Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 7: Why we must

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)

This is the seventh post in Scott’s series on the public reading of Scripture. You may want to read the first part, the second part, the third part, the fourth part, the fifth part and the sixth part of this series.

We are in deeply serious trouble if I have to justify the need for devotion to the public reading of Scripture. They sound like fighting words, don’t they? But they’re not. They’re words of plea, with tears in my eyes, that you let God be heard. He doesn’t need us of course, but surely the sheep who know their shepherd’s voice would want to hear that voice as often as they can.

So, if you’ve been asking the question “Why should I bother with this?”, or saying to yourself “Nice thoughts, Scott, but it’s not for me“, then this is the post for you. For all of us, I hope this post will help you understand why I’m so passionate about this, and, I hope, give you the same fervour.

First, God’s word is more than God’s word about himself (although it is that!). When we encounter God’s word we encounter God himself. We meet God in/by/through/with the word. Even if the Bible were only a word about God it ought to be the source of our greatest delight. How much more when we realize that we actually meet God with the word!

Second, God’s word is more than God’s word about his plans and purposes (although it is that!). God’s word brings God’s plans and purposes about. God’s word and God’s Spirit go together; God’s word unfailingly achieves whatever purpose God has sent it out for (Isa 55:10-11). God’s word is living and active (Heb 4:12); not just sufficient for all matters of faith and conduct (2 Tim 3:14-17), but efficient for all matters of faith and conduct also.

Third, that word is life to us. We live by God’s word. But if we are to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, if we are to be consistent with our doctrine of Scripture, we must reflect an active, deliberate desire for all Scripture to be read, because we know and trust both that God’s word is eternal (1 Pet 1:23-25), and also that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3).

These things don’t happen when our Bibles are closed and on the shelf, or in the pew in front of us. They happen when the Bible is read.

Now you may choose to say at this point that this doesn’t necessitate public reading of the Bible. Perhaps not; silent reading by myself at home will do these things too (more of this in the final post). But let’s observe what God’s plans and purposes are, and why he is making himself present amongst us:

God’s plan and purpose is to gather a people to himself, to his glory. He is creating a people to dwell amongst. If we meet God in his Word (the Son, who comes to us clothed in God’s word in Scripture), and God’s word brings this about, then church (God’s gathering), for it to reflect its present heavenly and future reality and the reason God brought it into being, must actively promote the presence of God’s word, not minimize it. There are all kinds of ways we “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly” (Col 3:16-17), but it seems to me logical that a large component of that would actually be the reading of the Bible to each other. Further, it would be very odd indeed if we were to promote private reading of Scripture at the expense of or without promoting or guaranteeing public reading, if the desire of the God we meet in said word, and the purpose he is bringing about by said word, is a people who are gathered around him, whom we meet in his word/son – that is, a corporate reality.

I’ve stated these breath-takingly majestic realities very briefly. But I implore you to spend a few minutes reflecting on them. There is so much that could be said about each. And there is so much else that could be said too on the benefits of devotion to public Bible reading – a few of which I’ve listed below:

  • It gives an opportunity for God’s word to be heard by the illiterate amongst us (there are usually a few, and if we include those who really struggle to read (it is a gift not everyone has), then there are far more than a few).
  • It gives an opportunity for those who are blind, or mentally ill (unable to bring themselves to read) to hear God speak.
  • It gives the church Bible literacy once again: we reverse the downward spiral into Bible ignorance, making it hard to understand the Bible, and create an upward spiral, whereby our increasing familiarity with the Bible makes it easier to understand the Bible and thirst for more.
  • It corrects some of the workaholic excesses of some ministries, as we learn to sit and hear God speak, and let his Word and Spirit grow the kingdom in ways beyond our imagining.

I’m sure you can think of others; I’m sure I’ve mentioned some in previous posts too. My plea and one desire is that we let God speak as much as we can, so all can hear, and so we can sit under him to learn, know, be transformed, and delight in him. But it’s actually God’s plea, too, isn’t it?

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live …

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:1-11)

12 thoughts on “Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 7: Why we must

  1. One of the many interesting (and humbling) things about coming to Brisbane Diocese is the realisation that the time given in the Sunday gathering to the public reading of Scripture is a far greater proportion of the total time than in many Sydney churches (including Roseville when I was there). We read an Old Testmant reading, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles and one from the Gospels each week. The public reading itself can take up to 10 minutes!

    I have found it encouraging and challenging!

  2. Truly inspiring posts that ring with convicting truth. Thanks to God for giving you the heart to post this series Scott.

  3. Great stuff, Scott. May we be humbled, rebuked and changed by the public reading of God’s word. At the very least, may we start doing it again!

    If our passion for preaching displaces our passion for God’s word, we are at best not thinking through why we believe preaching is so important. Failing that, we are Barthian in that we are identifying our preaching with the very word of God, and it all goes downhill from there.

  4. Hi Scott,

    I’m part of the leadership group for a proposed new congregation my church wants to start next year. I thought that your series would be good for us to think through, and so forwarded a link to this post to the other leaders. One of them raised concerns with some of the language used, which they’ve allowed me to reproduce:

    “That was an interesting article, but challenging. I don’t really understand “When we encounter God’s word we encounter God himself” as though he is manifested in the words..? I can understand that as we read the word it is God speaking to us and the Spirit helping us to understand and things, but this sounds like more than that? Also where it says that we meet God in his “word/son” as though they are the same thing? I know John 1 says Jesus is the Word, and that all of the Bible points to or is about Jesus, but still… I’m finding this difficult and don’t feel right thinking God is words on a page! Can someone direct me to some more reading on this, please?”

    Would you mind responding to their concerns?

  5. Hi Roger,

    Thanks for passing on these questions – they are very much worth thinking through, and as I said, I put it very briefly in the post, which has led, at least with the second one, to a little bit of carelessness of expression.

    I’m sure I’m going to be careless in expression here too – so invite panelists who know better than me to reshape / articulate better / correct what I’m about to say smile

    I’m going to try and answer them without getting into some fairly technical discussion. For the theologically trained amongst us, what I said should be fairly clear anyway (especially as we think about such things as Act and Being, and Word, and the simplicity of God, etc): as Robert Doyle keeps helpfully reminding his students, ‘word is mode of God’s being, not a mode or the mode, but mode’.

    What I was trying to summarise is that we have a tendency to separate out various things belonging to God’s nature and acts (and speech), to create a distance or a space between them that isn’t there biblically (ie, theologically).

    To give you some examples, this is perhaps most obviously seen in the unwitting (although sometimes witting too) splintering of the Trinity that goes on in Christian circles. God is one, which means that any act of God is always a trinitarian act. Each person is involved in any act because God is one: we can’t separate him out from himself; each person is involved distinctly, but they are involved. We must therefore seek to fully integrate our understanding of their activity yet without collapsing the distinction between them.

    We know this in creation, for instance: all things are from the Father, all things are through the Word, and by the Spirit (Gen 1:2, 1 Cor 8:6). Again, we know it in prayer: we pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. And so on. Distinct roles, but unified.

    But when it comes to gifts, for instance, Christians tend to think that it is a particular thing the Spirit does. But the Father gives gifts in Romans 12, the Son gives gifts in Ephesians 4, and the Spirit manifests them in 1 Cor 12. Gift-giving, like all God’s activity, is a trinitarian activity, not a unique ministry of the Spirit.

    The one that provides the greatest danger to us at the moment, however, is the distance people have put between the Spirit and the Word/Son. The two go together (eg, Ps 33:6 puts it nicely, or Eph 6:17). But people tend to look for the Son/Word of God in one place, and the Spirit of God in another, which has led to all kinds of aberations.

    Coming back to the issue of meeting God, then.

    Even from the second century (Irenaeus), Christians have been recognising the biblical testimony that only God can make God known. When we think of this trinitarianly, the only way we know the Father is through the Son (Jn 1:17, 14:6f etc, Matt 11:27, etc). It is the Son/Word of God who makes the Father known. If we have the Son we have the Father also. He doesn’t say something about God or give us a glimpse of God, but, in the words of the hymn the Son is ‘God revealing God to man’. He is ‘the exact representation of his being’ (Heb 1:3)

    Which means there is no going behind or around Jesus to know God: the God we meet in Jesus is God. Which means our knowledge of God is always personal, always Christ-oriented, and always salvific (in the context of the saving work of the gospel). There is no truly knowing God without experiencing God himself.

    Our present knowledge / experience of his presence is marred in this overlap of the ages, to be sure, but here is where we hold the great hope of the return of Christ and the new creation (see this month’s Briefing for two articles on this): the day Jesus returns is known in Scripture as the day of revelation; furthermore, our experience of the new creation is to be in the presence of God, where we will know fully as we are already fully known (1 Cor 13). The revelation of God and the presence of God (Word / Act / Being) need to be held together, not separated out.

    But what about the Bible (and the Spirit!)?

    The Bible is the testimony of the Spirit to the Son. It is the Spirit of God by whom the prophets wrote (1 Pet 1:10-12, 2 Peter 1:19-21), and they were testifying to Jesus (1 Pet 1:10-12, 2 Cor 1:20, etc). And it is by the Spirit of God that the apostles testify to and eye-witness to Jesus (Acts 1:1-11 … notice the oddities of exactly how Jesus teaches them in those 40 days, etc), such that the apostles saw themselves as not communicating a new word, but simply making clear as eye-witnesses to Jesus, all that was written about him in the OT (Rom 16:24-27, 2 Cor 1:20, etc).

