What does Paul mean in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 20 when he exhorts his readers not to quench the Spirit? This article explains.

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1 Thessalonians 5:19, 20 – Quenching the Spirit

Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophesies with contempt.

1 Thessalonians 5:19,20

In this passage of Scripture the apostle Paul deals with life in the congregation. The Thessalonians are called to hold the office-bearers in high esteem.

Paul begins his final exhortations with the call: “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” (1 Thess 5:12, 13.) That Paul is looking at the congregational life in Thessalonica, is also evident from his exhortation to have pastoral care for each other: “And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thess 5:14.)

In this context Paul writes the words of our text: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt.” The location of these words makes immediately clear that the apostle is not thinking here of resisting the Holy Spirit’s hidden work in the hearts of believers, but of denying the Spirit as he reveals him self in his glorious gifts in the congregation.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the congregation went hand in hand with the remarkable “gifts of grace” shortly after Pentecost (cf. 1 Cor 12:4). Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians elaborates extensively on that. In these many expressions of the Spirit, the early Christian church could feel, as it were, that the promised Spirit had really come. One of those striking gifts of grace was the gift of prophecy. We must note that in our text the apostle connects these two very closely: putting out the Spirit’s fire and despising prophecies. The first apparently has everything to do with the second. Anyone who does not respect prophecy is busy putting out the fire of the Spirit as he works in the congregation.

What was this prophecy and how could one despise it?

Checking different commentaries, we come to the conclusion that it is not so easy to say exactly what was included in the gift of prophecy.  Anyhow, it is clear that prophecy as it existed in the early Christian churches, may not be put on the same level with the word of the apostles. The apostles demanded unconditional obedience to their word. The word of the apostle is not the word of men, but the Word of God (cf. 1 Thess 2:13).  In the testimony of these ambassadors of Christ, the congregation is confronted with the testimony of the Spirit him self (cf. Acts 5:32). But with the words of the New Testament prophets it is not a case of unconditional obedience.          

It is striking that Paul immediately after our text exhorts the Thessalonians to test everything and to hold on what is good. Apparently the prophets could also speak wrongly. In Romans 12:6 Paul writes that prophecy should be “in proportion to our faith.” We will have to understand it this way that Paul means to say: prophecy should be in agreement with the contents of faith, in harmony with the apostolic teaching.

It is also striking that in 1 Corinthians 14, the apostle gives the instruction that the prophetic word spoken should be “judged” by other prophets.  One who has the gift of prophecy is apparently not immune to going off the right track. Also this special gift of grace must be used properly: for the upbuilding of the congregation. 

How are to understand this spiritual gift?

In 1 Corinthians 13:2 we read that he who has the gift of prophecy has the ability to understand “mysteries.” For “mystery” a word used that we find often in Paul’s letters. Paul’ uses it to point to God’s plan of salvation as it has been revealed in Christ. The prophet is the one who, moved by the Spirit, unfolds God’s plan of salvation; he proclaims to the congregation what she has received in Christ. This unfolding has a strongly “applicable” character: the prophet edifies, exhorts and encourages the congregation (cf. 1 Cor 14:3, 4). Sometimes the prophet, prompted by the Spirit, indicates clearly what will or has to happen (cf. Agabus in Acts 11:28; 21:11, and the prophets in Antioch in Acts 13:1, 2).  No wonder Paul considers the gift of prophecy a particularly important one (cf. 1 Cor 14:1). Exactly by this gift the congregation was being built on the foundation of the apostolic testimony and was guided further in the knowledge of and obedience to the will of God.

In light of the above, we can more easily understand the seriousness of Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 20. There were people in Thessalonica who despised this important gift of the Holy Spirit. They turned up their nose at those prophecies. They refused to take the prophets’ words seriously. It is hard to determine what was the background of this. But we do know that the apostle does not have a good word for it. On the contrary, these people are actually quenching the fire of the Spirit as it is burning in the congregation.

In their aversion to prophecies, they resist the revelation of the Spirit of Pentecost, the Spirit who precisely by this glorious gift wants to lead the congregation on God’s way of salvation in Christ.

We now live nineteen centuries after Pentecost. We do not find the gift of prophecy in this way in the church anymore. We should not forget that in those days a large part of the New Testament had to be written yet. The “mysteries” of what has been granted to us in Christ, have been unfolded by the Spirit in the New Testament. When we read this Testament, we are guided into all the truth.

Preaching, the ministry of the apostolic Word, has replaced “prophesies.” This administration of the Word accompanies the church on her way. And it pleases the Spirit through the “foolishness of what is preached” to save those who believe (cf. 1 Cor 1:12). This administration has to be prophetic: it has to proclaim the whole counsel of God to the congregation and show her the way she has to go.

Anyone who slights the preaching commits an enormous evil. Paul warns us very strongly in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 20. Such a person is busy quenching the fire of the Spirit and is resisting the Spirit in his glorious work of renewal.

A minister delivers a sermon. A small and puny man stands in the pulpit. But we must see the Spirit at work in it; the Spirit who teaches, admonishes, encourages; the Spirit who wrestles to convert and change hearts; the Spirit who in this way wants to have the Word occupy its rightful place in the congregation, “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed the saints” (Col 1:26.)

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