The Navigators have a great illustration to show ways to interact with the Bible. The hand illustration has five methods labeled across the fingers: Hear, Read, Study, Memorize, and Meditate.
Image from www.navigators.org
Hear: If you only go to church on Sunday and never open your Bible, you will still hear the word (hopefully!). If you turn on your favorite local Christian radio station then you will hear the word. When you listen to a sermon, or a devotional, or a Christian song or hymn, someone else has meditated on the word and you are getting their fruit second hand. This can still be valuable, but not as valuable as going to the source for yourself.
Read: Reading is different than studying. At the Christian book store there are hundreds of study Bibles, but there aren’t many Bibles that are designed for pure reading. When you sit down with your study Bible, there are notes, section sub headings, word studies, cultural notes, and all sorts of other really helpful information. But that isn’t how you normally sit down and read. When the Message was first published, it was a Bible with no chapters and verses. It was a Bible designed to be read. The NIV has just released a Books of the Bible edition also with no chapter or verses. The ESV has also released a reader’s edition. There is value in being able to sit down with your Bible and read large portions at a time. Read, then read again. Read fast, then go back and read slow. Read with your style of reading, then take advice from others. Reading is a skill, and there is always room for improvement. Learn to ignore the section headings, put paragraphs together and see the big picture. The main point of reading is to OBSERVE the text: What does it say?
Study: This is where your study Bible is really helpful. After you have read, and you have paid attention to what it says, then you are ready to INTERPRET: What does it mean? In reading you are sticking to the text to see what it says. In studying you can bring in commentaries, but it is important to interact with the text first. The commentaries are useless if you don’t know what the text has said first. But there are some great commentaries. If you want to find out about available commentaries for the different books of the Bible, www.bestcommentaries.com is a great resource. If you want some great commentaries for free there are a few places to get some (Constable’s Notes, ICC OT & NT, Keil & Delitzsch commentaries). Something may not be clear from your initial reading: names, places, cultural references, idioms. A good commentary can provide some help. A commentary may come to conclusions you disagree with, however, I find it helpful to wrestle with the differences. Articulate why you disagree, and perhaps write out your thoughts. I am not endorsing everything said in all the commentaries listed above, but there is very useful insight. Learn to sift the good from the bad when it comes to the commentaries. But more importantly keep your study focused on the text after you have OBSERVED what the text says, then INTERPRET what it means. The better your observation the better your interpretation.
Memorize: In Matthew 4, Jesus is tempted by Satan. Satan uses some Bible verses as part of his temptations. Jesus quotes scripture from memory, and uses them in context of their true meaning to refute Satan. The value of memorizing scripture is immeasurable. It gives you the foundation to have scripture come to mind when you are weak, when you are vulnerable, and most importantly when you need it. Memorizing helps improve your OBSERVATION of the text, and to reevaluate your interpretations. Memorization helps you focus on the structure of sentences, and helps lead you to the next step of Meditation. Try to memorize verses in context, get the whole paragraph or full thought the verse communicates. There are some challenges to memorization. I started memorizing verses from the NIV, but then I came across the NASB and wanted to start changing versions. It’s hard to memorize verses from multiple versions. One solution, try memorizing in the original languages as a gateway to learning Greek and Hebrew. Another challenge is passage of time. I had a stack of Bible verses I had memorized. I’ve lost that stack of verses, and can’t recreate it. I’ll have to re-memorize those verses, because it takes time and commitment to memorize and retain.
Meditate: What are you thinking about when you drive to work? While you are waiting at the dentist? When you are awake at night and can’t fall asleep? Why not fill that time with scripture? Meditation is thinking on something. When you memorize scripture you have already begun the process of meditation. You can’t avoid thinking about what you are memorizing. Each phrase learned of a verse leads one to ponder its meaning. Meditation on scripture throughout your day also helps you to think about how it applies to the different things and situations you come across. It helps you put into practice the scriptures. This is APPLICATION of the text to your life: How to live it? Great application comes from great interpretation that came from great observation.
The goal of every sermon is to get you to do something. The best sermons are the ones that come from the text, and the pastor walks you through what it says, helps you see what it means, and then hammers it home with how you can do it in your life. But any sermon you hear, good or bad, can lead you to the text. You can read for yourself, and study to go deep. Memorize the parts that you want or need to work on most, and meditate. The Holy Spirit guides you and empowers you to do the Father’s will. He leads you through the text. This is how God has communicated Himself to us, and how He continually speaks to us. Stay in the Word!