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The Bereans' Noble Reception of the Word: What they Received

The Bereans' Noble Reception of the Word: What they Received

By Rev. Martyn McGeown, pastor of Providence PRC

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"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." Acts 17:11

 

There is in the Bible no Epistle to the Bereans. There are, however, two epistles to the Thessalonians. Yet, although the apostle Paul did not write an epistle to the Bereans, the Bereans are a very famous church. In fact, most Christians are very familiar with the Bereans. The Bereans are famous for their reception of the word. Therefore, if they had received a letter from the apostle, they would have read it and carefully studied it in light of the Holy Scriptures that they had. And of course they did (in due course) receive all of the apostolic letters, which we have in the New Testament as Scripture. 

The Bereans are set forth by Luke, and by the Holy Spirit who inspired Luke, as an example worthy of our emulation. Be like the Bereans in your reception of the word. Do not be like the Jews of Thessalonica, many of whom rejected the word out of hand, but be like the Bereans in receiving the word with all readiness of mind. And be like the Bereans by testing the word that you hear against the only infallible standard, which is the Holy Scriptures. 

Since the reception of the word by the Bereans is compared favorably with the rejection of that same word by the Thessalonians, we can identify that word from the context. The word is Paul’s message concerning the Messiah or Christ elicited from the Old Testament. The emphasis is on the preaching or teaching of the apostolic word. Luke does not say, “They received the Old Testament Scriptures,” but they received “the word” (v. 11). The “word” is the message about Jesus: Jesus is the Word and the apostolic message or the apostolic gospel centers on him. But that message was not divorced from the Old Testament Scriptures: Paul drew it out of the Old Testament Scriptures. 

From Acts 17:2-3 we see the kind of biblical instruction that was rejected in Thessalonica, but received in Berea. First, Paul’s textbook (if you will) or the source of Paul’s teaching in Thessalonica, and also in Berea, was the “Scriptures.” In the context of Paul’s missionary labors, the Scriptures refer to the Old Testament Scriptures. This was the Bible that the Jews in Thessalonica and in Berea already knew. Among the Jews there was no dispute about their veracity or their authority. Paul did not seek to prove the gospel to these Jews by means of human reason, or by scientific demonstration, or by the writings of the rabbis: “he reasoned with them out of the Scriptures” (v. 2). That must also be our method. These were the same Scriptures—the law, the prophets and the psalms; or the law, the prophets, and the writings—that the Bereans searched daily. 

Second, Paul did not simply read the Scriptures to the Thessalonians and then to the Bereans: he preached them; he explained them; and he applied them. This is why we have preaching in the New Testament Church: we simply follow the apostolic method; we reason from the Scriptures. The Scriptures—which in our case include the Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures—must not simply be read, but the Scriptures must also be preached. The text of the sermon must be the Bible itself, a specific passage or a specific theme from the Bible, and that passage must be explained and applied. Luke (the human writer of the book of Acts) uses three verbs to explain Paul’s method: Paul “reasoned” (v. 2); he “opened” (v. 3); and he “alleged” (v. 3). And he did these three things from the Scriptures: he reasoned from the Scriptures; he opened the Scriptures; and he alleged from the Scriptures. 

Paul reasoned (v. 2). This word is commonly used of Paul’s preaching and teaching activities in Acts. “Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him” (Acts 17:17). “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (Acts 18:4). “And he went into the synagogue and spake boldly for three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). “When the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them” (Acts 20:7). The idea of “reasoning” is to discourse, argue, dispute, discuss, or debate. It was not just reading, therefore: Paul drew arguments out of the Scriptures. 

Paul opened (v. 3). The word means “to open completely” or to “open wide.” The idea is not only that Paul opened the scroll, unfurling it to find the appropriate place in the Scriptures, but he also drew out or opened up the meaning of the Scriptures. This required familiarity with the Scriptures. In Paul’s day the Bible did not have chapter or verse divisions. Paul had to know where the passage was, so that he could show it to the people; or he had to quote it from memory to them. And he had to know the meaning and the significance of the passages that he read. Paul did, therefore, what had been done in Nehemiah’s day: “So they read in the book distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). This opening the Thessalonians rejected and the Bereans received. 

