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The Public Reading of Scripture

In this article, we will briefly survey the history of the public reading of Scripture in worship from Moses to the apostles with a view toward developing a biblical model for this act of ministry that may be applied in our own day. While the public reading of Scripture may be carried out in a variety of contexts, our primary concern here is with the regular services of worship on the Lord’s Day. 

Moses at Mount Sinai

The public reading of Scripture played a central role in the worship of Israel at Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:1–11). After writing down all the words of the Lord, Moses read the book of the covenant in the hearing of the people (vv. 4, 7).[1] The Israelites responded to the Word by making a solemn vow: “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do, and we will be obedient” (v. 7). The covenant between God and Israel was then sealed with two visible signs: the sprinkling of blood and the sharing of a meal in the presence of God (vv. 8–11). As Moses threw the blood on the people, he exclaimed, “Behold, the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (v. 8, italics added).[2] The main point is that the public reading of Scripture was a central part of the ceremony at Mount Sinai which is “the prototype of the worship of God’s people down through the centuries” (cf. Josh. 8:30–35; 2 Kings 22:8–13; 23:1–3; Heb. 12:18–29).[3]

Ezra at the Water Gate

The Book of Nehemiah records another event that highlights the public reading of Scripture in worship (Neh. 8:1–9; cf. 8:13–15, 18; 9:3; 13:1). After rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, the Israelites assembled to hear Ezra the scribe read the book of the Law of Moses (Neh. 8:1).[4] Standing on a wooden platform built for the occasion, Ezra and his assistants read from “the Law of God, clearly and gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading,” meaning they either translated the text into Aramaic or gave an actual exposition of the text or both (v. 8).[5] The reading of Scripture was prefaced by certain liturgical acts. When the scroll was opened, the Israelites stood and lifted their hands in prayer; Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and the people bowed their faces to the ground in worship (vv. 5–6). Clearly, the reading of Scripture was regarded as an act of worship; it served the glory of God just as much as the prayers and sacrifices that were offered during that festive month (Neh. 8:2; cf. Lev. 23:23–43; Num. 29:1–39). This account of the public reading of Scripture is “the oldest description we have of a liturgy of the Word”; accordingly, it became the model for the liturgical reading of Scripture in both synagogue and church.[6]

Jesus in the Synagogue

By the time of the New Testament, the public reading of Scripture was a regular part of the synagogue service.[7] At the Jerusalem council, James observed, “From ancient generations, Moses has had in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21).[8] In other words, reading the Law in the synagogue was a long-standing, widespread, and regular tradition.[9] Moreover, the Law was read on a lectio continua—beginning with Genesis and continuing each Sabbath where one left off the previous Sabbath, until one reached the end of Deuteronomy.[10] This lectio continua of the Law was only interrupted during annual festivals and fast days when special lessons, corresponding to the significance of the day, were read.[11]

The Gospels make it clear that Jesus regularly participated in Sabbath worship, including the reading and preaching of Scripture (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:44; John 6:59; 18:20; etc.). Luke’s account of Jesus’s participation in the service at Nazareth is most informative (Luke 4:16–30).[12] When Jesus stood up to read, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, and he found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18–19).[13] After reading the text, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant (chazzan) and sat down (v. 20).[14] Here, we see a clear distinction between the act of reading and the act of preaching. Jesus stood to read and sat to preach; also, the scroll was rolled up and returned to its place before the sermon began.[15] Thus, in the synagogue, the reading of Scripture was treated as a distinct act of ministry.[16]

That Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and not from the Law indicates that this was the second Scripture lesson in the service.[17] In each service, there were two Scripture lessons: the Law (torah, parashah, seder) and the Prophets (haftarah, pl. haftarot), which in the Jewish division of the Scriptures also included the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.[18] Thus, Moses was read every Sabbath (Acts 15:21) and so were the Prophets (13:27). Unlike the torah, the haftarot were not read as a lectio continua but were specifically chosen to complement the torah lessons and provided the key to their interpretation.[19] In Luke’s account of the service that Paul and Barnabas attended in Pisidian Antioch, both readings are mentioned:

After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” (Acts 13:15)
The sermon (“word of exhortation”) immediately followed the Scripture reading in the order of service because it was an exposition of the biblical text.[20] Accordingly, whenever Jesus preached in the synagogue, he was expounding the Law and the Prophets, by which he provided a model of systematic, expository preaching for his disciples to follow.

