Acts 17 – Who were the Noble Bereans?

In Acts 17, Luke contrasts the response of some Jews in Thessalonica with those in Berea. In fact, all three episodes in Acts 17 show that the gospel was presented in a rational and reasonable fashion. Some accept that rational message (Berea), others act in a disorderly fashion to oppose Paul’s message (Thessalonica). While some in Athens scoff at Paul’s message, there is some respect given to him by those who hear his message on Mars Hill.

Paul engages in rhetoric in the synagogue at Thessalonica and Berea, and in a public philosophical discussion in Athens. Luke describes him as persuading people with positive arguments for the truth of the gospel and the evidence of scripture and reason. This was an important theme for Luke if he was addressing a Roman who is likely from the upper-levels of society. Christianity is not at all like a mystery cult which hides the “real doctrine” from outsiders. Nor is Paul like a sophist orator, a teacher who convinces a crowd on the basis of his personal charisma. Christianity is a “reasonable faith” which can be accepted by intelligent and rational people when presented with a clear argument.

BibleSearchLogo2Paul success angered the Jews, who arranged for a mob to start a riot in the city, placing the blame on Paul and Silas (v. 5-9). The Jews of the synagogue were jealous. Once again, this is the verb “to be zealous” and can have a connotation of strong or even violent response to a false teaching (Phineas, Elijah, Judas Maccabees, etc).

They form a mob made up of “bad characters from the marketplace,” probably day-laborers who were at the time unemployed. Luke very carefully describes this group as a disorderly mob, irrational and violent. This is in contrast to how Christianity entered the city (rationally, in the synagogue, and accepted by prominent people), and in contrast to the people of Berea in the next paragraph. This mob rushes Jason’s house in order to arrest Paul and Silas, but settle for Jason instead. It is possible that Jason was a leader in the church and therefore was arrested as a representative of the Christians.

Paul presents similar arguments in Berea, but with different results. Just as in Thessalonica, Paul visits the synagogue and reasons with the Jews and God- Fearing Gentiles that Jesus is the Christ. But in Berea, Paul’s message was received with goodwill. The difference is that this congregation “searches the scripture” to confirm Paul’s message.

Luke describes the Berean Jews as “more noble,” a phrase which might be glossed as “more open-minded” (BDAG). The word εὐγενής is used by Josephus (Antiq. 12.5, 255) for those “better men” who rejected Antiochus and the Hellenists. Luke is therefore described the reception of Paul’s message as attracting intellectually competent and well born individuals. Those who accept Paul’s message are described as men and women of “high standing,” (εὐσχήμων).

Luke’s point in all this is to show that the message Paul proclaims is attractive to the intellectuals of the day. Those who are thoughtful and noble in their thinking will see the light of Paul’s gospel, those who reject it are troublemakers and make false accusations about Paul, stirring up strife and discord.

I think that there is ample opportunity to apply this text to the present day church, which unfortunately stirs up quite a bit of strife and discord and fails to present the claims of Christianity in a rational, reasonable light.  Paul laid his gospel out in a compelling and culturally relevant way and found success.  The acerbic noise coming from some quarters of the Church (on a variety of issues) is not at all presenting a “reasonable faith” to a world which needs the Gospel.

14 thoughts on “Acts 17 – Who were the Noble Bereans?

  1. I keep throwing around this idea that true reason needs to be recognized by revelation. In Acts 17, we see that new revelation is also recognized by old revelation. This was also the case when the early church fathers were trying to recognize the inspired cannon of Scripture. If we abandon the guide of revelation, it seems that our reason also fails. Could it be that the separation of the two becomes our downfall? Example: Adam and Eve. When their reason betrayed God’s revealed commands they sinned. Revelation seems to keep our reason in check.

    What are your thoughts?

    • I think that reason can recognize truth where ever it happens to turn up, whether that is in Mathematics or Theology. Reason is corrupted by sin and often leads to false conclusions, but for many people their reason will lead them at least part of the way to revelation. For the people who responded positively in Thessalonica and Berea, their reason and calm thought brought them to faith; the ones who rejected it engaged in behavior which was not “noble” even in the Greco-Roman world.

      In this post my point was that in Luke’s world, Christianity can “hold its own” in the world of rational thought. My guess is that people who champion rational thought in the 21st century would disagree with Luke (and me!)

