HOW TO BE A BEREAN CHRISTIAN
The Jews in Berea, it is said, were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for “they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). How telling–for them and for us–that nobility is measured not by titles, land, parentage, wealth, or degrees, but by how we handle the word of God. Our approach to the Scriptures sets us apart as riff-raff or royalty.
So how do we become better Bereans?
That’s the question I recently posed to my congregation and the question I want to explore this week. How can we be more like the noble Bereans and less like the rabble from Thessalonica (Acts 17:5)?
Let me suggest ten ways:
1. LISTEN TO THE SERMON WITH AN OPEN BIBLE
There is no authority we have in the pulpit except in so far as it is derived from the word of God. It worries me when I speak at different places and read through the Scripture text without hearing anyone opening their Bibles (or at least stare down at a screen). I want to say, “You don’t know me. You don’t know if you should listen to me. You don’t know if anything I have to say is worthwhile. I hope you didn’t come to hear me. God is the one worth listening to, and he only speaks by his word. So I’ll wait a few seconds while you grab a Bible.”
Incidentally, you do not want to be at a church where you can listen to sermon after sermon and it doesn’t even matter if your Bible is open. You want to be at a church where the preaching is pulling you in to the text—to see it, to listen to it, to find connections with it. The best stuff in every sermon should arise from the truth you see in the text, not from the illustrations, the stories, or the preacher’s own enlightenment.
In Nehemiah 8:8 it says about the leaders in Jerusalem who came and were teaching the word that “they read from the book, from the law of God clearly, and they gave this sense so people could understand the reading.” In a nutshell, that’s what preaching is. The preacher reads from the book and then explains it clearly so the people can get it.
Ultimately, the only reason to listen to any preacher is because he brings you back to the Scriptures. Hopefully you trust your pastors because you know them personally and can see evidences of grace in their lives. But just being a nice person or a good parent or a sincere teacher does not mean you have any real God-given authority. There are lots of people who are sincere and nice and fine people who do not teach what accords with Scripture. They speak without divine authority.
Test everything. Take your Bible with you. Open it up. Follow along. See for yourself whether everything being taught accords with Scripture.
2. DON’T RUSH ON THE WORD OF GOD TO THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
The Bereans saw Scripture as something that deserved their attention. It merited their time and effort. They examined it daily. They were not skimming; they were searching. And to do that, you have to give yourself unhurried time in the word.
It’s not an absolute rule, but in general careful time in the Bible is better than a large quantity of time. Better to have five to ten minutes of slow, digestive, meditative study than cruising through thirty minutes of not really paying attention.
One of the great dangers for all of us is that the seed of the word of God would be choked out by thorns. Remember the third soil in Jesus’ parable. It seemed to be good. The heart seemed to receive the word and bear fruit. That is, until the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth choked it out and the plant became unfruitful.
How common it is for people to go to church, hear something that speaks to them powerfully, and they will seem to be on fire for God for a few weeks or even a few months. But then what happens? It’s not like they make a conscious decision to stop believing what they once believed or to stop going to church like they once did. Their falling away is not a deliberate choice as much as a bad habit learned through busyness and distraction. These withering plants let their time in the word dry up, fade up, disappear. No more searching. No more lingering. No more unhurried time to see what things are so.
There is a great danger every Sunday that we would be stirred and not changed. We come to church, feel a little something, but it turns out to be nothing but a little Jesus inoculation–just enough of the virus to keep you from getting the real thing. If God is working on you next Sunday, don’t waste it. Don’t rush on from the word to the rest of life. Find someone to pray with you. Have that conversation you need to have. Don’t turn on the football game the second you walk back in the house.
The work of the Lord in our lives is more like a crock pot than a microwave. We want our spiritual growth to be obvious and immediate. But God’s work is often deliberate and imperceptible. Do you want Hot Pockets for lunch or a good, slow cooked, pot roast? Do you want to be mature in Christ? Get in the word and take it slow.
3. GET IN THE WORD AS A WAY OF LIFE
The Bereans examined the Scriptures daily. They came to the Bible and kept coming back. Is there a frequency and consistency to your spiritual consumption? We will not make progress in godliness without persistence in God’s word.
And why did the Bereans go every day? Presumably, because they wanted answers. They wanted to know the truth. They believed that they would learn something from the Scriptures that they could not learn anywhere else. They wanted to know if Paul’s message was true—that is why they searched daily.
If we are not going be in the word of God with consistency, we have to focus not just on discipline but on faith. Do you struggle to make the Bible a regular part of your routine? Consider what you are not believing about the word? Do we believe it has something relevant to say? Do you believe there are answers to life’s hardest questions in the Bible? Do you think you will find the comfort and presence of Christ in this book? The Bereans went to the Scriptures daily because they were eager to listen to God and they believed the Bible was the place to go to hear his voice.
