Since God Has Spoken, Let's Listen

by J.T. English July 31, 2015

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. – 1 Timothy 4:13

One of the great dangers in doing theology is the desire to do all the talking. Theology in the church necessarily includes testifying (Acts 4:33), witnessing (Acts 1:8), preaching (2 Tim 4:23), and writing (1 John 1:4). Even in 1 Timothy 4:13 Paul exhorts Timothy to a ministry of exhortation and teaching. The church cannot be the church without being a faithful witness to God and His mighty deeds. I love being a theologian because I enjoy theos + logos, words about God. Articulation is a primary task of the church. For, as Paul contends elsewhere, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Speaking and testifying about God and the gospel are essential to who we are.

However, theology’s first task is to carefully listen to God present Himself to us in Scripture. This is why Paul instructs Timothy to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture. Theology that begins with human address is not theology at all, but mere speculation. We need to know God as He has made Himself known before we provide our own commentary. We devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture God creates a listening community and cultivates a lively community.

One of the must fundamental claims of Christian theology is that God has made Himself known to His creation. The Creator speaks to His creation. We acknowledge and embody our confession in God’s self-disclosure when we give attention to the public reading of Scripture. When we read Scripture publically God addresses His people through His Word, and this address creates a listening community and a lively communion.

A Listening Community

God’s people are known by their attentiveness to God as they listen to His Word. Throughout Scripture, God addresses his people authoritatively by having Scripture read audibly in the community (2 Chron 34:18-19, 30; Neh 8:1-8). God’s authoritative Word functions amongst His people as the Word that identifies, forms, and shapes them. The community is not first known by their words, but by their devotion to the Word that has been spoken amongst them. The church is the people who listen to the voice of the Lord (John 10:27). In Scripture God addresses His people through the text and we are reminded we are a listening community before a speaking community.

The church that listens to Scripture read on a weekly basis is reoriented to God Himself. We are reminded that God is a Speaker and his Word is sure. Therefore, the first task of theology is not one of articulation, but silence, as we listen to God present Himself to us through his Word.  As God speaks He creates a listening community.

The Public Reading of Scripture Cultivates a Lively Communion

As the church listens to Scripture it is not an inert, lethargic, or inactive listening, but a kind of listening that cultivates a lively communion. J.I. Packer argues, “Scripture, when read, should be thought of as God preaching — God the Father preaching God the Son in the power of God the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the giver of Scripture; God the Son is the theme of Scripture; and God the Spirit is the Father’s appointed agent in witnessing to the Son, as the author, authenticator, and interpreter of Scripture.”[1] As the Trinitarian God reveals Himself to us through His Word a most glorious communion is cultivated because the Church is reconstituted to its head. Idols are mute (Hab 2:18), but YHWH speaks and when He speaks He cultivates fellowship between Himself and His people. The divine speaker has taken the initiative to speak and to create a fellowship with those who hear.

I think we should seriously consider the clarity of Paul’s instructions to Timothy. Before we speak, blog, tweet, comment, preach, write, testify, and witness, we must listen. Undoubtedly, a central task of the church is to proclaim all that the Lord has done and is doing. But our words should be shaped through listening to God give Himself to us through Scripture. When God addresses his church through Scripture the Word of Christ dwells in us richly (Col 3:16). You cannot enter a ministry of articulation until you have devoted yourself to a ministry of listening. The public reading of Scripture allows the church to be guided by God’s speech about himself because through the public reading of Scripture God sheds abroad the knowledge of Himself as the perfect Speaker and He cultivates a lively communion through His Word.

Again, we must devote ourselves to this task. The public reading of Scripture is not something we add into our worship sets, liturgies, and sermons – it is the very foundation. Let’s not do all the talking. Since God has spoken, let’s listen.

[1] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 91.