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Plea for a Berean Spirit

By Jon Zens

Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)

One of Charles Schulz’s cartoons shows the teenager lying on the floor with an open Bible. He says to his sister, “Don’t bother me I’m looking for a verse of Scripture to back up one of my pre-conceived notions.” While we may laugh at this, does this sentiment not reflect our approach to Scripture on many occasions?

In Acts 17:11 we are met with a text which, upon reflection, reveals the mysterious combination of the divine and human elements in the salvation of men. When Paul came to the Bereans, having just been forced out of Thessalonica (17:5ff.) there was a different attitude among these people (v.11). The text specifically compares the non-believing Thessalonians with these non-believing Bereans: “…the Jewish community of Berea gave the gospel a reception far different from that given by their co-religionists at Thessalonica” (F.F. Bruce. Commentary On Acts. pp.346-347).

So, while those Jews in Thessalonica became violent in their reaction to the gospel, the Bereans were “more candid and impartial” (J.A. Alexander, Acts of the Apostles, p. 141). As they searched the Scriptures daily, “many of the Jews believed” (v. 12).

 More Noble

The quality of being “more noble” was attributed to the Bereans in their unconverted state, although some no doubt, like Lydia, “worshipers of God” (16:14). Yet we also know “that there is not in any man, nor was there in those men naturally, a disposition to attend to, and regard the gospel of Christ” (John Gill, Commentary on the New Testament, Acts 17:11).

As in the case of Lydia, if any person is responsive to the gospel, it is because the Lord has opened their heart (16:14). Thus we have in 17:11 the bringing together of the divine and human elements — the divine, of course, being constitutive of the human response.

 Do We Search The Scriptures?

If these Berean people were marked by this action of searching the Scriptures, in contrast to those in Thessalonica who blasphemed, how much more should Christians be characterized by a desire to search the Scriptures daily? Yet, sadly, we have the propensity to assume the Bible teaches something; to assume that what “Dr. So-and-so” teaches is correct; or to assume that our “system” is basically closed to further adjustment from the Word. It is easy to feel secure in a tightly-knit system. But if we are secure in Christ, then we will not be afraid to constantly evaluate our beliefs in light of God’s Word.

 The Mind of the Spirit

We have the privilege as Christians of searching the Scriptures.  But, as R.C.H. Lenski pointed out,

“….your right and my right is to see and to find the one divine truth which the Spirit placed into the Scriptures. This and this alone is in them …. The Scriptures are clear, perfectly adequate to present this one truth to every man. Those who deviate from that one truth, no matter how, can do so only by making the Word mean what it never meant, and they, they alone are to blame for such deviation.”  (Interpretation of Acts, p. 702)

Thus we must in Bible study covet more than anything else the mind of the Spirit.  This involves serious prayer from a sincere heart.  Every deviation from the objective Word results from the intrusion of a subjective preference — a preference to accommodate the Scripture to an alien human philosophy; a preference to try and validate form Scripture a private prejudice; a preference to defend a “system” in which one trusts; a preference to explain away texts that do not fit our “system,” etc.

 “They Testify of Me”

What are we to “search” for in our Bible study? The Bereans were searching the Old Testament to see if Paul’s claims about Christ were true (cf. Acts 17:2-3). Jesus clearly stated that the Old Testament was a unified witness on His behalf (John 5:39,46). The New Testament obviously focuses on the person, work, and words of Christ. A truly edifying approach to Scripture, then, involves seeking the Lord Jesus in the Bible.

If the Scriptures are searched with reference to vain questions, endless genealogies, sinful curiosity, etc., then there can be no profit from the Word (1 Tim.1:4). The Spirit in this age is going to take the things of Christ and disclose them to sinners (John 16:8-15). We must, like the Bereans, be diligent in finding Christ in all the Scriptures (cf. Luke 24:27,44).

 Danger Inherent in “Systems”

While there is nothing wrong with expressing what we believe the Bible teaches in an organized way, we must avoid closing our minds to the possibility that the Lord may give us more light in the future from the Word. Thus, our organization of God’s truth must never be regarded as “finished,” nor may we regard any past era of church history as having “said all that can be said.”

