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The Public Reading of the Word

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

The Context of God’s Covenantal People:

The public reading of Scripture amid the covenantal community of saints is a vital, decisive, and significant practice. Not only does the criterion of Scriptural reading inform the local assembly of doctrinal fidelity, it also sets the trajectory in discerning the cultural temperature through the narratival progress of redemptive history. Meaning, the storyline of Scripture is the primary tool in ascertaining secular as well as worldly ideologies that may forcefully and negatively infiltrate the borders of ecclesial and covenantal life. Michael Lawrence rightfully contends,

No, the narrative of Scripture was inspired in order to let us know what reality really is. Biblical theology, as it arises from Scripture, provides a framework, a fabric of meaning for our lives; it allows us to see with new eyes, and that begins with the way we view ourselves. It's not just that we interpret the Bible. The Bible interprets us, by declaring what the main events of reality are, and then telling us to read ourselves in light of that story.[1]

Thus, the Apostle Paul mandates the church and her ministers to “devote yourselves to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). This was orchestrated amid foundational correctives which were birthed from the inevitable false teachings that would threaten the life and vitality of the church.[2] Maintaining an authentic Gospel, then, became the rubric to which ministers were marked (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15-20). In evaluating the nature of Paul’s epistle, two fundamental aspects must be verified in conjunction with the historical and textual context: the elemental aim of the pastoral office and the purpose of the organic church.

The Purpose of the Shephard/Pastor/Elder. It is self-evident within the epistle to the young protégé that the motivation behind Timothy’s pastoral charge was to shield the covenantal community. Paul clearly and formally states, “I urged you . . . to . . . remain in Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3, italics mine). The pastoral aim, then, is centered upon upholding sound faith and safeguarding the flock of Christ from fallacious and devilish teachings (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6, 9-13, 16). For this reason, one of the requirements for eldership—mandated by the apostle himself—is to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). “The elders protect, guide, lead, nourish, comfort, educate, and heal the flock,” says Alexander Strauch, “by teaching and preaching the Word.”[3] Biblical understanding, thus, plays a rudimentary factor amid ecclesial oversight.

The Purpose of the Church. Therefore, the ecclesial telos is better understood and appreciated when the pastoral aim is clearly defined. Doctrinal safeguarding, then, is intrinsically tied to the notion that the church—the body of Christ—is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15, italics mine). In saying that, the assembly of saints is not only to ensure propositional truth—upon a biblical scale—but, in conjunction, is to embody an ethos that is congruent with its own narratival and covenantal claims. “This moral instruction, set in the context of group standards,” asserts Everett Ferguson, “reinforces the fact that Christian conversion involved being incorporated into an alternative community that perceived itself (and was perceived by outsiders) to have a distinctive lifestyle.”[4] The upholding of sound doctrine would, in part, ensure that the foundational claims be present and available in order to instruct the covenantal community of its obligation to the Gospel by upholding the law of Christ (cf. Rom. 1:5; 8:2; 16:26; Gal. 6:2). And by doing so, the church becomes “the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14).

A Biblical Theological Glance:

The reading of Scripture, then, has been an essential component for the life of God’s people throughout all of redemptive history. From the old covenant epoch with Israel to the new covenant era with the church, the public reading of Scripture has played an enormous part in the sanctification of the assembly of saints. In assessing each epochal turn, we will evaluate how the public reading of the covenantal documents inform the life of the community of saints.

Moses Conveying Covenantal Foundations. The first incident in which the people of God gathered to hear the renderings of the covenantal claims can be found in Exodus 24. This monumental event follows the redemptive journey that was taken by the Hebrew people from their dreadful Egyptian plight (cf. Exod. 4-20). Upon a successful and safe departure, the covenantal Lord communicates the basis for their conjugal union with Him. In doing so, Moses conveys all of the sanctions and stipulations that the nation would be responsible for: “Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules” (Exod. 24:3a). Hence, according to Michael S. Horton, the “stipulations, or terms of the treaty, were set forth. Those who kept the stipulations were covenant-keepers, while those who violated them were covenant-breakers.”[5] In turn, the people of God responded with affirmation, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exod. 24:3b, italics mine). Thus, Moses followed his rendering of the covenantal mandate with the sprinkling of blood in order to seal the covenant: “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words’ (Exod. 24:8, italics mine).” Meaning, the sign of the sprinkled blood sealed the covenant between both parties. As one commentator explains, “The dashing of the blood first on the altar (v. 6) and then on the people, or their representatives (v. 8a), is a symbolic act, binding both parties of this covenant to each other, Yahweh to Israel, and Israel to Yahweh.”[6]

In this fashion, the reading of the covenantal documents were markers for the realities of the conjugal union that the community has with the Creator God Yahweh. The sanctions, or rather the covenantal Scriptures, became the foundational documents, divinely inspired as they are, to bind both parties—God and His people—to one another.[7] Furthermore, the public reading of Scripture is foundational to bestow anew the relational realities that have transpired through the sacrificial lamb. It not only familiarizes us with the narrative but reminds us that we are included, by grace, into the storyline of redemption.

