What happened to the public reading of God’s Word?
A visit to many “evangelical” churches will confirm how few give serious attention to this biblically mandated part of corporate worship. Maybe some would suggest that in a highly literate culture where most have access to printed Bibles, public reading of the Scriptures is not as necessary. But the real issue is not whether people can read but do they read the Bible.
But whether people do read the Bible on their own or not, the Bible illustrates and declares that public reading is to be part of God-directed and God-centered worship. Consider the following passages:
1 Timothy 4:13 “Until I come, devote your yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (ESV) Though the Greek word “public” is not in the manuscript, almost all major English translations insert the word because of the definite article (“the”) used with the word “reading” and the context of the public acts of “exhortation” and “teaching.”
Luke 4:16-17 “And he (Jesus) came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and he entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. 17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And he opened the book, and found the place where it was written (and he read)…” (NIV)
Ezra 8:2-3 “And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday… (NIV)
It is important that we do not allow the sermon to become a substitute for the reading of the Bible. Both are necessary. Clay Schmit (author of The Public Reading of Scripture) points out that the sermon is really a secondary proclamation, God speaking through a preacher. “Reading the Word is God’s direct proclamation to us. You are called upon to be the human embodiment of the Word of God when you read Scripture publicly,” he says.
If you look again at the Ezra 8 passage you do have to ask yourself how practical it would be to read the Bible aloud each Sunday for 5-6 hours. And if you read further in that 8th chapter you find that the people stood for the reading (for 5 hours?).
Some suggestions for making the public reading of Scripture a joy and not a burden for listeners:
- Select readers whose voices are pleasant to the ear and easily understood and who are teachable as to public reading.
- The reader should know the passage and context well to be able to accurately communicate the intention of the writer.
- The reader should read the text with proper expression (the kind of expression that communicates the ideas accurately). A monotone reading or, conversely, an overly dramatic reading will detract.
- Select carefully the number of verses to be included in the reading. The passage needs to be long enough to capture the main idea of the text selected but not so long as to be difficult for people to maintain attention.
- Encourage people to follow along in their own Bibles (best) or with the text projected for all to see – what we see and hear is usually better comprehended.
- Use variety in the reading – responsive readings, two or more readers if it is a narrative dialog, etc.
- If the reader is visible to the listeners they should dress so as not to distract thus detract.
- Practice, practice, practice.
For more information see:
Reading the Bible and Praying in Public by Stuart Olyott (Banner of Truth)
The Public Reading of Scripture Clay Schmit (Abingdon)