Paul and Silas (and as we’ll discover later, Timothy and others) have been smuggled out of Thessalonika under cover of darkness by the new believers there. Their new destination — Berea. While the description of events at Berea is short (only five verses), the believers in Berea have a unique distinction about which we will have much to say. There is a principle at stake here that we have referred to often on this blogsite, and I am glad to have finally arrived at this very important passage for believers today.
Ancient Berea lay nearly 50 miles to the west-southwest of Thessalonika. Luke doesn’t tell us how long the journey took, but having left in the middle of the night much of the distance might have been covered in the first day. Perhaps for experienced foot-travelers the entire distance might have been covered in one very long day.
Geographically, the journey would have been fairly easy, for the area between the two cities is a great wooded plain between major mountain ranges, intersected by two major rivers, the Haliacmon and the Axius. There are two possible routes to Berea across this region, and it’s uncertain which one the party may have taken. The Axius River flows nearly straight southward, emptying into the Adriatic sea in the next major river delta westward along the coast from Thessalonika. The Haliacmon River originates in the mountains to the southwest of Berea and flows generally northeast, passing Berea on the southeast side, and then arcs gently across the plain and empties into the northwest corner of the Adriatic sea. The Axius River would have to be crossed fairly early in the jouney, while the route would remain north of the Haliacmon. Water levels vary widely in both rivers through the seasons, and there may have been perils in this crossing that Paul later referred to in II Corinthians 11:26.
The city of Berea was situated at the base of Mount Bermius in the Olympian mountains. Many smaller streams and rivers empty into the Haliacmon and the surrounding plain, so Berea was a very pleasant and prosperous city. One ancient historian describes Berea’s ample supply of water as “water running in every street”, we presume in well-constructed channels. If any city in ancient Greece could be described as having the modern convenience of “running water”, Berea was it. Archaeological evidence and historians of the day place it’s origin sometime before the end of the 4th century B.C. It was the first Greek city to surrender to Rome following the battle of Pydba in 168 B.C.
Events at Berea (Acts 17:10b-14)
v10b — “and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.”
Luke’s phraseology seems to indicate that immediately upon entering the city they went straight to the synagogue without resting, pausing to make lodging arrangements, or eat. The Greek word is paraginomai, a contraction of para (“beside”) and ginomai (“become”). Both ginomai and paraginomai are often translated “it came to pass”, “appeared”, “arrived”, etc. Perhaps they had arrived on the sabbath and some haste was required to arrive at the synagogue “on time”. Luke doesn’t say so specifically, and I’m speculating here. As was the case in Thessalonika and other cities, they no doubt took this approach because it was Paul’s custom. The synagogue was the one place most likely to produce fruit, since it was populated both by devout Jews who knew their history and by devout Gentiles seeking to associate with the God of the Hebrews.
v11 — “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonika, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so.”
Throughout eternity those in Berea who believed will be remembered for Luke’s inspired description of their mindset, setting them apart as high examples to be emulated. Luke’s actual word is eugenesteres. The prefix eu in Greek implies excellence or exceptional goodness. We still use it in English today in words like eulogy, euphemistic, euphoria, euphemism, etc. to indicate high or superlative quality. The word genesteres (a form of ginomai) means “born-ones”. “Genesis” and “genetics” in modern English use the same root word. Together, eu and ginomai mean high born or exceptionally created. Such a description is fitting for those born into England’s royal family, so does Luke mean that the people they met in the synagogue were members of some Greek royal family of the day? No, for he gives two reasons for his choice of this word — (1) they received Paul’s message with great eagerness, unlike the skepticism that had greeted them in other cities from the leaders of the synagogues, and (2) they were serious students of their scriptures. In Luke’s eye, these folks were princes among men when it came to their reception of the Gospel.
Pay careful attention to their two-pronged nobility. Although they gladly received Paul’s message, they did not gullibly swallow it hook, line and sinker. Apparently they also wisely felt the need to personally check out what Paul was saying against a higher standard of truth, the Holy Scriptures of their day. We know that Paul’s main assertion to them was that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and that he supported this assertion with many references to the prophecies of the Old Testament. Unlike others, they were positively excited to discover how the scriptures fit together clearly in the culmination of the work of Jesus Christ at Calvary and beyond.
Did Paul feel threatened by their need to compare what he said to the Scriptures to find out if he was telling the truth? To use one of Paul’s own expressions,may genoito(an emphatic “May it never be!!”). In modern vernacular… NOT!!! He was, in fact, pleased to discover a group of people who were able to look into the scriptures on their own, and use them to weigh the words of their leaders. They understood that men are fallible, but the Word of God is not.
Oh, brother or sister in Christ! Oh, pastor! Oh, Sunday School teacher! Oh, Bible study leader! Can the same be said of you? Do you blindly propagate the orthodoxy of your denomination? Do you trust more in your seminary professors, your pastors, your Sunday School teachers, your youth leaders, your Bible study book authors than you do in the Bible itself? Do you really know what the Bible says, or do you settle for what someone else says the Bible says? Are you equipped to do what the Bereans did? Are you of a mindset to do it? How much more powerful would the Gospel be in our day if we could throw off the sacred cows of dogma and live under the direct teaching of God’s Word?
I have rehearsed this history before, but I think it’s worth repeating. My father struggled most of his life with the “contradictons of Scripture”, experiencing a long string of pastors who were unable to make sense of them. Three years prior to his death he encountered the very principles I have tried to enumerate and teach on this blog. A great light came on in him, and he finally understood it all. Then he was hungry to learn all he could from the Bible himself, under a pastor who encouraged his congregation to put what he preached to the ultimate test. I suspect that his experience was exactly that of the early believers in Berea, and it was this very experience that caused Luke to later describe them as princes among men when it came to accepting Paul’s Gospel.
From the beginning of this blog I have pleaded with you to have this mindset when it comes to whatever I have written here. I continue to pray that you too will experience the positive excitement of the Berean experience as my father and I have. No, your salvation doesn’t depend on it, nor am I preaching some sort of “experiential faith.” You can be an effective witness for our Lord without it. But how much better would your relationship to Him be if you knew you had the approval of Luke and of Paul because, like the Bereans, you were one of the “more noble-minded” because you received the Word gladly and always checked it’s truth against the Eternal Standard?
As a result, “Many of them therefore believed, along with a number of prominent Greek men and women.” (v12)
vv. 13-14 — “But when the Jews of Thessalonika 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. And then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there.”
As Luke indicates, it’s a story we’ve seen before. The trouble was apparently directed primarily at Paul, no doubt because the instigators saw Paul as the source and his companions only as “also-rans”. In any case, Paul was ushered to the nearest seaport where he boarded a ship for Athens. Silas and Timothy remained behind in Berea, and were not reunited with Paul for some time. Ultimately Timothy went from Berea back to Thessalonika under Paul’s reluctant orders, that resulted in them not being reunited until sometime after Paul had passed thorugh Athens to Corinth. (See I Thessalonians 3:1-6)
The English language perhaps doesn’t do justice to Silas’ and Timothy’s extended stay in Berea after Paul’s exit. The word “remained” in Greek is hupomeno, a word we have encountered before. It means to under-abide, to persist under difficulty, to endure, to have patience with evil circumstances as translated in Romans 12:12 (“persevering in tribulation”) and I Corinthians 13:7 (“[love] endures all things”). They more than remained behind — they remained behind under difficult and dangerous circumstances to see that the new church was firmly established, and eventually to do the same in Thessalonika.
In the meantime, Paul is on his way to the heart of Greek philosophy — next blog post, Athens!