The Apostles in Worship

The first converts to Christianity (being either Jews or God-fearers) were personally familiar with the liturgical customs of the synagogue.[21] In fact, the earliest Christians continued to participate in synagogue worship as long as they were permitted, and some Christians (e.g., Paul) even carried out a teaching ministry in the synagogue.[22] It is not surprising, therefore, that the basic pattern and elements of Christian worship came from the synagogue service.[23] Nowhere is this clearer than in the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship.[24]

After commending the Scriptures to Timothy, Paul solemnly charges him to “preach the Word,” namely, “all Scripture” which is inspired and profitable (2 Tim. 3:16–4:2). In other words, the Law and the Prophets that were read and preached in the synagogue every Sabbath were to be read and preached in Christian assemblies as well. Paul instructs Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and to teaching (1 Tim. 4:13).[25] This, of course, refers to the Old Testament Scriptures, but “the reading and exposition of the New Testament Scriptures soon joined that of the Old Testament.”[26] This is already hinted at in the New Testament (cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Pet. 3:15–16; Rev. 1:3), and by the middle of the second century, it was firmly established. Justin Martyr, writing at Rome around the year 150, says that on the Lord’s Day, “the memoirs of the apostles” and “the writings of the prophets” are read as long as time permits.[27] According to Ferguson:

The Gospels and Prophets may have been a Christian counterpart to the Jewish readings from the Law and the Prophets. Justin does not say whether the reading was part of a continuous cycle of readings (a lectionary) or was chosen specifically for the day. The phrase “as long as time permits” implies that the reading was not of a fixed length, but it does not have to mean a random selection. There is a third possibility: the reading may have been continuous from Sunday to Sunday, taking up where the reading left off the last week, but not of a predetermined length. The indication is that the readings were rather lengthy … The sermon [which immediately followed the reading of Scripture] was expository in nature, based on the Scripture reading of the day and making a practical application of that Scripture to the lives of those present.[28]

Although Justin’s description of Christian worship is brief and at some points vague, one thing at least is clear: “By the middle of the second century the writings of both the Old Testament and the New Testament were read in worship side by side as Holy Scripture.”[29]

A Biblical Model for the Lord’s Day

From this brief survey of the public reading of Scripture in worship from Moses to the apostles, we can develop a basic pattern (a biblical model) for carrying out this act of ministry in our services today—a model that can be adapted and applied in a variety of ways. The public reading of Scripture (according to this model) is: (1) prefaced by prayer, (2) distinguished from interpretation, (3) followed by exposition, (4) sealed with visible signs, and (5) systematically conducted.

1. Prefaced by Prayer

Before the reading of Scripture, the people of God “bless the Lord” in prayer—as in the example of Ezra (Neh. 8:5–6). In this prayer, it is appropriate to petition the Lord for the Holy Spirit, who enlightens the eyes, opens the heart, and makes the reading of Scripture an effectual means of salvation (WLC 155).[30]

2. Distinguished from Interpretation

The reading of Scripture is a distinct act of ministry that is never confused with, but distinguished from, the interpretation of Scripture in the sermon. The exposition of Scripture does not begin until the whole lesson has been read (cf. Luke 4:16–30; Acts 13:15).[31]

3. Followed by Exposition

That the people of God may understand the meaning of Scripture and know what they are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of them (WSC 3), the reading of Scripture is followed by a sermon that is an actual exposition and application of the text read (Neh. 8:8).

4. Sealed with Visible Signs

As in the covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai, the proclamation of Scripture is sealed with visible signs (Ex. 24:1–11). In the new covenant, this is done by means of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which, as Calvin said, are added to the Word as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing it.[32]

5. Systematically Conducted

In the regular services of worship on the Lord’s Day, the Scriptures are read and preached as a lectio continua. While there are certain occasions when the lectio continua may be interrupted (as was the case in the synagogue during festivals), the continuous, systematic reading and exposition of Scripture is the basic rule (Deut. 31: 9–13; Neh. 8:1–9; 2 Tim. 3:16–4:2).[33]


[1] “The book of the covenant” probably included the Decalogue and its exposition (Ex. 20:1–23:33). See Victor Hamilton, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 438–43; Peter Enns, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 488–89.

[2] On the significance of “the blood of the covenant” (cf. Zech. 9:11; Matt. 26:28; Heb. 10:29; 12:24; 13:20), see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 60–107.

[3] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 22; cf. John Hilber, “Theology of Worship in Exodus 24,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39, no. 2 (June 1996): 177–89.

[4] “The book of the Law of Moses” may refer to the Pentateuch as a whole. See John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976) 391–92. On the teaching ministry of priests and scribes (cf. Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10; 2 Chr. 15:3; Ezra 7:6–12; Mal. 2:7), see Craig Evans et al., Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 1086–89; Christine Schams, Jewish Scribes in the Second Temple Period (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998); David Orton, The Understanding Scribe (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989); George Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), 37–47.

[5] This could have included both the targum and the midrashic sermon. See Jacob Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1971), XIV; cf. Charles Perrot, “The Reading of the Bible in the Ancient Synagogue” in Mikra, Martin Mulder et al., eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 155; Donald Binder, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999), 401; Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), 151, 156; William Oesterley, The Jewish Background of the Christian Liturgy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 41.

[6] Old, 1:96; cf. Binder, 399; Elbogen, 130–31; Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2002), 60–61.

[7] Attempts to reconstruct the synagogue service in the Second-Temple period are somewhat conjectural since most of our sources come from a later period. There is no question, however, that the public reading of Scripture on the morning of the Sabbath was “a universally accepted custom in the first century of our era both in Israel and the Diaspora,” Perrot, 137. Cf. Heather McKay, Sabbath and Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

[8] Some first-century Jews (e.g., Philo and Josephus) believed that Moses had instituted the study of Scripture on the Sabbath. According to Binder, the septennial reading of the Torah prescribed by Moses (Deut. 31:9–13) was “extended both temporally and spatially so that the weekly synagogue assemblies served as microcosms of the larger, national convocation,” Binder, 399. When this practice was established is unknown. See Perrot, 137–59; Mann, XIII–XIV; Elbogen, 130–32; Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge (London: Dennis Dobson, 1959), 51.

[9] Darrell Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) 507.

[10] Old, 1:99; cf. Perrot, 137–59; Mann, XII–XIII, XXI–XXIII; Elbogen, 129–42; Moore, 1:296–307.

[11] Cf. Perrot, 145, 147–50; Ferguson, 580; Mann, XIX; Werner, 57; Elbogen, 129–31.

[12] See Larrimore Crockett, “Luke 4:16–30 and the Jewish Lectionary Cycle” in Journal of Jewish Studies 17 (1966): 13–48.

[13] That Jesus “found the place” may mean that the lesson had been previously prepared and marked in the scroll in such a way that Jesus could easily find the prescribed passage (Werner, 56). However, Wacholder conjectures that the particular book (Isaiah) was predetermined (either by custom or by the synagogue officials), but Jesus was free to read any text from that book (Mann, XVI; cf. Elbogen, 144). Although not recorded in Luke, it is likely that Jesus offered benedictions before and after the reading (e.g., Neh. 8:6; cf. Perrot, 144, 155; Elbogen, 146; Werner, 53).

[14] On the chazzan, see Aaron Milavec, The Didache (New York: Newman Press, 2003) 594–602; cf. Binder, 343–87; Evans and Porter, 1146–47; Perrot, 154–55; Ferguson, 581. The chazzan “carried out the orders of the president of the congregation. It was he who asked the members of the congregation to lead in prayer, to read the Scriptures and to preach. It was his task to take the Torah scrolls from the ark and to return them; it was he who opened the scroll at the portion to be read,” David Hedegård, Seder R. Amram Gaon (Lund: A.-B. Ph. Lindstedts Universitets-bokhandel, 1951), XXXI.

[15] On sitting to teach, see Elbogen, 139, 158; Binder, 72, 306; Kenneth Newport, “A Note on the ‘Seat of Moses’ (Matthew 23:2),” Andrews University Seminary Studies 29 (1990): 127–37; L. Y. Rahmani, “Stone Synagogue Chairs: Their Identification, Use and Significance,” Israel Exploration Journal 40 (1990): 192–214.

[16] Gerhardsson writes, “Scripture reading was … a distinct entity, sharply distinguished from explanatory translation … and the expository or practically applied sermon … which also had its place in worship. Scripture reading did not, then, merely form a basis for instructional translation and preaching, but had its own intrinsic value,” Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 68.

[17] Binder, 401.

[18] Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (Oxford University Press, 2002), 37. See Binder, 400; Perrot, 137–59; Mann, XI–XXIII; Elbogen, 129–63. I agree with Elbogen that the word haftarah indicates the conclusion of the reading and not the conclusion of the service. Elbogen, 143; cf. Perrot, 153. See 2 Macc. 15:9; 4 Macc. 18:10–18; Matt. 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16, 29; 24:27, 44; John 1:45; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Rom. 3:21, etc.

[19] Perrot, 153, 157; Elbogen, 143–39; Werner, 55; Old, 1:10, 102, 130.

[20] Among Hellenistic Jews, “word of exhortation” was an idiom for the synagogue sermon (Acts 13:15; Heb. 13:22). It also “appears to be a fixed expression for the sermon in early Christian circles,” William Lane, Hebrews 9–13 (Dallas: Word, 1991) 568. See Lawrence Wills, “The Form of the Sermon in Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity,” Harvard Theological Review (1984): 277–99; Carl Black II, “The Rhetorical Form of the Hellenistic Jewish and Early Christian Sermon,” Harvard Theological Review (1988): 1–8.

[21] On the synagogue liturgy in the Second-Temple era, see Bradshaw, 21–46 and works cited therein; Binder, 389–435; cf. Elbogen; Oesterley.

[22] See Acts 6:9–10; 9:20; 13:5, 13–48; 14:1; 16:13–16; 17:1–3, 10–11, 17; 18:4–8, 19, 24–28; 19:8–10; 28:23.

[23] This is not to ignore the influence of the Temple on early Christian liturgy. In my opinion, one should not dichotomize Temple worship and synagogue worship as if they were contradictory. As Binder demonstrates, it is simply incorrect to categorize the Temple as “the place of the cult” on the one side, and the synagogue as “the place of the scroll” on the other, Binder 403–4; cf. Peter Leithart, “Synagogue or Temple? Models for the Christian Worship” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2002): 119–33. See Aidan Kavanagh, “Jewish Roots of Christian Worship,” in Paul Fink, The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 617–23; Hedegård, XIII–XL; Oesterley; Clifford Dugmore, The Influence of the Synagogue Upon Divine Office (London: Faith Press, 1964). For more recent studies, see Bradshaw, 21–46 and works cited therein.

[24] See Crockett; Leon Morris, “The Saints and the Synagogue” in Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, Michael Wilkins et al., eds. (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992) 38–52; Michael Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974); Leon Morris, The New Testament and the Jewish Lectionaries (London: Tyndale, 1964); Aileen Guilding, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

[25] The word “reading” in this verse indicates “the public reading of Scripture” in particular. See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Frederick Danker et al., eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 60–61; cf. J. N. D. Kelly, The Pastoral Epistles (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1963) 105; see Luke 4:16; Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21; 2 Cor. 3:14–15; Deut. 31:11 (LXX); Neh. 8:8 (LXX); 1 Esdr. 9:48; 2 Clem. 19:1; Melito 1:1. According to Lane, “The definite expression ‘the exhortation’ is a synonymous designation for the sermon. It referred specifically to the exposition and application of the Scripture that had been read aloud to the assembled congregation,” William Lane, 568; cf. Old, 1:244–50.

[26] Willy Rordorf, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968) 267; cf. Werner, 58.

[27] See Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 3–10; cf. Old, 1:265–69; Rordorf, 262–73; Oesterley, 117–18.

[28] Everett Ferguson, “Justin Martyr and the Liturgy,” Restoration Quarterly 36 (1994), 271–72.

[29] Old, 1:267.

[30] See Hughes Oliphant Old, Leading in Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 139–74; cf. Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, American ed. (Black Mountain: Worship Press, 2004), 211.

[31] This is also the model found in The Westminster Directory for Public Worship. See Richard Muller et al., Scripture and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007), 121, 122, 146.

[32] See Glen J. Clary, “Holy Communion in the Theology of John Knox,” The Confessional Presbyterian 7 (2011), 18.

[33] The lectio continua was carried over from the synagogue into Christian worship and remained the basic rule for the first few centuries of the church, as we see in the sermons of Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, etc. It was eventually supplanted, however, by lectionaries and the liturgical calendar. See Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

This article was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Ordained Servant.


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