In Acts 17:1-9, Paul and Silas preach the gospel in Thessalonica and are driven out of town by a Jewish mob. Acts 17:1-15 records what happens next:
10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.
If we consider the position of the Jews, they had every reason to be prejudiced against Paul’s message of a crucified Messiah. Their expectations were for a Christ who would come to overthrow oppressive Roman rule and restore Israel’s national power. The thought of a Messiah dying on a tree under God’s curse was unconscionable. But it was this Messiah that Paul preached.
To keep an open mind about the Christian message and to objectively assess its truth claims required rare character. Luke comments that the Jews in Berea “were more noble than those in Thessalonica.” The word translated as “noble” is only used two other times in the New Testament—once in Luke’s gospel, where it refers to a nobleman, and once in 1 Corinthians 1:26, where Paul writes that “not many were of noble birth.”
Luke choose the image of nobility to characterize the mind of the Bereans. There are many factors by which to judge a man’s character, but a person’s character is never higher than his posture in the face of truth—disillusioning as it may be. A person of high character is a person who has the appropriate attitude towards the word of God. For those who already believe, this means a call to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21).
A person’s character is never higher than his posture in the face of truth.
Earlier in the chapter, we read that the Jews in Thessalonica were envious of the apostle’s success and closed-minded concerning the Christ. Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3). Paul’s arguments were irrefutable, but they fell on deaf ears.
Unlike the proud and stubborn Jews in Thessalonica, those in Berea were willing to consider Paul’s preaching. They received the word with all eagerness. The Bereans had the right attitude. The Spirit had prepared their hearts and minds to be open to hearing the apostle’s message. A sincere, listening posture is vital when approaching the word preached or written. But never an unthinking one. Wesley notes, “To be teachable in the things of God is true generosity of soul. The receiving the word with all readiness of mind, and the most accurate search into the truth, are well consistent.”
Once the Bereans heard Paul’s message, they examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Paul was an Apostle with the highest authority. But under God, only the text of Scripture has ultimate authority. The truth of a preacher’s words should not be taken for granted; rather, they should be tested by Scripture and reason. A good shepherd will encourage his people to test everything. Matthew Henry comments, “The doctrine of Christ does not fear inquiry; advocates for his cause desire no more than that people will fully and fairly examine whether things are so or not.”
Because of their inquiry, many believed. Their faith was the direct result of examining the Scriptures. Romans 10:17 identifies the word as the material cause of faith: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” God’s Spirit works through God’s word. We hear God’s word and the Spirit produces in us confidence that his word is true. Through cooperation with God’s Spirit, faith is wrought in us as a gift.
The truth of a preacher’s words should not be taken for granted; rather, they should be tested by Scripture and reason.
While Luke emphasizes the mature, open-minded, thoughtful character of the Bereans in Acts 17, we must not forget Luke’s theological comment in the previous chapter. Regarding Lydia, he says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). The same is true of the Bereans. No one is able to respond positively to God’s word without the prevenient grace of God through his Spirit.
If you could glimpse into my early Christian life, you would see a young man reading the Bible for countless hours, earnestly searching the Scriptures, and gladly receiving the whole counsel of God. That is what we observe in the lives of the Bereans. But if you could rewind to the days before my conversion, you would see the same young man picking up and putting down the Bible with desperation and frustration. No joy. No delight. No understanding. For “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). But through providential circumstances, I prayed, “God, if I am ever going to read this Book, you’ll have to help me.” God worked a miracle in my heart. He produced in me a voracious appetite for the word, and as a result I began to search the Scriptures every day for months.
Acts 17 should cause us to praise God for preparing and enabling the Bereans to receive his word, and it should fill us with gratitude for any desire that we find in our own hearts to do the same. In the face of grace, we must humble ourselves that we may receive more grace (Jas. 4:6). By grace, God can produce in us a nobility of character, marked by a readiness to receive God’s word and the discipline to search the Scriptures daily.
Here are a few questions for application:
What does your attitude towards the word of God reveal about your character? Are you like those in Thessalonica? When you hear something that challenges your beliefs, exposes weakness in your presuppositions, or questions your attitudes or behavior, do you assume a defensive posture or turn in careful study to the word and reason?
Are you eager to hear the word of God? Going to Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services to hear more of God’s word is often an indication of sincere desire. But it is necessary to cultivate a ready heart and mind by preparing in advance. Pray for a humble heart and critical mind. Bring a notebook and pen to take notes during the message. In addition to church services and personal Bible study times, take advantage of serious sermons and Christian podcasts that expound the Scriptures and explore theology.
Pray for a humble heart and critical mind.
Do you examine the Scriptures every day? The sermons that you hear at church are not the only messages that enter your mind in any given week. Pastors only have around 90 minutes to compete with hours of popular media and life influences. We must test everything that we hear—in church and outside of church—by God’s word in order to develop discernment and sort out truth from error.
Hebrews 5:13-14 is central: “everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” To be a mature Christian, you must spend time in the word of God every day so that you can have your “powers of discernment trained by constant practice.” If you stay away from your Bible for too long, your discernment will grow dull, and you will be more likely to fall into sin and error.
The next time that you hear the word of God read or preached, think deeply about what is said and compare it to what you are learning in your daily Bible study. One of the triumphs of the Reformation was to put a Bible in the hand of “every plough boy” so that the whole church could share in the community activity of Bible interpretation. Galatians 6:6 issues a delightful command to “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.”
If we all commit to the hard work of studying the Bible, we will grow as a community of the word. Nothing thrills me more than when someone comes to me with a question or raises a point that I may have never considered. We need each other to remain balanced and to grow in the grace of God’s word. A community of Scripture searchers is a powerful force for the gospel.