What could be more important than the reading of the Holy Scriptures ? The Apostle Paul said of them that it is the scriptures which are able to make us "wise unto salvation". Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only Redeemer of God's elect, the only name given under heaven whereby we must be saved, said to the Pharisees, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me". We are delivered from sin, and death, and hell, by faith, through Jesus Christ, in whom we have an eternal inheritance in his theocratic kingdom, in the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. But our knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, comes through the agency of the Spirit of Truth, and the means used are the Holy Scriptures. Without them we would have no meaningful, and certainly no saving knowledge of our Lord. Without the scriptures calling on the name of Jesus would be reduced to an exercise in magic, mysticism, and superstition. This is exactly what happened in the Dark Ages when Romish superstition replaced the Christian faith, and the priest's Latin "hocus pocus" ( Hoc est corpus meum ) replaced true knowledge of God and of his Christ. Spurgeon, arguing against the close communion principles of his fellow Baptists stated that, "The pulse of Christ is communion; and woe to the church that seeks to cure the ills of Christ's church by stopping its pulse." But the pulse of Christ's Church is his word. Without the word we have no knowledge of Christ, we have no church, and we indeed have no sacrament. The sacrament is founded on the word, takes its meaning and significance from the word, and symbolizes the great truths of the word. Reformed theologians have always stressed the connection between the word and the sacrament, and indeed without the word the sacrament degenerates into an exercise in mysticism and superstition as noted above.
The strength of the Christian faith is the strength of the word of God. Christianity is a revealed religion, a divinely revealed religion, and the revelation that establishes it is a written one, the Holy Scriptures. Christians are not mystics, and they are warned not to dabble in dreams and visions and other additions to the word of God, for whenever the Christian faith has mired itself in such subjectivism it has soon corrupted itself almost beyond recognition. And by contrast whenever she was so corrupted she has only been restored by a faithful return to the word of God as her only rule of faith and practice. Thus it was that while mysticism, superstition, and pagan traditions could usher in the Dark Ages, only the light of God's word could bring about the Reformation. More than anything else it was the publication of the Greek New Testament in its original purity, and the translation of the scriptures into the common languages of the peoples of Europe that brought about the Great Protestant Reformation. During that reformation the word was so central that it touched and affected everything including church architecture. The altar was swept away along with the idolatrous mass and in its place was the lecturn, where a great Bible was placed, and the focal point was the pulpit, where the word of God was read and expounded to the people in their own tongue. The importance of the scriptures to the Christian faith cannot be overstated or overemphasized, and their being publicly read as the very word of God, as a separate and distinct act of worship to that God, is a quintessential part of the Christian faith.
The centrality of worship and its overwhelming importance in the life of the Christian should never be overlooked. The very purpose for man's existence is that he might glorify God, that he might worship and honor his Creator. Man preeminently, as the apex of God's creation, fashioned in his own image, is to worship God and the entire creation was called into existence by the word of his power for the sole purpose of magnifying and glorifying the Creator. And even in its cursed condition, with its original beauty and splendor, tarnished and darkened by sin, the Psalmist still tells us that, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork". The entire creation, animate and inanimate was made for the express purpose of worshiping God, so much so that if the former fails to do so the latter will break forth with praise to ensure that God is glorified. Christ himself referred to this when during the triumphal entry into Jerusalem the Pharisees in their jealousy sought to silence the multitude that was glorifying God and proclaiming Christ as King. Christ's response was, "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out". Similarly, John the Baptist rebuking the proud and apostate leaders of Israel, the nation that was expressly raised up of God and delivered from Egyptian bondage that it might worship him, warned them that if they did not repent and glorify God, that God could and would raise up children unto Abraham out of the very stones there present. The point being that either way God will have a seed to worship him and that the testimony of the creation to his greatness and goodness cannot be silenced by the sinfulness of man. Now if all this be so, and if as we shall see the reading of the scriptures as the very word of God is an act, indeed a commanded act of worship., then its importance is clearly established.
But having established the importance of worship we must next ask how should we worship. If we are to read the scriptures as an act of worship how are we to read them. The who, when, where, and why of all worship including this particular act of worship needs to be answered if we are to be able to worship at all. But the same Lord that has issued the command to worship does not leave us without an answer on this question. For the Lord is sovereign over both the end and the means. God who has ordained that we should worship has also appointed the appropriate and acceptable forms, means, and acts of worship. God commanded us to pray and he gave us a model prayer. God commanded us to praise him in song and he gave us the Psalter, the Book of Praises. God commanded us to read, study, and proclaim his word and he gave us the scriptures and has kept them and preserved them from the corruptions of man and the malice of Satan for millenia. And he has given us instructions in how to read his word. For the great truth, the great principle is that it is God not man that defines what is acceptable worship. God, the Great Designer, did not form the entire Creation to praise him and glorify his name only to have that creation itself define what is worship. The same God who ordained the proper object of worship when he declared, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" also ordained the acceptable means of worship when he declared "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image".
The Protestant Reformers had to struggle with these issues as did the English Puritans. The latter were known as Puritans not because of the modern myth that they were ascetics. To the contrary they enjoyed their beer and their pipes, had a healthy, frank attitude towards sex, and a positive attitude towards wealth and prosperity. They were called Puritans because of their uncompromising drive to purify the worship of the Church of England until it was brought into total conformity with the revealed will of God. But how do you reform worship and by what standard do you judge worship. Certainly not by todays standards which are pretty low and quite subjective. We are frequently told that sincerity is what counts, that sincerity is everything, obviating any need for an objective standard. And then there is sinful man's native presumption if not arrogance. Like Cain we presume that God will accept anything we are good enough to offer up in worship. If like prodigal sons we are willing to return and worship God the Father we ought to be welcomed with a ring and a robe no matter what. But God did not accept Cain's sacrifice and for more reasons than any lack of sincerity. And the eternal, everlasting, unchanging God is just as unlikely to accept in worship anything that modern man cares to dish up in his subjective religious moods. Now if this be true of worship in general, it also holds true for the doctrine of reading the scriptures.
