Paul’s Practical Theology for the Church, pt.5: The Spirit and the Church
1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 19 Do not quench the Spirit; 20 do not despise prophetic utterances. 21 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
In the previous context, Paul had positively admonished the church to rejoice, to pray and to give thanks (vv.16-18). Here, Paul’s focus is on the neglect of the Spirit, a negative attitude the church needed to overcome in order to mature in their faith and be complete (3.10). Although we can argue that the central theological concern in the Thessalonian letters is the subject of eschatology, Paul’s burden for the church is also immensely practical. It is the practical matters and the growth of the church that demands sound doctrine. While promoting positive attitudes of joy, prayer, and thankfulness, the influence and operations of the Spirit of God in the church of God was even more critical and indeed foundational to those virtues (cf. Gal. 5.22ff.). A negative attitude toward the Spirit would not produce growth but immaturity and a carnal mindset devoid of true spirituality. This only highlights the importance of the Spirit in the church.
The doctrine of the Spirit is often neglected in our churches. Even from a theological standpoint, pneumatology is an often misunderstood, perplexing, and admittedly difficult doctrine. The work of the Spirit begins with a recognition of His ontological equality among the persons of the Godhead. He is one with the Father and the Son. He is as much God as Father and Son and is as essential to our lives as the Father and the Son. Although equal in power, deity, and eternity; the Spirit, when He is rightly distinguished, plays a distinct role in the Godhead and in our lives. As the Spirit, the role of the Spirit, is to execute the work of Creation (Gen. 1.2; Ps. 104.30), sustain the work of providence (Job 34.14-15; Is. 34.16), apply the work of redemption (Eph. 1.13-14), the work of sanctification (1 Pet. 1.2), and the work of revelation (Mt. 10.20; 2 Pet. 1.21). In terms of His role among the Godhead, the Spirit has the same intimate relationship with the Father as the Son (Is. 48.16; John 14.16). Just as He is the Spirit of God (the Father), He is also the Spirit of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1.11). He shares in the same essential glory of the divine as do the Father and the Son (Is. 6.4; John 12.38f.). The Spirit shares in the mission of the Son (John 16.14) which is the mission of the Father (John 16.15). Everything the Father and the Son do, they do in conjunction with the Spirit. From the birth of the Son (Lk. 1.35), and the ministry of the Son (Lk. 4.18), to the death and resurrection of the Son (Heb. 9.14; Lk. 23.46; Rom. 1.4), everything includes the Spirit’s involvement and power (Acts 1.2; 2 Cor. 13.14).
The Spirit is not only an essential part of trinitarian thought, He is also an essential part of the life of the church and the believer’s life as well (Acts 1.8; Gal. 5.5, 16-18, 22-25). In fact, we should say that everything the church does should come from the Spirit (Gal. 5.25; 1 Pet. 1.12; Rev. 2.11), should be informed by the Spirit (John 16.13), illuminated by the Spirit (1 John 2.27), in the intimate communion of the Spirit (2 Cor. 13.14), by the power of the Spirit (Lk. 4.14; Eph. 3.16), and for the blessing of the Spirit on the life of the church (Acts 9.31; 13.52; Rom. 14.17). The Holy Spirit is so critical for Christian theology that our eternal existence in heaven will consist of living in the Spirit as it were. He will dominate our heavenly state as we move out of the realm sin and death and into the realm of the Spirit who inhabits eternity, the Spirit will be the air that we breath as it were (cf. Gen. 2.7; 1 Cor. 15.42-49; Rev. 22.17). When we speak of the theology of the Spirit, we cannot settle for abstract doctrine as if the Spirit is simply a subject to be analyzed when in reality He is a person to be worshiped, glorified and experienced. All of these gracious realities and influences are to be brought to bear upon the local church and the neglect of these things is what Paul is seeking to avoid.