  2. What I pull from this post is that the problem that we are dealing with in Acts 17 is with the people of Thessalonica, not with how Paul brings the message to them. The problem with the church today is that the gospel is not being preached in a rational and reasonable light. The problem in Acts 17 is about the perception of the Thessalonian people and their harden hearts and their rebellious attitudes. Paul tells the same message to the Bereans and they understood and believed. Another insight I drew from this is that if Paul must being speaking in a way that connects with everyone, in a way that people could understand it. Often in churches today there are pastors preach sermons that really don’t reach out to everyone. Some sermons only reach out to people who have been in the church for awhile, or some come across as if the people should know the basics. Some sermons speak to different age groups. The church I go to now, the pastor does a really awesome job connecting with the whole church body. His sermons are simple enough for visitors to understand but he also capture the minds of and reveal new things to Grace Bible College students and people who are strong in their faith. .

  3. I think the main reason the first crowd was angered and got a mob together was because they took Paul’s teaching personally and did not see their fault, rather took things into their own hands.Sometimes I see this in my own life when I am accused of doing something wrong. When my Dad would come to me about something I would deny it and get angry. I can see this in this passage. When Paul preaches them the Word they become angry and instead of doing what they know is right they decide to kill them and satisfy their guilt. On the other hand when Paul preached this same thing in Berea, the people received it. I liked what you said in your post, “The difference is that this congregation “searches the scripture” to confirm Paul’s message.” The people in the first picture were angry because of the things that Paul preached, the people in the second picture searched the scriptures to affirm the preaching.
    I think this has great implications for the church today and for believers everywhere. We need to look to the Word for everything, even if hearing the truth hurts, we need to have a strong relationship with Christ that we know we can go to Him when we have failed him.

  4. As Christians we can draw a couple of applications from this passage. Including multiple applications in the way in which Christians should act and some more positive attractions to the gospel.

    I agree with P.Long when he describes the present day church stirring up “strife and discord.” Often the church seems to legalistically claim stances on certain issues, speaking outwardly and condescendingly to those who believe or act differently (These people being non-believes). Non-believers see this attitude of rigidity and actions of hypocrisy coming from the church destroying the true attractive nature of the gospel. We are ALL sinners, saved only my God’s GRACE. Roman 3:23, John 3:16, are probably two of the most quoted verses, but do Christians imitate this mercy and grace God has shown to us?

    I also truly love the action of the Bereans, “examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (17:11). How often do I examine the scriptures for myself to discern what my pastors and professors say is true? As Christians, we should look to the scriptures, not individuals, to formulate there believes and values.

    Another “positive argument for the truth of the gospel” lies within the value the gospel bring for women (P.Long). Women seen equal in God’s eyes would have been a totally new way of thinking for any people, and surely attracted (or should have in the Thessalonica’s case) many women. In Berea we see, “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (Acts 17:12).

  5. In Acts 17, it seems that Luke is trying to demonstrate that the gospel is appealing and sound even for those who are very intelligent and rational people. The gospel not only has an emotional appeal of salvation and Christ’s death on the cross for everyone’s sins, but it also makes sense rationally. I think that this is a very powerful tool to show that the gospel, and Paul the messenger, is not a crazy idea, but rather a radical change of life that liberates those who believe. However, because of the success of Paul’s preaching, violence comes about and it shows how dangerous it is to be part of disorder and chaos, such as the mob is here. Luke seems to be encouraging the reception of the Bereans, as they are described as “more noble” and “open-minded” (Acts 17 post).I think this goes to show the importance of the Church’s reaction to learning and hearing new things. We should search the Scriptures for confirmation, but here Luke is discouraging actions such as those of the thoughtless mobs.

  6. P Long mentioned that rational and intelligent people, when presented with a clear argument, were able to respond and accept the Gospel. Maybe the reason why the Jews formed a mob was because they thought just the opposite. They must have thought that the Gospel was irrational, and the fact that people were accepting what appeared to be an irrational belief angered them. When Paul arrived in Berea, the Bereans responded to the message with the opposite effect (unlike the Thessalonicans). Rather than misunderstand Paul’s message, they “examined the Scriptures” (17:11) to see if what Paul was saying is in fact true. I believe that this is why the Bereans accepted Paul’s message. After examining the Scriptures, they realized that Paul’s message was not something that he just created out of thin air. I believe that this has a deep implication for the Church today in the context of our relations with non-believers. We tend to foster arguments over who is right and who is wrong. What we really need to do is foster true and genuine friendships with non-believers so that they can see the fruit of the Gospel within our own lives. In doing so, non-believers will be attracted to the fruit of the Gospel within our own lives and begin to ask questions, When non-believers open that door, we will have a greater chance to present our message with rational clarity instead of simply fighting to prove that we are right.

