January 23, 2012

Public Reading of Scripture

Part 5 in a series on the church’s “liturgy

“Give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” So said the apostle Paul to Timothy, his protégé, in 1 Timothy 4.13. In other words, when the people of God gather for worship, they ought not simply hear someone talking about the Bible; they ought also to be given the privilege of simply hearing the Bible itself!

That seems very straightforward, does it not? In fact, it might seem obvious that Timothy would read the Bible aloud without Paul having to tell him to do so. So why does Paul command it? Why would Paul have felt the need to write Timothy, urging him not to forget to read the scriptures aloud in public worship? Perhaps because he knew that Timothy and his people (like most church leaders and congregations) might well be eager to get to the more ‘engaging’ parts of the liturgy – to the singing, the preaching, and so on. It’s human nature to want to quickly get to what we ourselves have prepared for the service, and to bypass the simpler, less theatrical things. So Paul reminds Timothy not to skim past the scripture reading, but to “give attention” to it.

This element of worship was doubly important in the early church era. In those days, many of the church members were illiterate slaves – intelligent enough, mind you, to follow Paul’s difficult logical arguments; but unable to decipher the language in which they were written! Add to that the fact that the printing press had yet to be invented, and we realize that even those church-goers who could actually read would have been unlikely to have a personal copy of the scriptures for private perusal. Therefore, for most Christians, the only time they got to hear the Scriptures was when they came to church! What a tragedy it would have been, therefore, to come on a Sunday and hear a sermon on a single verse (like Matthew 27.46 this past Sunday), but to have no other Bible read to you on this one weekly occasion for hearing it! So, in addition to the sermon (which was vital, in Paul’s estimation), attention needed also to be given to reading longer portions of scripture … so that a broader access to the whole Bible might be achieved for each member of the church.

Now what does this mean for us? We all have Bibles at home, and can read them any time we want, right? So maybe the public reading of scripture is not quite as important for us as it was in Paul’s day. Maybe. But it seems to me that, though our generation has more access to the Bible (in every imaginable format!) than any generation before us, we are still, overall, the most biblically illiterate generation since the Protestant Reformation! Even those of us who know quite a lot of Bible would have circles run around us by some of the illiterate folks of centuries gone by! Why? Because, as much emphasis as we put on private Bible reading and study, most Christians aren’t as consistent as they’d like to be. Most Christians don’t get near as much Bible into their systems as we ought! Therefore I conclude that the public reading of scripture is as vital today as ever! Even if we ourselves struggle to stay disciplined at home, at least we can know that, if we are in church 52 Sundays a year (and maybe on Wednesdays too), we are going to hear a significant chunk of the Bible in spite of our private inconsistency!

Let me also point out that the public reading of scripture is invaluable in several other ways as well.

Having heard the scripture read aloud enlivens our subsequent singing and praying. Surely, having heard God speak, we are in a much better frame for speaking to Him ourselves, than if we’d just opened our lips cold turkey.

Hearing the scripture read by another will often help us notice nuances of meaning we may have missed on our own. When the Bible is read publically, it is to be hoped that the reader has given enough prior attention to the passage to be able to emphasize repetitions, grammatical constructions, and even voice inflections that might be overlooked when simply reading flat words on the pages. Very often, those changes of voice or cadence will help his hearers see something quite valuable in the text that they would not have noticed at home.

The public reading of the scriptures sends a subconscious message to the congregation that God’s word really is important. We come to church, not merely to speak or sing to God, but to heard from God. And we come, not to hear the pastor’s thoughts on a given topic, but to be given God’s thoughts! And we are greatly helped to remember these facts when we actually set aside a few minutes in the service when no one but God is voicing his or her thoughts, ideas, studies, emotions, or even praise.

These are the reasons is why, whether in prayer meeting, or on Wednesday night, or in our Lord’s Day worship, we always include a scripture reading. And these are surely the reasons why God has commanded that we “give attention to the public reading of scripture.” I hope you will join me as we all give that attention!

No comments: