Helping the Congregation to Hear the Word Read
J. Ligon Duncan III
Chancellor & CEO, John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary
This is the first of a five-part series of presentations on The Pastoral Ministry of Public Worship:
Leading the Congregation in Reading, Hearing, Praying, Singing and Seeing the Word, delivered by Dr. Duncan at the John Reed Miller Preaching Lectures at RTS Jackson in November 2020.
There is nothing more important in Christian public worship than the reading of the Scriptures, God’s holy, inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word. In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul says to Timothy: “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching” (emphasis added). For Paul, reading the Word aloud when the congregation gathers is just as important as the sermon. And this idea does not originate with Paul. It is rooted in the whole history of the people of God, beginning in the days of Moses.
When the children of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai for worship after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses read God’s word aloud to them. Exodus 24:7 says “he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people.” When Israel finally arrived in the Promised Land, Joshua read Scriptures aloud to them again. Joshua 8:35 tells us “There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel.”
When the long lost book of the law was discovered by Hilkiah in the Temple in the days of good King Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:14), we learn that the King himself “read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 34:30). After the people of Israel returned from exile in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Ezra read the book of the law of Moses to the assembled people from early morning until midday (Nehemiah 8:1-8), with all the people standing out of reverence for God’s word!
At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus went to his home synagogue in Nazareth and read the Scriptures, from the prophet of Isaiah (Luke 4:14-21). So, for thousands of years, from Moses’ time to Jesus’ day, the public reading of Scripture was central to the gathering of the people of God. And no wonder, since “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Reading the Word in Worship
Hughes Old has established beyond the shadow of a doubt the central importance of the reading of the word of God as an essential component of Christian worship in the total history of the church. And the church’s practice was squarely based on Scripture. As we have already seen, the public reading of the Bible has been at the heart of the worship of God since Old Testament times. What we need today is ministers who take this directive seriously, for rare is the evangelical church whose service can be characterized as full of Scripture.
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 don’t 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.
Dr. John Reed Miller used to say to me, “Ligon, the reading of the word of God ought to be an event.” It ought to be arresting to the congregation. It ought to grab their attention. It ought sometimes to make them tremble and other times rejoice. It ought to be elevated to the same status and gravity as the other biblical elements of worship, and seen, in combination with pastoral preaching and prayer as part of the essential triplex munus of the Gospel minister in public worship. Thus it needs to be prepared for just like public prayer, just like the sermon, just like the totality of the worship service. The minister of the word can convey the supreme importance of the reading of the word just in the way he does it.
So how does one do it? How ought we to approach this in our corporate worship? The prescription of the Westminster Directory for Public Worship is just what the doctor ordered:
Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we; acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.
Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto.
All the canonical books of the Old and New Testament (but none of those which are commonly called Apocrypha) shall be publickly read in the vulgar tongue, out of the best allowed translation, distinctly, that all may hear and understand.
How large a portion shall be read at once, is left to the wisdom of the minister; but it is convenient, that ordinarily one chapter of each Testament be read at every meeting; and sometimes more, where the chapters be short, or the coherence of matter requireth it.
It is requisite that all the canonical books be read over in order, that the people may be better acquainted with the whole body of the scriptures; and ordinarily, where the reading in either Testament endeth on one Lord’s day, it is to begin the next.
We commend also the more frequent reading of such scriptures as he that readeth shall think best for edification of his hearers, as the book of Psalms, and such like.
When the minister who readeth shall judge it necessary to expound any part of what is read, let it not be done until the whole chapter or psalm be ended; and regard is always to be had unto the time, that neither preaching, nor other ordinances be straitened, or rendered tedious. Which rule is to be observed in all other publick performances.
Beside publick reading of the holy scriptures, every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read,) and to have a Bible.
There are eleven pieces of exceedingly wise biblical and pastoral counsel here.
- The public reading of Scripture is a part, an element to be exact, of corporate worship. It is not an option. When it is neglected an essential aspect of Christian worship is lost irreparably. As the Westminster Confession of Faith notes: “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God” (23.5). Not reading the Scriptures is on the same order as not having a sermon, or omitting congregational singing.
- The public reading of Scripture is a means of grace. It not only serves as an opportunity whereby we openly and corporately sit under his word– acknowledging his authority, acknowledging our dependence upon the initiative of his self-revelation, acknowledging our glad surrender to the Lordship of his word–but it is also a God-appointed means whereby we are strengthened by and receive his favor. The Lord has deigned to bless and edify his people by it.
- The public reading of Scripture ought to be done by those responsible for the preaching of the word. It is not uncommon to see congregation members invited to lead the church in the reading of Scripture in various ecclesiastical traditions. Sometimes this is done with the desire to make the church service more congregational and participatory. Sometimes it is done to stress a positive form of anti-clericalism or the priesthood of all believers. I’ll not take up that discussion here. The point I want to press home is that pastors should not abandon and totally delegate the reading of the Scriptures to others. The Westminster Directory argued for the minister reading the Scriptures on simple, biblical grounds: Since the preaching of God’s word is to be the unique responsibility of the ministry, so also is the reading of that same word. It is all about the coordination of the read and proclaimed word. The read word is not on some lower order of significance than the proclaimed word, but that is the inevitable message sent if preaching in a church is restricted to ministers and elders and the reading of the word is not. The PCA Book of Church Order, Directory of Worship picks up on this same theme and says:
The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is performed by the minister as God’s servant. Through it God speaks most directly to the congregation, even more directly than through the sermon. The reading of the Scriptures by the minister is to be distinguished from the responsive reading of certain portions of Scripture by the minister and the congregation. In the former God addresses His people; in the latter God’s people give expression in the words of Scripture to their contrition, adoration, gratitude and other holy sentiments.
