October 19, 2017

Meditating on Scripture

By Chaplain Mike

I was convinced at an early point in my adult Christian life that learning, loving, and living the Bible was essential to my Christian growth.

My journey for much of the past thirty-five years has been primarily about studying and teaching the Scriptures. If I had not been a pastor, I would have pursued teaching, and there have been times I regretted not taking that course.

Ultimately however, I developed a conviction that serious Biblical instruction belongs first of all in the church, that it is for all the people of God, and that it should be done in local settings with pastoral sensitivity.

The Apostle Paul has been my biblical mentor in this regard. His New Testament epistles model this approach. Paul did not set up a “school.” He did not write books for the general public. He taught Christ, the Gospel, and the way of new creation to ordinary people in ordinary walks of life who gathered together in local congregations around the Word and Table. The letters he wrote to them are supreme examples of pastoral teaching, shaped to fit each individual congregation’s setting and issues.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with schools. Speaking frankly, I have heard so much pablum passed off as sound Christian teaching in my life that I am a strong believer in rigorous training for those who enter the ministry.

However, I also think that schools sometimes teach the Bible and theology in such academic ways so as to fail in preparing men and women for the task of pastoral preaching and teaching by balancing academics with apprenticeship in the work of the Gospel.

And even more fundamentally, schools often fail to be communities that form students into people who pray and love. Pastors who help the church most are those who (1) have a robust conversational relationship with God that (2) issues forth in loving relationships with others.

Memorize the whole Bible and be valedictorian of your seminary class, but without that, you have lost the very heart of what learning the Bible is all about.

Because ultimately, it is about Jesus.

Reading, studying, discussing, teaching, and preaching the Bible is meant to lead us to Jesus; to walk with Jesus, live with Jesus, eat and drink with Jesus; to watch Jesus work, listen to Jesus teach, ask questions of Jesus, fulfill the callings Jesus assigns us, and live the life with God and for our neighbors that Jesus exemplifies and makes possible for us in the Spirit.

A text from Scripture that has been foundational for my understanding of the place of the Bible in our lives is Deuteronomy 5:1—

And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. (KJV)

This passage presents four actions with regard to the written Scriptures. Moses exhorted Israel to:

  • Hear them
  • Learn them
  • Keep them
  • Do them

These four imperatives follow a pattern similar to that of the ancient practice of lectio divina:

  • Lectio—hearing the Word
  • Meditatio—ruminating on the Word
  • Oratio—praying, having conversation with God through the Word
  • Contemplatio—letting the Word lead us into the love of God

In both cases, the key practice, the turning point that moves us from mere intellectual study to prayer and love is the third step.

In Moses’ words, we are not only to hear and learn but also to keep the Word in our hearts, to treasure it in such a way that it turns us toward God in faith and love and toward our neighbor in loving service.

The third step of Lectio divina encourages us to savor God’s Word like this by allowing it to lead us into conversation with him, bringing our lives before him in the light of what he is saying to us.

The scriptural word for this is usually translated “meditation” in our English Bibles. This is not to be confused with the second step of lectio divina (meditatio), for the Hebrew word suggests verbalization (oratio) and not just pondering something in our minds. It is variously translated as talk, murmur, muse, pray, speak, and even complain.

If you ever watch an Orthodox Jew praying, you will recognize that he is “meditating” in this verbalizing way. His lips are moving and sound is coming out of his mouth. He is murmuring, saying a service of the prayer book aloud, moving his body in harmony with the rhythm of the words. He is having a conversation with God using the written text.

This is Biblical meditation. And this practice is commended to us at the beginning of each major portion of the Hebrew Bible.

  • The Torah begins with Genesis and its portrayal of God forming all things by his Word, a passage for meditation if ever there was one. It then tells of Adam and Eve, to whom God speaks his specific Word of revelation, but they fail to keep it in their hearts, seeking wisdom apart from him.
  • At the beginning of The Prophets, Joshua is told that the key to success in the Promised Land is meditation upon and obedience to God’s Word. (Joshua 1:8)
  • The Writings are introduced by Psalm 1, which portrays the blessed man as the one who meditates on God’s Word day and night.

