“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
There are many verses in scripture that have been abused or twisted to teach something they were not intended to teach. Matthew 7:1, amongst others, comes to mind. It especially comes to mind in conservative, Christian circles because its misuse is a convenient reminder of why we should spurn liberalism. But we may be guilty of the same if we are not careful. Though not so obvious as other abused texts, Acts 17:11 is one such example.
In fact, it has become a widely used trope in evangelicalism: Be like the Bereans. Berean ministries. Discerning as the Bereans. However, as we read the text we see that, in one crucial sense, the Bereans cannot and should not be examples to Christians. Much like the Pharisaical party, we observe and do as they (Matthew 23:2) but we also are called to excel them (Matthew 5:20).
First and foremost, the Bereans were not, as it often assumed, believers in Christ, but merely students (though burgeoning) of the word. We know this in two ways from Acts 17.
The first is the immediate reference. The Bereans are “these” (vs. 11). This refers to vs. 10 where read that “these” were found in “the synagogue of the Jews” in Berea. Though called the apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13 & Galatians 2:9), Saul’s early ministry also contained an essential element of Christ’s: he was sent to the lost house of Israel (Matthew 10:6 cf. Acts 9:15). So in Acts 9, shortly after his conversion he “straightway preached Christ in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20 – emphasis mine).
The next time Paul is mentioned in terms of preaching and public ministry, we see that he is being called by the church at Antioch to be an evangelist. And his first act of ministry is to preach the word of God “in the synagogues of the Jews” (Acts 13:5 cf. vs. 14, 14:1 et. al.). It appeared that the apostle was quite strategic, either by striving to turn the synagogues into Christian churches or convert their attendants into Christ followers. So in Acts 17:10, when we read that Paul and Silas came into the synagogue, we are witnessing another example of this principle in action.
These synagogues, or gatherings of Jews, are distinguished from Christian gatherings in Acts in at least two ways: 1) by name as the place or people assembled in the name of Christ are churches or brethren (Acts 15:33) & 2) by the apostles and others’ example of confirming or strengthening the disciples when they visited him (Acts 14:22, 15:32,41, 18:23). Clearly Paul’s intent amongst the Bereans was, by way of contrast, preach Christ to an unbelieving and ignorant people.
Secondly, we can also affirm this, because the consequence of the preaching in both Thessalonica and Berea was that some believed (Acts 17:4 & 12). In other words, men and women came to Christ in both cities and their synagogues. The Berean Jews had a superior or better response to the word insofar as their minds and hearts were more engaged but both Bereans and Thessalonicans had some among them that responded in faith.
But now, what does this matter? Well it matters, if for no other reason, because we should interpret and communicate the truth of scripture in an accurate way. The irony of this is that this was what the Bereans were doing in the first place: comparing Paul’s preaching with the scriptures.
Second of all, I want to stress it is not illegitimate to use the Bereans as an example of something for which Christians should strive. But the example is misapplied if it is thought to exhaust what a Christian is to do with their Bibles.
Therefore, thirdly, the message is being placed before the wrong audience. It would be more appropriate to use this as an example for how Jews or unbelievers should read the scriptures, more so than Christians.
Fourth, the emphasis is also being placed on the wrong medium. This text is not primarily about reading scripture or discerning the writings of other people. The word (Acts 17:11) was not the scriptures because the Jews were comparing it to the scriptures. The word was, at it was in Thessalonica and everywhere else, the preaching of scriptures and the preaching of Christ in particular (Acts 17:4). Again, this is not to suggest that, as a secondary application, that Christians should not be told to be like the Bereans in their reading of books and resources outside of the scriptures. But, again, the focus of the text is on something else: preaching.
The latter is essential to eternal life itself because though it is true that every believer must be a student and reader of the word (1 Peter 2:1), that is not sufficient evidence of being a believer. Peter, too, speaks of the word of the God (or Lord) which brings life but he plainly says that “this is the word by which the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:25 -emphasis mine).
Perhaps this is, in part, why preaching is secondary to other matters in churches and to believers in particular. We are too satisfied with reading the scripture for ourselves and we have forgotten that the preaching of the word, as it was with Jesus, Paul and all faithful ministers, the chosen means of God to make dead people alive in Christ (Romans 10:13ff.). Which is to say that Paul’s explanation (preaching) of the truth to the Bereans was, in fact, more important than their response to it. The content matters more than the response (at least in sequence) because there cannot be a response if there is nothing to which one should respond.
It should be noted that the latter applies to all people. Consider the Ethiopian eunuch. He read (studied) Isaiah 53 but could not make sense of it. Only when, by God’s providence, Philip “preached unto him Jesus” did he believe (Acts 8:35). Consider the Philippian jailer. In ignorance and much distress he said: “What must I do to be saved?” And it was proclaimed to him: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Fifth, and finally, the gospel or preached word must be believed. False converts may like to know the scripture’s content and bandy that about in their heads, but it has not made an effectual change on their heart and life (e.g. the four soils in the parable of the sower). True believers are transformed and reformed by the word of God. They are not merely those who distinguish themselves as students of the word but those who live out the word.
By way of summary, I want to affirm all the good things we may pull from this text but also to show how each one is better than the last: it is good for unbelievers to read the word of God. It is better yet for them to hear the word of God preached. It is better still for them to hear the word of God preached and to confirm its truth by way of comparison to the scriptures. And it is best, most of all, to hear the gospel of Christ preached and believe it from the heart. Be better than the Bereans: believe and be saved.
1. This is not to suggest that everyone who uses Acts 17:11 as an example of how Christians should respond to scripture is a hypocrite if they decry the misuse of Matthew 7:1 or other passages. It may just be (and likely is) that they are ignorant.
2. Note that synagogue is plural, not singular.
3. Perhaps this can be used as a paradigm for evangelism amongst the Jewish people.
4. Even as the Thessalonican Christians themselves demonstrate (1 Thessalonians 1:5-10).