The Perfection of Fellowship with God: Meditation and Contemplation

Dr. Brian Allison

Did you read your Bible this past week? Now you may think that this is a strange question to ask a Christian, but according to recent statistics, weekly personal Bible reading is not practiced by the majority of Christians. Now, if you are one of the Christians who regularly does read his or her Bible, do you meditate on the Scriptures? Do you contemplate Jesus Christ? Richard Baxter (1615-1691), an English Puritan preacher, writes, in his book The Saint's Everlasting Rest:

This duty of meditation, or the considering and contemplating of spiritual things, is confessed to be a duty by all, but practically denied by most. Many who are conscientious about other duties easily neglect this one. They are troubled if they omit a sermon, a fast, or a prayer, in public or private; yet they are never troubled that they have omitted meditation, perhaps all their lifetime to this very day. They fail to realize that it is a duty by which all other duties are improved, and by which the soul digests truths for its nourishment and comfort (p. 103).

At least in Baxter's day, there was the recognition that meditation was a duty. Many Christians today, are not even clear on what meditation and contemplation mean and involve, let alone practice it.

Biblical meditation and contemplation are required in order to experience the perfection of fellowship with God – the hearing and seeing God by moving to a higher plane of Christian experience. Meditation and contemplation, prayer, and obedience or the works of love comprise the threefold foundation block for entering into this perfection of fellowship with God. We now turn to consider this matter of meditation and contemplation. A helpful text in this regard is Colossians 3:1,2: "If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on the earth."

Persistent meditation and contemplation

Meditation and contemplation should be a way of life – "Set your mind on things above." The original Greek is better translated, "Continue to set your mind on things above." What is implied is that this 'setting of the mind' – a riveting or fixing of the attention – on things above ought to be a habit. We ought to persist in this practice. To be sure, this matter of meditation and contemplation (like prayer) requires set and regular times. For example, Isaac, the husband of Rebekah, went out into the field at evening in order to meditate (cf. Gn. 24:63). But, in addition to set and regular times, Christians should be meditating and contemplating continually. We are to cultivate a meditative and contemplative mind-set which we evidence throughout the day. We ought to think within this certain mind-set, regardless of the activity in which we are engaged or the responsibility which we must perform. Our meditation and contemplation should be done 'day and night' (cf. Josh. 1:8).

Understanding meditation and contemplation

What is Biblical meditation? What is Biblical contemplation? Though a close relationship exists between these two activities, there is a subtle distinction between them. Biblical meditation is the act or activity of pondering, of mentally chewing over, the revealed will and ways of God/Christ. It is the sustained reflection on disclosed truth. Thus, we read, "This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so 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 will have success" (Josh. 1:8).

Biblical contemplation is the act or activity of focusing on, of being mentally absorbed or preoccupied with, the revealed person of God/Christ. It is inwardly beholding or gazing upon God. Isaiah 6, though assuming the form of a vision, presents and captures the essence of Biblical contemplation. We read:

In the year of King Uzziah's death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, HOLY is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory." And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (vss. 1-6). Isaiah experienced a contemplative vision of the Lord.

Meditation is more an intellectual and reflective mental activity, whereas contemplation is more an emotional and aesthetic one. For instance, Psalm 1 would be an example of meditation – "How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD. And in His law he meditates day and night" (vss. 1,2). The emphasis of meditation is often on words, on language, on the propositional. On the other hand, Psalm 8 would be an example of contemplation. The emphasis is often on the apparition, on the pictorial, on the visual. So, we read, "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth, who has displayed Thy splendour above the heavens!... When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?" (vss. 1,3,4).

Peter Toon, in his book The Art of Meditating on Scripture, writes:

If we turn to the older English dictionaries, we find that in ordinary usage meditation and contemplation have had little difference in meaning. Both point to the activity of the mind as it considers, reflects upon, and muses over some fact or object. Where there is a difference, "contemplation" is used in more of that situation where the mind is still and fixed upon an object to behold it, whereas "meditation" is used as more of the activity of the mind looking at something from various angles or perspectives. Thus we could say that the verbs "to see" and "to behold" belong more naturally to contemplation while the verbs "to consider" and "to reflect upon" belong more naturally to meditation" (p. 78).

