Mortimer Adler wrote a book titled How to Read a Book. It seems strange to “read” a book instructing one how to do what one is already doing—reading! Of course, Adler’s book is not an elementary text book on reading, but a guide on how to make the most of a book.
Why do we need to know how to listen to a sermon? With our ears surely! Truly, but this article is about how to make sure that we are not carried away by strange and varied teachings. The Bible warns us that there will be false prophets and false teachers in the last days.
Many of us are on guard against extreme error. But how guarded are we regarding those who distort the gospel? Regarding those who add to or subtract from the gospel or alter the fundamental truths of the good news? This may be equally dangerous, leading us down a perilous path where we may actually end up replacing the gospel with another gospel. Henry Ward Beecher was right on the mark when he observed that “whatever is only almost true is quite false and among the most dangerous of errors, because being so near the truth it is more likely to lead astray”!
C H Spurgeon said, “Be assured there is nothing new in theology except that which is false”. So, how do we exercise care in how we listen to the sermon, even when listening to the most trusted of teachers? Whether you are new in your relationship with Christ or a veteran in the faith here is the way to go about “watching your life and doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16). This especially applies if you think that you have learnt something new or novel. The following nine suggestions will help us listen more attentively to sermons and become more skilful in discerning between truth and error in teachings.
- Ask the question, “What really is it that I have learnt new?” Try putting the answer down on paper.
- If it is a new insight, ask: “What is the basis of this new insight or understanding or idea or theory?” “Is it purely derived from Scripture? Or is it derived from a collection of pictures, stories, anecdotes, flowcharts and tables with a few verses of Scripture thrown in?”
- Consider whether proof-texting is involved (using only the portions of Scripture that fit with this theory). Distorters will only use a few selective texts from the Bible. Or, is the whole counsel of God, with proper exegesis, being expounded? As has been rightly said, it is possible to prove any theory (including pagan beliefs contrary to Scripture) by carefully selecting verses, highlighting them, and ignoring the rest of Scripture.
- If someone declares that he/she has discovered some novel insight ask the question, “How come no one in the last 2000 years has seen it?” The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) so all scriptural interpretation has to find some support in the life and tradition of the global historic church. Be warned if the teacher, especially when seemingly going in novel directions, does not have the support of other Bible believing teachers and scholars (whether contemporary or ancient).
- Beware of a hunger within you for radical interpretations and new insights. This can be a stumbling block in your journey in the knowledge of God.
- Be wary when preachers or teachers start playing around with the “original” Greek or Hebrew to propagate a new theory. Check the meaning of the original wording.
You may not have the skills or tools to cross-check it directly yourself. If so, the best way to do so is to check multiple translations in English or your first language. If the word is not translated from Greek or Hebrew in the manner the teacher of the new idea says it should be, it means that “new” insight is not there. Period. This switching languages is a typical sleight of hand to smuggle something unbiblical in.
For example, if someone says the concept of church is in the Old Testament because of the use of the word “ecclesia” in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), ask the question: Why was it not translated “church” by the English translators? Why did none of the translators use the word “church” in any of the translations?
In answering a further question, “Is ecclesia used exclusively as church in the English New Testament?”, we find that wherever church is used in the New Testament, it derives from the Greek word, ecclesia. But (and it’s a big “but”), the contrary is not true. Ecclesia is not ONLY translated as church in the New Testament. It is also translated into English as assembly or crowd. Take a minute to digest this.
Read on and let me explain. Acts 19:23–41 records a disturbance in Ephesus during which a riotous mob was ready to attack Paul and others who were travelling with him. The word used for this mob in the Greek text is ecclesia. See Acts 19:32: “So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the ecclesia(assembly) was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together.” (See also Acts 19:39, 41.)
This bloodthirsty ecclesia (mob) could hardly have been called a church in any sense of the word. We therefore conclude that when we read ecclesia in either the Septuagint or the New Testament, it does not necessarily mean church. It simply means an assembly or a gathering of people. When we read church in the New Testament it means a particular kind of gathering or assembly—a gathering of those who love Jesus and value their relationship with Him. Thus, it is wrong to say that the Old Testament use of ecclesia means that there was church in the Old Testament.
[When super-spiritual types say that they are “not in church” or they are “unchurched” they are declaring themselves unwilling to be part of the church. They do not think that other believers are worthy of their company and fellowship. They need a dose of humility and a better understanding of the New Testament which clearly encourages our meeting together regularly (Heb 10:25).]
- Beware of preachers who say or write: “I saw this …”, “I concluded that …”, “I reflected and discovered …”, “I … and I….”, “I …”, “I …”, “I …”, “I …”. There is much more value to the objective interpretation of Scripture (where Scripture interprets Scripture) rather than subjective opinions (insights, conclusions etc.), even if it be from a very highly regarded individual.
- If you’re hearing something new, check the whole counsel of Scripture to see if it is an accurate teaching. It is possible that the “new” teaching does not appear wrong on the surface; but, underlying it may be a theory that is suspect, or a view with which you would not agree if you knew the subliminal message being propagated. Teachers have to point to what other Biblical texts say that influences understanding of the text being expounded. It is very easy to read and understand from the text itself.
- Be Bereans! Even when the Apostle Paul was their preacher, they searched the Scriptures to see if what was taught was true. Acts 17:11 (NIV): “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
(Adapted from an original blog post by the author: https://bit.ly/31KDQLD