Revive Our Hearts Podcast

How to Listen to the Word of God

Leslie Basham: What makes an effective church service? Great music, slick presentations? Nancy Leigh DeMoss says services have to have something else. The Word of God.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: You can go to a lot of churches today, unfortunately, and the Scripture may not even be read out loud. Sometimes it may not even be referenced very much. But biblical worship services have the Scripture—the Word of God—at the heart, at the center of the service.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author of the book Choosing Forgiveness.

All this week Nancy’s been explaining how to do something you may have been doing all your life. She’s in a series called How to Listen to a Sermon. If you’ve missed any of it, you can hear this thought-provoking material at ReviveOurHearts.com. She’ll continue today talking about how important Scripture is to worship.

Nancy: I had the privilege a number of times during the 1980s of traveling in Eastern Europe back before the fall of communism, when it was costly, even more than it is today, to be a Christian and for Christians to congregate in public worship in some of those countries. I can remember just being astounded as I would go into a church, say in Romania, get there an hour before the service started, and find that the place was jam packed, that people were there.

They were eager. They were on the edge of their seats. There was maybe standing room only. People were eager to get to church. They were responsive. They sometimes couldn’t fit everybody in to some of those services. Generally speaking, those services didn’t have all the glitz and the glamour and the entertainment that so many of our church services have today in this country. There wouldn’t be tons of great, special music. You didn’t have a lot of fanfare, a lot of hoopla. But God was there.

As I reflect back on those kinds of services, I just think it was because people were so conscious of their need. They were so desperate for God. Life was so hard in those countries in those days, and in some ways still is, that people were just . . . God was their only hope. They needed Him and they loved to come together to public worship.

That’s kind of a hard picture to imagine in our country today. We don’t have that same sense about going to church, generally speaking. So during this Pastor Appreciation Month, we’re focusing a little bit on how to go to church, how to listen to a sermon, and how to get the most out of your pastor’s preaching.

Over the last couple of sessions, we’ve talked about how to prepare your heart for public worship and said that you can’t just go into a church service cold, having spent the night before being entertained with TV or movies or a big social life, and then plop down in church the next morning and expect to have your heart warm and ready and receptive. It takes preparation, some warming up of our hearts.

We talked about how to do that. Then we talked about how to actually sit in the service itself, how to get the most out of your pastor’s sermon while he’s preaching it, and the importance of listening attentively, listening humbly, saying, “Lord, would you speak to me today through Your Word,” and realizing that when your pastor picks up the Scripture and begins to teach from it, it’s not just your pastor talking. When the Word is read, that’s God talking. Listening with a sense of awe and wonder that God is here in this place and God is actually speaking to me.

I want to pick up again and look at a passage of Scripture today on this whole matter of how to listen to the Word of God. As we’re in a service, whether it’s a recording session like this one, or this coming Lord’s Day . . . Again, as I said earlier in this series, some of you perhaps worship on Saturday, but knowing that most of us will be in church this coming Sunday (Lord’s Day), I’ll use that term “Sunday,” and then you can apply it to whenever you go to church.

I quoted earlier in the series from E. M. Bounds, who is a classic writer on prayer and revival; and he says this about listening to the Word of God. He says, “To hear the Word of God is no small matter. It is our life. It is as milk to the babe.” You think of a baby—I mean it can’t go very long without getting milk—the momma’s milk or a bottle or something, but it’s got to have something to drink.

Bounds said that to listen to the Word of God is like a baby needing that milk. “It is our God-appointed food by which we are nourished. It is not a lecture, an entertainment, or the wiling away of an hour; but it is the incorruptible Word of God that lives and abides forever. The soil that receives this precious seed must be well-prepared.”

Now, if you have your Bible with you, let me invite you to open to the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah chapter 8. You remember that the children of Israel had been in exile in Babylon and they had returned to their homeland—to the promised land—and they had just completed the rebuilding of the city walls of Jerusalem that had fallen down and were in disrepair. They had rebuilt the city walls.

That was crucial, but now it was time to rebuild something even more important. You know what that was? They had to rebuild the spiritual hearts of the people. The spiritual life of the people was in a state of disrepair.

