Those Of More Noble Character
Acts 16:6-10; 7:1-15
Key Verse: 17:11
“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.”
As you may know, we are still following Paul’s second missionary journey as he makes his way into Europe, following his vision of the man of Macedonia. (16:6-10) He makes his way to Philippi, where two famous and extraordinary conversions take place. First, there’s this Lydia, an amazing and successful business woman, whom Luke initially describes as a “worshiper of God”, but after she hears Paul’s sermon and receives the gospel into her heart, she refers to herself as a “Believer in the Lord”! Unashamed to be associated with this raggedy crew of missionary men, and unafraid to host these strangers in her own home, and bold enough to openly say: “I’m now a Christian”, Lydia’s home became one of the first house church ministries on European soil, where the Philippian church grew to become one of Paul’s main supporters. The other extraordinary conversion through his second missionary journey was of course the prison conversion(s), and we really don’t know how many there were, because Luke doesn’t mention them; he only records the jailer’s conversion along with his family, although we strongly suspect that some of the prisoners that night might have also experienced the Messiah’s touch and the blessing of eternal life just as much as that jailer did! Two households were converted upon Paul’s and Silas’ arrival in Macedonia in response to the Lord’s calling. There was so much to learn from those conversions. Lydia’s house had a revolving door for all missionaries and children of God travelling east and west and vice versa, much like the Pitts’ home offering hospitality and comfort to anyone who needs the Lord’s blessing. The jailer’s home must have also become one of many house churches offering refuge to the pilgrims and outcasts of the Lord. As I said last time, when the Lord enters a home or a heart, there is an undeniable transformation within which echoes the very presence of the Lord therein.
At any rate, Paul would have never been able to have such a success in his mission to Macedonia had he not accepted God’s vision for him for Macedonia. Paul had set his heart on going to Asia and on primarily serving the Jewish population, much as so many Christians also do— setting their hearts on going to wherever they will to go, and on doing whatever they will to do. But Paul heard the cry of the Macedonian man in his vision, and in it he also heard the cry of God’s broken heart for a people Paul didn’t care for nor love so much at first. It was the vision that changed everything! So many people, especially young people, when they first meet the Lord personally have a burning passion to serve Him, but then in time that passion subsides until they feel as if they might have not even met the Lord, or that the Lord had abandoned them. In the end, they go where they will, and do what their hearts desire for fear of losing the little spirit they have left. But we understand why their passion for the Lord subsides in time. Many don’t keep the flame burning through prayer and the study of God’s word! But most haven’t pursued the Lord’s vision. They have no vision. They need a vision! They need a clear vision where they can confidently testify with conviction that they received from the Lord. Then they need to set their hearts on fulfilling that vision throughout their lives. It’s the faith that: “I need a vision— a vision I can’t get on my own, but only the Lord can give me— therefore, I must ask the Lord! And ask him relentlessly— Ask without fail— in faith— absolutely.” And the vision will come!
Sometimes the vision doesn’t come for quite a long time; that’s the Lord’s domain and prerogative. But it doesn’t matter when or how it comes. What matters is to believe that the Lord has a vision for my life— a vision to use me— and my family— for his glory, a vision that might require that I abandon Asia and set my heart on Europe, a vision that requires that I no longer insist on serving in my own way the Jewish population but strive to find out whom the Lord is broken hearted for here and now, that I may be concerned for them as well! I may not even like those whom the Lord is broken hearted for. They may be very different from my own vision for what I perceived my Christian life and ministry would be. But what I desire and will doesn’t matter. One again, it doesn’t matter where and when the vision comes as long as I know that any mission that’s not from the Lord is fruitless. But the vision that springs from His will inherits me Europe, and after that, the ends of the earth! This vision-promise is not a myth nor is it some sort of wishful thinking either— especially not for you and me— the children of God. Listen to one of the first prophesies that were fulfilled upon Jesus’ death, resurrection— as he ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father:
“In the last days, God says,
‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.’” Acts 2:17
My wife has been praying for our young men to have a vision for their lives for a very long time now. Finally, we have made it a ministry prayer topic and several of our young men have begun to take it seriously, praying for their own lives and families to be en-visioned or vision-blessed. The Bible is clear about this point: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV) They perish because without God’s clear and absolute guidance, life for them is random, impulsive and unpredictable. For the visionless, life is without an anchor to ground them, and without an eye for the target. They really don’t know where they come from and they certainly don’t know where they are going; in life it’s all too often hit-n-miss. Young Christian men without vision are like this— often running amok— they’re drifters in Christian history— they’re holy ramblers who speak surprisingly good Biblese, but at heart they’re weak and vulnerable for lack of guidance and lack of direction— not even having a sense of belonging to a Christian community. But there’s no need for young Christian men to wander aimlessly without a vision! If we pray for them, and they too long for an absolute conviction of heart for the Lord’s vision— that is, his unmistakable and absolute guidance— it works a miracle in their hearts. It anchors them! And it marks out the target for them with precision. As the Lord begins his great and mighty work in their hearts and lives, they begin to show signs of ownership and of stewardship and of leadership of the Lord’s work and mission within the Lord’s community. When they pursue the Lord’s vision relentlessly, there is nothing that would stand in the way of the Lord’s kingdom work in their lives and community. May the Lord himself, the promiser of visions— may he en-vision our young men and inspire our young women to build up the church, the Lord’s community to serve his great purpose together.
