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Let's read the scriptures

Why we need to take seriously the charge of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “Give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching”. By Paul Beasley-Murray 

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Over the years I have discovered that the more ‘Bible-believing’ a Baptist or independent church is, the less Scripture is likely to be read. Amazing as it may appear to my Anglican friends, I have known churches where the one Scripture reading is limited to three or four Scripture verses. Indeed, this was regularly the case of morning ‘chapel’ at an international Baptist Seminary where I spent a year. I got so frustrated that when I was asked to take the morning chapel service, instead of reading three or four verses and then preaching a sermon, I dispensed with the sermon and read the whole of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. That caused a sensation – but as I pointed out, originally Paul’s shorter letters would most certainly have been read to a church in one sitting. The fact is that we need to read the Scriptures when we gather together in worship.
We need to take seriously the charge of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “Give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching” (1 Tim 4.13). In the original Greek the phrase ‘the public reading of scripture’ is actually just one word (anagnosis) which simply means reading out loud. This was the word that was used in the courts of the reading ‘out loud’ of wills and of petitions. But it was also the word used in the Septuagint of the public reading of Scripture, as when the priests read from the law in Ezra’s day (Neh 8.8). Luke too uses the cognate verb when he tells of how Jesus stood up “to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him” (Luke 4.16,17).
The question arises: what ‘scripture’ was Paul charging Timothy to read?

In so far as early church worship drew to a large extent upon the worship of the synagogue, the scripture would have included readings from the Law and the Prophets. However, in addition to the Old Testament ‘Bible’, letters and writings from the apostles would have been read at early Christian gatherings. Paul, for instance, wrote to the Thessalonians: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them [literally, ‘all the brothers’]” (1 Thess 5.27: see also 1 Thess 5.27). He gave similar instructions to the church in Colossae: “When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church in Laodicea, and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4.16: see also 2 Cor 4.7).

Significantly the Book of Revelation opens with the words: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it” (Rev 1.3: see also Rev 22.18-19).

As John Stott commented: “These are extraordinary instructions. They indicate that the apostles put their writings on a level with the Old Testament.” At the same time, there would have been the telling of stories about Jesus: which were probably receiving written form around the time 1 Timothy was written.
By the time of Justin Martyr (AD 110-165) it appears that Christian worship always included two public scripture readings  – one from the Old Testament, and one from the ‘memoirs of the apostles’: “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 overseer verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”

So what principles can we learn from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy as also from the early Christian practice? In the first place, I would encourage churches to have at least two readings (for instance, Old Testament and New Testament, or Gospel and Epistle), and read at the very least twenty-five verses. If people bring Bibles, or look at the Scriptures on a screen or on their phones, then people’s concentration span can easily be extended.

My father was a great believer in reading the Scriptures in the context of a Sunday service. In his church in Cambridge he created quite a stir when over a series of six Sunday evenings he read through all 48 chapters of Ezekiel! Later I remember his excitement when the New English Bible first came out – with such a ‘modern’ and accessible version, he would often read several chapters from a Gospel before preaching to the congregation.

The scripture readings are then followed by what Paul calls ‘exhortation’ or ‘preaching’ (GNB/NIV) (paraklesis) and ‘teaching’ (didaskalia). We should probably not over-distinguish between the two activities: “it is hard to imagine teaching without leading the people to response, or preaching without providing a reasoned exposition of a text’s principles”. In one way or another God’s Word needs to be expounded and applied (see also 2 Tim 3.16)

In Paul’s day, of course, many people could not read – nor could many afford to get hold of ‘books’ to read. This therefore made the “public reading of scripture” all the more important. Although we live in a day when general literacy can be taken for granted, and when the Bible can be bought relatively inexpensively, nonetheless we cannot assume that most Christians are regularly engaged in personal Bible reading. For although British churchgoers in a 2008 survey claimed to read their Bible every day, my experience as a pastor tells me that this is not the case. I am much more inclined to believe a 1997 Bible Society survey of regular churchgoers which found that 16 per cent read something from the Bible every day; a further 9 per cent read the Bible several times a week; 11 per cent read something from the Bible about once  a week; and 9 per cent read the Bible about once a month. In other words in any given month the majority of churchgoers never read their Bible.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder how many ministers read their Bible on a regular basis: for in a survey I conducted of over 300 Baptist ministers, some one in five (19 per cent) said that they had no system of regular Bible reading. All the more reason, therefore, for ‘the public reading of scripture’ within Christian worship!

1. Is the issue today not so much the public reading of the Scriptures as the private reading of the Scriptures?

2. When I was In the Congo new Christians could not be baptised until they could read, on the basis that reading the Bible was essential to the Christian life. To what extent is reading the Bible an essential part of your Christian life? What helps you to read the Scriptures?


Paul Beasley-Murray was ordained in 1970. He was Minister of Altrincham Baptist Church (1973 to 1986), Principal of Spurgeon’s College (1986 to 1992) and Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford (1993 to 2014).

He writes Church Matters, a weekly blog of resources for churches and ministers.

This is the third in a new series on Timothy. The first two were entitled "Let's worship God" and "Let's pray for others". A further reflection will be reproduced in The Baptist Times. Access his full series on Timothy here

Image | Eliecer Gallegos | Unsplash

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Baptist Times, 04/05/2021
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