Paul alleged (v. 3). To “allege” is to set something before someone else. The verb is used, for example, of food: Jesus commanded his disciples to eat whatever was set before them. The idea here is to set the meaning of the Scriptures before someone, so that we could render the verb “explain,” “expound,” or “exposit.” That is what true preaching is: anyone can read the Scriptures, but a preacher explains, expounds, exposits, or sets forth the meaning of the Scriptures. For that purpose he is employed to search the Scriptures and bring out their meaning. Thus we have the basic formula for sermons taught in Reformed seminaries: state the point, explain the point, prove the point, and apply the point. 

But what specifically did Paul preach—what did he reason, open, and allege—from the Scriptures? What was the content of his instruction? Answer: Jesus Christ. In verse 3 we learn what Paul’s message was from the Scriptures: “Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead, and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.” It appears that the Jews in Thessalonica had heard about Jesus of Nazareth. In verse 6 they complain, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.” The message of the apostles must have been well known. The Jews had probably heard that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified at the instigation of the Jewish leaders on the authority of Pilate in Jerusalem. If they knew that, they probably held the common Jewish view: Jesus of Nazareth was a false prophet and a blasphemer who died under God’s curse. Therefore, in order to convince the Jews Paul had to overcome their prejudice. Paul needed to prove to the Jews of Thessalonica and Berea that they were wrong about Jesus: and the only way in which he could prove that was from the Scriptures, which the Jews accepted as their authority. 

Paul proved—he reasoned, he opened, and he alleged—that the Christ (the Messiah) “must needs have suffered” (v. 3). This was a stumbling block to the Jews, for they expected a political Messiah or Savior, not a suffering Savior. Moreover, a crucified Messiah was difficult for them to accept, because they knew the significance of crucifixion: a Messiah under God’s curse. Paul opened the Old Testament, pointed to passages from Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, and proved that the Messiah had to suffer and even be crucified.

Paul proved—he reasoned, he opened, and he alleged—that Christ “must needs have… risen from the dead” (v. 3). It was not possible that the Messiah should remain dead, but he must be glorified in the resurrection. Paul opened the Old Testament, pointed to passages from Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, and proved that the Messiah had to rise again from the dead. 

Paul announced his conclusion: since only one person has suffered and then risen from the dead, he is the Messiah or he is the Christ: “this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ” (v. 3). This was not an intellectual exercise for Paul: he desired to prove that Jesus is the promised Messiah, so that by the grace of God they would believe and embrace Jesus Christ for salvation. 

That is the basic message that our ministers preach every week and it is the message of all faithful, apostolic churches. Christ died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures. Jesus Christ suffered on the cross because of our sins. God punished him on the cross in our place in order to redeem us from all iniquity, God placed his curse on him so that we would be delivered from the curse of the law. And Jesus rose again: he did not stay in the tomb. In fact, Peter says, “God loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be holden of it” (Acts 2:24). Christ rose again for our justification. We preach that message from the Scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament: we reason, we open, we allege, and we preach and announce the gospel of salvation. 

That message was by and large rejected in Thessalonica—the Thessalonian Jews detested it and dismissed it out of hand—while it was received in Berea. The unbelieving Jews of Thessalonica reacted in fury against the gospel. In verse 5 we read, “The Jews which believed not [were] moved with envy.” They were envious because they wanted salvation through obedience to the Law of Moses, which was the teaching of the rabbis and the Jewish tradition. They would not submit to salvation consisting in the forgiveness of sins by grace through faith in a crucified and resurrected Messiah. In addition, they were envious because many Greeks and Gentiles believed:. The unbelieving Jews could not tolerate salvation for Gentiles. If Gentiles must be saved, let them become Jewish proselytes. In response, the Jews raised a riot against Paul so that he had to be hurried out of the city. Yet not all the Thessalonians reacted in that way. Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because when ye received the word of God which ye heard from us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). Notice: the word that the apostles preached was the Word of God and the preaching of Scripture today is the Word of God. 

When Paul was run out of town, he made his way to Berea, where he did the same thing that he had done in Thessalonica: he went to the synagogue, he reasoned, he opened, and he alleged out of the Scriptures. Paul—you will notice—did not change his message or his method. He preached the same message (Jesus is the crucified and resurrected Messiah), from the same source (the Scriptures) in the same way. The difference is in the response: the Bereans, unlike the Thessalonians, received the Word.

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