by Al Maxey

Issue #163 ------- December 15, 2004
A great many people think they
are thinking when they are merely
rearranging their prejudices.

William James (1842-1910)

A Berean Spirit
Thugs vs. Thinkers

The apostle Paul had just been run out of town ... again! It was not that Paul was such a bad man; it was that bad men couldn't tolerate his teaching. He came bearing the gift of good news; a message of liberation to captives. He sought to free men from the shackles of their bondage to law, and bring them into the joys of God's marvelous grace. The captives drank deeply of this message, and rejoiced. Their captors, however, were filled with a jealousy that quickly turned to a murderous rage.

The city from which Paul was forced to leave under cover of darkness (Acts 17:10) was Thessalonica. Paul, as was his custom, had simply gone to the synagogue upon his arrival, and "for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ'" (Acts 17:1-3). Paul was not just spouting opinions and personal theological preferences; he was not out to gather a following. Paul was declaring God's Truth, and he employed reasoning and an appeal to Scripture. This appeal touched the hearts of some of the Jews who heard him, and they began to associate with Paul and Silas, "along with a great multitude of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women" (vs. 4). Needless to say, this success did not endear Paul to the leaders of the Jews. "Becoming jealous, they took along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob, and set the city in an uproar" (vs. 5).

Godless men, when incapable of refuting the message, will always attack the messenger, and they will invariably resort to satanic strategies to achieve their goal of the utter destruction of those with whom they differ. Lies, slander, false accusations, crowd manipulation, intimidation, assault, and even murder are all considered justified in order to preserve their power and defend their dogma. This was illustrated very dramatically in the case of Stephen (Acts 6:9 - 7:60), a man who was murdered by those who "were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking" (Acts 6:10). Unwilling to listen to Truth, they stopped up their ears and rushed upon him with a fury (Acts 7:57). This same fury, by an equally hellish horde, was unleashed upon Paul and his associates that day in Thessalonica, and the mob was whipped into a frenzy by their many outlandish accusations (vs. 8). Thus ... again ... Paul was forced to slip away by night to avoid the fury of these rigid religious terrorists. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that Paul's proclamation of the gospel would elicit such a hateful response.

Thank God for the Bereans! About the time godly men begin to become discouraged in their teaching of Truth because of the Thessalonican Thugs of this world, God delivers them to an assembly of Benevolent Bereans. The difference between the two groups is as wide as the vast expanse of the universe! "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). What a stark contrast! From stopped up ears to open minds; from jealousy to eagerness; from noisy malcontents to noble-mindedness; from reaction to reflection; from fury to faith! Paul has gone from thugs to thinkers. "Berea stands out as a bright oasis in the dreary landscape of persecution. When Paul and Silas enter the synagogue, they find themselves in a new atmosphere" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). In the Bereans, "we have the pleasure of seeing a Jewish community listen to the truth and examine it like rational beings" (J.W. McGarvey, Commentary on Acts, vol. 2, p. 115).

The city of Berea was just 50 miles west of Thessalonica, but the attitudes of the Jews in these two cities was infinitely farther apart than that. The word "Berea" signified "a place of many waters." Imagine how refreshed Paul must have been by the spirit of those in Berea, especially after experiencing the drought of faith evidenced by that rabble of rigid religionists in the city to the east. As one examines Luke's inspired characterization of these Bereans, one will quickly see that there are several traits which commend them to our view. Let's take special note of these godly qualities, and seek to spotlight how they differ dramatically from the demonic spirit evidenced by those disreputable dogmatists in Thessalonica.

They Were Noble-Minded

The biblical text informs us that the Jews of Berea were more noble-minded than those of their neighbor to the east. Luke uses a Greek comparative here which literally signifies "well-born, of more honorable breeding and upbringing." We might characterize such people as being more "classy." In other words, you would never find Bereans on the Jerry Springer Show. They were simply too well-bred. The riff-raff from Thessalonica, however, would be something else entirely! They would likely relish such a public brawl and dishonorable spectacle. All of which speaks volumes about a person's upbringing and character. This Greek term "is applied first to nobility of birth, but here Luke applies it to character" (H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 274). The reality of life is: some people are thugs, others are thinkers. The Bereans were the latter. Notice how several different versions and translations render this phrase:

  1. "Now the Bereans were of more noble character" --- New International Version.
  2. "Now these were more high-minded" --- Hugo McCord's translation.
  3. "The Jews here were more civil" --- New English Bible.
  4. "The people of Berea were more open-minded" --- Holman Christian Standard Bible.
  5. "The people in Berea were much nicer" --- Contemporary English Version.

The rendering of George Lamsa is somewhat amusing --- "For the Jews there were more liberal than the Jews who were in Thessalonica" (Lamsa's translation of the Aramaic of the Peshitta). I suppose we could say (tongue in cheek) that this proves (book, chapter and verse) that the "liberals" are just classier people than the "conservatives." Well, they do seem to be more "open-minded," and, let's face it, most of the feuding and fussing does tend to originate from the ultra-conservative side of the theological spectrum --- see: Reflections #8 -- From Whence Cometh Contentions? .... also the following article which deals with a reader's objections to Issue #8 -- Reflections #8a -- A Reasoned Response to a Reader's Rebuttal.

They Received The Word ....

There is a huge difference, character-wise, with respect to those who are willing to listen to what another has to say, and those who simply stop up their ears. The Bereans received the message of Paul, even though they may not at first have agreed with what he said. The Thessalonicans in our account, however, wanted nothing to do with what Paul had to say. They were much like the Jews who rose up against Stephen in the city of Jerusalem. They "rose up and argued with Stephen. And yet they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking" (Acts 6:9-10). So, what did they do? Did they examine the Scriptures daily to determine Truth? Not even close!! "They covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him" (Acts 7:57-58). The Bereans received the message of Paul; the Thessalonicans heard only enough to know they didn't like it, and refused to hear anything more. Instead, they attacked. Little wonder that the Bereans are regarded as "more noble-minded." The Berean Jews "were not the slaves of prejudice" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). "There is scarcely a greater sin than to stop our ears when God speaks, or to close our eyes to truth which He brings before us" (J.W. McGarvey, Commentary on Acts, vol. 2, p. 115).

What is your response when someone brings a teaching with which you may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable? Are you the type of person who immediately stops up your ears and refuses to even dialogue with this person? Do you go into attack mode and vilify him/her before others? Do you hound this person from place to place, seeking to do them great harm? If you are a thug you do. "But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there likewise, agitating and stirring up the crowds" (Acts 17:13). However, if you are a thinker, you listen to what they have to say, and then you sit down with them in front of an open Bible and you engage in respectful, reflective dialogue to determine Truth. If they have the Truth, and it can be verified from God's Word, then they have done you a service. If you have the Truth, and their position can be refuted from God's Word, then you have done them a service, as well as those onlookers who also seek to know more perfectly God's will for their lives. You can't lose when disciples study the Word together; you can't win when disciples refuse to listen to one another or dialogue with one another, but rather assault one another. The only winner in the latter scenario is Satan. To a thug, dialogue is unthinkable; to a thinker, it is imperative.

The Jews of Thessalonica, much like many who profess to be Christians today, were religiously bigoted. They were unwilling to listen to or reflect upon anything that went against their cherished perceptions and practices. The Bereans were more noble-minded, however, because they were willing to practice what might be termed Reflective Openness, rather than a dogmatic, self-righteous, close-mindedness which would in effect have said, "Go away, Paul. We've already got all the answers. We're right, everyone else is wrong. We're the only ones approved of God; the only ones who are saved." The Bereans, on the other hand, did not believe themselves to be the sole possessors of all Truth. They were constantly open to a better understanding of what God would have them to know, to do, and to be ... even if it meant radical change.

.... With Great Eagerness

The Berean Jews had noble minds, and receptive minds, for the simple reason that they had eager minds. When Luke says they "received the word with great eagerness," he uses the Greek word prothumia, which means: "readiness, willingness and eagerness of mind." It denotes a disposition or mindset that is free of prejudice and bias -- an open mind; a teachable mind. This Greek word "emphasizes a lack of prejudice" (Arndt & Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and Other Early Christian Literature). The Bereans, simply stated, had a prothumian spirit; the spirit of the thugs from Thessalonica, in contrast, was merely pathetic.

Brother J.W. McGarvey correctly noted, in his classic commentary on Acts, that the obstinate Jews of Thessalonica, "having fallen into error by their traditions, resisted with passion and uproar every attempt to give them the true light; and their folly has been imitated ever since by both unbelievers and the partisans of religious error" (vol. 2, p. 115). "Hasty generalizations and fixed opinions must give way before larger light" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). The Berean Jews were willing to receive the teachings of Paul, and they did so with hearts and minds free of personal prejudice and religious bias. They were willing to listen, but that did not mean they were gullible. Yes, they would listen ... but they would also take everything they heard to the One Source for validation.

