Confronting someone who is in sin or error with the truth is a very sensitive topic. As we strive to teach with truth in love, Christians often disagree about delivery. At times it’s hard to discern when we are being overly offensive or not offensive enough. Sometimes we are just plain ignored.

We want our message to be heard and received. But with the culture becoming more and more hostile to Christian teaching, there have been attempts and pleas to make the content of our faith more palatable. Maybe if we didn’t focus on the language that turns people off, we could present Christianity as the best choice and less of a stumbling block. There have also been appeals to the compassion of Jesus when dealing with sinners. But compassion never compromises truth. Compassion doesn’t mean that we should be comfortable with sin and error. And if there is one thing I’m learning, truth is never comfortable.

I have been studying Revelation with the help of G.K. Beale’s Shorter Commentary and Dennis Johnson’s Triumph of the Lamb. As I am going through the beginning section on the letters to the churches, Beale’s explanation of what he calls the hearing formula has caught my attention.

Each of the seven letters conclude with the exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Beale points out that Jesus uses this clause in Matt. 13:1-17, repeating a familiar statement seen in Isaiah 6:9-10, Jeremiah 5:21, and Ezekiel 3:27; 12:2. So what does this exhortation mean? And why is it repeated? Is this just a fancy way to say to all of us who have ears to listen up? And does that mean that what was just said before wasn’t as important?

Beale reminds the reader that leading up to the exhortation in Isaiah 6:9-10, the people would not listen to his plain teaching. They were hard of hearing, as we like to say. So this command to all those who have ears to hear is a warning and a signal that what follows is not going to be as clear. Isaiah “has an encounter with the Lord in which he is given the commission to render the ears of unbelievers dull so that they can no longer hear with them (6:9-10), following which his preaching becomes mixed with parables and symbolic actions” (57). A similar circumstance is going on in Ezekiel as well.

“These actions and parables had the effect of gaining the attention of true believers, shocking some unbelievers or backsliders into repentance and hardening the hearts of the rest, whose lack of spiritual wisdom prevented them from seeing the significance of the actions or parables” (58). We see Jesus using this same prophetic pattern of first speaking plainly, and then after he invokes the hearing formula borrowed from Isaiah, he teaches in parables.

And we have this same formula in Revelation. “Speaking through John, Jesus indicates by this phrase that what is about to unfold will be parabolic or symbolic in nature.”

Think about it. This hearing formula is now addressed to the church, the true Israel. Before the unfolding of horrific images of the beast, the harlot, trumpets, and the dragon, there is a clear message to the church—professors of the faith. Are we listening? What will happen to those of us with dull ears? In the section offering suggestions for reflection, Beale again reiterates how “the use of parabolic form from the OT prophets through Jesus to John shows that when people do not respond to instruction, God speaks through more indirect means which reach those seeking Him, but harden the hearts of the lost.” Beale challenges us to look at our methods of softening the hard truths in order to be more seeker-sensitive. “Are we removing stumbling blocks God set in place to reveal the heart? Are we seeking to fill our churches with people who are drawn to a reduced version of the gospel but without a true commitment to follow Christ in the way of the cross, which is the ultimate stumbling block (Matt. 16:21-28)? Is preaching the story of the cross in a hedonistic, postmodern society such as ours close to functioning like a parabolic declaration?” (60).

One thing is for sure. I still need to be shocked out of my own complacency. I wish I could say that I am one who learns the first time through straightforward instruction. I’m ever so thankful for the strong warnings to have ears.

*Originally published on May 12, 2015.