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Lesson 21: Not Quenching, but Discerning (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)

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December 18, 2016

John MacArthur (Fool’s Gold [Crossway], pp. 195-196) tells the story of Aben Johnson, a wealthy man who began investing in gemstones. He spent $3 million on a blue diamond called the Streeter Diamond that Sam Walton (the founder of Walmart) had won in a poker game from a man named Streeter. He spent $2.7 million for a collection of diamonds called the Russian Blue. He sunk another $17 million into the Sylvia Walton Collection, a set of diamonds that belonged to Sam Walton’s daughter. In all, Johnson invested some $83 million in the costly gems.

But he later found out that he had not bought genuine gems. Rather, Johnson had unknowingly invested in nearly worthless fake diamonds. It turns out that Sam Walton didn’t even have a daughter named Sylvia. When he found out the truth, Johnson sued his Florida-based jeweler, Jack Hasson. A year later, the FBI arrested Hasson for fraud. In 2000, he was convicted, sentenced to 40 years in prison, and ordered to pay more than $78 million in restitution. But Johnson is unlikely to recover his $83 million. He should have exercised some discernment by having the diamonds examined by a gem expert before he lost his fortune.

But even more serious than being bilked out of millions by a fraudulent jeweler is being deceived about eternal life by spiritual con artists. Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, not of darkness, and his servants pose as servants of righteousness, not of evil (2 Cor. 11:14-15). What is at stake is nothing less than the eternal destiny of souls. Like a good counterfeiter, Satan’s counterfeit spiritual currency looks genuine. His doctrinal errors sound plausible. He even uses Scripture to support them (Matt. 4:6). His spiritual experiences seem to help those who testify of their benefits. But both his doctrinal errors and his spiritual experiences are counterfeit. Those who embrace them suffer either serious spiritual impairment or, often, eternal condemnation.

But as in all spiritual matters, there is the need for biblical balance. Some are undiscerning and spiritually gullible, prone to be led astray by every wind of doctrine or every fake spiritual experience that comes along. But others swing to the other side of the pendulum, denying the legitimate working of the Holy Spirit and blasting those who differ from them on minor points of doctrine. So to this church of recent believers Paul urges spiritual balance:

While we must not quench the Holy Spirit’s working in our midst, we must be discerning so as not to fall prey to false spiritual experiences or false teaching.

The difficulty in finding the biblical balance on the working of the Holy Spirit is complicated because godly Bible scholars differ. Most Reformed scholars, along with evangelical seminaries, such as Dallas Theological Seminary, The Master’s Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary, hold to a view called cessationism. While they believe that God works miracles today, they argue that modern examples of healing and miracles are not the same as the miraculous gifts described in the New Testament. They believe that the miraculous (or sign) gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, miracles, healing, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues) ceased at the end of the apostolic era with the completion of the canon of Scripture. John MacArthur, a leading proponent of this view, concludes his recent book, Strange Fire [Thomas Nelson] with an appeal to his non-cessationist (or continuationist) friends.

But other godly Reformed scholars, such as Wayne Grudem, John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Sam Storms, believe that such gifts are still valid for the church today. I would describe myself as a very cautious non-cessationist, because I do not think that you can prove cessationism from Scripture. But I agree with the cessationists that there do not seem to be any valid examples of the sign gifts functioning in our day. Almost all modern speaking in tongues consists of babbling in nonsense syllables, whereas the New Testament gift was clearly speaking in a translatable foreign language that the speaker had not learned. While there are many modern examples of miraculous healing, no one that I have heard or read about can compare to the healing ministry of Christ or the apostles. And while occasionally someone may speak a prophetic revelation from God, none practice that ministry with the regularity or accuracy of those with the New Testament gift.