To put it bluntly, there is a real danger in “systems,” for they have — as history shows — tended to gain the upper hand. Men have strained to defend the “system” instead of evaluating and adjusting the “system” by Scripture. Pastor Henry Mahan touches on this danger by saying:

“It is not easy to preach the gospel of free grace because by nature we are prone to get bound by a system. It is very easy to get bound to a creed or a system or denominational guidelines, and then try to make God’s Word fit that system, fit that creed, or fit those guidelines. We begin to hunt what we already believe in the Bible, and that is dangerous.

“I’ve heard many Arminian preachers tremble lest they go an inch beyond John Wesley, or an inch beyond Arminius, or an inch beyond some other famous free-will preacher. Then I’ve heard some Calvinists, some sovereign grace preachers, who speak as if John Calvin were the final authority. Well, these men are not the final authority…. It is time that the Scripture becomes our final authority.

“We are to seek to preach the Word of God — not what Baptists believe; the Word of God, not what Calvinists believe….. I really don’t know any difference in what they call high doctrine and low doctrine. I read these statements, ‘That’s high doctrine — that’s low doctrine.’ Well, if God’s Word teaches it that’s enough; and if God’s Word doesn’t teach it, let’s do away with it.” (“Balance of Truth,” Sword & Trowel, Dec. 1975, p.1).

To illustrate this misorientation, I once met a brother who had come to apprehend the gospel through the printed ministry of a certain Bible teacher. This teacher meant much to him, and rightly so, for he had helped the brother come out of a terrible bondage. When it was suggested to the brother that he read a critical evaluation of certain aspects of this Bible teacher’s ideas, he immediately refused. He felt threatened. Since he had learned so much from this man, he could not bear the thought that his hero might be in error in some important areas.

Brethren, if we are trusting in Christ, then we will not be afraid to evaluate anything that means much to us — a theologian, a Bible teacher, a movement (past or present), a church, an author, a confession, etc. — in the light of Scripture. It is when we take our eyes off of Christ. and find security in other things, that we find ourselves unwilling to test the spirits which are dear to us.

 “More Light Yet to Break Forth”

An historical example of encouragement to be constantly searching the Scriptures can be found in John Robinson’s last sermon to his flock before they boarded the Mayflower in 1620 to come to a new land. Governor Winslow reported his closing advice:

“We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether ever we should live to see our faces again. But whether the Lord had appointed it or not, he charged us before God and His blessed angels to follow him [Robinson] no further than he followed Christ; and if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of His to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.

“He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed churches, who were come to a full-stop in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God s will He had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed His whole will to them…..

“Here also he put us in mind of our Church covenant …. whereby we promise ….. to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known unto us from His written Word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we receive it.” (The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their Pastor, David Fountain [1970], pp.40-41; cf John Brown, The Pilgrim Fathers of New England [London, 1897], pp.183-184).

Today, many churches seeking to be faithful to the Word are wrestling with various issues of obvious practical import, in order to find the mind of Christ. Issues — no matter how important — must never be isolated; they must be seen in their relationship to Christ, and as they bear on our relationship to Him, Now, as ever, it is imperative to search the Scriptures in connection with earnest prayer. Are we not at this point in history faced with the alternatives of stagnation (not going beyond the past instruments of reformation), or progress (gaining more light from the Word)?

Is the spirit of Robinson’s parting words the cry of our hearts? Are we really ready and willing to embrace further light from Scripture? Are we afraid to deal forthrightly with texts that “threaten” our air-tight theological systems? Have we sealed ourselves off from learning truth that may be embodied in traditions other than our own? Is our confidence in Christ, and the anointing of His Spirit, or in human leaders and documents?

Brethren, the antidote to sectarianism and obscurantism is a meek reception of, and constant inquiry into, the gospel of Christ (James 1:21, Acts 17:11). If you read your Bibles in a prayerful attitude, and with a view toward doing the truth, you have reason to believe that you will find out what things are so.

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