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Devote Yourself to the Public Reading: Enhancing the Role of Scripture Reading in Worship

The Bible often is read poorly in our church services; but when read well, it can minister as deeply as a Spirit-empowered sermon. Unfortunately, in many churches public reading of the Bible is little more than homiletical throat clearing before the sermon; but as W.E. Sangster asserted: "Bible reading offers the widest scope for the enrichment of public worship, and it is a great pity that the Scriptures are often so badly read…When the Book is well read and made to live for the people, it can do for them what sermons often fail to d It can be the very voice of God to their souls."

Craddock concurs, observing, "For all the noise ministers make about the centrality of the Bible in the church, the public reading of Scripture in many places does not support that conviction."  Public reading is important because of the principle lex ordandi lex credendi (worship practices display the Church's belief, and they also form the beliefs themselves).

Allow me to offer five arguments which can provide grounding to increase the quantity and quality of our public reading.

Argument #1: We are commanded to read the Bible publicly.
I'm referring to 1 Timothy 4:13, "Devote yourself to the public reading." The word devote (Gk. prosecho) means to "hold the mind toward" or "pay attention to, give heed to, or apply oneself."

Paul's command to Timothy needs to be understood in light of first century culture when few people knew how to read and very few manuscripts existed. That was a day of chirography (handwriting), not typography with mechanically produced texts. If a pastor wanted to build up his people in the most holy faith, it was mandatory to read the Bible aloud.

In contrast, today nearly everyone can read, and most people who are churched have multiple copies of the Bible; but our literacy and wealth of Bibles does not mean we're actually reading them. Biblical illiteracy may be higher today than it was in the first century. Summarizing general themes on spirituality in America for the year 2009, Barna states: "Biblical literacy is neither a current reality nor a goal" in the United States. This is a major factor contributing to the fact that Americans, including churched people, do not have a Christian worldview. According to Barna, only 19 percent of born-again people have a Christian worldview. We are ignorant of God's promises and requirements.

Even when church goers are aware of those promises and requirements, they need regular reminders. C.S. Lewis captured this dynamic of the Christian life in The Silver Chair. Aslan commands Jill to "seek the lost Prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father's house, or else died in the attempt."

"'How, please?' says Jill."

"'I will tell you, Child,' says the Lion. ‘These are the Signs by which I will guide you in your quest.'"

Aslan proceeds to give Jill four Signs. They are a mixture of clear specifics and vague generalities, but they are sufficient to help her do her duty. Aslan sends her on the quest with this exhortation:

"Remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the Signs…I give you a solemn warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind…Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters."

As you know, if you have read the marvelous Chronicles, Jill and her cousin Eustace vault from one adventure to another. At first, Jill is faithful in reviewing the Signs daily; but gradually she lets them slide. She mixes up the wording, forgets sections and does not use them when she has to make decisions. It results in near disaster; but fortunately, she remembers and obeys enough to help her fulfill the quest.

The air here is thick, and our minds often become foggy. We need to be reminded, so God commands us to read Scripture publicly. In this way, we can help God's people follow His signs.

Argument #2: When we read the Bible publicly, we do what the people of God always have done.
As Eugene Peterson said: "There is a millennia-deep and globe-encircling community of others who are also at the table eating this book." In earliest times, God communicated by voice and visions. Then a critical shift came when Israel left Egypt. The Word of God was written down. Ephemeral sound was calcified in script, and oral repetition of that script became the center of worship as Israel regularly renewed its covenant with God."

• Public reading and renewing of the covenant began when Moses received God's law (Exodus 24:3-7): "Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. All the people answered with one voice and said, 'All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.' Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord…Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of all the people."

• Public reading continued near Moses' death as he instructed the nation (Deuteronomy 31:10-13): "At the end of every seven years…at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God…you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and little ones—and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God , and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God."

• Joshua carried on the program of public reading as Israel entered the Promised Land (Joshua 8:30-35): "In the presence of the people of Israel, [Joshua] wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses…And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them on Mount Gerazim and half of them stood in front of Mount Ebal…He read all the words of the law…There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly."

• As the nation was established in the Promised Land, Scripture reading was central at the annual festivals of Passover, Firstfruits and Booths when all Israelite males were required to "present themselves before the Lord" (Exodus 23:14-17), an expression which was shorthand for covenant renewal. Thus Robert Webber concluded that "Jewish worship always has had Scripture at the center of its worship."

• In time, the Word was forgotten and the people slipped into idolatry. Israel no longer reviewed and remembered the Signs. While they still offered sacrifices, they did not celebrate the major festival, Passover (2 Kings 23:22-23; 2 Chronicles 35:18), or minor festivals; so they did not hear about their covenant relationship and stipulations. The prophets corroborate this situation (Isaiah 5:13; Jeremiah 4:22; Hosea 4:1-14; Malachi 2:1-9). Then, under King Josiah, the Word was rediscovered. Shaphan read the Law in the presence of the king, and the king called all the people together "from the least to the greatest" and he "read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant" (2 Kings 23:2).

• During the Exile, Israelites living outside Palestine lifted the law to new heights. Away from the temple and altar, they studied how the law applied to them in pagan surroundings. The synagogue was born and the Jews met weekly, not just during annual festivals, to hear the Word read.

• After the Exile, revival took place under Ezra as the people heard the Word of God (Nehemiah 8:5-8): "Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, 'Amen, Amen,' lifting their hands. They bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground…They read clearly from the book, from the law of God; and they gave the interpretation so the people understood the reading."

• Around the time of Christ, worship in the synagogue included readings from multiple passages—the Law, Prophets and Writings. Jesus read part of one of those passages as He inaugurated His ministry (Luke 4:16-18). Similarly, Paul preached in Antioch of Pisidia after the readings of the Law and Prophets (Acts 13:15-16; cf. Acts 15:21). In Palestine, the Torah was read in cycles of roughly three and a half years. While reading of Scripture was crucial to synagogue worship (as it still is today), the sermon was optional.

• The New Testament Church continued the synagogue practice of public reading of the Hebrew Bible and added the writings of the apostles. Thus, Paul commanded Timothy, "Devote yourself to the public reading" (1 Timothy 4:13). He said, in effect, to continue the millennia-deep tradition.

• The Church fathers did so, as well: Justin Martyr, in Rome in the mid-second century, said that in their services people gathered to hear Scripture read "as long as time permits." Bryan Chapell said, "by the end of the fourth century, the dominant liturgical pattern included three readings: one from the Old Testament and two from the New, an epistle and a gospel. The last reading was always the gospel, and the people stood during this reading." Some lectionaries of Mesopotamia had four lessons for public reading, others had six; feast days probably stipulated even more readings. If you attended one of those Mesopotamian churches, you would've heard an average of 50-80 verses each Sunday.

• Early in the fourth century, the office of "reader" was one of the ministerial roles. Albert Newman wrote in A Manual of Church History, "The duty of readers was to read the Scripture from the reading desk. Very few Christians had copies of the Scripture, and the great mass of the people were dependent upon hearing them read at church." The scarcity of written Scripture elevated the value of the spoken Word.

• During the Reformation, a time marked by a return to the Word, the Anabaptist movement stands out. John Christian said: "Among the skilled artisans, journeyman and better situated peasants of the early 16th century, there were not a few who could read sufficiently to make out the text of the German Bible, whilst those who could not read would form a circle around those who could; the latter, from the [coin] of intellectual advantage, would not merely read, but often would expound the text after their own fashion to the hearers. These informal Bible readings became one of the chief functions among Baptists.

• Puritan services in the American colonies around the time of Jonathan Edwards (mid-1700s) read an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, each at least a chapter in length, and sang a metrical psalm. As the Directory for the Public Worship of God specified, "How large a portion shall be read at once is left to the wisdom of the minister, but it is convenient, that ordinarily a chapter of each testament be read at every meeting [three times a week] and sometimes more [when] the chapters [are] short or the coherence of matter requireth it."

Based on the prominence public reading of Scripture has had through the millennia, Timothy Raltson said, "Public reading and preaching within worship exposes His demands, our  inadequacy and His grace. It calls for covenant renewal and lies at the heart of spiritual revival. Therefore, how can we offer acceptable worship if His Word does not have a prominent place in our liturgy?"

Argument #3: God transforms us through the Word.
It is a fire that burns away dross (Jeremiah 23:29), a hammer that breaks stony hearts (Jeremiah 23:9), rain that waters crops (Isaiah 55:10-11), milk that nourishes babies (1 Peter 2:2), food that fills the hungry (Hebrews 5:12-13), a sword that pierces the heart and battles the devil (Hebrews 4:12; Ephesians 6:17), a mirror that shows us our true selves (James 1:23-25) and a lamp that illumines our path (Psalms 119:105; Proverbs 6:23; 2 Peter 1:19).

Our belief in the power of the Word should influence our practice. Would an unchurched visitor to our worship services conclude that we believe in announcements more than the Word and skillful music more than skillful reading? It goes without saying that announcements can be useful and that skillful music is delightful, but let us not neglect the Word! The quantity and quality of our reading should demonstrate the expectation that God transforms us through the Word which is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). God's Word has power to create, rule and redeem.

Concerning Creation:
"By the word of the Lord the heavens were made" (Psalms 33:6).
Concerning ruling:
"Forever, O Lord, Your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Your faithfulness endures to all generations; You have established the earth and it stands fast. By Your appointment they stand this day" (Psalms 119:89-90).
"He sends out His command to the earth; His word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; He scatters frost like ashes" (Psalms 147:15-16). 
Concerning redemption:
"They cried to the Lord in their trouble; and He saved them from their distress; He sent out His word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction" (Psalms 107:19-20).
We are "born again, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Peter 1:23).
"He gave us birth by the word of truth" (James 1:18) which "has the power to save your souls" (James 1:23) by the "washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:26).

No wonder Mahatma Gandhi said, "You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilization to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of good literature." 

Argument #4: The Bible was meant to be read aloud.
Before it was inscribed on vellum and papyrus, the stories, proverbs and poetry of the Bible circulated orally; after the oral literature was written, it continued to be transmitted orally. Literature in the ancient world was spoken, not read silently, even when someone was reading privately. That is the reason Philip knew the Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah before joining him in his chariot (Acts 8:27), and the celebrated passage from Augustine's Confessions, where he happened upon Ambrose who was reading privately also reflects the fact that reading aloud was the norm. In fact, reading silently became common only in the 18th century. Thus the Bible, indeed all ancient literature, is an "arrested performance" as is a musical score.

The Bible alludes to its aural quality in verses such as Revelation 22:18: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book"; and Hebrews 1:1-2, Hebrews 2:1: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son…Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard."

Even epistles, the genre that might seem to be most coupled to writing, were prepared orally in community, then orally dictated to a scribe and then orally delivered to the intended audience through public reading. Thus, Colossians 4:16 states, "After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans." Even a letter such as Philemon, the most personal of all New Testament epistles, was read aloud to the church that met in his home (Philemon 1:1-2).

The Bible originated as oral communication, was then inscripturated (written), and then transmitted from voice to ear. This is still the case today in much of the Church. Of the 3,000 or so languages, only about 80 have a written literature. One researcher, Dave McClellan, estimates that for 90 percent of the timeline of God's people, personal texts of the Bible were virtually unknown for commoners. He said: "Most of the people of God, for most of sacred history, have had to get along in the faith without the benefit of a personal Bible or any sustained and systematic obligation to read it for themselves. Somehow common folk were converted, prayed, parented, served, evangelized, learned biblical content and activated their faith in the world using only the oral/aural reception of the Word of God that they heard articulated from the synagogue or parish lectern.

This is not an argument to return to the good old days, but it is an argument that throughout history the Bible was read aloud in public; and even today we should include large doses of such reading to augment private reading. Quoting Harris, McClellan said: "The church's leaders recognized that if Christian writings were to have much effect on the masses, they would have to be transmitted orally."

