As we continue our Discipleship Masterclass sermon series, we come this week to the topic of the Bible.
We believe the Bible is God's Word and that God uses it to make himself known to us. When the Bible is read and explained we hear God speaking to us.
So tonight, we're going to think a little bit about what place the Bible should have in our lives as disciples of the Lord Jesus. Our focus is on how we treat God's word, what our attitude towards it is. To do that we're going to be spending some time with the Berean Disciples that we heard about in our reading earlier from Acts 17. So please open that up to page 926, so we can dive straight in.
I know that for many of us, this topic isn't new – but my prayer is that as we look at this together it will bring back to us the wonder and joy of hearing the words of the true and living God who created all things and who send his son to bring us into the family of God.
The first lesson from the Bereans is this:
1. Receive God's Word with Eagerness
The Jews in Berea were remarkable in their response to good Bible teaching and we see that in verses 11 and 12:
"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."
What's the background, the backstory here? In this part of Acts, the apostle Paul is travelling around the world preaching the good news about Jesus. He has now reached Europe for the first time and as usual, he starts his visit to a new place by going to the Jewish synagogue. What he did there was preaching from the Bible about Jesus, showing them that he is the one God promised in the Old Testament would come to rescue his people from sin.
Look back to verses 1 to 3:
"Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'"
What we have here is just a summary – his sermon would have been longer than ten words. That's because we have already been given a fuller version of what he would have preached in a synagogue in chapter 13.
But what he did was – did you spot the words and phrases used here – he reasoned from the scriptures. The main point of his talk was the same as the main point of the bible. That's what he explained to them. That is what he presented as proof for what he was teaching. What he proclaimed was simply the message of the Bible.
That's because of the nature of the Bible. Through these words, God is revealing himself. They are not the words of man. They are not people's opinions on God. They are the word of God; God speaking to us. So the Bible has authority. It is a book to live by.
Maybe you have got some questions about that? Maybe that's a new concept for you and you'd like to do some more thinking about that. So, let me suggest a few helpful ways to explore that. First – chat to someone you know maybe your small group leader or friend at church. I'd be happy to chat with you after the service.
If you're looking for something to read, my top recommendation is this book: "Unbreakable" by Andrew Wilson. It's short and takes us to the heart of the issue: What did Jesus believe about the nature of the Bible. It's available from the back of church tonight or on online from places like 10ofthose or the Good Book Company.
There's also this helpful booklet by our own Ian Garrett called Why trust them?. You can pick one up free from the back of church.
Anyway, back to the Bereans. Luke – who wrote the book of Acts – is holding up the Bereans as an example and he compares and contrasts their attitude to the Bible with some in the neighbouring city of Thessalonica. Look again at verse 11:
"Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica;"
What had happened in Thessalonica? Well, the verses just before this show that while some in Thessalonica had believed, there were many who rejected the message of the Bible and they formed mobs who rioted and chased away those who preached the message of the Bible. In other words, the Thessalonians rejected God's word. In sharp contrast, Luke tells us that the Bereans received the word with all eagerness.
A little while after this Paul sends a letter to those who believed in Jesus through this visit – listen to how he describes receiving God's word with eagerness:
"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." - 1 Thessalonians 2:13
So the questions for us is 'how we treat the Bible'. Do we reject it, or do we receive it with eagerness?
Psalm 95:7 puts the question like this: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts."
How might we see negative responses to God's word? Forming a mob and rioting against those who teach the Bible certainly qualifies, but how else might we be more like the Thessalonians than the Bereans? What should we watch out for?
Well there is the love of things. Jesus warned about this in his parable of the sower. Matthew 13:22, "As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful." The love of things can steal our hearts from Jesus and stop us from listening eagerly to his word. Perhaps that's the number one reason we do not present a radical alternative lifestyle as believers, why we have lost a prophetic voice in our nation and why we often do not proclaim good news to the poor and oppressed.
Or maybe it's simply busyness of life that means we make no time for God's word. We lack a quiet and confident hope that God's in control of the unknows of tomorrow and so we run around like headless and panicky chickens. Or we lose sight of what matters because we do not focus on eternity and so spend our time on trivialities rather than on the enduring and lasting word of God. Or we keep ourselves busy to escape painful realities in our lives. Whatever the cause, busy and active Christians can end up spiritually dry because they make no time to listen to God's word.
Or perhaps you don't receive God's word because you simply don't believe it is anything more than the words of man. You value it as a moral guide, you love how inspiring it can be. It's definitely a keeper. But you reject the authority of scripture and see the real source of authority in your own thinking or what is culturally acceptable or on trend.
Or perhaps you love Jesus and want to follow him, but you are fed up of theological arguments that often seem so academic and cerebral. So, you prefer to focus more on what feels right and avoid thinking too much because you think that's unspiritual. But that leads you away from receiving the truth of God's word with eagerness and from what John Stott described as "a warm devotion set on fire by truth".
Or perhaps you don't receive God's word with eagerness in the most subtle, but perhaps most deadly way of all. You don't blatantly deny the truth, but you also don't live in the light of the truth. But that amounts to a denial of the truth. We must not forget that Jesus challenged many of the Jewish leaders not because they taught error, but rather because they failed to live out and experience the truth that they taught.
So much for how not to respond to God's work. What else can we learn from the Bereans?
2. Be Hungry for Solid Bible Teaching
Look again at verse 11:
"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."
The Bereans were hungry for good Bible teaching and what that resulted in was careful study of the Bible. They cross-checked the Bible teaching they received from Paul against the Bible itself. And that is a really helpful example to follow whenever we hear any teaching – whether it's from a pulpit, in a small group or when chatting with a friend.
If you teach the Bible – in whatever form that takes – make sure your message is the message of the Bible. Reason from the scriptures, explain, prove, proclaim and persuade, but always remember to teach only what Bible itself teaches.
And if you'd on the receiving end of teaching – keep your Bible open and your mind alert. Check to see if what is being taught is from God's word.
Now we want this series to be very practical. So how else can we follow the example of the Bereans and their hunger for solid Bible teaching? What are some of the ways we read the Bible with the same hunger and care and diligence?
- Read God's word with a prayerful attitude.
Pray that God will help you understand his word before you start. That is not a magic formula! It's about having the right attitude to God's word. You pray because you know that without his help you won't want to hear from him and so you ask for his help in prayer. And praying brings about the right frame of mind: helping you not to read God's word casually but with a desire to meet Jesus. Praying helps you come unhurriedly, attentively, expectantly: hungry to meet him and know him and seek him. That's also why many have the helpful habit of getting to church service early and spending a few minutes praying before the service starts.
- Use a clear Bible translation.
Using the bible your great-grandfather received at his baptism might feel special but even better to invest in a modern translation you can understand. The Bible hasn't changed, but language does and has. And if you speak more than one language, then ideally use one in your first language. The point is: use a translation you understand so that you can examine it clearly. At this church we use and recommend the English Standard Version which is accurate and clear, and – by the way - we also have copies available to buy at the Resources Area at the back of the building.
- Actually read the Bible!
Set aside some time regularly, each day if possible, to get to know God better. And if you find you've got a few minutes in your day on a bus or waiting around for some reason – instead of turning immediately to Instagram or BBC sports app – read God's word!
- Read the Bible systematically
Don't jump around, or just read our favourite verses and ignore the rest – whether that's in your own or with others. Instead, make it your usual habit to read through the different books of the Bible and plan to cover all 66 books at some point. There are loads of plans that help you read the whole Bible over time – maybe you can chat together after the service and see what other use and would recommend. I use the Anglican reading plan which works through an OT and NT book as well as a different Psalm each morning and evening. A good one to look at if you don't have a plan is the one by The Bible Project. If you're just starting off in Bible reading, then start with a gospel, then one of the letters like Philippians or Colossians. But whatever you do, plan to read the Bible systematically.
- Read it with your brain in gear
God has promised that he'll help us to understand his word, but that doesn't mean we have nothing to do. So, find a time to read it when you've as good a chance as possible to have the energy and concentration needed. The Bereans thought about what they were reading. So, when you read the Bible, read the passage and then read it again. Wrestle with the meaning. Think hard. Meditate on it. Ask: What does it say? What does it mean? How does that make a difference in my life?
- Read as much as you can manage
If you only read a few verses at a time, it can be a confusing and unhelpful way to read because the meaning becomes clearer when you understand the book as a whole rather than in little bits.
- Learn how to read the Bible
Different parts of the Bible are written in different styles – poems, history, biography, letters and so on. Each need to be handled different – just as you'll respond to the six o'clock news differently to the adverts before it. We also need to read it in context. There are lots written to help with this – for example the Dig Deeper books (Dig Deeper by Beynon & Sach and Dig Even Deeper by Sach & Alldritt).
- Good Bible Notes can be a great help
At their best, Bible notes can help us do all of that – they give us a plan and help us to read the Bible prayerfully, systematically and carefully. The most helpful I've seen are all those produced by the Good Book Company – for adults, they produce 'Explore' Bible Notes – available directly from them and also from the resources area. And I absolutely love the Explore Bible App – it's free to download and always a range of free notes can use, or you can buy the online version of the current notes. It also allows you to read the Bible passage for each day online which is really helpful.
