The Public Reading of Scripture: Instructions for Readers

|

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” (1 Timothy 4:13)

The Public Reading of Scripture

God’s word is the most important word that is heard when the church gathers for worship. The public reading of Scripture, therefore, has always been of central importance to God’s gathered people:

  • “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people.” (Exodus 24:7)
  • “You shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.” (Deuteronomy 31:11)
  • “And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.” (Joshua 8:34–35)
  • See also 2 Kings 23:1–2 and Nehemiah 8:2–3.

Jesus modeled the ancient practice of the public reading of Scripture:

  • “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” (Luke 4:16)

It is Christ’s will for his church to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, faithfully reading God’s word for God’s people week after week:

  • “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” (1 Timothy 4:13)
  • “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” (Colossians 4:16)
  • “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.” (1 Thessalonians 5:27)

For an excellent introduction to the public reading of Scripture, see the “Public Reading of Scripture” video by the Bible Project. “Reading the Bible aloud with a group of people is an ancient practice. In fact, the origins of the Bible are deeply rooted in the public reading of Scripture.”

The Reader or Lector

From the earliest times, members of the church were appointed to assist in the public reading of Scripture. Revelation 1:3 refers to a recognized reader, “the one who reads aloud”:

  • “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3).

In his First Apology, Justin Marty describes the weekly worship of the early Christians. A lengthy portion of the service was devoted to the public reading of Scripture by “the reader” who assisted “the president” of the assembly (e.g., the Senior Pastor):

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. (Chapter 67)

 Readers are also called “lectors,” from a Latin word for “reader.”

The Readings and Lectionary

Rather than randomly or haphazardly selecting Scripture passages each week, it is wise to have a plan to ensure that major portions of Scripture are not overlooked. This is in keeping with the biblical principle of orderly worship (1 Corinthians 14:40) and aids in “declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

Across the centuries, churches have developed cycles of readings known as lectionaries. John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America included a lectionary that was adapted from the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer.

The Revised Common Lectionary (available online at lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/) draws on many historic lectionaries to provide a three-year cycle of weekly readings. For example, Year A focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, Year B focuses on the Gospel of Mark, and Year C focuses on the Gospel of Luke. Each week includes four readings:

  1. A reading from the Old Testament (“first reading”)
  2. A Psalm
  3. A reading from the Epistles (“second reading”)
  4. A Gospel reading

During the Easter season, the Old Testament reading is usually replaced with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. 

The first three readings are typically read by the lector from a lectern, while the Gospel is read by a clergyman from the pulpit.

The Lectern

Churches with a historic floor plan have a lectern that is separate from the pulpit and is devoted entirely to the public reading of Scripture. A church that is serious about reading Scripture will find that this is immensely practical: it allows for a large Bible (e.g., the ESV Pulpit Bible) to be kept open for the reader at all times. At our church, the pulpit is fairly small, so it would be difficult to keep a large Bible there throughout the service.

From the congregation’s perspective, the lectern is placed on the left side of the church, while the pulpit is placed on the right side, and the communion table (aka altar) is placed at the center.

Instructions for Lectors

Those who are formally or informally appointed to the office of lector should be given some instruction in how to publicly read Scripture. Before the Sunday worship service:

  1. Make sure you know which passages you are supposed to read, and at what point in the service you are supposed to read them. If you forget or are uncertain, call your pastor.
  2. Practice reading the passages out loud in advance.
  3. Look up the pronunciation of any words that you are unsure about. For example, listen to the passage in an Audio Bible.
  4. Audio Bibles can also provide you with an example of how to read Scripture aloud in a way that is clear and compelling. Remember that public reading is an art. To do it well takes practice. Since reading God’s word to God’s people is a high honor and responsibility, it is appropriate to set aside time to intentionally develop your reading skills (see resources below).

During the Sunday worship service: 

  1. Walk to the lectern as soon as it is your time to read.
  2. The congregation may remain seated during the Scripture reading.
  3. Unless you feel led by the Spirit to say something, simply announce the reading (e.g., “A reading from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 1, Verses 18 through 31”).
  4. Pause for three or four seconds for those who want to look up the passage in their Bibles and follow along.
  5. Read the passage slowly, with a clear and confident voice.
  6. When you are finished, say, “This is the word of the Lord.”
  7. Return to your seat immediately.

Resources for Further Study

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.