Who Really Speaks for God? Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 5:21

Spiritual gifts are for today, but not everything everyone claims to be from the Spirit really is. Paul closes his first letter to the Thessalonians with a series of exhortations. Paul no doubt designed these exhortations particularly for the believers in Thessalonica, but they are relevant for us today also. (Ancient writers sometimes listed a series of exhortations; in this case, Paul is adding some concise advice after finishing the main part of his letter.) I will focus especially on Paul’s exhortations concerning prophecy, in their wider ancient Christian context, but many of these principles also apply when we evaluate teachings.

Paul’s Exhortations in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

Paul’s closing exhortations include supporting and heeding God’s workers among them (5:12-13a), remaining in unity (5:13b), giving each member of the body what they need (admonition, encouragement, or help, 5:14) and being patient and kind with everyone (5:14b-15).

Paul then lists a trio of exhortations related to a worshipful heart: always rejoice, continue in prayer, and give thanks in every situation  (5:16-18). Such an approach to life demonstrates faith in God who guides our lives. Of course, these are general summaries, not meaning that a person is never sad. Elsewhere Paul does value grieving with those who grieve (Rom. 12:15) and himself grieves whenever he thinks of the fallen state of his people (Rom. 9:2-3). He feared for a friend’s safety (2 Cor. 7:5) and was deeply concerned for the churches (2 Cor. 11:28-29; 1 Thess. 3:5). Nevertheless, joy is characteristic of life in the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) and of much worship (e.g., Psa. 9:2; 27:6; 32:11; 33:3).

Then Paul turns to what might be another trio of exhortations, the third of which might raise two related issues. We must not “quench” the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19); we must not despise prophecies (5:20); we must evaluate them (5:21), embracing what is good and rejecting what is evil (5:21-22).

The verb that Paul uses to warn against “quenching” the Spirit originally (and usually still) referred to putting out a fire. This suggests to us that the Spirit sometimes moves God’s people in astonishingly dramatic ways; even more clearly, it warns us that our resistance can hinder the Spirit’s work. We can do this in ways such as preferring our old patterns of doing things to what God is now doing, or by deliberate disobedience.

Discerning Prophecies 1 Thess. 5:20-22

The next exhortation likely suggests one of the Spirit’s key ways of working: “Do not despise prophecies” (5:20). As we see in 1 Corinthians 14 and in light of the Old Testament, God moved some of those listening to him to deliver his message to others. Whereas this may have sometimes been practiced in small groups of prophets in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Sam. 10:5-6, 10), God had now poured out the prophetic Spirit so widely starting at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18) that such prophecy was widespread among the early churches (compare 1 Cor. 14:1, 5, 26-31).

The verb translated “despise” implies contemptuously looking down on something as being too insignificant, or beneath one’s dignity, to consider. The Old Testament and Jewish tradition often associated the Spirit with prophetic inspiration; so “quenching the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19) may be expressed here especially by demeaning prophecy (5:20). Probably the Thessalonian Christians were not the only ones tempted to ignore prophecies; Paul warns the Corinthian Christians to zealously seek to prophesy, as well as not to forbid tongues (1 Cor. 14:39).

Nevertheless, not all prophecies or messages supposedly from God really were (cf. 2 Thess. 2:2). Moreover, we may hear something from God yet fallibly misunderstand and/or miscommunicate it: we know and prophesy only in part (1 Cor. 13:9; cf. 2 Kgs. 2:3, 5, 15-16; Matt 11:3; Acts 21:4).

One must therefore “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21). Paul elsewhere speaks of evaluating everything, so we may discern God’s will (Rom. 12:2; Phil. 1:9-10); he urges us to evaluate especially ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 6:4). He also exhorts prophets in local congregations to corporately evaluate the prophecies they have given (1 Cor. 14:29), and may speak of a special gift of such discernment (12:10).

Having evaluated messages, we should embrace what is good and reject what is evil (5:21-22). These final warnings may apply specifically to prophecy. But even if these last two warnings are more general rather than referring specifically to prophecy, in this context the principle would certainly apply to prophecy also.

