Patiently Hearing the Word
I remember being invited once as a guest preacher to an unfamiliar congregation. As I stepped up to the pulpit and put my Bible and notes in place I saw a little worn piece of paper taped to the top of the pulpit. Written with permanent marker was a brief command directing whoever stood behind the pulpit to keep it short. I glanced upward and my eyes immediately met the clock affixed to the back wall. For the remainder of the service I could hear the echo of the second hand has the time slowly marched on measuring my adherence to the required brevity.
Right or wrong there is a burden placed on many preachers to stay within prescribed time limits. While a long-winded preacher can do a lot to kill a Sunday morning so too can the hurried impatience of a congregation. That’s why I find one of the closing encouragements in the Letter of Hebrews so interesting: “I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly” (Hebrews 13:22).
It’s fascinating that an inspired letter — a letter that is the very breathing out of God — needs an inspired command to be patient with the breathed out word of exhortation. And if the word of God requires an exercise of patience how much more the preaching of that word. Commenting on this verse, John Owen wrote: “A necessary caution this is for these Hebrews, and indeed for all others unto whom the word is preached and applied with wisdom and faithfulness; for neither Satan nor the corruptions of men’s own hearts will be wanting to suggest unto them such exceptions and prejudices against it as may render it useless.”
Why is patience needed when we hear the word of God preached?
Patience is needed to hear preaching’s instruction. The author of Hebrews knows that those to whom he is writing needed to be taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.” They were “unskilled in the word of righteousness” and did not have “powers of discernment trained by constant practice” (see 5:12-14). Preaching must also achieve the end of teaching and instructing those who hear — constantly and persistently informing and training the mind. A typical 3-credit hour college class requires three hours of instruction a week. If students need to patiently bear that responsibility to learn their subject matter then the doctrines of Christianity, which far surpass the fields of study found in most college courses, needs patient attention as well.
Patience is needed to hear preaching’s commands. The Apostle is not simply concerned with instructing minds but in informing the will of those who read his letter. More than a dozen times the author transitions from an important doctrine to to a command saying: “Therefore…” (see 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 6:1, 10:19, 12:1, 13:13, etc). Of course, the word “therefore” means “for that reason” or “consequently,” and by it the writer weaves together Christian instruction and application. Preaching must also aim to confront, redirect, and command the will of those who hear. Naturally (but sinfully) many people don’t like being told what to do. Thus, patience is needed to bear with the commands of preaching.
Patience is needed to hear preaching’s admonishments. This letter contains some of the New Testament’s strongest and most severe threatenings and warnings. For example, the author admonishes against drifting (2:1), hardening of the heart (4:12-13), holding Christ in contempt (6:4-6), fearful and fiery judgment (10:26-31), and rejecting God’s warnings (12:25-28). That’s not a message that sells well in a culture that wants to be affirmed and approved every step of the way. Our hearts don’t like this kind of confrontation and so a careful patience is required to hear these threatenings and warnings that faith might tremble at the word.
It’s with a curious note that the Apostle concludes this appeal saying, “for I have written to you briefly.” It’s often been pointed out that Hebrews is one of the longest among the letters — taking approximately an hour if someone were to read it out loud. Some have asked, then, how the writer could consider it to be very brief. A good answer is found again in John Owen:
Considering the importance of the cause wherein he was engaged; the necessity that was on him to unfold the whole design and mystery of the covenant and institutions of the law, with the office of Christ; the great contests that were among the Hebrews about these things; and the danger of their eternal ruin, through a misapprehension of them; all that he hath written may well be esteemed but ‘a few words,’ and such as whereof none could have been spared.
Let a preacher be acutely aware of the weaknesses, prejudice, and sinfulness of the human heart but let all of us who hear the word bear with patience the word of exhortation.