Giving and Receiving, Spirit-Empowered Ministry
Topic: Expository Passage: 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 | Giving and Receiving
Good morning! Turn in your Bibles to 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22. You’ll need to put on your thinking caps this morning as we talk about New Testament prophecy. Let’s read the text, pray, and then jump right in (1 Thess 5:19-22).
I’m just going to say right off the bat that there’s a somewhat complicated debate centered on this passage. (I’m sorry that’s not the most compelling introduction.) But with that in mind, I’d like to begin with a series of six propositions that will help you to interpret this passage correctly.
- Verses 19-22 are a unit, not just a list of random commands.
You’ll hopefully see why that’s important later on, but how do we know this? First, you should look for a connection between verses in a passage unless that connection is obviously absent. So our default setting is to assume that these verses are connected in some way. But more importantly, you can see how all of these verses are linked. Verse 19 connects to v. 20 because prophecy is a manifestation of the Spirit. Verses 21-22 obviously go together. And in many Greek manuscripts, v. 21 is connected to v. 20 with the word “but.” So, “Do not despise prophecies… but… test all things.” Those are two balancing commands. Does that make sense?
So what is this unit about?
- The theme of the unit is “giving and receiving Spirit-empowered ministry.”
I just made that up, but I think it encapsulates Paul’s intent. However, notice that there is a special emphasis here upon prophecy (v. 20). What specific manifestation of the Spirit are the Thessalonians not to quench? “Do not despise prophecies.” And in v. 21, what specifically are the Thessalonians to test? Well, Paul says that they are to test “all things,” but specifically, what he mentions in context is prophecy. Does that make sense?
Okay, so now let’s talk about what Paul has in mind when he refers to prophecy. We’ll start with a little context.
- Old Testament prophecy was the communication of direct revelation from God. (For example, see the reoccurrence of the phrase, “Thus saith the LORD” in the Old Testament prophets. The prophets believed that they were communicating direct revelation from God.) Prophets were tested by their words and held to the standard of perfection. If a prophet failed that standard, he was to be regarded as a false prophet and treated accordingly.
The clearest place we see this is in Deuteronomy 18:20-22.
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ “when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
This passage raises several important points.
First, notice that the prophet speaks in God’s name. He says what God tells him to say–in other words, direct revelation from God. This is very serious business.
Which is why the penalty in v. 20 is so severe! What is the penalty for a false prophet? Death! Why? Because he didn’t just “mess up.” He lied and put words in God’s mouth. He said, “God sent me to say this,” when God never sent him.
Third, what is the standard that the prophets are held to? Perfection. If someone claims, “God sent me to say such-and-such is going to happen,” and then it doesn’t happen, he is a false prophet–plain and simple. The same test would apply to the prophet’s teaching. If he says something that disagrees with previous revelation, he is a false prophet.
Okay, but that’s the Old Testament. What we want to know is how prophecy functioned within the early church. That leads us to #4.
- New Testament prophecy functioned the same as Old Testament prophecy and was held to the same standards. New Testament prophecy and was a vital part of God’s plan for establishing the early church prior to the close of the New Testament canon.
Remember, Thessalonica didn’t have the New Testament. They had the Old Testament, they had verbal instructions from Paul, Silas (who was, by the way, a prophet), and Timothy; and now they had this book. But that’s it!
So the New Testament prophets fulfilled a vital role by supplying direct revelation these churches needed! We see this in Ephesians 2:20, which says, “…having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone….”
Why does Paul say that prophets along with apostles make up the foundation of the church? Because they weren’t just predicting future events (although they did that, too). They were providing a doctrinal and practical foundation for the early church.
Now it’s important to recognize, most of the messages of the New Testament prophets have been “lost,” so to speak! They didn’t make it into Scripture! But that’s not a problem, because the Old Testament refers to hundreds of prophets who were also apparently prophesying, and their prophecies didn’t make it into the Bible, either! Not every prophecy made it into Scripture! Some did, some didn’t. God knew that certain prophecies needed to be preserved, whereas others were just for the people living in those days. However, all prophecy, regardless of whether or not God preserved it in Scripture, was held to the same standard of perfection.
Alright, here’s where it gets sticky.