Meditate on the Word.

Meditate on the Word.

Meditate on the Word.

We have clear instruction at the beginning of each section of the First Testament about how we are to approach this Book.

And if we do that, I believe we will be led to Jesus.

For I believe what Jesus said in Luke 24:44—“These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (NASB)

The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings were given to lead us to Jesus. Proper meditation on the Scriptures (in this case, the First Testament) will do just that.

  • The Torah teaches us God’s original intention that all the world live under his rule and in his blessing, the loss of that blessing through sin, and his promise to restore the blessing to all peoples of the earth. However, by the end of the Torah, God’s people have failed to bless the world and Moses himself is barred from the Promised Land.
  • The Prophets teach us God’s plan for his King (Messiah) to rule over all the earth (1Sam 2). However, by the end of the Early Prophets (historical books), all of Israel and Judah’s kings have failed and the people have gone into exile. By the end of the Latter Prophets (the writing prophets), Israel has received hope through return from exile. However, all the prophets through Malachi also point out Israel’s continued failures to trust God and their need to be purified by the Lord’s coming.
  • The Writings contain a variety of materials, all pointing to Christ. The Psalms encourage the people to hope in the King that God will install on Mt. Zion (Ps. 2). A main theme in the Wisdom Books is that wisdom and prudent living, important as it may be, is ultimately insufficient to explain the mysteries of God and provide what we need to be reconciled to him.The post-exilic books point to a new David, the “Son of Man” (Daniel 7) who will rule over God’s eternal Kingdom.

The First Testament points to Christ not just through individual verses that speak specifically of him. Rather, the entire trajectory of Torah/Prophets/Writings (Tanakh) points beyond itself to a necessary future hope and to the One who must bring it. Long meditation on the big picture and structure of the Hebrew Bible’s story leads us to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s mission and the hope of the world.

When we get to the New Testament, it is our “duty and delight” to search out “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8) in the Gospel stories and in the epistles by continuing to meditate on God’s Word day and night.

As Christian Smith says, “…for Christians, Christ is the center, the inner reason, and the end of all scripture” (Bible Made Impossible, p. 98).

Or, as Michael Spencer put it, “…the Bible presents a conversation that continues until God himself speaks a final Word.”

This is the approach to Scripture that I want to commend. The Bible is not an “owners manual for life,” a handbook that instructs us how to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, with well-behaved children and without financial debt. It does not give therapeutic counseling for emotional problems nor does it hold the key to being healthy and fit. You won’t find “15 Steps for Overcoming Discouragement” or how to build a “successful” church or ministry.

In fact, the longer we meditate on Scripture, the more we see it is not really about us at all; that is, it was not given to meet our “felt needs.” Rather it was given to tell us the story of what God did to restore his blessing to creation through his Son, Jesus Christ.

And it calls us to let him integrate the stories of our lives into that bigger story by his saving grace and mercy.

The more we meditate, the more we see Jesus.

Comments

  1. I have such a… well, not so much love/hate as love/apathy relationship with the Bible. I’m clearly missing the transition “from mere intellectual study to prayer and love” and I think a big part of it is my unhealthy recoiling from what I describe as a deification of the Bible to the fourth member of the Trinity. Combine that with the “owners manual for life” pitch and yeah, I’m kind of cool on the whole “meditate on the word” thing.

    I believe all Scripture points to Jesus. I believe that studying it, meditating on it, leads us to a clearer picture of Jesus. I don’t know why that doesn’t lead me to action, and that the negative stuff so easily leads me to inaction.

    • Rick Ro says:

      pcg, I’ve been leading an adult Sunday school class through the gospels of Mark and Matthew for the past couple of years and we have just gotten to Jesus entering Jerusalem. As I’ve looked ahead in preparation for the lessons, it suddenly dawned on me how much time Jesus spends during his final week battling religious hypocrisy. It’s basically 95% of both gospel accounts, from the entering of Jerusalem to his dying on the cross.