So we pick up in Nehemiah chapter 8, verse 1. I want us to just explore today what this worship service was like and see if we can make some application that will help us when we go to our place of worship this Lord’s Day. Now, if you back up into chapter 7, which we won’t take time to do, you’ll see that the time of year here was at the Feast of Tabernacles. This was a time when for centuries the people of God had gathered together to celebrate God’s redemptive work in their lives.

So it was that time of year; and we read in verse 1 of Nehemiah chapter 8, “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate.” We talked earlier in this series about the importance of the people of God coming together for corporate worship. It’s not enough to listen to Christian radio, to watch Christian TV in your house and say, “I get the Word of God.”

We need to come together for the reading and listening to the Word of God and hearing it proclaimed as the Israelites did in these days. “And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel.” As we read through this passage, notice how central is the Scripture—the Book of the Law of Moses.

That’s all they had of the Bible. We have the Old Testament, the New Testament. All they had was what we know as the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Can you imagine if that’s the only part of your Bible that you had? You think Leviticus is boring? Imagine if that was just one of only five books that you had. Even with that small portion of the Scripture, we’re going to see what a blessing it was to them.

You can go to a lot of churches today, unfortunately, and the Scripture may not even be read out loud. Sometimes it may not even be referenced very much. But biblical worship services have the Scripture—the Word of God—at the heart, at the center of the service.

So they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Scripture that the Lord had given to them. “So Ezra the priest,” verse 2, “brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.” Now, there were men here; there were women here; and what age did they have? All who could understand what they heard.

Did that start with 15-year-olds, 6-year-olds? I don’t know, but it certainly included young people. They’re old enough to understand what was being said. Verse 3, “And he [Ezra] read from it [the Book of the Law of Moses].” He read from it. It’s important that we have the reading of the Scripture in our worship services. “He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate [listen to this] from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and women and those who could understand.”

This was one long service. The commentators I have read said that this was from daybreak until noon—at least six hours. And what did they do for most of those six hours? Read the Scripture. Listened to the Scripture being read. Of course, they didn’t have their own copies. There was only one scroll there, so the people listened. They couldn’t read it for themselves. They didn’t have a copy as we’re blessed to have today, so they listened to the Scripture being read. It says, “And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (verse 3).

They weren’t just listening. They weren’t fidgeting while they were listening. You don’t get the sense that they’re looking at their watches wondering, “When’s this going to be over?” or “We’ve got something cooking in the oven. We’ve got somewhere to go. We’ve got a football game to get to.” They were attentive. That’s what they were focused on—attentive to the reading of the Scripture.

I mentioned other countries and their worship services and how sometimes people are so eager. Services in those countries will sometimes go two, three, four hours or longer; and you can’t get the people to go home. You know why? They have so little. They’re not blessed with all the abundance we have of Bible teaching. We get it everywhere. You can turn on Christian radio. You can turn on Christian TV. Some of us have 10, 12, 15, 20 Bibles in our house and all kinds of books about the Bible and commentaries.

In some parts of the world, they don’t have all this. I think about that verse in Proverbs that says, “One who is full loathes honey,”—if you’re stuffed, you don’t want anything else sweet to eat—“but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). People love the Scripture and can’t get enough of it if they’re not full with all the things of this world, if they have room for the Scripture in their hearts.

Long services—that’s kind of unheard of today. You just wouldn’t have a six-hour church service today. But it’s amazing how we can take a long time for movies, for football games, for sporting events, to sit and watch television for hours, being entertained. Yet we go to church and we want to make sure . . . “Fifty-nine minutes; he needs to be done. We need to be out of here.”

I think it's perhaps that we haven’t come to church expecting to encounter God, because I want to tell you, when God shows up at church, when the presence of God is felt and seen and experienced among His people, you don’t want to go home. That’s worth coming to church. That’s worth staying, and your life will be transformed. Those hours will go quickly when you realize that you have an audience with God, that you’re meeting with God.

One of my favorite books on revival is a book by Brian Edwards. He describes many revivals in past history and what it was like when God moved in revival. He tells about a time in India in the 1940s and quotes one of the leaders of that revival as saying, “I tell you, God’s Word came alive to us then” (during the days of that revival). Then this leader in India, this Christian leader, describes one evening service in October of 1940 that took place during the monsoon season. Listen to the description.

He says, “The skies were dark and threatening and we thought it would be necessary to go inside [this was an outdoor service]; but a very large crowd had gathered, far more than the church could accommodate, and after prayer brother Bakht Singh [who was the preacher] decided we should carry on in the open. Suddenly it began to rain very heavily. He urged the people not to stir, but just to protect their Bibles by putting them under their clothes. He himself continued to preach with his Bible wide open.

“People just sat on the ground in the pouring rain with rivulets of water running beneath them. Though soaked to the skin they went on listening to God’s saving Word. Only after a long time did it [the rain] stop. There were mothers with babies in their arms, yet no one stirred until the meeting was over, and no one was anxious for it to conclude early. For a wind of God was blowing through Madras and the showers that watered our hearts were showers of blessing.”

Can you imagine? You read these kinds of things in the history of revival. In George Whitfield’s diary, his journal, he recorded . . . Of course, he was one of the great preachers in the First Great Awakening in the 1700s. He recorded a similar instance in his diary about a meeting at Olney in England. He said, “Though it rained all the time, yet the people stood very attentive and patient.”

This is an outdoor service. Can you imagine? I mean we would cancel a service like nothing if we were outdoors and it were raining or we for sure would find a way to move in. He said, “All [of those who were there], I really believe, felt, as well as heard the Word, and one was so pricked to the heart, and convinced of sin, that I scarce ever saw the like instance. The Word of God,” he said, “is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword.” The power of the Word of God.

Now don’t expect to have that kind of love for the Scripture when you’re hearing it read in the service, especially if your pastor preaches long (and today anything more than 22 minutes is considered long). Don’t expect to have that eager, expectant, attentive capacity to listen to the Word of God if you haven’t been preparing your heart before you get to the service.

Look at verse 4 of Nehemiah chapter 8. “And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose.” Verse 5: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it, all the people stood.” Can you get the picture here? There are thousands of people gathered together and the man up front opens the Scripture and everybody stands as if at attention. Do you get the picture there of the honor they gave to the Scripture? Reverence for the Word of God?

I love the fact that at the church I’m a part of when the Scripture is read, we stand for the reading of God’s Word. At our conferences—our Revive Our Hearts conferences—we try to do that, just as a symbol, a signal, that we give reverence and honor to the Word of God, respect for the Scripture.

“And Ezra,” verse 6, “blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” You get the picture here? The people are participating in worship. They’re not just spectating. They stand. They lift their hands. They bow with their faces to the ground. They’re physically involved in responding to the Word of God and to the Lord whose Word it is.

Then, verses 7 and 8: “Also [the Levites] helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” You know what that’s describing? Expository preaching. This is Biblical preaching where you open the Scripture, you read it, and you explain what it means.

Today we have such an emphasis on felt need and on themes and preaching things that people are interested in hearing, but I want to tell you there’s nothing so powerful as just opening the Word of God, reading it, and explaining it. The Word of God is not like any other book. It is so powerful. It’s like a lion. Just let it out of its cage and it will do its work. It will do its thing.

Verse 9, “And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’” Now why did they have to say that? Well, look what was happening. “For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.”

Why were they weeping? Because God’s Word was bringing conviction to their hearts. It may be things they had known before in their heads but they weren’t applying them. They weren’t living them. They were convicted by the power of the Spirit of God of their disobedience. So they were weeping tears of brokenness and contrition and repentance.

Does this happen at your church when the Word of God is proclaimed? When’s the last time you experienced it personally? It happened to me not too long ago. It wasn’t literal weeping, but I was sitting in a church service and God’s Spirit was convicting me of something in a conversation I had had with someone at church that morning just before the service had started—minutes before the service started. The message that morning . . . I’m thinking, “Did that preacher—did he hear this conversation I just had?”

I was so convicted. God’s Spirit was pointing His finger in my heart. I don’t know what anybody else was hearing. I don’t know what they were thinking. I don’t know how they were responding, but I thought I was going to come out of my seat. I wanted to just say, “Stop! I get it. I get it! I’m so sorry, Lord.” I knew there was something I needed to do right after that service, to go have a conversation with someone, to deal with the conversation I had before the service.

The conviction of God’s Spirit. I wasn’t just sitting there. I was letting God change my heart. That’s the attitude we want to have every time we hear the Word of God proclaimed.

This scene of penitential, repentant response to the hearing of God’s Word is typical of almost every revival that you read about in the history books when God’s Spirit is moving. For example, in 1907, there was revival in North Korea. Oh, that God would move again in that needy country. There were services during those days that were characterized by deep, intense conviction of sin. It always goes with revival.

There was a Western missionary in North Korea at the time who described one of those meetings. He said, “Some threw themselves full length on the floor, hundreds stood with arms outstretched toward heaven. Every man forgot every other. Each was face to face with God. I can hear yet that fearful sound of hundreds of men pleading with God for life, for mercy. The cry went out over the city till the heathen were in consternation.”

What’s going on in there? What’s happening to those people? What was happening was they were hearing and responding to the Word of God. Do you pray for that in your own heart when you go to church? Do you pray for God to move that way in the hearts of His people? Are you ready and willing for God to speak to you in such a way that you are brought to conviction, to repentance, to brokenness before God?

Only after they had had that kind of response to God’s Word did the joy come. We want the joy first. In the Scripture, the pattern is first the weeping and then the joy. Look at Nehemiah 8, verse 10: “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready [Have a party! Have a celebration!], for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Now they celebrated God’s great mercy and grace. Verse 12: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing”[because now they had something to rejoice about], because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

So how do we make this personal? Let me ask you some questions. Do you highly esteem and reverence the Word of God? Do you prepare your heart to hear the Word of God? Do you find a light in hearing the Word proclaimed? Do you listen attentively when the Word is read or taught? Do you expect God to speak to you every time you hear His Word preached? Do you have a teachable Spirit? Do you tremble at the Word of the Lord?

Do you pray for those who proclaim the Scripture that they might be pure, anointed vessels of God? When the Scripture is preached, when the Word of God is preached, are you conscious that you are not listening to the words of men but to the very Word of God? It will make a huge difference in the way you go to church. It will make an even bigger difference in the way you leave church.

Leslie: I hope that you’ll approach the Word of God differently this week because of the message we just heard from Nancy Leigh DeMoss. She’s in a series called How to Listen to a Sermon. If you find yourself approaching church and sermons differently because of this series, would you let us know? You can send an email by visiting ReviveOurHearts.com and clicking on “Share and Interact.” You can also leave a comment for other listeners to read. Just go to today’s transcript, scroll to the bottom, and add your thoughts.

Maybe these sound like good ideas but you’re too busy to remember to visit the website every day. We have a new solution and it’s called Revive Our Hearts Daily Connection. Every day you’ll get an email which highlights the main points of Nancy’s teaching for that day. If you want to dig further, you can click on a link which will take you to the audio or the transcript. You can also click on a link to leave a comment or to find out more about resources on that day’s topic. Sign up for the Daily Connection when you visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

There’s another way to stay connected with Revive Our Hearts every day, and this is not as high-tech. Get your free copy of our 2007 wall calendar. It’s beautifully designed based on quotes from Nancy’s new book, Forgiveness. It’s free—one per household. You can ask for yours when you visit ReviveOurHearts.com or call 1-800-569-5959.

If a New Testament believer were to walk into one of our churches, would they be confused by what they saw? Nancy will address that tomorrow. Now she’s back to pray.

Nancy: Thank You, Lord, for the power of Your Word, for the power of Your truth, and for the power of Your Holy Spirit even in this place this day Who is going to take the Scripture and wing it to our hearts and bring transformation in our lives. Oh God, would You give us—ourselves and our families and our churches and Christians in this nation—a fresh love for Your Word and to hear the Word preached.

May we not make the preaching of the Word secondary in our worship services, that it may be the central thing, the thing that we live for and long for and love. May we respond as those Israelites did that day with humility, with attentiveness, with brokenness, with repentance, and then may we receive great joy and leave with great rejoicing, having responded to You. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.

E.M. Bounds, Powerful and Prayful Pulpits.

Brian Edwards. Revival.

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