Tonight we continue with our studies in the Acts of the Apostles and chapter 17. Paul is on his second missionary journey with his colleague Silas and preaching not only to Jews but to everyone.
They are preaching and teaching that Jesus is the true King of all – the King of kings. That did not always go down too well! But he is the “Christ” (that is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”), meaning the “anointed one”. And a king, of course, was anointed. However, Jesus Christ is not a king with armies. Rather he is a king who died for sin (your sin and my sin, in our place) and rose again for new life by his Holy Spirit. They also taught that he is the “Lord” (the Greek Old Testament word for almighty God). For he was (and is) the divine Son of the triune God (who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
Who tonight has never faced these basic realities and then personally trusted and submitted to Jesus Christ, the Lord? Well my prayer is that something from Acts 17.10-15 may help you. For our title this evening is SEARCH THE SCRIPTURES. And the Scriptures, or the Bible (“God’s Word Written” to quote Article XX of the Church of England) point to these basic realities and in particular to Jesus Christ, the Lord, who is God’s Word incarnate or “come in human flesh”.
So God’s written word points to God’s incarnate word – Jesus Christ.
But back to the book of Acts - by way of introduction let me say that in the early chapters of Acts you can see how the Good News about Jesus began to go from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and then to, what is now, Turkey.
But then in chapter 16 we learn about Paul having a vision of a Man begging him to travel over to Northern Greece. Paul believed God calling him to go to preach in Europe with the first main stop being Philippi. And so he went. This was a truly momentous event. It did more to change the course of world history than the great battle which had decided the fate of the Roman Empire at Philippi more than ninety years before. But momentous though it was, at the time it would have seemed quite insignificant. For Paul and his colleague Silas, through the hostility of the mob, ended up in prison and so then had to move on to Thessalonica.
However, we know about three of the converts in Philippi - a business woman, a slave girl who was a professional fortuneteller, and a prison jailer. And these were the forerunners of countless millions who subsequently turned to Christ in Europe. That was all in Acts 16.
Acts 17 starts with Paul’s visit to Thessalonica. But they also had to leave Thessalonica when rioting again broke out. They then went to Berea which we read about in Acts 17.10-15 our passage for tonight. And my headings are first, THE PERSISTENCE OF PAUL, secondly, THE RESPONSE OF THE BEREANS and, thirdly, FURTHER LESSONS.
First, THE PERSISTENCE OF PAUL;
Look at verse 10:
As soon as it was night, the [Thessalonian] brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue.(v10)
In the previous 9 verses we are told about the riot and how a Thessalonian mob wanted to lynch Paul and Silas. So Paul and Silas have managed to escape and have arrived at Berea - fifty miles south-west of Thessalonica – modern Verria. Put yourself into their situation. What would you have then done, if you had been Paul? What do you do when God calls you to do something but then there is great opposition or problems? I’m not talking of when you foolishly imagine God is calling you to do something he hasn’t called you to do. No! I am talking about when it is clear what God’s will is. You obey but then huge obstacles come. I have experienced that. So what do you do?
The easiest thing is to give in or give up. But did Paul, after being brutally beaten and flogged and imprisoned in Philippi, and then attacked and hunted by a violent mob in Thessalonica, decide to change his message? Did he decide not to cause offence by just teaching that Jesus is a good man and a great prophet and not the ultimate King of all, the divine Saviour and the only way to God? Or did he decide to stop preaching completely?
No! We read in verse 1 that “on arriving there [Berea], they [Paul and Silas] went to the Jewish synagogue.” They carried on exactly as previously. You see, Paul and Silas had learnt a fundamental lesson. It was Paul’s main “follow-up” teaching. It is there in Acts 14 verse 22 where we read that Paul at the end of his first missionary journey was with his colleague Barnabas “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.”
Who needs to learn that lesson tonight? But at the same time remember another lesson Paul learnt when in the middle of a time of suffering. For then the Lord said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12v9). What an important lesson that also is! Well, that brings us …
… secondly, to the THE RESPONSE OF THE BEREANS
Look now at verse 11. Luke tells us:
“Now the Bereans [the people in the synagogue in Berea] were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (v11)
There are at least five things to note about the Bereans.