Contemplation presupposes meditation, and is built and dependent upon it. Meditation leads to contemplation, and sustains it. As one meditates upon the truth of God and the intellect is stimulated and the affections are inflamed, meditation may then give way to contemplation. Affective meditation is, in effect, contemplation. With searching reflection, resulting in the heart being emotively inflamed, contemplation is the fruit. Contemplation may be viewed as the higher form of thinking. Again, Toon writes, "Meditation, as part of mental prayer, is the first step toward the deeper, personal knowledge of God that is contemplation" (p. 78). And so, he concludes, "After careful thought and much discussion, I have adopted the distinction suggested above between meditation as the prayerful considering of and reflecting upon God's truth, and contemplation as the gazing upon, beholding, experiencing, and seeing by faith God through Jesus Christ" (p. 79).

Admittedly, meditation and contemplation require discipline. They do not come easy; they demand hard work; you need to be resolved. Such cannot be achieved by praying for 5 minutes daily or by thinking on a verse for 2 minutes daily. So, with respect to meditation, you should, for instance, consider a verse, or a point in a sermon, or a line from a devotional reading, and mentally ruminate over it, taking it with you throughout the day; constantly dwelling on it and endeavouring to make it a part of you and allowing your affections to be aroused. Further, with respect to contemplation, you should, for instance, consider some characteristic or attribute of God/Christ (e.g. His love or His grace) and become mentally preoccupied with it. Again, you are to let it fill your mind throughout the day. You may trace that particular divine attribute, whether it be love or grace, throughout the different periods of your life, seeing how God has moved and has worked, and thus hopefully marvel at what He has done.

If you are not meditating and contemplating, you will not enter into that perfection of fellowship with God; you will not know that higher plane of existence in the Spirit. Did you meditate this past week? Have you chewed over, ruminated in your mind, the law of God and the word of Christ? Did you contemplate this past week? Did that meditation bring you to a higher level of thinking so that in Spirit you beheld Him; you gazed upon Him; and thus you were taken up with His beauty? Meditation and contemplation need to be a way of life.

Meditating on and contemplating heavenly things

We have already touched on this point, but let me clearly state it. Meditation and contemplation should focus on heavenly things – "Set your mind on the things above, not on things that are on the earth." The direction of our mind is to be upward. The sphere in which we are to think is to be that of the spiritual world in which we are heavenly citizens. Simply put, we are to be heavenly-minded. As Scripture teaches, "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things" (Php. 4:8).

Now, the Scripture describes such a direction of mind in different ways. So, for instance, after Peter confessed at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus revealed that He was to suffer and die. Peter then rebuked the Lord for these remarks. To which our Lord responded, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests [lit. the things of God], but man's" (Mt. 16:23). Again, we read in Romans 8:5, "For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit." Thus, to set your mind on the 'things above' means that you dwell on that which glorifies God; that which is in keeping with His will, ways, and purposes; that which concerns His nature and character; as opposed to that which pertains to this fallen, sinful world and the life of self (i.e., the 'things below'). The 'things above,' for example, are the virtues of holiness and righteousness, the glory of Christ's death and resurrection, the leading of the Spirit, etc. The 'things below,' for example, are such things as the quest for power, the greed for money, the pleasure of illicit sex, etc. Are you setting your mind on heavenly things, or are you setting them on earthly things?

Meditation and contemplation centre on Christ

Now, Biblical meditation and contemplation should particularly centre on Jesus Christ – "If then you have been raised up with Christ [i.e., since it is a fact that you have be regenerated by His Spirit through union with Jesus Christ, since it is a fact that you have a new nature, that you have been born again], keep seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." Not only are you to desire the heavenly things which relate to and centre on Christ, but you are to dwell on the same.