Men may reason, and have reasoned, what could possibly be wrong with reading the scriptures: Can there really be any significant restrictions or controls on such a good thing? Can we really do wrong when we are trying to do something so good? But God's ways are higher than our ways and God's thoughts than our thoughts. Our Puritan forefathers also ran into this kind of humanist thinking and had a solid rebuttal to it. They declared that it is God who is sovereign over all issues of worship and that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ is the only Head of the church, and that man has no authority in this area to legislate, authorize, or institute anything in matters of worship. They set forth that great principle, the Regulative Principle, that whatsoever is not commanded is forbidden; forbidden because it is presumptuous, arrogant, and an infringement of God's sovereignty and Christ's headship; forbidden because God has said leave it alone, "if you have lifted up your tool upon it , you have polluted it". This was the great lever with which they moved the seemingly immovable rock of popish superstition, tradition, and idolatry. This was the great hammer that was used to smash all religious will worship and inventions of man. This was the great chain breaker that liberated the Lord's people from the doctrines and commandments of men. And this is the great principle that must adhere to when we establish the scripture doctrine of how we ought to read and handle the word of God.
Now if we need a command to read the scriptures God has certainly not left us in the dark or in doubt on that point. We should not even absolutely require an explicit written command. The Westminster Confession itself declares that God's truth can by good and necessary consequence be deduced from scripture. And certainly from God's giving a written revelation of himself through many ages by the mouths of the prophets and then by his own Son, and then preserving that revelation to our day, we could deduce that God intends that we read, honor, and use that revelation as a lamp to our feet and a guide to our path. Nonetheless God has through that very word given us an abundant testimony not only that we are to read his word but also how, when, where and by whom it is to be read. Moses, the very first prophet, who gave us the first five books of the Holy Scriptures included in his writings several explicit commands to read the scriptures. In Deuteronomy 17:18-20 the king is commanded to "write him a copy of this law in a book...And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them". The word of God containing his law is to be read daily by the highest civil magistrate in the land that it may be an effective guide to the entire nation in its national conduct, and in the personal conduct of the king, the man who represents the nation. But important as it is for the civil magistrates of a kingdom to daily read the word of God and conduct their affairs in its light yet Moses is far from stopping at that. In Deuteronomy 31: 11-13 it is commanded that all Israel is to come under the public reading of the scriptures. Moses commands "When all Israel is come to appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law: And that their children, which have not known anything, may hear, and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over Jordan to possess it". But the commands to read to read the scriptures do not stop with all Israel, or with Israel's king. It included the stranger and the foreigner. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah amplified this theme, restating the command that all men are to read the word of the Lord. Isaiah addresses all men when he commands, "Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world and all things that come forth of it" and "Seek ye out of the book of the LORD, and read" (Isaiah 34:1,16). And Jeremiah echoes the universality of the command when he declares "O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the LORD". Jeremiah's pronouncements concerning the seed of David, from whom Messiah should come, in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed, were of such earth shaking significance that all men were to hear them; that all men ought to know them and ponder them. They too should be read by all men.
Now if this was true under the Old Covenant then it certainly would be true under the New Covenant with the Gentiles grafted into the true Israel of God and the middle wall of partition broken down. And so we find the commands of the New Covenant echoing and reaffirming the commands of the Old. In John 5:39 Christ confronts the representative men , the elders and leaders of the nation, and commands them to "Search the scriptures" for "they are they which testify of me" paralleling the instructions of Deuteronomy 17. Likewise the instructions in Colossians 4:16, "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea" and in I Thessalonians 5:27, "I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren", renews the command to publicly read the word of God to the covenant people: To all the covenant people of every race and tribe and kindred and people on the face of the earth.
The scriptures teach us not only by precept but also by approved example. It is not only the explicit command but the godly example that bears fruit and brings blessing that instructs us in the way of righteousness. In Exodus 24:7, at the very beginning of the Old Covenant, in the very process of Israel ratifying their covenant with God, we have Moses publicly reading the word of the Lord to the people. "And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient". The informed consent of the people, essential to the covenant, was established by the public reading of the scriptures. But that generation apostatized at Kadesh-Barnea, and they all died in the wilderness. A new generation came up led by Joshua, who renewed the covenant on the plains of Moab and entered into the land of promise. And to that generation, as history repeats itself, Joshua also publicly reads the law. "And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them" (Joshua 8:34-35). The reading of the scriptures was commanded at the inception of the nation and was fundamental to the establishment and preservation of a godly body politic.
THE IMPORTANCE OF READING THE SCRIPTURES:
The importance of reading the scriptures cannot be overstressed. If one thinks that this is so obvious it need not be stated then one only has to study contemporary church practice to see the fallacy of that naive presumption. Men, especially preachers, are often so infatuated with their own words that they give short shrift to the reading of the word of God. It is typical in many churches for the minister to read a few, a very few, verses, his text, and then proceed right into the sermon. If one is fortunate he might actually stick to those few verses and give an exposition of them, but all too often that is almost the last one hears of even those few verses. But as we have seen we are commanded to read the word of God. Reading the scriptures publicly is an act of worship that the Lord requires of his people. The Lord requires that we honor his word by giving it the proper place in his worship. If we crowd it out because we don't want to weary the people with a long service and the speaker doesn't want to surrender his time then we are dishonoring, displeasing, and disobeying God. Reformed churches have a sound and Biblical tradition of giving adequate attention to the reading of the word of God to the people, and most of them, if they dusted off their Directories For Worship would discover that they are required to read a significant portion each service. Personally, I like to read two full chapters, one from each Testament, that go with the theme of the sermon. If the word of God does not have an honored place in our services than we are neither Biblical nor Reformed.
Another problem that we have to deal with is the balance of scripture. Oftentimes error is not a bold untruth but just a truth stressed way out of proportion. Error may consist of persistently ignoring a particular truth or of stressing a truth at the expense of other truth. Now ministers are fallible human creatures. They have their opinions and their moods. They have their pet subjects and favorite hobby horses all of which pose a threat to maintaining the balance of scripture. Now in preaching, as the Puritans pointed out, this is best avoided by preaching expositionally through an entire book of the Bible. That way one is almost bound to maintain the balance of scripture. Next best would be to preach doctrinally (i.e. a series of sermons on baptism etc.) and the worst system is to allow the minister to pick a favorite verse each week at his own impulse and preach on that. Now in the reading of the scriptures the same dangers need to be avoided and the remedy again is simple. If one only reads a few verses each sabbath then it is very easy to direct those few verses to stress the balance of priorities in the minister's mind. But if one reads two entire chapters each service, totaling four each sabbath then obviously the balance of scripture is in much safer hands. And if the minister is expected to read two chapters that support and expound his theme he will have even more difficulty violating the balance of scripture. If he cannot find two chapters that support his theme he ought to reconsider whether in the mind of the Spirit this is really what the people need to hear!
