“Oh, that my people would listen to me” (Ps 81:13).
Genesis 1–3 is riddled with mysteries, the pursuit of which, some argue, does more harm than good. For instance, it is puzzling how and why a malicious and crafty serpent ended up in God’s good creation. But there is one thing that is abundantly clear in the creation account: God’s word is on the line. His word, as Frame puts it, is “the issue before the first couple.” And based on their response to it, the world would either be full of God’s glories or laced with the fissures of sin.
He Made Us Listeners
Now, if the word was and is the critical medium in God’s creation and governance of the world, then it follows that the senses involved in that medium are especially important. I’m thinking particularly of the sense of hearing—which allows us to perform the act of listening. Listening, we often forget, is not the same thing as hearing. We cannot help but hear what goes on around us, but that does not mean we are listening to it; we are well practiced at hearing someone’s words but not listening to them. In a general sense, listening is a conscious attempt to connect with the message of another being. In a biblical sense, our listening clarifies our allegiance; by our listening we show either that we hold the white flag of surrender to God’s will or the red flag of rebellion against it.
Now, consider the encounter with Eve and the serpent. What is the primary medium in their engagement? Spoken language, of which the sense of hearing is an integral part. But the one speaking is going against the words of the Creator God—evidence that he has not listened to God’s words; he has only heard them. Eve’s suspicion should have been immediately raised. A subject of the speaking God is questioning God’s words. Satan is holding his red flag. Just look at the reversal in perceived authority between Gen 1:1–2:25 and Gen 3:1–7.
God → Man → Woman → Animals (Gen 1:1–2:25)
Animals (serpent) → Woman → Man → God (Gen 3:1–7)
The serpent, a mere hearer of God’s words, tried to take the place of the true and eternal speaker. And Adam and Eve went along with it. Eve listened to the serpent’s words to the exclusion of God’s; Adam listened to Eve’s words to the exclusion of God’s. No one listened to the true speaker; every creature, instead, listened to the words of another creature. The fall occurred, in large part, because God’s creatures challenged their ultimate allegiance to His words. And so Satan’s first great assault on God’s listeners proved successful.
The Second Great Assault
Generations later, Satan would make his second great assault. He had attacked and defeated God’s first son, Adam. This time he would attack God’s eternal Son. We read in Matthew’s Gospel of how Satan fought with Christ, using a similar trickery. Look at what he does in Matt 4:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
In the first instance, Satan is not quoting Scripture verbatim, but is certainly drawing on a biblical context—God’s giving of manna to the people of Israel during the Exodus. “If God can do it, so can Jesus.” But Jesus has not come to prove himself to be God; he has come as the second Adam, to fulfill Adam’s listening duties and to bring life where Adam brought death. Note Jesus’ response: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is the response of a listener. Jesus knows that God is the almighty speaker, and he knows his role in relation to that speaker. Jesus came not to serve himself, but to serve others through suffering—by being obedient to God unto death on a cross, by being a listener of God’s word to the very end, just as Adam should have been. Jesus faithfully raises his white flag in submission to God’s will, and by implication he calls Satan out exactly where he has always been in rebellion.
In the second instance, Satan quotes Scripture from Ps 91:11–12, but this again only shows that he has heard God’s words, not listened to them. In this passage, the psalmist is praising God for His protection from the wicked (91:8). But the only wicked one from whom Jesus needs protection is the devil himself. Christ is not in trouble, but Satan is asking him to make trouble by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. And why? Just so he can prove to a trickster something he already knows?
Jesus fires back at the devil with Moses’ words in Deut 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The devil has heard God’s words and then tried to brandish them before His incarnate Son, but there is no use. Christ has listened to God’s words, and his remembrance of them leads to his victory over the devil. He will not test his Father and suggest that His word is not enough. That would be to make the same mistake that Adam made. That would be to raise the red flag of rebellion.
In the third instance, the devil tempts Jesus to measure the might of his rule, just as he did with David in 1 Chr 21. There the devil suggested David take a census of the whole nation to assess his military strength. David’s listening to the devil’s words was, in essence, his bowing down and worshipping another being—for God’s creatures have an unquestioned allegiance to His words alone. In Matt 4, the devil gets right to the point: “bow down and worship me and all the kingdoms will be yours.” Christ, however, has listened to God’s words in the voice of the psalmist. He knows that God “shall inherit all the nations” (Ps 82:8). What use are the world’s kingdoms when your Father already reigns over them? Jesus needs nothing from the devil. His white flag is flapping in the wind of God’s faithfulness, and once again he sends the devil away, his red flag cloven by a true listener of God’s holy and eternal word.
Who We Are
In Christ, the one who faithfully submitted to the word of his Father, we are a nation of listeners. Conceptually, this means that, in Spurgeon’s words, if “there speaks a God,” then “there listens a creature.” We need to pray earnestly that God’s Spirit would help us to make listening to God’s word our initial response to temptation. We need to pray that we would always be inclined to raise the white flag in submission to God’s will rather than the red flag in rebellion against it.
Practically, this means we need to meditate on God’s words to the point that we can readily bring them to bear on our daily temptations. Satan is lethally injured; his defeat is sure, but a creature is often most dangerous when death is imminent. Satan will do all he can to make you a hearer rather than a listener of God’s words. So arm yourselves daily with Scripture. Take it to heart; be ready to wield it confidently, for “we know the end of the war. The great dragon shall be cast out and for ever destroyed, while Jesus and they who are with Him shall receive the crown. Let us sharpen our swords tonight.” Yes, and prick our ears.