By Ruth E Seimens
My 21 years of ministry in five countries of Latin America and Europe gave me a new appreciation for memorizing Bible passages. It had been valuable at home, but in a foreign culture it was indispensable!
I learned about Bible memorization early because my Great Uncle John Neufeld, a lay preacher from Russia, who had memorized the whole New Testament, recited verses for us in German! In the little rural immigrant church in California where I grew up, each child had to learn a verse each Sunday, and my mother made sure we children won prizes. I remember the Sunday evening memory verse contest when the congregation stayed until 11 PM to watch my cousin Ed and I, both in high school, do a memory verse contest. We had both discovered the shortest verses in the Bible, like “Jesus wept.” My favorite was Psalm 136 where all 26 verses end with the words “for his steadfast love endures for ever!”
But I have often stopped to thank God for getting me into a Navigators’ group, where I learned their superb system for selecting meaningful verses, and memorizing and retaining them. People who never could memorize learn to enjoy it with this simple system.
One secret is not to sit down and memorize a great many verses but to set a pace for Bible memory and review–a pace that you can keep up regularly, so it becomes a habit. Memorize one new one-to-three verse passage a week. Or two or three such passages. Another secret is to learn the reference (the address) of each verse.
But before I describe their method for memorizing, let me explain why I consider Bible memory important for every serious Christian, but non-negotiable for tentmakers and missionaries, who work in other cultures. First we must remind ourselves of the functions of the Bible in our lives and then how its power is multiplied by memorizing.
I God’s Word in our lives
The Bible uses metaphors to help us understand its function in our lives.
God’s Word is bread (Mt. 4:4, Lk. 4:4) that is as essential to our spirits as whole wheat or sourdough is to our bodies–or meat, vegetables and fruit, because the word means food. Eating well can make the difference between spiritual health and strength for a godly lifestyle, service and witness or an anemic Christian life. It is milk and meat (1 Peter 2:1-3, 1 Cor. 3:1,2). It is even dessert–read for sheer enjoyment (Psalm 119:103). Jeremiah discovered this when the long-lost Pentateuch scrolls (Genesis to Deuteronomy) were found in the temple as repairs were being made. (Jer.15:16).
God’s Word purposefully hidden in our memories progressively sets us free (John 8:32-34). It is a mirror that helps us spot sin (like a computer’s spellchecker program) and to avoid it (James 1:22-24. It protects us from sin and cleanses us (Psalm 119:11, Eph. 5:26) and facilitates every aspect of our spiritual growth (Acts 20:32).
It is the lamp which lights the way to go when decisions have to be made (Psalm 119:105).
It is our armor and our sword for spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10-18) in this cosmic war for control of the world, in both our personal and collective battles with human and non-human enemies. (Eph. 6:10-18, Heb. 4:12,13).
II Personal benefits of Bible memory
1. It multiplies the effect of God’s Word in our lives.
It makes sense that all the above functions of God’s Word have some effect on us if we go to church on Sundays and listen to sermons, but more effect if we read a portion daily in a regular quiet time. Think how its power is enormously heightened if we then also do regular Bible study every week. (See our paper Inductive Bible Study.) But for maximum effect, we should enter some of the most important passages into our memories the way we enter data into our computer and save it there for easy retrieval.
2. It conditions our thought life, the secret of success.
Joshua 1:8 says “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success.” Psalm One says that the godly person “delights in the law of the Lord” and meditates on it “day and night,” becoming like a tree planted by waters, always green and fruitful.
Did Joshua and the psalmist (David?) carry thick parchment scrolls around with them everywhere? You may be sure they did not. It is the psalmist who tells us to hide God’s word in our hearts for easy transport. (Psalm 119: 11) It weighs less than the scrolls!
It conditions our thought life all day. This does not mean we should think of nothing else–or we would not be able to carry out our daily responsibilities. But appropriate verses jog our minds and helps us think biblically about all our activities and relationships, facilitating our obedience to God.
Note that it is God’s Spirit who tells us through Joshua that the Word in our hearts is a secret of success.
3. It gives the Holy Spirit wide access to us.
This is true in all the ways already described above. Also, the Holy Spirit can bring a thought to mind when we least expect it, and lead us to spontaneous worship. Of course, he can do that with portions of his Word which we have heard or read, but not memorized, but think how much easier it is when we have consciously hidden these passages in our hearts so he can surprise us with them!
Even at night, if we go to bed with a passage in mind, we usually wake up thinking about the same one, as though the conversation had gone on all night. How much better that is than storing our anxieties, grudges, world news, stock market figures, a TV sitcom, a murder mystery or an unwholesome drama–so that these are working on our subconscious all night! God’s Spirit guards our minds and hearts from anxiety when we meditate on the things that please him. (Phil. 4:6,7) Let your last thoughts be of him.
4. It keeps us alert for spiritual battle.
Most battles do not come while we sleep. They arise in our encounters with people, maybe with family members or neighbors, but certainly in the workplace. The enemy is never people, but Satan and his accomplices, who meddle in all our lives. We may not have time to go get our Bibles when we need them. Even if we have one with us, it will not help if we don’t know what to look up. But if we have a significant supply of God’s Word in us, the Holy Spirit recalls just the right words to us in an instant.
5. It facilitates and transforms our personal Bible study.
We have less need of a concordance because cross-references come to us automatically, aiding and confirming our interpretation and application. All that we read is spontaneously cross-referenced and enriched with other passages from our minds. If we need to look them up we know where to find them. My Bible study used to be laborious because I struggled to find the passages I wanted. Verses also help us remember what is in a great many chapters in the Bible because we remember the contexts of our verses. (Can you say roughly what is in every chapter of John? Acts? Philippians?)
III Ministry value
Bible memory can transform our ministries in the following ways.
1. It makes group worship more meaningful.
We can only give back to God what he gives to us. The highest worship is not singing ourselves into a kind of trance with repetitious music (what pagans and other non-believers do), but a purposeful response to God’s words to us. The Holy Spirit brings verses to mind during worship services.
Group meetings of memorizers have a deeper quality than other meetings, because God’s Word has a greater place in their singing, teaching, mutual exhortation, counseling, comforting and care. We are admonished to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16 and context), expressly to enhance our group activities. Where inside us should his Word dwell? In our hearts, our minds, the center of our personality–that is, in our memories. The stored words help us glorify God by our personal lives and relationships, and they help us teach and admonish and counsel and comfort each other in our Christian circles.
2. It can give spiritual authority.
God says that if we speak his words instead of our own we shall be as his mouth! (Jer. 15:19, 23:28,29, Col. 3:16,17). Ample use of God’s Word gives us spiritual authority. That means that people to whom we minister sense that God speaks to them through us. Any Christian can have spiritual authority even if he or she has no official position in a group.
For this reason, it also gives us more conviction in our ministry. Instead of a lot of chaff or straw, we focus on the wheat of Scripture. The Bible passages give me great confidence when I speak, even though I usually paraphrase and explain them rather than quote them directly. But I can speak them with a conviction that “Thus says the Lord!” The Word brings conviction to listeners in a way that my unaided words cannot. (Psalm 119:97-102)
3. It gives freedom in teaching and preaching.
Memorized passages not only enrich our teaching and preaching, but they give us spontaneity and freedom. The Holy Spirit guides our advance preparation, and it is important to prepare well. But I am amazed how often he brings just the right additional passages to mind, while I am teaching. Bible memory frees us to be more sensitive to our audience and to the Holy Spirit as we speak–to forget what is less important and include what he wants us to say. It gives me a great sense of God’s presence as I speak. It also means that if we are unexpectedly asked to speak, we can probably give a rather excellent talk without prior preparation. Even without a Bible at hand, if we are at a picnic or somewhere without one readily available.
