They had literal ears, of course, but that is not what He meant. They heard the sounds, and the sounds formed into words, and words were comprehended to some degree, but they did not really relate to what He was saying. His words just did not hit the right chords so that they could make the right use of them. Jesus says in some exasperation, "Why do you not understand?" Then He goes on to explain why.
He explains, "You are unable to hear what I say." He is implying that the problem is inherent. It was as if He were speaking in one language, and they were hearing in another, so that what He said was totally incomprehensible to them.
John 8 deals with freedom or liberty. These people were in bondage, a kind of slavery, and they did not even know it. They said, "We have never been in bondage." They had a measure of political liberty, but even then, they were under the heel of the Romans. They had a certain amount of freedom, which they apparently considered enough for what they needed for their lives. Ordinarily, the Roman way was, once a nation was crushed, to give the people certain liberties, as long they behaved themselves.
We can see that Jesus was speaking of one thing, yet they understood it in an entirely different way. He was speaking within spiritual parameters concerning the Kingdom of God. They were hearing within political parameters, and thinking about the here and now. It just did not jive.
They became this way just as we do: They lived and operated in a world of lies. This is why Jesus mentions Satan, that he was a murderer and a liar from the very beginning. All the ways of this world - which seem to be so right carnally - are really nothing but behaviors founded upon deceptions, distortions, and falsehoods. To somebody reared in such a deceived environment, the truth of God comes out as so much gibberish. The mind simply does not relate.
John W. Ritenbaugh
We Are Unique!
Spiritually, Satan has been our father. We already have had his mark placed on us, and in our lifetime we have shown his characteristics. That is exactly what Jesus is talking about here: He knew that Satan was the spiritual father of these people because they carried his mark in the way they reacted to Him and each other.
Abraham had God as his spiritual Father, and Abraham did not attempt to kill the One who became Christ—in fact, He was hospitable to Him and honored Him. He was not hostile to Him in any way, but instead did everything in his power to submit to Him. But here were the people of Jesus' time trying to put Him to death. They were openly hostile to Him.
Our problem is not worrying about taking on Satan's mark—we already have it. Our concern is to control and overcome it because God is now our Father, and He has already enabled us to resist that mark in our lives. It is our worshipful duty to work with God, to strive to break free of that foul spirit's enslaving hold on us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Spiritual Mark of the Beast
The fact that these people were not hearing God's Word was proof that they were not of God. That is all Jesus needed to prove that they were not of God. He did not need to see any action. All He needed was to know that they were rejecting the truth of God, because a person who is of God is predisposed to accept it.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part 3)
This is a interesting section of scripture, one that could be expounded for hours. It contains the main point of how we prevent deception. Christ mentions it three times: 1) He says, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32); 2) "You are not able to listen to My word"; and 3) "He who is of God hears God's words." What, then, is the point? The truth, as revealed in God's Word, is the key element to preventing deception. The more and the better we know God's truth the more obvious deception becomes.
It could also be said that the more and the better we know God's truth the more we can avoid what is evil. Evil will not "live" where we live because we are living the truth. If we do the truth, then we will not have time for evil. They are opposite; they repel one another. Like oil and water, they do not mix. It is really that simple. If we know the truth, then we should be free from deception.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing John 8:45: