August 13, 2017 “Noble Minds” – Acts 17:1-15
August 13, 2017 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
We really like our dishwasher. We were reminded of that recently while staying in an Airbnb home on the coast. When we started the dishwasher there, it sounded like we were on the airport tarmac with jet engines warming up. Our own machine at home is blessedly quiet, and gets the dishes nicely clean too. I had spent hours reading reviews and comparing reports on the various brands and models. We invested the time to study carefully before we made our purchase.
That kind of careful, thoughtful consideration is what the Bereans gave the Gospel message about Jesus when they heard it. They did not just jump to a conclusion either negative or positive, but took the time to see for themselves if what Paul and Silas were preaching lined up with the Hebrew Scriptures. In verse 11, Luke says the Bereans were more “noble,” because of the intellectual care with which they received and considered what they heard preached.
The missionaries were on Greek soil. Last week we were with them in Philippi, their first stop in Europe. Now Paul and Silas had traveled 100 miles west on the Egnatian highway. It’s a lonely road even today, but with some beautiful views of the sea. Our family drove it eastward one afternoon in order to visit Philippi and then back again to where we start with Paul this morning, in Thessalonica, or Thessaloniki as it is known today. It was then and still is the second largest city in Greece.
Modern day Thessaloniki boasts a couple of major universities and a large student population. Universities are meant to be places where ideas are freely exchanged and debated, where points of view are carefully considered. But that was not so much the case in Paul’s time. We read in verse 2 that Paul went to the synagogue for three successive Sabbath days and “argued with them from the Scriptures.” Verse 3 tells how he was “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead.” Verse 4 says, “Some of them were persuaded,” but instead of letting the discussion continue, Jewish leaders gathered ruffians and formed a mob to apprehend Paul.
The Thessalonian Jews did not want to learn more about this man who Paul said was the Messiah. Instead, rioters came looking for Paul and Silas at the home of a new convert, Jason. Not finding whom they sought, they seized Jason and other believers and dragged them before the city authorities. The case against the Christians was based on rumor and distortion. In verse 6 the mob shouts, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.”
Christians “turning the world upside down,” is a sweet bit of irony. In one sense it was exaggeration of the worst kind; in another sense it was “spot on.” What the Thessalonian Jews believed about God and their world was, in fact, being turned upside down, but they had no patience for it. Just as is happening right now in international relations, feelings and rhetoric overrode careful thinking. Paul’s thoughtful explanations were ignored. Verse 5 says, “the Jews became jealous…” When emotions like that drive our actions, then the truth ceases to matter or even to be paid attention. Those Thessalonian Jews dismissed the good news of Jesus Christ as “fake news.”
For me, careful thinking about the truth is not just a matter of how to be a good consumer, discerning what the best products are among all the choices we have. To use God’s gift of rational thought is a divine duty based in the way we were created. Concern for truth is part of what it means to be human, to be made in the image of our Lord who is the Truth. Taking thought before taking action is what we were meant to do by our very nature. To let jealousy and anger and emotion by itself drive our behavior and responses is to fail completely as human beings.
Emotion is understandable. Emotion has its place. People lose jobs and get angry. Threats make us feel insecure and we are afraid. One group is more successful and another group gets jealous. When our world starts changing radically our emotions start rising and our very identity feels threatened.
Christians were turning the world upside down for Jews. Jewish ideas of God and His ways were being upended and stood on their heads. The good news was for Greeks as well as Jews. God had become a man. An executed criminal is the Lord of the universe. The way to salvation is grace rather than law. Paul and Silas were turning around everything the Thessalonians believed. They challenged the very identity of the Jewish community.
The Thessalonian Jews responded with their emotions instead of their minds. They resolved to stay the same, to be who they were and nothing else. That would get rid of any challenge to their identity. They would drag out Paul and Silas and throw them to the mob. When they couldn’t find them, they grabbed Jason and other new Christians instead. Verse 9 says they had to post bail to be released.
So in verse 10, Paul and Silas left the recalcitrant, unthinking Thessalonian Jewish community behind. Their new Christian friends among the Greeks got them out of town and they traveled southeast around the gulf to the smaller town of Berea. The Greeks pronounce and often spell it Veria today.
The Berean Jewish reception of the Gospel was different. Verse 11 says they were more “noble” than the Thessalonians. That meant, as the New Living Translation puts it, they were more “open-minded,” more willing, as the rest of the verse says, to welcome and study the message to see if it was true. So we’re told they “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”
We live in ironic times and the irony today is that being “open-minded” often means the opposite of what it meant for the Bereans. The last thing so-called “open-minded” people might do today is go to the Bible to determine whether a viewpoint is true or not. The perception and sometimes the reality is that close-minded people read the Bible and care very little about carefully thinking through matters of truth. They imagine they already have the truth, so they don’t need to pay attention to critical thinking, science or reputable journalism.
The situation today is that minds are closed on both sides of all sorts of issues. Non-believers refuse to even consider that Scripture might have something to teach them, while believers reject anything that might challenge their faith, or even their politics, without giving it a thought. Neither perspective is the kind of noble-mindedness which Paul and Silas found there in Berea.
Part of the problem is that being “open-minded” is often confused with complete skepticism, refusing to believe anything or trust anyone. That confusion is only exacerbated by the way the term “fake news” is being flung around the world right now. We get the impression that no one is telling the truth, that every report is fake, that there are no real facts about anything.
Yet the noble open-mindedness of the Bereans lay in the very fact that they were willing to consider the new message, to think about it and test it against God’s Word. And to believe that message, as verse 12 says many of them did, they had to let their minds be changed even about the way they understood the Scriptures. Unlike the Thessalonians, they were willing to consider an idea that at first did not seem to fit what God’s Word said.
