Sunday, April 24, 2016

Berea: Being More Noble: Sermon on Acts 17:10-15

Good morning, brothers and sisters. Last week, as we left these missionaries, they were being kicked out of the city of Thessalonica. Things got a bit hot there. Some treason charges were floated. And it wasn't safe for Paul and the others to stick around any longer. So they had to get out of town. 

Up until then, they'd been taking the main Roman road that leads straight to Rome, the Via Egnatia. Thessalonica is on that road. But they don't go along that road any more. Berea, the city they end up at, is not on that road. It's not even on the main road leading south. Paul and his friends are going off-roading. They are deviating from the plan they'd been going with.

And the question is, why? I think there are three reasons that lead them to take the detour. First of all, they now know that Jews are, for the time being, banned from Rome. There's no rush to get there. The second thing that probably motivates them is that going along that road would take them into territory that, honestly, the local believers are better equipped to handle. And the third reason is that folks from Thessalonica are going to hunt Paul down. They're going to expect him to take one of those two roads. So he's going somewhere else.

Now, the beautiful thing is that we know Paul does end up in Rome, which is his desired destination. That's where Paul is trying to get to, and he will get there. He's just going on a bit of a different path than he pictured. It's going to take longer, and it may feel like he's going in circles at times. We know what that's like, don't we? What it's like to seem like we have this vision of where we should be, but it seems like we're going in circles, we're veering off the beaten path. We go and we think, “How on earth are we going to get back where we're headed?”

Well, the beautiful thing that we learn from even this incidental tidbit about Paul's itinerary is that, yes, sometimes God takes us the roundabout way – but he will get us where he wants us to go. And the detour may be exactly what the world needs. See, if Paul had taken either of those main roads, he would have missed the city of Berea. He never would have gotten to bring the gospel to the people we read about in this passage, these people who are, as it turns out, very, very ready for what Paul has to say. He needed to get to Berea. He may not have known that. But God did. So even though the persecution, even through the banning of his people from Rome, God made sure that the message was heard by those who were most ready to receive it.

So they get to Berea. Now, just like in Thessalonica, Paul and his team – Silas and Timothy are with him – what do they do? What's their custom? Head straight for the synagogue! There are six days in the week to mingle with folks in the marketplace. But the Sabbath – ah, the Sabbath is the time to give the gospel to the Jew first. 

And so on arriving in Berea, the missionaries went straight for the synagogue (Acts 17:10), and they lay out the case for the gospel – just like they do everywhere else. In Thessalonica, they got away with this for three weeks before getting the boot. But the Jews of Berea don't react that way. They're “more noble” (Acts 17:11). And the big question before us this Sunday, as we gather together like they did, is: What makes them so much more noble? What credit accrues to the Bereans' character here?

First of all, Luke writes that “they received the message with great eagerness” (Acts 17:11). They could have just ignored Paul. They could have walked out. They could have plugged up their ears and shouted, “La-la-la, we can't hear you!” They could have given Paul the boot! But they did none of those things. Instead, they were excited to hear what he had to say. 

Now, they didn't know Paul from Adam. They know he's a Jew, they're Jews, but he's got some weird take on things that they've never heard of before. Why are they excited to hear some fringe Jewish wanderer peddle his idiosyncratic spin on the faith received once and... for all?... by the children of Israel?

The answer to that is, they were hungry for God! These men and women had a relentless yearning, a heartfelt passion, for more of him. And if listening to Paul could give them even a scrap of new insight or a tidbit of a taste of how good their LORD is, then, they figure, isn't that worth their time this sabbath? They have a hunger for God that puts many of us to shame. Theirs is not a sabbath-only religion. Theirs is not a perfunctory devotion. Theirs is an all-consuming passion that changes how they live – and makes them better.

See, the Thessalonian Jews, their religion made them worse. It made them violent zealots, full of envy and pride and hard-heartedness, manipulative enough to stir up a mob and pin the crime on Paul. And that is not at all what the Law of Moses was supposed to do for them! “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,” the Law said, with no partiality, no distortion, no other motives whatsoever (Deuteronomy 16:19-20). The Law demanded that Israelites should never “spread a false report” or “join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness” (Exodus 23:1). 

And that is exactly – exactly – what the Thessalonian Jews did. Sure, they could justify their meanness. They could point to exigent circumstances, talk a big game about the “greater good.” But the fact of the matter is, in the way they reacted to Paul and his message, all their religiosity defied the Torah, debased their character, and took them further away from God.

The Berean Jews have a different story. Their religion made them better. This nobility here – it isn't a matter of breeding, like the Berean Jews just crawled out of the deeper end of the gene pool. No, what happened is that their religiosity is what God meant for it to be – something ennobling, something that builds up good character, something that's focused on him and not on themselves – something that holds them accountable, rather than giving license to their whims and desires. We all could use a hefty dose of that kind of religion, that kind of piety – the kind that makes us noble, the kind that makes us consistent.

The Bereans have a hunger for God. And because they have a hunger for God, and because they know that his Law demands truth and fairness for all, they receive the message with great eagerness. What that means, in essence, is that they've got “passion before” – they're excited, they're driven, they're ready and rarin' to go, all before they even have something in Paul's preaching to get really excited about. The Berean Jews are “predisposed,” inclined from the get-go, to be ready and willing to hear him out. In short, their hunger for God makes them open-minded – in a very specific way, as we'll see in a couple minutes.

Now, let's be honest. If you had to write up a list of the top ten traits the church has a reputation for, as viewed by our neighbors, “open-minded” is not very likely to make the list. Its opposite might show up. And partly, partly, that's because we don't lie down and nod vigorously to everything the culture says – well, the healthy parts of the church don't, at least. But partly it's because the American church has a serious listening deficit. 

To look at us sometimes, you'd think the Body of Christ has three mouths and no ears – because we talk, and we talk, and we talk, but we don't listen. We're eager to get things moving with our canned evangelistic strategies, our methods that are supposed to work on any man or woman, without knowing the slightest thing about them – just get them to agree to a few quick things, and then blast 'em with the bad news and the good news, right? Or, if we don't feel like taking the risk that somebody might actually say something that goes off-script, maybe we'll just leave a tract – the perfect way to get a message across without ever having to hear what anyone else says.

Maybe canned evangelism is better than no evangelism – which is the other big pitfall we trip into, especially those of us in a traditional church with lots of churched neighbors and churched friends. But better than both is listening evangelism – an evangelism that takes seriously the biblical advice to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). We share the good news best when we know someone well enough to know what they believe and why they believe it; what they've been through, and how they feel about it; what they think they're doing great with, what they struggle with, what they like and dislike and where they are in this big journey called life – and that's not going to happen outside of a relationship where we listen. 

Are there times to share the gospel blind, just preach in the streets and from the rooftops? Sure. But if we had a reputation for being “quick to listen, slow to speak,” and yet at the right time we surely would speak... well, we might see something exciting happen. And not just as a means to an end – we might learn new perspectives ourselves. We should be certain about what the Bible teaches, but maybe not so certain we've figured out once and for all what that is.

So the Bereans were more noble because they received the message eagerly, because they were hungry for God; and because they were hungry for God, it made them open-minded. At the same time, Luke writes, they were more noble for a second reason: that “they searched … to see whether these things were true” (Acts 17:11). In other words, they didn't just take some visiting teacher's word for it. They didn't listen attentively to Paul and say, “Hey, sounds great, say no more, I'm in.” Like I said, they don't know Paul from Adam. Paul's telling the truth, but what about the guy who was there three weeks earlier, or the fellow who's coming next month?

And make no mistake: as Paul himself says, there are false teachers out there – people with bad ideas that sound good but will answer your hunger for God by stuffing your soul with junk food and making your head spin. Those “evildoers and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Maybe they started out with a lie, but now they really buy into what they're selling – but that doesn't mean you should buy it! In fact, don't buy it. But how can we not buy it, and still be open-minded? How can we do both? How can we welcome the message eagerly, but still search to see whether it's true?

The Bereans give you the answer: they were open-minded enough to hear, but critical enough to test. “Test all things; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). The Bereans give Paul a fair hearing, but that doesn't mean they switch off their brains. Berean faith is a thinking faith. What was Reagan's phrase – “Trust but verify”? Well, the Berean motto is, “Listen but verify.” On something this important especially, don't just buy it because somebody told you, or you read it in a magazine, or you saw it on the nine o'clock news, or it's trending on the Internet, or even because you heard it in church from a pastor or a teacher. Listen... but verify.

The Bereans are noble because they listen – which is more than most Thessalonians did. The Bereans are noble because they want to verify. But, third and greatest of all, the Bereans are “more noble” because of how they did those things: “They searched the scriptures every day to see if these things were true” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans weren't content to 'verify' Paul's message by asking if it already agreed with what they believed – if it confirmed their biases, spoke to their prejudices, if it gave them a pat on the back and an attaboy – in other words, if it “tickled their ears.” 

That's the standard plenty of us today use to decide whether we should believe something. It's the reason that, even within the church (let alone outside of it), people – especially in the younger generations, but not just there – are buying into the trendy gospel of love-is-love, do-what-you-want. It's the reason that, within the church and the culture, people will eat up anything that comes draped in the stars and stripes, tells us we're made for national greatness – because it's what tickles our ears.

The Bereans didn't make their feelings, or their opinions, the standard. They didn't project their biases up onto the universe, magnify them for the big screen. But they also didn't fall into the trap of endless questions. And honestly, in more postmodern quarters of the culture and even church today, that's a new temptation. They'll tell you that answers don't matter; that the fun is all in asking questions; that it's a sin to ever be certain, even of what God says; that it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as it isn't too much; that doubts are better than beliefs; that it's all and only about the journey, a road trip with no destination in mind.

There's a little bit of truth there. There's a real role that doubts and questions play in our faith – they can keep us humble, and they can make us stronger; they can help us better sympathize with those yet outside Christ; they can provoke us to keep in motion. And in things where God hasn't spoken, or where the church hasn't historically been able to nail down all the details, certainty is just another name for stubborn dogmatism. And we are on a journey – there's a reason the earliest Christians described their faith as being “followers of the Way.” 

At the same time, “the Way” isn't a road to nowhere. We have a destination; we are not just out to smell the roses and see all the scenery we can before we die. On things where God has spoken, and where the church has historically stood united, professing to be clueless is spiritually immature at best. And questions are wonderful – for provoking us to keep in motion toward answers, and ultimately toward the Answer, the Answer-made-flesh to dwell among us. But questions and doubts are malfunctioning if they forever hold us back from listening to the answers the Answer tells!

So the Bereans don't go on an endless road trip, and they don't look to their feelings or their opinions or their traditions or their cultural trends to put Paul's preaching to the test. Instead, they search – what? They search the Scriptures – they turn to the Bible as the standard, as the canon. The whole Bible – remember, all they've got then is the Old Testament writings. They turn to the Bible, because they don't assume they already know everything it contains. They don't sit around and think, “Oh yeah, I read that once; I know it pretty well; I've gotten all there is to get out of it; so I can just go by memory here.” No, the Bereans open it up again. Ad fontes – back to the source!

The Bereans don't just skim the Scriptures. That's not the word Luke uses. They don't just skim, they don't just glance, they don't just look, they don't even just read. They “searched” the Scriptures. They scrutinized, they examined, they studied intensely. The word suggests a thorough examination, from bottom to top, all the way to the end. They aren't content to stay just in Genesis, or just in Ezekiel, or just in 2 Kings – or just in the Four Gospels, if they'd had 'em. They aren't looking for only the words written in red letters. And they aren't taking a hop-skip-and-a-jump approach from verse to verse, from prooftext to prooftext. They're reading it in context! They're getting serious! They want to know the full witness of Scripture, and they want to understand it right.

And the Bereans don't do this on the sabbath. Remember, theirs isn't just a sabbath-only religion. No, the sabbath is for listening to what Paul has to teach; but scripture-searching is an every-day sort of thing. They do this daily. And remember, this isn't a culture where everybody has a Bible or two or ten sitting at home on the shelf, gathering dust. They could themselves lucky to have one of each book for the synagogue itself! So the serious Bereans, the earnest Bereans, aren't doing this all on their own – not sitting down in the privacy of their homes, in the privacy of their own individual thoughts, to read the text and come up with their personal pet theories on what it means. This is no “private interpretation.” This is serious Bible study, daily – together. One Berean's brain is not enough. It takes a synagogue, gathered together, putting in the time, remembering all the lessons they'd learned from rabbis or teachers before, but putting everything to the test here and now to see what the Bible really teaches.

Nor were they just curious. The Bereans didn't just think it would be cool to know. No, they search the Scriptures because they have real intent to know, to understand, and to act! Why? Because they revere the Scriptures. When they think of the Bible, they don't think of some collection of dusty, old, outdated books. They don't think of a volume of sage advice, or some obsolete words that need to get with the times. They view the Bible as a reflection of God's own authority and God's own truth! 

They would love reading Paul's letter to Timothy, where he says that “all Scripture is God-breathed” – that's literally what it says: every portion of Scripture, from Genesis on 'til the end, may have come by human hands, may have emerged from and into specific historical contexts, may have had its words chosen by human personalities that left their stamp all over the text... but beneath all of that, it's the work of the Spirit of God, carrying the writers along; it's resplendent with God's intimate touch, his very breath (2 Timothy 3:16). Can't your soul smell it, as you read the words on the page? Can't you feel his presence, maybe warm with electrifying power, maybe cool with soothing peace. Don't you feel his breath in the air all around you as the words seize you, speak into you?

The Bereans did. That's how they viewed the Bible. And one of the great tragedies of the American church today is that so many of us have joined the broader culture in taking a dimmer view of the Bible than that. So many professing Christians – even professing Evangelicals or so-called post-Evangelicals – don't treat all Scripture as God-breathed. Some follow Marcion, one of the first heretics, who said that the Old Testament reveals the wrong God and should be effectively tossed out. There are those today who say the same thing – maybe not, “toss it out,” but “judge it next to our selective view of Jesus and see what bits we can keep and which ones were bad all along.” Paul doesn't leave us with that. All Scripture is God-breathed – even Leviticus, even Joshua, even Ezekiel, even James. We may have to do some hard thinking about how to apply the words today, in a different culture, in a different time in God's big plan. But all Scripture remains God-breathed. Some has been fulfilled. None has been abolished.

And what's more, the Bereans would've loved hearing Paul say that the “Holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). That's Paul's gospel – that salvation, rescue from sin and death, comes through faith, through a trusting relationship with Jesus and from letting him include you in his trusting relationship with his Father through his Spirit of Sonship. And the Scriptures give you what you need. (And Paul's talking about the Old Testament, read in the light of Christ!) They make you wise.

And, Paul says, they're “useful” – all of it is useful – for four key things. First, for teaching. We need teaching. We need to be educated what to do – so that we can do it. We need to be educated what God wants us to believe – so that we can believe it. We need to see the world through biblical eyes. We need to see ourselves as part of the story the Bible unfolds. 

Second and third, the Bible is useful for “rebuking and correcting” – things a lot of professing believers today say are rude and evil to do, and yet they're two of the Bible's key functions! With the Bible, we can rebuke those in the church who go clearly off the rails. 

And with the Bible, we can correct those inside and outside the church who have bought into false teachings – who, being deceived, may be at risk of deceiving others. And finally, the Bible – the whole Bible – is useful for training us in righteousness – for teaching us how to live by the power of the Spirit, which is the only way to please God.

And in the end, these four things – teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training – make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). That's practical! That's belief made action; that's faith at work! That's what the Bible does for us: it reveals Christ, the whole Christ, Christ as the climax of God's action in Israel's story and ours, and in meeting Christ there – in learning from him as he spoke through his prophets and his apostles and in his own person – we're made like him, to do good works like he did and does, for we're his body on earth. And we know that, because we hear it in the words of the Scriptures.

In the end, here's the big point: Don't be like a Thessalonian. In the end, with all their bad behavior, with all their rabble-rousing, only “some” Thessalonian Jews accepted the gospel. But “many” of the ones from Berea did. Be like a Berean. Listen, but verify, and do it always by searching the Scriptures together. Look at the Bible like they did; view the Bible like they did; revere the Bible like they did; trust and use the Bible like they did. As you go, go with this question to reflect on this week. Each of us, ask ourselves: “Am I a Berean?”

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