In January and February, I blogged about different pathways into reading scripture. Here is another, one I preached about 6 years ago.
Application of Two Spiritual Disciplines, study and meditation, to the reading of Scripture
Rob Tennant, Sunday, April 13, 2008
I want to pick up right where we left off last week. We read 1 Peter 1:16, where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.” I spent 20 minutes describing a process in which those who are born again, saved from sin by putting faith in the crucifixion of Jesus, are then commanded to live holy lives. That was the bulk of the message. If a person received Jesus, then that person is called to be holy.
At the end of the message, I cited 5 spiritual disciplines that all Christians should submit to in order to be conditioned for holiness. The Holy Spirit is who will truly enable us to lead holy lives. The Holy Spirit comes at His own initiative, not ours. We don’t control Him. But, I do believe, He comes more often than we know. We miss Him, because we aren’t ready to receive Him when he comes.
Submitting our lives to these disciplines increases our readiness. There are many disciplines that can prepare a person to walk in the way of Christ and have a heart that is ready to receive the Spirit. Dallas Willard writes, “A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort”.[i] Slide 1 He’s speaking specifically of exercising the disciplines to condition oneself so that one is able to live as a disciple of Jesus. I fast or I worship or I undergo the discipline of silence to refocus my mind and heart so that I can live as Jesus would have me live.
Willard’s description is helpful, but there is more to it. Richard Foster writes that the disciplines “invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realms”.[ii] Slide 2 He says the “purpose of spiritual discipline is spiritual growth.”[iii] I think a better way of putting it is growth in the spirit, and the spirit awakening in me. Slide 3 The Holy Spirit is in all places and in all people. But not all people are full of Spirit, because most of us are not attentive. We don’t listen and we don’t ask God to come in. If we did, He would. He would fill us with the baptism of the Spirit and we would walk in holiness.
This is the next step after salvation. One is saved from the bondage of sin by confessing faith in Jesus. And thus being born again, one is called into holiness, living set apart from the world and to God. Willard says the 4 essential disciplines for discipleship are solitude and silence, and study and worship. Last week, when we talked about holiness, I suggested that there are 5 disciplines every Christian should apply on a regular basis. Slide 4
- Witness (by this I meant lifestyle witness; our actions, words, thoughts and treatment of people, especially nonbelievers, emits the very fragrance of Christ)
Worship is a corporate discipline. A person can worship alone and that is encouraged. But here, I am specifically thinking of worshipping with the body of believers. This should be done weekly, without fail, save for illness. Witness is a discipline in the world, in our engagement with people who have no connection with Jesus. We live in the Heavenly Kingdom even as we live in our daily surroundings. In this morning’s reading, 1 Peter 1:17, we are reminded that we are exiles in this place. Heaven is our home, but we are here for God’s purpose. Worship is corporate, a disciple practiced with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Witness is evangelical, a discipline practiced among the unsaved.
The other three disciplines I mentioned are solitary – prayer, study, and meditation. These a person does alone and in fact it would be hard to do these in crowds and where there is commotion. Quiet and solitude are needed for focus. We talked frequently about prayer in the weeks leading up to Easter. Those messages included mention of Jesus removing himself from the crowds and going away so he could be alone for prayer. This morning, we’re going to deal with two other disciplines also done alone - study and meditation.
Because we are taking the journey through 1st and 2nd Peter, we’ll treat these disciplines as they relate to specific passages of scripture. You could study a topic, like resurrection. You’d go through the Gospels and the letters of Paul and Peter and John and James, and you’d write down all the texts related to resurrection. Maybe read several of them side by side and draw conclusions and apply those conclusions to your life. That’s a topical study. Or, there are book studies. Maybe you’re part of a group that is reading Warren’s The Purpose Drive Life, or Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace. Your study would certainly engage the Bible at some level, but you’d be under the guidance of the author.
Those are fine ways to study, but what we will deal with this morning is study of a particular passage. Likewise, we will deal with meditation upon a particular passage. There are numerous forms of meditation. Our focus is meditation upon scripture.
I felt it was necessary to discuss these things, and my thoughts were confirmed after the worship time last week. Someone approached and joyfully, enthusiastically said she was going to commit to all five disciplines I mentioned. I believe her. I believe she has spent this week doing just what she said she would. It’s a joy to know that our people are engaged in developing their spiritual sensitivity and in listening to the Lord. However, her comment reminded me of my own enthusiasm when I attend conferences.
I sit in a conference or a workshop and I am fired up. I write down a million ideas that I am determined to apply so that I will know God better, see more of Jesus, and represent Him well in the world. But then I get home from the conference, and toss the packet and the books I bought on the shelf. I get caught up in the cares of daily life. And those commitments I was so excited to make are quickly forgotten.
When I got home last week, I imagined someone from HillSong at his home on a Monday morning. “OK, Pastor Rob says we’re supposed to study the Bible. So, I am going to study the Bible.” And the good hearted Christian gets up early, while the house is still quiet. He sits in a living room chair. The only light is the lamp. The steam rises from his coffee. He stares at his Bible. And boy does it look thick! Where should he begin? “Well, the sermons are on 1st Peter. Maybe I’ll study 1st Peter.” So, he opens and begins reading. At the end of chapter 1, he stops. Now what? He’s read the Bible. But, there’s more to study than that, isn’t there?
The process I am recommending to you is one you can apply in about 45 minutes. You can do this early in the morning, which is a great way to start the day. And, then, you can review for about 5-10 minutes before bed at night. If your time for study and meditation will be more profitable at night or during a lunch hour, do it then. Parents of young children will probably have to do this while the kids are in bed. Folks with roommates might have to do this in a quiet place away from the dorm room or apartment. Find the time when your energy can be focused. Find the space where you will not be interrupted by outside sounds.
What materials do you need?
OK. Now, you’ve got the quiet time in a secluded space. You’re comfortable. You have your Bible in a good translation. You have notebook and a couple of pens. What do you do first? Set the notebook, Bible, and writing implements on the floor. Close your eyes. Set your hands comfortably on your knees. You are sitting in a comfortable posture, but also an alert posture. Do the best you can to quiet your mind. Invite the presence of God. “Holy Spirit, please come into this place. Fill my heart, and speak to my mind, and enable me to hear what you are saying.” Imagine the spirit slowly filling you from your feet, up your legs, up your torso and arms, all the way to your head. You are covered in the spirit.
I know this feels meditative. We aren’t to meditation yet. But, we begin study meditatively because our study isn’t for the purpose of expanding our knowledge. That will happen. But the purpose of our study is to meet God in His word, to know His word, and to be affected by His word. I asked a friend who is someone committed to Biblical scholarship why study is so important. He said, “God has spoken. We need to know what he has said.”[iv] We need to know so we can obey. Obedience is the reason we do this. We want to conform our lives to God’s word.
So, after a minute of quiet time, open to your text and read the passage all the way through. Our text for today is 1 Peter 1:17-23.
As you read, be attentive to ideas that pop into your mind. Write them down in the notebook. Be aware of questions and write them also. If something in the passage evokes a memory or an image; write it in the notebook. If another scripture comes to mind, write that down. If you think of relationships or encounters you have in your life lately, write it. This is kind of a brain dump, a free flow of ideas. The scripture is interacting with everything else that’s in here. You’ve spent a minute at the beginning quietly emptying yourself. That doesn’t mean your experiences and memories are dormant. It just means now, they are informed by God’s word and we see our lives in light of God’s word.
Taking our example, I read in verse 17, “Live in reverent fear during your time in exile.” I write “reverent fear?” “Exile?” I might wonder, what does it mean to live in reverent fear? What does the Biblical author mean to say believers are in exile? I don’t know what exile is like. I am an American. I live with freedom and democracy. I can drive from here to San Diego and back without any complicated border crossings. I don’t know exile.
If you have read about people in other parts of the world who have been sent into exile, or if you have had experience with refugees, you may want to pause and write extensively about this in your notebook. It could be that in your study today, you don’t get past 1 verse, 1 Peter 1:17. That’s Ok. Verse 18 will be there tomorrow morning. Today, the ideas flow and your write about it. Or, verse 17 doesn’t catch your attention at all.
You’re captivated by verse 18 & 19. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors … with the precious blood of Christ.” Maybe you underline in your bible in blue or red, “Ransomed from the futile ways” because it evokes in you strong emotion about some things that feel like useless baggage that is dragging you down. As you think about it, you are overwhelmed by your sense of the grip of sin. And you stop right there and confess. Write your confession and your feelings in your notebook. Write the thoughts that rise up as your read that you are ransomed by the blood of Christ.
You see, you go through verse by verse listening to the scripture. Perhaps your questions are analytical. How does this compare with what the Apostle Paul wrote about salvation from sins? How is what I find here influenced by the sayings and life of Jesus? As you compile questions, you might note some that you will ask of the pastor or some friend whom you know is well versed in the Bible. Or, you may work on your own, coming back later and reading commentaries or Bible dictionaries. That’s all later. This is a 45-minute time of engagement with the Bible.
After you have been at it for about 30 minutes or so, stop writing and reading. As I said, you may not get all the way through the text, but that’s OK. You’re trying to come face to face with the word of God, and you may spend a day or several days on just a few verses. When I kept a notebook of my reading of Genesis, it took me almost a week to get through chapter 1. When I did Philippians in this way, it took nearly 3 weeks, and that letter only has 4 chapters. Take your time and allow the words to fix themselves on your mind.
This is not academic study. That involves engaging the text in its original language and that takes much more than 45 minutes. What I have prescribed here is flexible depending on your knowledge of and experience with scripture. You can do this if you are novice or if you have read the Bible all your life. I had already read the Bible through twice when I began this practice.
When you’ve completed 30 minutes of engagement and initial response, then take about 5 minutes to write some conclusions. Perhaps from this passage you are led to rest on verse 22. “22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” You read that and conclude that life in the community of people ransomed by the blood of Jesus, in other words, life in the church, is defined by love. God loved us enough to send Jesus to shed his own blood on our behalf. And our response to Him is to live in holiness. And one of the marks of holiness is love among each other in the community. So today, in order for me to live in holiness, I have to express the love of Jesus to people. And as it says in verse 22, this is a deep love, a love that is from the heart. Slide 12
Now, you have a page full of notes and you’ve done some real thinking on these words of scripture. Again, it’s not the study you’d do in a seminary course, but we aren’t in a seminary course. You still have to shower, and go to work as a teacher or as a pharmacist, or when the kids wake up, you are full-time mom! This is study of God’s word you do as a spiritual discipline so that God’s word will speak in your life. That’s why it is so necessary to add another discipline – meditation.
Meditation is different than study. It only occupies the last 5 or 10 minutes of our 45-minute set aside time. But, meditation speaks throughout the day. Richard Foster says that meditation is where we move from “theological dogma [or from our conclusions about scripture] to the radiant reality” of God speaking to us.[v] As my friend said of why we study, because God has spoken and we need to know what he said, I would of meditation, the reason we do it is God is still speaking. We need to hear Him.
The open Bible is there, as is the page of notes you’ve worked on. Now, for a moment, close your eyes, relax your body, and take a deep breath. Then pray,
We won’t have this desire naturally, but it’s OK to ask for it.
So we once more look at our passage in 1 Peter because the bridge from study to meditation is a Vacation Bible School exercise that is as powerful for adults as it is kids – scripture memorization. Look at your notes and your reading and choose a verse to memorize. Write it out on the index card. Based on what we’ve said about 1st Peter this morning, I’d try to memorize the last part of verse 22.
“Love one another deeply from the heart.”
With eyes closed, speaking in your heart, repeat this phrase. “Love one another deeply from the heart.” “Love one another deeply from the heart.” As you softly repeat this phrase so that it dances through your consciousness to the rhythm of your heartbeat, allow the people you will see in the day to come across your mind. You children who will be getting up soon; “love one another deeply from the heart.” The boss who is unfairly hard on you at work; “love one another deeply from the heart.” The girlfriend who has threatened to break up with you; “love one another deeply from the heart.” The friend at church who is going through such pain as he watches his father die of heart failure; “love one another deeply from the heart.”
Stay with this meditation upon this simple phrase from God’s word in 1st Peter for a few moments. Then, when you know it is time, say, AMEN. No Slide Put your pen, your Bible, and your notebook away. Put your index card with your memory verse with your wallet and your keys. This goes with you through out the day. Pull it out while waiting at a red light. Let it speak in your heart at stressful moments, in periods of boredom, and in celebrations. And when the day is done, look at the verse one last time before the lights go out and you’re off to sleep. “Love one another deeply, from the heart.”
This is one way of committing to the disciplines of study and meditation. There are many others and there are other equally valuable disciplines. Do what you need to do to structure life and condition the heart to be ready to meet Jesus and receive the Spirit. And we will continue to encounter the truth next week in 1st Peter, chapter 2.