1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 (NKJV) Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies. 21 Test all things; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
With rapid fire imperatives, Paul, Silas and Timothy, co-authors of this first epistle to the Thessalonians, write to a fledgling church struggling with how to make sense of Jesus’ Soon Coming. Scholars tell us that every chapter in 1 Thessalonians ends with a reference to the Soon Coming of Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10; 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24)
The Thessalonians’ misunderstanding of prophecy created serious issues within their membership. Because they didn’t quite understand Paul’s teaching on the Soon Coming of Jesus, many ended up stop working, and were becoming free loaders (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7, 11). Because they didn’t quite understand Paul’s teaching on the Soon Coming of Jesus, they had become disruptive and undisciplined (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and the church’s reputation took a serious hit among its Gentile neighbors.
If we are honest, misunderstanding prophecies produces all types of aberrant behaviors within our denomination and even within our churches. We all have stories. At another church, we had a brother who in his farewell to the church, declared that the Lord had shown him that unless the whole church converted to keeping feast days, the Lord would destroy the whole entire city in two years. Guess what happened after two years? Absolutely nothing.
Then we all know people who moved to the mountains. Now, nothing is wrong with moving to the mountains. But I am talking about folks, friends who disappeared into the mountains with no trace or no memory - no forwarding address - because they read somewhere of something that the Pope was doing and they saw somewhere where an Adventist pastor in Italy was signing ecumenical papers and they thought, “That’s it - we’re moving to the mountains.”
The alarmist reaction is one thing. But what this constant overreaction to anything prophetic produces in folks who fancy themselves well thinking individuals is just as troubling. I have seen this tragedy play out so many times that it’s hard to maintain a balanced prophetic perspective because we always seem to be trapped in these wide theological swings from gullible to jaded. Either we believe everything prophetic, or we believe nothing. All too often, in reaction to the chaotic of the prophetic, well-meaning, well-thinking individuals stifle and smother ANY prophetic message. Proverbially, folks chuck the prophetic baby with the problematic bath water.
Yet Paul gives us another way because he understood that the prophecies of Jesus are just too precious to leave up to the cavalier or the critic. After all, Jesus’ Soon Return is the Blessed Hope of the Christian, the one thing that delivers us from being the most miserable among men. And so Paul made a commitment then that we must make today as a church. We must commit that no matter what, the prophetic flame will keep burning in our church. The flame must not be quenched by the gullible or the jaded.
This word for quenching or extinguishing the Spirit has an interesting genesis in the Septuagint, the Old Testament Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, a translation that had an enormous impact on the vocabulary and imagery found in the New Testament. Its first occurence in the LXX is in Leviticus 6:8, 12, 13 where three times, it refers to the fires in the Sanctuary started by God but maintained by the diligence of the priests. God started, God initiated the fires: but the priests among all there other important roles had to ensure that the flame was never extinguished.
Paul takes this Old Testament sanctuary inspired imagery and commissions it into service to warn against extinguishing the flame of the Spirit in the life of the church. A church where the flame has been extinguished is a cold church. In fact, there is no more fearful threat for the church. In Revelation, you never want your lampstand to be removed from your church, leaving it cold and in darkness (Revelation 2:5).
But this quenching of the Spirit, such a fearful warning to the Church, is not primarily a matter of emotions. That’s what I thought initially because that’s my image of what a cold church is- it is an emotionless experience. But Paul knew that it is our relationship to the prophetic that quenches and extinguishes the work of the Spirit in our Church. Paul knew that treating the Spirit’s prophetic revelations to the church as worthless will surely extinguish the flame of the Spirit in our church.
And so Paul makes a recommendation, rather Paul issues a command. Rather than despising everything of a prophetic nature, test everything of a prophetic nature. Paul understood what we must understand that the prophetic is too precious to be trashed or treasured without first being tested. If it’s worth it, you’ll test it. If it’s that essential to you, you will examine it before making the decision to embrace or exclude it.
This is what I fear has been happening to prophetic messages in general and with the ministry of Ellen G. White within our church specifically. Our folks have hardened into camps where either we accept everything or we reject everything as being completely worthless.
Walk with me as we take an exegetical ride through one of Ellen White’s quotes on the matter of the devaluation of the prophetic. And the chief question we will be answering is, How does Satan unsettle confidence in the truly prophetic?
Satan will work ingeniously, in different ways and through different agencies, to unsettle the confidence of God’s remnant people in the true testimony. He will bring in spurious visions, to mislead and mingle the false with the true, and so disgust people that they will regard everything that bears the name of visions, as a species of fanaticism; but honest souls, by contrasting false and true, will be enabled to distinguish between them. - Ellen Gould White, The Faith I Live By (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1958), 296.
