Eagerly Receiving the Message

Acts 17:1-15

Have you ever tried to change someone’s mind who believed he already knew the truth? You usually end up solidifying his position, galvanizing his arrogance, and making an enemy by suggesting that he doesn’t have all the answers.

Think how Paul must have felt debating and arguing with people who were just like himself – pre-Damascus road. Their arrogance and their stubbornness are so deeply rooted and impenetrable that it’s like beating his head against a brick wall. And ironically, he must have seen and heard himself in them – their pre-determined opposition to the idea of Jesus being the Christ, their refusal to consider that God had sent his Son in fulfillment of the prophetic scriptures, their violent response of persecution against anyone who thought differently. And that made it all the more frustrating – to have been just like them, and to know how impossible the task was.

I still hear God’s words to the prophet Isaiah echoing, after Isaiah said “Here am I, send me.” God said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

How would you like the job of telling people what they don’t want to hear, knowing that they aren’t going to listen and that they will violently oppose you every step of the way? No wonder Paul shook the dust off his feet and told the Jews in Pisidian Antioch, “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (13:46).

But there is still this commitment to taking the good news first to his fellow Jews. And so in every city, he goes first to the synagogue – it remains his base of operations, his initial point of entry into the faith of a city. The Jews share a foundational belief in the one God who created the universe, they share a belief in the scriptures of the OT, they have a common understanding of life and values and ethics. They are more alike than different. But the Jews also had centuries of believing, not only that they were God’s people, but that they were God’s only people. And their certain confidence in the scriptures solidified into an arrogant assumption that they had perfectly interpreted and fulfilled the scriptures.

So, when Paul and Silas and the mission team arrive in Thessalonica and have great success among the Jews, and especially among the God-fearing Gentiles, the Jewish leadership became very jealous. What do you do when you can’t win by debate and reasoning from the scriptures? Luke says the Jews “rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city” (vs. 5). That’s a great tactic – when you can’t win the debate, kill the debater.

They go looking for Paul and Silas, and when they can’t find them, they seize Jason, in whose house they were staying, and drag him before the city officials and make the same kind of charges they made back in Philippi – “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” – (in other words) they are threatening our peace and promoting an illegal religion.

Jason is let off with posting a bond, and then under the cover of night, the brothers slip Paul and Silas out of town and on their way to Berea, a city on the foothills of the Olympian mountains about 50 miles south of Thessalonica.

You’ve got to love Paul’s persistence. In spite of the Jewish opposition in Thessalonica, they go straight to the synagogue. But all of the things I just said about the Jews obstinacy and arrogance? It’s a different story in Berea -- “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (17:11-12).

It’s not that they were more gullible, or more easily swayed, or less grounded in scripture, but that they were more noble. They were people of honesty and integrity. And when they heard the truth of what Paul was saying, and examined the scriptures for themselves they came to the obvious conclusion. And instead of bowing up and attacking Paul because it challenged what they had always believed, “Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”

What’s ironic is that, though the Berean Jews didn’t mount an opposition to Paul, when the Jews in Thessalonica heard that he was preaching in Berea, they went there and stirred up the crowds against him. And so the brothers in Berea sent Paul on to the coast, while Silas and Timothy stayed on at Berea strengthening the newborn church there.

I want to park for a few moments on Luke’s comments about the character and attitude of the Bereans. And it’s not just that he is praising the Bereans, but that he is also comparing their attitude with that of the Thessalonians.

The first thing that strikes me about the comparison is not necessarily their knowledge of the Scriptures but their attitude toward the Scriptures. When the Thessalonians listened to Paul proclaiming something they disagreed with, they automatically rejected it and branded Paul as dangerous. The Bereans listened to Paul and they immediately went to the Scriptures to examine them – then and only then did they respond to what he said.

