Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching (1 Timothy 4:13 ESV).
One of the great advancements in “Western” society over the past few centuries involves literacy rates. Whereas fewer than a quarter of the population could functionally read and write in the ancient and medieval world, well over 90% of people in America today can do so. This means that the vast majority of Americans have the capability of picking up a Bible, reading it for themselves, and coming to a basic understanding of its contents.
The ability to read and understand the Bible is a blessing, but we do well to remember that the idea that most individuals in a congregation can read the Scriptures is a modern phenomenon. For most of history most people did not come to an understanding of God’s message through sitting down and reading a Bible: instead, they heard the message of God read as part of a service, either in the Temple, a synagogue, or the assembly of Christians (Luke 4:16-19, 1 Timothy 4:13).
It is for this reason that Paul encourages Timothy to devote himself to the “reading of Scripture” in 1 Timothy 4:13. Paul does not have in mind some concept of private study with texts with Timothy quietly reading to himself; instead, just as Timothy is to devote himself to preaching (exhortation) and teaching, he is also to devote himself to the reading of the Scriptures before those in the congregation with which he labors.
Devotion to the public reading of Scripture may seem strange to modern eyes, since listeners of Scripture readings today can compare what they hear with what they see written in the Bible. Yet when most of the members of a congregation are illiterate, and especially in a situation in which a congregation is most fortunate if they even possess one full set of scrolls of the Bible, the only experience many will have of the Bible comes through its public reading. If a reader misspeaks or is careless with his reading, the listeners may well be led astray or maintain false impressions regarding what the Scriptures teach since they have no other means by which to come to an understanding of what God has said. If people were going to understand God’s Word accurately, those who read the Scriptures in the assembly needed to devote themselves diligently to the task.
One might wonder why the reading of Scripture in the assembly would still be useful when everyone in the congregation is able to read. Its role has certainly diminished over the past few generations; these days it often becomes the means by which to highlight the main passage of the lesson. Nevertheless, the public reading of Scripture maintains value even in a literate age. Even if people can read the Scriptures, few do with any regularity. Even if we frequently read Scripture, hearing it read may provide a complementary way of understanding the text, and we may notice something we might have missed in reading.
God’s message was always meant to be heard and spoken: such is how the present connects with the past. The prophets and the Apostles may have died thousands of years ago, but we can hear their words spoken to us just as they were first proclaimed so long ago. Yet this connection can only take place when the Scriptures are read like they were originally spoken, with inflection and emotion along with the words. A dramatic reading of Scripture, based on good study of the message, with proper emphasis and appropriate emotion, can bring God’s Word to life. Rushed, careless, flippant, or lifeless reading may quench what the Spirit seeks to accomplish with His Word and does not reflect a healthy respect for God’s message (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 1 Peter 4:11).
The public reading of Scripture in the assembly provides Christians with the opportunity to experience the pure and living Word of God without additional commentary (cf. Hebrews 4:12). We do well to speak God’s words to one another even if most of us can read it on our own. Let us devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture in our assemblies and thus glorify and honor God in Christ!