So what are Satan’s weapons of choice to unsettle our confidence in the truly prophetic? He uses spurious visions, misdirection that ends in dead-ends, and he mingles truth with falsehoods. The result is that people are disgusted with the prophetic. I live that word disgusted because it is a vivid word picture, painting an emotional, visceral response. Now here’s the test to know if you have gotten to this point where you’ve been caught in the corrosive virus that undermines any sense of prophetic integrity - people who have become jaded conclude that EVERYTHING of a visionary or prophetic nature is FANATICISM.
If that is where you are today, when you test yourself, know that the Spirit has little room to work in your life, because you have extinguished the flame. In a similar manner, opening up to too many spirits without discernment looks spiritual, but the end result is the same as if jaded - the Spirit has little room to work in your life. The solution? Honest souls keep their ability to discern and distinguish between the false and the true. It is this ability and capacity for discernment that keeps the Spirit burning in our hearts.
I second Paul’s motion. We must test everything prophetic before we can know what we must treasure and what we must trash. And again, these are commands, not suggestions because the prophetic is much too precious to be trashed or treasured without first being tested.
So how do we test the prophetic? I will share with you four Biblical keys to testing the prophetic. The fourth one I believe is the most important and could function without the others though, to me, the others don’t function as well without the fourth one.
Test the prophecy by its Authority - Who’s the source behind this prophecy? Isaiah 8:19-20. Most times as Adventists, we stick to verse 20 - to the law and the testimonies - because that is what is important to us. But for me personally, I think verse 19 is the powerhouse. The challenge in verse 19 is why would we turn from God to go seeking answers from the dead? This test is so appropriate in this internet age of fake news. The first test of any prophetic movement or message is its authority. Is the source of this movement or message God or does it derive its authority from some other source?
Test the prophecy by its Veracity - Did the prophecy even happen? Jeremiah 28:9. When prophets declare what God showed them and then it doesn’t happen, we can know that that prophecy was false. So declaring that unless we keep feast days, God would destroy our city within 2 years, when nothing happened, I knew my brother was a false prophet. When I already hear the gears churning in your heads - what about conditional prophecies? I agree - some prophecies are conditional. But when the conditions have been met and nothing happens, what other conclusion can we arrive at but that that prophecy was false?
Test the prophecy by its Legacy - What impact does the prophecy have given time to mature? Matthew 7:15-20. Finally, some tension is added to the tests of prophetic messages and movements. Here we are struggling with what to do with messages and movements that on the outside appear to be innocent - the messengers come well dress, say nice things, offer nothing offensive - but their intentions are destructive? In other words, How do you discern impact when intention is disguised? Jesus, using the analogy of fruitfulness, recommends the third key to discerning the genuine from the counterfeit. Jesus says, give the prophetic movement or message time to develop and you will see that what was hidden in the first generation will become visible in the next generation. In other words, what the master deceiver could disguise, their disciples will disclose. Just give it time because some things, you can’t discern unless you see the fruit, the long term impact of the message or ministry.
Test the prophecy by its Christology - Does the prophecy exalt Jesus’ practices and precepts? (1 John 4:1-3; Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 5:21-22; Matthew 5:27-28; Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 5:33-34; Matthew 5:38-39; Matthew 5:43-44) Now, this is my favorite test and the supreme test of any prophetic message or movement. What does the message or movement say about Jesus? John, in his epistle, speaks with his cutting judgmental tone - the critical way of addressing all these spirits in the world today is to ask - Did Jesus come in the flesh? I struggled with this because accepting that Jesus came into the flesh seemed too low a bar to set. If that was a password, it would be rejected for not being strong enough.
But when I reexamined what John was saying, I began to see that what John was doing is setting an incarnational test to any prophetic movement or message. In essence, John was saying - test each message or movement by whether it aligns with what Jesus would have done while walking here in the flesh. John held up Jesus’ life in the flesh as being the key arbiter of the truly prophetic. WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) is a bumper sticker yes, but is much more. It is a powerful key to unlocking the truly prophetic.
In addition, when we listen to Jesus’ own words, we find an emphasis on a righteousness that is qualitatively different from any other. In Matthew 5, Jesus himself challenges the prophetic messages we have heard, calling each to a higher standard. And in this, I find both a comfort and a challenge. It is a comfort because it reminds me that we serve a God who speaks. He is not mute to what matters in our world. God speaks. And what He speaks is all that matters. The challenge though is that others speak in the name of God. We have heard what others have said in the name of God. We have heard the words of others and have wondered, How could God say that? And now, we are being challenged again to hear Jesus speak above the noise of our background, training and culture. We are challenged to imagine what would Jesus do, yes, but most certainly, WWJS, what would Jesus say? We are challenged to muster the courage to listen not just to what we have heard, but also to what Jesus is speaking now.
In every prophetic utterance and movement, we are challenged to imagine not only the authority, the veracity, and the legacy. Most importantly, we are challenged to muster the courage to test each prophetic message and movement against its Christology because its picture of Jesus, what he would do and what he would say, is too precious to decide whether to trash it or treasure it without testing it first.