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Master and Be Mastered By Scripture

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I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. (Ps. 119:99)

Some of my favorite seminary classes were the electives I took with the learned, insightful, near-legendary Dr. Peter Gentry, including the Hebrew exegesis of Isaiah. The set text was Isaiah 1–11 and 54–56. We were required to read the Hebrew text of all those chapters, using grammars and lexica as our only aids. The final exam consisted of several portions of those chapters, chosen by Dr. Gentry and hidden from us until the day of revelation when the secrets of our hearts were judged. In that exam, we had to read and translate the selected portions and answer questions about word formation, verb forms, and sentence structure. Our only help on the exam was a set of definitions for words used less than five times in all of Isaiah.

To prepare for the exam, I spent hours pacing back and forth in empty classrooms on the  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s campus, reading the Hebrew text aloud to myself. I would read along with an audio recording and then read it alone. Some of the phrases still roll off my tongue eight years later. You could approach that test with confidence only if you had immersed yourself in the length and depth and breadth of all the assigned chapters of Isaiah. The only way to pass the test was to master the text.

Nearly every day that you serve as a pastor will test your ability to interpret and apply Scripture. Church members will ask you about the thorniest ethical quandaries in the Pentateuch. They will entrust to you their most intimate, complex struggles. You will need to recall, on short notice, passages that can shine light through narrow gaps into dark places of the soul. And on the last day, God will judge your work by whether you built with the precious materials he has given you in his Word (1 Cor. 3:10–15). The only way to pass both the daily exams and the final exam is to master and be mastered by Scripture.

How can you master Scripture? Know Scripture deeply and broadly. Aim to grow constantly in your grasp of Scripture’s depth and breadth. For breadth, I would strongly encourage you to read regularly through the whole Bible, at least once a year, for several years. The M’Cheyne reading plan is a great way to do that, and there are countless others. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). How can you equip people from all of Scripture if you don’t know all of Scripture? How can you know all of Scripture if you don’t read all of Scripture?

I was a freshman in college the first time I finished reading through the whole Bible. To my shame, I remember thinking, “Now what?” Thankfully, it quickly dawned on me that those wells had plenty more water to draw out, and always will.

Another way to pursue breadth in reading Scripture is to read through whole books in a single sitting. Read Isaiah like you would read a novel. Lock into its rhythm and flow. I guarantee it will be an edifying two hours.

What about depth? Here crucial habits are repetition, meditation, and memorization. I have profited from John MacArthur’s advice about how to master a book of the Bible. Take a decent-sized book, like the Gospel of John, which has 21 chapters. Break the book into thirds and read a third every day for a month. So in January, that’s John 1–7, then February is John 8–14, and March is John 15–21. In three months, you will have read the whole book thirty times. Try it. See how deep under your skin the book gets with that many repetitions. See how much of it you memorize without even trying.

Meditation is the art of patiently pressing the truth into your mind and heart.[1] Meditation is thought aimed at the heart. Meditation is savoring the truth until it flavors your soul. When you make bread or pasta by hand, as my wife and my kids and I often do, you have to knead the dough. Kneading changes the chemical structure of the mixture. Kneading forms gluten strands, which give bread its texture. Meditation is spiritual kneading. Meditation is working the truths of Scripture into your soul until they alter the structure of your heart, creating new strands of faith, hope, and love.

I would also strongly encourage you to memorize Scripture.[2] Verses are good, chapters better, and whole books best of all. If you memorize a passage, the sheer repetition required virtually guarantees that you will also meditate on it. And memorizing puts Scripture on the tip of your tongue like nothing else does. For more than fifteen years now, I have found memorizing Scripture—especially whole books—to be an exceedingly profitable spiritual discipline. And its benefits for pastoral ministry have been immediate, lasting, and wide-ranging.

If you have never memorized a whole book before, I would encourage you to pick something short and sweet, like Philippians or 1 Thessalonians. Set a time that you will work on it each day. If you can, get a partner—like a believer you are discipling—who will memorize it with you. That way you can hold each other accountable and recite the text to each other. And, in my experience, a helpful way to memorize an extended passage of Scripture goes something like this. Start with the first verse. Say the whole thing out loud while looking closely at the words. (If the verse is long, then say the first sentence or section.) Repeat a few times. Then, without looking at the words, say the whole verse out loud. If you can do this successfully, do it five or ten more times. There. You have memorized the verse. You have it word-perfect, and now you need to keep it that way. So, the next day, start by reviewing, out loud, without looking, what you memorized the day before. If some is already rusty, brush the rust off by repeating a briefer version of yesterday’s work. Then repeat the acquisition process with the next verse. Each day, repeat everything you have learned so far, and then grab the next verse. The kicker, of course, is that the more you memorize, the more time you need to spend reviewing. But you can get creative. Review while washing dishes or folding laundry or sitting in traffic.

Allowing for a few missed days and a few when reviewing takes all your time, if you stick to it, you will memorize Philippians in four months. But if you want to retain what you have memorized, you need to regularly review the whole thing. It is especially important to review the book right after you have learned it. My track record on this has been mixed. I would recommend reviewing the whole book every day for at least a month. The good news is, once you know it well, you can say it a lot faster. If you want to master Scripture, memorizing it will force you to dwell on every word, and it will cause every word to dwell in you (Col. 3:16).

But the real test of whether you are mastering Scripture is whether it is mastering you. The point of studying Scripture is to submit to Scripture. The point of reading Scripture is to be read by Scripture. The point of meditating on Scripture is to be remade by Scripture. So, turn reading into praying. Turn study into self-examination. Whenever you study Scripture, keep your eyes peeled for reasons to praise God and humble yourself. Use Scripture as a searchlight to expose sins in your heart that you have not yet reckoned with. As the late John Webster has said, the canon of Scripture is “a knife at the church’s heart.”[3]

Every pastor must have a thorough, firsthand mastery of the whole of sacred Scripture. And every pastor must be thoroughly mastered by Scripture. Every time you attend to the words of Scripture, aim to claim more territory in your soul for the rule of King Jesus. Engage Scripture in order to surrender to Scripture. Like Jacob with the angel, in all our wrestling with Scripture, the blessing is in the losing.[4]

Editor’s Note: This post has been excerpted with permission from Dr. Jamieson’s new book, The Path to Being a Pastor (Crossway, 2021). 


Dr. Bobby Jamieson is an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and is the author of several books, including Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013), Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership (B&H Academic, 2015), and The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring (Crossway, 2021).


Notes: 

[1] For a wealth of practical counsel on how to meditate on Scripture, see Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, enlarged and revised edition (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 46–69.

[2] For some motivation to memorize Scripture and instruction on how to do it, see Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 39–45. Further, while I have not followed his method exactly, Andrew Davis, “An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture,” is a helpful guide. Available at http://www.fbcdurham.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Scripture-Memory-Booklet-for-Publication-Website-Layout.pdf, accessed April 27, 2020.

[3] John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” in Word and Church: Essays in Church Dogmatics, Cornerstone Series (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 46: “If the canon is a function of God’s communicative fellowship with an unruly church, if it is part of the history of judgment and mercy, then it cannot simply be a stabilizing factor, a legitimating authority. Rather, as the place where divine speech may be heard, it is—or ought to be—a knife at the church’s heart.”

[4] I borrow this image from a sermon by Mike Bullmore, at the 9Marks at SBTS conference in 2013, in which he applied the metaphor to expository preaching. Available at http://media.9marks.org/audio/9marksatSBTS_1.mp3, accessed April 27, 2020.

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