Thursday, August 30, 2012

Read this Letter: Thoughts on Reading Scripture Publicly

As some of you will know, I am writing a commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians this summer. A good portion of the commentary includes an application section. Today I thought I would share some thoughts from that section related to Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:27

“I charge you before the Lord to read this letter to everyone.”

Paul’s final request to “read this letter to everyone” seems to come from nowhere. It is almost as if Paul has taken the pen from the scribe’s hand and wrote the sentence himself. It’s possible he was concerned that some in the community might be excluded from hearing what he had to say to them, but nothing in the letter communicates that to us. At the very least, it indicates the way that Paul expected this letter to be read. Since most of us read the Bible quietly in isolation from others, we tend to think of Paul’s letters being read that way in the early church; as if they passed the letter around one to another and each read it for themselves in the privacy of their homes.

But Paul’s charge that they “read it to all the brothers and sisters” suggests that he expected it to be read to the whole church together as part of a gathering. Letters were not so much read as they were heard. Paul’s letter would have served as a sermon, read out loud, allowing him to “be there with them” even though he was absent. When read out loud Paul’s claim to have been separated from them “in person, not in thought” would have been much more impactful (2:17). At the same time, there would be plenty of opportunity once the letter was read for questions to be asked and clarifications made. I suspect that Timothy was well prepared to elaborate on anything that had be written in the letter.

Paul’s letters were most likely read a number of times over the years to the congregation to remind them of what he had said. At the same time, Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) was also probably a part of the regular meeting. In 1 Timothy 4:13 we read “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” In a context where most people couldn’t read and no one owned a Bible, the public reading of Scripture was the way that early Christians were able to become familiar with what God had spoken through his messengers. Often combined with the reading of the Scripture was the words of the apostles as described by Justin Martyr:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to 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. (1 Apol. 67)

Today the various Protestant denominations have different approaches as to how scripture is presented in the worship service. Some churches still practice reading from both the Old and New Testaments each Sunday. But since most people have their own Bible that they can read outside of the service, the focus tends to be on the exposition of Scripture rather than listening to Scripture. But there are some good reasons for recapturing the practice of reading scripture publicly. I cover three here.

 First, this is the way the Bible was intended to be read. When Moses received the Law from God he wrote it down and then read it to the people (Ex 24:3-4, 7). After the Law had been rediscovered under King Josiah it was read aloud to everyone (2 Kings 23:2).  When the exiles returned from Babylon Ezra read the Law to them (Neh 8:5). When Jesus stood up in the synagogue he read aloud from Isaiah (Luke 4:16-18). During the time of the apostles it was common practice to read aloud from the Scriptures (Acts 13:15-16; 15:21) and it was the practice that Paul commanded happen among the churches (1 Thess 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13). As evidenced by Justin Martyr’s testimony, it was a practice carried on in the early days of the church. Although reading Scripture quietly and alone is certainly a valid practice that we should encourage, the fact is that for thousands of years it was more often read aloud, together as a group.

Second, when we read Scripture publicly we participate in an ancient and ongoing practice of the church. Just as we can “pray with the church” (cf. 5:17), we can listen with the church. Listening to Scripture is a spiritual discipline that we can do as a community. It requires taking time out of the service to quiet ourselves and the sanctuary to listen to God’s word. When scripture is read aloud, without explanation or exposition, but simply read to be heard, it eliminates any need for a mediator between Scripture and the listener. The congregation is free to sit, listen and meditate on what God has to say. And at times it means that God may be saying very different things to different people all through the same scripture.

Third, public reading encourages biblical literacy. The modern church has the most access to the Scriptures at any other point in its history and yet is suffering from rampant ignorance when it comes to simple familiarity with the Bible. Reading Scripture publicly and systematically each Sunday can allow for a community to listen to the whole Bible read within a space of five to ten years. That is a long time. But when you consider that many Christians will never read the entire Bible in their life time, then five to ten years is a more than acceptable time frame.

Until Gutenberg invented the printing press the Bible was mostly heard rather than read. While I don’t think we should return to the days when no one had a Bible they could read on their own, I do think we should return to the tradition of the church when the Bible was heard, together as a community. 

Does your church practice reading scripture publicly? If so, how do you do it and how often? 


  1. John, this was excellent! I completely concur. Let it be read, let it be read aloud, and let it be read WELL, as if we received the letter written directly to us and are hearing it for the first time.

  2. Your post reminded me of a chapel time when I was in seminary. One day, one of the professors read the whole book of Galatians to us and asked us to listen. He didn't even want us to follow along in our Scriptures. He used the Living Bible which was just coming into print. His point was the same as yours, that originally the Scriptures were shared almost entirely through public reading. Some of the students grumbled afterward saying that they wanted exposition of the Scriptures, not just the Scriptures. Somewhat ironic isn't it, that exposition was valued more highly that the Scripture itself.

  3. My church does not. In fact the last time I saw it done was when I visited my friend's Catholic church. I would definitely like to see them incorporate it.

  4. The church that I have been attending the last few months has both an OT reading, by someone in the congregation (both male AND female), then the pastor covers the NT scripture in his sermon. I really appreciate the way they do it and I wholeheartedly agree with your blog post. And yes, the associate pastor once read the scripture to us as his sermon, which was enlightening in and of itself. I believe it was an account in Matthew, if I remember correctly. It's sad that it has become uncommon in some churches to even bring your own bible to church.