If You Must Be a Character, Be a More Noble One
Please read Acts 17:10-15 in your preferred Bible before reading this blog.
Today we’re going to compare two sets of Jewish people in two ancient cities. In one city, Paul’s message was received by faith. In another, it was countered with violent opposition and misuse of the rule of law to persecute Paul.
To help understand the situation, we need to bone up on the historical background. At this time in the history of the Roman empire, the Jewish faith enjoyed the status of a “legal religion.” This meant that they were allowed a great deal of latitude to practice their faith as they saw fit.
A cost of this special status was they had to fit in and not oppose the worship of the Roman gods or the worship of the emperor. In most places, the Jews were happy to oblige. Most Jews living outside Judah considered themselves good citizens of the Empire and were involved in the worship of the emperor and local gods in order to fit in.
Because Jesus was a Jew and His followers were primarily Jews, the Empire considered Christianity to be a sect of Judaism. As such, the Church was tolerated in the first part of the first century. However, the Jews did not consider the Christians to be Jews and probably resented the fact the Church enjoyed its protected status solely because the Empire didn’t know better or bother to find out. To make matters more abrasive, the Christians were unwilling to make compromises to fit in. They refused to honor the Roman gods or the emperor. It seems likely the Jews widely resented the Christians getting the benefit of being considered Jews without having to do any of the things necessary to fit in. They certainly did not keep Moses’ Law!
So the situation was rife with antagonistic feelings. As Paul made his way through Macedonia, it was his custom to meet the local Jews first. He used these contacts and their facilities as a launching point for making converts and establishing new churches in each community. Paul’s methods and Paul’s successes were met with jealousy and opposition by culturally compromised Jews.
Check everything against God’s word.
1. The Bereans were more noble characters. (10-12)
First, THEY RECEIVED THE MESSAGE WITH GREAT EAGERNESS. (11) Notice the text tells us the first place Paul went upon arriving in Berea: TO THE JEWISH SYNAGOGUE. (10) Paul is following his method because it worked.
The greater nobility of the Bereans is revealed in their more favorable reaction to Paul’s message. Unlike the Thessalonians, the Bereans did not cause a riot or try to get Paul arrested, but were open-minded to give him a hearing. The nobility of the character of the Bereans is that they were willing to listen. (Ironically, the modern group that takes their name is close-minded and opinionated to a fault: be wary of their column in the local “shopper.”)
Open-mindedness can be a virtue. We cannot hope to hear the truth if we are close-minded, believing we’ve already got it figured out. Of course, it’s possible to be too open-minded, lazily accepting all claims to truth as being equally valid (or invalid).
These Bereans not only permitted Paul to speak and be heard, but they received his message WITH GREAT EAGERNESS. They were excited to be recipients of the unfolding grace of God.
Second, THEY…EXAMINED THE SCRIPTURES EVERY DAY TO SEE IF WHAT PAUL SAID WAS TRUE. (11) Here’s where the ordinary virtue of open-mindedness is redeemed into a godly virtue; rather than just accept statements as true, the Bereans subjected Paul’s teaching to the rule of Scripture.
They tested Paul’s words and testimony with Scripture, to see if there be any falsehood revealed by disagreement with what the word of God said. Had there been any disagreement, they would have the courage and resolve to take the side of Scripture and reject falsehood. However, their thorough examination of what we would call the “Old Testament” supported what Paul said, so they exercised their courage and resolve to change what they had believed and believe on Jesus.
Notice this was something they did EVERY DAY, presumably over several days. They weren’t so open-minded to immediately accept Paul’s teaching; neither were they so close-minded to immediately reject it. Instead, they found the intelligent place in the middle and allowed themselves to be guided by God’s word. MAY THE SAME BE SAID OF US!
Third, MANY OF THE JEWS BELIEVED, AS DID A NUMBER OF GREEKS. (12) The blessing of faith came to many other communities where the people were not as careful to search the Scriptures. The Bereans are the only ones reported in Acts who took this commendably careful approach.
For example, Paul’s ministry won SOME converts in Thessalonica. (17:4) By contrast, there were MANY (17:12) Jewish converts in Berea, another testimony to their MORE NOBLE CHARACTER.
Given these events took place in Greece, the word GREEKS is more literally true here than other places in the New Testament, where it is a synonym for “Gentile” or non-Jew. The Bereans didn’t keep their newly-discovered faith to themselves, but shared it with their fellow citizens, even those who were not Jewish.
2. The Thessalonians were bad characters. (13-15)
They travelled to Berea to agitate and stir up the people against Paul. (13) Because of jealousy (17:5), some of the Jews of that city made enough trouble for Paul that he was thrown into jail. However, Paul’s host Jason and some others posted a bond and Paul was released. (17:5-9) The posted bonds would have been forfeited if Paul and his companions had been found to have still been in the city, so Paul and company were hustled out of Thessalonica.
One reason they may’ve gone to Berea was it was not on a trade route, a large but relatively unimportant city. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) wrote about having to withdraw from Thessalonica to evade a storm of complaints and he hid out in Berea because it was “off the beaten track!”
Not content with chasing Paul out of their city, these troublemakers pursued him 60 miles to Berea, doing the same thing there. (17:13) They were really working hard at having a bad attitude! These rabble-rousers had rejected Paul’s message because of its economic, cultural, or political implications, not because they tested it against Scripture and found it to be lacking truth.
For Paul’s safety, they sent him TO THE COAST, leaving the ministry in the hands of Silas and Timothy. (14) Paul would go further south, into the province of Achaia (15), into the heart of Greek culture: Athens.
Check everything against God’s word.
Let’s review: what are the aspects of the Bereans that showed their NOBLE CHARACTER?
1 - They were not only willing to listen, to give Paul a fair chance, but they were even EAGER to do so! This is enthusiastic open-mindedness.
2 - They put Paul’s message to the test of Scripture. They weren’t so open-minded that they lost all sense of perspective, but they applied the most important test of all: did it match what God said?
Moreover, they were faithful to study the Bible EVERY DAY.
3 - When they saw that the Scriptures approved Paul’s message as the truth, they had courage to believe. In fact, MANY of them came to faith in Christ.
These virtues of intellectual honesty, devotion to Scripture, and faith are part of the life of true followers of Jesus. With the help of the Holy Spirit and by study, these virtues will be part of the fabric of our daily lives.
Zondervan Bible Commentary (One-Volume Illustrated Edition), Acts, Ernest H. Trenchard
Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Acts, Richard N. Longenecker