“The Public Reading of Scripture”
"Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching."
1 Timothy 4:13
The Scriptures are meant to be read not only in private for our individual study but in public to shape the whole church family so that we can see ourselves together as part of God’s story. God’s people always need reminding of that story, where they fit into it and where it's all going. When we hear it read aloud we realize we are called to be part of the action. This is why the public reading of Scripture was such an important part of the worship of the early church, a pattern we would do well to emulate.
The usual Scripture reading in our Sunday worship service lasts about 1-2 minutes. To read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation takes about 80 hours. At that rate, most Christians who attend the Sunday gathering faithfully their entire lives will never hear the whole Bible read aloud. Usually, we have a short reading and a longer exposition of the text in the sermon. If you think about it, that's a bit like watching a preview for a movie every week but never actually watching the film; we're getting a rough explanation of what the movie is about but we never get caught up in the narrative of the story ourselves.
If the Bible takes about 80 hours to read and you read about 1-2 hours per week you will comfortably finish the Bible every year. Most Christians want to read more, so it's not an issue of desire. It’s an issue of strategy. OK, so what’s the strategy? According to Paul, in addition to our private individual reading, the church must be engaged in the public reading of Scripture. And this isn't just a New Testament thing! There were three pivotal moments in Israel's history which have the public reading of Scripture at their heart.
READING AS REGULAR ROUTINE — (Deuteronomy 6:1-25) Entering the Promised Land
Deuteronomy records Moses’ speech to Israel just before crossing the Jordan River and inheriting the land promised to their fathers. Deuteronomy not only gives instructions and warnings on how to live in the land but also tells Israel's story, where they’ve been, where they're going and what the future holds. In this passage of the book (Deut. 6), God commands his people to love and serve him by keeping the Law fresh in their minds. The public reading of Scripture:
- Reminds us of our purpose — (vv.1-3) The Israelites were reminded of the big picture of God’s plan as they entered the Promised Land. Israel was chosen for the sake of the world. Their inheritance of Canaan was a sign of God’s claim on the entire creation. Retelling this story was vital lest they would forget the larger narrative of which their story was only a part.
- Reminds us of our allegiance — (vv.4-9) The "Shema" was Israel's prayer of allegiance to their King (v.4) accompanied by the command to devote themselves entirely to his service (v.5). They were to keep God's commandments in their “heart” (v.6) by constantly reciting and teaching them to their children and repeating them to themselves (vv.7-9). God's word was to be woven into the fabric of their life; the words were meant to travel from their "eyes" into their "mind" down to their "heart" to be worked out in their life ("hands").
- Reminds us of God’s presence — (vv.10-15) Just as Moses and Aaron constructed the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord dwelt within the tent, the same was to be true for individual Israelites. Through reading and reciting Scripture, they were to become living, breathing tabernacles, carrying within them God’s life and presence in visible ways wherever they went.
Israel was in a precarious position. They were about to enter the Promised Land but it could have all gone horribly wrong. Therefore, they needed to keep the story straight and fresh in their minds. They were to live that story (vv.1-3), pray it (vv.4-9), and not forget whose story they were a part of (vv.10-15). When their children asked about why things were they way they were, parents were to tell the story, passing God's word down the line (vv.20-25).
The same is true for us today. We were slaves but God intervened in his faithfulness and grace to rescue us from slavery and bring us to freedom. As Christians, we tell the same story of God's rescue. God, who was rich in mercy and grace, sent his Son to die on the cross and purchase our freedom from slavery. He then sent his Spirit to guide us to Promised Land. We must continue to tell that story so that, like Israel, we can be God’s means of rescuing others around us. We were saved not only for our sake, but like Israel, for the sake of the world.
READING FOR REFORM & RENEWAL — (2 Kings 22:1-23:3) Renewing Loyalty to God
In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, while the temple was being repaired, someone found an old, dusty scroll called the “Book of the Law” which was probably the book we call "Deuteronomy." The king heard the story of Israel's past and future, the blessings that come from obeying the covenant and the curses for disobedience, not least of which, the warning of exile. The public reading of Scripture had three positive results in that generation:
- Warns us of danger — The priest realized how far Israel had fallen short of keeping the covenant. The prophetess then told them bad things would happen if they didn't start paying attention to the words of the Law and turn as a nation to God. King Josiah was horrified to see the danger Israel was in. What motivated all this soul-searching? Reading Scripture! Scripture has the power to convict us of our situation and warn us to change our ways.
