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"You Christians are so narrow-minded!"
I wonder if you've ever had that accusation levelled at you. Or maybe you've made that accusation yourself. If you're not a Christian, perhaps it's what you believe right now.
"You Christians are so narrow-minded. You're prejudiced. You're biased. If you were open-minded to look at the evidence, you wouldn't be a Christian."
Well tonight we're going to be thinking about narrow-mindedness. In fact to be a bit more positive, we'll think about open-mindedness instead, but it's the same topic. We're going to look at Acts 17v10-15 on page 782 of the blue bibles. Do look that up and follow along. It's just 10-15 we're looking at tonight even though we had 1-9 read as well for a bit of context.
In last week's episode, Paul and Silas were in a city called Thessalonica, teaching people about Jesus. They started at the Jewish synagogue and the gospel message persuaded some of the Jews and many God-fearing Greek men and women. They were persuaded about Jesus, that he was God's special king and saviour for all people everywhere. But it wasn't all easy going. Some of the Jews in Thessalonica became jealous, perhaps of the gospel's success, the success of a rival message that was depleting their numbers or perhaps jealous of Paul and Silas's apparent popularity. They stirred up a riot and went in search of Paul and Silas. Unable to find them, they dragged some of the new Thessalonian Christians in front of the Roman city officials and charged them with hosting troublemakers who were spreading a message about a king other than Caesar. The crowd and the officials were in uproar, but they bailed Jason and the others and let them go. The new Thessalonian church, just a couple of weeks old, was experiencing strong opposition already. But the rent-a-mob would soon find something else to do, so the church just needed to lie low for a while. The best way to do diffuse things was to move Paul and Silas on. So (v10) that very night after Jason and the others were bailed, the Thessalonian Christians sent Paul and Silas away to the next city, Berea, about 50 miles away.
Now you may be aware that I like to get a map out, so here it is. Here is the region in question. Here is the route Paul and Silas have taken so far, roughly anyway, to get to Thessalonica on the left hand side. Zooming in will help us now I think – there's Thessalonica, and tonight we're getting round to Berea. We can see that the gospel is getting further and further into Macedonia, modern-day Greece. It's getting further and further into Europe, and by the end of tonight's passage, the end of this series, Paul will be almost 200 miles south in Athens, the intellectual capital of the Greek world. That's going to be a cracking start to our next series in Acts, when we pick up again around next April. Of course you should feel free to read ahead before then!
Well let's dispense with the map. I said that we're going to talk about open-mindedness tonight, and I want to make just two points from v10-15, which are these:
1) An open mind can accept the gospel
2) A closed mind can't even accept other people accepting the gospel
So let's get into it.
1) An open mind can accept the gospel
Read verse 10:
10 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue.
So, v10, Paul and Silas are sent out from Thessalonica and away to Berea, some fifty miles away. When they arrive, they immediately employ the very same strategy that we've been noticing right from the start of our series in these evening services: they go to the Jewish synagogue first. They take the gospel message first to those with the greatest opportunity to see the truth of it: the Jews.
They're God's people, historically. They're the ones waiting for God's Messiah, described in God's word, the Old Testament scriptures. They're the ones who should most readily accept Jesus as God's Messiah. We saw their strategy with the Jews last week, up in v2-3.
2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said.
Paul reasoned with the Jews, from the Jewish scriptures, explaining and proving that a message about the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour who suffered and died and rose from the dead, proving that that message was exactly what they should be expecting because that's the message of the Old Testament. Secondly, he reasoned with them that the real-life man, Jesus, was that Christ, that Messiah. The Christ promised in the Old Testament had to die, and Jesus is that Christ. Even Luke, the author of Acts and himself a Gentile, started his gospel account with a Jewish priest, in the Jewish temple, visited by an angel of the Jewish God, who told of the Jewish Messiah. But as we've seen, as recently as v1-9, taking the gospel to Jews was not the straightforward task it might seem. Paul and Silas are here in Berea because the Jews ran them out of Thessalonica. In fact throughout this series it's been the Jews who caused the most trouble for the gospel missionaries. So what would happen here in Berea?
Let's read on, v11.
11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
So the Bereans were basically the ideal non-Christians, and there are four reasons why.