Examination Unto Validation

The apostle Paul informs us that one of the qualities of their "noble-mindedness" was that they "examined the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). Being noble of mind and eager of mind does not mean one lacks spiritual discernment. It does not indicate one is thereby susceptible to any and every false and foolish teaching that comes one's way. It simply means one is open to receiving and examining carefully all relevant knowledge available, no matter how uncomfortable to one's personal convictions, in order to arrive at a better understanding of Truth -- even if that Truth newly perceived should ultimately prove incompatible with what one has always assumed Truth to be. Thus, those disciples who are of noble spirit are open to responsible change when shown a more acceptable way from the Word. Such a man was Apollos (Acts 18:24f).

Those of "noble" mind do not flee to their "walled fortresses" to hide from challenges to their previous perceptions. Rather, they welcome such challenges as opportunities for further reflection upon God's inspired Word. They do not search the Scriptures daily merely to prove themselves right and all others wrong, but continually examine God's Word to grow in wisdom and understanding of ultimate Truth. Those more interested in discerning Truth than in defending Tradition have no fear of any challenge to their convictions. Indeed, they eagerly receive such challenges and engage in respectful dialogue with those of differing perspectives. Truth has nothing to fear from intense scrutiny. The more Truth is scrutinized, the more its nature is confirmed. Any practice, precept, tradition, or preference which cannot bear close examination from the Word of God should be immediately regarded as suspect, as should any person who flees from such in-depth scrutiny.

The thugs from Thessalonica were not open to such scrutiny of their beliefs; they ran Paul out of town rather than face it. The sectarians in Jerusalem were not open to such scrutiny of their beliefs, and they stopped up their ears and murdered Stephen. Some today are also not open to having their views examined in light of the Word, and they will attack without mercy any who dare to approach their "sacred cows" too closely. Such is not a commendable attitude. It is not a "Berean spirit." The Jews of Berea, on the other hand, "with commendable open-mindedness, brought the claims made by Paul to the touchstone of Holy Writ instead of giving way to prejudice" (F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts). "It is only the profound believer who can afford to doubt. The faith which condemns inquiry, or stops it at a certain point, or is afraid of 'going too far,' is a blind faith" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18). There is nothing commendable about an abject fear of inquiry, and neither is there anything contemptible about discerning disciples daring to display honest doubts about previously held positions and practices. A healthy diet of doubt, in a spiritually healthy disciple, will inevitably lead to in-depth, open-minded reflection upon our God's revelation, which can only result in increased spiritual awareness and maturity among His people.

The greatest fear of those of like mind with the Thessalonicans seems to be that their cherished notions and sacred traditions may well have to be altered or abandoned to conform with Truth. But is not such responsible refinement of one's convictions and practices the purpose of honest self-examination? Is this not why we should challenge our own thinking on a regular basis? Another reason many may fear such examination, and why they may resist it so strongly, is that they fear the reaction of their fellow factionists. It is unpleasant in the extreme to cross Party lines! One will be turned upon and torn asunder in short order for daring to differ with "the way we have always believed." It is done at great personal peril. Some are simply unwilling to face such vicious vilification. Such fear and reluctance is not a quality of "noble-mindedness," however.

Alexander Campbell wrote, "If I am not slandered and misrepresented, I shall be a most unworthy advocate of the cause which has always provoked the resentment of those who will not try to think and learn." A willingness to reflect upon Truth with an open mind and an eager, honest heart has never been for the timid or fearful. It takes genuine courage, deep faith, and sincere commitment to expose ourselves and our convictions to the light of God's inspired Word, and to then conform to whatever Truth is thereby revealed to us. It also takes courage to expose ourselves to the harsh pejoratives which will most certainly come from those who will not engage in such free thought, and who do not possess a "Berean spirit."

Like countless spiritual worthies who have preceded us, known and unknown, may God grant us each the courage and strength of conviction to embrace and employ, regardless of personal cost or sacrifice, this marvelous quality of daily, in-depth reflection upon God's Word, and a willingness to receive responsible challenges to our faith for the purpose of perceiving if "these things be so." The challenge of Acts 17 to each of us today is: Are you a thug or a thinker? It is my prayer that more and more disciples of Christ will truly dare to be Bereans.

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Amen, brother. I understand where you are coming from. Thanks for an excellent article (Evangelizing the Enslaved). The older I get, the more I see happening among us the very sectarianism we have fought against all these years. Yet, we blindly flail the air fighting ourselves without realizing who our real enemy is. Slowly the wake up call is being heard!

From a Youth Minister in Alabama:

Al, Please add me to your subscription list for Reflections. I enjoyed reading Evangelizing the Enslaved. I agree that the church needs more open-minded people to band together to help bring the light of freedom to the spiritually enslaved. I believe God has been using me in that endeavor in the last 17 years of my youth ministry. One of the main reasons I have stayed in youth ministry so long is because of teenagers' ability to see beyond tradition-bound legalism and be open to the grace-filled life Christ called us to in the first place. As you stated, it hasn't been easy. I too have had my share of personal attacks. Being a paid minister in a conservative church doesn't help either. Your Reflections will provide support and encouragement that I desperately need. Thank you, and may God bring you strength, resolve and perseverance.

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Al, Thank you for yet another great explanation of scripture in your analysis of John 6:28-29. Just last week a minister in our congregation brought up this verse as we discussed the topic of belief. I have forwarded your article to him, which I know he will receive as a disciple desiring to grow in understanding of God's Word. Thanks for your great work and for sharing it with all of us!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I just read Reflections #117 -- The Gospel - Doctrine Debate. I too have often sought a more simple definition of "the gospel." While reading the first chapter of Romans recently, I read two familiar scriptures that I have read many times before (vs. 16-17), and a light suddenly came on. I went back and read them again, and the light got brighter. In those two verses, I found (at least for me) the true meaning of the gospel: "the righteous will live by faith." In the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed; a righteousness that could only be achieved by putting ones total faith and trust in God Almighty. As I sat in Bible class tonight, and spoke about faith, the only response I could get was, "Oh yeah, we need that too." It was almost as if they didn't understand what I was talking about. I wondered how this self-righteous attitude became so engrained in the Churches of Christ.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Al, that was another fantastic article, brother! When I read the descriptive phrases "religious Rottweilers" and "dogmatic Dobermans" I couldn't help but think of Philippians 3:2-3. I was glad to see you used it in this article. And I love the idea of BEING the church, not just going TO the church! That speaks volumes, and "hits the nail on the head," about many of our "enslaved" brethren. God help us to help them to free their minds so they may enjoy TRUE freedom in Christ!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

I want to thank you for your ministry, brother Al. I especially appreciate your most recent Reflections. Be Strong and Courageous!!

From a Missionary to Croatia:

Al, Please add me to your mailing list. I am an ACU graduate and a missionary, preaching freedom in Christ, to Croatia. I have been greatly encouraged by what I read in your Reflections (they have been forwarded to me by a friend in Texas). I pray that God will use your wonderful writings to bring insight and peace to so many who have been burdened with so much guilt, and to those who have never really enjoyed FREEDOM in CHRIST.

From a Doctor in Kentucky:

Al, This last article was great. It certainly has given me a reason to "Soldier On" when it comes to the enslaved. It makes me extremely proud of my heritage in the A Cappella Churches of Christ when I read your articles and hear your zeal for helping those who have not found freedom in Christ. Since making my transition from enslaved Churches of Christ (most of them in this area are) to a Christian Church, I have often felt guilty for not trying to have some "dialogue" with those I formerly knew in the enslaved groups. I guess, in my defense, I was just tired of being spoken of as "the Liberal," or had a fear of yet another "marking" by them. Although I did recently send an email to a former friend who is a preacher in the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ. Keep up the good work!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

I am a new minister struggling in the buckle of the "Bible Belt" where I have learned that less and less of the Bible is being taught, and even less of the Bible's teachings are being followed. I have been blessed with a good friend who has shared your Reflections with me, and I would love to subscribe to your weekly writings. I think you are right on in your efforts to free those enslaved. The problem is: most of them do not realize they are in captivity, either that or they are too afraid to live as freed-men. I have devoted my ministry to showing people the true nature of God. I believe if we understood the character of God, our outlook and application of scripture would change dramatically. Thank you for your passion!

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Paul told the Roman saints that some were given gifts of prophecy, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing (I think we need to have the "office" of contributor), leadership and mercy. He left out one -- "freedom fighter." You are a freedom fighter, Al. That is your gift. Paul encourages the Roman saints to exercise their gifts cheerfully. Keep on brother, you are not alone -- you are the wind beneath our wings -- may we be an encouragement to you. God has 7000 (or more) who have not bowed down to Baal; may we exercise our gift of encouragement to you. May God grant you the vision to see the hill full of horses and chariots of fire surrounding you; to see that there are more with us than those with them.