      As I’ve reflected upon this theme, I’ve come to the conclusion that we followers of Jesus must be ever on the lookout for religious hypocrisy ourselves. If Jesus spends 95% of his final week battling the Pharisees, maybe we need to spend much of our time battling the hypocrisy we see.

      The reason I bring this up is because I wonder if your issue with the Bible relates to a notion that many (most?) use the Bible to establish religious practices rather than help believers follow Jesus. So maybe your aversion to studying the word is because it is so often used by pastors and leaders for the wrong reasons. I’m just wondering if you associate the Bible with Christian hypocrisy, rather than for the good that comes from reading and studying it…?

  2. JoanieD says:

    Excellent post, Chaplain Mike. One of your best, I would say. Thank you!

    “The more we meditate, the more we see Jesus.”

  3. Clay Knick says:

    Yes & amen! Splendid, Mike.

  4. Wonderful, CM. I love your explanation of the third step of Lectio Divina…”savor God’s Word like this by allowing it to lead us into conversation with him, bringing our lives before him in the light of what he is saying to us.”

    Our culture, myself included, has such a difficult time with silence and listening. I think that’s where we lose a valuable part of the prayer conversation…in our belief that we must be talking in order to maintain God’s attention. Hey, just because we lose interest in a commercial that lasts longer than 30 seconds, it doesn’t mean that God operates that way. God, fortunately, doesn’t expect us to offer him short bursts of word vomit, making our best pitch to convince to fulfill our desires and needs, so that he can move on to the next person.

    He’s patient.

    Wow, that thought just blew me away, and I had to pause a minute as I typed. He listens to us, even the prayers that are just a repeat of the usual, “Lord, be with us as we…” stuff. If only we were so patient with Him. If only we would listen.

    Think I’ll stop talking now.

  5. Adrienne says:

    Mike ~ every day I think your posts can’t get any better. Then, they do. Again all I can say is thank you.

  6. Timely message. God has been dealing with me about my lack of meditation on His word. I read it, but don’t linger over it & I’ve sensed for some time He wants me to slow down and go deeper. Thank you, Mike!

  7. Radagast says:

    CM,

    I agree with your approach – for the layman. But those of you (as I am not one) whose vocation is to be the sheperd I believe there must be a strong foundation layed down. Otherwise meditation might lead to heresy, personal interpretation leading in the wrong direction – and for one leading a flock, that is not a good thing. So from my limited perspective and experience in the field of sheperding, I believe that if the firm foundation is in place then the local flavor, the personal focus on pastoring a particular congregation can come into play, the meditating and hearing the Words and what the Holy spirit reveals can come into play, without the fear of moving into error.

    My thoughts…

    • Hmmm…I agree that a strong foundation is necessary for a pastor…study of scripture and tradition is of utmost importance. I also believe that reason comes into play as well, otherwise some could read a passage like I Thessalonians 5:7…”Those who sleep, sleep at night. Those who get drunk, get drunk at night.”…meditate on it, and tell our congregations that they should never take naps or get drunk while the sun is up. That interpretation is out of context, and simply doesn’t fit within the Gospel narrative. Are there pastors that take scripture out of context and formulate grand ideas out of it that simply aren’t what scripture says? Yup. Turn on TBN, and you’ll see a boatload of them in just a few hours viewing. A lot of them have the “firm foundations” of seminary degrees, and still preach things that simply aren’t the Gospel.

      CM wrote “The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings were given to lead us to Jesus. Proper meditation on the Scriptures (in this case, the First Testament) will do just that.” I guess I’m not sure what you’re getting at, saying that this approach is best for a layman, and not a pastor. Do you mean the practice of Lectio Divina specifically? I mean, if we assume that laymen don’t have the foundation that their shepherds do, isn’t a lay person searching for meaning in scripture more dangerous, if we frame things the way you are?

