“Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Tim 4:13).
Augustine said that when we listen to the reading of Scripture, it is as if the Lord is present among us. For all the talk of “incarnational” ministry today, there is no higher privilege than to hear the Incarnate Word declared through the promise and fulfillment of the written Word as we gather for worship. The beginning of theology, exposition, and worship is the sustained public reading of God’s Word in the Church.
Thus, reading the Word of God becomes the very core of worship, affording each hearer an opportunity for ongoing, personal encounter with the divine. In essence, Scripture is God’s voice incarnate for the church in all ages (Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship, 220).
I grew up in a tradition that cherished the Bible as God’s inspired Word and rightly upheld inerrancy in its institutions and churches. Yet, it was rare to hear the Word of God read at any length from the pulpit of the church in which I was raised. This is an enduring reminder of the dichotomy that often exists between theoria and praxis. Too many evangelical churches are full (numerically) in the pews but empty in the pulpit because little attention is given to the actual words of the Bible. It is accurate to say “one of the striking things about evangelical corporate worship in our times is the evident paucity of Scripture” (Terry L. Johnson and J. Ligon Duncan III, “Reading and Praying the Bible in Corporate Worship,” 140).
Reading the Bible as we gather for worship is foundational to our ongoing personal and congregational reformation. The public reading of Scripture in worship is a reminder that we are part of the living body of Christ, which is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). This was important to the Apostle who wanted his young colleague Timothy to give his attention to “the reading” (1 Tim 4:13). Timothy was commanded by Paul to make the reading of Scripture a top concern for the ordering of the churches. We today should do no less. May it no longer be said of our congregations: “Rare is the evangelical church whose service can be characterized as full of Scripture” (ibid., 142).
A Biblical Practice
It is interesting Paul simply says, “the reading,” and then rightly expects Timothy knows what he means without any explanation. I believe this is the case because the Bible was central to Timothy’s personal, spiritual upbringing. Long before knowing the apostle, Timothy was nurtured on the Word by his mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:5; cf. 3:15). However, I believe Paul is tapping into a tradition that predates Timothy’s life.
The Torah was to be read and taught in Israel (Deut 31:9–12), and we see this in places like Nehemiah 8–9. Ezra and other assistants labored for Israel so that they would comprehend the text that had been read in their hearing. They gave careful exposition and clarification so that the reading was understood. The effects of this reading were powerful: it revealed sin (8:9), ignited worship (8:12, 14), induced joy (8:17), and encouraged confession of sin (9:2–3).
The public reading was also part of the worship in the synagogues at the time of Jesus. It is believed that the readings consisted of two portions, a reading from the Law and one from the Prophets (e.g., Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21; cf. 2 Cor 3:15).
A reader would read the portion from the Hebrew scroll, and another would interpret it for the people.... The emphasis was on the public reading of God’s Word and its clear understanding. (Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory, 425).
Paul’s assumption is that the practice of the reading would both continue and expand for God’s New Covenant work in the newly formed churches. Continue because the OT designations of Law, Prophets, and Psalms find their focal center in Jesus the Messiah (Luke 24:44). Therefore, we are not practical “Marcionites” because we understand both the abiding relevance of the OT as profitable to all things (2 Tim 3:16) and its fulfillment in Christ. Expand because the apostles expected the churches to read their letters publically as well (Col 4:16; 1Thess 5:27; cf. 2 Pet 3:16). So in the NT church the readings of the OT were expanded to include the apostolic writings, both gospel narratives and letters.
A Historical Practice
One of the fruits of the Reformation is that it returned the Scriptures to the congregation and “un-cloistered” the Bible from the elites. One example is Matthew Henry (1662-1714), who is known for his popular commentary on the whole Bible. Some have noted that his commentary is the product of the comments Henry made just before the reading of Scripture. In Henry’s example we see a planned and careful attention given to the reading that is often lacking today. Henry’s practice is instructive in demonstrating a care for the flock’s understanding, much like Ezra’s “explaining to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh 8:8).
The historical importance of the public reading is also reflected confessionally. For example, the answer to Question 157 in the Westminster Larger Catechism reveals how the reading is to be received:
The holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very Word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.
A Necessary Practice
Following are a number of reflections and clarifications aimed to strengthen the public reading of Scripture in our services.
- If for no other reason, we should read the Bible in worship because it is a divine imperative (note Paul’s use of proseche in 1 Tim 4:13). It is a necessary occupation of our attention and thus our corporate worship.
- A sustained reading is a powerful reminder in our attention–deficient society that God’s Word requires our sharpest attentiveness. The reading is a grace–filled reminder that God is continually speaking every time the Bible is opened and read.
- While every church follows some form of “liturgy,” there is no fixed reading that one must follow. Pastors should take care to know their sheep, so the right passage(s) and length is wisely pursued.
- We have read through the Psalms four times and are currently reading through John’s Gospel. I generally offer a brief (one-minute) introduction to that day’s reading.
- Many pastors use their preaching text as the reading for that day and will often have another leader read the text at an earlier portion of the service.
- We occasionally use responsive readings as part of our worship. I generally find this to be a great encouragement to believer’s participation and a teaching aid for the young or those new to the faith.
- Practice the reading beforehand, practicing pronunciation or difficult words. If unsure how to pronounce a name or word, then use an audible Bible to help with your passage. The ESV offers a free audible Bible on the web (also apps), and many Bible software packages have this feature.
- I believe public reading fuels private reading among believers. A church that cherishes the Bible together will often cherish the Bible privately.
- While I have left some churches starved for more Bible to be read, sung, prayed, and preached, I have never heard a believer complain of having too much Bible as part of the worship.
- Finally, I believe the reading is a twin grace of faithful exposition. There is no exposition of the text without faithful and careful reading of God’s Word both in the study and in the pulpit.
The reading of Scripture and the exposition of it are primary acts of worship in the church; they are offerings given to God in reverence and devotion. Reading God’s holy Word in the assembly without understanding, interpretation, or enthusiasm undermines the foundation of all worship, which is to hear from God. When the reading of Scripture is with clarity, conviction, and power, it sets the Word of God before the people in a way that demonstrates its authority and demands a response. The reading of Scripture should be one of the most powerful parts of worship––every word spoken from the Word is from God (Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory, 506).
Paul Lamey is one of our ten TES campus pastors, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.