And finally without the proper reading of the scripture there can be little blessing and fruit in the ministry and life of the church. This is true not only because God honors those who honor him and not only because he deals with those who dishonor Him and his word, but it is especially true because God has appointed the simple reading of his word as a means of grace. The scriptures, the word of God are the seed whereby we are born again. The Spirit works through the word. Christ himself taught in the Parable of the Sower that the word is the seed that bears fruit unto eternal life. The Apostle Peter declares the same stating, "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth ever" (I Peter 1:23). Paul affirms that "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God". Now it is also a scripture truth that if we sow sparingly we shall real sparingly. And if we would sow bountifully we ought to bountifully read the scriptures in our services. How often do we need to be reminded that men are saved by the sovereign, irresistible grace of God and that God has sovereignly chosen to channel that grace through certain covenants and through certain divinely appointed means of grace. It is not the eloquence of the preacher; it is not the appeal to fickle human emotions; it is not the logic of the sermon; but it is the word of God itself that is the seed that bears fruit unto eternal life. If we really believe that then we will never be sparing in the reading of generous portions of the word as we feed the flock of the Lord Jesus Christ when they assemble to hear it. Ministers are representatives of Christ. The congregation is composed of the children of God. Christ taught that even unregenerate men give good gifts to their children. He said, "Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" ( Matthew 7:9-11). Now God has given great gifts unto his children. He has given them his Son and an eternal inheritance in a new Earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. His gifts are manifold and provide for all our needs for body and for spirit, for time and for eternity. He has not left his people at the mercy of human composers who serve up sentimental nonsense or grind their theological axes but he has given us the the Psalms, the Book of Praises. He has not left us to the doctrines, traditions and opinions of mere men but has given us his holy, infallible and inspired word. And when God has been so gracious it is a shame that so many who act in his name give his children stones for bread.
EXAMPLES OF THE IMPORTANCE OF READING THE SCRIPTURES:
Marxism teaches that religion is the opiate of the people offering "pie in the sky". Monastics and pietists seem to agree believing that religion has little practical value for this life as they patiently wait for the pie in the sky. Reformed Christianity to the contrary has always believed that Christianity was eminently practical had a great deal to say about every aspect of human endeavor. The Puritans loved that verse of the Apostle Paul that taught, "For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having a promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" (I Timothy 4:8). In short Christianity is real and God's truth is real, and really works, now, in this very life. And in the following examples we shall see from occasions in both sacred and secular history the effect of the word of God in time as well as in eternity and the truth of the principles outlined in the above section.
We have already seen the part played by the giving of and the public reading of the word of God at the founding of the Hebrew Republic at Mount Sinai when they received their constitution at the very hands of God. We have seen the part it played at the establishment of the nation in the land of promise under Joshua. But not only did the word of God play a major part in the origins of the life and the land of Israel, but it played a critical part in sustaining them in their national life and keeping them in that land. If they wandered too far from the terms of the covenant the land would spue them out as it had the original inhabitants, the Canaanites. Then they would fall from being a nation to being a dispersion of rootless wanderers. It was the commanded public reading of the scriptures from generation to generation, the instruction in the word of God from father to son, that was the divinely appointed means to sustain the nation and deliver it from national decay and destruction.
In the days of Ahaz, King of Judah, apostasy and idolatry had nigh brought Judah to ruin. God in judgment had precipitated a destructive fraticidal war with Israel, and Ahaz in desperation sought Assyrian assistance in his troubles, bringing that imperialistic power into the politics of Palestine. Judah was spared, and survived an Assyrian invasion under Sennacherib because Ahaz' heir, Hezekiah reformed the land according to all the commandments of the word of the Lord. A reformation is impossible without extensive reading and application of the word of God. It literally means a reforming of all things to bring them into conformity with that word. It was just such a reading, a submissive and reverent reading, of God's word by Judah's king, and ultimately by the priests, the Levites, and the people that led to Judah's deliverance from the abyss Ahaz' apostasy had almost precipitated it into.
Similarly a few generations later the apostasy and wickedness of Hezekiah's heirs , Mannaseh and Amon, had again brought the Southern Kingdom to ruin. God's wrath and judgment were so provoked that the Lord declared by the mouth of his prophets, "Behold I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab: and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of mine inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies" (II Kings 21:12-14). The nation underwent a Babylonian invasion, the captivity of their king, Mannaseh, and the assassination of his heir, Amon. At this critical juncture the nation was again spared, and drawn back from the abyss of final destruction by a reformation. A reformation that was led by Josiah, their king. A reformation that was precipitated by the discovery and the reading of a scroll of the word of the Lord. As Scripture records it, "And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it...And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the King commanded...Go ye, enquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us" (II Kings 22:8-13). Josiah, the king, then enacted a thorough reformation of the worship of the land in which he mercilessly extirpated idolatry, destroying it root and branch, as he reestablished the pure worship and service of Jahweh. This reformation commenced with a public reading of the scripture and a public commitment to the word read. The very foundation of this reformation was in the acts of Josiah recorded for us as follows, "And the king sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up into the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. And the king stood by a pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and all their soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people stood to the covenant" ( II Kings 23:1-3).
But not only does the reading of the word of God provide the very foundation for the existence of the nation but the contrary is also true. The refusal to read the word of the Lord can be the specific cause of national destruction. And again we can turn to the sacred history to see a graphic illustration of this truth in the life of Jehoiakim, the King of Judah. Jehoiakim, the second son of the godly Josiah to ascend the throne of Judah, continued the evil reign of his brother Jehoahaz. But although his idolatry and abominations wearied the Lord, the capstone of his iniquity was his willful destruction of the scriptures. The nation was again on the brink of cataclysmic judgments and the Lord in his mercy again appointed the reading of his word as a means of grace. He instructed Jeremiah, "Take thee a roll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken unto thee against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spake unto thee, unto the days of Josiah, even unto this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return everyman from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin" (Jeremiah 36:2-3). Jeremiah obeyed the Lord and called the scribe Baruch who "wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah all the words of the LORD, which he had spoken unto him, upon a roll of a book. And Jeremiah commanded Baruch, saying, I am shut up; I cannot go into the house of the LORD. Therefore go thou, and read in the roll, which thou hast written from my mouth, the words of the LORD in the ears of the people in the LORD's house upon the fasting day: and also thou shalt read them in the ears of all Judah that come out of their cities. It may be they will present their supplication before the LORD, and will return everyone from his evil way: for great is the anger and the fury that the LORD hath pronounced against this people" (Jeremiah 36:4-7). And now we have a testimony to the power of the reading of the scriptures. Baruch faithfully discharges his commission and reads "...the words of Jeremiah in the house of the LORD...at the entry of the new gate of the LORD'S house, in the ears of all the people" The result is that a certain individual, Michaiah, became so affected when he "heard out of the book all the words of the LORD" that he hastens to the king's house where he finds the princes assembled. "Then Michaiah declared unto them all the words that he had heard when Baruch read the book in the ears of the people". The result, as God graciously again honors his appointed means of grace, is that the princes "...when they had heard all the words, they were afraid both one and other, and said unto Baruch, We will surely tell the king of all these words". All of which sets the stage for the final act in this national tragedy and the culmination of Jehoiakim's wickedness. "And they went in to the king into the court, but they laid up the roll in the chamber of Elishama the scribe, and told all the words in the ears of the king. So the king sent Jehudi to fetch the roll: and he took it out of Elishama the scribe's chamber. And Jehudi read it in the ears of the king, and in the ears of all the princes which stood beside the king. Now the king sat in the winterhouse in the ninth month: and there was a fire on the hearth burning before him. And it came to pass, that when Jehudi had read three or four leaves, he (Jehoiakim) cut it with the penknife, and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was consumed". The result was predictable as Jeremiah again prophesied saying, "Therefore thus saith the LORD of Jehoiakim king of Judah; He shall have none to sit upon the throne of David: and his dead body shall be cast out in the day to the heat, and in the night to the frost. And I will punish him and his seed and his servants for their iniquity; and I will bring upon them, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and upon the men of Judah, all the evil that I have pronounced against them". A clearer example of the power of the reading of the word of God both as a savor of life unto life or a savor of death unto death can scarcely be found.
But the power of God's word is not limited to the life of the nation but also operates powerfully in the life of the individual. For each person redeemed by the grace of God through saving faith in Jesus the Christ, it is true that faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Each child of God is regenerated by the Spirit operating through the word, the seed by which which we are born again. Every Christian comes to know that it is the holy scriptures "which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus". And not only is the word the seed that begins our spiritual life as new creatures in Christ but it also the bread that sustains that life. Each day again the Christian is strengthened, renewed in the inner man, edified, and built up in the faith by the ministry of the word of God. It is the scriptures that are "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (II Timothy 3:16-17). A good example of the ministry of the reading of God's word in the life of the believer is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. We are told of him that he was returning from Jerusalem where he had come to worship and "sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet". He was reading in Isaiah 53 of the substitutionary death and suffering of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. And the familiar result was that he was baptized, confessing, and believing with all his heart "that Jesus Christ is the Son of God".
And so has been through all of church history. Without the word there has been darkness, ignorance, superstition and vice. It was the publication of the Greek New Testament that precipitated the Protestant Reformation that emancipated Europe from Popery and feudalism. It was the translation of the scriptures into the common language of the people that ended the priestcraft of a Latin liturgy and set the people free with the liberty that we have in Jesus Christ. For all of history and for all of the scriptures the admonition of the Apostle John rings clear "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand" (Revelation 1:3).
HOW TO READ THE SCRIPTURES:
It is not only necessary that the word of God be read but that it be read properly. That means first of all that it is to be read as the word of God. It is to be read with reverence and solemnity. It is to read with respect. And it is to be read with authority. Christ's ministry, his first public sermon, was remarkable "For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes". Today we too have our scribes; we too have pettifogging lawyers who endlessly argue technicalities so that the average man has little respect for our judicial system. But we ought not to allow such to publicly read the word of God. And when read publicly it ought to be read by those in authority, who have been ordained and set apart to the ministry of the word, and are clothed with the authority of church office as ministers of Jesus Christ. To allow anyone at random to publicly read the word can only undermine the authority and reverence of that reading. But not only must it be read with power and authority but also in a way as commands reverence. The setting and circumstances of the reading ought to be such as are convenient to encouraging reverence. Even in one's private worship it ought to be read solemnly and reverently with the full attention of all one faculties and not in a mental and physical slouch as if one were merely digesting a comic book. To anyone who regards the scriptures as the inspired, inerrant, eternal word of the Lord the idea of a few "Jesus Freaks" "rapping" in the word can only be offensive.
But if the foremost issue be that it be read as the word of God we ought not to lose sight of the fact that it is the word of God to men. It therefore ought to be read so as to promote human understanding. The keeping of the scriptures in the Latin tongue by the Church of Rome may have promoted a superstitious reverence for the scriptures but was totally destructive of its God given purpose. The example of Ezra at the return from the Babylonian captivity is instructive in this regard. The scriptures record that "Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. and he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: and Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground" (Nehemiah 8:2-7).
Note first of all the authority of the reading. The word is read publicly in the gate , the place of civil authority in the Old Testament Hebrew Commonwealth. It is read by one in authority, Ezra, the scribe, a priest of the line of Aaron, clothed with authority not only by virtue of his priestly office, but commissioned by Artaxerxes to aid in the restoration, to instruct the people in the law of God, and to "set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river" (Ezra 7:25). He is flanked on the left and on the right by others in authority, officers of the theocracy, probably priests. And he stands over and above the people on a wooden platform from which vantage point he proclaims the word of God. It is an imposing sight and an authoritative setting.
Secondly we note the reverence the reading inspires in the people. They listen attentively, and when the divine inspired scroll is opened they rise and stand reverently. They remain standing as Ezra blesses Jahweh their God and join with him with uplifted hands. Then they bow their heads and worship their God.
And finally we note that the reading is directed to their understanding. We read that they "caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading (Nehemiah 8:7-8). The reading was distinct. It was not mystically intoned or ritually chanted. It was in the plain ordinary everyday language of the people. It was a plain, clear, and understandable reading of the text.
The reading was also an expositional reading in that the reader gave the sense of the passage as it was read. This does not mean that the reading becomes an exposition or a sermon. But it does mean that that the reader was concerned that it be heard with understanding and to that end was prepared to give the sense of the passage as he read. This may have been necessitated not only by the peoples ignorance compounded by a long captivity in a heathen land but also by the corruption of their language and culture during that captivity. We face similar problems in our days and should have the same concern that that the reading of the scriptures be accompanied by understanding in the hearers. We too are faced with extensive ignorance in the hearers and often cannot presume upon even basic Biblical knowledge on the part of the hearers. And we too have to contend with the fluctuations of a living language that evolves as the nation's culture changes. Clarifications of both the Elizabethan language of the Authorized Version of the Scriptures as well as of the original tongues are profitable in the context of any reading of the scriptures. It also is profitable to state the significance and meaning of the terms used in the passage. For instance in any reading of Galatians it could be pointed out that in Pauline theology the law is a synonym for the Sinaitic Covenant and the promise stands for the Abrahamic Covenant. Passages on baptism that speak of "in the water" and "out of the water" and "much water" should be clarified from the original Greek so as not to create the false illusion of sustaining a doctrine of immersion. Similarly a few introductory words on the context and the theme of the passage to be read can greatly assist the people in hearing with understanding to their greater spiritual profit.
THE ACCURACY OF THE READING:
The Bible is an inspired book. It is a work of God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit of Truth. As such it is perfect, and any deviation from perfection must mar that perfection and introduce potential error. Therefore the reading must be precise and as perfect as fallible men are capable of. The word of God must be handled as just that, the word of God. A word whose every jot and tittle shall come to pass; a word that shall never change, mutate, or pass away, but shall stand forever, through time and eternity. This is the way Christ and the apostles handled the word and we should profit by their example. Christ in his ministry had to contend not only with the Pharisees, but also with the Saducees, those deniers of a physical resurrection. In his debate with them on just that point Christ showed his absolute reverence for and confidence in the word of God. He demonstrated its absolute authority and perfection. He was willing to hang the whole doctrine of the resurrection on the tense of a verb when he declared to the Saducees, "Ye do err not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God...But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:29-32). The tense of a verb, that the scriptures taught that God "is", that he still "is" the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he says "I am" and not "I was" is sufficient for Christ to maintain the doctrine of the resurrection on that point of grammar alone. Similarly the Apostle Paul while wrestling with one of the greatest theological issues of the Apostolic Church, the relationship of the Gentile converts to the Jewish Church argues his case on another point of grammar, the singularity of a noun. He argues in Galatians, the third chapter, that the Gentiles are included in the Abrahamic Covenant. This is because the covenant was made with Abraham and his seed. Seed being singular it refers to one particular seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, and that if we have the faith of Abraham, then being united to Christ by faith, we are in Christ and "heirs according to the promise". Now if major doctrines can be hung on the authority of singular points of scripture than we can see the perfection and authority of the word that God has given. Then we can see that all paraphrases and loose renderings are anathema. Then we can see the absolute importance of reading the scriptures with power, authority and precision. The accuracy of the reading must be maintained to the best of our ability.
THE CONTEXT OF THE READING:
Not only must the scriptures be read with power and authority, distinctly, clearly and accurately with a view to proper understanding, but it must be read in context. This includes both the context in which it is placed in the scriptures and the context of the circumstances in which it is read. A prime example of this is the public reading of the scriptures by our Lord Jesus Christ in the synagogue of Nazareth. We read "And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears" (Luke 4:16-21). The reading it is very appropriate. The reading fits perfectly into the context of the historical situation. Jesus of Nazareth has come of age at thirty, he has been baptized, has withstood the temptation in the wilderness, and he has commenced his messianic ministry. Now he appears in his home town of Galilee, reads a messianic passage in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and reveals himself as the Lord's Anointed, the long awaited, the prophesied Messiah. The citizens of Nazareth have with great anticipation and curiosity come to the synagogue to see this native son whose fame has gone out throughout all Galilee, and Jesus in that sense does not disappoint them. He clearly reveals, via the application to himself of Isaiah's prophecy, the significance of his activities and ministry. He perfectly read the word to suit the context of the situation.
This is an important lesson. Martin Luther is credited with a statement to the effect that if the word of God is under attack on a certain point then no matter how faithfully he teaches and preaches other portions of scripture he is not really preaching if he doesn't defend the challenged point of truth. We must faithfully read the word in its scriptural and in its historical context. For instance at an ecumenical gathering where infidels and apostates are present it would be horribly wrong to read the blessing from Psalm 133 , ("Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity"), when what is properly called for is Jehu's rebuke of Jehoshaphat for his alliance with the House of Omri in II Chronicles 19:2 (Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the LORD). We have to be careful not only how we read the scriptures but also what we read. The devil quoted scripture in the temptation in the wilderness and he can certainly read it too. We have to be certain we are doing God's work not the devil's when we use the sword of the word of God. We are commanded not to "cast our pearls before swine". We are commanded not to "sew pillows to all armholes". We are rebuked for saying, "Peace, peace, when there is no peace" and we ought to have been saying "What peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many". God requires a faithful reading lest the salt should lose its savor and Christianity its sting. No wonder our faith has fallen into public contempt and disrespect when so often its blessings and comforts are prostituted to tickle the itching ears of infidels; when the comforts of the Shepherd's Psalm are offered to those who care little for the Shepherd and have no intention of walking in the paths of righteousness. The word of God must be faithfully read, true to its entire context, before it can be a means of grace and be the seed of life everlasting.
THE UNIFORMITY OF THE READING:
God wrote only one Bible. And Christ founded only one church. But the belief in a gathered church and in liberty of conscience has among sinful and imperfect men led to such schism in the body of Christ that institutionally the church is severely fragmented. And if this has become a leading criticism of Protestantism by Rome then we ought to be similarly concerned about the proliferation of versions and translations of the Bible. I can think of few things better calculated to undermine the doctrine of inspiration, innerrancy, infallibility, and immutability of the scriptures among the Lord's people than this confusing array of competing versions of the scriptures. We may profess to believe in the eternal, unchanging, abiding word of God but our practice is radically different. In reality we seem to be existentialists on this point, behaving as if we don't really have the word of God unless we invest in a copy of the latest version. Not only is this corrosive of a scriptural view of the word, but it also inescapably becomes a fruitful source of contention and resentment in the church. The Lord's people love the word of God. When they are accustomed to a certain version they resent having it tampered with. People who have marked their Bibles, memorized their favorite passages, found comfort in specific promises bitterly resent having these verses tampered with. Neither are they particularly edified by suggestions in the footnotes of the newer versions that some of the texts that have have been a blessing to them over the years probably aren't even part of scripture after all. It may be paradise for Bible publishers as they huckster the new versions, but it is a horrible way to treat the flock of Jesus Christ. And it is inexcusable that the churches, especially Reformed churches, have done almost nothing to protect their flocks from this outrage but rather have hopped on the existentialist bandwagon to go a whoring after the latest innovations in Biblical technology. This does not mean that we ought to idolize any particular version, nor that we ought to elevate any mere human translation to the status of scripture. What it does mean is that we ought to seriously strive to maintain uniformity of the reading of the scriptures, and that we ought to handle the word of God as if we really believed it to be his eternal, unchanging, abiding word. It means we ought to careful how we minister the word of God to the flock and avoid needless confusion and disruption. And most of all we ought to careful to cast no stumblingblocks in the way of their having a high and reverent view of scripture, for to undermine that is to shake the very foundations of the church.
