Take Care Then How You Hear

8 minute read

This is a VerseNote, a quick meditation inspired by a specific passage of Scripture. See the rest of them.

“No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
—Luke 8:16–18

This is a famous passage, and I don’t have much more to say. But I read in a note somewhere that these three verses are connected in a way I don’t quite understand, so let’s get after it.

“No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.”

The analogy here is plain: the gospel of Christ is the light of the lamp. And just as nobody hides a lamp—because then it is useless and why did you light it in the first place?—nobody hears the Word and hides it. Instead, you put it somewhere prominent so that everyone who enters your house sees it, and can see by it.

Or, put another way, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

So we understand this first piece. Let’s look at the other two and see where we go.

“For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest.”

There are two vicious cuts here. The first is the same as the one from Hebrews 4:13: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword.” The Word, the light we were just taking about, is indeed a light of the best-disinfectant variety1. It is in fact the most effective version the universe has ever known: the Word will make all things known, just as the lamp makes all things seen.

But a person can hide a lamp; you cannot hide the Word (though you can try, not that I recommend it). In the first verse, Jesus told you that it’s weird not to spread the gospel. This second verse assures you it will be spread with without you.

This promise may also sound familiar, though from an older source. God said through Isaiah, “[My Word] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Many have fought the spread of the gospel, but God’s Word continues to spread. So get on board, comes the unspoken implication, because the invasion has started.

It’s understandable to hear a little shock at the strength of this statement. But I obtain comfort here, too, because the brokenness of our lives or our ministries cannot stop the gospel. That is, we couldn’t get in the way if we wanted to. Think of Jonah, who went to the opposite side of the world from where God commanded him, to Tarshish in Spain instead of Nineveh in Iraq, and ended up converting the heathen sailors on his ship simply be being there. He was running from God, but God chased him down so hard he caught not only Jonah but everybody in the vicinity.

The other cut from this second verse is about you specifically, the haver of the lamp. I started to write owner, but that’s not quite right. You are the steward of the lamp, as we are stewards of the earth. Anyway, the light will be spread with or without you. And! Because everything that is hidden will be made manifest, all will one day know whether you had the light and didn’t share it, didn’t spread it.

And you will have to give account.

When Jesus says to you, “I handed you the gospel, what did you do with it?”, you will have to tell Him why you hid it under a basket and didn’t tell everyone you met. (I am not innocent here; I’m speaking to myself as much as to you.) He expects that light to shine for everyone in your house. But what is your house? Not the walls and ceilings, floorboards and beams, but the entirety of your life. Peter assumes people will see your life and want the secret; when is the last time someone asked you the secret to your joy and you needed an answer (1 Peter 3:15)?

So this passage starts with a command by analogy and continues with a suggestion of the consequences of not following that command. One piece remains.

“Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”

Usually, when I read this, I get caught up in the fairness aspect of it, the economic implications. The haves get yet more and the have-nots get less. Especially to 2018 ears, this system sounds tremendously unfair, exactly the opposite of what we want Jesus to do.

We here in 2018 are crushed under historic income inequality, where 80% of the gains in the economy go to way fewer than 20% of the people, so even Pareto is frustrated.

But Jesus says the economy of God actually works like that. Jesus is not actually advocating here for income inequality, or wealth disparity, or anything of the sort. Jesus is not actually interested in how much money you do or do not have. We see parable after parable that show exactly the opposite, culminating in the rich young ruler, whom Jesus says is going to have a heck of a time with a camel and a needle before he can enter the kingdom of heaven. What you do with your wealth is far more important than how much of it you have. Jesus is laying out the economy of God.

Here’s how it works: God gives to some ten talents, to others five, and to others one (Luke 19:12–27). Some ministries look like Billy Graham, who had audiences in the tens of millions. Some ministries look like VerseNotes, which has an audience in the tens. And some ministries, perhaps the most important of all, have an audience of one. Your spouse; your child; your parent; your sibling; your friend; yourself. Jesus expects you to pour your energy into your ministry regardless of its size.

But that’s not actually my concentration today. I’m focused on that word, “hear.”

I recently read John MacArthur’s book, How to Study the Bible. MacArthur writes at one point that the Hebrew people generally equated knowledge with obedience. That is, they eschewed the abstract Greek concept, which now dominates all Western thought to the point we can’t even think of a different understanding, that you can have knowledge that exists only in your head.

“Who cares?” you can hear them ask. “If it’s only in your head, it may as well not exist!” Good point, hypothetical abstract ancient Hebrew people who exist only in my head.

So when Jesus says “hear”, He almost certainly means “hear and obey.” His audience would not have separated the two terms. (If you keep reading a few more verses down to Luke 8:21, you’ll see Jesus explicitly linking hearing and obedience in the context of the family and the household of God; but my point is that his audience would have heard the link even if he didn’t say it.)

Now read the sentence again.

“Take care then how you obey, for to the one who has [the one who hears much and therefore obeys much], much more will be given; but to the one who has not [the one who hears with the ears only, and does not obey with the lips or the life], even what he has will be taken away.”

Ah, that makes more sense! It fits better with the parable of the talents, doesn’t it? You are given gifts, maybe of prophecy or teaching or knowledge or administration. If you hear the gospel and obey and use these gifts to set the lamp on a lampstand, God will ask more and more of you for His kingdom, and He will give you the tools (and the Spirit) to make it happen. If you instead take your gifts and take the gospel and hide them away so nobody ever asks you about the source of your joy—that joy will be taken from you.

This is a harsh word. Jesus does not pull punches. You shouldn’t want Him to. The Kingdom of God is a serious, joyful mission for serious, joyful people.

Now let me—not soften, exactly, but offer one wrinkle. God is also a God of grace. Jesus isn’t saying that if you fail to spread the gospel to that one guy you passed on the way to art class, He’s going to remove your name from the book of life and frustrate your ministry.

Instead, think holistically of these images of hearing and listening and obeying and using your gifts in your life. Instead of concentrating on this one decision, this one moment, make it a discipline to wake up every day and say yes to Jesus. Every day, say yes to His gospel, and say yes to your ministry, whether it’s to one or to millions. If you do this, you’ll find that the images work the other way, too: you won’t be able to hide your good works from God any more than you can hide the bad. He will see your yes every day, and He will give you more and more, so tomorrow you can, gloriously, say yes again.

  1. As in, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”