“Until I come,” says the apostle Paul, knowing that his death is imminent, seizing, perhaps, the opportunity to give direction to the church for the centuries ahead, “give attention” (NASB), or “devote yourself” (NIV), “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.”
It’s clear enough what the apostle Paul wants done in the public assembly of the church. He wants Scripture read. The practice of the synagogue was to unroll the scrolls of Scripture, read a portion, mark where they stopped, and then the next Sabbath pick up again where they left off. The reading was lectio continua, consecutive, sequential readings, not, by the way, “lectio selecta,” readings selected from here or there.
Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–19) and the apostle Paul at Pisidian Antioch and elsewhere (Acts 13:15; 17:2–4, 11; 18:4, 19; 19:8) provide examples of this public discipline in action. We have as well the apostle James’ explanation of the practice of the synagogue: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21, NASB and hereafter).
“Moses,” he says, “is read in the synagogue every Sabbath.” It is to this practice that the apostle Paul refers and that the early church had adopted. Liturgical scholars agree that lectio continua reading was the practice of the early church from the time of the apostles through the patristic period.
Following Gregory the Great (540–604 AD), the medieval church adopted a lectio selecta approach to the readings. But selected readings were unsatisfactory to the Reformers, who almost without exception required in their liturgical reforms that extensive lectio continua readings be restored to the public services of the church. Lectio continua readings of Scripture were the practice of Reformed orthodoxy until well into the nineteenth century.
All of my life I have belonged to churches that believed in the inerrant accuracy and infallible authority of Scripture. I have belonged to evangelical Baptist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches. I have visited scores of independent evangelical and charismatic churches. Yet not one of them paid any attention to 1 Timothy 4:13. Curious, isn’t it?
What is a proper sermon? It is an explanation of the reading. When Jesus concluded the reading from the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue at Nazareth, “the eyes of all…were fixed upon him” in anticipation of His comments. “And he began to say to them,” Luke tells us next. Jesus, by providing expository comments, followed the pattern expected in the synagogue service (Luke 4:16–21).
The expectation of exhortation based upon the reading can be seen in the synagogues in Acts also. The Law and the Prophets were read, as can be seen in Acts 13:15a. Then the synagogue officials asked of the apostle Paul: “If you have exhortation for the people, say it.” Scripture reading led directly to interpretative comments and exhortations. Moses is preached in every city, James maintained, because “he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (15:21). Reading and preaching are not synonymous, but they may be juxtaposed in the manner James does because they are seen as inseparably linked, the preaching arising out of and dependent upon the reading. This would seem to be the natural context of the apostle Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture,” and the “exhortation and teaching” that arises out of reading
(1 Tim. 4:13).
The practice of the synagogue became that of the apostolic church, and then of the patristic church. The sermons of Clement of Alexandria (150–215 AD), Origen (185–254), Chrysostom (347–407), and Augustine (354–430) provide abundant testimony to the practice of sequential expository or lectio continua preaching in the early centuries of the church.
Medieval preachers abandoned the patristic practice and preached largely topical sermons. But the Reformers, on the basis of their study of Scripture and the church fathers, restored the earlier practice of lectio continua preaching. Zwingli, Bucer, Capito, and Calvin, among many others, were all lectio continua preachers. They preached verse-by-verse through the books of the Bible.
Extended readings are virtually non-existent in today’s market-driven church environment. Topical sermons, only slightly related to a text of Scripture and addressing felt needs, have become the norm. But if we are convinced that we are born again by the living and abiding word (1 Peter 1:23), that we are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17), and that our souls, as the apostle Paul says here, are “nourished on the words of the faith and of sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6), we will require a prominent role in the public assembly for the Word of God, whether for our personal benefit or for the sake of the health and well-being of the whole church.