4. It is indispensable for our evangelism.
Did you ever talk with a non-believer and afterward think of all the things you wish you had said? That happens less as you store evangelistic truths in your memory for easy recall. I am often amazed at how the Holy Spirit brings up passages I forgot that I knew! You need to create interest in God–create hunger and thirst–by the integrity of your personal life, your caring relationships, and your appropriate words. In this casual way you fish out the seekers at your workplace and in your neighborhood. God’s Spirit can bring to mind exactly the right thing to say–if it is in your memory to be recalled. As you deal privately with a seeker, faith comes by hearing–not just something–but hearing the Word of God. The message not only informs, but convinces the listener of its credibility. The content itself creates the faith needed to grasp it. We are born again by God’s Word (Rom. 10:14,17, James 1:18).
Apologetics (arguments for our faith) and personal testimony are important, but no one will find the Lord without an explanation of the core message of who Jesus is, what he did for us, and what it means that he is alive and accessible to us today. The way of salvation is presented in Scripture under various images, so we can present it to any seeker, in terms already meaningful to him or her. So new birth, becoming God’s child, being rescued or saved, being made free, or the concepts of ransom, redemption, submission to his lordship, and other figures can be used. If we are familiar with the passages, we can be flexible and use the one most appropriate for our seeker. We will not be dependent on one passage or kind of terminology or on evangelism formulas.
In a hotel elevator in Manila, a well-dressed Filipino man asked me about my faith. I might have chosen any one of a dozen salvation metaphors, but he asked, “Are you another one of those people who believe that Jesus is the Good Shepherd?” So I stuck with his metaphor, and said, “Yes, and are you one, too?” He said, “No, I value my freedom too much.” So I said, “Which sheep do you think has the most freedom, the one next to the Shepherd’s rod and staff, or the one alone in the dark with the lions and the bears?” He said, “You have just put a new perspective on the whole subject!” When I learned his concern was loss of liberty, I told him Jesus says none of us is free, but that he is the only one who can make us free, and he does that through his word (John 8:32-34).
In talking with non-believers, even when you could quote a passage, it is often better to say, “I’m still learning about my faith, but would you like to see what Jesus himself said?” Then pull out a New Testament and do a one-on-one inductive study of a small passage, asking the seeker to find in the text the answers to the questions you ask. But what passage will you choose? If you have memorized, you will know exactly where to find the best passage for this person.
5. It facilitates follow-up of new believers.
We will know exactly what material to give them, and ideally, we can start them out on memorizing the most basic “first-aid” verses–following our example. It will hasten the new convert’s spiritual growth.
In conclusion, memorizing Scripture is a matter of obedience, because God not only tells us to do it, but gives us ample reasons in his Word for keeping his truth not only in our Bibles, but also in our hearts for easy recall. Persecuted Christians in countries where Bibles were confiscated, as in China and the former U.S.S.R., were grateful for every passage memorized! Some then wrote out all they remembered, by hand, to share with others.
IV Bible memory for a foreign culture
All the above benefits are magnified when you serve in a foreign country. Plus a few additional ones. You face a whole set of new cultural patterns with new tests and temptations and frustrations, whether you go as a tentmaker or a missionary. Bible passages you hardly noticed before will become relevant in a Muslim culture, or in China. All of what we have already said will be important. Here are a few of the additional advantages of Bible memory for cross-cultural ministry.
1. It speeds up communication in your new language.
While you are learning a language, you may not know how to communicate a truth to a believer or non-believer, but you know where to find the right verse, and it gives you the right vocabulary! A North American and a Guatemalan Christian who met accidentally on a train and recognized that each was reading from a Bible, had a whole conversation through verses they found in each other’s Bible! The verse gives you the vocabulary and the sentence frames for conversation. You can make excellent use of a New Testament with English on one page and your new language on the opposite page. (Check with the Bible Society to see if your target language is available in this double format.)
2. It helps you pray in public.
Praying in a foreign tongue is usually more difficult than conversing because of the special prayer language–grammatical constructions and different pronouns and verbs that are not used in normal conversation. But even before you can converse easily, you can pray in public, if you have memorized a few worship, praise and thanksgiving verses from the Psalms. You can also find the right sentence frames for making requests, and then substitute your requests for those in the verses.
3. It helps you give talks and lead studies sooner.
You can give a talk before you are proficient in the language, by using memorized verses, and their vocabulary for the explanations.
When I first went to Peru, I began leading inductive Bible study discussions before my Spanish was adequate. I spent hours memorizing the vocabulary of the passage, and making up the questions. But I had trouble when the participants strayed from my vocabulary lesson! I probably should have waited–but my new friends needed the gospel, and some kept coming back!
So as soon as you can, begin to learn your verses in your new language. It helps that you already know them in English. Even verses not yet memorized in your new language are helpful because you know where to find them, so you can quote or paraphrase them in your new language.
VII Selecting passages
1. Choose significant verses. The Bible, like all literature, has brick and mortar verses. Choose bricks. It is usually better to learn verses than whole chapters, although you may want to memorize Psalm 23, Psalm 1, 1 Cor. 13 and a few other gems.
2. Choose what will be helpful.
List your favorite verses, and as you read, keep adding to the list of verses you want to memorize.
3. Choose complete thoughts. This may be just one verse, or it may be two or three together, that constitute a full thought.
4. Begin with Navigator packet. They have chosen an initial set of 36 verses and an expanded set of 60. All of these are so basic that every believer should them know from memory. They are about our life in Christ and his life in us, about prayer and Bible study, about obedience and evangelism. It is a good set to start off a new Christian.
VIII Memorizing and reviewing verses
1. Use the Navigators’ packet. The small vinyl packet just the right size for about 36 cards, and has a tiny window where the reference can be seen. Recite the corresponding verse, and then pull out the card to see if you got it right. You can add interpretive notes on the reverse side of the cards.
2. Carry your packet with you. Keep the packet in your pocket–or your purse. Have it with you all the time. You can do most of the memorizing and reviewing in odd moments during the day that might otherwise be wasted. You can even review while making the bed, washing the dishes or driving the car.
Someone suggested using traffic slowdowns if you make daily commutes in a busy city. Many people’s frenetic pace collides twice daily with traffic jams–every morning and every evening. Most drivers chafe! Their blood pressure rises. Tempers flare. Cell phones come out, and radios are turned up. Instead, view these unwelcome pauses as circuit-breakers that interrupt your busyness long enough for matins and vespers. A perfect time to pray, and to review your verses! Keep a memory packet attached to your car’s sun visor. Turn annoying minutes into meditation.
3. Understand what you are memorizing.
For years I used the back of each card to jot notes on a 5-point outline. What is the point of the passage? its purpose? a parallel passage? a problem? its profit? (Lesson)
Then I changed to the seven newspaper questions, plus three. Instead of just listing them, I will apply them to Acts 20:32.
Who were the main characters stated or implied? (If they are not in the text they are in the context.) In this case, they are Paul and the Ephesian elders.
What was the main action? Paul tells them how to continue caring for their churches.
Where did it occur? On the beach at Miletus, the port city for Ephesus.
When did it occur? After Paul had finished his three years in that city, and when he is on his way to Caesarea and Jerusalem for Passover. His ship made a stopover in Miletus and he called for the elders, probably because it was too dangerous for him to go to the city.
How did the main action occur? Paul reminds them of his godly life, ministering among them full-time, as he also fully supported himself. He had taught them all that he knew about God–his “whole counsel.” They were to follow his example, including his self-support. He entrusted them into the care of God and his Word.
Why did it occur? Paul feared arrest in Jerusalem and would probably never see the elders again–it was an emotional meeting, and we can be sure Paul told them only those things that he considered most important.
What were the consequences? Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and spent two years in prison in Caesarea, then two years in Rome under house arrest, and then in Nero’s palace prison. Finally, he was acquitted. But soon he was rearrested, and held in a Roman dungeon. From there he writes Timothy, whom he had sent to minister to the Ephesians.