This is what Paul hoped to inspire in young man Timothy when he took him along and subjected him to the missionary life, even though missionary life wasn’t easy at all as we have seen in the life and travels of Paul and his companions. But both young Timothy and young Mark, (who for a time is no longer travelling with Paul) also needed a vision for their lives to continue the gospel work every Christian must continue whatever their circumstances or situation. Eventually, both Timothy and Mark found their own visions.
Timothy, found God’s vision for his life as a beloved son to Paul and as his closest and most trusted gospel coworker. He found it his mission to accompany Paul on many journeys and to be a source of joy and comfort to him in his times of suffering. It didn’t seem to be Timothy’s vision nor mission to be a writer of letters that would eventually be incorporated into our Christian cannon as the other Biblical writers. But it was certainly very much part of his mission to become a masterful teacher and Biblical scholar whom Paul trusted to train and to establish shepherds, elders, teachers and pastors for the church, equipping them with what had been entrusted to him by Paul, his teacher and mentor. It was also apparent from Paul’s writings to Timothy that he may have originally been reluctant to accept God’s vision for him to pastor the church of God. And that’s perfectly understandable! Timothy may have felt unqualified or under-qualified to oversee the great men and women of faith of that early church who were in every his spiritual seniors. How could he possibly shepherd them! He may have also felt intimidated by deacons and elders who would test and try his youthful leadership at every turn. It’s not easy to believe this is God’s vision for him nor to accept his mission as a pastor of the Lord’s church. But Paul was certain! He wrote Timothy two letters to encourage and advise him on Pastoral Essentials (I & II Timothy), that he might embrace God’s vision for his life and fulfill that mission with absolute confidence. Sometimes, God’s vision for our lives is intimidating and unpleasant going against our very nature! Sometimes it’s hidden and must unravel as we pour ourselves into the Lord’s work maturing slowly along the way. Timothy spent much time with his mentor Paul as all these things unfolded themselves to him. It was easy to make excuses for all the weaknesses and disqualifications he had. But he didn’t. In the end, God’s vision prevailed, his mission succeeded and his legacy became legendary.
We also have no record of young Mark having ever pastored a church as did Timothy. It doesn’t seem to have been God’s vision or mission for his life. In fact, young Mark may have struggled for many years under Barnabas’ tutelage to overcome the aftermath of Paul’s and Barnabas’ separation (15:36-41). It was Mark’s low self esteem and great sense of failure after he abandoned Paul and Barnabas when they most needed him during the first missionary journey. Who could recover from such a failure! But we know that God’s vision for Mark’s life included the writing of one of the four gospels which changed the world. And we know that his dynamic Mark’s gospel followed Peter’s gospel account of the life and works of our Lord Jesus Christ. So it may be that after spending time with Barnabas, who encouraged him and patched up his wounds, Mark may have gone on to spend time with Peter for much needed spiritual healing. Peter himself was no stranger to failure, He had to overcome the greatest failure of all, for he failed the Lord himself when he denied knowing him three times, after having sworn to die for him. Mark, the coward who only thought of himself and took off when things became hard, became the gospel writer of Mark’s Gospel. It was God’s vision for his life that changed his life direction and enabled him to record the gospel according to Mark. Without that vision, he would still be a precious Christian young man, but he would be a useless and failed Christian young man who only begs for sympathy from other Christians. “Oh poor Mark. How do you feel today? Oh good, I’m glad you’re better. You know everyone fails now and then. Don’t let it get you down.” There are many young visionless Christians like this, who are happy if only they can receive other’s sympathy and then go on with their lives trudging from day to day. Mark could have ended up like this. But receiving God’s vision for his life and its mission changed his life. He lived to write the gospel. And his legacy was as legendary like that of Timothy. Vision is crucial to us. Without it, surely the people perish. Worse yet— they’re relegated to the back alleys of life.
