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True Nobility

September 17, 2023 Speaker: Jim Davis Series: The Book of Acts

Passage: Acts 17:1–15

Today we are jumping back into our series on the book of Acts also known as the Acts of the Apostles. We schedule these series based on how many weeks we have and not what is happening in the text, but it never ceases to amaze me how perfectly these series break up. When we get to Acts 17, people have often asked why Luke put this in there. It feels like he’s just repeating the same kind of story yet once again. Paul goes to a new town, he preaches first in the synagogue, some people believe, some get upset, a church is planted, and he leaves. So, why tell one more of these stories when space on paper is so valuable back in his day? 

The answer is that Luke isn’t just being thorough or repetitive. He’s doing something very specific for the original audience. Remember who this book is written to: Theophilus. We don’t know exactly who Theophilus was, but we have a pretty good idea that he was a high up Roman official of some kind and he was either curious about what Christianity is or maybe a very new believer. We do know that Theophilus wants to know how this small new Jewish sect has become this new religion that is spreading all over the Roman Empire. So, Luke is writing to explain that to him. In chapter one verse eight, Luke gives his thesis which is basically this. Jesus said it would. Jesus said it would spread from Jerusalem, to Judea/samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. And the whole book is showing how that happened. 

With that in mind, this section seems to make a lot of sense. You have Paul going to two different cities with two very different receptions. He goes to Thessalonica and is generally not received well and then he goes to Berea and is received well. Paul says that the Bereans were noble because of the way they received the message. I can almost hear Theopholis thinking, “Noble is good. I want to be noble.” And Luke is showing him exactly what that looks like. 

So, we are going to look at how the two cities responded to Paul and hear the warning that Luke is giving Theophilus. We are going to look at the ignoble response of the Thessalonians and the noble response of the Bereans. 

  1. Ignoble response of the Thessalonians

The way I would describe the general response of the Thessalonians is that they heard, but they didn’t listen. Many of you have kids that get to a certain age and you know you tell them something and you know they heard it, but they don’t at all seem to be listening. Years ago, my wife was talking to a mom at the school we used to send our kids to and this mom had a son that was not particularly obedient and this mom said to my wife, “Yeah, raising him is hard because he has a hearing issue.” My wife then said, “Oh I’m sorry, what has he been diagnosed with?” The mom responded, “Oh, no. Nothing like that. He just doesn’t listen to anyone.” Ok, that’s very different. A hearing issue and a listening issue aren’t the same thing and what she had on her hands wasn’t a hearing issue, but a listening issue. It wasn’t a physical problem, it was a heart problem. 

The Thesalonians had a listening issue that came from a heart problem. And we can see their listening issues manifested in three ways. The first thing we see is that they are not open to reason. Paul came to Thesolanica and, as was his custom, started his preaching in the Jewish synagogue. He spent three Sabbath days there, which can mean either three Saturdays or three weeks, and he reasoned with them from the Scriptures. 

Look at the verbs Luke uses in verse 2-4. He reasoned with them, he explained to them, he proved to them, and he proclaimed to them. So, this was not just a Ted talk and Cold Play kind of a service here. Paul is going deep to show them that Jesus is in fact the Messiah and you can see that even though he wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting, he is in fact the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. 

Paul might have gone to Isaiah to show them that the Messiah would not be a conquering general, but a suffering servant. I imagine that Paul went to Psalm 16 and showed them that Jesus’ body would not see corruption before dying which it didn’t. None of his bones were broken. I imagine that he told them about all the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection and about his own experience on the road to Damascus. I’m sure Luke had in mind what he wrote about the resurrected Jesus speaking to the disoriented disciples on the road to Emmaus. 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 kWas it not necessary that lthe Christ should suffer these things and enter into mhis glory?” 27 And nbeginning with oMoses and pall the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. - Luke 24:25-27

Then, Luke says that some were persuaded…some Greeks and even leading women. That’s really interesting because he likely has Theopholis in mind here. He has to be wondering why so many of the Jews aren’t following Paul. Luke is saying that they are not open to reason. But some of the Greeks, though, were. And even women of high station like you, Theopholis! Well, the high station part, not the woman part. 

The problem isn’t that our faith lacks reason as many have accused us, the problem is that people are not open to reason. I remember having breakfast with a college student years ago and he said that he was no longer a Christian because he had read too much. That’s a cop out I’ve heard many times. I’ve just read too much. Poor Jim, if you had only read as much as I have, you’d leave the faith too. I told him the problem can’t be a reading issue because there are lots of Christians out there who have read a lot more than you. I told him, I’d love to hear his objections because I’m sure Christianity can stand up to the test. 

So, I heard him out and do you know what the main reason was that he wanted to leave the faith? The sexual orientation of his brother. He then went on to read articles and books that justified supporting his brother over the Bible. While I certainly don’t want to minimize the difficulty of that whole situation, I do want to point out that it wasn’t a reading issue. It was a listening issue. Instead of being open to reason, he had already decided what he wanted to believe and only listened to points of view that affirmed the conclusion he had come to before he began to search. I think this describes many of the Thesalonians who had already decided they did not want to hear what Paul was saying. 

The Christian story has all the reason we need, but it will not be enough to have ears to hear if we do not have hearts to listen. Which leads to the second listening issue: Pride. Look at verse five. 5 pBut the Jews1 qwere jealous, and takingr some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. - Acts 17:5 They were jealous. They were jealous that not only are the Greeks following Paul, but some of their own people were as well. They didn’t want to admit that they were wrong and Paul was right. Again, listening is a heart issue and our pride often prevents true listening. 

I can remember in high school there was a kid who was cooler than me, he was a better athlete, and the girls liked him more. One day, a group of guys was going to catch a train from Michigan avenue to downtown. And by catch a train, I mean jump on it as it is slowing down for its trip through downtown. That’s about as stupid of a thing as you can do. My brother was all over me to not do it because people fall off and get cut in two by the wheels. But, that kid that I was jealous of was one of the boys doing it and I wanted to prove myself. So as that train came through, we ran as fast as we could and it was still going faster so we grabbed the ladder as it flew past us and hung on for dear life and then climbed up. But, no one told us that the train speeds up before it even gets downtown. So we are going like 25 miles per hour now and we either need to jump or be prepared to call our parents from New Orleans. We jumped off, tumbled on the rocks, and scratched everything up and I learned a hard lesson that day. My pride and jealousy prevented me from listening to my brother’s wisdom. And nobody ever try to do something as stupid as that. 

But the spiritual ramifications of pride are much worse. Is it possible that you are rejecting Christianity today because of pride? At the heart of the Christian faith is the recognition that we can’t do it. The recognition that we need a savior. And because of that, pride can be the main barrier between us and our salvation. And when pride takes hold in our heart, we see a third effect of the listening problme: making excuses to not believe. 

Did you notice the two excuses these Jewish leaders brought forward? They got some wicked men and formed a mob. They couldn’t find Paul so they got Jason as a proxy. They said that these men are turning the world upside down. Now, that can sound like a good thing, but it isn’t. When my kids don’t wake up in the morning, I’ve been known to take a water cup and turn it upside down on them and they never think that’s a good thing. That’s what this crowd is getting at. They are accusing the Christians of making the city mad. 

Then they accuse the Christians of acting against the decrees of Caesar. They are accusing them of saying Jesus is king and Caesar is not. In this culture, you had to swear an oath to Caesar. It was even illegal to predict the end of the reign of a Caesar. What they are doing is like what some extreme voter guides do at election time. The Democratic voter guides say that Republicans hate schools and women. They don’t care about the poor and only want to use money for war. The Republican voter guides say that the Democrats hate babies, want everyone to be poor, and don’t care about defending our nation. Both sides are taking some element of truth and twisting it to make extreme claims and that’s exactly what these Jewish leaders are doing here. 