Firstly the Bereans were open-minded enough to listen to the gospel. To be open-minded is to be receptive to new and different ideas, and the Bereans were exactly that. They received the message with great eagerness. They were interested, and keen to listen.
Secondly the Bereans were not gullible. The gospel isn't a message that relies on people being gullible enough to accept it, and the Bereans, in all their keen interest, didn't simply accept the first thing that Paul and Silas said. Instead they examined the Old Testament to see if Paul's message was true.
Thirdly the Bereans were hard-working; they examined the Old Testament every day. They could see that the stakes were high. If Jesus was the Messiah that all Jews were waiting for, if he was the one to finally pay for sin and make people truly right with God now and for eternity, that's worth checking out. The stakes are massive. Paul was arguing from the Old Testament, so they put in the hard work every day to check out what Paul was saying. What sort of things would they have examined? Verse 3 hints at Christ's suffering, his death and his resurrection. They would have been looking at passages like Psalm 22, which we read earlier, which contains so many echoes of the specific details of Jesus' death. Maybe they would have looked at Isaiah 53 or Psalm 16 or other places. They were hard-working; they examined the Old Testament every day.
Lastly, the Bereans were interested in truth. They examined the scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. They weren't interested in adding new options to a religious pick-n-mix stand. They wanted to know the truth so that they could accept what was true and reject what wasn't. They combined a receptive attitude with critical questioning. The verb for 'examine' is a verb used of judicial investigations. It implies integrity and absence of bias.
Now at this point I want to make a tenuous illustration and to do so may I introduce the Alligator Snapping Turtle. This handsome chap lives in freshwater in the south of the USA. They grow pretty big… maybe up to three feet long. Of course, if this was a Family Service I'd actually have one here, but luckily for me it's not. Why am I showing you this? Well I want to tell you how the Alligator Snapping Turtle hunts. The inside of its mouth is camouflaged, and it has a little worm-shaped appendage on the tip of its tongue. The turtle hunts by lying perfectly still in the water with its mouth wide open. The worm-like flap on its tongue moves and sways like a real worm, luring fish into the turtle's mouth. That scary-looking jaw snaps shut onto the unsuspecting fish.
Now, it wouldn't be much use if the turtle never bothered to close its mouth. It's no good just lying there with its mouth hanging open and fish swimming happily in and out. For the turtle, the point of having an open mouth is to shut it again. And here's the tenuous link: The point of having an open mind is the same as the point of having an open mouth, and that is to shut it again on something substantial. It's much better to be fed than to simply live with your mouth hanging open. And it's much better to base your life on a message that checks out, a message of truth, rather than to simply wander through life with an open mind but never really chewing things over, never committing to the truth.
So if you're not a Christian, I want to set you a challenge to be like the Bereans. I want to challenge you to answer for yourself the question: what do I make of Jesus? Can you come to that question like the Bereans did: with an open mind, with a willingness to work hard to examine the evidence, and with a desire to find out and commit to the truth? Don't be gullible, but also don't be rash. Be open-minded and be prepared to do some groundwork.
I'm telling you that Jesus is Lord, but don't take my word for it. Take a free copy of The Case for Christ. Take a copy of Mark's biography of Jesus. In the summer we're going to run a course called the Reason of God, looking at questions like 'Why trust the Bible?', 'What about other religions?' and 'How can God send good people to hell?' Why not sign up for that? In the meantime, why not come here on Sundays and hear if what the bible has to say about you and the world around you checks out. Come and find out if it rings true.
Now there is a risk if you do that. If you approach that question – what do I make of Jesus? – like the Bereans, there's a risk you might come to the same conclusion.
12Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
Many of them concluded that what Paul said about the Christ of the scriptures was true. And more than that, many of them concluded that the Jesus Paul talked about was that Christ. Not everyone believed, but many did. Their open-mindedness and their hard work, and particularly, their hard work in the scriptures, led to belief that Paul's message was true. And the stakes were high. The stakes are literally life and death, on an eternal level. Many of the Jews of Berea believed, along with many Greek men and women.
