To be Bereans is not just to search the Scriptures as we now have them in full, but to search the Old Testament in particular and there see God’s plan of redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection.
As I grew up in conservative Baptist churches, there was no Christian trait more valuable than Bible knowledge. Children’s programs gave awards for memorizing Scripture. Sunday sermons came from Scripture. VBS was dedicated to teaching Bible stories. In an environment like that, one group from Scripture was held forth as our example: we were told to be Bereans.
Acts 17:10–12 describes the Bereans as “examining the Scriptures daily to see if [the] things [Paul and Silas preached] were so.” This conviction to be a Berean was ingrained in me from an early age. However, until very recently my understanding of what it meant to be a Berean was flawed or incomplete. The picture painted for me was one of the Bereans actively searching the Bible, refusing to believe what the apostles taught unless they could flip to a certain page and attach a passage to it. There’s only one problem with that image.
The Bereans had no Bibles.
It was rare for average folks in the early church to have an individual copy of the Scriptures. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Reformation era that mass production of God’s Word was even possible. What they had instead was a community—in this case the synagogue—which had a collection of writings we know as the Old Testament.
Three Fundamental Truths
We would all benefit from evaluating anew what it means to be a Berean. Three fundamental truths can help us form a more accurate conception.
Bereans Receive Truth
Notice the order of their seeking: the Bereans received, then examined, and finally believed the truth (Acts 17:11–12). In truth, this passage is a beautiful picture of the Reformation principle of Scripture as the norma normans. That means that while we have many norms of our own, Scripture is the ultimate norm that norms (or conforms) our norms.
It was by the witness of Scripture that the Bereans believed what they received. The truth was brought to them as a conclusion from interpretation. The apostles taught them that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. This truth they then verified according to Scripture (at this point, the Old Testament texts they had at the synagogue). Then they believed.
There is an important application here. Christians today don’t do theology ex nihilo (from nothing) or ex ratio (solely from reason, what can be observed and deduced in the world). The essential truths of the faith developed in the early church should be received by believers, but not simply on their internal logic. Christians should search Scripture to see how these teachings are upheld by the witness of God’s Word. We shouldn’t act as if we are the first to ever read the Bible, but neither should we set the Bible aside to put our trust in external truths like the creeds. We receive the truth handed down to us, and verify and guard it by the authority of the Scriptures (2 Tim. 1:14).