      Interesting thoughts, as always, Radagast. Looking forward to your response.

      • Radagast says:

        Hey Lee,

        Ultimately, I believe everyone should have some background (historical etc) before delving into scripture – but that’s just my subjective opinion. I have heard too many folk string a couple of lines of scripture together and come up with an idea that is completely out of context for what has been written. My point is that a sheperd needs a firm foundation in the teaching – whether that be formal training, reading on one’s own (aside from scripture), because they are responsible for leading the flock in the right direction and not down a path of the sheperd’s own theology. If, after that point they choose to stray then at least it is not out of ignorance.

        Remember too my faith tradition – Catholic, and although I read scripture lots, I do so in the construct of what I grew up in and I am not free to invent anything new (being funny here). Lectio Divina yes with Aquinas thrown in to keep me in balance only after I have a good foundation – like they did with the Catechumins (sp?) in the early days of the church.

        I hope I am making sense here. I realize that a seminary education might bias one to a specific belief system – but you need to start somewhere. To say I just need to read scripture in a vacuum runs the risk of introducing error and I have seen some that are quickly moving toward Gosticism.

        Regards

    • Why do you fear that meditation might lead to heresy?

      I have sometimes seen this fear that relying on the Holy Spirit through prayer to understand God’s word is somehow more risky than a totally rational literal analysis, free of meditation on the Word. And I’m not sure how that can be.

      When it comes to heresy or determining His will, surely opening oneself to God in prayerful meditation is a LESS risky way than not doing so.

      • Radagast says:

        Actually I am a big mediation supporter – as long as there is already a foundation there. And sometimes we need a spritual director to help us understand whether those things that come out of meditation are truly from God or are from ourselves. My point is that you need the foundation first. New christians can really falter here, sometimes in arrogance (why can’t others see what I plainly see – or thinking that all those who came before were dismally wrong). But I am a big advocate of prayer/mediation/contemplation (a lot of my christian heroes were the Catholic mystics east and west).

    • Well of course meditation MIGHT lead to heresy, but so could sterile analysis. And a ‘careful’ seminary degree could lead to heresy as well. I’m thinking there are many roads to heresy, this could be its own post, but if I remember Spencer’s words correctly from MC, then he always ‘erred’ to the side of giving the holy scriptures to the common person and encouraged them to drink slowly and thoughfully, and live with the results.

      What COULD produce a heretic could also produce a no hold barred disciple who takes GOD at HIS word and trembles.

      GregR

    • Radagast, please note that there are four imperatives in Deut. 5:1. I only focused on one. Hearing and learning the Word come before “keeping” (meditation).

  8. David Cornwell says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but during the church year (summer excluded) the church where I’m a member has a bible study each Wednesday evening, led by the pastor. It’s normally from the Revised Common Lectionary passage for the following Sunday, the one the pastor has chosen for the basis of his sermon.

    At the beginning he writes the scripture reference (on a whiteboard), followed by some his observations. Then someone reads the passage. Many times it is read from more than one version (NRSV, etc.) He gives some background information, etc. After a bit of silence he will begin a conversation about the passage. Many times it centers around what the author is saying, why he saying it, and hopefully some application.

    The attendance can range anywhere from 12 up to 24 or more. What’s surprising is that this study never takes us far afield into any kind application far afield from its meaning, into heresy, or weird application. It’s even better when some of us come to this study after engaging the passage ourselves prior to the study. This coming season I hope to do a more thorough reading and study of this passage beforehand each week.

    Our pastor’s official title is “Senior Pastor and Teacher.”

  9. jesus said stud the scripture for in them you think you have eternal life and it is them that speak of me.

  10. Thank you, CM! I’ve been seriously wrestling with something–why study anything if you don’t fully understand what Jesus did and said–who He really is. I’ve been snowed by the institution of church my whole life. Do this/be that/try harder. I didn’t know Jesus, not the real one. I devour the red letters in my bible–and I’ve changed. More Jesus! All I need. Thanks for this wonderful post.