One of the things that expository preaching addresses is the misuse of Scripture. Specifically, it addresses the tendency to lift a verse out of its context and attribute a meaning or use to that passage that obscures or distorts its proper sense. It is because of this good emphasis on the proper handling of Scripture, that I’ve often been amazed at the way that otherwise careful exegetes have made use of Acts 17:10-11. The verses read:
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 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.
These verses are often used to teach discernment. “Be a Berean,” is often a way that people are exhorted to closely examine what they hear to make sure that it is true. This is because the Bereans were “examining the Scriptures daily to see” if Paul’s teaching was biblical. And it is at this point that the emphasis often goes astray.
While it is true that the Bereans were comparing Paul’s teaching with the Scriptures, the real emphasis of that passage is not on discernment. The Bereans are not pictured like some questioning Christian who raises an eyebrow and says, “That doesn’t sound quite right to me. I can’t just accept what you say, I need to go look at this closer.” And yet that is exactly how the Bereans are often pictured in the way the passage is applied. “Be a Berean, don’t just accept what you are taught at face value, search the Scriptures to make sure that what you are hearing is true,” all implies receiving a message not with eagerness as the Bereans did, but with skepticism and hesitancy. In other words, what people often glorify in the Bereans is the exact opposite of what truly characterized them.
The real story of the Bereans must be heard in contrast to the reception Paul received in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas had just been whisked out of that city at night, after three weeks of teaching in the synagogue, when a great riot arose due to the jealousy of unbelieving Jews (Acts 17:1-9). The nobility of the Jewish Bereans is then set in contrast to the Jews of Thessalonica (and here is the key) not because the Bereans were more careful, more cautious, more closed, but precisely because they were more open. It is not a spirit of skepticism that is celebrated in the Bereans, but a teachable spirit that was willing to be persuaded by Scripture.
When is the last time you heard the Bereans represented that way? “You need to be teachable like a Berean!” “You need to beware a close-minded, suspicious, critical, proud, stubborn attitude and instead, be teachable like a Berean!”
The Berean issue is truly more than just a pet peeve about a misused portion of Scripture. The issue becomes very practical and real when people celebrate an attitude in themselves that isn’t healthy, and doesn’t please God, and use the Bereans as their model. The landscape of Christianity is rife with spiritual lone rangers who refuse to be submissive to the teaching of Scripture in a local church setting. Self-appointed spiritual watchdogs listen to others confident that no one is to be trusted but them. Instead of a submissive hearing of God’s Word—a humble, self-examining hearing of God’s Word—there is a suspicious-minded, intellectual jousting that constantly takes place. In truth, many of these people are much more like the Jews of Thessalonica than they are the Bereans with whom they like to compare themselves.
How should we hear the Word of God, especially from men who have proven themselves faithful in their handling of the Scriptures? We should be open and eager. We should search the Scriptures because we rejoice in the truth, and we desire to know the truth. We should have a teachable mind and a heart that is submissive to God’s Word. We should be Bereans.
Richard Caldwell is one of our nine TES campus pastors, having served as the senior pastor of Founders Baptist Church in Spring, TX since 1998.