Five Tips for Better Public Scripture Readings
You’re going to be reading Scripture in public. This should be easy enough. After all, you’ve been reading since kindergarten. But reading Scripture is different in some important ways and you know it. The public reading of Scripture is the public transmission of God’s voice—the same voice that brought the world into being, that strips forests bare, that calls forth life from the dead.
It’s also the way God sustains the life of his people. That’s why Paul instructed Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). We need to hear God’s Word, and we need to hear it together.
But while we know what it means to devote ourselves to exhortation and to teaching, what does it mean to devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture? At a basic level, it means that we should get busy doing this. And yet for as much care as we give in preparation to preaching God’s Word, how can we devote ourselves in preparation to reading God’s Word?
Here are five tips for reading Scripture in public.
First, devote yourself to the author.
When Paul wrote to Timothy he had God on his mind. This couldn’t be clearer than when he bursts with praise after just the first chapter: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:16–17). This is Paul’s ultimate concern in instructing Timothy to read, preach, and teach Scripture among God’s people. God has exalted above all things his name and his Word, and it is through his Word that he will be properly exalted among his people (Ps. 138:2).
When we prepare to read Scripture in public, God should be on our mind. For it is God who spoke not just to give us words but to give us himself. That’s why Jesus could say, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). God’s mouth is where God’s Word comes from, and so every word is an extension of him. This means that as we devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture, we must devote ourselves first to the one whose words we’re speaking.
Second, devote yourself to the words.
When we’re asked to read Scripture on the spot, it is understandable that we would stumble over a sentence or a few words. We will read words that we haven’t read before and we’ll begin sentences without knowing where they are going. In those cases, our first run through is our final and public run through. A reading like this may be a bit choppy. But planned Scripture readings really should be planned. We should be familiar with how words sound and how sentences flow.
Preparing to read Scripture in public, then, means reading the passage multiple times out loud. Then we’ll have the chance to figure out how exactly we’re going to say names like Ahasuerus, Berodachbaladan, and Wenceslaus, or cities like Chorazin, Ptolemais, and Mitylene. More importantly, rehearsing the words will help us grasp and portray the meaning of the text with proper emphasis and inflection, which brings us to the third tip.
Third, devote yourself to the meaning.
We don’t read Scripture personally or publicly as a matter of ritual or because there’s anything magical about the words. These words have meaning and an agenda. We read Scripture from a desire to hear what God has to say—about us, about him, about salvation, and about eternity—and to become what God would have us become by their hearing. It’s only natural that in reading Scripture for others to hear we should know what we’re saying in order to properly portray through our reading what God meant. A wrong kind of reading can miss or obscure the meaning of God’s words.
When we prepare to read Scripture in public, then, we should meditate on the text we’re assigned to read. This involves reading it several times over, reflecting on the words, asking questions, and pondering the meaning and the entailments of the passage. This doesn’t mean that we have to hammer out every theological or practical question raised by the passage before we can read it for others. But it does mean we model what it means to listen to God speak.
Fourth, devote yourself to the tone.
Once we have a grasp on what the text we’re reading actually means, we will also discern its tone. The text on the page is black and white, but God’s voice is not black and white. God speaks with one tone to Adam in the garden before the Fall and with a different tone to Job from the whirlwind. God speaks with one tone with Moses at Sinai and a different tone when he says at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). We could certainly overdo this with distracting dramatization. There’s no need to weep when reading a lament. But neither should we be deaf to the difference of tone from one text to another.
As we prepare to read Scripture in public, we should be asking questions of the text. Is this text offering a sober rebuke, a balm of comfort, or an encouraging reminder of our hope? Is this the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, Peter’s reconciliation to Jesus, or Peter’s bold proclamation of Jesus? Those passages shouldn’t sound the same. Happy parts shouldn’t sound sad, and exultant parts shouldn’t sound mundane. When we read Scripture in public, our tone should do justice to the meaning of the words God wrote down for us to hear.
Fifth, devote yourself to the people.
When Paul told Timothy to devote himself to reading Scripture with God’s people, he actually had God’s people in mind. Several verses earlier, in 1 Timothy 4:1, he says that “in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Timothy is to avoid silly myths and train himself in godliness, which “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (4:7-8). This is what reading Scripture in public is all about. “Persist in this,” Paul says, “for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (4:16). Public Scripture reading is one way that God saves and keeps the souls of his people.
For this reason, when we prepare to read Scripture, we should pray. We want God to sustain the souls of his people for heaven. We can’t do this. Words alone can’t. And so we should pray for God’s Spirit to help God’s people to hear and heed Scripture as the very voice of God, the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
There is more to say, and that’s why there are many good books and articles on this topic. But this much we must say about our devotion to the public reading of Scripture.