    All Scripture, then, is God-spirited (2 Tim 3:16). It is God’s testimony about God that we may meet God; it is the Spirit’s testimony about the Son that we might know the Father.

  6. So the Word of God Inscripturate is distinct from the Word of God Incarnate, but the two are inseparable: as Calvin puts it, Christ comes to us clothed in the gospel promises. If I want to meet Christ, the Word of God incarnate, I must and can only meet him in the Word of God inscripturate; if I read the Word of God inscripturate, I meet the Word of God incarnate.

    Perhaps the easier way to put it is like this:

    Where can I go to meet God?

    We meet God in Jesus, and him alone (actually, that’s a question from the OT, and the answer then was the temple: the symbol of God dwelling with his people. For us to meet God we meet him in his temple – Jesus (Jn 1:14, 2:22?), our Immanuel (‘God amongst us’)).

    But where can I go to meet Jesus?

    The Bible – the Spirit’s word about him. The apostles had a unique privilege – blessed are we who have not seen and yet believe (John 20 and Thomas).

    This is why the Bible is so fundamental to our present earthly expressions of church. Our heavenly reality is that we are presently gathered around God in Christ in the heavenly realms, united to Christ by the Spirit; to express that now, we gather around God in Christ – whom we meet in the Spirit’s word about Christ.

    I hope this short explanation explains some of my short-hand in these posts, which can get a bit confusing without this background!

    But I hope you can see also that it is a mistake to create a space or a distance between the Bible as God’s word, and encountering God himself. As the Bible is read (the Spirit’s word about the Son – the Spirit who has united me to Christ), then I have the Son – and if I have the Son, then I have the Father also, in whose presence I am spiritually already.

    If all this is too confusing, probably the best place to head is Deuteronomy 4. There, as Israel come before God, as God descends on the mountain, their experience of God’s presence is his voice.

    And to bring it back into our present discussion of the public reading of Scripture: God’s presence/word at Sinai to the people gathered around him is the first place in the Bible that is described by the word ‘church’.

  7. “…With tears in my eyes, that you let God be heard. He doesn’t need us of course, but surely the sheep who know their shepherd’s voice would want to hear that voice as often as they can.”

    This is a non-sequitar.

    The logic goes:

    Sally loves God, therefore Sally should love what God says, and God does “say” something in the Bible, therefore Sally should agree to x amount and y type of public Scripture reading.

    The premise doesn’t match the conclusion. If people love the Word of God it will have a prominent place in the service, as well as in private, and conversational life, but it doesn’t necessitate the exact requirements you have made.

    Goodness, give people liberty in the way they express their devotedness to Scripture. The congregation I am a part of meets several times a week, and our meetings are Bible-centric (including reading and studying the Sacred Text). However, we simply don’t match exact structure of public reading you have been mentioning in your posts. And based on your very specific conclusions, it implies we (and a lot of faithful, Bible-saturated people) must not love the Shepard’s voice. Perhaps you didn’t intend this, but it certainly comes off that way.

    I think your posts are well meaning and somewhat helpful. However, they are bit bombastic and cocky. This is what happens when you make specific, absolutist requirements without clear biblical justification, and instead make emotional appeals (tears in eyes, if you really love the Shepard, etc etc).

    Also for your consideration, better reading instead if simply MORE reading.

    Frankly there is more of a dearth of prayer life than there is of Bible reading in the Church in my opinion. Maybe that is just in the U.S though.

    Nonetheless, thank you for the challenge presented in your posts.

    Despite my objections I appreciate and value you.

    Much love.

  8. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your input.

    Somewhat ironically, you’ve badly misread both my tone and what this whole series is about.

    I invite you to re-read my posts, out loud, and this time replace ‘cocky’ and ‘bombastic’ with ‘quiet sincerity’ in your tone as you read me. The image of a ‘cocky and bombastic Scott’ is not only bewildering, but somewhat bemusing too – and I don’t say that carelessly or cockily either!

    Sadly, you’ve taken my sincere attempt at qualifying the emotion of the posts as being sinister in effect. It’s not wrong to express and describe emotion when writing (eg, was Paul wrong, Phil 3:18, 2 Cor 2:4, etc), and it has to be taken at face value.

    My apologies if you have taken the ‘you’ of the relevant sentence as being general – the ambiguities of pronouns! It follows on from the end of the previous post, and, as mentioned in a previous discussion, these latter posts are addressed to the hypothetical minimiser of scripture in church to a few verses per week.

    I hope that re-reading me in light of these observations will help you see also how far your summarisation of my argument is away from what is going on here – and how most people have understood me (ie, I don’t think I’ve been too confounding in how I’ve written it, although maybe I have – online is a difficult medium for communication). Absolutist requirements (that lack scriptural justification) is not even remotely where we’re at in this series. It’s a series aimed at providing wisdom for people (conscious my experience will likely only have affinity with a particular church heritage) to work out a biblical mandate, of what devotion to scripture looks like in practice, of what actions accompany the heart and mind that is devoted to Scripture.