With that as an introduction, let’s consider Paul’s first point:

1. We must not quench the Holy Spirit’s working in our midst.

1 Thess. 5:19-20: “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances.” While scholars acknowledge that we cannot know for certain the problem that Paul is correcting here, apparently some were restricting or prohibiting altogether the exercise of the gift of prophecy in the church. Perhaps there had been abuses of this gift which led to these restrictions. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul asks, “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.” Perhaps some false prophecies like that had resulted in a ban on all prophetic utterances. But we can’t know for sure. But here are four ways that we may quench the Spirit’s working in the church:

A. We quench the Spirit when we despise prophetic utterances.

In the context, this is the primary way of quenching the Spirit. The difficult questions here are, what are prophetic utterances? Did they cease with the apostolic era and the completion of the New Testament? Does God give any direct revelation today? If so, is it on a par with Scripture? Does it come through an audible voice, visions, dreams, subjective impressions, spontaneous thoughts, or a verse of Scripture impressed on our hearts?

In the early church, there seem to have been both the office of prophet (Eph. 4:11) and the spiritual gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10, 28-29; 13:8, 9; 14:1-5, 22-40). The office of prophet, along with that of apostle, was foundational for the church (Eph. 2:20) and thus both offices were temporary. Once the foundation was laid, there was no longer any need for apostles and prophets. We have their authoritative revelation in the New Testament.

The modern debate centers, though, on whether the gift of prophecy in a lesser, fallible sense, continues today. This could include both foretelling some future event and/or forth-telling in the sense of declaring, “Thus says the Lord,” directed either to a church or to a person. This would not be on the same level as inspired Scripture. In other words, it is not the word of God, but rather a word from God. And proponents of this view argue that it may be mistaken, and thus must be evaluated.

Wayne Grudem argues for a more toned-down version of this in The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today [Crossway Books] and in his Systematic Theology [Zondervan]. John MacArthur attacks this view in Strange Fire (chapter six, “The Folly of Fallible Prophets”). Grudem (Systematic Theology, p. 1049) defines modern prophecy as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.” He says (p. 1055), “So prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority.” Thus he disagrees with those in charismatic circles who proclaim, “Thus says the Lord …” He doesn’t even want to say that modern prophecies are “a word from the Lord.” Rather, a person should say something like (p. 1056, italics his), “I think the Lord is putting on my mind that …” or “It seems to me that the Lord is showing us …” In my opinion, that seems much weaker than the supernatural gift of prophecy in the New Testament, which seems to have been direct revelation from the Lord.

On the other hand, MacArthur (Strange Fire, p. 124, citing his, The MacArthur NT Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Moody Press], p. 196, in line with John Calvin), argues that the New Testament gift of prophecy “was the Spirit-endowed skill of publicly proclaiming God’s revealed truth.” So it was and still is essentially the ability to preach. He contends (Commentary, p. 197), “Revelatory prophetic utterances (1 Cor. 12:10) were limited to the apostolic era. But the non-revelatory gift of prophecy is permanent, as preachers are called to ‘preach the word’ (2 Tim. 4:2) ….”

I am inclined to agree with Greg. Beale, (1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 173), who rejects the views of both Grudem and MacArthur. He says that “prophecy elsewhere in the Bible seems always to be connected with a direct revelation by the Spirit.” If, along with apostle, this gift ceased by the end of the first century (he admits that this point is greatly debated), then he says that the point of our text “for the modern church is that it guard the truth of prophetic scriptural revelation and reject false teachings purportedly grounded on this revelation.”

But, what about instances where someone says, “The Lord told me,” or, “God gave me a vision,” or, “I had a dream in which the Lord showed me …” or, “I had a strong sense that the Lord wanted me to tell you this”? Or, what if you have such an experience? What should you do?

First, be cautious before you accept it as true. John Piper had a woman come to him when his wife was pregnant with their fourth child and announce that she had a prophecy for him—she had written it down—that his wife would die in childbirth and that the baby would be a daughter (cited in Strange Fire, pp. 241-242). Piper went back to his study and wept, but he whooped for joy when his wife delivered a boy and lived. When my children were young, I had a dream that one of them died. I woke up in a cold sweat and lay awake a long time praying that my dream was not a prophecy. Thankfully, it was not! On the other hand, God seems to be bringing many Muslims to genuine conversion through dreams and visions. So we should not dismiss such claims by saying, “God doesn’t do that sort of thing in our day.” But, be cautious!