From a Well-Known Leader in Texas:

Dear Al, There's no way to tell you what you mean in my life and have come to mean in the lives of so many of my friends and acquaintances who've been given encouragement and hope through my being able to share your Reflections with them. As I see your ministry and sphere of influence growing and spreading, I'm sure you must have a sense of your place in the history that will be written of this era in our brotherhood. I pray daily for your health and that you be shielded from the fiery darts of Satan, as well as for your boldness to continue doing what you do so well. Keep soldiering!!

From a Reader in Canada:

Al, as I read your latest Reflections I sensed that you have been sometimes wounded in your efforts to preach freedom in Christ. The blows you take to succeed in your mission are not easy ones to bear, but they are blows that many others are not even willing or ready to take. Successful people do the things that unsuccessful people won't attempt. You have proven this in your own ministry. That is why you have had such great success in reaching so many who have been spiritually stifled in their current situation. You have been a winner for the Lord in your stated purpose for Reflections. Bumped and bruised, but still a winner! I truly regret you have been hunted and hounded by hateful people who claim to be followers of Christ. I really love and respect you, brother, and would give almost anything to be able to sit in on your assemblies and learn. I will continue to pray for you and your family.

From a Reader in California:

I just about died laughing at the absurdity of those concerned with "the pinkie protruding from the pond." And yet I know without a doubt that these things really do happen because, as I have probably told you before, I too came from a patternistic background. These people actually had a heated discussion over whether or not they should use enriched flour for the loaf, and whether or not they should use vitamin C enriched grape juice for the communion cup. One particular Sunday -- when I myself was in charge of making the communion loaf that morning -- I discovered (much to my horror) that the loaf had split into two pieces during the trip to the church building! I made a flying trip back to my house (several miles - breaking the speed limit no doubt), missing most of the service, in order to make another loaf. Never again! Never again! I will never again revert to such stupidity!

Making sure every inch of a repentant person was immersed for fear of leaving a digit behind on the day of resurrection was just laughable, and yet we had been a part of such insanity for many years. I even remember that, during my youth, a rather tall gentleman was being baptized and hit his head on the end of baptistery, almost knocking him cold -- so they rebaptized him for fear that he might have lost consciousness momentarily at some point during his new birth!! Lord help us, for we are often too ignorant to help ourselves!

From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:

Al, I read with personal interest the comments about the person not being completely immersed, an elbow or toe coming up as the rest went down. It brought to mind the first baptism I ever did in the prison. The candidate for baptism was a huge man in every way, height, weight, width, depth. Our baptistery is limited in size. As he was being immersed I noticed that even though his back was touching the bottom of the tank, his belly was still above the water line and above the maximum upper edge of the tank. I motioned for those around me to help slosh water on him to get him as nearly covered as we could. The man has been ever so faithful these past nine years. Question -- Assuming continued faithfulness until death, must he go through eternity minus his belly? Did we do right by sloshing him? Did we add to the Scriptures by inventing the sloshing method of baptism? I hope you can see the "tongue in cheek" of these questions! We surely do battle some pretty weak opponents when we wrestle such arguments, do we not?!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, After reading your last Reflections, "Evangelizing the Enslaved," I couldn't help but think of you this evening when I read what the apostle Paul said in I Cor. 16:9 about his own missionary work -- "a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me." Keep up the good work. You are giving many of us hope and encouragement to hang in there, and maybe we too can be an agent for change in the Churches of Christ as we all earnestly contend for that faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Brother Al, Thank you for another wonderful Reflections. Please know that for every false brother who reviles you, there are many more who are appreciative and encouraged by your efforts. While I probably cannot relate to the number and ferocity of the personal attacks you and your family have been subjected to, I can relate to being attacked. The journey from the slavery of legalistic patternism to the freedom of grace and faith has been a difficult one for me. My wife and my children wondered what was happening to me as I struggled to remove the chains. Now, they too enjoy freedom in Christ and have drawn closer to Him. Your Reflections articles, the writings of Cecil Hook, Edward Fudge, Carl Ketcherside and others, have been a tremendous help, along with a personal study of the Stone-Campbell Movement, which has really opened my eyes to the true nature of our tradition. Don't lose heart, there are lots of us out here enjoined in the battle. We should all be a Barnabas to each other and to those whose spirits yearn for freedom. God bless you and your family.

From a Veterinarian in Idaho:

Please include me in your email list for Reflections. I did not grow up in a Christian home. Consequently, I have not had to overcome traditions that some try to make doctrine. Ever since I became aware of the problem, it has been my earnest desire to see legalists discover and accept GRACE. Keep up the good work!

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