Among the exhortations the apostle fires off to Timothy in a staccato burst is this: "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13). If the last two facets describe preaching (and, I think, they do), the first describes the reading of Scripture to the congregation.
Mull that over for a moment. We have direct apostolic authority to read the Bible as part of our church service.
Now, we have often stressed the importance of preaching. Rightly so (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-2). Preaching is primary, and must be Biblical, passionate, truthful, and Christ-centered. It takes hard work. It takes years of preparation and hours of intensive labor that involves the whole man.
Others have made the point that communion shouldn't be a haphazard little addendum to the service. It shouldn't have the feel of an unrelated appendix. It's a gift of God, Christ is present to bless believing obedience (John 13:17) — it matters. And the same is said for corporate prayer. All of these activities have direct apostolic authority, and must be undertaken before God with reverence and thoughtful devotion.
But I think Bible reading gets relatively short shrift.
I think some churches just pick some guy who doesn't have anything else to do, and ask him to read... so that he has something to do. They give this guy — we'll call him "Guy" — his passage whenever he arrives at church. Sometimes, the first time Guy sees the passage is when he steps into the pulpit to read.
And it shows. Oh my, it shows. No impassioned prophetic plea disturbs Guy's monotone, no heart-pounding narrative disrupts Guy's stolid pace... though he may well be brought to a dead halt by Mephibosheth, Shealtiel, or Mahanaim.
My brothers, these things ought not to be! Since an apostle commands devotion to public reading, we should give no less proportional thought and deliberation to it than to those other activities. It's important, it matters; the way we do it says something. Let's be sure it says what it ought to say!
I went on about this at some meandering length at my blog. Here, let me just offer a few brief, specific pointers.
- Always practice reading the passage aloud. This may be the most important single pointer. What works inside your head may not get out your mouth, intact. So give it a go, at least once.
- Make sure you understand the passage. That's why, given the option, I always do my own reading. Ostensibly I've studied it, pored over it, marinated my soul in it. I should be ready to read the passage with thought and meaning and proper emphasis. Of course, it isn't a necessity that the preacher also be the reader. But the reader of the passage should first have been a student of the passage.
- Don't rush it. It is an important part of the service. God is speaking to His people. It's not a box to check on the way to the Real Deal. This is the Word of God.
- Read it with life. The last thing a Bible reading should feel like is lifeless and bloodless and monotonous. "Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet" (Isaiah 58:1) would be good counsel to the man who reads stirring, passionate passages in assembly. No need for histrionics; but no excuse for soporifics. These are the words of God! Our readings should never sound like Ben Stein ("Beulah? Beulah?").
- Know how to pronounce difficult words or names. There are plenty of dictionaries. Or, you can ask an authority. Zurishaddai, Kiriath-jearim, or Magor-missabib are just as much part of the inspired text as grace, forgiveness, or love. If they're in the portion you're to read, that's your ministry today. Say them with equal clarity.
- Read the psalm titles. If your assignment is to read Psalm 32 or 51 or 90, read the title. I was cheered to hear the great Bruce Waltke say (far better) what I've also said for years: the titles and ascriptions (and notations) are as much a part of the text as the rest, and there is no historical reason for rejecting them. They're part of the text we have as the word of God. In Hebrew, the title often is verse one. Skipping the title isn't reading the psalm. Don't leave off part of the Word.
But if you do....
Is that the great King's word you have in your hands? Are you about to relay His words to His people? Are these words of life and death, of pardon and judgment? Does eternity hang in the balance? Is that what you believe?
Then leave us in no doubt of it. Show us!