A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, closes with the oft-cited words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do ...” With apologies to the renowned author, we wish to reflect upon two cities of the ancient world — one of which did “far, far better” than the other in its response to the gospel of God.
On his second missionary journey Paul, the apostle, came to the city of Thessalonica in the Roman province of Macedonia. Here he labored for several weeks before moving on to Berea, some fifty miles hence. The two cities stand in remarkable contrast in terms of the reception of the gospel message by the Jewish communities in these respective towns. A careful scrutiny of the inspired text reveals the qualitative difference.
A summary statement regarding Thessalonica reads as follows: “And some of them were persuaded, and joined with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few” (Acts 17:4). Note the term “some” with reference to the Jews, in contrast to the “many” and “not a few” among the Gentiles. Clearly the church in Thessalonica was predominately Gentile.
On the other hand, the church that was established in Berea had a greater balance between Jews and Gentiles. “Many” of Hebrew ancestry “believed,” as did “also [those] of the Greek women of honorable estate, and of men, not a few” (17:12).
Why was there such a disproportionate response of the Jewish people in these two cities? It is a “tale” of different “hearts.”
In his “parable of the sower” (Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 8), the Lord spoke of different kinds of hearts (souls, minds, levels of receptivity). The “wayside” soil represents the hardened soul who adamantly resists the truth. The “shallow” earth signifies the superficial response of the person who impulsively converts, but quickly falls away. The “crowded” ground reflects the distracted heart that entertains too many worldly interests to be serious about Christ’s kingdom. Finally, the “good ground” suggests a heart that is honest and good (Luke 8:15), i.e., possessed of a wholehearted interest in, and passion for, truth. This was the difference in the Israelite people living in Thessalonica, and those of Berea.
The Verbs Tell the Tale
Words are precious vehicles of communication. Since the words of the Bible are Spirit-directed words (1 Corinthians 3:10, 13), one is richly rewarded by carefully observing words. Verbs are terms within a sentence that express either “action” or “state of being.” Let us first observe the verbs that describe the action of the Jewish community at Thessalonica, with reference to its disposition toward the gospel of Christ, its heralds and recipients.
Luke pens the following description. Note the words in bold-face type.
But the Jews, being moved with jealousy, took unto them certain vile fellows of the rabble, and gathering a crowd, set the city on an uproar; and assaulting the house of Jason, they sought to bring them forth to the people. And when they found them not, they dragged Jason and certain brethren before the rulers of the city, crying, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason has received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.” And they troubled the multitude and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things (Acts 17:5-8).
These verbal expressions reveal the hostile disposition of the Jews in Thessalonica. There would be no Christian community in their city — if they could help it! Moreover, their malice even was transported elsewhere (cf. 17:13).
Standing in bold relief were the “more noble” souls of Berea.
Now these [Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, examining the scriptures daily, whether these things were so (17:11).
Let me, if I may, extract some of the important character traits from this brief statement that speak volumes. I shall proceed in a topical order, rather than following the flow of the text.
- The Jews of Berea were characterized as “more noble” (from eugenes, “well born,” used here, in the comparative form), suggesting a higher level of intellectual integrity; more open-minded. Or, as Luke described it, they had a “readiness of mind.” They possessed those “honest and good” hearts.
- They were deeply spiritual. They reverenced the Old Testament “scriptures,” more than the rabbinical traditions that cluttered the minds of many Hebrews. The term “scripture” or “scriptures” is always employed in the New Testament of an inspired document (2 Timothy 3:15-16). They were convinced of the divine authenticity of the books of the Old Testament and measured what they heard in the light of that sacred revelation.
- The Bereans were persistent, dedicated investigators of the oracles of God. They were not mere “Sabbath day” students, but pored over the scriptures every day. Incidentally, this indicates how widely distributed copies of the Old Testament manuscripts were in those days. They were treasured and circulated as the word of God.
- These people were thorough in their study. They “examined” the scriptures. “Examined” is used of a careful, systematic investigation (as in a thoroughly researched legal case – cf. Luke 23:14; Acts 25:26). The Bereans were not superficial students. Bible study is a matter of “soul” welfare, not a mere trivial perfunctory religious exercise. Bible reading as a devotional exercise is great; Bible study is a more intense level of scriptural pursuit.
- They were logical in their study. Logic is the application of common sense. If one is lacking education, he can be taught. If he lacks “common sense,” the challenge is immeasurably more demanding! Logic is the ability to identify the harmony in things that agree, and the differences in opposites. The Bereans compared the things Paul preached about Christ, with the prophetical data in the Old Testament, and rightly concluded that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised One of Old Testament literature. Hence they became “believers” (17:12; cf. 9:22).
- Finally, “many” of the Jews of Berea (in contrast with the “some” of Thessalonica – v. 4) were obedient to the gospel system. The record declares that they “received the word” and “believed” (vv. 11-12). But do these expressions constitute obedience? Let Luke himself shed light on the subject. In Acts 2, the Jews expressed faith in the apostles’ message by inquiring: “what shall we do?” in the matter of salvation. They were instructed to “repent [of their sins] and be immersed” in “the name of [i.e., by the authority of] Jesus Christ.” The goal of their obedience was to obtain the “forgiveness of sins” (vv. 37-38). Subsequently we are informed that: “they then that received his word were immersed” (v. 41). And further, “all that believed were together” (v. 44). By considering the bold-type words above, the logical mind can summarize and conclude what the Bereans did to consummate their faith in Christ, thus receiving pardon.
There is a marvelously rich contrast between certain ones in Thessalonica, and the more noble in Berea. Which are we — the former or the latter?