Why do we check email compulsively? Or Facebook? Or Twitter? Or the old fashioned mailbox? Because we believe there is news for us—there’s something there. Someone may have just put up a sweet video of a cat or a status update about someone who made a nice lemonade. Really important stuff like that. We check because we believe we may hear something relevant and necessary. And yet, what could be more relevant or necessary than God’s word?
Let this truth be a diagnostic tool you and for me: Our behavior with the Scriptures is an indication of our belief about the Scriptures. The Bereans looked into the Bible every day because they expected to find something there. Do we?
4. WE MUST APPROACH THE BIBLE WITH EAGER EXPECTATION
The Bereans received the word with all eagerness. That was their posture to the word—readiness and expectation. Whether in a conversation or in an audience, your posture says something. It indicates whether you are leaning forward, ready to listen, ready to learn, or whether you are bored and distracted. The Bereans had good posture. They were at the edge of their seat—ready to receive the word, ready to believe.
Are you eager to come to the word? Are you eager to take advantage of opportunities to hear more of God’s word? Have you thought about trying Sunday school again, or a small group, or a Bible study, or Sunday evening, or a conference, or picking up a good book? I know we cannot say yes to every opportunity, but we should ask ourselves: Am I indifferent to these opportunities or am I eager for more of them?
There is no movement of the Spirit in the history of revival, and no genuine movement of the Spirit in the human heart, that does not result in a new hunger for God’s word. I’ve seen it many times. You probably have too, maybe in your life. When God grabs a hold of someone’s life, you can see in his newfound eagerness for the word. He is excited to read, to study, to learn, and to grow, ready to get into the word whenever he can.
5. BE PREPARED TO STUDY THE WORD DEEPLY
The Bereans examined the Scriptures. The word “examined” can refer to a legal process, like a trial. Acts 17:11, therefore, speaks of an in depth, detailed, intelligent examination of the Scriptures. Many of us work so hard in so many other areas. We work hard to learn a language, get a degree, practice an instrument, study for our boards, or train for sports. But how hard do we work to understand and examine the Scriptures?
You don’t have to be the smartest person. It does not say that the Bereans were more noble because they were all 4.0 students. It is not about being smarter, but about digging deeper.
There is a unique confidence that is acquired when you see something in the Scriptures for yourself. Not simply that you’ve heard this or somebody told you that, but you’ve seen it for yourself. You saw the connection in the word. You looked up the cross references. You checked your concordance. You thought it through. You prayed about it. You took notes. There is a new confidence that comes because you are not just accepting things secondhand, but (often with the aid of good teachers) you see it right in front of you in the pages of Scripture.
At the most basic level, anyone can do what pastors do. It requires hard work and training, but it does not require the world’s leading intellect. Normally, when I read through my text for the first few times I think “What in the world am I going to say?” It only comes through studying and searching and praying and reading that you begin to see things you hadn’t seen before. I need to study the word deeply as a pastor. And every church member need to do the same.
6. BE CONFIDENT THAT YOU ARE ABLE TO STUDY THE BIBLE AND DISCOVER THE TRUTH OF GOD’S WORD
There are things in the Bible that are hard to understand. We must be diligent with means. We need to learn good habits of study and exegesis. We need to learn from gifted teachers God puts in our midst. But none of this means the word of God is inaccessible to “ordinary” people. Far from it. The Bereans were Jews, so they would have been well steeped in the Scriptures—whereas we often have Biblical illiteracy to overcome—but just in terms of sheer education, opportunities, books read, and studies done, there is just no comparison. We are among the most highly educated people in this history of the planet. We have an embarrassment of riches at our disposal. Most people reading this blog are not lacking in the tools to think critically and search the Scriptures for themselves.
And yet, we can too easily give up.
One of the reasons we give up is because we think we will never be able to discover the truth because so many smart people disagree about what is true. You may think, “There are PhD’s over here that say one thing about a verse and another group that say just the opposite. What chance do I possible have to figure this out?” Don’t give up. If you get three PhD’s in a room you are bound to have fifteen opinions. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the Bible or history or economics or entomology, you are going to get very smart people who see things differently. If we are going to toss up our hands every time a really smart person disagree, we are not going to know anything about anything.
The Bereans were ordinary people, two millennium ago, who believed they could hear what Paul said and discern whether or not his words were true to the Scripture. We can discover the truth. Don’t give up on it just because there are many ways to look at things.
