READ : Acts 17:1-12
In a world with many conflicting truth claims – including the claim that there is no final truth at
all – it is difficult to know what to believe.
The modern world is a marketplace of ideas. Widespread travel and the spread of information, above all through the mass media, have exposed us all to new ways of thinking. Spiritual and religious ideas from other cultures now commonly confront us in our own communities. It’s hard to know what to think or whom to believe. How can you be sure when some religious authority is telling the truth? Is what they say a genuine word from God, or are they just making an empty claim? I’d like to suggest a place to look for some very basic, practical help in answering that question.
THE MISSIONARY JOURNEY RESUMES
The place is the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 17. There we find an ongoing account of the apostle Paul’s second great missionary journey. After leaving the city of Philippi, Paul and his friends continued on to Thessalonica.
When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.
Acts 17:1-4 (niv)
In Thessalonica Paul followed his custom of preaching first in the Jewish synagogue. Some Jews were converted, and an even larger number of Gentiles, but as happened so often, violent opposition arose. Some of the religious leaders who disapproved of Paul’s message started a riot in the city. The mob went out hunting for the apostle and his friends, accusing them of being revolutionaries and stirring up trouble in the community.
In fact, the Christian faith is revolutionary, though not in the ordinary political sense of that term. It is revolutionary in its impact on the lives of ordinary people, in the hope it gives, and in the moral improvement it brings. But the gospel’s message of freedom and hope also presents a challenge to the world’s religious and social elites, so those who believe and proclaim it are often accused as trouble-makers. Once again Paul and his friends had to leave town. The authorities demanded they get out of Thessalonica immediately, and Paul was forbidden to return.
As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 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. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
HOW TO EVALUATE A MESSAGE
Let’s take these experiences of Paul and his audiences in Thessalonica and Berea as a case study in critical listening, that is, listening with discernment. We all need help in learning how to evaluate a message or a truth claim, especially one that claims new truth from God or special religious insight. Paul came to these cities in northern Greece with a brand new message about Jesus Christ. He shared it first in the synagogues, with the people of God. There the message caused division, as some believed it and others did not. The same sort of thing is happening all over the world today. People everywhere are being bombarded by messages that claim to teach religious truth, delivered by messengers who say they speak for God. How can you evaluate all these claims, or critique those who made them?
For example, I just recently heard a story about a tribal group in Southeast Asia. Many of these people have become Christians in recent years, but they have little biblical knowledge or training. Recently a fellow began to travel among them claiming to be a new incarnation of Jesus Christ, and demanding that the people give him their allegiance. Leaders were perplexed, not sure how to deal with the situation as some of the simpler people were being taken in by this false Messiah. Then they got an idea. They made copies of a traditional American picture of Jesus painted by a Christian artist, and circulated them among the people. “This is what Jesus looks like,” they told them. “You see this other man must be an imposter!” That was rather clever, wasn’t it? But also quite alarming. It wouldn’t take too much thought to make this test backfire. Just take a picture of oneself and circulate that as the image of Jesus. Surely there must be a better way of discerning whether a message – or a messenger – is from God or not.
Paul and his listeners here in Acts 17 give us some help in determining that. Here’s how to decide just who is telling the truth about God. These are five tests to use in evaluating any claims of truth or religious authority:
First, the message must agree with the gospel. When Paul arrived in Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue (as was his custom, Luke tells us). He preached Christ there; the customary message in the customary spot. Paul spent his time “explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (v. 3). Everywhere and always Paul’s basic message was the same. He told the facts of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the eternal meaning and personal significance of those actions for the salvation of the world. As Paul later summarized in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, “I delivered to you what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures . . .” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3).
This is the basic Christian message, the good news about Jesus. Anyone who claims to be speaking for God must agree with this gospel. They must testify to the truth about Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. They must draw attention to him, not to any other religious figure or leader. They must glorify Christ Jesus, not themselves. And if someone is proclaiming a different gospel, a message about another Savior or a different way of salvation, then you may be sure they do not speak for God. As Paul said, “If anyone, even I myself or an angel from heaven, should preach a gospel other than the gospel I preached to you, let him be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8). So the first test of any message is whether it agrees with the basic gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Second, the message must also agree with the rest of the truth revealed in the Bible. In Thessalonica Paul “reasoned with them from the scriptures” (v. 2). And the Bereans to whom he spoke later are described as having a noble character because “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (v. 11). Even today the name “Berean” is still sometimes used to describe a church where the people are committed to a careful and thorough study of the Bible.
But more needs to be said. Even the Bible by itself may not always be enough to help us. The Bible is not an easy book, or simple to interpret. Sincere Christians can’t always agree on every detail of its meaning. Different groups have arisen from time to time claiming to have discovered the “true” message of the Bible. Some even allege that they have received new revelations from God with later or better or more complete versions of the truth than is contained in the Old and New Testaments. They claim new books and new writings that supersede the scriptures. How can we evaluate such claims?
That brings us to the third and fourth tests for Christian teaching. It must agree both with our ordinary understanding and reason and with the overall beliefs of Christians in all times and places. Notice that as Paul taught from the scriptures, he reasoned with his listeners (v. 2). Christian truth is reasonable. That means it does not contradict itself, nor does it disparage human thought or urge us to disengage our critical faculties. It does not set faith against logic and demand that we believe absurd things or whatever a leader may claim (such as being the new incarnation of Jesus Christ, or as one group recently held, that there’s a spaceship waiting in the tail of a comet to carry everyone off to a higher world!) That is not Christian truth, nor is it reasonable. As Christians we must use our heads. We need to study the Bible carefully and systematically so that we know what it says and how its various teachings complement one another. Then we will be able to judge whether a statement is consistent with the truth or not.
What is more, we don’t do this Bible study all by ourselves. The Bereans studied the scriptures together, as a group. The believing community tested Paul’s message against the truth taught in the Bible. It wasn’t every man for himself. Christians do not have the right as individuals to make up doctrine for themselves. We are part of a community of faith that stretches back 2,000 years, all the way to the apostles. The Christian faith is, in the words of one early church father, “that which has been believed always, everywhere, by everyone.” It is “mere Christianity,” to use C. S. Lewis’s phrase, “basic Christianity,” the 90+% of doctrines that all believing Christians agree upon. These truths have been affirmed for many centuries in the standard Christian creeds and confessions (such as the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed). So the next time you are confronted with some teaching or claim to truth, ask, “Is this consistent with what the vast majority of Christians in all times and places believe?”
One final test, this not from Paul but from Jesus. Does the teaching in question agree with the life of Jesus himself? Does it shine with his goodness? Does it reflect his love, his grace, and his mercy, his beauty? Does it encourage obedience to him? Is it likely to help us live more in the way Jesus lived? Jesus said this: “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God . . .” (John 7:17). This is a statement with important implications for testing the claims of religious teachers and discerning the truth. Teaching that is genuinely from God will promote holiness – obedience to God’s will. And sincerely trying to follow God’s will enables us to recognize who is speaking for him. That’s a practical test that works.
So let me ask you: how are you doing in your search for the truth? As you evaluate any particular statement or claim, remember to ask these questions. Is this teaching the gospel of Christ, or is it more like a religious rule or law? Does it honor and exalt Jesus? Is it consistent with scripture and the common faith of the church? Is it reasonable, does it make sense, or is it bizarre and wacky? Will it lead me to walk in the way of Christ? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then someone is telling you the truth.