Aiming for Understanding

Preparing People for Hearing Scripture in Worship

Do people understand the Scriptures that are read in a worship service? Often, as a worship leader, I have been afraid they don’t. Thus, I must confess, I am a bit envious when I hear a fourth-century pilgrim to Jerusalem describing how “all the people in these parts are able to follow the Scriptures when they are read in church.”

How was that possible, especially when the printed Word was rare and few people could read? Or was it just wishful thinking from this pilgrim, a Western European nun named Egeria?

Egeria tells us how it was possible: through sustained, intentional teaching of everyone preparing for baptism. Here’s how Egeria’s diary describes their daily instruction during Lent: “During the forty days [the bishop] goes through the whole Bible, beginning with Genesis. First, he relates the literal meaning of each passage, and then he interprets its spiritual meaning. He also teaches them at this time all about the resurrection and the faith. . . . After five weeks of teaching they receive the Creed, which he explains article by article in the same way as he explained the Scriptures, first literally and then spiritually” (Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John D. Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2010), 60–61).

In this way, those approaching the baptismal font gained the ability to hold the whole Bible together, to know its foundational redemptive themes, to identify its chief characters, and especially to recognize its main actor, God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That is what Egeria means when she talks about the bishop teaching both the literal and the spiritual meaning of Scripture. The literal meaning refers to a passage’s original historical significance; the spiritual meaning is its relationship to the salvation wrought by Jesus and experienced by those who believe in him. Egeria’s final comment about the creed indicates how baptismal candidates learned to do the same with the major events in the life of Christ and the major affirmations of the faith. (As a comparison, consider how various New Testament authors used the events of Christ’s life—birth, circumcision, baptism, picking up a cross, death, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—as metaphors for the Christian experience.)

This ancient practice in Jerusalem raises a couple of questions for today: How much facility with the Bible do we expect new members to have? And what have we done to equip them with biblical literacy and understanding?

There’s one other thing Egeria mentions about Scripture reading in Jerusalem. When the Bible was read in worship, these well-prepared worshipers responded enthusiastically, sometimes shouting in joy at the good news of God’s grace and sometimes bemoaning evil in an honest appraisal of human nature. May it be so today.

Digging Deeper

Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem © 2010 Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John D. Witvliet, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Dr. Lester Ruth is the Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School. He is passionate about studying the history of worship to enrich the worship life of current congregations, regardless of style. He believes that careful reflection on the worship of other Christians—whether past or present, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox—can serve to enrich the church today.