When it comes to organising the Bible readings at church, I have a few ideas and principles. Perhaps they are good ones – perhaps not. Almost certainly there is something I’m overlooking. So to share what I think, and gain more guidance, here is a series points about the important-mundane: setting church Bible readings.
Devoted to reading
Paul told Timothy to be devoted to the ‘holy writings’, the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:14-15). This touches personal devotion, and is often preached in order to spur individual Christians to personal Bible reading. That’s good, though limited. Timothy was not simply ‘a Christian guy’, he was a church leader and teacher. Continuing in the scriptures also describes what Timothy was to do in ministry.
If I’m right, Bible reading was a primary ministry and church activity. There’s evidence for this in 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul’s threefold to-do list for his ministry protégé. The three: read, exhort, teach. The underlying Greek is simpler than most English translations on the first point – it just says ‘to reading’. ‘Reading’ obviously refers to the scriptures, which most translations make clear.
Timothy’s high priorities included reading. Therefore in any church, reading must also be on the top list of things to do.
I am disappointed to visit churches where the reading is regularly no more than a few verses. Or where reading is a slave to a ‘greater’ priority: what the preacher wants to say, what the liturgy prescribes, … Reading must be central to our meetings. Reading the Bible does not derive its authority from anything else – everything else derives authority from the scriptures we read.
One Bible, two testaments
The one message of Jesus is divided in two by the person of Jesus. There’s the lead-up to Jesus: our Old Testament. And there’s the record of Jesus: our New Testament. In simplistic terms, preparation and proclamation.
The difference (not contradiction) between the two is notable is style, but it’s also theological. ‘These are the scriptures that point to me’, said Jesus (John 5:39-40). ‘I have come to fulfil them’, he said (Matthew 5:17). So I want church to include two readings, both Old Testament and New Testament.
The more we know of the preparation, the more we value the fulfilment. The more we know of the proclamation, the greater desire we have to drink from the promises.
Sermons & the Bible
Our standard pattern of preaching is from books of the Bible. Topics are an exception, they’re a special treat like dessert: good in moderation. And we will always read the passage that the sermon is from. This is so deeply ingrained in my thinking that I almost didn’t bother to note this. But it’s deeply ingrained because I think it’s important! We wish to let God set the agenda, even if he sends us to passages that make us feel uncomfortable.
In general, we alternate between Old Testament and New Testament sermon series. In New Testament, about half the time is in Matthew-Acts and about half in Romans-Revelation. For Old Testament series we usually cycle through the four subdivisions of the Hebrew Bible (law, former prophets, latter prophets, writings).
Reading both testaments means we will have a non-sermon reading. I like to use two different ways of relating the two readings. I use one method for a whole series (of up to two months).
Firstly, we choose two linked readings. In this case, the non-sermon passage will have some thematic link to the sermon-passage (for example, Genesis 14 and Hebrews 7). This is good to reinforce the unity of the Bible.
Secondly, we have two stand-alone series of readings. If preaching through a gospel narrative, we might also read a series of poetry from the Psalms. Of if preaching through an Old Testament prophet we might progressively read one of the New Testament letters.
On the day
All these choices occur before we get anywhere near Sunday. Putting together a church service is a major topic in itself, but there are a couple of things to say regarding Bible readings.
If we’ve chosen two readings that go together, it’s generally best to read them together. I’d always read the Old Testament first, even if that is the sermon passage. It can be needlessly confusing to hear the New Testament expand on an Old Testament passage before we hear the passage itself.
If the two readings are not linked, then we’re free to hear them at different times in the meeting. Perhaps the non-sermon reading would be a perfect lead-in to prayer, or to a particular song. Maybe we could get one strong reader to read all of these readings over a few weeks – this could be a great lesson in the power of simply hearing God’s word read. In this set-up, I prefer to keep the sermon reading very near to the sermon. Ideally, they’re adjacent, not even separated by a song.
So that’s what I have in mind. Some decisions based on conviction. Others are pragmatic. Others probably no more than preference. What do you think? What could we add? I’d love to read your comments below.