Yes, giving our lives to Jesus will affect the society and even the economy we live in. If large portions of people in a city follow Jesus, certain businesses won’t thrive, like Culver’s. But, Jesus is making it better. Jesus does tell us to submit to and honor authority, but no earthly authority is going to be our ultimate authority. So they take some seeds of truth and twist it to make extremely false claims. 

It’s interesting in our study to see why people who left church with a pain point said they left. Hypocrisy, scandals, misogyny, abuse, and other things like that. What we can’t see in our study is if that was the real reason or the excuse they gave because they already didn’t want to go. There is no way for us to really know that, but God does. God knows our hearts and he sees through the excuses. The fact that God knows everything is the best and scariest part of Christianity. 

The authorities were disturbed, but they fined Jason and let him go and then Paul leaves Thessalonica and heads for Berea where we see a very different reaction to his message. 

  1. The noble response of the Bareans

So, Paul and Silas are slipped out of Thessalonica by the Christians there and they go to Berea and do the exact same thing. They go to the Jewish synagogue and begin preaching there. But, they are received very differently there. Luke says that these people were more noble. Why is that? In Luke’s words, 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining theScriptures daily to see if these things were so. 

So there is a difference in their heart and a difference in their actions. The difference in their heart is that they received the word with eagerness. They heard about Jesus the Messiah and they wanted it to be true. It doesn’t mean that they believed on the spot, but they were genuinely open minded. One thing many people don’t realize about Tim Keller is what an evangelist he was. He spent countless hours meeting with non-Christians explaining the gospel to them. I think this made his preaching as effective as it was. And one thing he would always ask them after he felt like the gospel was clear was, “Do you want this to be true? It’s ok if you don’t believe it yet, but do you want it to be true?” And he said almost 100% of the people who said yes eventually believed. I think this is a picture of an eager heart. 

These Bereans weren’t prideful, they weren’t jealous, they didn’t make excuses. They heard the message and they were intrigued. Then, you can see that their actions were different. They didn’t believe right away, they searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was correct. That is, they searched the Scriptures to see if Jesus really did fulfill the criteria of the Messiah.

Now, it’s important to say what this isn’t saying. It’s not saying I can figure out all I need to know by myself with the Bible. I’ve met lots of Christians who believe that they don’t need to read books because the Scriptures are all they need. I’ve met others who feel like they read their Bibles in the morning by themselves and that’s all they need and both groups point to this passage to back them up. Listen, 2000 years from now, no one is going to know the difference between a father figure and a dad bod. That’s one reason reading the Bible can be hard. But it’s not hard if it’s built on the foundation of hundreds of generations contributing to bring clarity to what is being said. 

If you look at some of the great documents of our faith after the Bible was finished, documents like the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed, they were produced by church leaders and theologians not long after the time of Jesus coming together to search the Scriptures. Often over the course of many years. After the Reformation, the same thing happened and we got the Westminster Confession of Faith and a few years later another group took that amazing document and made it even more faithful to the Bible with the 1689 Confession of Faith. None of them has the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but they all bring great clarity to it even if some of the language and cultural context of those confessions has changed. Which, by the way, it’s not uncommon for people to ask why we don’t update parts of these confessions and I know Robert Jackson would tell you it’s just been really hard to get that group back together:) 

We can just look at this passage and see that they are searching the scriptures in community. And they are doing so building on the generations of wisdom that had been passed down to them in their Jewish community. The ‘just me and my Bible’ Christianity wasn’t a thing in Paul’s day. I would go so far as to say that if the day each of us became a Christian, we were only allowed to read the Bible in isolation, many of us here would be heretics. While the Bible is clear, it’s not simple. And for that reason, God has given us communities to disciple us and each of these communities is connected to a local church to guide us and each of these local churches is connected to other churches and institutions that train and support us and all these churches and institutions are built on literally hundreds of generations of saints bringing clarity and experience to our faith. In the words of the great theologian Clark Bartholomew, “What we see in this passage is not Uncle Ed with his King James Bible.” 