- Continuationists argue for a separate definition for New Testament prophecy that basically equates to Spirit-filled advice. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 is one of the primary passages they use to defend this definition.
So many Christians who argue that the gift of prophecy is available today (we call that “Continuationism”–people like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Sam Storms) define New Testament prophecy differently. They would agree with everything I said about Old Testament prophecy, but when it comes to New Testament prophecy, they say that it’s fallible. New Testament prophets sometimes make mistakes, and that is okay. Why? Because New Testament prophecy is not the same as Old Testament prophecy. It’s not direct revelation. Instead, it’s more like the Spirit-filled counsel. You think that the Spirit is leading you to say something. You’re certainly sincere, it makes sense to you, and it seems to square with Scripture. You feel that the Holy Spirit laid this statement upon your heart. But there’s always the possibility you could be wrong. That’s what Continuationists say, and they infer that definition from several New Testament passages, this being one of the first that they turn to.
So we are going to examine their arguments based on this passage; but before we do, do you see any overarching difficulties with redefining New Testament prophecy? One of the strongest cases against this new definition of prophecy is a massive argument from silence! There is a world of difference between direct revelation and fallible, Spirit-filled advice. So if God truly intended this redefinition, we should expect an explicit statement to that effect. But such a statement simply never occurs. Does that make sense?
Okay, let’s examine the Continuationist arguments from this passage.
- The command to test prophecy implies that prophecy is fallible.
Here is how Sam Storms puts it.
If such “words” were perfectly infallible revelation on a par with Scripture would he not have simply said, “Submit to them without hesitation and obey them” rather than “test” them to see what is in them that is good and what is in them that is bad?
What’s the problem with this argument? It ignores the danger of false prophets! And we will see that again and again. I want you to consider what John says in 1 John 4:1-3.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.
Why do we need to test prophecies according to this passage? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world! Now John Piper argues that this passage is not parallel to 1 Thessalonians 5 because in this passage, it is the prophets themselves who are being tested, whereas in 1 Thessalonians 5, it is individual prophecies that are being tested. However, that argument doesn’t hold water because as we’ve already seen from the Old Testament (and as this passage itself indicates), the primary means of testing a prophet is by testing his prophecies!
The other problem with this argument is that even the teaching of the apostles was not to be accepted without question! The Bereans were praised for testing Paul’s teaching against the Old Testament! So to say that if someone claims to be speaking with Scripture level authority, he is to be accepted without question just isn’t true.
- The command not to despise prophecies implies that some of the prophecies were weird. If the Thessalonians thought that all prophecy was infallible, they would never have despised it.
So here is how John Piper reconstructs the original context.
The issue here is that some in the church are despising not the prophets, but they prophecies. Now why would that be, I ask. And my answer is probably because they are sometimes whacko. Despise is a very strong word. Paul says don’t despise. So somebody in the church at Thessalonica is saying, “Look. You told us that prophecy is a gift from God. Frankly, we are not liking what we are hearing, because it is stupid. It is weird. I mean, they are saying things that are off the wall.” And so they are tending to despise them. And Paul seems to be trying to keep the people from throwing the baby of true prophecies out with the bathwater of weird ones.
So we have to ask ourselves, is that the best reconstruction of the original context? I would answer, “No.” Here are some better reasons why I think the Thessalonians may have been tempted to “despise prophecies.”
- Gentile converts may have been tempted to overreact against false prophecies, especially within their pagan backgrounds. Prophecy was common in the ancient world, but it would have been the false prophecy associated with demonic idol worship. If that was all these young Gentile converts new about prophecy, it is understandable why they might have despised it. Also, there appears to have been a growing backlash against pagan prophecy within the culture at large. These sentiments could also have affected the Gentile believers.
- Jewish converts may have been skeptical of New Testament prophecy, since there had been very little genuine prophecy for about four hundred years. We sometimes refer to the intertestamental period as the “silent years,” because there was no direct revelation from God during this time. To put it into perspective, imagine that the last time God spoke was in 1619. And now all of a sudden, people are speaking for God quite often. I think it is reasonable to understand why Jewish converts may have had difficulty coming to grips with this new situation.
- Finally, and probably most significantly, perhaps they had been burned by false prophets. We seem to get the impression from 2 Thessalonians 2:2 that some of the issues in Thessalonica were a result of listening to false prophecy. It is easy to imagine why people who have been duped may have been tempted to toss the whole thing.
All that to say we don’t have to radically redefine New Testament prophecy in order to explain why the Thessalonians may have been tempted to despise prophecies.
- The Cessationist interpretation is superior in this passage.
First, what is Cessationism? It is the view that the miraculous or charismatic gifts have ceased. Okay, then what is the Cessationist interpretation of this passage? Basically, that the Thessalonians were being tempted to quench manifestations of the Spirit in their church and specifically prophecy (which is defined as direct revelation from God), perhaps because they had been burned by false prophets before. Paul says, “Don’t do that. You need those prophets. However, go ahead and keep testing everything. Hold fast to what is good and discard all that is evil.”
I’ve already made most of my arguments for this position under my previous points, but here is the clincher. What are the two categories of prophecy Paul lists in vv. 21-22? “Good” and “evil.” Note that Paul doesn’t say, “Hold fast what is good. Abstain from what is wacko or a little off.” No, either prophecy is good or its evil! Inaccurate Spirit-filled counsel is not evil. But when a person claims to speak for God and then lies, leading people astray, that is certainly evil.
Before we move on, I want us to consider, why does this debate matter? I mean, some would argue, isn’t this just a question of semantics? And in some ways, yes, it is. Because I would certainly believe in the reality and importance of Spirit-filled counsel and preaching! And basically, that’s all that the Continuationists are arguing prophecy is! So is this issue really worth all the fuss?
My response would be, “Yes, it is.” Here’s why.
First, it is always important that we define biblical terms accurately. If for no other reason than that, it’s at least worth having the conversation.
But second, and more importantly, I am concerned that labeling Spirit-filled preaching or counsel “prophecy” opens the door for a number of possible abuses. I think it puts pressure on the person receiving the advice that is unnecessary and unhealthy. Think about it, if someone from your church (not to mention your pastor) comes to you and says, “I think God has given me a word for you that you need to quit your job or date this person” but you disagree that that is God’s will, the stronger among us may be able just to ignore that advice and move on. But the weaker among us will feel very conflicted in our consciences because we will wonder, “What if God actually told him that? Who’s right, him or me?” The problem with those questions is that they distract us from the main point, which is, “What does the Bible say?”
In counseling, I try to avoid the pitfalls both of timidity on the one hand and of over-reaching on the other. When I am confident that a course of action is biblical (or unbiblical), I will point to the passage and seek to state the matter confidently and sometimes even bluntly or forcefully, as the situation demands. I have even said, “You must do this,” or, “If you do that, this is what the Bible says will happen.” I believe that is an important part of my responsibility as a pastor.
However, at the same time, I want to be careful. No one should ever do something just because I tell him to. That would be extremely unhealthy! Why? Because at times, every single counselor–including me–is going to get something wrong! I might not understand the situation as clearly as I think I do. I might jump to conclusions or fail to consider all of the factors. I might accidentally misapply a biblical principle. I might fail to account for another principle! There have been times when I thought, “That’s a bad choice,” but it ended up being the right one. And there are times when the opposite happened!
So while I seek to be led by the Spirit, I cannot even imagine telling someone, “I have a prophecy for you. I believe God told me to say this.” And I would never encourage anyone else to use that kind of language, either. It’s unbiblical and unhealthy.
Like I said, that explanation required some deep thinking. And if you don’t understand something I said, please, come and ask me about it. I’ve been encouraging the Awana kids to ask me their questions, and I was tickled pink when about four of them bombarded me after the lesson this past Wednesday night and peppered me with questions! So be like them! Ask me your questions! I want you to get this stuff; including the points of controversy, because that is part of biblical discernment.
But I also always want our study of God’s Word to be practical. So how can we apply this passage? After all, I just argued for a definition of prophecy that would exclude any of us! Is this passage still relevant, or was it just for those people back then? The answer to that question is found in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Is this passage relevant? Of course, it is!
So what do we take away from this passage? I’ve got two applications for you.
- Give and Receive Spirit-empowered Ministry with Confidence.
