I was reading through the first letter to the Thessalonians and got to the end where in typical Pauline fashion he lists a set of instructions for his readers regarding living out the Christian life.This section seems to pick up in verse 12 after Paul concludes his thoughts regarding the coming of the Lord and the day of the Lord.
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. Always rejoice, constantly pray, in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22; NET Bible)
In this set of instructions we are told not to extinguish or quench the Holy Spirit. As we read through the passage we should ask ourselves what does it mean to quench the Spirit so that we can properly avoid doing that. In order to try to figure out what quenching the Spirit is we must ask ourselves a key question. How does verse 19 fit in with the rest of the instructions in this passage? How we answer that question will drive our interpretation.
The passage has the following basic outline:
- Respect your Leaders (12-13)
- Help others (14-15)
- Rejoice, Pray, and be thankful (16-18)
- Don’t quench the Spirit (19)
- Don’t disregard prophecy (20-22)
The verse on quenching the Spirit could be tied to the preceding three verses. This would tie quenching the Spirit to failing to do God’s will regarding living a life of joy, prayer, and thanks. In another view it could be related to the three verses that follow, therefore quenching the Spirit would be related to having contempt for prophecy. Another possibility is that the quenching of the Spirit could be an individual instruction that is listed between God’s desire for our worship (joy, prayer, thanks) and our attitude toward prophecy. In this interpretation the quenching is given no further elaboration. Finally the command not to quench the Spirit could be a general statement. The surrounding verses (12-22) could be giving specific examples of quenching. However, this seems the least possible because the command is given in the middle of the list of instructions not at the beginning or the end.
In reviewing the context of the letter and the paragraph, it seems probable (the other views are certainly possible) that the quenching of the Holy Spirit is related to the attitude of a person/church towards prophecy (*). In coming to this conclusion we first observed that verses 5:20-22 all deal with the same subject (prophecy). We can draw the conclusion that the testing (5:21-22) is related to the statements regarding prophecy in verse 20 because of the “but” (underlined). This word draws the contrast between the prior statements on contempt for prophecy and the following statements regarding accepting true prophecy after testing it. Furthermore the testing of prophecy is something that is advocated in both the OT and the NT (Deut 18:21; Jer 27:14-15, 29:8-9; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 John 4:1). There was even a gift that enabled people to distinguish prophecies (1 Cor 12:10, 14:31-32). Therefore we have good reasons for handling verses 20-22 as meaning – don’t disregard prophecy, but test it and accept what passes.
The case for tying verse 19 to the commands regarding prophecy (20-22) can be made based on two observations. The first is that verse 18 seems to wrap up a thought and conclude (“for this”) that the prior comments (joy, prayer, thanks) are the will of God. The second observation notes that the Spirit is the Giver of the gift of prophecy. This gift is meant to educate, encourage, and equip the believers (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 14:31; Eph 4:11-13). Certainly disregarding the gift and the subsequent benefits is to douse the working of the Spirit.
As we read through letter it is helpful to remember that Paul was not there very long – maybe a little more than three weeks. The people that lived in the city were particularly antagonistic toward the gospel (Acts 17:1-9,13). They instigated a mob to chase Paul from both the city of Thessalonica and Berea. They are also the likely source of suffering that the church was going through at the time the letter was written (1 Thess 1:6, 2:14-15).
Since Paul was not there long enough to teach and establish all of the doctrine that he would have in churches like Corinth or Ephesus it is understandable that the body in Thessalonica would be lacking information regarding many things. Because they had much to learn the church was falling prey to doctrinal confusion and false teachings. In the case of the Thessalonians it seems to center around the persecution they are suffering (1 Thess 3:3-4) and the state of loved ones in Christ that have died (1 Thess 4:13-15, 5:9-10). There also seems to be some anxiety regarding the timing of the Lord’s return given the number of times that is mentioned in the first letter. It is also the subject of another letter sent to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:1-3). There also seems to be a disregard for prophecy in the church (1 Thess 5:20).
As they had not received as much training from Paul and his missionary crew, the church at Thessalonica may have had several people there with the gift of prophecy. They would have been able to build up the body and make up for what was missing because Paul had to leave so quickly (1 Thess 3:10). However the church also seemed to have several sources for misinformation – particularly regarding the timing of Christ’s return (2 Thess 2:2). These included false prophecy (spirits), false teachers, and forged letters. These false teachings may be why the Thessalonians began to mistrust all prophetic information (1 Thess 5:20). This in turn led to Paul including the instructions – don’t reject prophecy, just be sure to test it. Then keep what passes the test (good) and reject what fails the test (evil).
Therefore, it is fair within the context of chapter 5 and the letter to the Thessalonians that the command to not quench the Spirit is instructing the church to be willing to accept prophecy and test it.
What does that mean for us today? That depends in part on our theological view regarding the gift of prophecy and whether or not it exists today (which would need another post to explore in detail). However we do know that the same Holy Spirit that moved men to speak prophetically, also inspired men to record that truth in the Scriptures. The Scriptures are given to encourage, exhort, and equip the body of Christ and therefore have overlapping purposes with the prophetic gift. Therefore we would do well to hold the Scripture in high regard and to study & meditate on it regularly insuring that we are growing in both the grace and knowledge of Christ so that we are not subject to false teachings and vain philosophies.
(*) The top three commentaries at bestcommentaries.com including those by Charles Wanamaker, Gene Green, and F.F. Bruce all propose the view that quenching the Holy Spirit is related to disregarding prophecy. The fourth on the list (John Stott) proposes that quenching relates both to the preceding verses on worship and the concluding verses on prophecy.
Modified from post originally published on March 22, 2010