I am much more skeptical of people who often say, “The Lord told me ….” I am especially skeptical when they claim that the Lord told them that I should do something or that something will happen to me or my family! Why didn’t He tell me that information? The woman who told Piper that his wife would die in childbirth was not only wrong, but also extremely insensitive! If someone tells you that the Lord revealed to him some major decision that affects your life, run for cover! He is not a prophet! As I’ll explain in a moment, we should evaluate every purported prophecy, dream, vision, or revelation by Scripture. If it contradicts Scripture, it’s wrong! So we shouldn’t quench the Spirit by despising prophetic utterances, but neither should we swallow them without examination. Here are three other ways we may quench the Spirit:

B. We quench the Spirit when we do not believe that God can do far abundantly more than we ask or think.

In Ephesians 3:20, Paul says that God “is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.” If we doubt that or if we limit what God can do by our own calculations or resources, we are quenching the Spirit. For example, when Jesus asked the disciples how they could find bread to feed the hungry multitude (John 6:1-12), they did the math and concluded that 200 denarii (which they did not have!) would be insufficient. But they forgot that little is much when we put it in the Lord’s hands. They were limiting God’s power and quenching the Spirit.

C. We quench the Spirit when we trust in our rituals and routines rather than depend on the Holy Spirit.

Even though we distance ourselves from churches that are heavy on ritualistic worship, it’s easy for us to go through our own “non-ritualistic” rituals without relying on the Holy Spirit to work. It is possible to crank out sermons by following a formula or prescribed method. We can run through a set of songs or partake of communion without relying on the Spirit. Or, for that matter, we could get creative and shuffle up our worship service and deliver a spontaneous sermon while still relying on human ingenuity rather than on the Holy Spirit. To be spontaneous is not equivalent to being Spirit-led. The key to not quenching the Spirit is to rely on Him in prayer.

D. We quench the Spirit by tolerating any unrepentant sin, whether personally or in the church.

Lewis Sperry Chafer (He That is Spiritual [Dunham], p. 86) wrote, “The Spirit is ‘quenched’ by any unyieldedness to the revealed will of God.” In the context of lying, anger, stealing, and abusive speech, Paul wrote (Eph. 4:30), “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” While grieving the Spirit emphasizes the relational side of things, it is pretty much equivalent to quenching the Spirit. We hinder the Holy Spirit’s working in our lives when we tolerate any known sin, whether individually or in the church.

So Paul’s first point is that we must be careful not to quench the Holy Spirit’s working in our midst. In the context, the main application is not to despise prophetic utterances. But more broadly, we may quench the Spirit when we limit God by our little faith, when we trust in our rituals or routines, or when we tolerate any unrepentant sin. Paul balances this by adding:

2. We must be discerning so as not to fall prey to false spiritual experiences or false teaching.

If Paul had only written verses 19 & 20, the church may have swung to the other extreme of swallowing everything that purported to be a prophetic utterance. So he provides the balance (1 Thess. 5:21-22): “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Note three things:

A. To be discerning, we should examine everything in light of Scripture.

Scripture is our infallible, inerrant guide for determining truth and error. Of course, we must interpret Scripture carefully in its context, comparing Scripture with Scripture on the assumption that God does not contradict Himself. If one Scripture says that God is absolutely sovereign in salvation (Rom. 9:15-18) and another Scripture says that we are responsible to believe (Rom. 10:13), these claims are not contradictory. If Paul says that we are justified by faith alone (Rom. 4:5) and James says that we are justified by works, not by faith alone (James 2:24), these are not contradictory when studied in their respective contexts. But to examine properly any teaching, claim of divine revelation, or spiritual experience, we must study God’s word. If it doesn’t line up with Scripture, it fails the test and must be rejected.

B. To be discerning, we must recognize that there are both genuine and counterfeit spiritual experiences and teaching.

Jesus warned that false prophets are wolves who disguise themselves as sheep (Matt. 7:15). With reference to the end times, Jesus plainly stated (Matt. 24:11, 24), “Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.… For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” As I mentioned, Paul said that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and his servants pose as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-15). I once read of a seminary professor who assigned his class the project of determining what is the most frequent subject in the New Testament. They discovered that it is warnings about false teaching. So we must be on guard!