Remember, the theme of this unit is “giving and receiving Spirit-empowered ministry.” There is a special emphasis upon prophecy, but Paul’s commands are not limited to prophecy. We know this because in v. 21, he doesn’t say “Test prophecy,” he says, “Test all things,” and then he goes on to say, “Abstain from every form of evil.” And v. 19 is similarly broad. So although there is an emphasis on prophecy, the broader context would include all spirit-empowered ministry. So let’s “zoom out” a bit, and the applications will pop up everywhere.
Verse 19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.” What’s the opposite of that command? Take a look at 2 Timothy 1:6-7. It says, “Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” The Greek word for “stir up” in v. 6 can also be translated “rekindle” or “fan into flame.” Does that stand out to you? Paul is using the same metaphor here as he uses in 1 Thessalonians 5:19! The work of the Spirit is compared to a flame, and Paul says, “Don’t quench that fire! Instead, stir it up!”
We don’t have time for a full discussion of spiritual gifts this morning, but suffice it to say that a spiritual gift is a special divine empowerment bestowed upon each believer by the Holy Spirit at the point of salvation for the purpose of ministry within the local church.
There are specific lists of gifts within the New Testament. These include the charismatic gifts, like prophecy, healing, miracles and tongues (which we believe have ceased), but also many other gifts like teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy, helps, and administration that are very much alive and well today! If you are a Christian, you have a spiritual gift! And God intends for you to use that gift to serve here at Life Point!
So how does this particular passage help us in that area? It encourages us to give and receive Spirit-empowered ministry with confidence. One of the resources I consulted for my study put it this way: “do not quench what the Spirit is doing through spiritual gifts, or do not quench spiritual gifts which are inspired by the Spirit. Quenching is accomplished by depreciating what the Holy Spirit is doing, by not allowing people to use [their] gifts, by suppressing [your] own gifts, or ignoring what such people say or do.”
Life Point ought to be a place where we encourage people to “go for it” in using their spiritual gifts! Do you have an idea for a “Blessing Bag” ministry to homeless people? That’s awesome! We want to support you in that! Maybe you’ve taken ten years off of local church ministry for whatever reason, and you’re nervous to get back into it. That’s okay! Don’t be afraid! We want to come alongside you and help you to be successful! There’s no better time than now to get your feet wet again! Maybe you notice a particular area of deficiency here at Life Point. It could be a simple as the weeds are getting high. By all means, come out Monday morning and pull some weeds! You don’t need permission for that! And if a problem you notice does require permission to fix, put together a plan and come ask about it! Our Awana ministry is the result of members coming to the pastors with a proposal.
The church should behave like a living, breathing organism that is constantly growing and adapting. Pastor Kit and I do not want to be a bottleneck for ministry here at Life Point!
So how do we create that culture? “Don’t quench the Spirit.” To paraphrase that resource once again, don’t depreciate what the Holy Spirit is doing. Don’t forbid people from using their spiritual gifts or create a context in which it is impossible for them to serve. Don’t suppress your own gifts, and don’t ignore people’s ideas or attempts to minister.
Now I should point out, that doesn’t always mean that every idea will get a thumbs up. At times, church leadership may disagree with a person about his giftedness. “You want to sing solos, but brother, that just isn’t your gift!” Maybe someone else in the church is better suited for that position. Sometimes people come up with ideas that are impractical or out-of-line with the church’s mission. Maybe you have a great idea, but it needs some refinement. Or maybe everything about your idea is perfect, but the timing isn’t quite right. These are all judgment calls that leaders must make. But I want you to know that whenever possible, Pastor Kit and I want to give you green lights to serve and exercise your gifts however the Spirit is leading!
In addition to not quenching the Spirit, don’t despise the Spirit-filled ministry of others. Rather, encourage it! When someone ministers to you in the power of the Spirit–whether by teaching a lesson, giving a word of counsel or encouragement, praying with you, calling you on the phone, writing you a note, giving you a gift, playing the piano, planning an activity, inviting you into their home, washing windows, pulling weeds, making it possible for you to hear a sermon, teaching your children, or handing you a bulletin–receive that gift with joy and thankfulness, and encourage them to keep it up!
