After fifteen months of preaching through Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, I concluded by publicly reading the six-chapter book. For several weeks, I wrestled with whether or not to do so; as far as I knew, it would be the first time that the congregation ever listened to an entire book of the Bible read from the pulpit in one session. My decision to follow through has solidified an ecclesiological conviction that has been developing in my mind for longer than I can remember.
1. Most churches have lost the Biblical and Traditional practice of the public reading of Scripture.
The first time I read the New Testament, the book of 1 Timothy was especially formative. Since I had never regularly attended church, I relied on the text for ideas about what a local gathering should look like. The epistle has shaped and reshaped my vision of the life of the church as I’ve given serious thought to Paul’s instructions to Pastor Timothy, including his words in 1 Timothy 4:13: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”
My first experience in a stable community of faith confirmed what I had read. My pastor, Rev. Jacob Martin, appointed me to the role of “Bible Reader.” Each week, I read a passage of Scripture—sometimes an entire chapter—as a regular part of corporate worship. As far as I knew, the public reading of Scripture was a common practice.
As I began to travel to churches across the country, however, I learned that the public reading of Scripture is, in fact, uncommon in some faith traditions. Moreover, I learned that some preachers lift one or two verses from the Bible, then proceed to preach “sermons” that are almost entirely disconnected from the Biblical, historical, or cultural context. In churches where public reading and expository preaching are not practiced, many Christians do not bring their Bibles to church. Although these churches talk about Scriptures, their gatherings are not characterized by looking at the Book. The Word is no longer central to their corporate worship.
Justin Boyer writes:
Bible reading has become a largely private practice—something we do in our own personal “quiet time.” A few verses, or perhaps as much as a chapter, are often read before the sermon on Sunday morning. But when was the last time you heard multiple chapters or, better yet, a whole book of the Bible publicly read aloud from beginning to end? This has become a relatively rare experience in the church. However, the public reading of Scripture is one of the most ancient, time-honored practices of God’s people that is recorded in Scripture. It is a practice that is repeatedly described and commended at crucial moments in redemptive history, from the very beginning to the very end of the Bible. In fact, it is something that God’s people are specifically commanded to do with devotion. As Paul told Timothy, his young pastoral protégé, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13, emphasis added).
2. Public reading of Scripture has been a normal practice of God’s people since the time of Moses.
Public reading of Scripture began in the Old Testament. In Exodus 24:7, Moses publicly read the Book of the Covenant after receiving it on Mt. Sinai. He instructed Israel in Deuteronomy 31:10-13 that the entire law was to be publicly read at the end of every seven years. In Joshua 8:34-35, Joshua publicly read all the words of the law after entering Canaan. In 2 Kings 23:1-2, Josiah began his reforms by publicly reading the Book of the Covenant after discovering it in the temple. In Nehemiah 8:3-4, Ezra and Nehemiah publicly read the law for hours on end to promote spiritual revival after the return from exile.
Public reading of Scripture continued in the New Testament. In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus publicly read Scripture in the synagogue. In Colossians 4:16, Paul instructed the Colossians and Laodiceans to publicly read his letters, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:27, he put the Thessalonians under oath to publicly read his letter. In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul charged Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture; it was to be an essential, ongoing practice in the life of the church.
Public reading of Scripture continued after the New Testament. Justin Martyr describes the worship practices of second-century Christians:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country gather together in 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. Then we all rise together and pray. (1 Apology 1.67; ANF 1:186, emphasis added)
3. Public reading of Scripture—especially whole books—helps us to experience the text in the way it was experienced by the original audience.
The Scriptures we have were written to be heard.
When Paul addressed letters to the churches, he expected them to be read aloud in a public setting. When Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, she likely handed it off to a lector who read and interpreted it to the assembly. When John wrote his Revelation for the seven churches, he promised a blessing to “the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” as well as to “those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (1:3). The first blessing was for “the one” (singular) who read the letter—the lector who publicly read the Revelation. The second blessing was for “those” (plural) who listened to and obeyed the letter—the reader’s audience.
While this was necessary in ancient times because copies were not available for everyone to read, the Scriptures we have were written to be heard. The Bible’s literary structure accommodates listeners who are unable to see punctuation or paragraphing. The public reading of Scripture is one way that every Christian in every age should experience God’s Word.
We should highly esteem the privilege of simply reading God’s Word together as God’s people. If the public reading of Scripture is boring to us, the problem is with us, not the Word. The Word is best experienced in community.
4. Reading a whole book of the Bible helps us to see the big picture of the book.
After eight or ten months into our journey in Galatians, I realized that most people were unable to recall former messages with enough clarity to make connections to later portions of the book. Observing connections between chapters six and two, or chapters five and one, proved to be difficult. When one reads the book as a whole after engaging in a long study, however, “light bulbs” begin to go off. One thinks, “O, I remember that!” and begins to view the book as a unified whole. It is always helpful to step back from three or four verses of exposition and read broadly. We had given Galatians an intensified look, so it was important to give it a broad look before moving on to a new study.
By listening to a lector in a public setting, one is better able to move through the text at a rapid pace, experience books as a unified whole, and absorb the key ideas.
While it is important to privately read whole books of the Bible as well, it is difficult for some readers. When one stumbles across a difficult or curious text, one tends to stop and linger long over those verses. Or, in the comforts of one’s own home, one is easily distracted during prolonged periods of reading. By listening to a lector in a public setting, one is better able to move through the text at a rapid pace, experience books as a unified whole, and absorb the key ideas.
May we reclaim the Biblical and Traditional practice of the public reading of Scripture—especially whole books.