9. Don'ts and Don'ts (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22)Related Media
16 Always rejoice,
17 constantly pray,
18 in everything give thanks.
For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not extinguish the Spirit.
20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt.
21 But examine all things;
hold fast to what is good.
22 Stay away from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).1
When I look at this text, it reminds me of the short list of points Sarah Palin wanted to remember for a television broadcast, and so she wrote them on her left hand. The instructions which Paul sets before us are something like that. They are also like the grocery list that my wife gives me when I go to the store.
One may wonder about the brevity of such a list. Was Paul running out of space on his parchment? Did he need to shorten his sentences to get it all in writing? It has been claimed – if not demonstrated – that the author of a manuscript actually shrinks the size of his writing as he reaches the limits imposed by his manuscript.2 We all know how this works, however, for we can remember those birthday or Christmas cards on which we have written “a few additional words.” When we reach the bottom of the card, then we write up one side margin and then down the other. If there is room on the back of the card, we may use this space as well. The smaller the space left to us, the smaller our writing.
I’m not seeking to convince you that Paul was running short on parchment; I’m simply pointing out the nature of the verses that we will be studying today. As we begin this message, allow me to take a few moments to point out some other characteristics of the verses we will consider.
1. The list which Paul gives the Thessalonians contains both do’s and don’ts.
2. These “do’s” and “don’ts” are commands (imperatives), and thus they are not optional.
3. Paul does not seek to give us an explanation for each of these commands. He does not tell us precisely how we are to obey, and he provides only a minimal explanation as to why.
4. There is one short explanation given at the end of verse 18, which I believe applies to all three commands Paul sets forth in verses 16-18.
5. Paul’s commands are given to the church, and not just to individual Christians. Listen to what John R. W. Stott has to say about this:
“At first reading one might not think that this section relates to the nature and conduct of public worship. But there are clear indications that this is primarily what Paul has in mind. To begin with, all the verbs are plural, so that they seem to describe our collective and public, rather than individual and private, Christian duties. The prophesying of verse 20 is obviously public. The holy kiss of verse 26 presupposes a meeting (you cannot kiss people at a distance!). And verse 27 envisages the reading of the letter when ‘all the brothers’ are present. It is this context, then, which suggests that the rejoicing, the praying and the thanksgiving of verses 16-18 (like Eph. 5:19-20 and Col. 3:15-17) are also meant to be expressed when the congregation assembles. Dr. Ralph Martin goes further and considers that these short, sharp commands read like ‘the ‘headings’ of a Church service’.’”3
6. As suggested above, Paul’s commands to the church seem to apply especially to their gathering for instruction and worship. These commands relate to the church’s expressions of faith and worship (output) in verses 16-18, and to its reception of revelation (input) in verses 19-22.
Observations Pertaining to the Context
Our text comes at the end of this epistle, and thus it is a significant part of Paul’s conclusion to the epistle. Paul began this epistle by traveling with them “down memory lane.” He rejoiced over their reception of him, of his colleagues, and of the gospel they brought to Thessalonica, even though this was accompanied by persecution. Knowing that God had chosen these saints to be saved, Paul was confident that He would finish His good work in them. The conduct of the Thessalonian saints was also a great encouragement to Paul, for it demonstrated that God was at work in them.
Paul was also concerned about the impact his absence might have had on those whom he had come to love in Thessalonica. Paul was forced to abruptly leave them, and his repeated efforts to return had thus far been thwarted by Satan. Paul was concerned with how these beloved saints were doing, and so he sent Timothy to minister to them and to discover how they were doing so that he could report this back to Paul. When he returned with a glowing report, Paul and his companions were overjoyed.
Paul was aware that some were concerned about those who died as Christians, perhaps because these new believers had expected the Lord to return very soon, before any of them died. Paul comforted them by informing them that at the Second Coming, our Lord would raise to life those saints who had died, so that they would dwell in our Lord’s presence forever, reunited with their fellow-believers. He also emphasized the need for believers to be alert and active, so that they would not be caught off guard by the Lord’s return. This was especially important since the unbelievers among whom they lived were completely oblivious to the Second Coming and to what it meant for them.
For Paul, the Second Coming was closely tied to the need for sanctification:
9 For people everywhere report how you welcomed us and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:9-11).
11 As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his own children, 12 exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you live in a way worthy of God who calls you to his own kingdom and his glory (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, 13 so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
6 So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. 8 But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet our hope for salvation. 9 For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing (1 Thessalonians 5:6-11).
Paul’s desire was for the Thessalonian saints to be sanctified, and thus be ready for the return of the Lord Jesus. Their sanctification was to be reflected by some radical changes in their attitudes and actions. Paul taught that sanctification should result in a moral transformation that produces sexual purity in a culture dominated by immorality. Likewise, it should result in a transformed work ethic.4 Sanctification should also be evident in their gathering together as a church and in their relationships with one another. They should formally recognize those who were already serving the body as leaders and regard them highly. The saints were instructed to live in peace with one another and to seek the good of others, rather than seeking revenge toward those who have committed some offense against them. This sets the stage for the commands Paul is now about to set forth in our text.
Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
16 Always rejoice,
17 constantly pray,
18 in everything give thanks.
For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
I want to begin by calling your attention to the last sentence above, which provides motivation for obeying each of these three commands, as Gordon Fee points out in his excellent commentary:
“The ‘this’ in Paul’s concluding clause, ‘for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,’ is almost certainly intended to modify all three of the imperatives, not simply the giving of thanks in all circumstances. Paul, after all, did not write in numbered verses! The three imperatives are intentionally similar in structure, all three beginning with a synonymous term for urging ongoing activity on their part: ‘always, continually, at all times.’” 5
We can and should rejoice consistently, pray constantly, and give thanks without ceasing, even when things are not going as we might wish. This is because we know that God is sovereign and in complete control of every event, every circumstance, in our lives. We also know that God is good, and He seeks the good of His people. Thus, we can know with certainty that God is using all of our circumstances to bring glory to Himself and to accomplish His good purposes in our lives:
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
So from our text, we find two reasons why we should do these three things: (1) Because God commanded us to do them; and, (2) because God is in complete control of our lives, and our circumstances are His will for us. So now let us look at the three things Paul has commanded us to do.
Always rejoice. We can see that Paul and the Thessalonians have already shown us what rejoicing looks like.6 Rejoicing is not just feeling happy; it is expressing delight in God and in what He is doing in our lives and in the lives of others.
What are some of the things for which we can and should rejoice? We can rejoice in the saving work of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We can rejoice because of what God has already done for us, not only in saving us, but in keeping us. We can rejoice in what God is presently doing in our lives, and in what we are certain (because He has promised) He will do in the future. We can rejoice in God’s character. We can rejoice in our suffering. We can rejoice because our sins have been forgiven, our consciences have been cleansed, and our hope in heaven is secure. We can rejoice in the certainty and sufficiency of God’s Word, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
While this is not stated in our text, let me suggest some of the implications of rejoicing.
Rejoicing reflects well on God’s glory. John Piper has said it many times: “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Rejoicing is the measure of our satisfaction and pleasure in God. This brought to mind a text in the Book of Nehemiah:
1 Then in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought to me, I took the wine and gave it to the king. Previously I had not been depressed in the king’s presence. 2 So the king said to me, “Why do you appear to be depressed when you aren’t sick? What can this be other than sadness of heart?” This made me very fearful (Nehemiah 2:1-2).
Why was Nehemiah fearful for being sad in the king’s presence? Why was being sad in the king’s presence such a bad thing? Men did not dare to be sad in the king’s presence because it reflected badly on the king. If someone was sad in the presence of the king, then it appeared as though the king was somehow failing in some way. Joy in the king’s presence implied that being in the king’s presence was a privilege and a delight, and thus rejoicing in his presence honors him. Christians who rejoice in God’s presence glorify the King of Kings.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11, ESV).
Rejoicing in all things is instructive to Satan. I am reminded of the discussion between Job and Satan:
8 So the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a pure and upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil.” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Is it for nothing that Job fears God? 10 Have you not made a hedge around him and his household and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock have increased in the land. 11 But extend your hand and strike everything he has, and he will no doubt curse you to your face!” 12 So the Lord said to Satan, “All right then, everything he has is in your power. Only do not extend your hand against the man himself!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord (Job 1:8-12).
Satan believes that the only reason men worship God is that God bribes them to do so by showering them with the good things of life. He believes that if suffering and adversity were to overtake the Christian, they would forsake God (as Job’s wife suggested to him).7 Job proved Satan wrong, and Christians do the same when they rejoice in God in the midst of their affliction. Not only does this instruct Satan, it glorifies God, for it reveals that God is worthy of men’s praise because of who He is, not merely because of the gifts He gives.
Rejoicing in all things is instructive to the lost, who do not know God. I am reminded of Paul and Silas in that Philippian prison, having just been unjustly condemned and beaten, contrary to Roman law:
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the rest of the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly a great earthquake occurred, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. Immediately all the doors flew open, and the bonds of all the prisoners came loose. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, because he assumed the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul called out loudly, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” 29 Calling for lights, the jailer rushed in and fell down trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:25-30)
Why do you think the prisoners were listening to Paul and Silas? It was because they had never seen or heard anything like this before. These men had been unjustly beaten, and yet they sang hymns of praise to God. No wonder no one fled when the earthquake opened all the prison doors. I believe they wanted to hear what these men had to say. And no wonder the jailer asked what he must do to be saved. It is the Christian’s hope and joy in the Lord which attracts unbelievers to the good news of the gospel. Lost men and women are not looking for “fair weather faith,” but for a faith that stands in the darkest hours of life.
14 But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. 15 But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (1 Peter 3:14-15).
Only the gospel of Jesus Christ offers this, and it is the Christian’s privilege and pleasure to demonstrate the worth of God and His salvation by praising Him in the midst of our trials and tribulations.
Pray without ceasing. When we hear the words, “Pray without ceasing,” we immediately begin to think in terms of how we can practice this privately and personally. Let me remind you that this is a collective command, a command to all the believers which is to be carried out publicly and corporately, especially in the church meeting. Unceasing prayer is not non-stop praying; it is, I believe, a constant awareness of God’s presence among us as we meet.8 In every part of the meeting of the church, prayer is not only appropriate; it is something that we should strive to do. Our prayers convey our worship, adoration, and praise. They convey the confessions of sin and our pleas for forgiveness. Our prayers communicate our desperate need for God’s help, and our awareness that no one will come to faith in Jesus apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.
Prayer is a part of Paul’s ongoing conversation with God. We see this in Ephesians, where at one moment he is speaking to the Ephesians in his writing, and then suddenly his conversation turns Godward:
13 For this reason I ask you not to lose heart because of what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on the earth is named. 16 I pray that according to the wealth of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, 18 you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:13-19).
The need for prayer is evident in the Thessalonian epistles, such as we are about to see in verses 23 and 24 of 1 Thessalonians 5. Since sanctification is ultimately the work of God (a work in which we must participate), Paul prays for God to do His work in the lives of the saints. And let us not fail to observe that Paul not only recognizes the need for him to pray for the church; he also is fully aware of his need for the prayers of the church (1 Thessalonians 5:25). The apostles appointed godly men to oversee the care and feeding of the widows because they saw that their priority was “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). The most powerful preaching will nearly always9 be accompanied by prayer.
Give thanks in all things. Before you conclude that we are to “give thanks in all things,” but not “for all things,” let me remind you of Paul’s words to the Ephesian saints:
always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father (Ephesians 5:20, NASB, emphasis mine).
Once again we must see that we can give thanks for all things because of God’s character. He is not only good, He is sovereign (He is great). Therefore, all things have come to us from God, and He will cause them to work together for our good and for His glory (Romans 8:28). In the midst of uncertain times, the Christian can give thanks, knowing what He has promised us in the future, and knowing that He is with us in the present:
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:23-26, NASB).
