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).
PUBLIC SCRIPTURE READING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The first place that we find the public reading of Scripture in the Bible is at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. This is also arguably the first place that the corporate public worship of God is fully described in the Bible. Thus, it is not insignificant that it was in this key context, after the Israelites had been rescued from slavery in Egypt, that Moses “took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people” (Ex. 24:7).
Following this formative moment at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God established His covenant with Israel, we find numerous other places where this practice also appears. In Deuteronomy 31, the Lord commands the Israelites through Moses to read the entire law at the end of every seven years “before all Israel in their hearing” (v. 11). In other words, God’s people were called to remember the covenant that they had entered into with the Lord, and an essential part of preserving this memory was the public reading of Scripture. Through this practice of reading, the identity of Israel as the covenant people of God was formed and renewed, and the people of this former slave-nation recommitted themselves to the service of the God who had saved them.
This kind of covenant renewal ceremony, in which the public reading of Scripture played a central role, is exactly what we find described after the Israelites first entered into the Promised Land. Joshua 8:34–35 records that Joshua “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.”
This is the same practice we find described later in Israel’s history after the law, which had been lost for a time, was found in the temple. When God’s Word was rediscovered, King Josiah brought about reforms that began with the public reading of Scripture: “Then the king sent, and all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered to him. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:1–2).
This is the same practice we find after God’s people returned from exile under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. They read for hours “from early morning until midday” on a special “wooden platform” that appears to have been the first “pulpit” in history (Neh. 8:3–4).
PUBLIC SCRIPTURE READING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
This story of the public reading of Scripture reaches a high point when Jesus famously launched His public ministry by standing up to read the Scriptures. “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16). When Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue at Nazareth, He was practicing the same ancient practice that began with Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai and continued through Joshua, Josiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah. And yet, when Jesus stood up to read, He could also say, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Here was the Word not only read but made flesh.
As we continue to read the New Testament, it is clear that the practice of the public reading of Scripture is normative for the church. Consider Paul’s words to the church at Colossae: “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” (Col. 4:16). Or, similarly, consider Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica:
“I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27).
In fact, the last book in the Bible begins with this remarkable encouragement: “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” (Rev. 1:3).
The public reading of Scripture is an essential element of Christian worship for the covenant people of God.
The public reading of Scripture is an essential element of Christian worship for the covenant people of God. Indeed, it is arguably the most foundational element of worship because all other elements of worship (such as prayer, praise, preaching, and the sacraments) come in response to the hearing of God’s Word. It is a great tragedy that this practice has fallen on hard times and, in some cases, has been largely replaced by the private reading of Scripture.
Private meditation on God’s law cannot replace the public reading of Scripture. Especially in a society like ours, which has become increasingly characterized by “expressive individualism,” the church desperately needs to return to this ancient practice of spiritual formation in community. This was the practice of the early church, as Justin Martyr notes in his famous description of worship in the second century. “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).
May the covenant people of God be renewed as we return to this ancient practice and rediscover our true identity through the public reading of Scripture. Indeed, as Justin Martyr might say, may we be exhorted “to the imitation of these good things.”
Rev. Justin Borger is associate pastor of St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla. He is coauthor of God So Loved, He Gave: Entering the Movement of Divine Generosity.