Clark sent me this great quote this week by Moises Silvia in his book on interpreting Galatians. "We must ever keep in mind that none of us is able to look at a biblical text 'from scratch.'... it is sheer delusion to think we can simply leap over all the centuries and encounter the biblical text directly, with a blank mind." We stand on the shoulders of every pastor, theologian, and commentator  that God has graced us with over the generations. 


But, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be reading our Bibles in the morning by ourselves. We should. We should read it with eager expectation that God is going to use it in our lives. We should want to read it widely and study it deeply. We should approach it confidently. And we can do all those things when we are searching the Scriptures, processing this in community, considering what the church has taught for thousands of years, and handing those teachings to a new generation of Christians. 


Now, this isn’t to say that groups of people can’t be wrong and end up in a cult, but iron sharpens iron and it is incredibly hard to be connected to the historic teachings of the church and go off the deep end. As many of you know, the Reformation happened in the 1500s because the Roman Catholic Church had gone so far off track. Something that even the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges now. But, I would argue that that happened because they actively sought to eliminate the reading of Scriptures among the people to process in community and restricted Bible reading to those who were in charge. They then made themselves as authoritative as the Bible itself. So, if the people couldn’t read the Bible and whatever the leaders of the church decided was true was as authoritative as the Bible itself, no wonder the whole church got off track. They eliminated the ability to be noble like the Bareans. 

Also, notice that the Bareans are not searching the Scriptures for a hidden code. They are not searching for the date of the end times, how God wants you to school your kids, or the right diet. The Bible doesn’t say everything about everything, but it says everything about the most important things. They are searching the Scriptures to see if Jesus is really the promised Messiah in the Old Testament. 

One last thing that is particularly important for our day. Searching the Scriptures in a diverse community helps us to see that some things we think are in the Bible aren’t. As I talk to people who say they are deconstructing their faith, often what they really mean is they are stripping away uniquely American aspects of their faith and realizing something a bit more pure. I remember one college student from Mississippi told an Italian pastor friend that she didn’t drink alcohol because she was a Christian. And without missing a beat, he said, “Well you would be shocked at how sinful the Italian church is. We even drink wine in church!” And that really started her down a path of asking which of her practices are from the Bible and which are from the culture she lived in. Whenever we hire here, I always say that a year of overseas ministry experience counts for two in the States. Every missionary I have ever met has come back after their first few years and they see the faith in a new fresh way. 

Ok, back to the story, the Bereans search the Scriptures and Luke is pleased to tell Theophilus that many of them believed. And not just Jews, but Greeks too, and once again, women and men of high standing. But then the pesky Thessalonicans showed up. They tracked Paul down and started stirring up the city of Berea, so Paul set off again, but left Silas and Paul behind to help this new group of believers. 

So, the message for Theophilus is this is why there have been quarrels around Christianity. Because of ignoble, prideful people who just won’t consider reason. But, you Theophilus, you have the chance to be noble. See, people of high standing just like you have embraced Jesus. This isn’t a religion just for Jews. It’s for all types of people including you. 

And the message is the same for us. It’s ironic that people we consider to be noble are typically prideful because of their social status, but here the noble are those who laid aside their pride and see that their only hope was in Jesus who humbly laid down his life that we might be exalted. Will we be noble like the Bereans and consider the wisdom of the Scriptures that point us to Jesus as the long promised Messiah who didn’t come as a conquering king, but a suffering servant to pay the penalty for our ignoble sins on the cross to make us truly noble in God’s sight by giving us his righteousness. 

More in The Book of Acts

November 12, 2023

How God Usually Builds The Church

November 5, 2023

The Function of an Elder

October 29, 2023

Eutychus and the Resurrection