How does this verse fit into its context? This poignant farewell contains Paul’s most serious last exhortations for these pastors.
What is its main lesson? That God cares for individuals and churches primarily through his Word–the message of his grace and love and exhortation.
What application should it have in my life today? To constantly study God’s Word for my personal needs, and to make sure that in my teaching, I use it, and not just my own ideas. Also, the most important gift I can give another person, apart from life in Jesus Christ, is a love for God’s Word, and knowledge of how to study and memorize it. This is true whether I am with a new convert or with a long-time Christian. I can entrust old friends and loved ones to God’s Word.
The questions make you focus on the meaning of the text in its larger context, so a single verse can help you locate a whole narrative.
Otherwise, there is danger of misinterpreting verses–using them as mere proof-texts. For example: “Whatever you do for one of the least of these my brethren” (and all its parallel passages) encourage us to show solidarity with Christians in persecution by taking risks to identify with them and to help them. But these verses are usually interpreted as Jesus’ commands for us to do social work. They have nothing to do with social work. In this particular case, no great harm is done because other passages in the Bible do encourage social work. The biggest problem is that we are robbed of the very important lesson these passages do have–a loss that tentmakers, missionaries and local Christians in hostile countries cannot afford.
4. Learn the verses Learn the verses–prepositions and all. When I began memorizing we had only the old King James Version–very beautiful, but quaint. But every time we heard the verses read in church, on the radio, or in Bible studies, it reinforced what we had memorized. Today, with many translations, our key verses sound different each time. You need to choose one translation for all your memory work.
Many churches today use the excellent NIV, but many of us prefer the RSV for study, and so for memory.
The Bibles available today are all great for reading, but no translation is perfect. Translators struggle between keeping their text as close as possible to the original words in Greek and Hebrew, or translating larger thoughts more loosely so it will read more smoothly. But for inductive Bible study we need to stick close to the original, so we can note the writer’s literary devices–the repetitions, contrasts, figures of speech, allusions to the O.T., etc.–features which looser translations tend to obscure. The RSV is closer to the original than any other modern translation, so I prefer it for study and for Bible memory. I noted recently in a magazine article, where John Stott very positively evaluates all the new Bible translations, but he also prefers the RSV for study, because of its closeness to the original.
5. Review regularly.
One plan is to learn three new passages a week. The second week, you place the first three cards at the end of your little packet, and learn three new ones and do daily review of the three first ones. In this way, by the time you have learned the 36 initial verses, the first ones will have been reviewed one or more times daily for 12 weeks. Then put the initial three cards into a small box and start your once-a-week review section. Keep adding your last three cards from your packet as you add three new ones to the front of it. Later you start moving your once-a-week review cards into your once-a-month review section.
6. Make new cards for your personally chosen verses.
When you have finished the initial 60 verses from the Navigator system, write your own choices on little cards and use them with your vinyl packet. Or cut the verses out of a cheap New Testament from a used bookstore and paste them onto the cards. If the passage is too big for the card, fold it at the bottom. It is exciting to see one’s box of cards of memorized verses grow to several hundred! And to reap the great benefit from all the effort!
As the Holy Spirit promised to help the Twelve recall what he had taught them orally, he helps us to recall what he has taught us through his written Word. But computers teach us that you cannot retrieve data which has never been entered.
Ruth E. Siemens
Note: GO has 20 years experience helping Christians serve abroad as tentmakers. Ask for a list of other G0 Papers on tentmaking, on workplace evangelism, inductive Bible study and evangelistic Bible study.
Hide God’s Word in Your Heart: Navigators’ Topical Memory System. A 30 week course with booklet, vinyl verse pack and 60 verse cards. Write NavPress, P.O. Box 6000, Colorado Springs CO 80934. Or look in Christian bookstores.
© Copyright 1997 Ruth E. Siemens