Friday, January 14, 2011

The Bereans and Scripture

A popular section of the Acts of the Apostles deals with the evangelical work by Paul and Silas in Berea. The relevant passages read:
The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. [Acts 17:10-12; NASB]
The first notable statement is that by Luke that the Bereans were "more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica." The immediate contrast is made to the Jews who belonged to the city Paul and Silas had just come from. Why are they spoken so poorly of in this passage?

Mostly, the drive of the Jews in Thessalonica (or, more appropriately, the Jewish leaders) was out of jealousy (Acts 17:5) and not divine truth. Luke accounts that of the synagogue members in Thessalonica, Paul and Silas managed to convert "some of them" in addition to "a large number of the God-fearing Greeks" and "a number of the leading women" (Acts 17:4). The apostles were therefore stealing not only some of the Jewish leaders' own flock, but also prominent members of the religious community. It is after this occurs that it is said the Jews were jealous of Paul and Silas, hinting that their motives were entirely selfish in nature, much like the Jewish leaders of the Temple had been.

Note in the previously quoted passages from Acts 17:

1) The Bereans are said to be more "noble-minded." The Greek root word (εὐγενής) literally translates as "good birth," and refers to someone born of noble blood. However, Luke uses it here not to tell us that the Bereans were all wealthy people or of royalty, but rather in a figurative sense, hence the translation by the NASB of "noble-minded."

2) The Bereans are said to have "received the word with great eagerness." The root word for what is translated in the NASB as "eagerness" (προθυμία) literally translates as "before passion," and refers to a mindset that is inclined towards a certain tendency (the KJV, ASV, and others translate it as "readiness of mind").

3) The Bereans are finally said to have responded to the word of Paul and Silas by "examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so." Note from this:

A) Their examination. They responded to Paul and Silas' words by going right to the inspired, God-breathed word of God. Although Luke's account here is sparing, nothing is recorded of any kind of indignation from the apostles in regards to their doing this. This despite the fact that, with the apostolic authority given to Paul, the two Christians could have easily demanded their authority alone be respected. Likewise, Paul could have stated that, as what he said came from God, it should be trusted lest the Bereans be damned. Yet this was not even Paul's methodology, for Luke had told us earlier that it was "Paul's custom" to reason with the Jews "from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2). Paul would write to Timothy that "the sacred writings...are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15). Paul knew that the truth he spoke was not confirmed solely in who he was or what he did, but entirely on the sacred word of God. It is believed by Muslims that their religion is truth, and yet it is well known from ahadith sources that even in the early days of Islam it was strictly forbidden for Muslims to study the Christian scriptures in earnest. Only that which is based on a lie should ever be afraid of those who seek the truth.

B) The extent of their examination. The Bereans were said to be examining the scripture "daily." This wasn't a case of someone listening to a proof text and then saying, "Hmm...all right. Sounds good." They were giving a prolonged, serious look at what Paul and Silas were saying. How many exact days they spent deliberating and studying is not known (neither is it important to know), but if Luke accounts they had done it "daily," it must have been at least a few days or more. It is likewise not known how interactive Paul and Silas were involved in this examination. It could have been that Paul and Silas simply spoke and allowed the Bereans to ponder on what they had said, in order that God's word may have affect. Martin Luther once humorously remarked in a sermon:
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's word...And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philipp and Amsdorf, the word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.
It could also be that Paul and Silas were active participants, engaging the Bereans in their questions and concerns. It is undoubtedly possible to argue from scripture with evil intent, just as the Sadducees did with Christ (Matt 22:23-32) and no doubt the Jews of Thessalonica did with Paul and Silas. However, the Bereans were described to have been more noble than those in Thessalonica, and any questions - even objections - would have been merely in pursuit of truth. There was a world of difference between the Pharisees' demand for a sign (Matt 16:1) and the demand by Thomas to see the wounds of the resurrected Christ (John 20:25): one demanded something because they were not satisfied with the several signs they had already seen and had no earnest desire to believe; the other wanted sure evidence so that he may indeed believe. The good intention of the Bereans are confirmed in the following point:

C) The purpose of their examination. Namely, "to see whether these things were so." Paul and Silas had come with a claim which was argued from the scriptures, and now it was time to verify it. The Bereans did not rely solely on the local synagogue authority (which had proved corrupt in Thessalonica) nor did they rely, by any means, on their civil authority (which was entirely pagan). Rather, the Bereans (collectively, both synagogue leaders and people) went to the scriptures. The prophet Isaiah, dealing with supposed prophets, cried out: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Isa 8:20). The Bereans were doing just that: Paul was preaching that Christ had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17), and to verify it the Bereans were going to the Law and the Prophets.

Let it be noted from this and the regards which the Bereans gave the gospel:

1) The Bereans did not throw the authority of the gospel upon their leaders. While the religious leaders of Berea were no doubt just as honorable as their congregation, it was the religious leadership of Thessalonica which had worked to hinder the work of the gospel. If the church simply throws the responsibility of the gospel to their leaders, they will be at the whim of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual leader or collective body. All too often, because of the spiritual apathy of the parish, this becomes a growing concern and one example of sola ecclesia. The orthodoxy of the church becomes dependent upon the decisions of the leadership and not Holy Writ.

2) The Bereans placed the authority of their salvation, their beliefs and their doctrines upon the sacred scriptures, given to them by God. Both Paul and the Bereans were going from a scripturally-minded standpoint and were both appealing to the word of God. The Bereans were not, as those in Thessalonica were, concerned with numbers or what they would have to give up, but instead were concerned first and foremost with the truth. As such, because the scriptures, being the God-breathed writings given to us for our edification, are the very essence of truth, it was the truth which was found therein.

Let us, like the Bereans, make the scriptures our final authority, and submit to them all that God has asked of us through them. Let us not be seduced by jealousy, the desire for antiquity, or placing our hopes in the arm of flesh, but on the eternal word and spirit of the Living God.