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What is a Berean? Part 4

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)

We have already seen that the Bereans welcomed Paul and Silas, and that they heard them out with an eagerness to hear and be conformed to the Word of God. The Bereans did not treat Paul with suspicion and did not listen to his teaching as detached, guarded critics, but as those hungry for the Bread of Life.

That said, and as I pointed out last week, Luke is not praising them for gullibility, or for a simplistic enthusiasm to receive just any teaching in general. They are being commended for their nobility, shown by their eagerness to receive the Word in particular. In this final article, we’re turning our attention to their examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

This text, like the rest of the passage we’ve looked at so far, rewards a more detailed look—which is fitting, since that’s what Luke praises the Bereans for!

First, note that the Bereans examined or searched the Scriptures. This is not simplistic, immature “gotcha!” proof-texting. The Bereans are a biblical example of the kind of hard toil that God’s Word calls us to. They wrestled with the text. As Matthew Henry puts it, the Bereans “turned to the places to which [Paul] referred them, read the context, considered the scope and drift of them, compared them with other places of scripture, examined whether Paul’s inferences from them were natural and genuine and his arguments upon them cogent, and determined accordingly.” Our first application this week, then, is that a Berean is unafraid of hard work in Bible study.

Second, it’s important to stress that they examined the Scriptures. For first-century Jews, that’s significant. The New Testament is full of examples of Jews being bound and blinded by man-made traditions (e.g., Matt. 19:3; Mark 7:1-13; Luke 13:13; Gal. 1:14). These Berean Jews might easily have been like the Pharisees and simply rejected Paul’s teaching out of hand for its departures from rabbinic tradition. Instead, they looked to the Bible to confirm the truth. Like them, a Berean holds to Scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the final authority.

Third, don’t miss the fact that they examined these Scriptures daily, over a period of time. For one thing, this means that the noble Bereans allowed Paul to explain himself in full. They did not jump to conclusions, or isolate statements from their contexts, or ignore the whole body of Paul’s teaching. No, they heard him out at great length, for days. Moreover, for the Bereans, Bible study was a daily work, like eating and sleeping. They knew “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). This is why they were so eager to receive the Word. From this, we can draw two applications: a Berean is one who gives a fair and full hearing to teaching, and a Berean is one who lives in and feeds on the Word for his very life.

Fourth, the Bereans let the Scriptures determine if these things were so. The best preacher is prone to error. The best sermon is not inerrant. Worse, there are wolves out there seeking to deceive. The Bereans were cautious, and so let the Word define truth—not rhetoric, or emotion, or their friendship with these newcomers. They knew the ministry of the Word didn’t end when Paul stopped talking. Desiring both to know the truth and be changed by it, they did what every Christian should do: they “took the sermon home,” eagerly seeking to keep hearing God speaking through the Scriptures as they did so. “Expositional listening” means hearing intently to properly grasp the argument being made, and then searching the Bible to understand, confirm, and apply—or, if something’s wrong, to recognize error in—what’s being taught. Here, then, is another application: a Berean is one who, recognizing the weakness of men, actively filters teaching through the Word.

Finally, remember the Bereans’ eagerness to be corrected and changed by the truth. They knew their own weakness, which impels grace even in verifying teaching. So it may be significant that Luke chose to describe the Bereans’ Bible examination positively, as trying to confirm—that is, that they searched the Scriptures “to see if these things were so.” Luke could have described this study negatively as trying to disprove, saying they looked to see if these things “were not so” (compare with John 14:3, for instance), but he didn’t. Even if that’s too much to draw from that particular wording, the Bereans’ “default setting” is still clear in their eagerness to receive the Word: they searched the Scriptures with hope to confirm what was being taught, not from suspicion to disprove it. Their approach was (modern words, biblical principle) “innocent until proven guilty.” That gives us another application: a Berean graciously grants the benefit of the doubt until the Word proves otherwise.

There’s a consistent theme in these observations and applications. A Berean doesn’t think toil and sweat are beneath him. A Berean looks to something outside of and above himself as his final authority. A Berean patiently puts others first in giving a full and fair hearing. A Berean, recognizing his own insufficiency, depends on the Word for life. Recognizing his own insufficiency in others, a Berean is swayed only by the Word and not by clever words or heartstrings or personal affection. And a Berean generously grants others the benefit of the doubt even while verifying the truth of their teaching with the Word.

What all these show is a deep, Christlike humility. A Berean is a profoundly and recognizably humble person. This is crucial. Jesus condemned the Jews of his day because, in searching the Scriptures, they refused to follow them to him (John 5:39-40). Why didn’t they? Because they desired glory for themselves—receiving glory from one another, rather than seeking the glory that comes from God (5:44). In other words, they were proud. Scripture-searching avails a man nothing if it doesn’t flow from right character or motives.

So, I will close this series by stressing Luke’s primary point in this passage one final time, for emphasis: Luke commends the Bereans for their character. This Berean nobility is exemplified by, and flows directly out of, an enthusiastic eagerness to receive and be changed by God’s Word. And such eagerness comes from a profound humility before and beneath that Word.

May we all, by God’s grace, strive daily in the Word to cultivate such nobility, eagerness, and humility.