The basis for the public reading of scripture in our assemblies can be found in the New Testament. Timothy, an evangelist in Ephesus, is instructed by Paul: “Until I come, continue to devote yourself to reading, to exhortation, and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Most modern translations render reading as public reading. Although the word can mean either private or public reading, the public nature of the other two items in the series, exhortation and teaching, would cause us to think of the assembly. Other passages also indicate a public reading of the word (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27, and Revelation 1:3).
The public reading of God’s word underscores its authority. It also gives opportunity for us to hear the message of scripture. Yet it must be done well. If we do it poorly, the hidden message may be that this is unimportant–the exact opposite of what we want to convey. Let me make some suggestions for public reading to help us achieve excellence.
- Select a unit of thought to be read. Remember chapter and verse numbers are the later addition of editors. They may not always help in selecting a unit of thought. The reader may need to give some context to help the listeners. The goal is that the scripture selected will convey the same message to the listeners as if they had read it in context for themselves. (Most of the time for us, the passage is selected to go with the preaching text. If you want to know the passage prior to Sunday, let me know.)
- Check for pronunciation and words you may not understand. A Bible dictionary can aid you in the pronunciation of Bible names, so can the book, That’s Easy for You to Say: Your Quick Guide to Pronouncing Bible Names. The web sites, biblespeak.org and thebibleworkshop.com, provide audio pronunciations of some Bible names. An app called Biblical Pronunciation is also available for Android and iOS. Some Bible names have multiple acceptable pronunciations. But nothing hurts a public reading like stumbling over the pronunciation of unfamiliar words and names.
- Watch for problems that may arise in public reading that might confuse the sense. Failing to pause at the right place or pausing in the wrong place may confuse the listener. Consider the example Luke 2:16: “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (NRSV). If the reader fails to pause at the comma, it will end up sounding as if all three — Mary, Joseph, and the child — are in the manger.
- Find the author’s meaning, place the stress and emphasis on the main point.
- Read more slowly than you might speak but be willing to vary the speed and pitch to fit the tone of the reading. I once heard a comparison of audio books made by Audible.com with amateur produced audio books. The speed and pitch of the Audible books were well modulated. The amateur books sounded flat in comparison. And this difference effects the listener’s ability to pay attention and comprehend. No, I’m not expecting us to become professional readers, but it is something at which most of us can do better.
- Communicate the emotion and tone of the passage with your voice if possible. Is there joy? Is there anger? Is there sarcasm? Is there humor?
- Practice reading the passage aloud.