Be a Berean! This is a common encouragement among Bible-loving Christians. But what does this mean? Why is it important to be a Berean? And what is the alternative to being a Berean?
The term “Berean” comes, of course, from Acts 17:11-12, which records what happened when Paul and his band arrived in Berea on his second missionary journey:
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. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (ESV)
The most common way that I recall hearing these verses used goes something like this: “Be a Berean! Test what you hear by the Scriptures. Don’t believe everything you hear from every radio preacher. Don’t base your theology on what you read online. Don’t let commentaries determine what you believe. In fact, even when your own pastor teaches you something, don’t believe it without testing it first. Don’t be gullible! Test everything by the Scriptures!”
While I heartily agree with this exhortation, I don’t think it’s the most direct implication of what Luke (the author of Acts) records in our passage. Let’s reconsider these verse by examining their literary context.
According to Luke, whom were the Bereans more noble than? The Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians. More precisely, the Jews in Berea were more noble than the Jews in Thessalonica.
So, in this situation, what was the alternative to being a Berean? What was the problem with the Jews in Thessalonica? We find the answer in the preceeding passage. The problem with the majority of the Thessalonican Jews is that they refused to believe Paul’s proclamation about Christ. Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (17:2-3). He did this over “three Sabbath days” (17:2). What was the response of the Jews? “Some of them were persuaded” (17:4). But the majority of them “were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob” (17:5). They dragged Paul’s converts before the city authorities and shouted denunciations against Paul and his coworkers: “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (17:6).
In short, the problem with the Thessalonian Jews was not gullibility, but unbelief. Despite Paul’s careful exposition of Scripture–reasoning, explaining and proving everything he claimed based on the Jew’s own Scriptures, the Jews still refused to believe.
Why didn’t these Thessalonian Jews believe? I think we find an answer in verse 5: “the Jews were jealous.” They didn’t like how Paul was turning their world upside down. They refused to believe for the same reason the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem refused to believe Jesus (see 1 Thess. 2:14-16)–because believing would have meant loss of prestige and power.
So, what about us? What implications might this passage have for us today? Here are several I’d like to suggest–two exhortations and three theological truths.
- Don’t be a Thessalonian. Don’t reject gospel truth without giving Scripture a fair hearing. Don’t let a desire to preserve prestige and power keep you from believing the Good News. Don’t prevent the gospel from turning your world upside down! What about the truth that good works are the fruit and not the root of our salvation; have we let this good news shake our world? What about the truth that God the Holy Spirit dwells in his people, empowering victorious living and manifesting himself in a multitude of “natural” and “supernatural” gifts; have we examined the Scriptures and let our hearts believe? (What gospel truths do you think we might be in danger of rejecting?)
- Do be a Berean. When you hear someone proclaim good news, take time to examine it by Scripture. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if the gospel sounds like good news. Examine the Scriptures “daily.” If what you hear passes the Scripture test–that is, it is “necessary” according to Scripture (and certainly not everything does pass this test), then accept it “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). Believe it and let it turn your world upside down, even if it means rejection and “suffer[ing]… things from your own countrymen” (1 Thess. 2:14).
Three theological truths:
- Faith and reason are friends. Christian faith is rooted in reasoned, Scriptural evidence. True faith is not opposed to reason. It is not opposed to explanation and proof. It is not opposed to diligent Scriptural study. Notice the cause-and-effect link in our passage: The Bereans examined the Scriptures daily, and “therefore” many of them believed (17:12). Rational investigation is encouraged in Scripture and can lead to a strengthened faith. (In this case the rational investigation was of Scripture; in other places investigation of historical evidence is also encouraged.)
- Trust in Scripture is a friend to trust in Jesus. If the Bereans had not taken time to examine Scripture, they would not have accepted the gospel message Paul was proclaiming. But when they saw that Paul’s message was “necessary” (17:3) according to Scriptural evidence (that is, what Paul said had happened to Jesus was the perfect and necessary unfolding of the prophecies and typologies found in Scripture), they believed. It was the Berean’s prior trust in Scripture that prepared them to trust in Jesus. Those today who erode trust in Scripture are, by intention or not, also eroding trust in Jesus–even if the results of such erosion are not always evident for a generation or two.
- Heart condition determines our response to gospel truth. This observation opens difficult questions related to the order of salvation. (Which comes first? Our faith in Christ, or God’s work of regenerating our hearts?) But laying aside such discussions for the moment, notice the evidence in our passage. Both the Thessalonians and the Bereans possessed the Scriptures. They both heard the Scriptures explained by Paul. But one group was “jealous” (17:5) while the other “received the word with all eagerness” (17:11). And so, in the first group “some of them were persuaded” (17:4), while in the second group “many of them… believed” (17:12). Some versus many. Only hearts delivered from jealousy and self-preservation are prepared to believe the fullness of the Good News.
So, let’s be Bereans! Let’s be “gullible” enough to let Scriptural evidence convince us that all the riches of the gospel are true. Then let’s go out and imitate those who have willingly suffered for the sake of the word of God.