First, in the history of the Church the Bereans have been held up as great examples to follow. The old Authorized Version of the Bible says the Bereans “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
In the second half of the 20th century many Christian students used a daily bible study programme called “Search the Scriptures”. Over three years it helped you read the whole Bible. How important it is that you do try to read the whole Bible, not just parts of it. But why and, why did the Bereans “examine the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true”? Well, the answer is that the Bereans believed the Scriptures were God’s authoritative word.
And that leads to the second thing to note: the Bereans were privileged to be part of a Godly tradition that preserved God’s written word.
After the Jewish Exile to Babylon that you read about in the Old Testament (and before Christ) many Jews moved out of Palestine. They were dispersed around the Mediterranean world. But although no longer able to go regularly to the Temple in Jerusalem, two factors helped maintain their unity and identity.
On the one hand there were their Synagogues. On the other hand there were their Scriptures – what we know as our Old Testament. In Synagogues all round the Mediterranean they met for prayer, for the reading of, and teaching about, the Scriptures, and for the other business of their local Jewish community.
And the faithful Jews – the “more noble” ones, like these Bereans – took the reading of the Scriptures seriously. They knew they would have had no knowledge of God unless he had first revealed himself to them. And they believed that he had done just that through various prophetic people, like Moses, prophetic historians, and other prophets and writers faithful to this prophetic tradition. And much of this prophetic tradition was written down for them.
More importantly they were also convinced that God himself wanted to use writing to communicate. After all, he had written Ten Commandments on stone tablets (Ex 22v15-16) and then told Moses to write the history of the exodus from Egypt (Num 33v2). So they knew there was a tradition of God being a writing God and concerned for writing. And somehow they realised that what was written down in their scriptures (and treated as special) was both a record of their experience of God and their witness to him, yet also at the same time, providentially, God himself speaking through the content of their writing. It was also, therefore, God’s word. It was divine as well as human.
The third thing to note follows on from that – namely that the Bereans would have realised the importance of obeying God’s word.
For Godly living and the good life comes through following the written word of God. God tells Joshua, Moses successor – Joshua 1v8:
“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1v8)
However, these “more noble Jews” knew that too many people ignored or neglected God’s written word and with dire consequences. They would have known that this had happened in the period before King Josiah came to the throne of Judah in the 7th century BC. But then (as we heard in our Old Testament reading) the written law was rediscovered when some repair work was going on in the Temple. When the King had this written law read to him, we are told, “he tore his robes” and gave the command to his royal staff:
"Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us" (2 Kings 22.11).
So - by the first century, all these were the beliefs of “noble” or faithful Jews. That is why the Bereans were people who “examined the scriptures … to see if [things] were true”. And the New Testament makes it clear that this was the belief and practice of Jesus and his Apostles. They, too, treated these Old Testament Scriptures not just as the words of men but as the word itself of God, who by his Holy Spirit caused what was written to be exactly what should have been written.
The fourth thing to note is the Bereans’ interpretation of the Scriptures. While admitting their divine quality, the Bereans would not have denied the Scripture’s human quality. So they would have interpreted the separate books of the Old Testament starting from what the original author meant. For each book was written to be understood by the people to whom it was addressed. So, yes, they had to (and we today have to) be aware of the historical background of each book and any current cultural or literary conventions. But then the Bereans would have found, as we can find, the main gist clear enough, even though some details are not so clear.
You see, the fundamental problem of understanding God’s word was, and is, spiritual, not intellectual. The problem so often is one of spiritual blindness. So these “noble” Jews would have known that they needed to pray before reading their Scriptures a prayer such as is prayed in Psalm 119 verse 18:
“Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.”
That brings us to the fifth thing to note about the Bereans. They would have known they could be misled in two ways.
First, they knew they must not subtract from God’s word – the Scriptures. One sect of the Jews, the Sadducees, were doing just this. For they only accepted the first five books of the Bible as authoritative – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. So they distorted God’s word by not giving proper weight to the other 34 books of the Old Testament.
But secondly, the Bereans would also have been worried about adding to God’s word. At this time there were various other additional books in the Jewish world with some strange teaching in that some people were treating as Scripture. So these people were distorting God’s word by adding to it.
You must realise that the consensus of Godly Jews at this time (including Jesus) was that the Old Testament as we know it contained the books that were truly prophetic and God inspired and so his word, whereas these other books were not. The Bereans, therefore, would have wanted to make sure Paul was neither adding to God’s word, nor subtracting from it, in his teaching. Nor must you do that today.
So that brings us to our third and final main heading, FURTHER LESSONS.
The Bereans are not only examples to follow in these five areas. They provide other lessons for today. That is because, in the first place, the Old Testament needs not ancient books to be added to it but new books to complete it. For the Old Testament is looking forward to and predicting a Saviour. And that Saviour is the one Paul is preaching about - Jesus Christ the Lord.
That is why we have a New Testament.
You see, Jesus’ Apostles believed that their own teaching about him is itself revealed truth in God-taught words. For example, Paul writes to the Corinthians:
“We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words” (1 Cor 2v12-13).
The Church, therefore, rightly holds that authentic apostolic writings about Jesus, God’s incarnate word, complete the Scriptures. So in 2 Peter 3v16 Peter refers to Paul’s own letters as “Scripture”: [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. And Paul calls Luke’s Gospel “Scripture” in 1 Timothy 5v18. Paul there quotes Luke 10v7 and calls Luke’s report of Jesus’ words “scripture”. Paul writes, “For the Scripture says … ‘The worker deserves his wages’.” So authentic apostolic writings were considered “Scripture” and so inspired or, literally, “God breathed” (2 Tim 3v16).
But which are authentic apostolic writings? That was a question discussed in the 2nd century AD. However, the consensus came remarkably quickly as to what books were apostolic - either being written by an apostle or one of his colleagues or one of his circle.
Eventually in the 4th century the 27 books of the New Testament were formally declared canonical along with the Old Testament. But their authority had been recognized much earlier. Intellectually the early Christians recognized their truth and the Holy Spirit led them spiritually to experience their truth and power in daily life.
Jumping the centuries we come to the 16th and 17th century Reformation. The question of that authority of the Bible was then a number one issue. But this was an issue for the Bereans, too. For you can accept the Bible as God’s word but not give it the authority it deserves.
Here was Paul with a new tradition of interpretation. He was saying that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, and the true King who died for sins and rose again. But the Bereans may have known (as Jesus knew) that another sect of the Jews used their traditions to distort the meaning of the Scriptures. Was Paul doing that? The Bereans wanted to double check by examining the Scriptures against Paul’s teaching.
This other sect was the sect of the Pharisees. To quote one example, they had traditions that meant you could argue for ignoring the Scriptural commandment to “honour your father and your mother”. So they disobeyed God by distorting his word. Similarly, at the Reformation there were traditions in the Roman church that seemed to distort the Bible. Some traditions meant people never even read it.
On the other hand there were other traditions of spiritualising sects at the Reformation. Here people preferred their own visions and spiritual intuitions to the Bible. They defied God in that way.
Then there were rationalists who said that their own ideas were more important than the Bible. There are many like that today particularly regarding sexual morals (and same-sex unions in particular). So the question is, “what is going to have the final authority when there is a conflict - Church traditions, spiritual experiences, our own ideas (politically correct or otherwise) or the Bible of the Old and New Testaments?”
Yes, we need the Church and the wisdom of other Christians from previous ages. So traditions have value. Yes, God can guide us individually in all sorts of ways. And yes, of course, we must use our minds as the Bereans were using their minds.
But when any of these – Church traditions, spiritual experiences or our own ideas - contradict the plain meaning of the text of the Bible, interpreted in the light of the whole Bible (the Old Testament in the light of the New and the New in the light of the Old) – the noble Bereans would say (and so should you) that the Bible trumps traditions, experiences and human ideas. It is supreme. For the Bible is God speaking.
That was Jesus’ position as you can see right at the start of his ministry when tempted by the Devil. At each temptation he said, “it is written” and quoted Scripture.
I must conclude.
Verse 12 implies that what Paul said was found to be true. His was not a false tradition. And many Jews and Greeks, both men and women, came to faith in Christ.
Yes, verses 13-15 report further opposition that caused Paul to move on. But, praise God, Berea now had a large church honouring Jesus Christ the Lord, where people read the Bible daily.