We can give thanks in the midst of our suffering because it draws us closer to our Lord, enabling us to better identify with our Lord in His suffering:
10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. 25 I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God – given to me for you – in order to complete the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints (Colossians 1:24-26).
As we prepare to move beyond verses 16-18, allow me to call your attention to the God-centeredness of these verses. When we rejoice, ultimately we “rejoice in the Lord”:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
When we pray, it is to God. When we give thanks, it is to the Lord. These commands that Paul has given us are designed to keep the church “God-centered” in its gatherings. Of course, this applies to individual saints as well. How quickly we lose this focus.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
19 Do not extinguish the Spirit.
20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt.
21 But examine all things; hold fast to what is good.
22 Stay away from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
Whether or not we should expect and experience prophecy in the church today is a matter of debate among evangelical Christians. I do not wish to “weigh in” on this issue. So let me simply set forth my thinking very briefly, and then leave this matter alone.
1. Those evangelical Christians who believe that prophecy is for today are emphatic that any contemporary prophecy is subordinate to (and not equal with) the revealed Word of God which we hold in our hands – the Bible. I heartily agree that the Scriptures are supreme.
2. Personally, I believe that we dare not seek to define “prophecy” today in any way that differs from the definition of prophecy that we find in the Bible, Old Testament and New. This includes the foundational texts in Deuteronomy 13 and 18. I strongly disagree with those who say that the “prophecy” of today is different from that which we find in the Bible.
3. Whether or not we believe “prophecy” is for today, we should all be able to agree that it was for Paul’s day. This was relatively early in the history of the church. A number of New Testament books were yet to be written, and those that were written may not have been available to all. Thus, prophets played an important role in the early New Testament church.10 That is why Paul demonstrated the superiority of prophecy to tongues, unless the tongues-speaking was interpreted.11
4. In Paul’s absence, God may have raised up one or more prophets to minister to the Thessalonians. Paul realizes that God could speak to the Thessalonians through others than just himself.
5. Paul also assumed that there would be false prophets and teachers, and thus all “prophecies” must be tested. It is clear that he expected some alleged prophecies to fail the test.12
6. Paul assumed that when the church gathered for worship, it would take place in an “open” format, where the men13 (led by the Spirit) would somewhat spontaneously lead the church in worship. This is assumed in 1 Corinthians 14, as we can see clearly in verses 26-40:
26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church. 27 If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church. Let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said. 30 And if someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude. 31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged. 32 Indeed, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is not characterized by disorder but by peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone? 37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid anyone from speaking in tongues. 40 And do everything in a decent and orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:26-40).
This open participation certainly contributes to the discovery of spiritual gifts and the development of leadership in the church, but it also provides the opportunity for someone to teach (or claim to reveal) something contrary to Scripture. I believe this is why Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 are so important. They facilitate and encourage open worship, and yet they encourage the church at large to be more discerning about what is shared. Thus, the church is protected by its elders, who are well versed in sound doctrine, and also the congregation, who is also tasked with discerning what is shared in the open meeting. Consider four simple guidelines which Paul sets forth in verses 19-22.
Don’t resist the Spirit’s ministry by despising prophetic revelations. I understand verses 19 and 20 to be saying the same thing. Verse 19 addresses the matter in general, focusing on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church meeting, while verse 20 is more specific when it speaks of despising prophetic utterances. The church should not suppress the ministry of the Holy Spirit when it gathers (verse 19). And now, more directly to the point, the church should not seek to suppress the Spirit’s ministry by despising prophecies (such as those Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians 14). One does not forbid all teaching just because there are false teachers.
Paul’s words may have been a real “revelation” (pardon the pun) to some Thessalonian believers. They may have observed some alleged “prophecies” that really missed the mark, and they may have sought to prevent further instances by simply prohibiting any prophetic revelations from being shared in the church gathering. Paul may have shocked some by saying that doing this was to resist the Spirit’s ministry in the church.
