I have been posting some previews to Thessalonians commentary I am writing. Last week I posted on reading scripture publicly and praying continually. Today I am posting on Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21.
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians not to “quench the Spirit.” It’s possible that Paul is speaking about the actions of the Spirit in the things he mentioned in 5:16-18: rejoicing, prayer and giving thanks. But it is more likely that he is referring to those gifts commonly referred to as charismata, specifically prophecy. There seems to have been some in the church who were treating the exercise of prophecy as having little worth (5:20). Today, as then, believers don’t always see eye to eye on the necessity or practice of prophecy and other spiritual gifts.
The difficulty with prophecy, of course, is that it’s not easy to argue with someone who says they are speaking from God. Since genuine prophecy is linked to the Spirit it is, by definition, outside of the control of the leadership. That does not nullify, however, Paul’s exhortation that both the leaders and the community admonish those whose expression of prophecy becomes disruptive or disorderly (5:12, 14; 1 Cor. 14:26-33). Prophecy was intended for the “common good” of the whole congregation (1 Cor. 12:7) and because of that Paul commands here that they “test them all.” This suggests the serious nature of prophecy since some expressions of it should be avoided.
But it is also important to point out here that Paul does not say to reject the person speaking the prophecy. Since Paul assumes prophecy to be a normal expression of Christian worship he seems to also assume that sometimes people will get it wrong. When that happens it is time for the leaders who provide care for the community to step in and, if need be, bring correction to the brother or sister whose expression of prophecy is either disruptive or just plain wrong (5:12).
One person in church history who embraced the gift of prophecy in worship was Tertullian. He was influenced by a charismatic movement known as Montanism. While the group was later considered to by heterodox, they were never formally labeled as “heretics.” What is interesting for our purposes is the way Tertullian describes how prophecy functioned in the meetings.
For, seeing that we acknowledge spiritual charismata, or gifts, we too have merited the attainment of the prophetic gift, although coming after John (the Baptist). We have now amongst us a sister whose lot it has been to be favored with sundry gifts of revelation, which she experiences in the Spirit by ecstatic vision amidst the sacred rites of the Lord's day in the church: she converses with angels, and sometimes even with the Lord; she both sees and hears mysterious communications; some men's hearts she understands, and to them who are in need she distributes remedies. Whether it be in the reading of Scriptures, or in the chanting of psalms, or in the preaching of sermons, or in the offering up of prayers, in all these religious services matter and opportunity are afforded to her of seeing visions. It may possibly have happened to us, whilst this sister of ours was rapt in the Spirit, that we had discoursed in some ineffable way about the soul. After the people are dismissed at the conclusion of the sacred services, she is in the regular habit of reporting to us whatever things she may have seen in vision (for all her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed). Tertullian, The soul, 29
Prophecy was still in operation in the church 200 years after the apostolic age and the parameters set down by Paul were still in force. All utterances were tested.
One frustrating thing here is that Paul never tells us how to test a prophecy. What are the elements that clue us in that a prophecy is wrong? Certainly some would be obvious. If a prophet tells you to divorce your spouse or something else clearly not consistent with the teachings of Jesus and Scripture you would conclude, hopefully, that the person was prophesying incorrectly.
But again, it’s hard to argue with someone who says they are speaking from God. While the Thessalonians may have understood what Paul meant here, other believers in the not too distant future would struggle with the same problem. In a late first early second century Christian document known as the Didache, we find an example of how some early Christians found a way to deal with false prophets. Here is what the Didache has to say.
Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But he is not to stay more than one day unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing but bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.
Do not test or evaluate any prophet who speaks in the Spirit, for every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven. However, not everyone who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet, but only if he exhibits the Lord’s ways. By his conduct, therefore, will the false prophet and the prophet be recognized. Furthermore, any prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit shall not partake of it; if he does he is a false prophet. If any prophet teaches the truth, yet does not practice what he teaches, he is a false prophet. (11.3-10)
Some of what is said here sounds a bit humorous to modern ears. I can’t imagine calling a visiting guest speaker a false prophet simply because they ask for something to eat or stay more than a couple of nights. The situation the Didache speaks to is certainly a specific one that doesn’t apply for all times and places. But there may be some insight we can gain here.
The Didache doesn’t put emphasis on judging what a prophet says, but on what a prophet practices. As I noted above, it is hard to argue with someone who claims to be speaking from God. And if the Old Testament teaches us anything, it is that prophets can do and say some pretty bizarre things. But it seems fair to also conclude that anyone who is claiming to speak with authority for God should also be demonstrating the principles of the gospel in their life. So, one way that we might be able to judge prophecy today is to consider the source. If a person prophesying is living a life that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, then we might decide that their prophecy is the kind that Paul tells the Thessalonians to reject (5:22).