Why do we read the Scriptures aloud as part of our worship services?
Is it just tradition?
Is it part of preparing the congregation for the sermon?
Or it is more?
I would like to present ten reasons for reading the Bible aloud as part of congregational worship, starting with the commands of Scripture and finishing with the benefits of obedience.
I hope that we will view this practice as more than tradition, more than a preparatory step for the sermon, but as a central part of worship.
1. The Command to Read Aloud
In 1 Timothy 4:13, the apostle Paul commands Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and teaching. In the context of this epistle, Paul is referring to reading the word of God aloud to the believers gathered for corporate worship.
Moses was the first to instruct the people of God to read the Scriptures aloud as part of worship. In Deuteronomy 31:9-13, he wrote that the Levites and elders of Israel were to read the law of Moses aloud at the Festival of Booths, every seven years.
It is likely that the law of Moses was read aloud on a regular basis, not just once every seven years. In fact, as we will see in the next point, the people of God started reading the Scriptures as often as they met.
2. The Example of Reading Aloud in the Scriptures
Paul’s exhortation to Timothy was not a new command. It was a reminder to Timothy to do what he had seen and engaged in for most of his life.
When the Jews met for worship in the synagogue, it was the practice to read the Scriptures aloud. In Luke 4:16-30, we read of Jesus attending the synagogue in Nazareth. As was the custom, he stood to read from the Scriptures, specifically from Isaiah 61, and then sat down to explain the significance of the passage. What he said, though, angered everyone to such a degree that they drove him out of the synagogue.
In a similar manner, Paul and Barnabas attended a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:14-42. The leaders of the synagogue read from the Law and the Prophets aloud to the congregation. Afterwards, they invited Paul to share a word of encouragement. Paul proceeded to preach the gospel and spoke more after the meeting with those interested in learning about Christ.
3. The Example of Reading Aloud in the Early Church
In the generations that followed Paul and Timothy, the practice of reading the Scriptures aloud was followed. Justin Martyr wrote about the practices of the early Christians in his First Apology around 150 AD.
In chapter 67, he wrote, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
4. The Blessing of Reading Aloud
The book of Revelation opens with a blessing on the one who reads the prophecy of John aloud and then the blessing is extended to those who hear the reading (Revelation 1:3). The apostle John, as he was guided by the Holy Spirit, appears to be pronouncing a blessing on those who participate in the public reading of Scripture, both the reader and the listeners.
It is not surprising that he would write such a blessing, given that his prophecy included letters for specific churches and for believers across the centuries. He wanted the leaders of the churches to read his prophecy aloud to their congregations and for them all to respond in obedience.
By including a blessing on the one who reads aloud, John was highlighting the practice of public reading and indirectly exhorting the believers to read.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul directly instructed his churches to read his letters aloud when they met together (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27).
5. The Working of the Spirit through the Word
In addition to these commands and blessing, another reason to read the Scriptures aloud as part of worship is that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of those who hear the word.
In 2 Kings 22:8-13, King Josiah is presented with scrolls that had been found in the temple in Jerusalem. King Josiah had never heard the Law of Moses. When it was read aloud to King Josiah, he tore his clothes and humbled himself before the Lord. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully in his heart, apart from any exhortation or instruction.
The reading of the Scriptures is more than a step to prepare the congregation for the preaching. It’s more than the first part of a sermon. It suffices to read the Scriptures for the Spirit to work in a person’s heart.
6. The Public Affirmation of the Supremacy of Scripture
When the leaders of a church commit to publicly read the Bible, it is also an affirmation that they and the whole congregation are under the authority of the word of God.
Only one group of people in the Old Testament was commanded to make a personal copy of the Scriptures and read it regularly. In Deuteronomy 17:18-20, Moses wrote that the future kings of the people of Israel, when they ascended to the throne, were to make a personal copy of the Law of Moses, keep it with them, and read it regularly.
Moses notes that this practice will keep them from elevating themselves above their fellow Israelites and encourage them to live in obedience to God.
In a similar manner, no one should elevate themselves above their fellow believers in the church, but everyone should humble themselves under God’s word. The reading of the Scriptures by the leaders of a congregation is a public reminder that they and the whole congregation are under the authority of the God’s word.
7. The Public Affirmation of the Importance of Reading
The question of whether you read the Scriptures in worship or not has implications beyond your church walls. The regular, reverent reading of the Scriptures in church encourages the reading of God’s word in other meetings and, more importantly, serves as a reminder for families and individuals to read at home.
Paul often encouraged others to follow his example. In Philippians 4:9, for instance, he wrote, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
If we want to encourage the reading of God’s word through the week, how much more should we read it aloud as part of corporate worship on Sunday?
8. Increased Knowledge of Scripture
When the Scriptures are read aloud, a congregation learns more than if they were asked to read a passage to themselves silently.
Research on the practice of reading shows that when we read a passage aloud, we remember more of it than if we read it silently. Furthermore, when students listen to a story read aloud, they remember more of the story than when they read it silently by themselves.
On a personal level, when I read the Scriptures aloud, I find that I focus more on the passage. In the case of poetry such as we find in the Psalms, reading aloud often moves my heart more, especially if I start to capture the rhythm and emotion of the passage as I read.
9. Greater Sense of Community
The corporate reading of Scripture may also increase the sense of community among the believers in a church.
The more the congregation takes part in the act of reading, the more potential there is for increased community. For instance, if everyone rises together or takes part in responsive reading, it makes the moment a shared one. Furthermore, if the leaders of the congregation take turns reading each week, it allows for more involvement.
Research has found that reading aloud creates a shared experience and a greater sense of community among students. How much more could it add to the sense of community among believers?
10. Increased Spiritual Growth and Blessing
After the death of Moses, God spoke to Joshua and told him to keep the Law of Moses on his lips, meditate on it day and night, and carefully obey it. If he would do this, God promised to bless him with prosperity and success (Joshua 1:8).
In a similar way, we must put the Scriptures in their proper place, corporately and privately. The public reading of Scripture must be accompanied by the preaching and teaching of God’s word. When we follow the teaching of Scripture and strive to live in obedience, we are promised growth and blessings in Christ.
A congregation that faithfully reads the Scriptures and seeks to live in obedience should experience these same blessings of obedience.
The instructions that Paul gave to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13 are sufficient reason to publicly read the Scriptures as part of corporate worship.
When we research the topic more thoroughly, though, we find even more reasons to respond in obedience to this verse.
I hope you and your church will look at the public reading of Scriptures in a fresh light and also consider the benefits of reading aloud as a family or even in your personal devotions.
May the word of Christ be on our lips and reverberate in our midst, with exhortation and teaching, to the glory of our triune God.