Having dealt with the importance of the uniformity of the reading we come logically to the $64,000 question, "Which Bible?". We live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect men. Not only do we have to contend with contemporary imperefections, but we often cannot undo the consequences of past imperfections. We cannot undo the curse that God sent down at the tower of Babel. Especially now that the middle wall of partition is broken down and the gospel is to go from Judea to the uttermost parts of the earth that curse is very much still with us today. Few can read the scriptures in the original languages. And languages are living things that grow, develop, and evolve with the culture, so that even the favored few whose native tongue is Greek will discover that the scriptures are still in a somewhat foreign tongue. All of which necessitates the translation of the scriptures into every tongue and language on the face of the earth. All of these translations will be the work of imperfect men and will differ from each other not only in the language they are in but also, according the mind of the translators, in grammatical construction, tenses of verbs, and sense of meaning. This lack of uniformity is rarely a problem as it is noticed by only a few who are multi-lingual. ( My uncle, Louis P. DeBoer read the scriptures in ten different languages, and personally having sung the Psalms in both Dutch and English I can attest to significant differences.) But as language changes and evolves there develops increasing pressure over the generations to make a contemporary translation. Such revisions are noticed by all and can cause all kinds of problems. In that sense the church is on the horns of a dilemma, to change or not to change. Ultimately, as more and more time elapses, as more and more pressure builds up for an updating of the translation, and something needs to be done, we find that the the Tower of Babel is still with us. If at this stage the church could authorize a limited revision that would deal with the necessary updating of the language, limiting the changes, and minimizing the confusion and disruption, all might still be reasonably well. Especially if the new revision was uniformly used at least throughout the entire denomination and preferably throughout all of Protestantism. However such wisdom and restraint is rarely the case. The temptation to be as gods and tamper with the word of God seems too great for sinful men. And all of this is radically compounded by another issue, textual criticism. Not only are we confronted with differing and competing translations of the scriptures but we are also confronted with competing texts that present themselves as the most pure copies of the original inspired text. This problem is somewhat muted with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament as the Masoretic Text is almost universally accepted and newer versions of the Old Testament are merely newer tranlations of the same text often benefiting from improved Hebrew scholarship. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Greek New Testament, where textual criticism has literally run amuck, and generated a plethora of competing texts, all purporting to be the best possible fascimile of the original autographs. This leaves us really with the question, "Do we really have the word of God?"! Fortunately, God by his grace has left us on surer ground here. The scriptures themselves bear clear and abundant testimony on this point. As the Westminister Confession of Faith states it, "The Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, being immediately inspired by God and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical, so as in all controversies of religion the church is finally to appeal unto them". This is the doctrine of David who under inspiration testifies, "The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation forever" (Psalm 12:6-7). David understood both that the word of God was absolutely pure and that God would preserve it from corruption by deceitful men both in his generation and forever. Similarly the Apostle Peter, echoing Isaiah, declares, "But the word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you" (See I Peter 1:23-25). For Peter also, the scriptures of his day were pure and preserved by God from all corruption, so that the gospel he preached was the actual, enduring, unchanging, pure word of God. As Christ himself put it, "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law". And that was the doctrine of the Fathers of the Reformed Faith. Having delivered the church from the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church of Rome, and given her true liberty in Christ, they had no notion of subjecting her to a new order of ecclesiastical high priests, the textual critics, who could presume to sit in judgment over the scriptures and decree what is and what is not the word of God. Instead they took the scriptures at face value, they took the promises of God concerning his word to heart, and established the church on the authority of God's word, which they believed they had in the Greek and Hebrew texts. They had the Textus Receptus and received it as the word of God. Now I don't intend to try to wade through the sloughs of textual criticism in this article, but I would like to assert that I believe that if one holds to the Westminster doctrine of the preservation of the scriptures by God's singular care and providence then one has to reject the contemporary chaos of textual criticism and accept the Textus Receptus as the pure and preserved word of God. I know this may be over simplistic, and that it leaves difficult questions unanswered, but if one is to accept God's word in faith I see no other alternative. If the church can agree on a text, then the question of which Bible can be authoritatively answered and the problems reduced to proportions that will be less destructive. If not then we will continue to be treated to such circus like spectacles as the one I witnessed in a presbyterian church a few years ago. The minister called for volunteers to read portions of the scripture reading (a practise forbidden by the very Westminster standards that govern that church) and the tower of Babel was resurrected as the parties read from different versions, some leaving a verse(s) out here and there, and the minster trying to calm the ensuing confusion with a lame excuse that all was essentially the same and the differences were not important. Hardly a high and reverent view of the scriptures and hardly conducive to strengthening the faith of the flock.
THE POWER OF THE READING:
It is all too easy to underestimate the power of the reading of the word of God. After all it often seems that there are a lot more Jeremiahs than there are Calvins. Christ taught that broad is the way that leads to destruction and many there be that go in thereat, and that many are called but few are chosen. And especially as in our day when the Bible seems to have lost any relevance in our public life and is banned from certain public instititions, it is easy to conclude that the reading of the scriptures seems to be impotent in the face of blossoming apostasy. However this is not the doctrine of the word of God. According to the scriptures every time that they are read it is with power and with effect. God himself declares, "So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). What we have to keep in mind is what are God purposes everytime that he in his providence causes his word to be read. We have to remember that his thoughts are higher than our thoughts and his ways than our ways. And we have to recognize that we cannot know his secret purpose. As Moses taught, "The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 29:29). We know that it is God's revealed will that all men should hear his word, and repent in faith, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. But we do not know his secret will, his secret counsel, that he is bringing to pass each time his word is read. All we know is that each time the word of God is read it is being read with power and effect to bring about the secret purpose of God. That is certainly the way the Apostle Paul viewed his ministry. It was never in vain but always in the Lord, "For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are a savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life" (II Corinthians 2:15-16). Paul was always a sweet savour unto God as a faithful witness. It was God's business to work his secret will in the labors of his servant Paul. And that secret counsel could be to pile up judgment upon judgment against the great Day of the Lord, to vindicate his final disposition of the wicked, so that they as David would be compelled to confess that God is just in his judgment and right in his sentence. But whether as a savour of life unto life or as a savour of death unto death we ought to be assurred that the reading of the word of God never leaves men the same as they were before the hearing of it. They are either progressing on the road to eternal life or they are progressing on the road to eternal damnation. Either way each time they hear the word and react to it they are never the same again. The word has operated with power in their lives. They are either growing in grace, sanctification, and edification by the word, or they are progressively hardening themselves against it and piling up wrath and a multitude of stripes against the evil day. The word of God will have an effect on each soul that hears it, each time it is heard, both in time and in eternity. Such is the power of the word of God. And it should be publicly read with authority and conviction, and with the recognition that it has such power. We are preaching dynamite and it should be reflected in how we handle it. We ought never to be timid and apologetic in our public readings as if our ministry was weak and ineffectual. We are handling a word that is sharper than a two edged sword and each swing will have eternal consequenses.
