Like so many words in the English language, the word, hearing, has a variety of meanings. It may mean generally, “to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf;” or, it may more specifically mean, “to understand, to perceive the sense of what is being said.”
Of course, the context in which the word is used will determine its precise meaning.
Many are capable of hearing sounds, but fail to understand the meaning of those sounds.
As Jesus traveled near Jericho, there was "a certain blind man" begging by the road. The crowds following the Lord were rather large, causing a great commotion as they traveled with him (cf. Mt. 4.24-25; 8.1, 18; Mk. 3.7-8).
Luke records the blind man's reaction to these sounds: "And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant" (Lk. 18.35-36). He had "heard" the shuffling clothes, the footsteps, the chatter of the people, perhaps even the noise of the animals they brought with them, but he didn't yet understand that they were following Jesus.
While on the road to Damascus, Saul received a miraculous visitation from Jesus. Not surprisingly, he was astonished, as were the men who were with him. The text suggests that the "men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no one" (Acts 9.7).
However, in a later account, Saul suggests that the men who journeyed with him "indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of" Jesus (Acts 22.9).
The first account, which employs the genitive case, indicates that the men "heard" a voice speaking — they perceived sounds being uttered. The second account, however, which employs the accusative case, indicates that the men did not understand the message thus spoken.
In other words, they "heard" the voice audibly, but they didn't "hear" the voice intelligibly.
More often than not, the Bible uses the word, hearing, to denote something far deeper than mere sound-perception.
Perceiving the sense of what is being said — the meaning of the sound — is the greater part of hearing. This is especially true of hearing the gospel.
Long ago, Moses predicted the coming of a prophet (Jesus) who, like himself, would be a leader, law-giver, mediator, and divine spokesman (cf. Deut. 18.15-19).
But with this auspicious promise, came the following bleak warning:
"And it shall be that every soul who will not hear that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people" (Acts 3.23).
Will God really punish those of us who have never audibly "heard" the voice of Christ? Of course not. One does not need to be in the physical presence of the prophet — or listen to his physical voice — to be saved (cf. Jn. 20.29; 1 Pet. 1.8-9).
Rather, the prophecy concerns those who fail to understand and believe the prophet's message. Perceiving the meaning of the lord's words is far more consequential than merely hearing the sound of his voice.
Furthermore, the writer of the book of Hebrews had "many things to say" about a certain Melchizedek, but because his audience had "become dull of hearing," he found the subject very "hard to explain" (Heb. 5.11).
Of course, the author was not endeavoring to affirm that his readers were going deaf — why would auditory impairment matter when the message was being conveyed visually (in written form)? On the contrary, it was their understanding that had become "dull," so that they had become bad students, unable to distinguish between good and evil (vv. 12-14).
There is a difference, then, between "hearing" the gospel audibly, and "hearing" the gospel intelligibly.
"Hearing" The Gospel
There are many who suggest that hearing/understanding the gospel is not essential to salvation. Being a "good person" will be enough. "Deeds, not words!" is their mantra — an extremely ironic statement, since, in order to convey their opposition to the use of words in persuading others to their cause, they must use words to convey that opposition!
Others contend that "finding" God may be achieved by self-reflection only — one does not need to understand someone else's message; he needs only to look within himself, and he and God will thereby be able to "come to an understanding." In truth, in commending themselves by themselves, they have foolishly made themselves their own "god" (cf. 2 Cor. 10.12-18).
Several religious people argue that the Bible cannot be understood at all; that Christianity, after all, is a thing, "better felt than told." Don't preach, just feel!
These sentiments are grossly misguided. Those who articulate them have become "dull of hearing."
First, "hearing" the gospel of Christ is essential to our salvation (cf. 1 Tim. 4.16; Eph. 1.13-14). Those who are not made aware of the teachings of the Bible are spiritually
"perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (2 Cor. 4.3-4).
Those who "do not know" the gospel shall "be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1.8-9). In light of the "terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5.11). Words, in the Christian faith, are just as important as deeds.
Second, it is true that finding God, to a certain extent, may be achieved through self-reflection (cf. Rm. 1.19-20). We certainly learn a few things about God through this means (e.g., he is glorious, intelligent, moral, etc.).
Yet, we cannot know the divine will through self-examination. Rather, God's will is a "mystery...hidden from ages and from generations" (Eph. 1.9; 3.3-4, 9; 6.19; Col. 1.26). Understanding the mind of God can only be achieved through words (cf. 1 Cor. 2.10-13), revealed to us through the prophets (cf. 2 Pet. 1.19-21; 3.1-2, 14-16; 2 Tim. 3.16-17; Gal. 1.12; Eph. 3.1f).
Hence, we need to hear the gospel — an objective revelation of the mind of God — not just "internalize" (make-up, feel) a relationship with the Almighty (for more on this point, see my article: "Faith, Reason, & Subjectivity").
Third, it is entirely possible to understand the teachings of Christ (cf. Eph. 3.3-4; Jn. 6.44-45; Heb. 8.10). Jesus said, "you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Jn. 8.32). If no one can understand the words of Jesus and his prophets, as some contend, then this promise is false (and Jesus either lied or was mistaken).
Paul provides this admonition:
"Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5.17).
Thus, it isn't enough merely to acknowledge the fact that words are being spoken — it isn't enough merely to be in the presence of those who are preaching the gospel — it isn't enough merely to "go to church" and audibly "hear" the words of the speaker.
Rather, one has to know the meaning of those words, and, from such knowledge, deduce and believe the meaning of the message spoken. One not only can understand the gospel; one must understand it to be saved.
Hearing (understanding) the word of God is where faith begins (cf. Rm. 10.17), and faith leads one to peace with God (cf. Rm. 5.1). Hence, those who fail to understand the word of God can never find peace with God (cf. Jn. 6.44-45; Acts 28.27).
This question, then, remains: how's your hearing?