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What is a Berean? Part 2

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10-12)

The very first thing Luke says about the Bereans is a compliment of their character: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica...” First of all, it’s vital to understand that the points he makes that follow—their eagerness to receive the Word, and their humble, daily searching of the text—are offered as evidence of their nobility.

What does he mean by “nobility?” Thankfully, Luke indicates very clearly in the immediate context how we can determine what he means by “noble,” because he provides a clear contrast: the Bereans’ “nobility” exceeded that of the Thessalonians. If you want to understand what Luke is saying here, if your desire is to be like these Bereans he commends, it’s crucial to understand this contrast. Whatever the Berean Jews were, the Thessalonian Jews were not.

What were the Thessalonian Jews like? Luke tells us in the story immediately preceding our passage. While some of the Thessalonians had been “persuaded” by the Gospel (v. 4) and been converted, others were “jealous” (v. 5). So Luke’s intent here is to present the Bereans’ “nobility” as an antithesis to the Thessalonians’ “jealousy.”

While God can rightfully be jealous (i.e., Ex. 20:5), and although human beings like Paul can feel a holy jealousy in contexts such as marriage or protecting churches from false teaching (i.e., 2 Cor. 11:2), jealousy in men is usually a species of pride and self-centeredness. In this case, the Jews may have been envious of the influence Paul and Silas immediately gained, or of the New Covenant freedom they enjoyed in Jesus Christ. Whatever the specific entitlement the Thessalonian Jews felt Paul and Silas were usurping, Luke identifies sinful jealousy in the Thessalonian Jews.

What Luke is saying in contrasting the Bereans with the Thessalonians, then, is that while the Thessalonians had been marked and characterized by jealousy, the Bereans were not. The Bereans’ character, first and foremost, is what he is praising here. Indeed, I think this is Luke’s primary point in the Berean account. While he is praising and presenting as exemplary their eagerness, or their daily Bible study, he is not commending these things as isolated characteristics in themselves. After all, eagerness can arise from error (i.e., Rom. 10:2), and even Scripture searching can turn into an idolatrous search for earthly glory (cf. John 5:39-44). No, Luke identifies and praises the Bereans’ eagerness and devotion to the Scriptures as evidence of their noble character, and as we’ll see over the next couple weeks, these things simply cannot honor God apart from such godly character in the first place! Luke, then, is saying that it is the Bereans’ nobility—not their spiritual disciplines in themselves, which cannot be detached from their nobility—was of a different quality than the Thessalonians.

The Thessalonian Jews ultimately rejected the Gospel and drove Paul and Silas out of town. The Bereans, by contrast, welcomed Paul and Silas and gave them a serious and lengthy hearing, such that many of them turned to Christ. Their eagerness to receive the Word, and their intent searching of the Scriptures—which we’ll talk about in future weeks—both testify to the fact that the Bereans had, when they arrived, given them a fair and respectful hearing. The Bereans, in other words, were welcoming. The Bereans were hospitable. The Bereans were genuinely interested in hearing what Paul and Silas had to say. The Bereans heard them out at great length. Unlike the Thessalonians, the Bereans received Paul without jealousy, demonstrating such a settled security that Paul and Silas weren't treated as threats to be guarded against but, rather, as potential (and, very quickly, actual) friends and family members. The Bereans were selfless, where the Thessalonians had been obsessed with their own selfish desires and entitlements.

What is Berean “nobility,” then? It’s an attitude and bearing marked by fairness, hospitality, gentleness, and an eagerness to listen and learn. It is a kindness that, in the Bereans’ case, made even strangers bringing a teaching the Bereans hadn’t heard before—teachers they could expect they might wind up disagreeing with—feel welcome and comfortable. I love how Matthew Henry puts it:

“They had a better temper, were not so sour, and morose, and ill conditioned towards all that were not of their mind. As they were ready to come into a unity with those that by the power of truth they were brought to concur with, so they continued in charity with those that they saw cause to differ from. This was more noble. They neither prejudged the cause, nor were moved with envy at the managers of it, as the Jews at Thessalonica were, but very generously gave both it and them a fair hearing, without passion or partiality.”

In other words, don’t jump too quickly, as I used to do, to the daily Scripture-searching (we will get there!) and miss what Luke’s main point here is. It’s not the Bereans’ doctrine or even their study habits that Luke commends first. It is their character. That means, in turn, that being a “Berean" is, first and foremost, about possessing and demonstrating noble character. This, then, is our first application: those who would emulate the Bereans are to show a kind, hospitable, caring, listening, self-effacing, other-centered spirit. Or to give a different example, a “Berean" is one who imitates the Lord Jesus Christ in deciding not to count even what one considers entitlements as things “to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6).

All that said, such character is rare—else Luke would not have gone out of his way to commend it! It certainly was in short supply in Thessalonica. Indeed, biblical nobility is a rare species, and one that does not simply happen by accident. Where does such character come from? That’s what we’ll look at the next two weeks.