Be a Berean!
The Jews of Berea were more noble than those in Thessalonica since they received the word with all eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11).
Program Note: the next edition of The Humble Skeptic podcast is scheduled to be released on Oct. 17th and will feature an interview with T. David Gordon.
In the events leading up to Acts 17, Paul has just traveled through many cities in the Mediterranean world including Troas, Neapolis, Phillipi, Apollonia, and Thessalonica. His custom was to visit a local Jewish synagogue and to “reason 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). Just a few chapters earlier, Paul gave a sermon at a synagogue in Antioch in which he declared the following:
Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him…But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled…by raising Jesus, just as it is written in the second Psalm… (Acts 13:26-33).
This gives us a good picture of the kind of message Paul delivered in Acts 17 while visiting the synagogue in Thessalonica. Unfortunately, however, we’re told that his message caused a division; some were persuaded and some were not. In fact, according to verse 5, some men decided to form a mob which set the city in an uproar. Later in verse 10 we’re told that Paul and his companions were sent away to the city of Berea, which is around 50 miles to the east. Today this town is known as Veria and is approximately 5 hours north of Athens.
When he arrived in Berea, Paul went to the local Jewish synagogue and, according to Acts 17:11, the Jews of this particular congregation were described as being “more noble than those in Thessalonica, since they received the word with all eagerness, and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Luke went on to say that, as a result, “Many of them, therefore, believed with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.” Amazingly, this too had been foreseen by the Hebrew prophets. Centuries in advance, they had announced that Israel’s messiah would not only redeem the nation Israel, but that he would also become a light for the Gentiles (Is 42:6, 49:6, 52:10-15, 60:3). Some two thousand years later, we see the fulfillment of this promise even more clearly than the people of Paul’s day.
But in this article, I’d like to focus on what Luke says in verse 11: “The Jews in Berea were more noble than those in nearby Thessalonica.” So why were the Jews of this synagogue in Berea, more noble than their kinsmen in nearby Thessalonica? Well, according to Luke, this particular Jewish community “received the word with all eagerness, and examined the Scriptures daily to see whether the things Paul was teaching was true.” In other words, they leaned into his message, inclined their ears to his teaching, and carefully considered the implications of his words. But even more importantly, this congregation didn’t simply take Paul at his word, but made it their aim to verify all the claims he made about Jesus’ fulfillment of all the Scriptural promises related to Israel’s coming Messiah.
It’s important to point out that the Bereans weren’t described as noble-minded simply because they had faith. No, Luke actually calls them noble precisely because they questioned and investigated Paul’s specific faith claims. It’s also important to remember that Paul had been commissioned by Jesus himself to be an apostle (Acts 9:1-17, Rom 1:1, etc.). Some years ago, a friend told me that he struck up a conversation with a fellow patron at a fast-food restaurant, and soon discovered that this person claimed to be an apostle. Soon after this, the man suggested to my friend that he should “submit to the Lord’s apostle.” Notice how far removed this is from what Luke reports in Acts 17. Though Paul was a true apostle, he didn’t on that basis command anyone to submit to his apostleship. Rather, those who carefully examined and evaluated his claims were specifically commended.
Notice how far removed this is from what Luke reports in Acts 17. Though Paul was a true apostle, he didn’t on that basis command anyone to submit to his apostleship. Rather, those who decided to carefully examine and evaluate his claims were specifically commended. The long and short of it is this: Paul wasn’t interested in creating some kind of “cult of personality.” No, this text makes clear that Paul was interested in truth. “If Christ isn’t risen,” he famously wrote to the Corinthians, “then your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:14). Of course, apart from this test, there are actually many ways for the Christian faith to be demonstrated false. For example, perhaps the Old Testament never actually taught the idea of a suffering, dying, and rising Messiah in the first place. The Berean Christians, therefore, were to be commended because, from the very beginning, they eagerly searched the Scriptures in order to make sure that Paul’s claims were actually grounded in God’s word.
This is important because according to the book of Proverbs, it’s often difficult to distinguish truth from deception. Who is this particular woman who is calling out to me? Is this lady Wisdom, or Folly? Since appearances can be deceptive, Solomon encourages all of us to be discerning. “The simple man,” he says “believes everything, but the wise man gives thought to his steps.” So at the end of the day, it’s not all that complicated. Just give thought to your steps. Don’t let yourself be seduced by foolish ideas, no matter how sexy or popular they happen to be.
As it happens, this is precisely what Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. In Mt. 7:15 he says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Notice, first of all, that false prophets come to us in sheep’s clothing. Thus if we end up judging only by appearances, it would be difficult to distinguish them from true prophets. In Mt 7:16-20 Jesus went on to say: “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Too often, I think, Christians take these words out of their original context and apply them to the idea of sin in general, particularly in the life of the believer. While it’s certainly true to some extent that true believers will evidence the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22) when this idea is pushed to the extreme, it actually becomes difficult to know whether anyone is actually a true believer. For example, if a healthy tree “cannot bear bad fruit,” and we find someone like King David lusting after Bathsheba and murdering her husband, then we’re likely to conclude that he’s an unhealthy tree, and therefore not one of God’s sheep. But in my view, this is a misreading of Matthew 7.
Jesus wasn’t outlining the characteristics of true vs. false sheep, but rather true vs. false prophets. For example, according to Deuteronomy 13:1-3, a true prophet will never lead the people to worship other gods, and if he does, he is to be rejected as a false prophet even if he performs miracles. If Jesus had been thinking about sin in general when he taught that healthy trees can’t bear bad fruit, then why would he instruct his disciples to recite a daily prayer that includes the line, “Forgive us our debts”? This is why it’s so important for us to pay close attention to the original context.
Jesus returned to the subject of false prophets in his Olivet Discourse. In Mt 24:11 he warns that “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray…” Then in verse 24 he says that “false Christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.” Once again, this is a clear and succinct restatement of the specific criteria outlined in Deuteronomy 13.
This I believe is another reason why the Jews in Berea were to be commended. You see, they didn’t know yet whether Paul really was a trustworthy and reliable apostle commissioned by the risen Christ. For all they knew, he could have been a false prophet who sought to lead them astray. And so, rather than immediately believing everything he said, they leaned into his words and examined them carefully. Each day, they looked up the passages he cited from the Law and the Prophets in order to see whether his teaching was consistent with all that God had revealed about the coming Messiah.
In Acts 20, Luke tells us that Paul met with the elders of Ephesus saying, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Paul was simply repeating the same warning that Jesus had given a decade or more earlier. This is why he spent three years among them “declaring the whole counsel of God.” People often say that the best way to detect a counterfeit bill is to begin the slow process of learning all the details and characteristics of authentic legal tender. And this same principle holds true in theology as well. The more we lean in and incline our ears to the whole counsel of God, the easier it is to detect wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Today, of course, our situation is a little more complicated. Most of us now have so many technological devices, that we hardly have any downtime—hardly a moment for thoughtful reflection. The result of this is that the world is doing a better job of making us its disciples than we are of it. We’re now being catechized by our contemporary culture to believe strange new doctrines, such as the idea that “men get pregnant,” or that only bigots object to things like “drag queen story hour.” Of course, you won’t be commended for asking questions or attempting to think through such claims. It’s just the new dogma de jure, and you must submit. But why should we submit? Do the people who make such claims have any more authority than Apostle Fred at Taco Bell?
At the opening of Romans 12, Paul famously says: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Notice what he’s saying here. Worship isn’t merely something we do formally, once a week. It also happens to be a way of life. And part of the way we are called to worship God is by refusing to conform to the pattern of this world. What this means, of course, is that we need to cultivate discernment as a way of life. We need to distinguish between Wisdom and Folly, between true prophets and wolves in sheep's clothing, and between true apostles and super-apostles.
The most famous example of the church’s failure along these lines is recorded for us in the book of Galatians. In the opening chapter, Paul writes,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (1:6-9).
Whereas in Acts 17 the Bereans were commended as noble-minded, throughout this epistle, the Galatians were reprimanded by Paul as being “foolish” and “bewitched” (3:1). You see, the believers in Galatia didn’t pay close enough attention to the words of the Judaizers and hadn’t examined their own teaching to see whether it was consistent with the Scriptures. As a result, they began to be confused about the thing of “first importance” (1Cor 15:3) and ended up embracing a counterfeit gospel (Gal 1:6-9). If this can happen to a church that Paul was involved with, it can happen anywhere. And this is why we must always be on our guard, particularly in a day in which so many false gospels abound.
In Gal 1:8: “If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” That’s an amazing statement if you think about it. This is the exact opposite of the cult of personality. Even though Paul was an authoritative apostle, here he was saying that he should be rejected if he was ever found to be proclaiming a false gospel. Once again, this appears to be another application of the criteria from Deuteronomy 13. If someone deviates from the script that was from the very beginning focused exclusively on Yahweh and his ultimate redemptive mission, then that person should be rejected as a false prophet, even if he is able to produce signs and wonders.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul says a few things that remind us of his warning to the Galatians. In chapter 11 he says:
I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge (11:3-6).
I find it fascinating that here in 2Cor 11, Paul basically admits that he is an unimpressive speaker. But isn’t this the same sort of thing that Moses himself says back in Exodus chapter 4? “Lord, I am not eloquent…but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Is it just me or does there seem to be a pattern here? Unlike the super-apostles, Paul wasn’t a great orator, and neither was Moses! In contrast, the seductive adultress mentioned throughout Proverbs always speaks to us with smooth words, in fact, her lips drip with honey (5:3). And though Paul was “unskilled in speaking” he specifically warned about those who use “smooth talk and flattery” to “deceive the hearts of the naive” (Rom 16:18).
The biblical witness seems to be clear. Whenever we encounter “smooth talk and flattery,” all kinds of red flags should go up. The problem is that in our media-saturated culture, all of us have come to expect smooth talking as one of the basic requirements of effective communication. In short, we seem to be more interested in the delivery, than in the content.
Though the world rejects the gospel as foolishness, in Colossians 2 Paul says that in reality, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ (2:2-3). Immediately following this he writes, “I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments…See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:4, 8). There are many plausible arguments out there in the world today, but do any of them actually compare to the Gospel of Jesus? Have any of these plausible ideas been written thousands of years in advance? Think about that the next time you read through a passage like Isaiah 52-53. Is there anything like this story in all the world?
Now more than ever, we need to guard the deposit that has been entrusted to us. We need to carefully examine the claims of others, even at church. Pastors and elders are sinners too who sometimes get things wrong. And in some cases, they’re not actually pastors at all, but wolves in sheep’s clothing. So, don’t believe everything you hear. Be discerning, be a Berean, search the Scriptures, and don’t let anyone steal your treasure.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of a national radio broadcast called the White Horse Inn, which he also hosted from 2019-2021. Shane has written numerous articles for various sites and publications, including TableTalk, Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, Heidelblog, and others. Shane received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California, and he lives with his family in the greater St. Louis area.
The Virtue of Doubt, by Shane Rosenthal
Why Should We Believe the Bible?, by Shane Rosenthal
Faith & Proof, Humble Skeptic Episode 7
Proof of the Gospel, Humble Skeptic Episode 8
The Gospel Creed, Humble Skeptic Episode 9
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