The Bereans in Acts 17 are often used as models to inspire us to better Bible study, imitating them as they “searched the Scriptures” (vs. 11). A closer look at this chapter may give us even more insight and motivation.
A quick overview of the chapter finds Paul in three different cities, accompanied by his missionary companions in the first two. After his ministry in Thessalonica (v. 1-9) became the target of persecution, they moved to Berea. As the persecution followed them there and perhaps intensified, Paul was sent alone to Athens. This chapter provides a rich source of insights into Paul’s philosophy of ministry, as well as his methods and message. The focus in this brief essay is on the place of the Scriptures in that ministry, and focuses on the first two cities.
Verse 7 and verse 12 reveal in interesting contrast between the responses of the Thessalonians and the Bereans:
4 And some of them [the Thessalonians] were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.
12 Therefore many of them [the Bereans] believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.
(Even these two verses raise interesting questions for further study in the descriptions of the groups who responded.)
The words used to describe the two responses provide an intriguing contrast. The Thessalonians “were persuaded” (επεισθησαν, passive). The Bereans “believed” (επιστευσαν). I am not in any way impugning the authenticity of the Thessalonians faith. In fact, later Paul makes amazing statements about their faith and Christian life in his two letters to them. But the reception they gave his message hinted at by the passive verb is reinforced by the word used. “Persuaded” (πειθω) is used over fifty times in the New Testament, often in the context of very positive and strong connotations, such as Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced…” But the usage includes several examples of less substantial commitment. The Jewish leaders persuaded the crowds to ask Pilate for Barabbas (Matthew 27:20). The chief priests and scribes and elders feared stoning because the crowds were persuaded that John was a prophet (Luke 20:6). Gamaliel dismissed the false Messiahs and their followers, (lit. “those persuaded by him”, επειθοντο αυτω, in both cases another example of the passive use). The Thessalonians believed Paul’s message (as evidenced by the founding of the church there), but the grammar and vocabulary Luke uses suggests at least a possible question about the depth of their evaluation of his message.
The Thessalonians’ response (the passive “were persuaded”) is set into sharp contrast with the Bereans by Luke in verse 11. Attention is usually focused on Luke’s commendation that they were “more noble minded.” But the wording he uses strongly reinforces their diligence, “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” The word (ανακρινω) translated “examined” (NIV, NASV, ESV) or “searched” (KJV) is used elsewhere by Luke of Pilate’s questioning of Jesus (Luke 23:14) or Herod’s cross-examination (NIV) of the guards after Peter’s miraculous escape (Acts 12:19). When the chief priest and others challenge the ministry of Peter and John (Acts 4:9), Peter describes their charges as being “put on trial” (NASB) or “called to account” (NIV). Paul’s trial before Felix (Acts 24:8) and his own account of his earlier questioning (Acts 28:18) use the same word. (The last reference is interesting because Paul is referring back to an event in Acts 22:24 in which he narrowly avoided scourging!) In all of Luke’s other uses of ανακρινω the context indicates rigorous, arduous investigation. Outside of the Bible, the word is used in a judicial sense, with the noun form describing an examination of men suspected of conspiracy or of testing before the purchase of a slave (The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, Moulton & Milligan, p. 35).
The Bereans were not simply looking up a few proof-texts or favorite verses. When Paul proclaimed the Gospel to them, they conducted a careful and thorough investigation. Paul had challenged their thinking, and rather than uncritical acceptance or violent rejection, they chose to test what he said against the Scriptures. Their response was not to “cross-examine” Paul, but the Scriptures. A cross-examination involves asking difficult, even uncomfortable questions and not giving up until the answers are found. A cross-examination is not satisfied with superficial answers.
It is interesting to note that the Bereans are the ones affirmed by Luke. Some today seem to have the attitude that the Thessalonians would be preferred for their “simple faith” and responding from their heart without a need for a lot of “head-knowledge.” Simple faith and heart-response are valuable, but should never be set as opposed to diligent study. Luke goes out of his way to commend the Bereans who were “cross-examining” Scripture, inspecting and probing with judicial scrutiny.