- Aim to read all of Scripture to his people. The whole canon is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” and so the people of God need to hear from that whole body of God’s word: not only the well-known parts and the encouraging passages or the New Testament and the Psalms, but also the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature, the historical books, the Gospels and the Epistles, Acts and Revelation. The Reformers not only believed in sola scriptura (scripture is the sole, final authority for faith and practice), they believed in tota scriptura (ALL scripture is inspired). The Puritans often criticized the court divines of their day for failing to read consecutively through the balance of Scripture. This doesn’t mean that we have to start at Genesis and end at Revelation, but it does mean we ought to be following a method of reading and we ought to be reading through whole books, chapter by chapter, or significant portion by significant portion.
- Read from the best available translation. Now, of course, we could strike up a quick debate about which translation is the best available. But don’t miss a good point here. The minister ought to read from a sound version to which the people have access – a translation. Read from the best available faithful translation in the language of your congregation as a deliberate act of pastoral care. This will promote what the Assembly desired when it said “every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, . . . and to have a Bible.”
- Exercise common sense in deciding how much Scripture to read at once. If a congregation has never had a large portion of Scripture reading in its service, I can’t think of a better way to kill the reading of the word than to start plowing through Numbers, or Leviticus, or Chronicles, or Job a chapter at a time. Use discretion! Start with something easy and well-known. Be committed to getting to the point of reading a substantial portion, but take smaller bits at first. Break up over-long chapters. Mark out natural pericopes. Ease the people of God into the habit. Let them drink from the water fountain first, not the fire hydrant. Try a Gospel first–say Mark. Divide up the chapters. Give them a feel for the total story of Jesus’ ministry and work. You can read through it in less than half a year, even at a less aggressive pace, and then move on to more challenging matter.
- Keep a balance of reading between the two Testaments. If you are preaching through a New Testament book in your service, then read from the Old Testament. If you are preaching through an Old Testament book, read from a New Testament one. The Westminster directory contemplated a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament at every service, in addition to the sermon text and message! That is probably a little aggressive for today and for our typical service lengths, but the principle of paying attention to the balance of Old and New in your reading is as wise as when they first said it. Depending upon the duration of your service, it may eventually become possible to have more than one reading.
- Develop an orderly plan for reading through the Scripture. The Directory says that “it is requisite that all the canonical books be read over in order, that the people may be better acquainted with the whole body of the scriptures.” As we mentioned under point number 4, develop and follow a practical and rational plan for working through the Scriptures. Move chronologically, or through alternate types of biblical literature, or for a time in canonical order. But whatever the case may be, there needs to be some method to what you plan to read.
- Pick up where you leave off. Following on the last point the Directory advises that “ordinarily, where the reading in either Testament endeth on one Lord’s Day, it is to begin the next.” The Puritans often poked fun at the Anglican court divines for the endless skipping around in their brief readings. Their path resembled rabbit trails, the Puritans said. Remind the people what they read last, show them the connections with today’s reading, give them a feel for the big picture, and remember –sad to say– many in your hearing will not have picked up a Bible at any point during the week. This may be the only time they hear the word read or read it for themselves all week. This reading, then, is important.
- Make regular use of exceptionally edifying portions of Scripture like the Psalms. There are some parts of Scripture that lend themselves to greater profit in being read aloud. It is not that they are more inspired, but who can doubt that Psalm 51 is capable of yielding an immediate and obvious benefit that would escape most hearers of the genealogy of 1 Chronicles 6? The reading and hearing of the Psalms, for instance, provides resources for a profound spirituality, a piety that equals the exigencies of our experience. The Psalms deal with the realities of life and reveal a soul poured out to the living God–the complaints, the heartaches, the emptiness–and yet alongside these, acknowledge a God who is incomparably great, whose plans and purposes are far above our agendas and understandings, but who also loves us with an everlasting covenant love. Thus, we see in the Psalms, conjoined, a perfect biblical balance of objective and subjective in spiritual experience. In the Psalms, God and his word are clearly dominant in the believer’s experience without any diminution whatsoever of the wounds and quandaries and questions of life in a fallen world. No wonder the Reformers thought we ought to sing the Psalms and read the Psalms in worship–they saw them as the very core of a well-rounded Christian experience. So, it is natural that the Psalms might be featured with a prominence in our cycle of public readings that, say, 2 Samuel would not share.
- Offer brief explanatory remarks about the reading (but those remarks ought not to be over-long nor overshadow the event of the reading of the word). In other words, very quickly provide some well-thought-out sentences of background and introduction. What is the context of the passage? What is its main point? What should the hearer listen for in particular? The design of these comments should not be to preach a brief sermon, but to help hearers understand better what is about to be read.
If Bible-believing churches started reading a significant amount of Scripture in every service (not just the minister’s sermon text), it would greatly enrich the people of God, who need the Word of God more than they need food. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). This multi-volume series constitutes Old’s magnum opus and should be the starting point for any intelligent discussion of this matter.
“Of Publick Reading of the Holy Scriptures” in “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God,” The Subordinate Standards and Authoritative Documents of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Free Church of Scotland), 138-139.
The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 6th edition (Atlanta: Committee for Christian Education and Publication, 2001), 50-1.