Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)
As we move into the last post in this series, I want us to finally ask what ‘public’ reading involves.
Technically, ‘public’ doesn’t occur in the verse, as older translations will testify to. But the sense of ‘reading’ in its historical-linguistic context implies an audibility, and the clear context of the chapter is Timothy’s responsibility within the church.
‘Public’, then, means ‘out loud in the presence of others’. It’s not a comment on reading the Bible out loud to non-Christians (more about this in a moment), nor is he trying to make a comment about reading in church as opposed to private reading; Bible scrolls were rarer compared to our day, and if the Bible was to be known to all, it needed to be read out loud to all.
I hope you can see from the last post, however, that, whatever the benefit of private reading, it is public reading in church that promotes and expresses our present heavenly/future reality.
I hope you can also see that gifted Bible reading in the presence of others—with whom we can discuss it and pray—is of more value than private Bible reading (as valuable as that is!). You see, we have a tendency in our sinfulness to deceive ourselves (Heb 3:12-13). We need each other to prevent ourselves from hearing God’s voice and yet hardening our hearts against it. In fact, we have a responsibility to each other for this (this is why Psalm 95, which Hebrews 3-4 keeps returning to, was chosen to be read in every Anglican prayer book service).
But these verses also assume that we do this daily (Heb 3:13), and the first Christians did exactly that (Acts 2:26)—just like any family would. And so we return to our Reformed heritage, which, you may recall from an earlier post, assumed that Christians would meet day and night every day, to hear God’s word and to pray.
Here, then, is the hard challenge before us: can we become so devoted to the public reading of Scripture that we regain daily meeting to do this? I have no idea how to bring about such radical change—the departure from the workaholism and the materialism of the world would be significant. I’m not saying we must go there overnight, but I am wondering if we can make steps in that direction. We’ll only ever go there, however, if we are devoted to God and his word, and are truly enthralled by the glory of such activity.
Having watched the Tour de France for a few years, and now exploring bits of England, I’m starting to understand what village life may have entailed in an agrarian culture. Everyone lived in the village, within a couple of hundred meters of each other, and went out into the fields each morning, returning each evening. Churches were almost universally at the heart of the village. In such a society, it is very easy to frame the beginning and end of a day with a short time of public Bible reading and prayer—everyone is in transit and close to each other at the same time every day. At the heart of the village, it is also readily accessible for non-Christians to listen in, or be invited in. A prayer book for morning and evening prayer (not Sunday morning prayer) is entirely explicable in such a culture.
We no longer live in such a society. We travel great distances for work, and work beyond the times the sun sets, we travel at different times, and our networks are disparate; whom I live amongst is almost entirely different to whom I work with.
Yet here are some thoughts for what we might do:
- Start early. My god-daughter and her Christian friends decided to read the Bible together at school, off their own bat. They see each other every day and have a lot of discretionary time. How great would it be if our Christian brothers and sisters at school learnt the habit early of reading the Bible together—no frills, but letting God be heard, regularly and consistently?
- How great would it be if this continued through to university groups? Again, a very high amount of discretionary time, used for the sake of God being made known. And, like the school context, the university café is ‘in the marketplace’, where non-Christians can readily hear and be invited to hear God speak.
- Many people catch the train to work, and I know lots of Christians that get specific trains and carriages to be with other Christians—most non-Christians seek out train-line friendship groups too. Again, we have a regular, daily, ‘marketplace context’ for Christians to read the Bible publicly together. No preparation, nothing fancy, but God’s magisterial presence and breath-taking power at work on a daily basis.
- For Christian mothers dropping their children off at school. The school gate post-drop off and pre-pick up is again loaded with opportunities.
- For Christian shopkeepers to open their shop 15 minutes early so Christians in the local marketplace can come to read the Bible together? Or those in the CBDs, to transform the city work and prayer triplets into daily Bible readings and prayer?
- For ministers who have church buildings on the train line, in the literal marketplace, and next to schools (which is many of us), to open our buildings and host such pre- and post- peak hour meetings daily?
Pipe dreams? Unrealistic? Too much? The early church didn’t think so. The Reformers didn’t think so either. Perhaps we need to think more creatively than they, but if an uncreative person like myself can come up with some ideas, think what we might do together. Yes, there are lots of issues to consider (like, how Bible study groups and training courses fit in with all this), but it’d be a shame if we let some questions prevent us from action. It’d be shame if, because point ‘e’ seems so far away from point ‘a’, that we failed to make the easy steps to points b, c, and d in the meantime (like the suggestions in my second post).
All it takes is for us to not shrink back in fear, but to be brave, and strive for God’s voice to be heard in this world. All it takes is for us to trust that God’s sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and he’ll call his people to himself. All it takes is those of us who are devoted to the public reading of Scripture to be devoted, and delight in God as he does his work.