Beating on the Bible
They were, to paraphrase Luther, “beating on the Bible.” Luther describes his own conversion process in Scripture (Romans 3:18): “Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. (Quoted by John Piper, Martin Luther: Lessons from His Life and Labor, The Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, January 30, 1996).
The Bereans’ cross-examination and Luther’s importunate beating should not be confused with a disrespect for Scripture. This approach to Scripture is not an attack or attempt to undermine or ridicule its content. Luther and the Bereans saw Scripture as the source of truth, and because they had a passion to know that truth they were relentless in their efforts to understand it and appropriate that truth into their lives. If we believe that God has revealed His truth in Scripture, we should have a high expectation that it will withstand any question or challenge we can pose. And if we value Biblical truth above our own ideas, we should be willing to risk asking questions that might make us uncomfortable and challenge our thinking against the standard of Scripture. Luther and the Bereans were confronted with challenges to their thinking, and their rigorous cross-examination of Scripture enabled Scripture to reshape their beliefs.
Our Bible study, individually or in a group should be instructed by this model. We should never be satisfied by reading a passage and reciting a few comfortable, familiar clichés. At best, that kind of superficiality will only reinforce what we already think and we won’t learn much new about the Bible or its Author. At the worst, it might reinforce our misunderstanding and avoid any opportunity to clarify or correct our thinking. I remember being in a small group study when one member asked a provocative question that pushed the limits of the group’s doctrinal box. The leader’s response was, “Well, we know it can’t mean that.” Maybe not, but if that is our reaction to every new thought, we limit our opportunities to grow and learn. Our current ideas, or our doctrinal filters, or our denominational traditions replace Scripture as the reference point of truth.
Questions are great tools for getting more than just the veneer from a passage. Why did he say this? How does the setting affect the meaning? How do these seemingly different statements fit together? What did the original readers think this meant? Could this mean something different than my first impression?
We need to train ourselves that no question is unacceptable. In other contexts (school or work) we hear all the time that there are no “dumb” questions. But somehow in our Bible study we find (or create) limits to avoid questions that make us or others uncomfortable or create an awkward silence in a group. We need to have a confidence and assurance that what God has revealed can withstand our questions. If we are truly seeking to know Him and His Word better we need to ask any question that might help us do that.
Along with questions, humility is critical. When we understand that we desperately need God’s truth and His grace to illuminate it to us, we will be motivated to examine Scripture and submit our thinking to that authority. As we grow in our Christian life we should develop strong, clear convictions about our beliefs. And every time we open the Bible we need to be willing to surrender those convictions as we prayerfully cross-examine Scripture.
Humility also means that we understand we may not be able to find an answer to every question (or at least not one that satisfies all our curiosity). God has not revealed every detail we might like to know, and even what He has revealed is often beyond our capacity to comprehend in is fullness. And sometime we just need more time to think and let His truth penetrate deeper into our mind and heart. My rule of thumb is, if I leave a Bible study (in my quiet time or small group) and all my questions have been answered, I have not asked enough questions.
This doesn’t mean we change our convictions and doctrinal positions on a regular basis. Those deeply-held beliefs may change, but only when we are convinced by diligent and extensive study. What it means is that we hold our convictions deeply, but not so entrenched that they are beyond the reach of Biblical truth. Humility means we are constantly searching (“cross-examining”) to sharpen and clarify and refine our understanding of God’s revelation in His Word.
As we learn to move beyond perfunctory or token Bible study and to reverently cross-examine Scripture, C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is a further benefit in that process:
We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us the ultimate truth in systematic form – something we could have tabulated and memorized and relied on like the multiplication table… It may be that what we should have liked would have been fatal to us if granted. It may be indispensable that our Lord’s teaching, by means of that elusiveness (to our systematizing intellect), should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality… (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 94-95; XI: ¶6, 9)
That is our goal (as it was for the Bereans and Luther), not to cross-examine Scripture to fill in our multiplication-table theology, but to know God better. That should be the passion that drives us to “beat importunately” as we study His Word.
Copyright 2006 by Michael Wiebe