“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:8)
My community group from church met each week. Some nights we would spend the whole evening praying for one another. Other times we would spend it singing worship songs. One of our favorite activities, however, was reading the Bible together out loud. Sometimes attendance included just our group, and other times we invited people who rarely, if ever, attended church.
All of us brought an NIV translation. We each took turns reading a chapter out loud, except when it came to the exchange student. Since she felt uncomfortable reading by herself, we agreed to read her parts in unison.
After each hour of reading, everyone would take a ten-minute break before we started up again. It took the group just over three hours to read the entire Book of Acts. I tried to end our time together right after the reading, but our group insisted that we close by singing a couple of praise songs.
They responded to God’s Word in unanimous praise. And with minimal organization, the group received an excellent Bible study and opportunity for growth. Comments as people left included, “I had a great time” and “What book will we read next?”
My observations of my community group got me thinking about the tradition of Scripture reading. I realized it had ancient origins. The tradition of reading Scripture aloud reaches far beyond church history to both Old and New Testament times.
Scripture and Oral Reading
Near the end of Deuteronomy, the LORD instructed Israel to read the entire Law in the assembly of the people during the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 31:10–11).
Later when Joshua had brought the people of Israel into the Promised Land, he copied the Law for them. Then he read every word of it to the whole nation, with the women and children present (Josh. 8:34–35).
In the book of Nehemiah, people came to hear the reading of the Law three different times.
- After the Babylonian exile, when God’s people tried to resettle in Jerusalem, all the people came to hear Ezra read the whole book of the Law. The people stood listening with full intent for half the day during the festival. When Ezra finished reading, “[He] praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:6). • This reading of the Law compelled the people of God to worship.
- Twenty four days later, all the people came to hear the Law again.“They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God” (Neh. 9:3). • After this reading, the text points out that the people responded with confession.
- At the end of the book during the dedication of the wall, they read the Law again. “On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God” (Neh. 13:1).Two verses later the text tells us, “When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.” This last public reading of the Law led the people to correct their lifestyles to follow the Law of God. The people exiled for disobeying the Law now responded to the Law as a result of the public reading of God’s word. Audible Scripture reading led to biblical application.
The New Testament also mentions the public reading of Scripture. This tradition has its roots in the Sabbath traditions. Every Sabbath Day, someone stood up to read a section from the Law (Acts 15:21). The early church found nourishment from the Word.
The Gospel of Luke mentions that Jesus participated in this tradition when He read at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. He got up, read from Isaiah 61:1–2, and then sat down.
Even Paul wrote his letters intending to have a public hearing in the churches. Colossians 4:16 says, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” Paul was intentional and specific when he requested that all believers have 1 Thessalonians read to them. “I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27). In his instructions to Timothy he exhorts, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Paul wanted all of Scripture to be read to the people. People need to hear the words of God just as much as they need instruction from it.
A Worthwhile Tradition
I hope this listing of evidence encourages you to read the Bible out loud with others. You can find the practice of reading Scripture to a public audience throughout the Bible. My list includes only the places the Bible records the mention of public readings of Scripture. Try a word search on “listen” or “hear” and you find numerous places where the command is not only to read the word of God, but also to receive it aurally. Scripture shows that God intended people to hear His word. He equipped us with ears to do so.
It makes sense that the human authors wrote with an oral intent. Illiterate audiences needed to learn God’s Word. And then there was the high cost of parchment. Individual books were not common place until after the invention of Guttenberg’s printing press, which paved the way for individuals to have their own copies of the Scriptures.
Barriers to Reading the Scriptures Together
Why do we often struggle to overcome the barriers that keep us from reading the Bible?
Busyness can make it easy to neglect the Scriptures. Freeing up time for the Bible presents a challenge. Life never seems to slow down, and even when it does, T.V. programs tend to take our time.
A second barrier comes from the difficulty of understanding the Bible. When alone, individuals lack the opportunity to raise their questions and get the help they need.
These reasons result in individuals reading the Bible in smaller snippets. Thus we often neglect to identify the themes woven through the books of Scripture, and we also fail to recognize the objective message intended in each book.
By reclaiming the tradition of reading the Bible aloud together, we can break down many barriers that keep people from reading the Bible for themselves.
Quality Time Breeds Quality Learning
When groups come together to read the Bible, they provide a way for people to set aside quality time for God’s Word. Instead of reading the Bible in snippets, we get to read the books as a whole. Individuals can follow the logic of the biblical authors and see themes woven into the books.
Reading together also allows people to share their observations and pose questions to others who can provide answers. Misunderstandings can quickly be averted. This keeps people’s attention focused on the message of Scripture resulting in a deeper understanding of God’s Word. In addition a group can come to a unified understanding of the message of Scripture.
When experienced believers share their observations, new believers and the non-believers alike can learn to understand the Bible for themselves, and they can even offer fresh perspectives for Christians who have come to accept an interpretation of the text without considering the reason.
This happened for me when our community group read the Book of Acts. Some who read it for the first time expressed astonishment as they considered the historical reality of the early church and the events that happened. They considered Paul’s conversion amazing, and rightly so.
Since I grew up going to church and Bible College, I had read the story of Paul’s conversion numerous times. Without hearing the exclamations of those who saw it as amazing, I would have missed the opportunity to let their astonishment sink into my heart. Had I read Acts alone, I would have finished without a time of worship. Instead I came away with a greater vision of my God and the desire to serve Him fully.