Reading the Word | Marks of the Church

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13).

The letters known as the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy; Titus) are some of the most fascinating books in the New Testament. They are written to individual pastors Paul raised up through his missionary travels to shepherd the churches he has planted. Realistically, these three books show us the importance of raising up leaders within our own congregation more than any other books in the New Testament.

However, Paul writes in 1 Timothy to a young pastor who could have possibly had a bit of a problem of timidity (2 Tim. 1:7). It could have been because Timothy was young and did not have the “experience” some might have thought. It could have been a personality trait. It could have been Timothy’s fatal flaw: he was a timid young man. Nonetheless, Timothy was entrusted with the task of leading the church at Ephesus to healthy spirituality. 

1 Timothy, then, is Paul’s doctrinal letter to young Timothy. Timothy needed to be instructed, but Paul could only do this from afar. Yet, even from a distance, Paul gives Timothy some very appropriate words that still ring true for local churches today.

Here are a few reasons why the reading of Scripture is necessary for the makeup of the church.

The Word of God Governs God’s Church

The church must begin and end with God’s Word, the Bible. However, to understand the magnitude of just how important this is, we first need to establish a case for the Bible’s authority, then we will need to see that God desires for His church to be governed His own way. 

The Case for Authority

The Bible as God’s revealed Word must be the starting point for biblical worship in the church. The Triune God has revealed himself to us by communicating within himself to humanity. The Father speaks to the Son, the Son speaks to the Father, and both to the Spirit and the Spirit to both.[1] Peter declares that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), so the process of the Bible being understood as God’s Word begins with God revealing himself to the apostles by His Spirit, then succeeds to how the apostles witnessed the full revelation of God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. In essence, God is a communicator and God’s truth is reality. 

So, then, it should naturally follow in our minds to understand that God’s Word must be of the utmost priority in our churches. The gathered church is to be centralized around God’s Word. Therefore, the Bible must be the foundation of all that is done in our worship services because it is authoritative. But what does it mean for the Bible to be authoritative?

Augustine explains how meaning can sometimes be dependent upon the person when he writes, “What is time? If nobody asks me, I know; but if someone asks me, I don’t know.” In other words, Augustine essentially says that meaning can call our knowledge into question, if we aren’t careful. So, we must be extra careful in how we establish the authority of the Bible, because God acts through his spoken Word. It how the world was brought into existence and also how he gave us His Word altogether. So, then, biblical authority is generated in the church by the gathered people of God in unison proclaiming that the Bible is our standard by which we operate! 

God’s Church = God’s Way

 There is a principle that the Church must latch onto, and that is the regulative principle of worship. The regulative principle simply states that anything done in the church must be done in accordance with Scripture. For example, if Scripture does not permit ______, the church must not do it. 

The same is true when it comes to the governing of the church. Ultimately, I believe the regulative principle is for much more of Christianity than singing itself. And it must involve how the church is governed. Friends, this is not our church! Therefore, we do not get to say what goes and does not go. This is God’s church and we must abide by His rules! And, in grace and mercy, he plainly lays it out for us in the Scriptures.

But, you see, there is more to reading the Scriptures than just to see how the church is governed. It is a necessary element of our worship service because of this second point:

The Word of God Grows God’s Church

Ultimately, the growth of the church will always, always, always be a result from the Word of God being taught and heard and obeyed. There is simply no substitute for the Word of God in the life of the church of Jesus Christ. You cannot replace it, nor can you ignore it! And, for the illustration of this point, I’d like to take us to 1 Corinthians 3 and see Paul’s exact words about this issue. 

We Plant and Water

As you might remember, the Corinthian church was full of division. They had many people who were spiritually malnourished. In fact, Paul calls them infants in Christ in verse 1 of chapter 3. In this chapter, we find the ever-famous verses showing that the Corinthians are not only divided by whom they follow, but they are divided in loyalty.

We find in verse 6 of chapter 3 Paul giving the Corinthians the explanation to how all of this works. He says, “I planted, Apollos watered” (1 Cor. 3:6). In other words, Paul is telling the Corinthians that they have labored tirelessly for the planting of this church. Paul was on his first missionary journey writing to this church, and he was already needing to correct the lack of unity in which this church possessed. Simply put, this church was plagued with division over who they were to follow because of the church’s success. 

But God Gives Growth

Yet, we find Paul continuing with verse 3 saying, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). In other words, Paul is simply saying here, “WE DID NOT GROW THIS CHURCH – GOD DID!” 

You see, because of this verse, I tend to look at the church as a garden (follow me for a minute). There is a lot of work that goes into growing a garden, and it isn’t all good. When you plant seeds, you have to water them and feed them. Otherwise, they won’t grow. But there are times when you feed the seed and weeds grow, which demands you pick out the weeds. Yet, what we understand about gardening is that even though there is so much work we must do, there are also many factors we cannot control. 

The same is true within the church. We can work all we want until we are blue in the face, but it is not our work that grows the church – it is God himself! Friends, may I remind us again, this is not our church – it’s God’s! 

1 Timothy 4:16

Paul seems to echo some similar thoughts in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for be so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). 

Paul here is instructing Timothy to devote himself to the Word of God in life and in vocation. Personally, Timothy must grow in faith through a union with Jesus. Vocationally, Timothy must work out of the overflow of that union so that he can be an example (4:12) for those how are under his teaching.

But do you see what’s happening here? Paul knows that the only way to sustain a church is by the Word of God! He says it right there is verse 16: the only way to save both yourself and your hearers, Timothy, is to keep a close watch on yourself and the teaching of God’s Word! This is simply because God works in His people through His Word

God works through His Word in us to grow us, but he also works through the Word to free us:

The Word of God Frees God’s Church

One of the many overlooked aspects of God’s Word pertaining to the church is the fact that it gives us liberty. Of course, I assume we all understand that the definition of freedom here (and mostly everywhere) is not a freedom to do anything we please whenever we please. Instead, the freedom we enjoy in Christ is a freedom that enables us as believers to give up our own desires for the desires of Christ all for the sake of the advancement of the kingdom of God. So, I want to take just a minute and look at a couple of aspects of this freedom:

Freedom From Self

I think it is commonly understood by all of us that our freedom first is a deterrent from our sinful flesh. When we trusted Christ in faith and repentance, Paul says that we are no longer enslaved to sin and we now can desire the things of God! Romans 6 shows us that once we trust Christ, we are freed from the bondage and hold sin had on us and we now no longer have to be held captive by our flesh. 

Freedom to Worship

Of course, we understand the opposite effect of this freedom also. Not only are we freed from our flesh and sinful nature, but we are free to worship. You see, we cannot actually worship God with the freedom the Bible gives us to do such a thing. Unless the Word of God frees us from the desires of our own sinfulness, we cannot worship God at all. The woman at the well is a perfect example. Jesus tells her that to worship God, we must worship him in Spirit and in truth. In other words, we must worship him as born again believers. The Word of God frees us to do this. 

And as we are freed to do this, we can advance the church for the sake of the kingdom of God by our unity:

The Word of God Unites God’s Church

Ultimately, I believe this is the focal point of the reading of the Scripture in the gathering of the local church. Let us not forget: our focus is the necessity of the reading of Scripture in the local assembly of the church visible. To do this, of course, we must unite ourselves around three things:

We Unite Around God’s Word

I don’t want to overemphasize this point, but we must never forget the importance of God’s Word in the mix of all of this. The Word of God must be the central element to our gathering as a local church. The Word must be preached, prayed, sang, saw, and read! Remember: this is not our church – it is God’s church. And what God says goes with his church. So, in order to become a church unified around the Word of God, we must submit to its authority and understand that God’s Word has the final say, not our opinions or our preferences! 

We Unite Around God’s Purpose

And when we devote ourselves to the Word of God and its teaching, we find that God’s purpose for the church is fairly simple, and we find it in the first five books of the New Testament: the purpose of the church is to make disciples of all nations and to bring them into the fold of God in order that the kingdom of Christ might advance in us and through us. 

There is not multiple purposes for God’s church – he has given us his last words in the Great Commission and we must make Jesus’ last words our first work, as Robby Gallaty often says!

Conclusion

So, friends, ultimately here is our takeaways from this message. 

First, we must understand that this is not our church. I know I’ve said it several times and you’ll probably cover your ears if I say it again, but this point CANNOT BE EMPHASIZED ENOUGH. The church of Jesus Christ is just that: it’s his church, not ours. This simply means that we do not get to play God, nor do we get to decide how ministry is to go. We are to submit to the Master and let his Word guide our ministry.

Second, the reading of the Word is necessary to grow the church. “Faith,” Paul says, “comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). We cannot grow a garden by ourselves. You have to have things like rain and weather, otherwise, your garden will not be healthy. The same is true in the church. You cannot grow a church unless God grants you growth. However, the good news is that he has given us the formula for growth: making disciples! 

Application

First, the reading of the Word in the church is necessary. By the simple study we’ve done today, in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, there is no growth in the church without the Word of God. Therefore, it must be read. Nothing more needs to be said here. 

Second, the Word of God unifies us around one purpose. It is the Word of God that brings people with different personalities and different strengths and weaknesses for one purpose: to make disciples who make disciples. This is the Great Commission. And yet, why is it so hard for us? Honestly, I’m not sure I have an answer to this question. However, an answer is not necessary. The only necessary element for this purpose is obedience. I don’t need an answer that would most likely turn into an excuse for not making disciples. I need to be obedient to my Lord who has commanded me to make disciples of all nations, and this obedience will unify us all together for the glory of God and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom! 

Third, the Word of God commands us to read it aloud. Another rather obvious point of application here is that Scripture commands as much. This is exactly what Paul commanded Timothy: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13). Why does Paul say this? Stanley Outlaw writes that “it is needed to…stress its proper position of authority for both doctrine and practice.”[2]  In other words, the Word of God is our authority. Therefore we must obey and read it aloud publicly in our gatherings. 


 [1] John H. Frame. The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2019), 42.

[2] Stanley Outlaw, “1 Timothy” in The Randall House Bible Commentary (Nashville: Randall House, 1990), 246.

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