Rest is a lovely gift from God and, at times, a very necessary one for our well-being. The city of Berea (modern Veria) becomes a place where Paul, though still working as a travelling missionary, briefly has a more restful time due to the lovely reaction of the locals to his gospel.
Berea is the third of five important Greek cities that Paul evangelises in Act 16-18 as part of Jesus’ strategy (Ac 16:7-9) to invade the western Roman empire. Each has different traits and so in each we see the Lord vary his work to challenge them appropriately. Proud Philippi needed to hear and see the power of humility in the gospel. Wealthy Thessalonica needed to hear and see the servant heart of the gospel. Berea is different again. Fairly large and important, this ancient Macedonian city sat off the beaten track. Its Jewish population was big enough for a synagogue and was willing to hear new things. The result in Acts is that the locals do not initiate any persecution of Paul. This peaceful, thoughtful atmosphere may have produced a church which had few issues to be dealt with. If so that may be the reason for us having no letter in the New Testament from Paul to the Bereans (although there are other possible explanations for that).
The team arrive in Berea without Luke (the author stopped writing ‘we’ after Ac 16:16). As before, Paul begins his evangelising in the synagogue (v10) where he finds a very different reaction from the one he met in Thessalonica (Ac 17:3-5). Luke describes the Jews as ‘noble’ (v11), which seems to mean open-minded. Not that they are a pushover for him to win with his words. But they are ready to listen and think through his teaching in the light of Scripture – a response desirable to every preacher. A real atmosphere of discussion prevails in the city after Paul’s arrival, leading to a number of conversions amongst both Jews and Greeks, including some of importance in the community (v12). Thus the church planted has a solid starting point not only numerically but also in its willingness to learn and its ability to handle God’s word. The calm situation is such an encouraging one compared to the team’s trials and stresses in the earlier cities. Sadly, however, the peace is shattered when enemies from elsewhere arrive (v13,14).
Acts’ brief but fascinating glimpse of the Berean church leaves us with a number of lessons.
Firstly, it reminds us that churches are to be places where the whole Bible is taught. Paul brought to them the gospel of Jesus Christ, as found in our New Testaments, and they confirmed it by reading their Old Testaments. Churches are to be shaped by all of the Bible.
Secondly, churches have to wrestle with difficult ideas. Paul showed from the Old Testament how Jesus is the promised Messiah. But for many of his listeners those writings were ancient, in a language they didn’t know, about a people who lived long before and far away. Yet they were prepared to struggle with those difficult writings in order to understand Paul’s gospel.
Thirdly, churches ought to have a passion for learning from the Bible. We do not do it simply as a duty which Christians ought to obey. There should be an eagerness within us to engage with what God has said. Both the Bereans in listening and Paul in teaching showed that energy.
Fourthly, Christian learning is not supposed to be passive or forgettable. In church we should want our listening to be interactive, memorable and with a life-changing impact upon us.
However, in thinking about the positive example of the church in Berea, we must also face up realistically to the problems which can arise. Two examples are below.
Firstly, we must remember that passion wanes. We are reading of the Bereans right at the start of their discovery of the gospel. With familiarity, it becomes harder to maintain an eager spirit like theirs. Hence we must pray for ourselves and our preachers, that the Spirit would keep us lively.
Secondly, our radio and TV culture has taught us to snack on things we hear, giving each only a limited time. But Christians have to see that tiny bursts of Bible study are not enough. Snacks are fun but we need good meals truly to sustain us. We must make time to be at church and engage with the Bible in rich and detailed ways, if we want to mature personally and together.