Learn a book of the Bible by heart and fall in love
by Tim Geddert
“We’ll do it!” said the five seminary students who came up to me after class, almost tripping over each other. “We are going to memorize the book of Mark.”
“You are?” I gasped in disbelief.
One student replied, “Well if you can do it, we can do it!”
I had to admit that was plausible.
Each year I open the very first period of my Mark course with prayer, a brief glance at some of Mark’s hidden gems and a review of the syllabus. The goal of the course, I always insist, is not academic work. It is falling in love with Mark’s Gospel, discovering its many hidden treasures, being shaped by its message of hope and challenge and discovering ways to preach and teach it in the church. “But this is a graduate school,” I say. “We also have to do the academic work.”
After making sure everyone is clear on the details listed in the syllabus, in the past I would say, somewhat jokingly, “Unless of course you would rather just memorize the book of Mark. I’ll count that as your assignment for the course!” And the students would all laugh. And then they would set out to read the books and write the papers.
No students had taken me up on the challenge to memorize Mark—until 10 years ago. That year five students memorized the Gospel of Mark; four memorized in English, one in German. Four students recited the book to me in my office; one had memorized it to music so she brought a small audience along and sang it.
The next time I taught the course, four students memorized the book; the time after that it was six. This year seven students memorized the Gospel of Mark, beginning to end. I have heard it recited in English from about seven different translations, in German, in Japanese and in Amharic. Devising ways to check for accuracy was a challenge when I didn’t know the language.
Now please, do not be too impressed because my students and I memorize entire books of the Bible. If your reaction is: “Wow! That’s amazing! I could never do that!” let me suggest a more appropriate reaction. How about: “Hey, that’s a great idea. I think I’ll pick a Bible book to memorize as well!” I am convinced I can memorize any book of the Bible, and so can you.
And, if you use good strategies, it will probably take less time than you might suspect. Some of my students have memorized Mark in 75 to 80 hours. More typically it takes 100 hours, sometimes a bit more. Then they are ready to recite the entire book of Mark without help, virtually perfectly. It takes about 90 to 100 minutes to recite it!
Memorizing Mark is what made me fall in love with this gospel in the first place. That led to unending adventures with this amazing book. I’ve written a dissertation on it, written a commentary on it, preached and taught from it a thousand times, and my fascination with this book just keeps on growing. Sometimes I quote my sermon text for memory; occasionally I have quoted longer passages. I’ve never publicly presented the whole book, but a number of my students have done so, sometimes quite dramatically with costumes and acting to go with it.
I’ve been amazed what benefits flow from focusing on just one gospel at a time rather than mixing all the Gospels together as we often do, intentionally or otherwise. The story of Jesus comes alive! We learn what Jesus says and does, and what God inspired the evangelists to teach us through the unique way each one tells the story.
So how did I get started memorizing Scripture? I started in Sunday school, in kids clubs at church and in a Bible memory program in our elementary school. At that time it was always individual verses. We had to recite the Scripture reference along with the verse, but I wonder today why that was important. If we know it from memory, why do we still need to be able to find it? And if we are going to take it out of context anyway, who cares which context it comes from?
Memorizing Scripture this way is not a bad thing, but I strongly, strongly favor memorizing Scripture passages. Context is terribly important if we want to understand Scripture faithfully and apply it appropriately. Whole chapters or at least whole “stories” (individual parables, miracle accounts, etc.) are recommended. Or else, of course, whole books.
A friend of mine encouraged me to memorize whole books, as he had done. I started with 1 John and James. Later I added Philippians, the Sermon on the Mount, significant sections of John, Romans and Ephesians and a few other chapters here and there. I never memorized an Old Testament book, but I did memorize the creation account, quite a few Psalms and a few favorite passages from prophetic books.
I decided to memorize a gospel shortly after graduating from seminary. I learned quickly that even as a church planter and pastor, unless I adopted an appropriate discipline it was quite possible to go a whole week without significant contact with the Scriptures. I decided to take up Bible memory again.
I decided it was time to memorize a gospel because I graduated from seminary without seriously studying the Gospels. I picked Mark entirely for its length, or rather its brevity. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels—the only one I thought I could memorize.
It was easier to do than I feared it would be. And you can do it, too! There are lots of methods that work. One can memorize a verse or two at a time and slowly move on, always reviewing material already memorized. Or one can work hard at larger blocks of material and only go back to review after memorizing large portions of the book. The later method requires more discipline, but is far more efficient.
Have you ever memorized a book of the Bible? If so, write and tell me about your experience. Or write the Christian Leader and tell thousands of people about it. Maybe your responses will challenge me to pick up Bible memory again. I still have about 98 percent of the Old Testament and almost 80 percent of the New Testament to go!
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at the MB Biblical Seminary Fresno, Calif., campus. Send your Bible memory stories to the Christian Leader by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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