"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Being a Berean


I have recently been revisiting some old, and sometimes cherished, texts and their interpretations. This was brought about in part by this post by Dan Phillips over at the Pyromaniacs blog and this post by Marty Duren over at SBC Outpost. In many cases, at least for me, there are interpretations (often very popular) that were taught to me as a young Christian that I never really questioned. The church I was in at the time said, "This text means . . ." and I accepted that was what the text meant. I believe (hope?) that one reason some of the false interpretations persist is that the errors are not that serious. But given the questions about misused texts, and thinking about exegetical fallacies, I've been prone to review long held interpretations when events cause me to turn to these texts.

For many people, my critical evaluation would be referred to as "being a Berean". There are Berean churches (in nearly every city) and Berean bookstores. Why all this fascination with Bereans? Because of Acts 17:11 where Luke writes, "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." (ESV) So, the popular interpretation says, the Bereans approached the Gospel with a critical ear, not trusting the Apostle until they verified what he said agreed with Scripture. The application drawn from this is that we too should approach those we hear with a critical ear, and verify what they say.

A New Meaning for Being a Berean

There are a few things that got me thinking about the Bereans again, and reconsidering what it should mean to be a Berean. The first was studying through 1 and 2 Thessalonians a few months ago (if this doesn't make sense, look at Acts 17:11 above again). Also, there are the posts I have already mentioned. But the major catalyst was becoming involved in the blogosphere. As I have read the comments in many blogs, negative reactions to some people is justified as "being a Berean."

The problem is the context. Yes, the Bereans "examined the Scriptures daily" and are in that respect to be emulated. The question is whether or not this is really Luke's, and more importantly the Holy Spirit's, primary intent in the passage. Interestingly, many of the best (IMO) commentaries on Acts do not focus on this part of v.11. Instead, they focus on the point of the passage.

Notice that the issue in v.11 is a contrast between the Thessalonians and the Bereans. The Bereans are described as being "more noble" than the Thessalonians. What does it mean to be more noble? It is to be open-minded or willing to evaluate something fairly.

This fits the context of contrasting to the Thessalonians. Note that it is the Jews who are specifically mentioned in Acts 17:11. In Acts 17:5 we are told about the Jews in Thessalonica: "5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd." (ESV) The primary contrast being drawn in Acts 17:11 is that the Jews in Berea were, first and foremost, willing to hear Paul out.

Furthermore, they received what Paul said "with all eagerness." Paul uses the same Greek word to describe the willingness (readiness) of the Corinthians to give (2 Corinthians 8 and 9). The Berean Jews were receptive to the message Paul brought, and not hostile like the Thessalonian Jews.

Tarred and Feathered?

None of this is intended to deny what else is said about the Bereans. After they received the message, they searched the Scriptures, verifying whether or not what Paul was telling them was the truth. This says that we do not accept every teaching. Other parts of the New Testament are full of warnings about false teachers. One has only to continue in Acts to 20:29-30 to find Paul warning the Ephesian elders: "29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them." (ESV) So discernment is urged in the New Testament. We must be on our guard.

But the error comes in when we don't see Acts 17:11 for what it says primarily. Our first reaction should be open. We should receive the teaching of others receptively and warmly. Then we examine it. We take it to the Scriptures and look at it in the light. My impression is this is not the way we approach most teaching and preaching. Preachers and teachers are guilty until proven orthodox (or fundemental).

I cannot judge the hearts of others, even those I know personally. So to try to do this with written words on blogs and in the "meta" is a fool's task. I can only say, perhaps in part reflecting on my own reactions, that we seem sit at the keyboard, or in a room with our MP3 player and headphones, with a bucket of tar and pound of feathers hoping for a chance to use them. We are like John not willing that any outside of our circle be heard (Luke 9:49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” ESV)

Instead, we should be more noble-minded and be willing to listen to all those that take the Scriptures seriously, even if they are not inside our camp. As I write this, I remember that a year ago, I would not have considered listening to someone like a C.J. Mahaney. I had nothing to learn from a charismatic. Except humility.


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