Elephants hear far better than humans, but not only because of their ears. They have special receptors in their trunk and in their feet that allow them to pick up low-frequency vibrations. This gives them an uncanny ability to locate rain, for instance. Hearing is also an important aspect of Christian life. In his book The Divine Voice, author Stephen Webb observes that Christianity has an “oral” quality. “By speaking to us, God grants us the ability to listen, and when we are stirred by God’s voice we rise above the animal state and begin to speak ourselves.”
Paul was grateful to God for granting the Thessalonians discernment to recognize that his teaching was “not the word of men” (v. 13). This ability to “hear” Paul’s message had two important dimensions. First, it involved an acknowledgement of its authority. The Thessalonian believers recognized that God was the ultimate source of the things that Paul preached to them. Second, they recognized its power. This was the word which is “at work” in all who believe. Words have divine power when God is their author.
Paul used the language of tradition when he described his message as something that the Thessalonians had “received.” The Greek word used here meant something that was “handed down.” Paul’s message did not originate with him. He learned it from Christ. Likewise, the Thessalonian believers were not alone in either their hearing or in their suffering for that message. By receiving Paul’s gospel as the word of God they became “imitators of God’s churches in Judea” (v. 14).
The opposition described in verses 15 and 16 is a reminder that God’s Word does not work like a magic spell. Not everyone who hears takes it to heart. Hearing must be combined with faith before it can have its full effect. These verses also include a sober reminder that God will hold us accountable for what we hear. Those who reject God’s message will be judged.