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The Public Reading of Scripture

We do it whenever a worship service is held in this room. A passage or passages from the Bible are read aloud. And this happens in just about every church on earth. We don’t just read it to ourselves quietly. No. Someone stands up and reads it for all to hear. We may be following on our phones or in a Bible but we listen to it.

The Bible was meant to be read, but it was also meant to be heard. When my niece was about 10 years old her mother found her one day sitting on the outside step reading the Bible out loud to the cat. Her mother asked her what she was doing and Sami said, “I just think the Bible needs to be read out loud.” Pretty perceptive for a young girl.

Today the Bible is easily accessible. We have them in our homes. We can have Amazon deliver a copy the next day. We have it electronically on our phones and computers. But for most of history, owning a personal Bible was practically unheard of because of the rarity and expense of copies of Scripture. In fact, during ancient times, it was common even for those who did have opportunities for personal reading to read aloud to themselves.

In 1 Timothy 4:13 Paul writes to Timothy and says, “…devote yourself to the public reading of scripture.”

I Timothy is the first of two letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to a young Christian leader named Timothy. Timothy was like a son to Paul. He traveled and ministered with Paul. Paul begins this letter, “To Timothy, my true son in the faith.”

This letter is Paul instructing how Timothy is to pastor the churches where he is. Remember, Christianity is a new thing. It has just barely been called Christianity. And everyone is working out how Christians should live and worship. This letter is filled with instructions about how to do things in a church.

And near the end of this letter Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of scripture. The scripture Paul refers to was the Old Testament. There was no New Testament yet. The New Testament was being formed, you might say. And, of course, they had to read it aloud because no one had a personal copy of the Bible. Someone might have copies of the scrolls of the Old Testament so if everyone was going to hear what was in there it had to be read out loud.

Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of the scripture, and then to preaching and teaching, because any good preaching and teaching has to be from the scripture. A good sermon has many parts but one of them is that it has to help us better understand whatever scripture is read. I don’t care how eloquent, funny, cute, good looking or intelligent a preacher is, if you don’t understand something more about the scripture that was read after hearing a sermon, the sermon did not do its job.

The public reading of scripture is a spiritual practice that is thousands of years old. The people of God have been doing it at least since the time of Moses. In Exodus 24 we hear of Moses taking the Book of the Covenant and reading it to all the people of Israel.[1]

In another place, we hear how Moses instructed the priests to read the law of the Lord before all the people every seven years so that all men, women and children could hear it.[2]

After Moses, Joshua “read all the words of the law” to the whole assembly of Israel to instruct the people and so they could know how they were to live before the Lord.[3]

When the Scriptures had been buried away for hundreds of years due to neglect and apathy toward God, and were rediscovered by King Josiah it says that he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant.[4]

This morning we read a part of the book of Nehemiah that tells how Ezra, the priest, read from the Book of the Law of Moses too all the people of Israel. Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. After the project was completed there was a reading of the law reminding them how they were to live before their God. It says Ezra “read it aloud from daybreak till noon…in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand.” And it says the people listened “attentively.”

Luke records how Jesus read the scripture aloud in the synagogue of Capernaum.[5] One day he was the reader and he read a portion of the prophet Isaiah.

And this is in the book of Revelation, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take it to heart…”[6] Blessed are those who read aloud.

We have a piece of writing in an ancient Christian historical document that comes from the second century. It is about one hundred years after the time of Christ It is by a man named Justin Martyr. He describes what those first Christians did when they worshipped.

He writes,

“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.”[7]

From the earliest days of our faith, people gathered to hear the word read. It was fundamental to why they gathered.

In Jewish worship services the entire Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible – are read all the way through, out loud, every year. That’s a lot of reading. They do it because of their reverence for the word of God.

Certain Christians traditions will have up to four readings from the Bible in every service. Personally, I like that.

In the Church of Scotland, the worship service often begins with a large Bible carried down the aisle in a procession. The purpose is to draw people’s attention to it and to symbolize the word of God as central to the worship service.

Lector is the name of people who read the Scripture lessons in churches. “Lector” means “reader.” When the Scripture is read, there is 1) the power of reading aloud, 2) the power of reading well, and 3) the power of hearing.

The Power of Reading Aloud

It is a different experience to hear the words out loud than when we just read them silently to ourselves. I have heard those reading Scripture in a worship service break down in emotion because of what they are reading. One time at a Good Friday service a woman was reading the part of the crucifixion where the people shout for Jesus to be crucified. Reading and hearing the words were so powerful that she broke down and had to stop to compose herself.

When preparing a sermon, I will read a passage of scripture I am preaching over and over to myself. But then I read it aloud before the congregation and I see something or hear something that I did not get in all my silent reading. Something new jumps out and I remember that I should have been reading it aloud all along.

Hearing the words out loud give them life in a way merely seeing them silently on a page or screen does not.

The Power of Reading Well

When Scripture is read aloud for others it should be read well. The passage needs to be read clearly. It needs to be read at a pace that is not rushed. It needs to be read with a full voice so that people can hear. Scripture is best heard when it is read with inflection. It doesn’t need to be dramatic but with some feeling and emphasis where appropriate.

The tone of a passage needs to be considered. Reading Psalm 23 is different than reading the narrative of the birth of Christ. Reading passages of Jesus’ crucifixion needs a different tone than when Jesus heals the lame man. Reading part of a letter of Paul is different than reading part of the Exodus.

The Scripture needs to be prepared and practiced by whoever is reading. Reading Scripture needs to be done with care, with respect, and reverence.

It’s not a performance. It is a reading. The reading should invite people into the reading and help people hear it.

Last Sunday I had the honor of preaching at the ordination and installation of the new pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City. As I listened to the scripture being read before the sermon I was drawn into it and found myself paying attention because of how well it was being read.

I am so appreciative of the readers in our church. It is a blessing to read the Scripture in a worship service. I personally love the times I read the Bible readings in worship services. First of all I don’t have to think of what to say. But there is a beauty in reading the Bible.

In our bible studies I ask people to read portions. Of course, you don’t have time to prepare but to read that well so all can hear is a blessing to everyone.

I would hope the Scripture reading (s) would be read so well that people notice them as much as a song or the sermon. I would hope people would go home and later that Sunday remember the Scripture reading and something they heard in it. Some word, phrase or idea that sticks with you.

It is the word of God. God speaks through this. And while the sermon certainly speaks, first we need to hear the Scripture.

The Power of Hearing

Certainly the reader plays a huge part in the public reading of Scripture. But there is another part: the part of the hearer.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, is there still a noise? If a person reads a passage of Scripture out loud in an empty sanctuary, is the word heard? You gotta have ears!

After teaching a parable Jesus once said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” He said this on other occasions as well. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” Jesus tells us to not only listen but to hear. He said this to emphasize that what he said needed attention. Do you have ears to hear? Because when we truly hear, the words become a part of us. They get into us and do a work.

It is so easy for something to go in one ear and out the other. The Scripture can be read as clearly, as faithfully, as sensitively as possible. But if we aren’t tuned in it doesn’t matter. We need to be receptive.

Today we can hear the words of Scripture out loud whenever we want. There are apps on our phone where we can listen to the Bible being read. We can look it up on our computer and listen to Scripture read. We can listen to it sitting, walking, driving, exercising, cooking, gardening.

Do you know one of the most popular podcasts right now is called “The Bible In A Year”? In fact it is one of the five most popular podcasts of all. Everyday Father Mike Schmitz, a Catholic priest, reads a passage or two from the Bible. He gives a brief reflection and a prayer, but most of it is just reading Scripture out loud. He goes through the entire Bible in 365 days. Not every word of the Bible, but a good portion of it.

There are over two million podcasts available to people that can be downloaded and listened to on any phone or computer. They range any number of topics and subjects. You can get podcasts for just about anything that interests you.

Father Schmitz said, “There are so many voices that are saying stuff and a lot of them are saying really wise things. Even with those wise things that I allow myself to listen to, I found myself allowing myself to get constantly distracted and also distressed by just like this constant bombardment so I thought what I need is something more permanent that is deeper that is more eternal than just another voice.”

Isn’t that the truth. The bombardment of the news is constant. It often disturbs my spirit and puts before me huge conflicts that I can’t do anything about. And it does it at a high decibel volume.

So Father Schmitz pitched the idea of a podcast reading Scripture to a publishing house. They went for it. Father Schmitz sat in an empty room with a simple recording device and started reading from Genesis. The first podcast was January 1, 2021. The next day someone called and said, “Your podcast is number one in the country.” The producer asked, “You mean among religion?” The person said no, it was number one of all podcasts. More popular than sports, entertainment, news, political, drama, cooking, science or music podcasts.

By the end of the year there had been about 150 million downloads of the podcast. A podcast where someone reads Scripture out loud and listeners hear it.

I mentioned at the beginning of the book of Revelation it says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take it to heart…”[8] Let’s come back this this.

This assumes that there will be Christians who gather to worship and part of that worship service will be a reading to be heard. The Bible assumes this will and should happen.

It says there is a blessing for the one who reads aloud the words of Revelation. I want to apply this to the entire Bible. There is a blessing when we read and receive the words of any Scripture.

But there is another blessing. There is a blessing for those who hear what is read and take it to heart. And take it to heart. To take something to heart is to receive it, believe it, and let it become part of our life. And when we do this with the words of God, blessings come from God. God pours things into our lives that are gifts from him. This happens in the reading and hearing of his words.

Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture. This was a fundamental instruction to a Christian leader and the church has been following it ever since. Read it out loud. Let the people hear it. Then preach and teach. Tell them what it means.

This is more than just a set up for the sermon. It is the word of the Lord. So it will be read aloud. Let’s read it well. And let’s hear it well.

Prayer: Lord give us ears to hear. Spirit awaken us to your word. Thank you that we have the Scriptures to read and hear. Now as we prepare to come to the table, we lift up our hearts to you in praise for your grace in our lives. Amen.

[1] Exodus 24:7 [2] Deuteronomy 31:11 [3] Joshua 8:34-35 [4] 2 Kings 23:1-3 [5] Luke 4` [6] Revelation 1:3 [7] From 1 Apology 1.67; ANF 1:186 [8] Revelation 1:3

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