THE PUBLIC READING OF SCRIPTURE
I want to share some thoughts on the importance of the public reading of Scripture. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”
Evidently Paul thought this to be an important task for Pastors, as it is something to which they should “devote” themselves to do. I don’t necessarily think that pastors are the only ones who are allowed or authorized to read the Scripture in a worship service. I do think they are responsible to make sure the Scripture is read, and read well. There have even been pastors who did not know how to read, or through physical difficulty could not read, but they were oral learners, they listened, then learned, and they memorized. Can you imagine being a pastor who needed someone to read for you, and then you preached the Word? Whatever a pastor’s capacity or incapacity for reading it is his responsibility to make sure the Word is read, and read well, so the people – the public- can hear it.
We live in an educated age. Literacy is a common expectation, yet the reality is that there are many who are functionally illiterate and many who are lazy readers and resist any kind of regular Scripture reading. The Bible is not just for the educated, not just for intellectuals, and not just for those who know how to, or enjoy, reading. Every person needs to hear the Bible, and in that hearing they need to be able to understand it. This is why the Church has put so much effort into common language translations for each and every people group and why we continue to attempt to get the written Word into every spoken tongue upon the earth.
I would imagine there is an expectation by Paul in his direction to Timothy that the public reading of Scripture is not simply meant as a “rote” exercise, where someone is droning on in a monotone voice and simply saying the words in the text. I think the force of the direction is that devotion (commitment, focus, effort, consistency) is needed to make sure the reading is done well. I also think sincerity and intensity are important ingredients in the public reading of Scripture.
I received a wonderful compliment the other day from a pastor, for whose congregation I had just preached. He told me that he had never heard the public reading of Scripture done as I had just done it. I was very happy to hear his comment as I had decided to preach (and thus read) the whole chapter of John 9. The whole chapter is one story about the man who had been born blind. It is not a short chapter, but it is certainly entertaining. It is hard for modern Christians to sit through the reading of a long Biblical text and for that reason it must be done with some attempt to hold the attention of the congregation.
Have you ever read a text for your sermon, then preached, and afterward felt you could have just as well sat down after the Scripture reading because the text was so powerful in and of itself? I sure have, and it was not just the reading of the words but having read it with passion, intonation, and feeling that brought it alive. There are people who seem to have a gift for Scripture reading and I wish we could hear them doing it more often.
Now there are people who are overly dramatic in their reading and some who seem to have no drama at all. Scripture is made up of all kinds of styles of literature such as narrative, poetry, theology, and dialogue. The reader has to read according to the style. Pastors have to be aware, and decide, on how much to read at one time. I usually warn the people before I read, if it is a long text, as a way of helping them put some effort into paying attention. Then I try to give them no choice about paying attention by putting myself into it.
I believe in the spiritual nature of the Biblical text. I believe God wrote it through His Holy Spirit and that its words and truth have power when people hear it (I mean really hear it) and believe it. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear…” I believe God uses His Word as a sword to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart. When the Word is read, listened to with understanding, and heard by faith amazing and wonderful transformation takes place in people’s lives.
One of our Ruling Elders testified, when he first became a member of our church, that he had come to faith in Christ on the very first Sunday he attended our congregation. “How?” we asked him. He told us that the Call to Worship had gripped him, and then as I had read the Scripture prior to preaching he gave his life to Christ.
I encourage Pastors to take the reading of their preaching text to be a crucial part of their ministry. Your sermon should certainly help it to come alive, be understandable, and applicable to the people but the reading in and of itself is important to worship and to the faith of the people. If you are a boring reader, enlist someone who is gifted to do it for you, especially if it is a long text. Whatever you do don’t you dare take it lightly, do it perfunctorily, or simply treat is as something to get out of the way so you can get to giving your own opinions.