The 18th century revival called the First Great Awakening was accompanied by all sorts of extraordinary experiences. Much of it was good: intensified interest in spiritual things, professions of faith in Christ, unusual joy in the Lord, exuberant singing, and emotional outbursts of weeping and crying out to God. But critics attacked the revival as just emotionalism that had nothing to do with the Spirit of God. They argued that true religion was primarily a matter of the mind, not of emotions. So Jonathan Edwards did an exhaustive study of what the Bible says about what characterizes a genuine work of the Spirit and wrote, A Treatise on Religious Affections. It has been called “the best manual on discernment ever written” (Gerald McDermott, endorsement of Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit [Crossway]). Edwards listed a number of unreliable signs of true spirituality and twelve reliable signs of true spirituality (in addition to Storms, see Gerald McDermott, Seeing God: Twelve Signs of True Spirituality [IVP]; and, The Experience that Counts [Grace Publications], a modern English, condensed version of Edwards’ original).

The point is, don’t swallow every teaching or spiritual experience that comes along as if it must be from God. For example, the current books about dying and going to heaven and returning often contradict Scripture. People’s claims that speaking in tongues or getting “slain in the Spirit” deepened their spiritual lives do not make these experiences valid. The question must be, “Do these teachings and experiences line up with Scripture?”

C. To be discerning, we must hold to that which is good and abstain from every form of evil.

While there are broader applications of holding to what is “good” and abstaining from “every form of evil,” in the context “the good” refers to genuine manifestations of the Spirit, whereas “every form of evil” refers to the spiritually counterfeit. We are not to be skeptical and aloof from that which is spiritually genuine; and we are not to embrace or be tolerant towards that which is spiritually not from God, which is evil.

If a man claims to act in the power of the Spirit, but his teaching does not line up with Scripture, or his life is marked by unrepentant lust, greed, or disobedience to God’s word, or he purports to speak in God’s name but his predictions are later found to be false, do not endorse him or listen to his teaching. Most of the TV preachers who claim to receive fresh revelations or prophecies from God are godless showmen who are preying on spiritually gullible people (see Strange Fire for many documented examples).

The main way that God speaks to us today is through His inspired Word, properly interpreted. Do not be like the guy in the proverbial story who needed guidance. So he opened his Bible and pointed at random to a verse: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thought, “That can’t be God’s will for me,” so he tried again and came up with, “Go thou and do likewise.” He panicked, “Surely, that’s not for me!” So he tried a third time and landed on the verse, “What thou doest, do quickly!” The point is, we must interpret and apply Scripture properly. Certainly, the Holy Spirit can impress certain verses on our hearts as we wait on Him and seek to understand and obey His word. But, beware of random, subjective impressions, especially if they come from taking a verse out of its context.

Conclusion

Although Paul here doesn’t give the criteria for examining prophetic utterances, John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], pp. 128-129) suggests five tests based on other Scriptures:

The first test is the plain truth of Scripture. Like the Bereans, we are to examine the Scriptures to see if what someone is saying is true (Acts 17:11). The second test is the divine-human person of Jesus (1 John 4:1-3). Anyone denying either His full deity or full humanity is a false teacher. The third test is the gospel of God’s free and saving grace through Christ. Anyone who preaches a different gospel is eternally condemned (Gal. 1:6-9). The fourth test is the known character of the speaker. Jesus said that by their fruits we will know false teachers (Matt. 7:15-20). The fifth test is the degree to which what is said builds up the hearers. An authentic message will strengthen, encourage, and comfort the church, as well as convict those in sin (1 Cor. 14:3-4, 24-25, 31).

So Paul is saying, “Don’t quench the Holy Spirit’s working in our midst, but at the same time, be discerning so as not to fall prey to false experiences or false teaching.”

Application Questions

  1. Do we quench the Spirit by planning our worship services? Should we be more unplanned and spontaneous?
  2. Does God speak to us through subjective impressions? An audible voice? Dreams? Visions? How can we know if it’s truly God?
  3. Discuss: If God withdrew His Holy Spirit for a week, would you notice? How? What difference does the Holy Spirit make in your daily life?
  4. What’s the difference between biblical discernment and the sin of wrongfully judging others? Can discernment go too far?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Gifts