And as Christians, that's got to impress us. It's got to shape the way we think about telling others about Jesus. Notice that Paul didn't get into debates about creation/evolution or gay bishops or Rob Bell or whatever the hot topics of the day were. Paul wanted the Bereans to answer that question: what do you make of Jesus? And he wasn't afraid to tell them what they should make of Jesus. And he took them straight to the bible to prove it. So as we reach out to others, let's keep focussed on that question: what do you make of Jesus? And let's not be afraid to direct them to the truth about Jesus. Most of all, let's take them to the bible, to see that the Christ had to die and that Jesus is that Christ.
There's probably one more application to make from the Bereans. I said that the point of an open mind is to shut it on something substantial. What matters is truth. Sincerely believing something doesn't make it true. You can be sincere, but sincerely wrong. Sincerity doesn't change facts. The thing that really counts is not the sincerity of our faith, but the object of our faith. We need to ask ourselves, 'Is what I'm trusting in really trustworthy?' And that applies beyond the question of what do I make of Jesus. It applies to all Christian doctrine. So when someone comes along pedalling some new ideas about Jesus or life after death or whatever – more likely old ideas recycled and repackaged – I can openly assess those ideas against what I know to be true, to see if they stack up. I can assess those ideas against the bible to see if they stack up. And if they don't, I shouldn't be shy about binning them. The stakes are too high to politely or gullibly take on every idea that comes along.
So that's the Bereans, open-minded without being gullible, hard-working in pursuit of truth, truth to base their lives on. No wonder Luke calls them noble. An open mind can accept the gospel. Point 2:
2) A closed mind can't even accept other people accepting the gospel
Read verses 13-15
13 When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
Last week we saw that many of the Thessalonian Jews rejected the gospel message about Jesus. But they weren't content with saying a polite 'thanks but no thanks' to the gospel. They got their rent-a-mob together and drove Paul and Silas out of Thessalonica. But the Thessalonian Jews weren't content with driving Paul and Silas out of Thessalonica. When they learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they trekked the 50 miles over to Berea to oppose him there too.
"That Paul is at it again! He's pedalling this nonsense about Jesus in Berea. Well you know what that Berean bunch is like – they'll probably listen to him all day long! We can't trust them to reject the gospel for themselves. We'd better go to Berea and tell the Bereans what to think! We'd better go after Paul there too."
It's a bit absurd to be honest, because these Jews from Thessalonica are not concerned for the Bereans. They're so wound up they make a 100-mile round trip to Berea to persecute Paul there too. They agitate the crowds and stir up opposition to Paul and Silas. The Berean Christians send Paul to the coast and then escort him onward to Athens. Paul instructs them to call on Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens asap, and that's what we will do when we return to Acts next year.
Now, this isn't the first time we've seen the Jews coming after the missionaries. Back in chapter 14 there were Jews from Antioch and Iconium who followed Paul and Barnabas to Lystra where they stoned Paul and left him for dead. In their jealousy, they had rejected the gospel and that meant they couldn't even accept other people accepting it. A closed mind can't even accept other people accepting the gospel.
And we see plenty of that kind of reaction today. Atheists are often outspoken, loud, vehement, even angry. They write books and newspaper articles and put posters on buses and appear on television and radio and give lectures. They can't stand the idea that some people might choose to follow Jesus. They can't stand the idea that those people might choose to follow Jesus after an open-minded investigation of the evidence. They've got to come chasing, like the Thessalonian Jews, just in case you should be open-minded enough to come to a different conclusion to theirs.
So if you're not following Jesus, there are two things to note from this passage. Firstly, I said earlier that you shouldn't take my word for it that Jesus is God's chosen king, the Messiah for the whole world, but that you should look at the evidence. Others would tell you that Jesus isn't those things, so you shouldn't even look into it. Not quite an even balance there. The second thing is to realise that you might have a bit of this Thessalonian trait in you. They rejected the gospel rashly, out of jealousy, not after open-minded, diligent thought. If you're doing the same, be honest with yourself about that and mull it over.
And for those who are following Jesus, let's not be discouraged by vocal, vehement or even violent opposition. Again and again over this series we've seen it. It's amazing that Paul was able to keep going through it all, especially when he was stoned almost to death in Lystra. But Paul always expected it because the gospel always divides those who hear it. It always generates opposition but just because the opposition is vocal or sincere or well-organised, that doesn't mean it's true. Finally, there's no doubt that Paul steeped his preaching in prayer, prayer that God would speak through him, and prayer that those who listened would have their minds quickened by God to believe it. That should be our prayer too.