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“To Be a Berean”

Acts 17:1-15
Bob DeGray
February 27, 2005

Key Sentence

God’s Word has the greatest impact when you wrestle with it yourself.

Outline

I. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Acts 17:1-4)
II. Distorting the Scriptures (Acts 17:5-9)
III. Examining the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-15)


Message

        As a believer and a pastor, I have quite an interest in church buildings and even church signs. So many years ago I noticed that there are a lot of churches and ministries called ‘Berean’. A simple Google search yielded Berean Christian Stores, Berean School of the Bible, The Berean Call, the Berean Beacon, the Berean Bible Society, the Berean Corner, as well Presbyterian Berean churches, Bible Berean Churches, Independent Berean Churches and hundreds of Baptist Berean Churches. There is also at least one Berean Evangelical Free Church - I would have expected more.

        But why are all these churches and ministries called ‘Berean’? Why are Bereans heros? As early as college, for me, the concept of being a Berean, being Berean about things was held up as a role model. In fact throughout church history, wherever Scripture has been valued and it’s study prized, the Bereans have been heroes. Today in Acts 17:1-15 we’re going to see why this is so, as we examine how Scriptural truth is taught and received. We’ll see in the Greek city of Berea a model of the right way to engage with Scripture, a model that says God’s word has the greatest impact when you wrestle with it yourself. God’s word has the greatest impact when you wrestle with it yourself. I want to challenge you this morning to be a Berean.

I. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Acts 17:1-4)

        But we begin in Thessalonica, Acts 17:1-4. When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said. 4Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

        While Luke apparently stayed behind in Philippi, probably his home city, Paul, Silas and Timothy, went east to Thessalonica. They probably stopped there because, unlike Philippi, there were enough Jews in Thessalonica to form a synagogue, which provided Paul with his customary opportunity. So for three sabbath days he preached. Though Luke doesn’t give a detailed account, it is very likely that this preaching was similar to his message in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, which we studied in Acts 13, Notice how Luke summarizes Paul’s method: he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ."” This is a great model for us as we share the Good News, and even as we teach Scripture in the family and in the church. First, he reasoned with them from the Scriptures. This is the Greek word ‘dialegomai’ and what it really means is to discuss with a view toward persuading.

        Can you guess what English word is derived from this Greek word? It’s dialog. Paul interacted with these people in a dialog, engaged them in discussion. He didn’t just preach the material; he called for a reasoned response from his audience. That’s what we ought to be doing - in Sunday School, from elementary to adult, in Bible Studies, in the youth and college ministries, and in small groups. We need to have this art of creating dialog and asking questions that help people to think.

        But this isn’t just ‘sharing your ignorance’, for Paul is dialoging ‘from the Scriptures’. The Word of God was his source, and the authoritative foundation for their discussions as Paul showed the Jews what they might not have seen before, that the Christ, the Messiah, had to suffer and rise from the dead. This was a key truth in bringing the Good News to Jewish people, a truth taught by Jesus. During his public ministry he kept predicting that the Son of Man must suffer, die and be raised. And after he was raised, he rebuked the Emmaus disciples for their slowness to believe the witness of Scripture, in which he showed them that the Christ had to suffer and rise. This was also the heart of the aposte’s message. So in the Thessalonian synagogue, Paul undoubtedly presented the Scriptures that were already part of the apostles' earlier sermons, especially those from Psalms 2, 16, and 110 and from Isaiah 53.

        Paul uses these Scriptures in this dialog approach, to explain and prove his points. And at the same time he was also ‘proclaiming’ Jesus, telling of his birth, life and ministry, his death and resurrection, his exaltation, reign and future return, and his offer of salvation. There is no reason to doubt that Paul gave a thorough account of Jesus. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to identify the Jesus of history with the Christ of Scripture: 'This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah'. The Greek verb for ‘proving’ at the beginning of verse 3 literally means to 'place beside', as here Paul placed the fulfilment of Scripture in Jesus alongside it’s predictions. This identification of history with Scripture, was central to Paul's message, and remains an indispensable part of Christian teaching today. If we abandon the historicity of Scripture, we rob it of it’s power to make a difference in people’s lives.

        So Paul used Scripture to confront, to comfort and to engage his listeners. Like Jesus himself, and like the apostles before him, he said that the Scriptures prophecy a Messiah who will die and rise. Then he showed that Jesus was that Messiah, because he did die and rise, as witnessed by his disciples. This is reasoning from the Scriptures, and it is a skill which can be learned by Christians, and applied not just to evangelism, but to all the questions of the Christian life.

        And Luke tells us that Paul’s teaching made a difference. Many of his listeners, both Jews and Gentiles, became believers. In fact, the converts were drawn from four sections of the community _ Jews, Greeks, God_fearers and well_known women. Among them were Aristarchus and Secundus, who later became Paul's fellow travelers, and even, in the case of Aristarchus, his fellow_prisoner.


II. Distorting the Scriptures (Acts 17:5-9)


        But not all who heard believed: some heard these words and distorted them for their own purposes. Acts 17:5-9 5But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." 8When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

        Paul had taught clearly, but there were some among the Jews who refused to believe his good news. Instead they became jealous of his success and began to stir up trouble. Rounding up some bad characters, rough types from the market_place, they formed a mob and started a riot. They stormed the home of Paul’s host, Jason, in order to bring Paul and Silas out to the crowd. 'Crowd' here is an interesting word, demos, which referred in ancient Greece to 'the people's assembly' or citizens' council, part of the government of a free city. But they didn’t find Paul and Silas, so they took Jason and some others and brought them before the city officials. Luke again shows his accuracy in using the right word for this free city's magistrates, different than the word he used for the colony city of Philippi.

         The charge against the believers shows how these listeners distorted the truth Paul was teaching - and by doing so crafted a very serious accusation: 'These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house.’ Paul, in his teaching, had probably mentioned many places the Good News about Jesus had already been shared: in Jerusalem; at his home church in Antioch; across Asia Minor. But the unbelievers interpret this spread of the good news as ‘causing trouble all over the known world.’ That’s so typical - any success achieved by God in people’s lives is considered a problem by unbelievers. Even in our own culture, Christians are portrayed as trouble makers, and history is revised so that the troubles of the world are attributed to the Christians.

        So they call them trouble-makers, who had ‘turned the world upside down.’ They were causing radical social upheaval, and in particular ‘defying Caesar's decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus'. In a great distortion of what was actually being taught, Paul and Silas are charged with high treason. Just as Jesus had been accused before Pilate of sedition, of claiming to be a king, so Paul was accused because of his teaching about the kingdom of God and about Christ's return. We know from 1st and 2nd Thessalonians that Paul did teach about Christ’s return, using the official Greek term for an imperial visit. This seemed to make Jesus the new Emperor. And since the emperor was also the ‘King’, didn’t calling Jesus king count as treason? Certainly that’s how these accusers portrayed it.

        And like all distortions of Scripture, this accusation has power because there is a kernal of truth in it. As loyal subjects of Jesus, we do refuse to give to any government or ruler the supreme homage and total obedience we offer our Lord. For this reason, Christians have often been called traitors. In the early centuries men like Polycarp were killed because they refused to deny Christ and bow to Caesar. Polycarp said: “Eighty and six years I have served him and he has done me no harm. How can I then blaspheme my King and my Savior?" In modern times we find a few men like Deitrich Bonhoeffer who were willing to put Christ ahead of Hitler, and who also became martyrs for the faith. There is a kernal of truth to the idea that a Christian has another allegiance and another king. On the other hand, Christians are called by Scripture to be conscientious and law_abiding citizens, not revolutionaries. To pray for their kings and their governors, to submit to authority and to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ In other words, to pay taxes and obey laws. The Scriptures are perfectly clear on this, and Paul himself gave us many of those commands. So it is a wild distortion to claim that Christians are by nature traitors. Yet even today that portrayal is being made. ‘Christians can’t be allowed to participate in politics because they have a Christian agenda’, considered dangerous to a current view of political correctness.

        Naturally, such accusations got the attention of the city leaders. The text simply says that they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. But this meant much more than our concept of releasing someone on bail. Probably the officials extracted from Jason and the others a promise that Paul and Silas would leave town and not return, with severe penalties if the agreement were broken. In fact all of their property and their very lives could well have been forfeit. It was probably this legal ban which Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians as Satan's hindering of his return.

        So individuals and whole cultures distort the Word of God and make it a threat instead of good news. It’s easy for thoughtless people to be taken in by these distortions. In the same way if Christians are not grounded in Scripture, it is easy for them to be taken in by distorted teaching. Paul will end up writing two letters to the church at Thessalonica to guide them away from false ideas. In 2nd Thessalonians he says “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. 3Don't let anyone deceive you in any way.” He goes on to say “Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” Even the believers had trouble hanging on to Scriptural truth - even reasoning with people from the Scriptures may not be enough to firmly ground them.

III. Examining the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-15)

        But there was one church Paul never had to write a letter to, at least as far as we know. There was one church that was founded on a more firm foundation even than Paul’s reasoning from the Scriptures. It was the church at Berea. Acts 17:10-15 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. 13When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

        Paul and Silas were smuggled out of Thessalonica by night and sent to Berea, a fifty_mile journey to the south_west. The missionaries went as usual to the Jewish synagogue, and they found, Luke says, that these Berean Jews were of more noble character than the Thessalonians. The word used is eugenes, literally ‘good breeding’, used of nobility in Greek culture. We might say the Jews of Berea were a better breed than the Thessalonians, and so they received the Word of God from Paul in a more appropriate way. Now I’m not saying this is a genetic difference; neither is Luke. What I’m saying is they just had a better attitude toward the authority of Scripture.