Focusing on Jesus Christ is the key concerning Biblical meditation and contemplation with respect to entering into the perfection of fellowship with God. Bernard Clairvaux (1090-1153), the father of Western mysticism, writes:

I confess, then, to speak foolishly, that the Word has visited me – indeed, very often. But, though He has frequently come into my soul, I have never at any time been aware of the moment of His coming. I have felt His present, I remember He has been with me, I have sometimes even had a premonition of His coming, but never have I felt His coming or His departure...You will ask then how, since His track is thus traceless, I could know that He is present? Because He is living and full of energy, and as soon as He has entered me, has quickened my sleeping soul, and aroused, softened and goaded my heart, which was torpid and hard as a stone...In the reformation and renewal of the spirit of my mind, that is my inward man, I have seen something of the loveliness of His Beauty, and meditating on these things have been filled with wonder at the multitude of His greatness (Cant., 74, condensed).

Bernard of Clairvaux 'saw' Christ who filled all his vision. Again, this is the heart and power of Christian meditation, and particularly Christian contemplation.

Meditation on the Word of Christ and contemplation on the person of Christ leads to the experience of the vision of Christ, which is the vision of God. To see Christ spiritually is to see God spiritually. Jesus affirmed, "If you had known Me, you would have known my Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him...Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works" (Jn. 14:7,9,10). Now, Jesus meant this in a literal sense, having spiritual overtones, but the language also has spiritual import and significance – through meditation on the acts and words of Christ and through contemplation on the person of Christ, we can see His beauty and desire Him; and so come to love Him; and thus we see, desire, and come to love God Himself. Again, Richard Baxter writes:

If you complain of your deadness and dullness – that you cannot love Christ, nor rejoice in His love; that you do not have life in prayer, nor in any other duty – and yet neglect this quickening employment [of meditation and contemplation], then you are the cause of your own complaints...Fetch one coal daily from this altar and see if your offering will not burn. Light your lamp at this flame and feed it daily with oil from there, and see if it will not shine gloriously. Keep close to this reviving fire and see if your affections will not be warm. In your lack of love to God, lift up your eye of faith to heaven, behold His beauty, contemplate His excellencies, and see whether His amiableness and perfect goodness will not ravish your heart.

Can you appreciate what Baxter is saying? As you focus on Christ and He fills your vision, the emotions and desires of our heart will flow with greater alacrity; and your heart will be thus drawn out to Him, and you subsequently will be 'taken up' with Him. Love will then freely flow and gush forth toward Him.

Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" (Jn. 14:6). This statement is true not only in reference to salvation, but also in reference to divine communion. No one comes to the Father, enters into to sweet fellowship with God, but through Christ. To really know and experience Christ is to know and experience the depth of intimacy with God. In seeing Christ in His beauty, you will love Him – you will have no choice but to love Him – and in turn, He will love you. God also will love you (cf. Jn. 14:21, 23), and that is the perfection of fellowship with God.

The Apostle Paul states the matter thus, "More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of [experientially] knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may [experientially] gain Christ" (Php. 3:8). That is it! When you see, and experientially know, Him, you will realize that He is the only thing that ultimately matters. Everything else will pale into insignificance. He alone will be all that you want; He alone will become your chief desire. When you really see Him, your heart will belong to Him; and you will realize more deeply that He is yours and you are His.

Meditating on and contemplating Christ's glory

Now, in meditating on Christ's acts and words and contemplating His beauty, we need to particularly consider His glorious reign and sovereignty – "where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." He is the Lord of glory, the King of majesty, the God of splendour. Consider His excellencies and His wonder. A helpful project in this regard is to consider the various Scripture passages which focus particularly on Christ and describe Him – for example, Isaiah 53, John 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 1, 2, Hebrews 1, 5, Revelation 1, 5, 19, etc. Daily take one of these passages, or a similar one, and meditate on and contemplate Christ until He begins to fill your vision. Ask God to show you the beauty of Jesus Christ; and once you see it, you will desire no other sight, for that sight alone will ravish the soul. Have you asked God to do that for you?

Nothing else ultimately matters but Jesus Christ and our fellowship with Him. Blessed is he or she who hears and does. If you are now lacking that desire and energy to pursue these things, then ask God to give you these graces. My Christian brothers and sisters, it is possible to enter into the perfection of fellowship with God. Come and taste, and see that the Lord indeed is good.