Consider This!

Lately I am getting more and more excited about Scripture memorization. Well, not only excited, but I am actually doing it. I will leave it in the middle for now what I am memorizing because I do not want to boast, but I was having a discussion last Sunday with a friend of mine on this topic, which resulted in this post.

Have you ever considered how much Scripture the Pharisees ever memorized? You can say a lot about their character and conduct, but they must serve as an example with regards to their zealous and almost fanatical dedication and discipline to Scripture memorization. Granted, the heart must be there as well, but still. Let me start by giving you an overview of their educational system, and then baffle you with some statistics I figured out.

The Jews in Jesus’ day had three levels of education, which was most likely instituted by Ezra after the exile in order to teach the people the Scriptures again. The first level was called ‘Bet Sefer’. At the ages of six through twelve, the Jewish boys and girls would begin their education in the synagogue school, learning how to read and write. The textbook was the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the goal was to memorize the sacred text. The Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 21a:6 says, “Before the age of six do not accept pupils; from that age you can accept them, and stuff them with Torah like an ox.” Incredible, isn’t it! Can you imagine having memorized the Torah by the age of twelve?! This level is concluded with a Bar Mitzvah for the boy, to welcome him into the community as a full member. This was also the age from which they were allowed to read the Torah out loud in the synagogue during services.

The next level was the ‘Bet Midrash’. This was only for the best of the best. I would assume for those who indeed memorized the Torah. This level was from age thirteen to fifteen, where they continued studying and memorizing the entire Tanach (in other words, the complete Old Testament). Very few were selected for this pursuit.

The final level was the ‘Bet Talmud’, which was the longest in duration as it went from the age of 15 to 30. To participate, he must be invited by a Rabbi and, if selected, he would begin a process of grooming that would lead to the potential of becoming a Rabbi at age 30. Those who were chosen were referred to as Talmidim. They would literally follow in the dust of their rabbi – desiring to emulate him in all of his mannerisms. They would eat the same food in exactly the same way as their rabbi. They would go to sleep and awake the same way as their rabbi and, more importantly, they would learn to study Torah and understand God the exact same way as their rabbi.

I could say a lot more about this and how this reflects on Jesus and His disciples, but the goal of this post was not to dive into the Jewish educational system, but to consider Scripture memorization. As I mentioned at the first level they learn and memorize the Torah by the age of 12. Just to give you an idea: that’s 187 chapters, or 5852 verses or 156,058 words. Just to give you the equivalent from a New Testament perspective, that is in terms of chapters, memorizing from Matthew until 1 Thessalonians including; in terms of verses it’s roughly memorizing from Matthew until 2 Corinthians including; and in terms of words (which is probably the most accurate measuring method) it’s roughly memorizing from Matthew until more than half of Hebrews. Can you imagine!! And that at the age of 12!!!

Let’s do the math: 6 years = 72 months = 312 weeks = 2184 days. Thus, memorizing the Torah (which is 5852 verses) is roughly 3 verses per day (2.68 to be exact). I don’t even want to know what that would mean memorizing the remainder of the Old Testament in only 3 years.

Now, I am not saying that we should all memorize the Torah, but there are definitely advantages to memorizing complete books of the Bible. Deuteronomy 8:3 says that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” and “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Also, with memorizing verses there is a lesser likelihood of taking verses out of context or missing the flow of argumentation. For example, for any verse starting with “therefore…” you would need to know what preceded this verse in order for it to make sense.

Let’s make it practical. Let’s say you aim for memorizing one verse per day and you would only focus on the New Testament, then this would mean that within 2 weeks you could memorize 2 John or 3 John, but you may find these maybe not the most attractive books to start with. But doing Philemon or Jude in 4 weeks sounds like a good option, because these are great letters. Or think about memorizing Ephesians in only 6 months. Another great option is of course memorizing some psalms. There are 150, varying in length between 2 verses (Psalm 117) and 176 verses (Psalm 119), but the average length is about 16 verses, which means that on average a psalm can be memorized in two weeks.

My advice is this: don’t be overwhelmed by memorizing Scripture. Take it slow, pick something that appeals to both the mind and the heart, and just do it! All you need is a decision, a plan to memorize and refresh, and accountability. Take baby steps, and before you know it you have memorized a psalm, a chapter, or a complete letter or book. Once you start training your mind to hold the information you will get better at it and will be able to memorize more verses a day.

Now, why is this so important? “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11). Don’t we all want to sin less?! I know I do! Less sinning means giving more glory to God, which means more and more the object of our worship will be God, and that is what He desires and delights in.

Discipleship 101 #1 – Old School

When Jesus started his ministry and people started following Him, his early followers did not ask any questions about becoming a disciple. We read in John 1:38 that his early followers immediately started calling Jesus ‘Rabbi’ (which means teacher) and started following Him. Why? Let’s see if we can find out why that was, shall we!

Now, the Old Testament doesn’t really talk much about disciples or discipleship, but that doesn’t mean we cannot infer discipleship relationships. We know that Isaiah had disciples (Isaiah 8:16); Samuel probably had disciples (1 Samuel 10:5); Elijiah discipled Elisha (1 Kings 19:19). But probably the most prominent discipleship relationship in the Old Testament is that between Moses and Joshua. Moses took Joshua with him when going up the mountain for the tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12-14). Joshua did not depart from the tent of meeting when Moses talked face to face with God (Exodus 33:11). God commands Moses to charge Joshua to lead the nation of Israel into the promised land (Deuteronomy 3:28). God commissions Joshua to lead the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:23, Joshua 1:1-3). Joshua finished well in the eyes of the LORD (Joshua 24:31).

So long before the days of Jesus, discipleship was already a well-established institution within Jewish culture. All the great sages (people famed for their wisdom), the rabbis, the sages among the Pharisees and the teachers of the Torah (the law) had disciples. The Hebrew word for disciple is ‘talmid,’ which means student. We translate this as disciple. A talmid’s job was to learn everything that his master had to teach. Discipleship was the primary institution for higher religious education in the days of Jesus. There were no Bible schools. There were no seminaries. There were no freely available Bibles. A young man seeking a future in teaching Torah would apprentice himself to a rabbi to learn the trade. The teacher/disciple relationship was a powerful bond. Disciples regarded their teachers higher than their fathers. They regarded themselves as slaves to their teachers. It was as it were a father/son relationship.

Looking at the relationship between a disciple and his teacher, we can say that a disciple performed five tasks, and these tasks describe the cultural context of the institution of discipleship in the gospels:

They decided to follow their teacher
There was an absolute dedication, loyalty and submission to their teacher which is basically incomparable to any situation in our own culture and experience.

They learned their teacher’s traditions and interpretations
It was a disciple’s job to learn the tradition of how his teacher kept the commands of God and interpreted the Scriptures. Every detail about the teacher was important to the disciple. The disciple needed to learn how the teacher washed his hands, how he kept the Sabbath, how he fasted, how he prayed, how he gave charity, how he said the blessings over food, etc. Furthermore, the way the teacher interpreted passages of Scripture, the meanings he drew out, the parables with which he clarified, the way he explained a verse or understood a concept, each of these was of utmost importance to the disciple. Details of this sort were not just trivia. To a disciple, these were like gems and pearls meant to be gathered and treasured.

They memorized the teacher’s words
The oral transmission process was the only inter-generational communication practiced among the sages. The great rabbis and Torah scholars of First Century Pharisaic Judaism did not write scrolls or compose books for their students to read and study. Instead, they taught orally and their disciples studied by memorizing their words. Through constant repetition, disciples memorized their teacher’s words and were able to repeat them to subsequent generations

They imitated their teacher’s actions
A disciple’s highest calling was to be a reflection of his teacher. A disciple studied to learn, to act, to speak and to respond the same way his master would act and speak and respond. A disciple studied to do the things his master did. His highest goal was to walk after his teacher. There is a story in ancient tradition that tells of a rabbinical student so devoted to his teacher that he hid in the teacher’s bedchamber to discover the mentor’s sexual technique. To be sure, this is a bit extreme, yet it demonstrates the level of commitment required to be a disciple. In Luke 6:40 Jesus said that “a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”

They raised up their own disciple
It was the job of a disciple, when finally trained, to raise up his own disciples. He was to create a new generation of students and to transmit to them the memorized words, traditions and interpretations and the actions and behaviors of his Master. The goal was to pass the torch of Torah from generation to generation.

These functions describe the cultural context of the institution of discipleship in the gospels. When Jesus called his disciples, these five tasks are the things they were called to do. This is how they understood their job. And that’s how we should view ourselves being disciples of Jesus.