WHO CAN READ THE SCRIPTURES:
Who can read the scriptures. In our antinomian age that probably seems like a ridiculous question. What could possibly be wrong with reading the scriptures? But that was the doctrine of Cain. He too thought what could possibly be wrong with bringing a sacrifice. That was also the doctrine of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram who rebelled against Moses and Aaron and intruded into the priesthood. It was also part of the arrogant apostasy of later Kings of Israel and Judah such as Jereboam and Uzziah. The Westminster Larger Catechism answers the question, "Is the word of God to be read by all?" with "Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publickly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves". That is that while all men ought to privately read the scriptures not everyone is allows to read them publicly. As we have noted earlier it is God who regulates all the details of his worship and it is God not man that decides who is authorized to do what in his public worship. But from Cain to modern antinomians this does not sit well. Like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram they think they are just as good as any minister ordained to that task, failing to see it is not an issue of ability, but rather of authority. Indeed in their presumption they elevate themselves even over the Lord Jesus Christ. When the author of the Hebrews states "No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron" he includes Jesus Christ, stating "So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotton thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec" (Hebrews 5:4-6). Christ's authority for his ministry came not only from his divine nature, which made him equal with God, but also his human nature that was fully ordained and consecrated to the work the Father had given him to do. So much so that when the Pharisees and the temple rulers challenged his authority to cleanse the temple he responded by questioning them concerning the legitimacy of John the Baptist's prophetic ministry. The inference is clear. John baptized Jesus and if his ministry was from God then Jesus was properly consecrated and ordained to his work and had lawful authority in the Jewish Church. The principle is clear and established, and from Moses , who delegated the public reading of the scriptures to the sons of Levi, to Christ who by example publicly read the sacred scroll in the synagogue of Nazareth, we see that by both precept and example the scriptures teach that only those ordained and set apart to that office may publicly read the word of God.
READING THE SCRIPTURES AND LITURGY:
Liturgy may not be a popular word in Reformed church circles. It smacks too much of ritualism. Nonetheless liturgy is an inescapable part of church life. Even the most unstructured ecclesiastical organizations, such as the Plymouth Brethren or radical little charismatic groups, have some kind of recognized procedure for conducting their services. And an order of worship is after all liturgy. Similarly most Protestant churches honor and practice the two sacraments of the New Covenant instituted by Christ. And of course a sacrament cannot be observed without some kind of order or procedure, which is again liturgy. The Westminster divines included in their standards for a national church a Directory For The Public Worship Of God. Nonetheless Reformed Churches are not considered liturgical. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, and Lutheran Churches are considered to be liturgical. The issue is really not liturgy per se, nor even the quantity of the liturgy. The issue is the quality of the liturgy. The issue is was it authorized by Christ, the only Head of the Church; was it commanded as part of the worship of God. The question becomes, is it scriptural. There are many beautiful and reverent prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, but the Scotch Presbyterians and English Puritans that violently rejected it did so because they saw no divine authority for its use. If its establishment and use in the churches was not sanctioned by scripture, but only by human and ecclesiastical authority, they could not and would not accept it. Similarly all liturgy involving man made rituals of lighting candles, crossing oneself, annointing with holy water etc., etc. were rejected because they did not meet the scriptural test.
But all this liturgy has purposes. And the purposes are sometimes driven by practical reasons and expediency. Many of the rituals of Rome were used to ease the entrance of pagans into the church or to pacify the pagans already in the church. But sometimes the motives were not quite that corrupt. The great reformer John Knox left the superintendents and Tulchan Bishops in the Scottish Church and it was left to a later reformer, Andrew Melville, to institute pure and scriptural Presbyterianism in Scotland. It wasn't because Knox wanted it that way but because there simply weren't enough qualified godly clergy in Scotland. The clergy desperately needed supervision and correction if the Reformation was to proceed. Hypothetically speaking there may have been a time when the ministry of prayer in the church was so weak, ineffectual, and degraded that the services may have benefited from a Book of Prayer. Today the singing in some small struggling Reformed churches is so weak, out of tune, and off key that it would undoubtedly benefit from the use of an instrument. All of which does not justify introducing these things without divine authority into the worship of Christ's church but it does bring us to the point of this section, liturgical readings in the Word of God.
Some churches have systematic required readings in the scriptures each Sabbath. Some churches have an entire calendar of scripture readings that cover the entire year and accent the ecclesiastical seasons. One can obviously argue that may not be without benefit. In a church where the reading of significant portions of the word each Sabbath is being neglected then this sort of practice would compel the minister to feed the flock each Sabbath with a bountiful portion of the actual word of God. It can be argued that this could also be used to compel the minister to maintain more closely the balance of scripture so that the people might be systematically exposed to the whole counsel of God. Dispensationalists would be compelled to give proper attention to the Old Covenant. Arminians would be systematically confronted with the passages on election and predestination that tend to make them squirm. Unfortunately though, for those who thus argue, like Knox's bishops, there is no divine authority, for the practise, either by precept or approved example. There is simply no substitute for a sound and godly minister, truly called of God and properly prepared by the Holy Spirit to that office. To impose scriptural standards of prayer and Bible reading through a rigid liturgy onto weak and unworthy clergy is a poor and unscriptural solution. It is the work of the presbytery to discipline and correct abuses in the ministry of its members. If the presbytereies would do their job and guard the pulpits against weak and unworthy men the church would not have to stoop to such measures. If the churches would adopt and maintain, and the presbyteries would enforce, a scriptural Church Order or Directory of Worship many abuses could be corrected. Too often the presbyteries can become gentlemen's clubs where it would be considered rude and in poor taste to point out such faults. But although under proper presbyterian supervision it is still the minister that is charged with feeding the flock. He ought to know best the spiritual condition of the flock. He is in the best position to determine whether they need meat or milk. He is charged with guarding them against whatever errors are currently threatening their faith. He is the one that should bountifully read the word of God to them according to their needs.
