Quench not the Spirit. Hold fast that which is good.
1 Thessalonians 5:19, 21
Are we raising a whole generation of young men and women without any sensitivity to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit?
I am on record, and I will be as long as I live, that I would rather lose a leg and hobble along throughout the rest of my life than to lose my sensitivity to God and to His voice and to spiritual things!
Oh, how I want to keep that sensitivity within me—within my soul!
I am thinking about a great throng of men and women raised in Christian homes. They have been brought up in Sunday school. They probably cut their first baby tooth on the edge of a hymnbook when the mother was not watching.
Still, to this day, they are not right with God. Some have made a kind of profession but have never been able to delight themselves in the Lord.
The reason? They have lost sensitivity to the message and the voice of God. If the Holy Spirit cannot move something within their beings every day, they are not going to be effective Christians—if they are Christians at all!
Lord, today my heart goes out to mediocre Christians who “know” the truth of the gospel but who have not experienced a personal relationship with You. Lord, will You give them a divine nudge so that they will find delight in truly knowing You?
The Responsibility Not to Quench the Spirit
Do not quench the Spirit; (5:19)
Some commentators believe this verse is connected to verses 20–22 and refers to forbidding the expression of the charismatic gifts in the Thessalonian church. They argue that Paul was warning the Thessalonians not to stifle the exercise of those gifts within their assembly. Those commentators go on to assert that the “prophetic utterances” (v. 20) are supernatural prophesyings that must be examined carefully to make sure they are good rather than evil (vv. 21–22). This view concludes that verses 19–22, in constituting Paul’s attempt to correct the Thessalonians’ underestimation of the miraculous gifts, are equivalent to an affirmation of the gifts’ use in the church.
However, such arguments are not convincing for several reasons. First, there is no compelling reason in the text to make Paul’s exhortation, do not quench the Spirit, or the other exhortations in verses 20–22, as anything other than separate statements of general exhortation. Readers ought to see them as principles for the Christian life and not read anything more into the text. Second, if the Thessalonian church had been abusing the charismatic gifts, Paul would have earnestly admonished the Thessalonians in detail, as he later did the Corinthians.
To appreciate this short command’s true application and view it in its proper perspective, one must remember the Holy Spirit’s role in believers’ lives. By His sovereign power (cf. John 1:12–13; 6:37, 44; Acts 13:48; 16:14) God through the Spirit regenerates sinners (John 3:6, 8; Eph. 2:1, 5; Titus 3:5; cf. Ezek. 37:11–14), thereby effecting a complete transformation of their spiritual affections (Titus 3:5; cf. Ezek. 11:19; 36:27; Rom. 2:29; 2 Cor. 5:17). He frees them from slavery to habitual sin (Rom. 8:3–9), places them into the body of Christ (Rom. 8:15–17), takes up permanent residence within each new believer (John 14:17; Rom. 8:9, 11, 14; 1 Cor. 3:16; 1 John 2:27; 4:13; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19), pours the love of God into their hearts (Rom. 5:5; 2 Thess. 3:5; cf. 1 John 2:5), gifts them for spiritual service (1 Cor. 12:4–10, 28; cf. Rom. 12:4–13; 1 Cor. 2:12–13; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6), seals them for eternity (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30), and sanctifies them (Rom. 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; Heb. 10:14–15; 1 Peter 1:2).
It is that process of progressive sanctification by the Spirit that Paul warned the Thessalonians not to quench. The metaphor quench means “to extinguish, stifle, or retard” the power or energy of something (cf. Matt. 25:8; Mark 9:48). Sometimes Scripture represents the presence of the Spirit as a fire (Acts 2:2–4; cf. Ex. 13:21; Mal. 3:2–3); thus the apostle warned the Thessalonians not to smother the Holy Spirit’s work within them, comparing such quenching to extinguishing a fire (cf. Isa. 63:10; Acts 5:3–4; 7:51; Eph. 4:30; 2 Tim. 1:6).
That Jesus promised to send all believers the Holy Spirit—as a Helper to assist them in ministry and progressively sanctify them (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 1:4–5; cf. Prov. 1:23)—is another crucial reason not to quench Him. And that sanctification process comprises a variety of Spirit-initiated works.
First, the Holy Spirit illuminates the Word of God. “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10; cf. (vv. 12–13; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21; 1 John 2:27). Believers grow spiritually only as they feed on the Word, when they “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it [they] may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2; cf. Ps. 19:7–14; