Memorizing Scripture is a lost art. But by following these time-tested tips, we can bring back this spiritual discipline.
Though we live in a different world and speak a different language, we have more in common with first-century Christians than we might think. For instance, like most of us, they typically lived in or close to an urban center. The Christians who went to church in Ephesus, for example, enjoyed all the amenities and temptations of the third- or fourth-largest city in the entire Roman Empire, with a population of around 250,000. These recipients of John’s first epistle weren’t backwater shepherds but were very much like us.
Their city was famous not only for housing the pagan Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but also for its rampant immorality. Ephesus, dedicated to the goddess of love, was so wicked that even the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, a native of the city, said that this Greek metropolis was “the darkness of vileness. Their morals were lower than animals and the inhabitants were fit only to be drowned.” In such a place, John knew what believers needed most.
Knowing that the local laypeople and their loved ones were facing daily life-and-death choices, the aging Apostle John told the church then, and by application the church today, the key to overcoming the world we live in: I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:14)
The key? The Word of God “abiding” in us.
The Apostle John told the church then, and by application the church today, that having the Word of God hidden in your heart is the timeless key for spiritual success.
As you probably know, the New Testament was written in the common language of the Greeks. They were famous for their love of home and identification with their city. So we should understand the word abide in this rich cultural context. It means “not to wander, but to make a home in.” In other words, John is saying that having the Word of God hidden in your heart is the timeless key for spiritual success.
That’s not just an Old Testament concept we learned in Sunday school, that we should hide God’s Word in our heart so we don’t sin against him (Psalm 119:11). We see it repeated throughout the New Testament. For example, we read of Jesus quoting the Word of God from memory to overcome the temptations of the devil.
But memorizing is a lost art. We live in a Google it, copy-and-paste, Facebook or tweet, file-and-forget electronic world where we don’t have to remember data like we used to. So how do we memorize Scripture?
The culture might have changed, but the Word of God and its timeless wisdom for living a victorious Christian life does not. God wired us so we could memorize, if we are willing to commit the time and patience, without making excuses.
Memorization is still standard practice in Israel today. While studying in Jerusalem, I learned some timely tips that have helped me memorize 20 complete books of the Bible. (I have to work at it just like everyone else, by the way. I do not have a photographic memory or anything extraordinary in my head.)
For thousands of years, the memorized Word of God has been the faithful companion of God’s children and has been a primary impetus for spiritual progress and reformation. Like the Apostle John and the young believers in Ephesus, let’s commit ourselves to having the Word of God abide in us as we and our families strive to overcome the world.
God gave us Scripture so we would memorize his exact words and then meditate on them day and night to produce a life of obedience and faith (Joshua 1:8). Sadly, the modern education system blasts memorization as old-fashioned. As a result, believers have lost one of their most important weapons: the memorized Word of God.
To the ancient Jew, virtue was inextricably linked with memorizing the Torah. A well-stocked and active mind, full of memorized Torah, was the mother of virtue because what is in the heart inevitably shows up in actions.
Deuteronomy 6:7 encapsulates this ideal: “You shall teach them diligently to your children” (italics added). The word teach in modern translations literally means to “recite” or “perform” orally. Anyone can talk about the Torah, but it needs to be memorized and recited.
The Bible is full of admonitions to recite God’s instructions lest they be forgotten (Psalm 119:11). Proverbs repeatedly tells us to memorize the teacher’s exact words (“keep them within your heart,” 4:21) and then perform them orally (keep them “ready on your lips,” 22:18).
It was a point of pride in Judaism and the early church to preserve oral traditions from memory unaltered. Paul said, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul often quotes Jesus’ sayings, which he memorized (see Romans 12:14, 13:7, 14:14; 1 Corinthians 4:12–13, 7:10; 9:14, 11:23–26).
The second-century Christian apologist Irenaeus relates how Polycarp transmitted John’s words directly to him: “I remember . . . how he told of his time with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words. . . . I listened to this then, . . . carefully copying it down not on paper, but on my heart. And I repeat it constantly in genuine form by the grace of God.”
Only in the modern world have we seen a decline in the desire to memorize the Bible. Yet as a result, we are impoverished. The enemy can take God’s words from our hands. But if they are written on the tablet of our hearts, his words cannot be stolen. And by meditating on them day and night, we will prosper—being conformed to the image of Christ.