Argument #5: Hearing the Word is different than reading it silently.
In The Presence of the Word, theologian and communication scholar Walter Ong demonstrated that in the ancient world, hearing a text was thought of as an encounter with a person. In contrast, typography connotes the absence of the author. This leads Eugene Peterson to caution, "Caveat lector!" Let the reader beware! God may show up, and we may encounter Him.

Hearing and seeing a reader embody the text is a different experience than silently pondering a script in the privacy of the study. Ong goes as far as to say that oral-aural man's "whole response to actuality is…organized differently from that of typographic man."  This chart summarizes some of the differences.

The Bible as Written Text
Perceived with the eyes.
Private, individualistic.
Rate of communication is under the control of the reader. This enables practices such as repetition and skimming.
Privileges analysis.
Implies the absence of the author.
Permanent.
Past.
The Bible as Spoken Message
Perceived with multiple senses—primarily hearing but also sight as we look at the reader and the environment. May use other senses also.
Shared, communal.
Rate of communication is under the control of the speaker. The flow of information proceeds like a river which cannot be slowed or accelerated unless the speaker allows it.
Fosters encounter.
Impossible without the presence of the speaker.
Ephemeral. It lasts until the echo fades.
Present.

Communication scholars estimate that 65 percent of all social meaning and 93 percent of emotional meaning is communicated through the non verbal channel.  That is, how you look and sound as you speak are the primary channels for communicating the nature of your relationship with the receiver (social meaning) and how you feel during the communication event (emotional meaning). Simply put, hearing a text read is a much more holistic experience than reading it silently.

Have you heard the Word read well? Vistas of new understanding open. I remember when I heard the entire Book of Hebrews recited from memory. I never had understood Hebrews before. It's about Jesus! He is superior to angels, superior to the Aaronic priesthood and superior to the Mosaic Law. So don't let your confidence slip! Similarly, I remember when I heard the Book of Mark read from beginning to end. I never knew before how kind Jesus was. Words written are caged; but when performed well, they fly.

The purpose of this article is to convince you to increase the quantity and quality of the reading in your ministry, but I don't want to end without at least a bit of equipping. Here is a very short list of ways you can increase the quantity and quality:

Stop treating Scripture reading as only a preliminary to the sermon.
Try reading passages related to the sermon subject but that are not expounded on in the sermon.

When preaching a book study, read the previous weeks' passages that lead up to this week's passage. I did this when preaching through 1 Corinthians, reading up to three chapters at a time. For the daily reading, we had the people stand.

Form a team of lay readers. Train them in the art of public reading, demonstrating how oral interpretation is an exegetical act. Andrew Blackwood rightly said, "emphasis is exposition." Do not thoughtlessly delegate public reading to anyone available on Sunday morning. With a pool of readers, you can choose someone with meaningful connection to the text such as a pregnant mother reading the Magnificant or a family reading the household instructions in Ephesians.

Let Scripture pervade the entire service: the call to worship, invocation, prayer and benediction. Try praying the psalms during the pastoral prayer.

Have the reader provide a brief introduction before reading. Explain context and other issues that will enhance understanding.

Comment briefly on the text as you read it. For example, add a parenthetic comment such as, "Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord…So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley"—foolish man— "and Lot journeyed eastward."

Leverage the power of proxemics, the use of spatial relations for communication. For example, when appropriate read while standing in the midst of the congregation, or have the people kneel while listening. Effective Bible reading is "embedded in the context of a personally speaking God and a prayerfully listening community."

Employ creativity. This has to be done with pastoral wisdom; but if your context permits, try a group reading or musical or visual accompaniment. I know of a church in Portland, Ore., which preached through Ephesians. In the final week of the series, no sermon was preached. Instead, a skillful reader memorized the whole book and presented it while guitar played, matching his mood, and an artist drew on large panels, capturing the ideas of the book.

Because Scripture commands it, the people of God have modeled it, and power is inherent in it, let us devote ourselves to the public reading of the Word, increasing the quantity and the quality of this vital ministry.

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