How Not to Listen to a Sermon

(Acts 6, 7, 13 and 14)

Most everywhere you go today you can find people listening to what they like to hear on music players, cell phones, radios, TV's. Listening is a very popular activity yet not a highly acclaimed one. There are no prestigious awards for listening as there are for singing, speaking in a movie or coaching a sport. Yet good listening is an art that takes concentration, energy and patience. Some people seem to come by it naturally and listen to you as if you were the only person in the world. They make you feel special. Fortunately, we can all learn and practice good listening skills.

Listening has always been important to God. He wants His people to be good listeners: "everyone must be quick to hear"(James 1:19). He especially wants us to listen to His voice through His Word. A very common literal translation for "obey"in the Old Testament is "listen to My voice."In Hebrew and Greek the root word for obey is "hear."

In a gospel resistant and busy culture like ours, however, listening for God's voice in sermons is a low priority or non-priority for many who turn off regardless of how good the message is. But for people open to hearing God, Biblical preaching is one of the primary ways He has chosen to communicate with us. The preaching of the good news of His Son Jesus Christ has a special place in the heart of God. It is one of the principle avenues through which God draws people to Himself, makes them aware of His grace, and helps them grow in that grace: "God was well pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe"(1 Corinthians 1:21b).

If you worship every Sunday morning, you'll hear about 52 sermons a year. If you worship Sunday morning and take part in Bible classes, Sunday morning, evening and midweek, and the occasional workshop or lectureship, you will likely hear well over 200 sermons and Bible classes a year. That's a lot of listening. How can we listen better? Listening better, how can we enjoy God, His Word and His people more, becoming more like Jesus who was so in tune with the heart of His Father? In preparation for the second article in this two-part series on how to listen actively and effectively to sermons and Bible classes I thought it might be helpful to first look at some examples of how not to listen.

Consider the intense situations and responses before, during, after and between the sermons and Bible lessons of Stephen and Paul in Acts 6, 7, 13 and 14. Notice how people were listening or not listening to these powerful preachers and teachers who were clearly communicating the Word and will of God. By the way, Acts 7 and 13 form an incredibly rich summary of God's actions through much of the Old Testament and the good news of Jesus.


Before Stephen spoke his message to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, "some men... rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly induced men to say, 'We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes….They put forward false witnesses who said, 'This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us'"(Acts 6:9-14).

Notice that they argued with Stephen. When they could not cope with his wisdom they incited people to lie about Stephen's faith in God and stirred up others against him. From this we see several principles of how NOT to listen effectively to a sermon or Bible lesson: decide in advance to rest firmly on one's own ideas, presuppositions and assumptions about what God is doing. Disagree with the preacher. Lie about his faith. Spread gossip that will turn others against him. Writing off the preacher and his message before hearing him essentially says that one has nothing to learn from God or the one who serves him. These principles are severe. Hopefully they will not apply to us but perhaps everyone should guard against resting on unexamined opinions instead of Scripture.


During Stephen's message, "they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him... they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears"(Acts 7:54, 57). As Paul preached his powerful sermons in Pisidian Antioch, "the Jews saw the crowds…were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming"(Acts 13:54). Here we have more principles for how NOT to listen effectively during a sermon or Bible class: when the sermon or lesson is true and convicting, get mad about what is being heard and burn inwardly. Stop listening altogether. Build up arguments against the truth of what the sermon says. Instead of saying, "Amen,"heckle the speaker. Be jealous.

Again, these are severe principles that hopefully will not apply to us. But anyone can risk the subtle danger of reacting against the convicting edge of God's Word. God has so formed our consciences that all but the hardest hearts should be sensitive to God's convictions that contain truth. If we truly believe we are secure in Christ and is there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1), we can profit from His refining fire. With spiritual maturity comes the ability to examine criticism for elements of truth and make the appropriate corrections.

After and Between

What happens after and between Paul's and Stephen's sermons and lessons is amazing. In their burning anger Stephen's listeners drove him out of Jerusalem and stoned him (Acts 7:57-60). On the "how not to listen"side after Paul's powerful sermon in Acts 13, "the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district"(Acts 13:50). Paul went on to preach in Iconium where afterwards, "the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren….the multitude of the city was divided"(Acts 14:2, 4). Paul's opponents from Antioch and Iconium followed him to Lystra and "having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead"(Acts 14:19). Where many would give up, Paul got up, and went to Derbe and then right back to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch and kept on preaching the gospel and strengthening the disciples (Acts 14:20-23).

The principles we see hear of how NOT to listen after and between sermons include: go political and embarrass the preacher and church by spreading ill will in the non-Christian community. Gossip and create distance between listeners and the preacher. Make the preacher's life miserable. Rob him of the joy of proclaiming the good news. Be jealous of the preacher's faith and devotion. Contradict the preacher at every turn. Be unfriendly. Criticize him in front of others. Try to get him fired. Create division among the leadership, turning elders, deacons and preachers against one another. Get mad at God and bring shame on His name and His church by being a bitter and bad example of the Christ-likeness God intends Christians to show the lost in His world. Finally, it appears Paul's opponents decided in advance not to be receptive to his message the next time they came to hear him.

In and around Acts 7 and 13 we have two powerful messages and people's positive and negative reactions to them. They teach us much about how to listen or not. Next time we'll focus on the positive side in "How to Listen to a Sermon."

Paul Birston

May 2007©

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