    And yes, to be sure, it’s a series that is a rebuke for some, who live, as mentioned several times in the posts, with the knowledge that there can be a distinction between what is in our hearts and what is in our practice. It rebukes me like that too. And for all of us in that boat: yes, I am saying we need to change.

    But I’d be a fool if I said ‘change is needed’ but then never gave suggestions (both short term easy one within easy reach of my particular heritage, and long term big dream scenarios) of how to go about it.

    Thanks again,


  9. Scott,

    I think you misunderstood me on an important point. I don’t think you are a cocky and bombastic as a person. I simply mean that the way you write at times has great potential to sound cocky, which I think is owing to a lack of qualification. I apologize if the words I used were hurtful. That wasn’t my intention. I should have qualified my own statement more.

    You point out an apparent lack of public scripture reading, and then you conclude by implication that the problem is a lack of love or affection for Scripture, or possibly a lack of confidence in the clarity of Scripture. Perhaps a church doesn’t do 20 minutes public reading of genealogies, however they have bible memory programs, classes on proper hermeneutics, private reading programs, and longer chapter readings as the basis of the exposition. There is an apparent love for Scripture expressed in those various practices without having the public readings as you described. Your logic appears to say “since they don’t have public readings as I described, they must not love Scripture or trust the clarity of Scripture.”  With further clarification I may grant that this is not what you meant.

    Another note, several readings with a completely different context can feel like several sermons being preached in one limited space of time. A person feeds on Scripture through concentrated meditation as opposed to quickly reading and moving onto the next thing. It may not be good to split your attention on multiple themes brought up in the various passages read.  Should Psalm 119:15 be lived out in the service? What does a good meditative environment look like in regards to public reading? Is it possible to meditate properly if your moving from one things to the other with little time for private or public reflection?

    To sum up, I cannot argue with more Bible. I can only say a hearty Amen! I just want to define what “public reading” must mean for the local church without being excessively narrow (unless warranted by Scripture).

    Thank you for the exhortation to more Scripture.

  10. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply and clarify – that’s helpful.

    Yes, you’re right, everyone exists in very different church contexts and backgrounds with practices I’ve not touched on remotely, and my series will I’m sure at times sound quite odd to those in a very different context: both in the presenting issues, underlying causes, and ideas for solution. As I said at the outset, my only experience of church has largely been the trends of some sydney anglican churches (and those with an affinity to them): everyone else is in many ways just listening in.

    For those within this context, or with understanding of it, the picture I painted of church life, where it is entirely possible for a person to hear somewhere between 7-15 verses in an entire week no matter how many various meetings they attend (because everything doubles up on the same short reading at church): this is where some churches have ended up, and others are heading in that direction.

    At this point, yes, I do believe that there is a quantitative aspect to devotion to PRS (cf: third post where I define devotion as having ‘maximising tendencies’ rather than minimising ones). What that quantity is is like asking how long a piece of string is; what I have done is shown what heritage Sydney anglicans have: BCP 1662 and back to 1552, to show how they thought of PRS, and how remarkable a difference there is.

    As that mirror is held up, what does it reveal? Not as a trump over other practices (private, family readings, preaching, teaching), but as an outworking of 1 Tim 4:13.

    Anyway, much more to say, but as I prepare this material for a differnt context, your comments are helpful to try to reframe for a more general audience. Thanks, S.

  11. “At this point, yes, I do believe that there is a quantitative aspect to devotion to PRS (cf: third post where I define devotion as having ‘maximising tendencies’ rather than minimising ones).”

    That is helpful to emphasize. I am glad you brought that up. That is certainly clarifying.

    I don’t know that I have ever been exposed to Sydney Anglicans – very interesting.

  12. With reference to Scott’s and Roger’s discussion on separation between God and the Bible,

    I think many churches and their members see relating to our Lord through prayer and “listening” to his small still voice. They see these activities as dynamic and I suspect “älive”. Reading scripture on the other hand is less “exciting”. It needs to be understood in context, checked with other Scripture and applied thoughtfully in our lives. While I am not advocating the former, I have to admit the practice is very real in our churches today. As a result of this seperation, the reading of God’s Word does drop back into the background. There is a great need to demonstrate that God speaks today and through his Word and understanding his Word is no less powerful than having God “speak”to that person (you know what I mean).

    I am not going to say that the christian life is about trying to see how exciting stuff can pop out of Bible readings (though often times God does that), but there needs to be a consciousness while going through scripture that interpreting it and understanding it does not make the message any less real and relevant. And this urgently needs to be taught where I come from.

    May God help us do that.

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