To believe what Paul was preaching, that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Bereans had to let their understanding of the Messiah change. Instead of a conquering hero who would defeat all their enemies and restore the political state of Israel, they needed to look at Isaiah and Zechariah and other prophets and psalms with fresh eyes and see a Messiah who would suffer, who would die, and who would rise again to be their Savior.
At the same time, as they considered the possibility that they may have been wrong about who and what the Messiah was supposed to be, the Bereans did not become total skeptics. The facts which made them look at some of the Scriptures differently did not make them give up on the Scriptures or decide that any interpretation is just as good as another. No, they read God’s Word again and realized that there was a new and deeper understanding to be had of the same basic truths that were always there.
Being nobly open-minded like the Bereans does not at all mean letting go of the idea of truth, of imagining there are no right or wrong interpretations, or that anything goes when we talk about what the Bible teaches. As G. K. Chesterton said in his autobiography, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Which is exactly what the Bereans did. Their open-minded reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ led them to finally close their minds around it and believe it wholeheartedly.
Folks sometimes get the idea that the Covenant Church, with our emphasis on freedom in Christ and our agreement to disagree about doctrine regarding baptism or the end times or creation, means that anything goes for us. “Read the Bible and interpret it however you like and it’s just fine in the Covenant.” But that would be a mistake just as it would be a mistake to think that Berean change of mind about what Scripture said regarding the Messiah suddenly meant they could interpret it any way they liked.
No, the Bereans wrapped their noble, open minds firmly around the good news of Jesus Christ and after that they never let go of it. Thessaloniki which closed its mind to the Gospel is today a big, commercial, not very attractive place with awful traffic. There are churches there, including the largest one in Greece, but it would be easy to miss the signs of Christianity in all the noise.
Over in modern Veria a smaller city remains proud of its Christian heritage. I showed you pictures two weeks ago of that monument to Paul’s mission in their town square. In Byzantine times they built at least 70 churches. 48 of those still stand today, maintained even through the Ottoman Muslim occupation and persecution. Holding firmly to that message they were open-minded enough to consider made an impact on Berea which is still visible.
Evangelical Christians have often held up those Bereans as examples of faithful and careful Bible study. Churches name themselves after them, like Berean Baptist over on Chambers Street. We want to be like those people who read and studied God’s Word so diligently. And that is all good. Your church council is talking about how we will start reading through the Old Testament together like we did the New Testament last fall and the Gospels this spring. May God make us people who love to read the Bible.
There is another part to being “Berean,” though. It’s that noble open-mindedness that was willing to engage a new perspective, to examine a different way of looking at Scripture to see if it was really what God was saying. It’s not just Bible reading, it’s solid and careful thinking about what we read and about what the world around us is thinking.
I mentioned universities in Thessaloniki. But the Berean spirit is why Christians invented universities in the middle ages. Followers of Jesus had the vision that every last bit of human knowledge and science and wisdom should be brought into relation with what they found in Scripture. As Paul said in II Corinthians 10:5, “we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” So they studied and thought about philosophy and music and grammar and science and medicine and biology and politics and art. They read and opened their minds to books by pagan writers and by Muslim writers and pulled all those disciplines together to serve Jesus Christ and His kingdom, connecting it all to what they read in the Bible.
Many of those great Christian universities still exist, like the very first one in Bologna that coined the term “university,” the Sorbonne in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, and later on American schools like Harvard and Yale. Most of those schools lost their Christian center, the faith that held them together and connected all those disciplines in the first place. Now you go to places like that, and to our own University of Oregon, to study this or that discipline, but as I’m sure our grad students can tell you, you very seldom talk to people in other departments or make any attempt to “unify” all that knowledge in any significant way. Christians often find them daunting places. They can feel like Peter in our Gospel reading as he got out of the boat and found the waves crashing around him.
Yet truly noble open-minded Christians with a Berean desire to explore those ideas in the light of Scripture will also find in those schools what Peter found on the sea, that Jesus is there too, in the midst of all the waves of ideas bouncing around a modern college. As many students who’ve come through Valley Covenant have found, faith in Jesus combined with an open-mind will not sink. He will keep you afloat in it all.
We may be tempted to run in the face of all the world’s ideas, to turn our backs like Elijah did in our reading from I Kings 19 and just go sit in our little Christian cave. But our Lord will meet us there too, and call us out like He did Elijah, sending us back into the world to let His Word engage all the other words and thoughts out there.
A couple years ago I had conversations with an atheist philosophy professor at the U of O. My first intention was to set him straight on what the Bible said, to ask him to be a bit more open-minded about God’s Word. And to my surprise he was willing to listen. But then as we talked I realized I needed to engage his ideas, to read a book he wrote. And in the process I discovered that while some of what he said was opposed to Scripture, I could learn something from him about how Christian character is formed and even about grace.
Being like the Bereans means Bible study, but it means more. It means taking whatever we hear in the classroom or in the news or on the job and then with an open-mind comparing and connecting it with what the Scriptures say. In the process I believe we will discover that our Lord Jesus is there, walking on all those waves and saving and rescuing people in ways we never expected. Let us be Bereans in every way.
God’s Word remains at the heart of it. No matter how far out we walk on the ocean of human ideas, our Lord will always lead us back here, to the good, true and beautiful news of His love and grace in Jesus. When we start reading the Old Testament together soon I hope you will join in, read the daily readings and be part of a group to talk about it. But in that reading and in those groups I hope that we can also engage the ideas around us, the politics, the ethics, the art and music, the science, the business models, the social philosophies, the psychology and self-help that is being offered. Let us really think about those things, hold them up to God’s Word and trust Jesus to keep us from drowning in it all. Then, just like the Bereans, we will find Him there, full of grace and truth.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj