strength!

          Some who read this will understand. If you, dear reader, understand, then please follow where the Spirit leads!  + + +