7. RECOGNIZE THAT SOME THINGS WHICH CLAIM TO BE FROM THE BIBLE ARE NOT
You have to admire the zeal of the Bereans. When they heard this new teaching from Paul, they undoubtedly understood that he was making his case about the Messiah from the Bible. They could see that he was reasoning from the Scriptures, but still they wanted to determine if what Paul was saying about the Bible actually came from the Bible.
Almost everyone who has ever cared about Christian theology or Christian ethics has claimed Scriptural warrant for their positions. Everyone in the church professes a desire to be biblical. And yet, we need to be like the Bereans and recognize that some ideas that come with a Bible verse attached may not actually be from the Bible. It is terribly frustrating to see churches, institutions, and denominations refuse to put certain teaching outside the pale, just because the teaching claims to be biblical. All the major heresies in the history of the church have claimed some Biblical support. When Augustine was arguing with Pelagius about the nature of grace and human inability, they were arguing about texts of Scripture. But only one of them was true to Scripture.
I understand that the Bible is not equally clear on every issue but on essential matters we have to simply say, “Look, I know you have a verse there that you think supports this position, but that is not what that verse means.” The Scriptures teach us that there are false teachings that false teachers try to peddle out of the Scriptures themselves. False teachers always have Bible verses, so we have to be discerning. That is what the Bereans were searching. They heard Paul argue from the Scriptures, but they needed to make sure for themselves the passage meant what Paul said it did.
8. TEST DIFFICULT DOCTRINES FROM THE SCRIPTURES BEFORE DISCARDING THEM
Christians from a broad church background may have a hard time accepting unfamiliar doctrines that strike them as overly precise or controversial. Thinking through predestination, the roles of men and women, eternal punishment, or the uniqueness of Christ (to give but a few examples) can be challenging and confusing. But if we are like the Bereans we will not discard hard teachings just because they are hard. We will search the Scriptures to see if these things are so.
Be open to being surprised by the word of God. The Bereans must have been surprised to learn that the Christ would suffer, die, and be raised to life. But they accepted it because they saw it in the Bible. Don’t ditch difficult doctrines without testing them against the Scriptures.
9. BE HUMBLE ENOUGH TO TAKE THE BIBLE AT ITS WORD NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE
If you read through the book of Acts you’ll notice that Luke often points out the high social standing of those who receive the word of God. We could be turned off by this, asking ourselves “Why is Luke making such a big deal about this? It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or famous.” And this is true. But part of what Luke is trying to show us (and Theophilus) is the humility of those in high standing who are humble enough to submit themselves to the word of God. He wants to underscore their complete submission to Scripture. Many of these individuals may have thought they were too important for the word. But real nobility, Luke reminds us, is being humble enough to listen to the word no matter who you are.
Calvin says, “We know how hardly men came down from their high degree, what a rare matter it is for those who are great in the world to undertake the reproach of the cross, laying away their pride, and rejoice in humility … And surely this is the first entrance into faith that we be ready to follow, and that abandoning the understanding and wisdom of the flesh, we submit ourselves to Christ, by him to be taught and to obey him.”
It is our pride that keeps us from believing. It is our pride that will not admit God’s word is the most important word we need to hear. It is our pride which imagines we know who we are and how to be saved and how to live apart from the Bible. It takes great humility to submit yourself unreservedly to the word of God.
10. GIVE THE BIBLE THE FINAL SAY IN EVERY MATTER ON WHICH IT MEANS TO SPEAK
I sometimes hear people say that Scripture is a conversation starter. And I suppose that’s true in one sense. There can be a lot of good conversations after you read the Bible or hear an expositional sermon. But if the Bible is a conversation starter, it is to start a conversation about the God of the Bible who has the final word in all our conversations. Let’s reason together. Let’s not be afraid of honest dialogue. And let’s be sure to test all our songs, our books, our creeds, our blogs, our lectures, our sermons, and our science against the Bible.
One of the reasons different professing Christians and different churches come to such wildly different understandings of the Christian faith is because we approach the Bible so differently. The question: What is our ultimate authority? Every Christian and every church will say, in some way, that our theology must accord with Scripture. But what is our ultimate authority? How do we make our closing arguments? Do we give the final word to reason and experience, to sacred Tradition, or to the holy Scriptures?
All religion rests on authority. For that matter, every academic discipline and every sphere of human inquiry rests on authority. Whether we realize it or not, we all give someone or something the last word. You may give it to your parents or to your culture or to your community or to your feelings or to the government or to peer review journals or to opinion polls or to a holy book. We all have someone or something we turn to as the final arbiter of truth claims. For Christians, that authority must be the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
When interpreted correctly, the Bible is never wrong in what it affirms. It must never be marginalized as anything less than the last word of everything it means to say.