Don’t believe everything that you hear. Paul rejects the suppression of the Spirit’s work in the church and instead instructs the church to develop biblical and doctrinal discernment. False teachers often speak with great confidence and dogmatism, sometimes claiming divine revelation, but that doesn’t make their teaching true to God’s Word.14 It is clear that one of the responsibilities of the elders of the church is to proclaim the truth and to correct false teaching,15 but this is no excuse for personal laziness and irresponsibility. Remember that in Acts, the Bereans were held out to us as an example for all to follow, not just the church leaders:
10 The brothers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea at once, during the night. When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so (Acts 17:10-11).16
Discern the truth and cling to it. So, the Thessalonians are instructed to examine everything, and to “hold fast” or “cling to” what is true. On what basis would the Thessalonians “examine” or “test” that which is presented as divine revelation? The first test would be its conformity to what God has clearly revealed in His Word. For the Thessalonians, that would include the Old Testament Scriptures, Paul’s epistle(s), and whatever other New Testament writings or revelations they could consult, including the teaching of Jesus.17 For Christians today, the Scriptures would be the complete Bible. For example, there would be the two tests of Deuteronomy 13 and 18. If a prophet said that something was going to happen, but it did not, he (or she) was not a true prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Also, if what a prophet foretells does come true, but this leads people away from serving God alone, then this person is also a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Other tests would include a “high” view of the person and work of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7), and conformity to the gospel as defined and proclaimed by Paul and the apostles (Galatians 1:6-10). From Jesus’ words and those of Peter (2 Peter) and Jude, we would also know a false prophet by his fruits.18
Discern error and reject it. You may not immediately recognize this statement as the meaning of Paul’s words in verse 22:
Stay away from every form19 of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
On the surface, it may seem as though Paul has moved on to a new subject in verse 22, warning the Thessalonian saints about evil in any and all of its many forms. While this would certainly be a valid instruction, it does not appear to be Paul’s intent here in this context. He has instructed the Thessalonians not to resist the Holy Spirit by rejecting out of hand any and all forms of prophetic revelation. Then he follows up with a corresponding exhortation to examine every alleged prophetic revelation. Revelations which have proven to be genuine should be embraced, but what of those which have failed the test? That is what I believe Paul is dealing with in verse 22. His answer: “Reject any form of evil.”
One reason why I understand verse 22 to be the flip side of verse 21 is Paul’s careful choice of words. When Paul writes that the Thessalonians should “examine all things” and “hold fast to what is good,” the Greek word translated “hold fast” is katecho. In verse 22, when he writes that the Thessalonians are to “stay away from every form of evil,” the word he uses is apecho. Paul is using this play on words20 to contrast the embracing of the good with the rejecting of what is evil.
Why does Paul refer to false prophecy as “evil”? I believe there are two reasons. First, because he is contrasting what is “good” in verse 21 with what is not good (“evil”) in verse 22. And second, because that is precisely what false prophecy is. False prophecy is not only untrue (false), it is also unhealthy and dangerous (“evil”). When we get to 2 Thessalonians 2, we shall see how false prophecy can be dangerous and detrimental to spiritual health. “Any form of” alerts us to the fact that error comes in various shapes and sizes. Some is blatant and thus more readily apparent. Other forms are more subtle. Anything that does not pass the stringent tests of truth should be cast aside.
Our text may not be lengthy, but it has much to say to Christians today. Let me suggest some areas of application as we conclude this lesson.
(And Any Other Authoritative Claims)
1. Personally, I do not believe prophecies to be essential for the church today in the same way that they were in Paul’s day. God has spoken fully and finally in His Son.21 We have the complete Bible, including the entire New Testament; thus the Scriptures are not only inerrant, but sufficient for our every spiritual need. Saints in that day had much less. Both Paul and Peter seem to say that the Scriptures we now possess are absolutely sufficient. 22
2. Having said this, I believe that we should not be too quick to set aside the command of Paul in our text regarding prophecies (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Paul’s instructions assume that prophecies will be made, and that some of them will be false. His solution is not to forbid prophecies, but to examine them, so as to approve what is good and to reject what is not.