Let’s take the content of Paul’s proclamation out of the equation for just a moment and focus just on the response. To the Thessalonians, anything different than what they already believed was wrong. They believed they knew the truth, completely and perfectly. It wasn’t just a healthy confidence, it was an arrogant fanaticism. They were not open to the possibility that they could be wrong, or that there was something they needed to learn. It was ungodly. And I am sick of the same attitude when I see it arise in the church today. The unwillingness to listen to something because it challenges what we’ve always believed – the arrogant assumption that we are right and everyone else is wrong – the personal attacks on fellow Christians who suggest we take a new look at familiar scriptures. It is ungodly.

Does that mean we reject everything because it is old, or accept anything because it is new. Not at all. But it means that we neither reject nor accept anything simply because it agrees or disagrees with what we’ve always thought. Instead, like the Bereans, we go to the Word. We seek God’s confirmation or rejection. It means we must become constant students of the Word, and continual learners. When we refuse to think, and assume we know, we have negated God’s working in our lives.

If you rely on someone else to tell you what to think, or to tell you what to believe, shame on you. If you rely on some preacher to tell you what’s scriptural or unscriptural, you have abdicated your right and responsibility to examine the Scriptures for yourself. Does that mean you shouldn’t listen to someone who has a good knowledge of the Bible, or that you shouldn’t value the opinions of someone you respect? Not at all. But read for yourself, think for yourself, examine the Scriptures for yourself.

A few years ago, someone told me of a conversation they had with their mother who said she wasn’t going to go see the movie The Passion because her preacher told the church it was unscriptural (and the truth is, there has never been a more “scriptural” movie). And the sad thing was, he hadn’t seen it himself, but was going on what someone else had written in a bulletin article. Now, if you don’t want to go see a movie, that’s fine and you shouldn’t go, but if it’s because you are listening to someone else’s third hand opinion – something’s wrong. And it’s not just a movie, it’s about everything from wearing ties to praise teams. Letting someone else, somewhere else tell you what’s scriptural or unscriptural – and you blindly accepting their word without examining the scriptures or thinking for yourself.

The other phrase that just really captures the heart of the Bereans is that “they received the message with great eagerness.” There was an attitude towards preaching that excites the heart of every preacher. There was an eagerness to hear the word of God, an eagerness to learn the will of God.

There is a movement across Christianity today to de-emphasize preaching – to either dumb it down or completely phase it out as outmoded and irrelevant. But what happens in preaching is profound – and not because I’m preaching, or Justin is preaching, or whoever your favorite preacher is somewhere else, but because of what God is doing. Preaching is not just a human event – me the speaker delivering my well-crafted thoughts to you the audience. It is God using my words to touch the lives of people eager to hear what God has to say. Paul says to the Corinthian church, “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21)… “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

And even though Luke negatively compared the Thessalonians to the Bereans, when Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church a few years later – to those who had believed and were persuaded he said, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).

There is a power and a presence of the word of God in the life of this early church that transcends a few inspirational phrases to get us feeling good about ourselves. The word of God was regarded as exactly that – the Word from God. We ignore it and dismiss it and minimize it to our own demise. When we do not spend time in his word, we don’t give God a voice in our lives, and we suffer for it. We become spiritually anemic and lethargic, we lose our focus and give Satan an opportunity and a foothold. And it happens so subtly that we don’t notice. Just one day we look around and realize how far we’ve drifted from God. We need God’s Word in our lives.

Nobody loves a good preacher joke more than I do, and I enjoy gigging and being gigged about long sermons and sleeping babies. But when we get done with all the joking, preaching isn’t a joke – it is a time where I do my best to get out of the way and let God have his say. And I don’t do it arrogantly or take it lightly. I remember what Karl Barth wrote about preaching:

“What are you doing, you man, with the word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earth? Who has authorized you to take your place there and to generate religious feeling? And, to crown all, to do so and expect results and success? Did one ever hear of such overweening presumption, such Titanism, or – to speak less classically but more clearly – such brazenness! So far as I know, there is no one who deserves the wrath of God more abundantly than ministers!” (The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 125)

I take very seriously the time we have together in God’s Word, and I hope you take it take it seriously, and like the Bereans, “eagerly receive it” and let God have a voice in your life.