A very important part of our church assemblies is allowing God to speak to us collectively through the public reading of his word. How do we make the most of this incredible opportunity?
We Must Appreciate What the Bible Is
The Bible claims to have come from God and to be all-sufficient to meet our spiritual needs (2 Tim. 3:14-17). Accepting this exalted claim demands our utmost respect and careful attention. Let us reverently acknowledge this collection of sacred writings, “even as it truly is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).1
Since the heavenly Father desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, he has providentially ensured this knowledge is available to all who are seeking.2 In 21st-century western societies, there is no legitimate excuse for biblical ignorance. God’s word is readily accessible. We can read, study, and learn from the Bible anytime we want. Are we taking full advantage of this wonderful privilege, or do we take it for granted?
We Must Consider What the Bible Says
Paul advises Timothy, as a good minister of Christ Jesus, to inform and edify the brethren through faithful instruction and example (1 Tim. 4:6-12), particularly “the reading [anágnōsis], the exhortation, the teaching” (v. 13). Paul’s directive includes the Greek noun anágnōsis, a combination of aná (“again”) + gnōsis (“knowledge”), essentially conveying the idea of knowing again through reading. An author transmits in writing what he knows, while readers “know again,” relive or experience what the author has recorded.3
The historical-cultural context of this passage involves the public reading of scripture (ESV, NASB, NIV; cf. Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14). From earliest times the Jews gave attention to the oral reading of God’s word (Ex. 24:1-7; Josh. 8:30-35; Neh. 8:1-9, 18; 9:3; 13:1), which became a regular part of the synagogue gatherings (Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21). Jesus customarily attended the synagogue and participated in the communal reading and exposition of the scriptures (Luke 4:16-22).
James, in the earliest NT epistle, encourages his audience to be doers of the implanted word and not just “hearers” (Jas. 1:21-25). The earliest of the Pauline documents says: “I solemnly charge you in the Lord, that this letter be read to all the brethren” (1 Thess. 5:27; cf. Col. 4:16). In the final apostolic manuscript, the apostle John pronounces a blessing on “the one reading and those hearing the words of the prophecy, and keeping the things having been written in it ...” (Rev. 1:3, emp. added).
Importance of Public Reading
With an extremely high illiteracy rate in the ancient Mediterranean world,4 the only way most people had access to God’s revealed will (miraculous gifts notwithstanding) was through the public reading of scripture. Moreover, even among the educated minority, in these early centuries no one had his or her own personal copy of the Bible. It was in the assemblies of the church, where scripture was read aloud, that the word of God was encountered.
The Bible was produced in a predominantly oral and aural culture. The OT writings were to a large extent composed with structural features designed for hearers rather than readers.5 The documents comprising the NT were also designed to be read aloud, functioning as substitutes for oral discourse and the author’s actual presence (cf. 1 Cor. 5:3; Col. 2:5; 1 Thess. 2:17).
Most NT writings were transmitted in letter-form, and since letters are more closely related to speech than narrative literature, they are essentially nonliterary in character. An epistolary author would verbally dictate his message while a secretary put it into writing (cf. Rom. 16:22; 1 Pet. 5:12), then the document would be audibly read to congregated listeners (cf. 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:3).6
The Public Reading of God’s Word Today
Reading God’s word publicly is both an honor and a solemn responsibility. The admonition in 2 Timothy 2:15 not only applies to Bible study and teaching, but “handling accurately the word of truth” surely includes vocal reading. Even the best readers, if unprepared, can stumble over words, miss punctuation and emphases, distort the text by inadvertently omitting or mis-pronouncing key terms, or distract from the message because of poor presentation. Communicating the sacred words of God is something to take seriously and demands thoughtful preparation.7
All others in the assembly need to be prepared to listen, reverently and attentively.8 This is not the time to move around, whisper, or be preoccupied with other things. When the church prays, we customarily bow our heads, close our eyes, and mentally engage. Why? As we approach the heavenly throne, we want to do so reverently and not be distracted by our earthly surroundings. When God speaks through the reading of his word, shouldn’t the same solemnity be displayed?
Investment of Time and Effort
Genuine worship is deliberate and proactive, requiring focus and intent.9 The public reading of God’s word has always been a key element of Christian worship, and if it has been neglected in our assemblies, it needs to be restored. If the Bible were not as readily accessible, like the environment of our first-century brethren, how would this affect the way we view church attendance and the eagerness with which we listen to the scriptures being read?
What an enormous blessing that God has revealed his perfect will and has preserved it in writing through the centuries. May we take advantage of every opportunity to ingest the biblical message and be transformed by it, with a lifetime commitment of reading, studying, learning, applying, and of course, hearing.
--Kevin L. Moore
* Prepared for and adapted from an adult Bible class at Estes church of Christ 12-05-2020.
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. “The Word of God is a fire that burns away dross (Jer. 23:29), a hammer that breaks stony hearts (Jer. 23:9), rain that waters crops (Isa. 55:10-11), milk that nourishes babies (1 Pet. 2:2), food that fills the hungry (Heb. 5:12-13), a sword that pierces the heart and battles the devil (Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17), gold that enriches us (Ps 19:10), a mirror that shows us our true selves (James 1:23-25), and a lamp that illumines our path (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 6:23; 2 Pet. 1:19)” (Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture 17-18).
2 1 Tim. 2:4; cf. Matt. 5:6; 6:33; 7:7; John 8:31-32; Acts 17:11; Heb. 4:12.
3 Having alluded to the “holy scriptures” familiar to Timothy, Paul affirms that “all scripture” is breathed out of God (2 Tim. 3:14-16). In his previous letter to Timothy, the apostle quotes “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18), including OT and NT writings (viz. Deut. 25:4; Luke 10:7). He further reminds the saints at Ephesus how they can understand his revealed knowledge by simply reading what he has put into writing (Eph. 3:1-5). See What the Scriptures Say About the Scriptures.
4 Illiteracy in the first-century Roman Empire has been estimated as high as 90-95% (see W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy 130-45).
5 See G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 93-103; cf. S. L. Harris and R. L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (2nd ed.) 21.
6 See K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the NT 100-114. Also Oral Transmission of the Biblical Records, and Study of Ancient Rhetoric.
7 For helpful suggestions about preparing to read the Bible in the public assembly, see Tim Challies, “The Public Reading of Scripture,” Challies.com (30 Nov. 2011), <Link>.
8 Psa. 19:7-11; 119:10-16; Rom. 7:22; 1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:1-3.
Related Posts: Sociocultural Context (Part 6): Public Reading
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