The Public Reading of Scripture
For centuries, Protestant and Reformed liturgies have included a substantial reading of Scripture. How is it, then, that a person can walk into most present-day evangelical worship services and hear so little of the reading of God’s Word? Although congregations boast in the inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of God’s Word, it is ironic that many church services are indisputably filled with lots of emotionally-charged singing, cliché-filled prayers, personal testimonies, and therapeutic preaching, but not Scripture. If the Word of God is read at all, it is read at the beginning of the sermon, and rarely referred to by the minister again. What is wrong with this picture?
The Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching (I Tim. 4:13). It is precisely because of this explicit directive in Scripture, and the belief that the Bible is authoritative and sufficient for Christian faith and practice, that most traditions throughout the history of the Church have made the reading of Scripture an absolute non-negotiable element of Lord’s Day worship. In the conservative Lutheran church in which I grew up, the reading of Scripture was a significant part of the liturgy. Indeed, in every service there was an Old and Testament reading, as well as a reading from one of the gospels. Even if the pastor preached a below-average (or even poor) sermon, at least those present would hear the pure and unadulterated Word of God read multiple times during the service. And isn’t it ironic that many of the theologically liberal churches have retained liturgies that are packed with Scripture while professedly conservative churches have jettisoned them?
The reading of Scripture should be a significant and necessary element in both morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day. Here at Christ Church Presbyterian, the Scriptures are formally read in the call to worship, the Old and New Testament readings, the assurance of pardon, and the benediction. Usually conducted just after the opening hymn or Psalm, the element that we have termed “The Reading of Scripture” typically constitutes an entire chapter from either the Old or New Testament, depending upon what is being preached at the time. In my previous congregation, over the span of ten years we read through well over half the Bible as a congregation in public worship!
Keeping the reading of God’s Word central in worship underscores the principle that when God’s Word is read we not only affirm that God has spoken through the Prophets and the Apostles, but that He is speaking to us today. Indeed, God’s Word is living and active (Heb. 4:12). It is a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit to bring spiritual life and nourishment to the elect (John 17:17; Eph. 6:17). Terry Johnson, Senior Minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA, convincingly states:
In the reading of God’s Word, God speaks most directly to His people. And so, this act of worship, in which the verbal self-revelation of God is addressed unedited to the hearts of His gathered people, ought not to be ignored, skipped, or squeezed out. It is irritating enough to have to endure preachers who say ‘I do not have time to read my text today’ (as if to say, “we need to hurry on past God’s Word to get to mine!”), but to have whole worship services in which the formal reading of God’s Word is absent is a self-imposed famine of the Word (eds. Ryken, Thomas, & Duncan, Give Praise to God, 142).
Let us, therefore, carefully, joyfully, and eagerly pay close attention to the reading of God’s Word in public worship. Let us teach our children to do the same! With reverence and awe, submitting our hearts and minds to Christ’s lordship, let us rejoice that God has revealed Himself to us in His Word, thereby providing us with His truth, guidance, comfort, and grace.