"These were more noble..."
"These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." Acts 17:11
This brief comment on the Jews in Berea speaks volumes. It is full of interest for every Christian. It brings before us a mind-set that is truly noble in God's sight. But first of all, let's look at the context.
Paul, on his second missionary journey, had reached Europe. Following the events in Philippi, fraught with trial and yet joy (Acts 16), the gospel had a triumphant entry in Thessalonica. A large group of people ('a multitude' and 'not a few') had believed (Acts 17:4). This moved the unbelieving Jews to envy, so much so that they resorted to forming a very unlikely alliance: they mobilised some of the roughest people in town ('lewd fellows of the baser sort' v.5) to form a mob and cause an uproar. This resulted in the sudden departure of Paul and Silas from Thessalonica to Berea.
The description of the state of heart that characterised the Jews in Thessalonica is chilling indeed: 'believed not', 'moved to envy', 'set the city in uproar', and 'assaulted' the house of Jason - and all of this to accuse Paul before the local authorities (using a most spurious accusation indeed, v.4-7).
So much for nobility, or the lack of it, amongst the Jews in Thessalonica!
But how different the scene Paul and Silas find in Berea! Upon arrival they 'come into the synagogue of the Jews' (v.10). These Jews were of an entirely different character than those in Thessalonica (v.11). God characterises them as 'more noble' on the grounds that
- They 'received the word with readiness of mind', and
- They 'searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so'.
As Jews they were used to exclusive national privileges (see Romans 9:4.5). The Gentiles were 'far' from God (Eph. 2:13) but the Jews, at least externally, were near. But the Gospel shows Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing: both are lost and in need of a Saviour. To accept this, a Jew would need to leave aside national pride and privilege and bow to God's thoughts. Naturally, Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews (1.Cor. 1:23) but the Jews in the synagogue in Berea had 'readiness of mind'. This willingness to leave aside prejudices, preconceived ideas, long cherished thoughts, etc. in favour of God's word is a mark of true nobility.
But there was a second feature: they verified what they heard based on the only true authority, the word of God. They searched the scriptures. This was not a casual read, nor was it occasional. It was daily searching; diligent and permanent seeking of the mind of God in his word. They did not have the luxury of online Bibles or Bible Apps (nothing against using such tools - let's make more use of them!) - they had to go through scrolls of hand written text. But they were greatly rewarded for their zeal: 'Therefore many of them believed' (verse 12).
These two features made these Jews in Berea very balanced: they 'received', i.e. they were open to consider what was presented to them, they did not object or reject what they heard. But nor did they adopt lightly what they heard without checking it out.
It goes without saying that 'more noble', in its context here, refers to the Jews: the Jews in the synagogue in Berea were more noble than 'those', i.e. the Jews, in Thessalonica. To see this consider the following:
- The context makes it clear that 'these' and 'those' refer to two groups of Jews. We read that Paul and Silas 'went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica' (verses 10 and 11). 'These' at the end of verse 10 refers to the Jews in the synagogue in Berea. They are compared to 'those' (Jews) in Thessalonica that the preceeding verses deal with (verses 5-9). Incidentally, the ESV renders it as 'Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica'.
- It could hardly refer to the believers in Thessalonica. These had received the word 'as word of God' (1. Thess.2:13), had become models to the whole region (1.Thess. 1:7.8). These young converts displayed 'work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope' (1.Thess. 1:3) and 'turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven' (1.Thess.1:9.10).
- Further, it could not have been a comparison of one set of Christians with another. At the time, there were no Christians in Berea. Verse 12 is very clear that their faith in the gospel followed their searching of the scriptures: 'Therefore many of them believed'.
- The contrast with the Jews from Thessalonica is further amplified in the next verse (v. 13): 'But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.' Here we find that while even the unbelieving Jews in Berea did not do anything to persecute Paul, those from Thessalonica even took it upon themselves to come all the way to Berea. What is contrasted is two sets of Jews: those in Berea and those in Thessalonia.
- Further confirmation is found in verse 14, after they had believed. Here they are no longer referred to as 'Jews' but as 'brethren': 'And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul...'.
Having said this, we have no reason to assume that the Berean Jews lost their noble character upon becoming Christians. Surely, they will have continued on their pathway of ready reception in conjunction with continued verification by means of the Scriptures.
And this is still a good pattern for Christians today: to lay aside all the 'what-ifs', all the preconceptions and, possibly, prejudices and to 'search' daily to establish 'whether these things are so'.
Have you got access to good Bible commentaries, to articles with sound teaching, or to spoken ministry or lectures? That's very well. Let's use these resources more. But in order to appropriate for ourselves what others have taught we need to 'search the scriptures' and 'see whether these things are so'.
And let us do so in the noble Berean attidute: subjecting our own will to God's word.