- Motives us to reform — The king gathered all the people to the temple to hear the Law read aloud. He then called on them to reform and renew their covenant promises their fathers had made to God at Mount Sinai. Again, the public reading of Scripture was at the heart of this national movement. The priestly desire for inner purity, the prophetic word of warning and judgment, and royal leadership into covenant renewal and reform all came through the public reading of Scripture.
- Teaches us accountability — Sadly, the kings after Josiah undid all his reforms and the nation went from bad to worse until they were eventually exiled. This teaches us a valuable lesson. We cannot rely on the reforms of previous generations. Every generation must read and wrestle with the Scriptures afresh because every generation faces different challenges than the one before it.
If we aren’t reading our Bibles from cover to cover we will be missing bits of story. Not only this, but we will be prone to develop a lopsided faith and a blindness to our faults. For Josiah, it was the Passover (2 Kgs. 23:21-22), but what might we be missing today? The only way to find out is to read the Scriptures. What was read and heard was made real by Josiah's reforms and actions. Every generation of God's people must repeat the pattern of publicly reading the Scriptures along with honest self-reflection.
READING FOR UNDERSTANDING & REJOICING — (Nehemiah 8:1-12) Rebuilding After Exile
After many of the exiles came back from Babylon to Jerusalem, Ezra and Nehemiah led the Israelites in restoring the ruined temple and city of Jerusalem. They worked faithfully, often against violent opposition, to get the work done. But it wasn't just a building project — it was a spiritual renewal. How did they contextualize their efforts? By the public reading of Scripture of course! Notice three things about the public reading of Scripture in this section:
- Requires interpretation — Reading Scripture aloud is good but sometimes it requires some help to understand it. The priests helped Ezra translate (from Hebrew to Aramaic) and interpret (“give the sense”) the Scriptures as they read. The “people understood the meaning” of the Scriptures (v.8) partly because of their diligent efforts to explain them and partly because the people were listening reverently and prayerfully (v.6).
- Accompanied with prayer — The correct attitude to hearing and understanding Scripture is to do so reverently and with prayer. We can't hope to soak it in just by glancing at it once in a while. The only way for Scripture to penetrate our hearts is to join our hearts with prayerful consideration while hearing it. We must desire to be challenged by it and to resolve to keep it. If we approach Scripture with open hands and open hearts it will take root within us and change us in unexpected ways as it did for the returned exiles in Ezra and Nehemiah's day.
- Results in celebration — The reaction of this prayerful, reverent listening to the word was the same as Josiah's and Hilkiah's before in 2 Kings 22. The people began to "weep" and "mourn" because they realized how far they had fallen short of God’s commands (v.9). But the Levites told them not to weep but instead to rejoice and celebrate. Why? Because they had understood the message (v.11). The words of God were making their way into their minds and hearts. The message was sinking in and would begin to transform their lives. This was cause for celebration!
Part of the beauty of Scripture is that it continues to teach us new things when we approach it expectantly. It is a word that needs unpacking but when we understand it we should celebrate in its effects.
READING AS GOD’S WORK IN THE WORLD — (1 Timothy 4:6-16) Modeling Life as Christians
In the New Testament, Timothy was to model the total Christian life by immersing himself in the Scriptures, paying careful attention to living them out in his own life and also by teaching them to others. We should not take it for granted that people will always understand a passage of Scripture the first time they hear it. It should be read and unpacked. Like Ezra and the Levites before Timothy, evangelists today must "give the sense" of the Scriptures and make practical applications so that we can all have our “hope set on the living God” and the future he has in store for us.
How does Scripture become the vehicle of God’s power in the world? When it’s read aloud, heard reverently, interpreted correctly, understood and acted upon. God’s power is brought to bear in and through us to the world by the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17).