So number one, give and receive Spirit-empowered ministry with confidence. But also…
- Exercise Biblical Discernment (vv. 21-22).
As I mentioned, in context, these commands have special reference to what purports to be prophecy. If someone says he or she is a prophet, that is a serious claim; and his message is either “good” or “evil.” Just like the Bereans were praised for measuring Paul’s message by the Old Testament, the Thessalonians were to encouraged to test every so-called prophecy and make sure it agreed with Scripture as well as the teachings of Paul.
Let me ask you a question: is our need for discernment today any less than it way back then? No! If anything, we have a need for greater discernment! Why? Because with the internet, smart phones, television, radio, print books, etc., there is so much more out there and available at your fingertips! We consume more media and ideas than any other generation before us! How many of those ideas pass through our heads without any biblical filter?
I ended up in the process of reading several books that contain a lot of ideas I disagree with. One of them is a book about a Christian who converted to Catholicism, one is a popular self-help book written by an unsaved psychologist, one is a book defending Amillennialism, and the other is a book about a more progressive style of church ministry. Can I tell you, reading those books is exhausting! I have to constantly fact-check, evaluate arguments, and ask myself, “How does this line up with Scripture?”
I’m not suggesting that you go down to Barnes and Noble and pick up a book that you blatantly disagree with. I have my reasons for reading all four of those books. But reading those books that force me to constantly keep up my guard has made me wonder, “How many times do I go through life with my guard down?”
How many times do you watch a movie without giving one thought to the worldview that film is espousing? Does Hollywood have a worldview? You bet it does! You say, “But movies aren’t all that dangerous! After all, there’s no propositional teaching in it; it’s just a story.” Don’t say, “It’s just a story!” Stories have always been powerful tools for communicating important ideas! After all, what did Jesus use to teach? Parables! What genre makes up a huge portion of the Bible? Narrative–story! Stories are effective!
Not only that, but today’s movies are so well-packaged with compelling storylines, talented acting, beautiful music, and special effects, that they are extremely potent! It is extremely easy to let down your guard and let in the message. And because that message comes to you indirectly through story rather than by means of a bullet point list, you tend to receive it more passively. I’ve heard it said (and I think it’s true) that many people leave the theater after some of these films having their worldviews altered, and they don’t even realize it!
So what’s the answer? Is it never to watch a movie ever again, or to watch only Christian films? No! (Although there are lots of movies you should avoid altogether.) But the answer is not cut ourselves off from the world.
So then what is the answer? The answer is 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22! “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” Never let down your guard! Run everything you read, see, or hear through your biblical filter! And not only that, but constantly work to improve your biblical filter! Whatever passes through the filter, keep and hold on to. Whatever doesn’t pass the test, discard and avoid.
Does the command to “test all things” apply even to so-called “Christian” books and resources? You bet! In fact, that is the main point of these verses! The false teachers claimed to be prophets! They claimed to be speaking for God! And yet, some of them were “evil.”
In the same way, there are lots of books and other resources out there that claim to be “Christian,” but are full of rank heresy! The cults claim to be Christian! I was just reminded this past week of an individual I knew who got caught up in a strange kind of cult. Be careful with what you’re reading online! This is so important!
Of course, apart from false teaching, you’ve got to realize that every Christian resource will have its flaws. No book is perfect besides the Bible. That doesn’t give us the right to a critical attitude, but it does mean that we should always test what we read. Chew the meat and spit out the bones. If you aren’t sure about something, ask a more mature Christian. And as you become more familiar with the Bible, you will get better at spotting the errors.
By the way, the command to test all things applies even to sermons Pastor Kit or I preach. Yes! God forbid we ever say anything “evil” in the sense of false teaching, but we will at times say things that are unbalanced or inaccurate, hopefully not because we’re lazy, but because we’re human, and so we covet your feedback!
In closing, did you notice the balance between the commands in this passage? “Don’t quench the Spirit or despise prophecy… but also test all things!” A church that fails to encourage Spirit-empowered ministry looks more like a dead institution than a living, breathing organism. But a church that fails to exercise biblical discernment gets off track and may even go off into false teaching. Let’s be a church that gets the balance right.
 Richard C. Blight, An Exegetical Summary of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008), 165–166.