Here the focus of Paul on the Spirit is essentially revelatory. The Spirit is the Spirit of revelation bringing truth, light and prophecy to the church (cf. John 14.17; 15.26; 16.13; 1 John 5.6). The church needs to be sensitive to the Spirit in a meaningful and responsible way. We can see the Spirit’s activity here along three important lines, the Spirit’s intimacy, communication, and discernment.
The Spirit’s Intimacy
When we think about the intimacy of the Spirit in the church we are talking about the Spirit’s sensitivity. The Spirit is described here a responsive Agent of God who can be impacted by the church’s conduct and spirituality. We should also follow Paul’s exegetical flow of thought here as he moves from the general to the particular. The general command is, “Do not quench the Spirit” (τὸ πνεῦμα μὴ σβέννυτε). Before moving on to the specific command concerning prophecy, Paul simply exhorts the church regarding the sensitivity we ought to have concerning God’s Spirit. This displays several things. First, the Spirit’s intimacy and sensitivity. The Spirit here is drawn in the metaphor of fire. To “quench the Spirit” is the language of putting out a fire (cf. Eph. 6.16). The term “to quench” (σβέννυμι) can be translated ‘to extinguish.’ This should not be surprising since Paul often speaks of the Spirit along these metaphorical lines of the “Spirit” and fire. Even the human spirit makes this connection. So Paul speaks about being “fervent in spirit” (Rom. 12.6) which speaks of being set on fire. John the Baptist speaks of a baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3.11). And of course the Spirit coming at Pentecost with “tongues as of fire” as a symbol of the Spirit’s power, presence, and the Spirit’s prophetic activity through the preaching of the church (cf. Rev. 19.10) (see, Weima, 405).
The metaphor of fire helps us to understand the Spirit’s work in our lives; a work that can be snuffed out through sin, apathy, lukewarmness, hardness of heart, loveless worship and the neglect of the means of grace. We can by our own effort or lack thereof, stifle the Spirit’s power and blessing in our lives by neglecting the Spirit, ignoring the Spirit, being ignorant and indifferent to the Spirit’s ministry in our lives. With the amount of ignorance and indifference regarding the Spirit today one would think some Christians are still like those disciples Paul encountered in Ephesus who said, “we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19.2). This needs to change! Even as the Spirit in this text is here to reveal truth to the church, the Spirit also bolsters our faith by communicating to us the hope of our salvation, the assurance of that hope (Rom. 8.16), the joy of our hope (Rom. 8.17), and the communion of our spirit to the Spirit of God.
James 4:5 5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?
Second, the phrase, “quench the Spirit” also reminds us of the nature of the believer’s spiritual life. To begin with, the believer’s life is itself spiritual. We may not always live like it but we are spiritual creatures. When the Corinthian church was becoming increasingly cliquish and factions were arising among the people, Paul confronted them that they were acting like “mere men” (1 Cor. 3.4). In other words, we are not mere men and women, we are spiritual people because, as Paul will go on to say, both the Church and the believers are the temple of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 3.16; 6.19; also, 2.14-16). We are made for God and when the Spirit of God comes to regenerate us He comes to renovate us, and reside within us so as to recreate us into the image of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 3.18). When we quench the Spirit of God in our lives we are undermining our true identity as those who have been renovated by the Spirit, to be indwelt with the Spirit to live according to the Spirit. It is not until we truly understand the Spirit’s agency in our lives that we will see what is at stake in quenching God’s gracious Spirit within us. One example of this gracious influence in our lives is found in Romans 8. As emotional as believers are and as emotional as we tend to become in our trials, our troubles, and our sufferings; we often forget that the Spirit is given to us to intercede for us when our emotions run out and we cannot in our souls express how we truly feel.
Romans 8:26–27 26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
The Spirit intercedes for us and works in conjunction with the emotional upheaval of our hearts, the pious petitions of our spirit, the penitent contrition of our souls and the spiritual Godward longings of our inner man that cannot be expressed with the limitations of human words. When our vocabulary runs out, the person of the Holy Spirit begins to speak for us. The Spirit speaks the language of the soul, He interprets the profundity of our agony, and understands our sighs and tears that fill up our lives. What a merciful Spirit the Holy Spirit of God is. Failure to see the Spirit’s ministry results in the loss of the comfort that the Spirit affords (cf. Acts 9.31). Possibly the greatest comfort brought to us by the Spirit of God is His promissory comfort His role as an earnest, a deposit, a pledge of greater things to come (2 Cor. 1.22).
