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Learning from the Bereans

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There is a city in northern Greece named Veria. Ever heard of it? Probably not, unless I tell you the name in Bible times – Berea. Ever heard if it? Only a million times. There are Berean schools, churches, denominations, Christian bookstores. Berea is everywhere! It all stems from one Bible verse:

“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, often choose “Berea” as a name that symbolizes a commitment to Scripture, to careful Bible study. When the Bible is the final authority by which we test claims and discern truth we are “being Berean.”

Individualists that we are, we probably imagine the Berean Christians all going home and studying their Bibles. Not so! Even if they had wanted to do it that way, it wouldn’t have worked. Many would have been illiterate; in any case, they had no Bibles at home. Ordinary Christians never studied the Bible alone at home until at least 1455. (That’s when Gutenberg began mass-producing the Vulgate Bible.)

What happened in Berea is that those who heard Paul’s preaching discerned together what Scripture taught, and whether the new ideas Paul proclaimed were consistent with biblical truth or not. That is what we are called to emulate, not individually and privately, but as a gathered
discerning community.

Ever consider what happened when Paul sent a letter to one of the churches he planted? In our context, Timothy would have arrived with the letter, dropped it into the church mailbox where the church secretary found it, made enough copies for each member’s mailbox, or perhaps scanned and uploaded it onto the church website, so everyone could read what Paul wrote.

Of course, that’s not how it worked with the biblical epistles. The letter was brought to the church, read to the church, interpreted for the church, and discussed by the church. A close look at the letters themselves makes this obvious. And this applies even to books of the Bible that we think of as personal letters, like Philemon. (Check it out!)

Holy Spirit: inspirer and interpreter

The Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, and the Holy Spirit is the one who helps interpret Scripture. While we do and should read the Bible privately, normative interpretation of Scripture depends on community discernment. It is not appropriate for individuals to insist that others must interpret the Bible in a particular way, just because they themselves do. And when new ideas are put forth, we neither accept nor reject them lightly. We search Scripture together, so that we can both remain firmly grounded and learn new things.

Sometimes, reading together means discovering what past interpreters have said about the texts we are studying. Remember: God didn’t start speaking to the church in our generation!

Sometimes, it means paying attention to what Bible interpreters around the globe are saying, for they can see things from perspectives we can barely imagine.

Exploring Scripture in study groups with people from diverse life situations helps us discover our own blind spots and expand our horizons.

Reading Scripture together with others makes it possible to see more, or at least, to see more faithfully, than any one person can alone.

Our contemporary world endorses a runaway individualism. Each person is his or her own master and standard of truth. We tend to take our individualism with us into our Bible study, and we read texts as if each verse is “God talking directly to me.” The truth is, with only a few exceptions (Timothy and Titus), the texts were not addressed to individuals but to churches.

To hear Scripture faithfully is to hear it address the church. And when we as Christian communities hear Scripture address us – corporately – and then as a church check – and, if necessary, correct – private interpretations, we help individuals and the community to respond faithfully.

Let’s be Berean communities.

Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary (formerly MBBS-Fresno), Fresno, Cal.

Acts 17:11
(link to BibleGateway.com)

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

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