How to Receive God's Word: Read, Study, Meditate
It is an amazing thing that God reveals himself to us by speaking.
Before we identify God’s word with a leather-bound Bible, first consider the concept of God speaking. He communicates himself — he reveals and expresses himself to humanity — not simply in a proposition, but in a person. That’s why Jesus is called the Word: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was toward God, he was in the beginning with God.” Jesus is the full embodiment of God’s Word. When God has something to say — something to reveal, something to communicate to humanity — he reveals it in the God-man, Jesus. He is the climactic expression of God’s Word, the Word incarnate.
But there’s also the Word spoken. This is the way that Word is used most in the New Testament. Again and again, we find out that the Word (or the message of the gospel) is what has come to a people and been embraced for salvation. People have heard and believed this message about Jesus. So it’s not just this personal Jesus about whom we can make up our own message about. There’s a very particular message — a particular work and message — that goes with this person, Jesus. They’re bound up together. So the gospel word is essential to what God is communicating to humanity and expressing about himself.
Finally, there’s the word written. This is the word in Scripture — the Bible. How do we access the Word incarnate and the word spoken? We do so through the word written. That’s what God has given us this side of heaven. He has given us his word written to access the true message of the gospel and to access Jesus himself as the full expression of God’s Word.
The Word Consumed
But how do we take in God’s word? Let me give you three categories for how we receive his word as we begin to develop various habits of grace. The first is reading the Word. We read the Word when we take it in in real time. Whether someone else is reading it and we’re hearing it, or whether we’re reading it with our own eyes, taking it in at regular speed—that’s reading the Word.
Second, studying is where we slow down, ask questions, try to put pieces together, and see what we’re not getting when we’re reading. If the Bible really is a book from God, it wouldn’t make sense for we humans to understand every word of it the first time we heard it. For your whole life there will be things that you don’t understand in the Bible. So study is the way that we engage with it, the way we slow down and try to figure out answers to questions we have so we can better understand what we’re reading.
Finally, the third category is meditation. Meditation is very underrated, it’s often forgotten, and it’s actually the way that the Bible talks most often about how we are supposed to receive God’s word. Reading gets it into our heads, study clarifies the meaning, but meditation is when we chew on what God has said, when we marvel at it and when we apply it to our hearts. The highest point of hearing God’s word or taking in the Bible is meditation.
How do we put the three together? Here’s an illustration: I can rake the yard and, in a fairly short amount of time, the work is done. Raking is like reading. Digging is more like study; it takes more work and you’ll probably have a sore back the next day, but what you accomplish in digging can be much greater. Meditation is like sitting on the front porch with a glass of lemonade and enjoying the work that’s already been accomplished. Meditation is marveling — enjoying, sitting back, applying the message to your heart, appreciating what you've just seen in God’s word.
When it comes to reading and studying the Bible, we want to move toward the enjoyment of Jesus in the Word—toward marveling, toward being astounded by him.
Another way to put it this: reading is like watching a movie in real time. Study is like slowing it down, going into slow-mo, watching where the computer generated graphics are, where the person is coming in and out of the frame. It’s about trying to slow it down and understand everything a bit better. Meditation is like a freeze-frame. At a great moment, you pause the movie and reflect on what’s happened in the story. You reflect on that one moment and appreciate what’s happening.
To put it yet another way: reading is like surveying a forest. Study is like finding a tree, chopping it up into logs. Meditation is like putting them on a fire, in a nice cozy cabin, and enjoying the warmth in the middle of a cold, Minnesota winter.
What About Application?
You may be thinking, “What about application? You’ve been talking about reading and study and meditating; how about application? Shouldn’t we be finding things to do in the Bible everyday?” My advice would be not to have your external life be the conscious focus of your Bible time. I don’t think we need to feel like we have to come away from every day’s reading and studying and meditation with one clear, external “to do” for the day.
Rather, I would say that the way you engage in application in Bible meditation is by applying it to your heart. Try to apply it to your heart everyday. Don’t circumvent the heart and go straight from the head in reading and studying to external actions. Go from taking in the Bible to applying it to your heart in meditation. And then, let the good deeds flow. God will change our external lives in his perfect timing as his Word is applied to our hearts in meditation.
As you seek to cultivate your own “habits of grace,” I would encourage you to think outside the box when it comes to Bible intake. Receiving God’s word — hearing his voice in the Scriptures — isn’t just sitting at a desk and reading a Bible (though it can be that), or sitting at a desk with a pen or pencil doing a study. It could also be hearing God’s word read aloud. It could be biblically faithful preaching. It could also be biblically faithful books, articles, or other types of media. And most important of all, it is doing what it takes to pause and ponder, to stop and chew, to seek to apply God’s revealed truth to the your heart through meditation.
Think of ways to diversify the portfolio of God’s voice coming into your life, through reading and studying and meditating on the Bible itself, or through mediated biblical teaching and gospel truths through others.
DAVID MATHIS (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and pastor for Cities Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, as well as the companion workbook for individual and group study.
Publication date: March 2, 2016