Often in the Old Testament, senior prophets such as Samuel or Elijah and Elisha mentored groups of younger prophets, helping them grow in discernment (cf. 1 Sam. 19:20; 2 Kgs. 4:38; 6:1-3). Here, however, Paul addresses a congregation of believers that is only several years old; the “safety net” for prophecy in this case thus involves not the discernment of senior prophets but rather a sort of peer review. Here those most sensitive to the Spirit’s voice listen together for God’s leading (1 Cor. 14:29). The corporate hearing of all the churches was also valuable (1 Cor. 14:36). Paul could function in the senior prophet’s role himself (14:37-38), but was not with them to supervise everything, and sometimes these young believers needed correction. Today we still need to practice discernment about whatever message claims to be from God, whether it is with prophecies or teachings.

Discerning Prophets in Scripture

First John, concerned about false teachers who have left the community of believers, warns that believers must “test” the spirits to discern false prophets (1 John 4:1). Whereas Paul’s instructions to churches required evaluating genuine believers’ prophecies, this passage addresses full-fledged false prophets from the spirit of “antichrist” (4:1-6). First John offers various means of discernment, both doctrinal (Jesus is the Christ, 2:22-23; Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, 4:2-3; Jesus is God’s Son, 4:15; fidelity to the apostolic witness to Jesus, 4:5-6) and moral (continued fellowship with God’s people, 2:19; keeping his commandments [2:3-6], especially by loving other believers, 2:9-11; 3:10; 4:7-8, 20). Articulating the right view about Christ and faithfully loving one another are both signs of being true followers of Christ; wrong views about Christ, or failure to truly love one’s fellow believers, are signs of a false prophet.

Of course, John was addressing a specific situation. We also read of false prophets who deliberately make up falsehoods to exploit God’s people financially or sexually (2 Pet. 2:1-3). Others prophesy in Jesus’ name, apparently believing in what they are doing (Matt. 7:22), but are damned because they do not bear the good fruit of obedience to Jesus’ teachings (7:16-23). A person can even prophesy genuinely by the Spirit and yet not be a godly person, simply moved because the Spirit is strong in the ministry setting where they find themselves (1 Sam. 19:20-24). What matters most before God—and how we will know who is from God—is not a person’s gifts but his or her fruit.

A very early Christian document that is not in the New Testament gives even more detailed advice. Chapter 11 of the Didache urges Christians to initially welcome visiting apostles and prophets. If, however, an alleged apostle or prophet does not live by the Lord’s ways, for example by seeking for money or gifts for oneself, that person is a false prophet.

Ultimately, in distinguishing a true message from God from a false one (or at least one distorted by human misinterpretation), any given message must be evaluated by a larger context of what God has said. God’s word did not start with any of us nor come to us alone (1 Cor. 14:36). God will not contradict what he has already spoken, so everything may be safely tested by Scripture. Further, as noted above, others who listen to God should also be able to recognise whether something is truly from God or not.

Discerning Messages Today

Because not everyone understands Scripture the same way, careful interpretation is important.

A difficulty sometimes harder to resolve by “objective” means is how we recognise who else is truly listening to the Spirit to help evaluate messages. In settings where falsehood has become widespread, the true prophetic voice may be in the minority whereas those who all speak the same message may be false prophets (1 Kgs. 22:6-25; Jer. 5:13, 31; 14:13-15; 20:6; 23:9-31; 26:7-8, 11, 16; 27:9, 14-18; 28; 29:8, 31; 32:32; 37:19; Eze. 13:2-9). Nevertheless, even here the true prophetic voice stands in continuity with earlier prophetic voices (Jer. 7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 28:8; 29:19; 35:15).

Even though some regarded prophecies of judgment against God’s people as blasphemous (Jer. 26:11), the burden of proof rested with those who told people what they wanted to hear (28:8-9).

“Prophets” can get popular telling people what they want to hear, such as that judgment is not coming (Jer. 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 14:13-16; Eze. 13:16; Mic. 3:5), or that God does not mind their sexual behaviour or popular idolatry (Jude 4; Rev. 2:14, 20).

Teachers of error can become popular by preaching what satisfies people’s “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3). Is it possible that preachers who promote extravagance, or preach a god who does not care about injustice, or promise that believers will not suffer, and so forth, gain followers by satisfying what people want to hear? Is it possible that God’s heart is grieved, as in Jeremiah’s day, by the proliferation of false messages in his name?

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