Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)
In this third post, I would like to start exploring what ‘devotion’ looks like in general, but particularly for elders and preachers.
The imperative translated here as ‘devote’ is also regularly translated in Scripture as ‘pay careful attention to’, or, in a more negative context, that of ‘addiction’. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to what we’re devoted to: we are focused on it, we constantly think about, and we delight in it. Because it is such a fundamental part of our lives, it is what people readily and easily notice about us. Because it is so consuming for us, we don’t question the cost or the hardship involved—we find a way to make it happen.
In other words, a devoted person is a ‘maximum application’ person rather than a ‘minimum requirement’ person; they are always looking for more ways to do what God has told them to, rather than begrudging it, or asking how long a piece of string is, or finding reasons to do less.
In the evangelical circles I’m involved with, preaching and teaching are things that we are readily known for; we have such a strong emphasis on faithful preaching/teaching ministries that we are known to be devoted to them. But would anyone say we are devoted to the public reading of Scripture? That they notice that we take every opportunity we can to have the Bible read audibly for people to hear? They may see that we are devoted to the authority of Scripture, yes, but that is a different thing entirely being devoted to the sounding of Scripture.
For the elders and preachers amongst us, we in particular have the responsibility to lead the flock in this matter, to set the example, and to lead them where perhaps they don’t know that they need to go just yet. It is we who will help people see both the need and the joy of public Bible reading; it is we who will set and shape the structures of church to both guarantee and promote public Bible reading. To take up the last post, it is we who will make it possible for people to hear the whole Bible publicly once every few years rather than once in a lifetime.
If you’re an elder of a church, can I invite you to think through the importance of public Bible reading for church as church? Aside from all the benefits that reading the Bible brings, most importantly, being gathered around the word of God is at the heart of what it means for church to be God’s church in the here and now.
For the elders and preachers amongst us (who set the church liturgy/habits), can I invite you to stop conducting the ministry of the Word in such a way that Bible reading is only a prelude to preaching? Have Bible readings that stand in their own right. Both are important, so let’s make sure that we’re doing lots of both. This may mean spending the time to create a Bible reading program across several years/congregations/groups. Part of the joy of this, however, is that the reading of the whole Bible will be guaranteed. When I became a Christian, the first pew Bible I ever encountered explicitly reduced to three columns (along with an almost unreadable font) those bits of the Bible deemed ‘inappropriate’ for reading in church. Goodbye Leviticus! But before we despise such a godless attitude to Bible publication, do we have in effect the same attitude in our programming? When was the last time 1 & 2 Chronicles was read through in our churches? When will it ever be?
For those of us who are preachers, there are two habits I’ve noticed in preaching that bear on this. First, why do we only read what is being preached on? I’m not talking about the amount of readings here (I think you get that point already!), but the length of our readings for the sermon. The passage we are preaching on may only be Romans 1:1-6, but is there a reason why we can’t read Romans 1:1-17? Why do we live with the assumption that I can only read what I’m preaching on, and only preach on what is read?
Second, I’ve noticed a somewhat bizarre habit with narrative preaching. Take 1 Samuel 17 for instance. It has 58 verses in it, so more often than not the preacher decides to only read some of the passage, because “reading it will take too long” (i.e., another three minutes). As a result, the congregation is then treated to 15 minutes of scene-setting by the preacher. If length was the issue, I’ve yet to meet the preacher who retells the passage quicker than actually just reading it out loud. The sermon also suffers too—it becomes a re-telling of the passage rather than preaching (although there is a narrative-style form of preaching that is brilliant, but that’s not what I’m speaking of here).
Devotion is a matter of the heart, of course. It is possible to have all the Bible reading in the world and still not be devoted to public reading of Scripture. But there is no such thing as devotion to Bible reading that doesn’t actually have Bible reading in clear evidence. And until such admiration grows, we may have to content ourselves with guaranteeing the structure of public Bible reading, and pray for the affection to follow. The good thing is, God’s word is living and active … the more we hear it/him, the more we’ll love the taste of it/him.