The Public Reading

My pastor preaches series of sermons over several weeks as he works his way through entire books of the Bible. This is expository preaching. While this may not in any way tickle anyone’s ears, it does edify the body and bring glory to God. Isn’t this the purpose of preaching?

In this month’s Tabletalk Magazine from Ligonier Ministries is an article by Terry L. Johnson that addresses this often neglected truth in most of the visible Church.Enjoy and be blessed my brethren – Mike Ratliff

The Public Reading

by Terry L. Johnson

“Until I come,” says the apostle Paul, knowing that his death is imminent, seizing, perhaps, the opportunity to give direction to the the church for centuries ahead, “give attention” (NASB), or “devote yourself” (NIV), to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”

It is clear enough what the apostle Paul wants done in the public assembly of the church. He wants Scripture read. The practice of the synagogue was to unroll the scrolls of Scripture, read a portion, mark where they stopped, and then next Sabbath pick up again where they left off. The reading was lectio coninua, consecutive, sequential readings, not by the way, “lectio selecta,” readings selected from here or there.

Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-19) and the apostle Paul at Pisidian Antioch and elsewhere (Acts 13:15; 17:2-4, 11; 18:4, 19; 19:8) provide examples of this public discipline in action. We have as well the apostle James’ explanation of the practice of the synagogue: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21, NASB and hereafter).

“Moses,” he says, “is read in the synagogue every Sabbath.” It is to this practice that the apostle Paul refers and that the early church had adopted. Liturgical scholars agree that lectio coninua reading was the practice of the early church from the time of the apostles through the patristic period.

Following Gregory the Great (540-604 AD), the medieval church adopted a lectio selecta approach to the readings. But selected readings were unsatisfactory to the Reformers, who almost without exception required in their liturgical reforms that extensive lectio continua readings be restored to the public services of the church. Lectio coninua readings of Scripture were the practice of Reformed orthodoxy until well into the nineteenth century.

All of my life I have belonged to churches that believed in the inerrant accuracy and infallible authority of Scripture. I have belonged to evangelical Baptist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches. I have visited scores of independent evangelical and charismatic churches. Yet not one of them paid any attention to 1 Timothy 4:13. Curious isn’t it?

What is a proper sermon? it is an explanation of the reading. When Jesus concluded the reading from the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue at Nazareth, “the eyes of all…were fixed upon him” in anticipation of His comments. “An he began to say to them,” Luke tells us next. Jesus, by providing expository comments , followed the pattern expected in the synagogue service (Luke 4:16-21).

The expectation of exhortation based upon the reading can be seen in the synagogues in Acts also. The Law and the Prophets were read, as can be seen in Acts 13:15a. Then the synagogue officials asked of the apostle Paul: “If you have exhortation for the people, say it.” Scripture reading led directly to interpretive comments and exhortations. Moses is preached in every city, James maintained, because  “he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (15:21). Reading and preaching are not synonymous, but they be juxtaposed in the manner James does because they are seen as inseparably linked, the preaching arising out of and dependent upon the reading. This would seem to be the natural context of the apostle Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture,” and the “exhortation and teaching” that arises out of reading (1 Tim. 4:13).

The practice of the synagogue became that of the apostolic church, and the the patristic church. The sermons of Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Origen (185-254), Chrysotom (347-407), and Augustine (354-430) provide abundant testimony to the practice of sequential expository or lectio cntinua preaching in the early centuries of the church.

Medieval preachers abandoned the patristic practice and preached largely topical sermons. But the Reformers, on the basis of their study of Scripture and the church fathers, restored the earlier practices of lectio continua preaching. Zwingli, Bucer, Capito, and Calvin, among many others, were all lectio continua preachers. They preached verse-by-verse through the books of the Bible.

Extended readings are virtually non-existent in today’s market-driven church environment. Topical sermons, only slightly related to a text of Scripture and addressing felt needs, have become the norm. But if we are convinced that we are born again by the living and abiding word (1 Peter 1:23), that we are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17), and that our souls, as the apostle Paul says here, are “nourished on the words of the faith and sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6), we will require a prominent role in the public assembly for the Word of God, whether for our personal benefit or for the sake of the heath and well-being of the whole church.

Rev. Terry L. Johnson is senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, and is author of When Grace Transforms.

12 thoughts on “The Public Reading

  1. It hurts me to read this, not because it is wrong, but because it is so right. Can’t you picture how this practice would edify the body of Christ if it were done in our western churches today? I say western, because I can’t say for sure what happens in other countries, as crude basic new churches spring up in areas where no church has ever existed before. I have read recent stories of new churches in Asia that do this very thing, mostly out of an excitement that they have access to a single Bible in their small village. Don’t you long to witness such excitement in God’s Word here in our country, that believers just want to sit and listen to it being read? Thanks for the post Mike.


  2. I agree. Listening to someone read the Word of God is thrilling to the soul. These are the WORDS OF GOD! We treat them so casually today! And yet, they are light and life!

    Thanks for the post, Mike.


  3. Mike, I love your articles and have learned much from them. This one is a confirmation to me. This is actually what we do in our meetings……….The scripture is read out loud a chapter at a time and then we ALL discuss and are free to run references and it is so awesome. May Father continue to bless you and you follow Him leading for you


  4. I went to a church for a couple of years in which the Word was read consecutively. If we spent 6 months in Matthew, for example, then so be it. Every line was read and expounded upon.

    The problem was, the explanations of the Word that the pastor provided were very often wrong. He was coming from the belief that man is not totally depraved, that man has free will, that man must “awaken himself” to the Holy Spirit, that man has control over his final destiny, etc. In his world, God was not sovereign (although he would have told you that God is sovereign if you asked).

    So, lectio continua may be the best way to present the Word of God to the Church, but it doesn’t always mean the pastor is teaching the Word of God. I loved lectio continua after coming from a church that only had very weak topical teachings. But hearer beware: always test the teachings against the Scriptures.

    Thanks, Mike, for an interesting post.


  5. Maybe that is why the continual readings in our meetings work so well. There is no one person expounding on the word……….it is open to all to discuss. We don’t have a “preacher” per se. There is no one telling us what it means except what we are shown with the leading of the Holy Spirit….that is the key to truth don’t you think?

    Anyway….thanks for your faithfulness Mike


Comments are closed.