3. If there were to be prophecy today or in the future, I would expect – no, I would insist – that it be defined and practiced as the Bible defines it and prescribes its practice. Here is where I depart from some highly respected evangelical scholars, who would have us believe that prophecy today is not the prophecy of Deuteronomy 13 and 18, or even the prophecy we find in the New Testament. Until God changes the definition of prophecy and the ground rules for dealing with it, I cannot set these biblical standards aside.
4. No statement or teaching that is claimed to be prophetic revelation should ever be considered on a par with Scripture or superior to it; at best, it will always be subordinate to it. No contemporary “prophecy” could ever set aside or modify the clear teaching of the Scriptures.23 On this point, I believe there would be agreement among all conservative evangelical Christians.
5. What Paul says here applies beyond prophecy. It would apply, I believe, to any authoritative statements related to Christian doctrine or practice. There are those who twist the Scriptures in their attempt to teach false doctrine24 and thus to gain a following.25 There are also those who try to add weight to their own leanings by claiming that “the Lord told them” to do or to say a certain thing. Paul’s words about examining prophecy apply to any individual’s teaching of Scripture, to well-meaning advice, and to the guidance of others. Let me just say parenthetically here that some of the worst, most unbiblical, counsel I have ever heard comes from well-meaning friends, many of whom profess to know and serve our Lord. Some of the best counsel I have received about “counsel” comes from the Book of James:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. 18 And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace (James 3:13-18).
Insight as to How We Should Function as a Church
Paul’s instructions regarding prophecies assume a form of meeting and worshipping that is foreign to most congregations, and yet this is the kind of worship which the New Testament portrays as typical.26
26 What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church. 27 If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church. Let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said. 30 And if someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude. 31 For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged. 32 Indeed, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is not characterized by disorder but by peace (1 Corinthians 14:26-33a).
From what Paul says here (and there is no text that contradicts this one), there was a great deal of spontaneous participation in the church meeting. There were guiding principles, however. Among these would be the following:
No more than two or three prophets could speak (the same for tongues speakers – 1 Corinthians 14:27, 29)
Tongues must not be spoken publicly without interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:27-28)
What is done must be edifying to the church (rather than simply exalting the participant), and everything must be done in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians14:26, 30-33, 40).
Women are not allowed to lead (men) in the gathering of the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-38; 1 Timothy 2:9-15).
This form of worship was (and continues to be) a joyful time of teaching, worship, observing the Lord’s Table, fellowship, and prayer.27 The Spirit of God spoke to the church through men in a variety of ways. There was a kind of spontaneity in the church meeting which was not scripted, but was Spirit led. What a contrast such a gathering is when compared to the highly structured, top-down gatherings which we see so frequently today. Gathering for open worship provided greater freedom and replaced rote repetition and boredom with a sense of expectation. It also encouraged the discovery and development of spiritual gifts, and the development of spiritual leadership among the men, young and old.
There was one possible downside. Such freedom opened the door for those who might (innocently or malevolently) introduce something not true to the Scriptures. A man might simply mis-speak, and another might intentionally seek to lead the church astray.28 Paul’s solution to this was not to suppress the Holy Spirit by prohibiting spontaneous participation, but rather to bring all believers to maturity so that they would discern what is false.
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis mine).
It is vitally important to have godly leaders, whose responsibility it is to proclaim and defend sound doctrine.29 But beyond this, every believer is to study God’s Word, know sound doctrine, and be able to recognize false teaching. This is vitally important because there are times when an elder may go astray, as we see toward the end of Acts 20. It is also important when the church is under persecution because the leaders may be arrested or killed, leaving the congregation to themselves.
I want to be very careful here not to give ground to Postmodernism. I am not saying that every member is to discern his or her own truth, as though there is not one truth. I am saying that there is but one truth – God’s truth – and it is found in the Word of God. Every believer should know God’s Word and should thus be able to discern between false teaching and that which is true.
Let me take just a moment to explain how the elders have determined to deal with error which is taught in the church meeting.30 This is a time when we want to encourage fairly broad participation, and we especially want to encourage leadership in the younger men of our body (among other things, to perpetuate leadership in the future). If every blunder or misstatement were corrected, that would be the end of the participation of the easily intimidated. Because our body is knowledgeable in the Scriptures, we know that simple misstatements are recognized as such, and so we don’t feel compelled to make a big issue of such things. Often in the course of the meeting, one of the men (not necessarily an elder) will gently correct the misstatement and nothing more will be said. Some statements are followed up later with a phone call or a private conversation. As a rule, only serious error would be dealt with on the spot, and this would usually be by an elder. I should also say that we strongly discourage debating our differences in non-fundamental areas of doctrine (like eschatology, the doctrine of future things). Paul’s words in Romans 14:1—15:5 are clear on this point.
Frankly, this passage should be a bit disturbing to many of you, because it places a lot more responsibility on you. Many people find it easier and more comfortable to let others assume all the leadership and ministry, while they sit back, happy to pay the bill (by giving to the church). In Ephesians 4:12, Paul tells us that the work of ministry is the work of the body. Now, Paul adds to this that spiritual discernment is also a responsibility of the congregation as a whole (as well as its leaders). We dare not sit back and expect others to take up our responsibilities. When our Lord comes, let Him find us doing our job!
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:
2 I recall this from seminary days – quite a while ago – but when I looked in preparation for this message, I could not find an example to share with you.
3 John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), p. 124.
4 For a dramatic example of this, see Ephesians 4:28.
5 Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p. 215.
6 See 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:19; 3:9-10; also see Philippians 1:18; 2:17-18, 28; 3:1; 4:4, 10.
7 Job 2:9.
8 Although this is not the primary meaning of Matthew 18:20, I believe that it is true of God’s presence among His people when they gather in His name.
9 Jonah’s prayerless preaching being the only exception that comes to mind, and even he prayed while in the belly of the fish.
10 See, for example, Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; 1 Corinthians 11:4-5; 12:10, 28-29.
11 See 1 Corinthians 14:1-25.
12 See Acts 20:28-32; 1 Corinthians 14:29; Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Timothy 3:1—4:5.
13 See 1 Timothy 2:9-15; 1 Corinthians 14:33-38.
14 See 1 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 2:10, 18-19; Colossians 2:18.
15 Acts 20:28-32; Titus 1:5-16; see also 2 Timothy 2-3.
16 The Lord’s words to some of the seven churches indicate that God holds the entire church responsible for holding to the truth, and for discerning and removing error (see Revelation 2:2, 14-16, 20, 24).
17 Matthew 28:20; 2 John 9.
18 See Matthew 7:15-23; 2 Peter; Jude.
19 Some of us will remember that the word used here in the KJV is “appearance.”
20 Repeating the root echo, but with different (opposite) prefixes.
21 Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:1-3.
22 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4, 16-21.
23 See Paul’s emphatic words in Galatians 1:8-9.
24 2 Peter 3:14-18.
25 Acts 20:28-32.
26 Since I am quoting from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, what I have said before bears repeating here and now. Anyone who tries to set Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians aside (claiming that Corinth is a special place with unique problems, and thus unique instruction from Paul) is simply not paying attention to what Paul clearly says in 1 Corinthians 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:33-38. Biblical truth is universally true, and thus what Paul teaches the Corinthians is for us, and not just for them.
27 See also Acts 2:42.
28 See Jude 1:11-13.
29 See Titus 1:5-16.
30 By “church meeting,” I refer to the 1¼ hour long gathering of our church for music and singing, Scripture reading, teaching and exhortation, sharing prayer requests and testimonies, and (always, each week) observing the Lord’s Table. After a break (during which there is Sunday School and often an adult elective class), there is systematic exposition of the Word. I do this about 75% of the time, while other men in our body (and trustworthy men invited from without) preach the other 25% of the time.