To the young Thessalonian congregation, recently planted by Paul, he wrote, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). The grouping of these brief exhortations show that they primarily concern the exercise of miraculous gifts in the first-century church.
While one can quench the Spirit’s influence by pursuing a lifestyle that is contrary to God’s word—by hardening one’s heart with sin (Hebrews 3:13)—the context in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 seems to indicate they were smothering the miraculous activity of the Spirit; the next exhortation against despising prophecies refers to the Spirit’s working in a miraculous context. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses these miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit; one was prophecy (v.10), a gift that some, but not all, had in the first-century church (vv. 28-29; cf. 14:2-5). Prophecy was the means by which God revealed His message and served to edify her members (1 Corinthians 14:29-33). To first-century congregations such as Thessalonica, who did not yet have a complete, written New Testament, prophets foretold the message of God (the mystery of the Gospel of Christ) that had been hitherto kept secret (Ephesians 3:3-7). Sometimes a prophet of God would foretell events to come (Acts 11:27-28).
However, there were also false prophets who claimed to have messages from God, but were liars (Acts 13:6; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Revelation 2:2). When Paul was with the Thessalonians, he warned them about false prophets who would try to deceive them leading to a great apostasy from the faith (2 Thessalonians 2:3-5). With false teachers running amok, it is possible that some in Thessalonica had the tendency of putting all who claimed to be prophets of God in the same pigeon hole as false teachers and thus despised some true prophets of God. Do we not see people who have a similar attitude in regard to religious groups today? There are those who think that all religious groups advocate abandoning reason, manipulate emotions, and prey on the gullible to make lots of money. There are individuals who, upon hearing I am a preacher, have said to me, “Oh, your all about getting money out of people.” It is similar to Nathanael’s initial criticism concerning Jesus’ hometown, when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Jesus was the exception. Likewise, though there were false prophets, that did not mean there were no true prophets.
Since there are both true and false prophets, the proper response Paul advocates is to, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This is much like the admonition of 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
It seems that Paul had to leave the congregation at Thessalonica after only three weeks (Acts 17:2, 10). His two letters to them soon after his departure, which we have preserved for us in the New Testament, were written to more fully instruct them and encourage them to grow in Christ. Those who had the miraculous gift of prophecy in the infant church of the first century would aid new congregations like Thessalonica by messages from God just as Paul’s letters aided them.
While the miraculous gift of prophecy is no longer extant in the church today since we have the entire Bible: the complete revelation of God (1 Corinthians 13:8-10; James 1:25), we must still examine what a preacher says to determine whether it is true or false according to God’s revealed word. The teaching that is good should be embraced and practiced rather than despised and discarded.