- Remember it is not an academic exercise
Perhaps one of the key challenges for those of us who are used to reading the bible is to keep it from becoming routine. It's helpful to remember that sometimes reading the Bible is a bit like eating a meal – it still feeds you even if it doesn't seem very significant. But that doesn't mean we should be content with treating God's word as a job on our to-do-list. Wake up (tick), eat breakfast (tick), brush teeth (tick), read Bible (tick). So, work hard at keeping things fresh. One thing I find helpful is to pray in response to what I've learned – so I don't fall into the trap of thinking that reading it is the end goal. Some find keeping a notebook and write something down each time a helpful tool.
- Read the Bible on your own and with others
It's a real help to read the Bible not just on your own but with others – maybe you could meet with one or two friends. Or join a small group. Working together with others helps you to understand the Bible better, and it helps to have others who can help pick up when you've misunderstood something, or perhaps when you're avoiding something God is saying to you through his word.
So those are a few suggestions on how we can follow the example of the Bereans and their hunger for solid Bible teaching and the care and diligence with which they read God's word. Is there one thing from that list you can do to be more like them?
3. Respond Well to God's Word
Look back to verse 12:
"Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men."
Paul preached God's words and told them about the Christ – the King who created the universe and who promised to come down, as a man, to rescue those who have rejected the words of their creator God. He came and died on a cross taking the punishment of death that we deserve for ignoring God. He came into the world to make it possible for us to be forgiven for ignoring God. He came to help us to have a relationship with God and to give us the ability to live a new life. He did this by dying on a cross.
Paul didn't just tell them all that. He called them to believe in Jesus. That did not mean asking them to believe in something that they have no evidence for. It did not mean forcing them to agree with his opinion, or scaring them or manipulating them or brain-washing them. As we saw earlier from verses 1 to 3, Paul respects and listen and discusses and encourages those listening to him to use their minds to see the truth of what he is showing them from the Bible.
And that's exactly what we aim to do in the Life Explored groups we run here at church. Each week we read a part of the Bible and discuss it. We aim to reason, explain, prove, proclaim from the Bible so that you can make up your own mind about these things. You can ask anything you like and we take special care to make sure that no one is pressured to talk about things they do not want to talk about.
But back to verse 12, we read that some did believe. They read God's word, believed what God said to them as his word was explained and they put their trust in Jesus. That was their response to God's word and it's held up as an example to us to follow.
For some of us – that will be what we need to do next. To believe the truth about who Jesus is, why he came. To believe that he can save me. That is what we are being encouraged here to do when we hear God's word.
But what would it look like to respond to God's word if you have already believed and are living as a disciple of Jesus? Let me end with a few suggestions from John Stott's classic but incredibly helpful book Understanding the Bible:
We can respond in worship.
The right way to respond to knowing about the character of the true and living God is to worship him.
Psalm 95:1, "Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!"
Verse 6: "Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!"
We can respond in repentance.
When we read God's word, we don't just learn about him. We learn about ourselves too and our sin. We hear warnings from God and so need to respond with confession, and repentance. We are to reform our ways and our actions in the light of what the Lord God is saying through his word.
We can respond in faith.
In God's word, we see a God who is trustworthy. We see that in his character and in the mighty deeds that he does. We read of his promises to us and our response is to trust him. "And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you." Psalm 9:10
We can respond in obedience.
God's word contains commands from our creator King. He graciously tells us how we can please him and how best to live for him. We are to submit to his authority and with his help do what he commands us. John 14:23-24 Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me."
Finally, we can respond in witness.
When we see the truth about God has done, we are to tell others of this too.
If we want to be disciples of the Lord Jesus we must be men and women who are profoundly exposed to and immersed in God's Word. We cannot change ourselves, but the Holy Spirit uses God's word to do his work in us and we cannot grow as disciples unless God's word is right at the centre of our life – individually and as a church
So let me give you a minute or two to reflect on the example of the Bereans and what we have learned from them and respond to God in prayer.
In a moment, we're going to sing but first here's a prayer we can pray together – that we would receive God's word with eagerness, that we would be hungry for solid Bible teaching and that we would respond well to God's word.
Who caused all holy Scriptures
To be written for our learning:
Help us so to hear them,
To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
That, through patience, and the comfort
Of your holy word,
We may embrace and for ever hold fast
The hope of eternal life,
Which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
ASB Collect for Advent 2 (3rd Sunday before Christmas)