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.
‘HE WHO HAS EARS TO HEAR’
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.
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 IS NOT ENOUGH
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.
When Jesus spoke about hearing and doing, he was thinking about authority, wisdom, and freedom. The wise person acts in accordance with the way things are, which means in accordance with what God says. This is also the way of freedom, for to live wisely means living along the grain of the created order. Jesus is our Master, yes, but he commands that we be free: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). This is why Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:30): to follow Jesus is to set out on a freedom trail.
Before I unpack that claim, though, let us consider two other important biblical texts that associate hearing, doing, and discipleship.
HEARING AND DOING
In Romans 2 Paul addresses Jews who rely overmuch on their Jewishness, in particular their possession of the Mosaic law: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified [declared righteous]” (Rom. 2:13). It is crucial to understand that Paul is not saying that justification comes from doing the law; this way lies the works righteousness that his letters to the Romans and Galatians refute.
It is not enough merely to hear the law or to try and keep it according to the flesh, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and the requirements of the law (Rom. 3:23). The “doers” in this case are those who believe in Jesus, meet “the righteous requirement of the law” (Rom. 8:4) through justification by faith, and as a result do the law because of the law of the Spirit of life that has been given them in Christ (Rom. 8:2).
Hearers must indeed be doers, but the doing is a free obedience, a living out of the truth of what they have heard, trusted, and believed. The second text makes this even clearer.
In James 1:22–25 we see a close parallel to Jesus’ parable about building on rock or sand. One who hears the word but does not do it is foolish because he succumbs to self-deception (Jas. 1:22). For the Word, says James, is a mirror in which we see our true faces. To hear this Word but not do it is to forget your face, that is, your true identity.
What’s the connection between God’s word and a mirror? Just this: those who look into the word of God—the two-Testament story of God bringing his people out of bondage—see themselves as they actually are “in Christ.” James calls the mirror of Scripture “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25) because the gospel is a story of liberation. Those who understand themselves in front of the biblical text know themselves to be people who have health (salus) and freedom only in Christ. As Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Those who hear that they have been liberated but fail to act in freedom are simply fooling themselves. Belief without behavior is empty. Genuine discipleship, in contrast, is the sustainable practice of hearing and doing freedom in Christ. This was the heart of Paul’s gospel, as he reminded the Galatians (Gal. 5:1). Peter says something similar: “Live as people who are free … as servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16).
What is striking about James’s way of putting it, however, is his emphasis on seeing oneself in a word. This is precisely the way the social imaginary works: by lodging a control story in us that enraptures the “eyes of your heart” (Eph. 1:18), the wellspring of everyday life (Prov. 4:23).
HEARING AND DOING IN THE POWER GOSPEL
Hearing and doing the gospel story, the law of life, is altogether different from hearing and doing a moral law: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). There is no freedom in moral striving when it is done in the strength of the flesh for the sake of making oneself right enough to merit God’s approval.
The word James asks us to hear and do is a liberating word, even if it requires doing on our part. How can this be? The answer, in brief, is that the disciple’s doing is not a work of the flesh but of the Holy Spirit: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
Again, the mirror of the word, the gospel, shows us that we have been set free in Christ: “Freedom is … the capacity to realize what one is.” Christian freedom is the capacity to realize what one is in Christ: “Evangelical freedom is a form of life which acts out the fact that I have been set free from ‘the law of sin and death’ (Rom. 8:2).”
Discipleship is essentially a matter of hearing (authority), believing (trust), and doing the truth (freedom) that is in Jesus Christ.
Content taken from Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ©2019. Used by permission of Lexham Press, lexhampress.com.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Ph.D., Cambridge University) is currently Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously he was Blanchard Professor of Theology at the Wheaton College Graduate School and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1990-98). He is the author or editor of twenty books, including The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2005—named best theology book of 2006 by Christianity Today) and Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2010).