No let’s turn our attention to the chapter we’re supposed to be looking at today— chapter 17. In this chapter Paul continues his second missionary journey and goes into three major cities, Thessalonica, which is today’s Salonika, Berea and then Athens. And it’s really amazing that the overall response of the people in each of these places was so different from the other. I say overall, because generally speaking everywhere the gospel is preached, there’s a remnant that believes regardless of how the majority of people respond. So, there’s always going to be this, what the Bible calls “remnant”, and they can be few and they can be many, but they are those who will believe the gospel message and be inducted into the kingdom of God and into life everlasting. But overall, the response of the others is always very different. In Thessalonica we can say the response was a strong overall resistance to the gospel message. In Berea, the response was generally a welcome reception for the gospel message. And in Athens, the response was an overall skepticism towards the gospel message. One nation of people, three cities that were modern and in the forefront of the then civilized world, and their responses to the gospel message was so vastly different! From resisting the message, to welcoming the message to caution and uncertainty regarding the message. I believe that we can find such responses and attitude towards the gospel in every generation and among every culture and civilization, and there’s something to learn from the way the apostles interacted or even responded in turn to them. Especially we want to look at two cities so totally opposed in response to the gospel, Thessalonica and Berea and see what made one stand out from the other.
Read verses 1-9. Consider what Paul taught his own people the Jews when he visited their synagogues for three consecutive Sabbaths— what he actually concentrated on in his teachings to them. Look at verses 2b-3. “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ [or Messiah] had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ. [or Messiah]’ he said.” He reasoned with them, meaning that he engaged them in some deep discussions from the word of God regarding the truths regarding the Messiah and the work of the Messiah. The Messiah had to come as a man, and suffer as a man, and then die as a man. And finally he had to rise from the dead in order to defeat that final enemy death and deliver his people from the power of sin. But it was not easy for his people to accept what he was teaching them. So he had to reason with them and explain it again and again, using various Scriptures. It wasn’t easy for the righteous Jew who abided by the Law to accept a suffering Messiah for his own sins. The righteous Jew was waiting for a Messiah to relieve him of his enemies and then commend and reward him for his righteousness. He was certainly not waiting for a Messiah who would call him to repent for his sins, and take up his cross of mission and follow him. He was absolutely not waiting for a Messiah who would embrace a Gentile sinner with the same arms of love and grace as he would a righteous Jew. How then did Paul’s effort to convince them that the Jesus he was proclaiming was the Christ prove? Verses 4-8 tell us. Some, only some Jews believed, and whole lot of Gentiles. There was violence and a riot. And Paul and Silas were secretly sent to another city called Berea.
Read verses 10-14. The most memorable thing to know about this journey here are the words that most people never forget in verse 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 what made these Bereans so different from the Thessalonians? How were they, as Luke says it: “of more noble character than the Thessalonians”? What makes a person or a people noble? Or of more noble character than other people? There are those of ignoble character. They have no honor and no self sacrifice. They love themselves and live for themselves alone. Then there those who are noble. What makes them noble? Is it their honor or their conduct or self sacrifice or maybe their heroism or valor in times when everyone else might do otherwise? There are many people of noble character who do the right thing for the right reason at the right time, and they do it not for selfish gain but simply because they are of— noble character! But here Luke is talking is talking about nobility of a whole different caliber. This is the kind of noble that extends to the soul of a human being. Who is noble of soul? And who is of even more noble of character of soul? Him or her who receives the message of the Lord with eagerness. There is another aspect to this nobility of soul as well. Him or her who examines the Scripture daily to see if what Paul says is true. Eagerness to receive the message of the Lord is one of the most noble things about the souls of human beings. Just as the noble of heart knows the difference between true and false, good and evil, so also the noble of soul knows the difference between what is genuine from the Lord and what is heretical from the devil, what is truly from the Spirit of God and what is false and poisonous to the soul.
The Thessalonians had heard all the rumors coming from Philippi and other places regarding Paul and the dangerous message he brought with him. When he sat down with them and tried to show them for three weeks from the Scriptures that Jesus was the messiah, a few believed the message, but the majority took the rumors they heard about him to heart, stopped listening, and opposed his message fiercely, and eventually drove him out. Such people may have been the top in their class, had all the money in the bank, all the power to sway courts, but in the sight of God they were most ignoble. On the other hand, the Bereans were noble, much more noble, because they had heard the same rumors and gossip and hearsay that their counterparts in Thessalonica heard, but they refused to listen to gossip. They preferred to listen directly to Paul and follow the Scripture he was teaching from to see for themselves if what he was teaching was true or not. Such souls are most noble in the sight of God. They are noble because they listen to the word of God and act accordingly. How precious and noble is the soul that refused to listen to any voice except the voice of God’s truth in the Scripture. These days there are many ignoble souls that corrupt and twist the Christian faith causing many to fall from the Scripture truth so that even those with noble souls are tempted to listen to them rather than to the Scripture. Woe to them I say. May God make every one of you a man and woman of noble character, a noble soul who loves the word of God and studies the word of God examining its truth from your hearts. And May God give our young ones vision for their lives and equip them with a mission to serve his purpose. Amen.