  7. I have seen many people through my life in the Church who cringe at the mention of presenting the Gospel in a culturally relevant way or changing its presentation to impact a specific group of people. This has always been odd to me, because we have actual examples of Paul doing this city to cit and having great success. This passage serves as one of those successful relevant ways to present the message. What we should be learning from this passage is that we need to be aware of our audience. Live around them, know them, become in tune with the way they think so that when we bring the Gospel to them we are able to do it in a way that actually makes sense.

  8. As a baby believer this passage always stuck out to me. I wanted to be like the Bereans and open-minded and search out the Scriptures and it has benefitted my life in an extraordinary way. When you talk about how Christianity is a “reasonable faith” I could not agree more. Most of my life I was agnostic and growing more towards an atheist attitude. However, I was always objective and open to hear more on the topic and as a result I received the truth. Most are raised with the Christian cultural mentality and do not necessarily have reasoned within themselves the validity and reason behind the faith.

    For the Jewish audiences in Thessalonica, Paul diligently used the Scriptures to reason and explain the prophecies of the Messiah and how it all came true through Jesus Christ (Acts 17:2-3). Meanwhile, some were persuaded, and others became were zealous and did not accept the message Paul was preaching and created gathering of like-minded jealous for the faith they were taught (Judaism). This created a faction within the synagogue and community that opposed to truth. I say this because, as Christians who were raised in a church, may not accept or be open to what they were initially taught. A lot of the time they have second hand knowledge of God and have never been open because they have clung to what others have taught them and not searched out the Scriptures themselves. Personal pursuit leads to greater experience of revelation and intimacy with God.

    The Bereans were open minded and tested everything Paul had said through the Scriptures. Unfortunately, this is not very prevalent in today’s church as well. Professing believers are not open to others understanding of the Word of God and push out unstudied doctrines or portions of the Bible. These things can range from healing, prophecy, fivefold ministry offices, Jesus being fully human just as much as he was fully God, or that there is more than one translation of the Bible you can use. All these things are different aspects of God we need to be open minded about and seek the counsel of Scripture diligently to receive witness and guidance from God’s Spirit who is the teacher and guide into all truth (John 14:26).

    These Bereans were noble in heart and posture to receive from God. Polhill states, “The Berean Jews were a “noble” example. And many of them found out for themselves that Paul’s claims were true and so believed (Polhill, Acts. p. 363). Christians are missing out on so much truth God wants to reveal to us, but they close themselves to the Scriptures. They tend to read what they believe instead believe what they read.

    In my experience, people do not read their Bible’s enough to even have a disagreement with someone. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and understanding so how can we understand something that is beyond our understanding and not even seeking the one who gives understanding? (Prov. 1-3 etc.)

  9. This passage has always been relevant to me because of my church background. The nobility expressed in searching the scriptures to confirm what Paul was saying would be an attitude that our church members were encouraged to do after every Sunday service. This diligence was also encouraged in the context of 2 Timothy 2:15, so that each member could mature in their faith, as servant of God, and could handle the scriptures appropriately. All that is indeed consistent with a “reasonable faith” the apostle Paul presented to his audience in Acts 17. On this posting, Long highlights three different responses from Paul’s audiences, only one of them being more receptive. That goes to show that even when Paul was culturally relevant, his message was not always accepted. Beyond being culturally relevant, the attitude of the receiving end of the message seems to have a central play in the effectiveness of the message. It is unfortunate that there are units of the Body of Christ being ineffective in reaching the culture, and even just spreading out “acerbic noise”. Maybe it is not even a “rational, reasonable light” that the church needs to adapt their message to, because the present culture seems to lack that too. The Church is not to emulate the world (Rom. 12:1-2), but it is not to remove itself from its existence in the world. In an age of technology and speed, the challenge to effectively reach out to the world with the gospel is an ever-constant adaptation.

  10. I find it interesting in this chapter that Paul encounters two groups who seem quite different ( the Bereans and the Athenian philosophers) and yet share one common quality: they ask lots of questions. Too any people in churches today seem to think that asking questions and expressing doubt is showing a lack of faith. On the contrary, to my mind; faith grows sturdier with a good pruning.

    • Three groups if you include the Jews In Thessalonica at the beginning of the chapter. The Bereans were “more noble” than the first group who caused trouble for Paul.

Leave a Reply