A sermon I gave yesterday at Agape Chinese Baptist Church.
New Year’s resolutions
A New Year feels like a fresh start. We have a whole year ahead of us, not yet spoilt by mistakes or our old ways of doing things. Of course, Chinese New Year isn’t until February 7th, so you have a little longer to make up New Year’s resolutions.
Making New Year’s resolutions is part of our thinking that a New Year is a new start. New Year’s Resolutions are commonly about changing bad habits. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions are famous for not lasting the whole year. We make a resolution to exercise every day from now on. And maybe we do okay for a couple of weeks while we’re not at work. But then life gets on top of us and we decide it won’t hurt to not exercise just tonight. The next day it’s the same, and suddenly your resolution is no good.
It’s also common to make resolutions about our Christian life. Perhaps we make a resolution to pray every day or to read the Bible every day. I know only a few people who manage to keep such a resolution. I struggle constantly.
The real purpose of such a resolution is the desire to grow spiritually. Spiritual growth is a difficult but wonderful thing. It’s the process of becoming more like Christ. It happens as we grow in our understanding and experience of God and begin to reflect Christ’s love more and more in the way we live.
God has been convicting me about spiritual growth lately and that’s why I want to talk to you about it this morning. I speak as a beginner, not an expert. I want to share the things I’m learning about spiritual growth in the hope that they can help you too. Maybe together we can know God in a deeper and better way in the year to come.
Activities that open us to God and his work are called ‘spiritual disciplines’. Spiritual disciplines help us replace old destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits. I am going to talk about three spiritual disciplines to do with the Scriptures. They are meditating on Scripture, memorising Scripture and studying Scripture. These three different ways of reading the Bible help open us to God. They enable us to hear his Word.
1. Meditating on Scripture
Firstly, meditating on Scripture.
There are many forms of Christian meditation. All of them involve listening to God. Meditating on Scripture begins with the idea that God will speak to us through the Scriptures. It’s not worried about the literal meaning of the text, but about hearing God’s voice. It’s about internalising and personalising the passage.
To start, you choose a single event, or a parable or a few verses, or even a single word and allow it to take root in you. This is how the author Richard Foster describes an example:
Suppose we want to meditate on Jesus’ staggering statement, ‘My peace I give to you’ (John 14:27). Our task is not so much to study the passage as it is to be initiated into the reality of which the passage speaks. We brood on the truth that he is now filling us with his peace. The heart, the mind, and the spirit are awakened to his inflowing peace. We sense all motions of fear stilled and overcome by ‘power and love and self control’. Rather than dissecting peace we are entering into it. We are enveloped, absorbed, gathered into his peace…. No longer do we laboriously think up ways to act peacefully, for acts of peace spring spontaneously from within.
– Celebration of Discipline p. 34
What the author describes there is what happens as we meditate on Scripture. We begin to feel transformed by Scripture. We begin to feel its truth affecting our spirit.
This week I meditated on Romans 1:6 – ‘And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.’ It’s a very simple verse that you would be tempted to just pass over quickly. But it caught my eye as I read it. As I meditated on it, I was taken by the word ‘among’. I had a picture of myself as one of a huge sea of Christians who are also called to belong to Jesus. I felt privileged to be a part of that sea of people. Then I was taken by the phrase ‘belong to Jesus Christ’. Meditating on this idea gave me a sense of joy. Again, I felt a sense of privilege that I belonged to Jesus.
These were just simple thoughts, but as I went to work that day, they were in my mind giving me a sense of peace and hope. This is why meditation is so important.
2. Memorising Scripture
Secondly, memorising Scripture.
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head? It keeps on playing over and over? Unfortunately, it’s often advertising jingles that get stuck in our head.
Wouldn’t it be good if it was Scripture doing the same thing in your head?
In some ways memorising Scripture is similar to meditating on it. If you take a verse and meditate on it for fifteen minutes, you will probably memorise it!
Memorising Scripture can also help you in times of temptation. In the desert, as Jesus is fasting and praying for forty days, he is able to answer the tempter’s taunts with Scripture he has memorised.
I am a beginner at memorising Scripture. My dad used to make me learn memory verses when I was eight. The ones he got me to learn I still know. But I didn’t see the point of it back then, so I didn’t keep doing it. This year, I deliberately memorised a new passage for the first time. I chose the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, where Jesus starts by saying ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
I recommend that you choose some words of Jesus to memorise. Jesus teaching focused on how we should live and what we should do, and so remembering his words will help us to transform our lives.
How to memorise
The best way to memorise Scripture is to say it over and over again until it sticks in your head. Test yourself regularly by going back to a passage and trying to remember it.
You might also want to write them on your walls. That’s what the Ancient Israelites did. It’s one of the many ways God tells the Israelites to remember his words in Deuteronomy 11:18-21:
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
A few years ago, I lived in a house where one of my housemates had stuck over a hundred favourite verses and quotes from spiritual writings on the walls of the toilet. I came to memorise many of them.
3. Studying Scripture
The aim of studying Scripture is to understand the Bible better. In John 8:32, Jesus promises us that ‘you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free’. We get to know the truth through understanding the Scriptures. It’s where we’re allowed to use our head and to analyse. As you study, you’re not looking to apply it to your life straight away. Instead, you want to do the hard work of understanding just what the author meant when he wrote what you are reading. Once you’ve understood that properly, then you might be ready to apply it to your life.
One way that works for me is to read an entire book of the Bible through in a couple of sittings. This gives you an overview of the book. You can see the patterns and the overall message. You can follow the story right through for those books that are stories.
Once you’ve done this, you go back and read more slowly, this time with a Bible commentary. You’ll be amazed at the things a Bible commentary will tell you. Little details might start to make sense. For example, when we read in 1 Corinthians 7:1, ‘it is good for a man not to marry’, we wouldn’t realise on our own that Paul is quoting what the Corinthians themselves are saying. We might be completely mistaken on our own and think that Paul himself means this. Instead, he is repeating what people in the church at Corinth are saying so that he can rebut it. So a Bible commentary will help us understand the cultural and contextual factors that affect the meaning.
As you read, keep in mind where the passage you are reading fits into the overall story of the Bible. Is it part of the story of Israel in the Old Testament? Is it showing the life and death of Jesus? Is it showing the life of church which we are carrying on now? Or is it foreshadowing the return of Jesus and the new heaven and the new earth?
Writing in your Bible
Many people find that it helps to write in your Bible as you go. If you have an expensive Bible, or one other people in your family read, you may not want to do this. But my wife had a great idea – she used to buy a new Bible every year and underline and write in it as she went. You can get a basic Bible for $5 to $10 from Koorong.
Of course, if you keep the same Bible and go through it time and time again, you may learn things from observing what you underlined and wrote last time. My oldest Bible has all the questions I wrote in it from when I was a teenager and going through a time of doubt. It’s encouraging to read through that now and see the ways in which God has answered some of those questions.
You might like to underline the verses that stand out to you. You might want to write a question mark next to verses you don’t understand.
Where to start in the Bible?
All parts of the Bible can teach us something. But there are certain books of the Bible that are easier to start with than others. Because the New Testament tells us directly about our Lord Jesus, we should read it more often than the Old Testament.
It might be good to start off with a shorter book like James or Philippians. Then you could move onto the shortest gospel, Mark, and then perhaps to another epistle, a longer one like 1 Corinthians. The hardest books of the New Testament are probably Romans, Hebrews and Revelation. They have a lot to teach us and so when you are ready and feel like you have endurance, you should study them.
If you can’t find time to do these things, try getting up half an hour earlier. Spend ten minutes studying the Bible. As you study, watch out for a verse that stands out to you. Choose this verse as the one to meditate on for the next ten minutes. When you have finished meditating, finish off your time with God by praying for ten minutes.
But let me emphasise that different things will work for different people. If your time with God is already working really well, then that’s wonderful. Please go on as you are. If on the other hand you haven’t yet found a way of reading the Bible which works, try the things I’ve suggested. But don’t stop there. Look out for some good books on reading the Bible. Ask other Christians how they read the Bible. Keep seeking until you find a way that works for you.
Also, be prepared to go through cycles. Eventually, your enthusiasm for reading the Bible may wane. Try to keep going through this time; perhaps attempt something different. Whatever you do, don’t give up!
Meditating, memorising and studying the Scriptures are just a few of the spiritual disciplines that can help us grow spiritually. There are many others. The best book on spiritual disciplines that I’ve read is called The Celebration of Discipline. The author Richard Foster goes through twelve spiritual disciplines
- four inward disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study
- four outward disciplines: simplicity, submission, solitude, service
- four corporate disciplines: confession, worship, guidance and celebration
Each time I’ve read this book, it’s helped me to get back on track with God. When I see the book at a book sale, I buy a copy so I can give it away. So I have three copies here which are free to a good home. If you’d like a copy, just come and get it. Keep it if you find it helpful; otherwise give it on to someone else.