THE SCRIPTURES AS LITERATURE:
The Bible is great literature in any language. The Hebrew scriptures with the lofty prose of Isaiah, the pathos of Jeremiah, the poetry of the Hebrew Psalter, the pithy wisdom of the proverbs, the plaintive reasonings of Job are great literature. In the Greek New Testament from Matthew's record of the Messianic King, to John visions in the Revelation we again are confronted with the greatest of literature. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states it, speaking of the scriptures, "the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole...the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God". The scriptures are undoubtedly the greatest work of literature that the world has ever seen. And this has nor been entirely lost in the translation either. Both the Authorized Version of the English Bible or say Luther's German Bible had a profound effect on the language and literature of their respective nations. They set a standard for literature and shaped and molded the language of the nation. It is small wonder then that even the unconverted often can find delight in dramatic readings from the scriptures. One of the most dramatic scenes in "Chariots Of Fire" was when Eric Lidell was reading Isaiah 40 from the pulpit of the Church of Scotland in Paris on the Sabbath when his Olympic race was being run without him. Nonetheless there is great danger here. While we ought to rejoice every time the word is read we also ought to exercise caution. The word ought never to be read as mere literature, no matter how great, but ought always to be read as the word of God. The word ought never to be reduced to mere entertainment but is always to be read as God's word to men. It ought always to be directed to men's heart and will as well as his intellect and understanding. I remember once when I was teaching in a Christian High School the head of the English department asked me to read Jonathan Edward's sermon, "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God" to her class. I did it, but when it was over I felt used and vowed never to do it again. It was simply wrong to have children listen to such a compelling sermon in a context where no response was expected. They were expected to simply respond to all these Biblical admonitions and warnings with a purely intellectual response. They were only to exercise their critical faculties and evaluate this ermon as early American literature. I can think of little else that would tend to harden one to the call of the gospel and the instruction of scripture than to be come accustomed to hearing it with the heart and will turned off. The Bible may be great literature but we do both God and man a great diservice whenever we fail to read it as the word of God.
THE BIBLE AND IDOLATRY:
The Bible is not God. It is the word of God. The Bible is not the source of grace but only a divinely appointed means of grace. God is a Spirit and those who would worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Nonetheless men love to have some physical object to worship, like Israel at Sinai, and the heathen of all ages. In our culture the Bible has sometimes met that need. There is a great tendency to exhibit outward reverence for the physical word without ever truly submitting to the spiritual word. I have known unconverted people who never attend public worship but proudly showed me their Bible. I have known people whose superstitious reverence for the Bible caused them to always place it on top of any stack of magazines or books in the house. Unfortunately such outward reverence and physical adoration of the Bible can only prove to be a soul destroying illusion on the great judgment day. The fact is that ownership of the scriptures brings a corresponding increase in responsibility. It is what you have done with the God's word that counts. Meaningless ownership will prove to be a terrible snare that will compound one's sentence in that awful and dread day. And this is true not only of individuals but also of our nation. We have recently gone through the mockery of a national "Year Of The Bible" while its use continues to be banned in the nations public schools and its influence is decried in the nations civil affairs. With the increasing evangelical vote it was probably a politically safe and perhaps even expedient thing to do, but it smacked of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. It was no more than an exercise in "garnishing the tombs of the prophets". The nation had no more intention of submitting to God's law word than the Pharisees had of repenting at the preaching of one greater than Jonah, or submitting to the wisdom of one greater than Solomon. The great irony was that during this year of outward honor of the Bible the elected representatives of the people in the Senate made it painfully and viciously clear that no candidate for the Supreme Court would be acceptable who entertained any ideas of touching their sacred cow of abortion on demand. Such is the bitter fruit of idolatry. And rest assured that abortion, the sacrificing of one's children on the altar of convenience, in the shadow of the Bible, will be visited with far heavier stripes than the pagans who offered their children up to Molech. Meanwhile the nation goes on with its outward respect for the word. It continues the irony of using the Bible as the foundation of the oaths taken in our courts of law. Men are required to physically place their hand on the Bible, irrespective of their belief in it, in a court where the it is illegal to argue the moral principles contained therein. Men are required to swear on a Bible that itself teaches that one is to swear by nothing except the name of Jahweh. Outward respect for a closed Bible is as far as the nation is willing to go in its attempt to protect the judicial system from men's proclivity to bear false witness. The original intent of reminding people that if they deceive a human court they will answer to a higher court, a heavenly, has been totally lost. Garnishing the external tomb of the messenger is one thing but honoring the message quite another. Like the worship of a Romish relic the nation toys with outward reverence for a closed book.
And on the other hand there are those who even while pretending to hold the Reformed faith will maintain that to literally believe in the Bible is idolatry. I remember many years ago, while a young man and attending a Christian Reformed youth conference hearing just such an attack on the Bible. The speaker, Dr. Hendrik Hart, one of the high priests of the A.A.C.S. maintained just that, that to believe literally, gramatically in the scriptures as the word of God was idolatry. With Pharisaical precision he sought to maintain a distinction between believing in and believing on the word of God. The bottom line was that young people ought not to simply and literally take God at his word. That would be horrible idolatry. A more Barthian view of scripture was presented. The Bible is not, but only contains the word of God. And of course the unspoken but logical conclusion from it all was that we need such wise men as the high priests of the A.A.C.S. to tell us what verses actually contain the word of God and what verses it would be idolatry to believe in.
Idolatry can take many forms and outward reverence for the physical scriptures is certainly one. Like the Jews of old, that tampered with the word changing Jahweh to Adonai (Lord) because the name of God was too holy to be spoken, one's reverence for the scriptures can indeed become idolatrous. But the very word commands us to worship God. And one cannot truly worship him without a holy and reverent submission to his word. And it is not idolatry to take his word as he has given it, as a literal and pure, eternal and unchanging expression of his will.
The Bible ought to be read. It ought to be read with power, authority, reverence, and accuracy. It ought to be honored and prayerfully used as a divinely appointed means of grace. It ought to be read boldly without apology as an effective means of God's working his will in the eternal destiny of his creatures. And it ought always to be read as the word of God and nothing less. Then and then alone will it be "quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword", a means of grace to the elect, a savor of life unto life to God's covenant people, and a means of wrath to the enemies of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us boldly and skillfully use it by God's grace to those ends.