The familiar saying, “The Word of God builds the church” is true. Did you ever notice the interesting order of events in Acts 6:7 describing the growth of the early church? After decisive leadership cleared up a problem that was threatening the peace and health of the work, we read that “the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied…” (KJV). In other words, the growth of the church was a direct result of the spread of God’s Word among the people. There is a message here for elders today.
In many places the church is anemic and shrinking because the influence of the Word is greatly diminished. Shallow, abbreviated messages compete with entertainment in the church. As predicted, preachers can be more concerned to please the hearers (“tickle the ears” II Tim. 4:3) than to faithfully present the Christian message in power and simplicity. The sad result is a common occurrence.
Church elders are responsible to protect the assembly from these trends. However, they must first be convinced about the life-changing power of the Scriptures, through which the people hear, understand and obey. This process is really at the heart of the gospel, and therefore must be understood. Three passages will help us.
The central chapters of Matthew’s gospel describe a crisis in the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. Being re-jected by the religious leaders of the nation, several new things are recorded in this section. The Lord begins to speak about his coming death (16:21), refers for the first time to the church (16:18), and begins to speak to the people in parables (13:10). When questioned by the disciples about this new approach, Jesus explains that it was given to them to know these mysteries, but to the multitudes it was not given (13:11). Why would He say this?”
The explanation is deeply interesting. Verses 12 – 17 must be read care-fully. A distinction is made between seeing and perceiving; between hearing and understanding. For example, compare the attitude of the prophets and righteous men of the past who “desired to see” (v. 17) with the people of Jesus’ day as described by Isaiah: “their eyes they have closed” (vs. 15). Rejecting the plain revelation of God, they have now been given over to a judicial blindness and hardened heart which cannot understand the truth.
In verse 18, Jesus tells His disciples, “Hear therefore the parable of the sower.” This could not mean that He was going to tell them the parable, as He had already done that earlier. It could only mean that He was going to give them understanding into its true and deeper meaning, which is what in fact happens.
We learn several things from Jesus’ explanation of the parable. 1) Light rejected brings darkness. 2) God’s Spirit will not always strive with man. 3) There is a superficial seeing and hearing that brings no work of God; no change to the heart or life. This presents the divine side, but what about man’s responsibility in the process?
Turning to the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel, one helpful detail is added. After speaking the parable of the sower, the Lord makes this stirring statement: “Take heed, therefore, how ye hear.” (verse 18) The NIV renders it, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen.” That is, “Pay attention to how you listen when God speaks!” We might say, “Be sure you listen with understanding.”
God holds those who hear His Word responsible for the way in which they listen. The goal is to grasp the message in such a way that it connects through the mind to the heart, becoming avail-able as a tool for God’s Spirit to trans-form the life.
One other passage will complete the picture by reminding us of how those in spiritual leadership can play an important part in the over-all process.
After the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the days of Israel’s restoration from captivity in Babylon, one thing was still needed: spiritual renewal in the hearts of the people. Accordingly, a great revival is described in chapters 8 – 10. Briefly stated, the people were gathered, the book of the Law was read and lives began to change. Of special importance is the 8 th verse in chapter 8. Note three statements:
First, those who read the Law of God, did so distinctly. How important is clear communication! All that obscures must be corrected. Every distraction and competing voice must be stilled. The Word must be spoken clearly to be effective.
Second, we read that they gave the sense, that is, they explained the meaning of what they read. The goal was not speed but comprehension. Answering such questions as, “What did the Lord intend by the things that He spoke? Do we understand what these particular words mean; why were they chosen and not other words?”
Third, they caused the people to understand the reading. How do you cause people to understand? That is a hard question, and we must approach it more with reverence than with scholarship. Evidently they labored with such clarity, with such patient spirit and helpful explanation, that it might be said that the people could not help but understand! No surprise then, that revival had a beginning that day!
Elders, let us take this to heart. If the first work of elders is to feed the flock of God (Acts 20:28) and if it is true that the church will grow as the Word of God increases, then what diligence and care must accompany all preaching and teaching of the Word? Surely, the adversary will wage no greater war than against the life-giving, life-changing Word of God?
Here are some questions to stimulate discussion on this subject:
– How much time is devoted to prayer for the ministry of the Word in the life of the church?
– On what basis are speakers chosen to open the Scriptures in your assembly? Do you look for simple availability or the deeper matters of gift, burden, credibility?
– What opportunities are provided for the people to ask questions, clear up misunderstandings and obtain advice on life applications that will please the Lord? Informal times of fellowship, one-on-one conversations, visiting in the homes of the believers, and small groups meeting mid-week are all ways to address this need.
– Are the elders diligent to be sure that presenting of the Word takes place in an environment conducive to quality listening?
– Do the elders discuss ways to build “bridges” between the ministry given on Sunday, and the body life and service of the saints during the week?
– Are there times to thank and praise the Lord for the progress being gained by the growing influence of His Word in the life of the assembly?
Many other questions could be raised. Perhaps we can say with Paul, “Consider what I say, and the Lord give thee understanding in all things.” (II Tim. 2:7) So then, spiritual growth in the people is not a matter of chance or good fortune. The Word of God does build the church. What an indescribable privilege for elders to “cause the people to understand” the Scriptures! We should settle for nothing less.