Why do we memorise scripture? Well, the first and most important reason is that the Bible tells us too! Colossians 3:16 gives us a clear command, let the word of Christ dwell in us. With that in mind, what does it actually mean to memorise scripture and let the word of Christ dwell in us?
Specific Scripture Memory
The first and perhaps most obvious approach we can take to this is to be very specific. Specific scripture memory is very simple, I’m sure most Christians will be able to recite some verses with no problem, verses like John 3:16, or maybe Genesis 1:1. This is excellent and I commend this to any Christian, but it is also slightly dangerous.
You see, the Bible was not written with chapters and verses in mind, the authors certainly didn’t write a set of individual sentences and mash them all together in the hopes of something coherent (not even the write of Proverbs!). So why exactly do we think it’s acceptable to pick out our favourite verses and memorise them, forgetting anything of the context of the rest of the book they are from.
Take John 3:16 as an example. This verse alone tells us that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus, and as a result if we believe in him we won’t die. But what of sin? Where in that verse is that problem which needed solving? How did God giving his son save us from death?
Of course if you have bothered to memorise that one verse you probably already know that broader context of the gospel itself, but what of the narrow context of the passage? Do you know who those words were spoken to, or what else was being said at the time? Are you even sure who was saying those words?
General Scripture Memory
With these issues with specific scripture memory in mind, there is another approach which seems to make sense. Instead of being narrow in our memorising, lets be much broader. Instead of memorising an individual verse, how about we tackle the general flow of a passage or a whole book. Instead of picking off relevant verses, we can deal with themes. I know that Nehemiah is about the exiles returning to Israel and rebuilding. I know that Pauls letter to the Colossians is an encouragement for them to continue in the gospel that saved them.
This is also an excellent thing to strive for, and one day I would love to be able to rattle off a list of the broad themes from each of the books of the Bible. Given some specific struggle in your life you might have some vague memory of that being a theme in one of Pauls letters, so you can flick through it and see what the Bible has to say.
Of course this broad sweeping approach to scripture memory falls far short of the ideal too. If you don’t happen to have a Bible to hand then knowing that Paul gives some advice for husbands and wives in Ephesians is useless unless you can remember exactly what that advice was!
So a combination then?
Ah, a conclusion! Yes, I think we should be careful to combine memorising specific verses with a clear understanding of the broader themes of the Bible. I also think that when we talk about scripture memory we should mean something bigger than just picking off individual verses, we should also include learning the flow and themes of the Bible in that phrase.
There is however, one more caveat:
It’s all about Jesus
The real problem with poor scripture memory is not our approach, but our motivation. I could learn hundreds of individual verses, and pick out every theme the Bible has and still not find life. Life is found in Jesus, and when we memorise scripture (whatever form that takes), what we should be really seeking to do is hold Jesus close to our hearts.
If learning a single verse brings Jesus closer to my heart I want to do it. If taking the time to see what the context of that verse really is also brings me in line with Christ then I absolutely want to do it! If learning a verse of picking out a theme serves no purpose other than to boost my ego or increase my academic knowledge of the Bible, then I actually want to avoid it. I would much rather memorise nothing but hold Jesus close than memorise everything but not see him in any of it!