Third, we should consider the ramifications of disobeying Paul’s commands regarding the Spirit. Of course this assumes we understand what it means to “quench the Spirit.” Before we get to the singular subject of prophecy, the general principle here is that we can by our stubborn unbelief, our hard-hearted timidity, our idolatrous civility; we can stamp out the fire of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When this happens, we will stifle zeal, we will suppress grace, and short circuit revelation from having its powerful effect on our lives. This last point brings us more specifically to the heart of the issue for Paul and the Spirit’s communication.
The Spirit’s Communication
In terms of the Spirit’s communication, Paul makes a direct link between the activity of the Spirit and the phenomenon of prophecy or as he says here, “prophecies” (προφητείας). The NASB has an unfortunate translation here, “prophetic utterances” is an interpretation not a translation (so too, NRSV, “the words of the prophets”). This makes the word, “prophecy” an adjective to the more important word, “utterances” and simply does not conform to the original. The focus is on the prophecies themselves not yet on the mode in which they come (e.g. written or spoken). The Spirit communicates through prophecies. In other words, Paul is directing the church not to despise such “prophecies” (προφητείας) because they are wrought by the Spirit of God and they are intended to lead the church into the truth (cf. 1 John 5.6). Whether those prophecies came through written letters (cf. 1 Cor. 14.37), the apostles and their emissaries (cf. Acts 13.1), or those in the body of Christ who had the gift of prophecy (cf. 1 Cor. 12.10); the church was not to approach those prophecies with out right rejection and disdain, “do not despise prophetic utterances” (προφητείας μὴ ἐξουθενεῖτε).
In terms of the despising of such “prophecies” we should note that what is being despised is not the gift of prophecy, nor the prophet or person through which the prophecies may come but the “prophecies” themselves. Virtually no commentator made this the focus even though Paul nowhere here says, do not despise the gift of prophecy or those who prophesy. Although that connection is not far behind the emphasis on prophecy itself is also important. Humanity has a long documented history of despising God’s prophetic word:
Isaiah 30:9–10 9 For this is a rebellious people, false sons, Sons who refuse to listen To the instruction of the Lord; 10 Who say to the seers, “You must not see visions”; And to the prophets, “You must not prophesy to us what is right, Speak to us pleasant words, Prophesy illusions.
Like Ahab’s prophets, people want assured success when the reality of God’s word is saying the complete opposite (cf. 2 Chron. 18.8ff.). Or in the days of Joash king of Judah, and Jehoiada the priest who had led Joash righteously till his death when Joash was persuaded by the nation’s politicians to abandon the house of God and true worship so that God’s wrath came upon the Judah and Jerusalem even though God mercifully tried to warn them through prophecy, “Yet He sent prophets to them to bring them back to the Lord; though they testified against them, they would not listen” (2 Chron. 24.19). Only when there came a time that the prophets of Israel were prophesying falsely and the priests were corrupt did the people love them (cf. Jer. 5.31 also, 11.21). This same antagonism of the word of God happened repeatedly throughout the history of Israel and resurfaced again with John the Baptist (and of course the apostles) and Jesus who said to the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who rejected His words, ‘you cannot bear to hear my word’ (John 8.43 ESV). So unlike the wicked, Paul is directing the church against hardening their hearts against prophecies that were intended to guide them, edify, exhort, and encourage them in the gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 14.3). They were to test such “prophecies” not outright reject them with disdain.
The only question this raises is why was the church tempted to “despise” such prophecies. Perhaps, they were uncomfortable with those who had the gift of prophecy, perhaps they were frustrated with what was being prophesied, or perhaps they had become confused by false prophets who were claiming divine authority. This last option has some warrant in these letters. It may also suggest that the nature of these prophesies may have been in regards to eschatology:
2 Thessalonians 2:1–3 1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,
The Spirit’s Discernment
Not only does the Spirit’s influence in the church manifest itself through His intimacy and communication but also through discernment. The church was to receive the word of the Lord as it came to the church through “prophecies” both written and spoken and the church was then in turn to test such revelation carefully, “examine everything carefully” (πάντα δὲ δοκιμάζετε). If there was ever a time that we needed to examine everything carefully, it is now. In discerning the truth of these prophecies there was both a challenge and an objective.
The Challenge Of Discernment
The challenge of course was that everything needed to be ‘tested’ (δοκιμάζω). The call was to test or “examine everything” (examine everything) in terms of these prophesies. Exegetically this means that the last phrase to “abstain from every form of evil” is also connected to the test case of prophecy. That phrase, ‘abstain from every form (or appearance) of evil’ is a favorite principle of believers and it is on the face of it true in all circumstances, but exegetically it goes with the context of prophecy not just life in general.
This is not a testing of people’s premonitions or personal messages they claim to have received in private. Biblical “prophecy” is a matter of public, corporate, and ecclesiastical discernment not personal subjectivism along the lines of the modern charismatic vein of thought (cf. 2 Pet. 2.20-21). We see this call to discernment in a closely related text in Acts. Shortly after leaving Thessalonica for Athens, Paul came to Berea where he encountered those who were more “noble-minded” than the Thessalonians because of their eagerness to test the message of the apostles:
Acts 17:10–11 10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
This had nothing to do with a person’s private premonition. This was the testing of the prophetic message of the apostolic preaching of the cross now codified and inscripturated in the written word of God. I don’t believe that Paul is speaking here of what today’s popular notion tells us that we need to test a personal prophecy by individuals who claim to receive direct revelation from God, there is nothing in this text that suggests that. Paul is referring especially to preaching and teaching that involved the prophetic message of the gospel. This would be especially relevant in an era when NT revelation was not yet written down for everyone to personally possess. This passage from Acts also spells out the guidelines for such examination. Notice the word was “received the word with great eagerness”; they were not opposed to the message but they were not gullible either. Notice also the infallible standard upon which all such messages and prophesies should be tested. It was “the Scriptures” that would determine the faithfulness of the apostolic message of the gospel. It was not the other apostles, the preacher, the theologians of the church, the councils, or confessions but the final rule of faith; Scripture and Scripture alone. Good and evil is ultimately discerned through Scripture.
Part of the challenge of discernment, for the early church and for us today, is that there are false prophecies, false messages, false experiences, false claims, and false teachers that can make the examination process complicated. Particularly in Pentecostal circles where continuation theology undergirds everything and experience is the greatest badge of spiritual maturity. Time would fail us to tell of all of the ways people are manipulated by others in the church so that in the name of God, in the name of the Holy Spirit, and supernatural power people are made to believe a lie. The supreme lie of course being that someone has heard from God or is speaking on God’s behalf but is not. Scripture patently condemns such false and presumptuous claims:
Deuteronomy 18:22 22 “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
The Objective Of Discernment
In discerning such prophetic messages, gifts, utterances, the objective was not merely abstaining (ἀπέχεσθε) from “every form of evil” (ἀπὸ παντὸς εἴδους πονηροῦ); it was also holding fast “to that which is good” (τὸ καλὸν κατέχετε). Paul gives us five basic imperatives here: do not quench, do not despise, examine everything, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from what is evil in terms of prophetic messages. The church in Thessalonica would know if a prophecy was “good” if it conformed to the apostle’s doctrine and was in keeping with sound teaching- the teaching of Scripture. Today, although we are no longer in the apostolic age, the age of supernatural gifts like prophecy, we have the prophetic word made more sure which is recorded for us, fixed and unalterable in Scripture. This is the word we need to take heed to above all. In Peter’s words:
2 Peter 3:1–2 1 This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles.