Hearing differs from listening in key ways. To hear is to perceive sound. Unless someone has a hearing impairment, it happens automatically when vibrations in the air resonate through the membranes, bones, and fluids within our ears, ultimately traveling to our brains through a series of nerves. Yet simply because we hear a meaningful sound does not mean we have listened. Listening begins with hearing but extends beyond it. Listening involves seeking to understand the meaning of what we hear and to respond to it.
In light of this distinction, it is clear we are called not merely to hear Jesus, to allow the words that He speaks to vibrate in our ears, but to listen to Him, to understand His meaning and respond to it. This is a particular emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes five sections, often referred to as the “Five Discourses” (chapters 5–7; 10; 13; 18; and 23–25), that record Jesus’ teachings. At the conclusion of Matthew, Jesus charged His disciples to carry His message to “all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:20). Jesus spoke, then, not so that we might merely hear but that we might listen and respond in obedience.
But Jesus’ disciples are often more eager to speak rather than to listen. Peter represented this tendency when he awkwardly suggested building shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (v. 4). But “while he was still speaking” (v. 5), Peter was interrupted by the voice of God the Father that reminds us of the disciple’s first duty: “Listen to him!”
Only by listening attentively to Jesus will we come to understand—and live by—the words He speaks, which are “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Jesus’ fourth discourse is found in Matthew 18. A large portion of this teaching concerns forgiveness. Read Matthew 18:21–35, being particularly mindful of listening to Jesus’ words. What meaning do they have for your life? What response is He calling you to? How do His words about forgiveness give life?