Josiah Retrieving Covenantal Glories. In another point within the progression of divine revelation, we find that the public reading of the Scripture is foundational to the reformation of the people of God. Amid all of the rebellion, exile, and idolatry that plagued the nation, it was King Josiah who brought monumental reform through the reading of the covenantal documents. Upon the recovery of the sacred texts, the king “read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kgs. 23:2b; cf. 2 Chron. 34:30). This, in turn, realigned and became a corrective of the fallacious practices that had infected the nation. In the reading of the Book of the Covenant, King Josiah skewered the nation for cultic artifacts, symbols, and practices that were contrary to the written code and, thus, demolished them (2 Kgs. 23:4-20).[8] King Josiah was adamant in taking “away all the admonitions from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel and made all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God” (2 Chron. 34:33).

The reformation that surged amid the nation of Israel, then, was fueled by the reading of the sacred text. It informed the covenant community not only of the proper worship that was commissioned and charged by the Lord, but that their existence and, hence, prosperity was birthed upon covenantal fidelity.

Jesus Embodying Covenantal Fulfillment. As Christ enters into the redemptive scene through His incarnation (cf. Jn. 1:1-3, 14), the commencing of His earthly ministry is centered upon the public reading of Scripture (cf. Lk. 4:17-21). Upon the communal gathering of the people of God, “[Jesus] unrolled the scroll” (Lk. 4:17b) and read from them Isaiah 62:1-2,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is foundational as the promises of God are built upon prophetic utterances that would be fulfilled through the messianic figure (cf. Ezek. 36:26-27; Jer. 31:31-33; Isa. 62:1-2). In His self-proclamation, Jesus is claiming to be the One that the prophets of old had foretold. In so doing, He followed His reading by saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). Thomas R. Schreiner rightly contends that “Jesus truly was the bearer of the Spirit, the man marked out by the Spirit, the man uniquely strengthened by the Spirit.”[9] The Spirit empowerment, then, is essential because the Christ was the figure who was to inaugurate and usher in the age of the Spirit. To be endowed by the Spirit was to signify that He would be the one to escort the in-breaking of the new age. To this end, Sinclair Ferguson is right when he says, “Pentecost publicly marks the transition from the old to the new covenant, and signifies the commencement of the 'now' of the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). It is the threshold of the last days, and inaugurates the new era in which the eschatological life of the future invades the present evil age in a proleptic manner.[10]

Thus, the public reading of Scripture grants the covenantal community access into the redemptive narrative of God. It formulates for the people of God the consistency of the redemptive storyline which ensures her of the steadfastness of God to save a people for Himself. Not only is the community of saints given promises to hope upon but, simultaneously, is bombarded by fulfillment in the Son as we seek for His return in the new heavens and new earth (cf. Rev. 21:1, 4). "The glory of God that proved God's reality to the Old Testament prophets,” according to John Piper, “was fulfilled in Jesus. He was the light of God's glory in the world."[11] The public reading of Scripture, then, assures the assembly that there is a clear telos to God’s redemptive plans in the work and Person of Jesus Christ.

A Practice for the People of God:

The public reading of Scripture sets a sail for the local assembly of saints to chart its course toward a trajectory of faithfulness and a life filled with hopefulness in the midst of worldly sufferings. It anchors the covenant community not upon the sheer strength of inner self-actualization, but rather upon a firm foundation of God who has given us His living Word. This Word, then, is adequate and sufficient to assist in helping the people of God discern the cultural climate and ideological framework that seek to unearth the foundational premise—Christ Jesus Himself “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). It also assures us during anxious and turbulent times that the faithfulness of God toward His covenant people does not waver. He who is faithful will not leave His people in despair. Thus, the church would do well to saturate herself in the public reading of the Word; that, in turn, He would “[sanctify] them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (Jn. 17:17).

 

***footnotes***

[1] Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 31. [2] See William B. Barcley, “1 Timothy,” A Biblical-Theolocal Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized, ed. Michael J. Kruger (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 357-375; See also Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 635-666, [3] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, 2nd ed. (Littleton: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 2016), 24. [4] Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 351. [5] Michael S. Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 26. [6] Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), 441. [7] Michael S. Horton, Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 493. [8] Paul R. House, 1 & 2 Kings: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Scripture, TNAC, vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1995), 387-389. [9] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 442. [10] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1996), 57. [11] John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Illinois: Crossway, 2016), 54.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is a Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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