The Public Reading of Scripture

Quite some time ago, I was studying some of the practices of the ancient apostolic church and ran across some of the writings of Justin Martyr.  In his Apology 1.67, he describes just a portion of what took place in ancient times:

. . . and on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. . .
In conjunction with that bit of information, during that time I had immersed myself in the Pastoral Epistles and ran across Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to give attention to “reading” in 1 Timothy 4:13.  I had mostly assumed all the years that I had read that verse was the implication of reading books that went along with the Bible.  Commentaries and other books that would open up the Word even more is what I had thought Paul was encouraging Timothy to do.  However, one day I happened to read that same passage in another translation and it added a few words.  Paul told Timothy that until he returned that Timothy was to give himself to public reading of Scripture, to teaching, and to exhortation.  Those two matters struck a chord with me concerning the public worship services that I am involved with in the church I pastor.  Furthermore, I remembered my days in Texas Bible College in Houston (1989-92) when I was assigned to Pastor James Kilgore’s church.  At the time, it was one of the flagship churches in our organization with an attendance of around 2500+ and it was generally always like walking into a spiritual oasis.  One of their practices was at the beginning of each service for an elderly retired missionary to lead the congregation in the reading of a very short segment of Scripture.  He would read one verse and then congregation would read the next verse in alternating fashion.  That memory brought a practice to life in our church.

A great concern that I have in our time is the very overwhelming biblical illiteracy that faces our nation, local congregations, and even the ministry that attempts to serve in these churches.  I probably work far too hard with preaching and teaching the Word but because I have become convinced that it is my main priority (Acts 6:4) therein lies my emphasis on it.  One of the ways that felt that I could combat this biblical illiteracy was to incorporate the public reading of the Bible during our Sunday night services.  We continue to have an active Sunday School program along with a Wednesday night Bible study.  I would also note that our Wednesday night service is also marked by a concentrated time of prayer where we still kneel and pray for the needs of our church.  So, there was already a Word emphasis in those services but I felt to add it to Sunday night would help us as well.    

I little over a year ago, I asked my son, Nate, to start in Psalm 119 and read two stanzas which was sixteen verses.  He would read it and the congregation would read aloud with him as well.  We integrated this practice directly after receiving our offering.  Since that time, we have completed Psalm 119, Hebrews, Psalms 121-134 (Songs of Ascent), Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, portions of Isaiah, Philippians, Ephesians, Psalms 1-10 (ongoing), 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.  This has been another practice that I have tried to get our congregation to treasure the Word.  I also have stressed the need for everyone to have a hard copy of a Bible and not to rely on electronic gadgetry sorts of devices.  While I am not opposed to them necessarily, I have said it numerous times that when solid saints die and pass from this life, no one will want their iPhone but they will highly treasure a marked up, prayed over, tear stained Bible far more. 

In closing, I would offer just a few practical suggestions.  It is important that you choose someone who is a good reader to lead the congregation in reading.  I would never want to embarrass someone who was a halting reader.  It is important to break up the passages like the Sermon on the Mount.  I used the paragraph markings to make sure the context of SOM was held intact.  That is probably the only reading that I had to do so.  The rest of the readings were pretty much held to reading a single chapter at a time which seemed to work well although there are times when you read 20 or more verses.  This may the longest reading that any of your congregants do during their entire week.  I have tried to discourage for the reading to turn into a “preaching” sort of reading as you might find in a Pentecostal sermon.  It is also necessary for the reader to be confident and call the text off at least three times.  I have discouraged the readers from telling people to say “Amen” when they get to the text because if pages are still turning, the slower people will get to the text after the public reading has started. 

All in all, it has been a good experience for everyone in our church.  You can see children following along and reading aloud as well as the other end of the age spectrum with our elders.  It is my hopes that this will be a practice you consider starting in your church.  It is just another way to add to our familiarity with the Word. 

Thanks for reading. . .



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