        They received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. ‘Eagerness’ is the Greek ‘prothumia,’ a forward looking desire, a positive lust. ‘Examined’ means questioned or tested. Stott says “The verb is used of judicial investigations, as of Herod examining Jesus, or the Sanhedrin Peter and John. It implies integrity and absence of bias.” They analyzed the Scriptures objectively ‘to see if what Paul said was true’. This translates a very short Greek phrase, literally ‘if this is this.’ Isn’t that great? It reminds me of the Evangelical Free Church phrase, ‘where stands it written’. If it’s not verifiable from God’s word, or at least in accord with God’s word, it’s just not true. We are to examine teaching to see if it is in accordance with Scripture. That’s the Berean approach. Stott says “Luke obviously admires their enthusiasm for Paul's preaching, together with their industry and unprejudiced openness in studying the Scriptures. They combined receptivity with critical questioning. Ever since then, the adjective 'Berean',” Stott says “has been applied to people who study the Scriptures with impartiality and care.” That's why all those churches and ministries we mentioned earlier have chosen the word Berean for their name.

        The critical difference between the Thessalonians and the Bereans was in their willingness to wrestle with the Word of God. They tested what Paul said in Scripture. And because they tested these things for themselves and found them to be true, many of them believed. Many Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men, who probably included Sopater son of Pyrrhus, whom we will meet in chapter 20.

        But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea, they came down and stirred up a crowd of those who had not nobly believed God’s word. This time the believers didn’t wait for a public furor. They sent Paul to the coast immediately, while Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens, presumably by sea, a voyage of more than 300 miles, and then went back to send Silas and Timothy to him.

        So what have we learned? Luke records these episodes very briefly, and yet he seems to be at pains to draw our attention to this use of Scripture by both speakers and hearers. In Thessalonica Paul 'reasoned', 'explained', 'proved', 'proclaimed' and 'persuaded' from the Scriptures, while in Berea the Jews eagerly 'received' and diligently 'examined' the Scriptures. No doubt Paul welcomed and encouraged this response. As one commentator wrote, 'a characteristic of the true religion is that it allows itself to be examined, and its claims to be decided upon'. Paul will later remind Timothy that from infancy he had “known the Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” It’s got to be a good thing to encourage those who are not yet believers to engage with Scripture.

        But Paul will go on to tell Timothy “All Scripture is God_breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” In other words this wrestling with Scripture is not just useful when dealing with salvation issues, but with all the issues of life. When we work to find the meaning of Scripture, it teaches, it rebukes, it corrects, it trains us in righteousness and equips us for life and ministry.

        John White affirms this truth at the beginning of his chapter called “God Still Speaks” in his book ‘The Fight’. He begins the chapter by saying “They seemed an unlikely bunch. I was sure they were bona fide Christians. I had led them to Christ myself. Yet just as I would be feeling reassured that they were turning out well, they would do and say the strangest things. I clucked over them like a nervous hen worried lest I had hatched swans. Yet one year later I had no hesitation in calling them godly. They knew what they believed and where they were going in life. The only way to account for the difference was that during the intervening months we’d all been studying Scripture, both individually and collectively.”

        Pat, a six_foot, genial athlete, was another guy who had me worried. Friendly, helpful, but clueless. On impulse I loaned him a book about Bible study and never saw him for six months. When we ran across each other later I was astounded. Same face. Same build. Different man. I’d forgotten about the book but Pat hadn't. "It changed my life," he told me, "at least, daily, prayerful Bible study did."” White goes on in that chapter to outline how to wrestle with the Scriptures. He basically tells you to keep digging into a passage until you understand first what the author intended the text to mean, and second how that text should be applied to you personally today. We could dwell on details, but that’s the basic discipline of ‘wrestling with Scripture.’

        God’s Word has the greatest impact when you wrestle with it yourself. My favorite quote from John White’s book shows this. He says “I need say no more for now [about methods of Bible study]. Many, many helpful books have been written on this whole subject. I only wish to let a wild, warm enthusiasm flow from my heart down my arm to flood from my pen on to the paper. Bible study has torn apart my life and remade it. That is to say that God, through his Word, has done so. In the darkest periods of my life, when everything seemed hopeless, I would struggle in the grey dawns of many faraway countries to grasp the basic truths of Scripture passages. I looked for no immediate answers to my problems. Only did I sense intuitively that I was drinking drafts from a fountain that gave life to my soul.

        Slowly, as I grappled with textual and theological problems, a strength grew deep within me. Foundations cemented themselves to an other_worldly rock, beyond the reach of time and space, and I became strong and more alive. If I could write poetry about it, I would. If I could sing through paper, I would flood your soul with the glorious melodies that express what I have found. I cannot exaggerate, for there are no expressions majestic enough to tell of the glory I have seen, or the wonder of finding that I, an, unstable, middle_aged man, have my feet firmly planted in eternity, and breath the air of heaven. And all this has come to me through a careful study of Scripture" You’ll receive all this and more if you’ll engage yourself with God’s word, O noble Bereans.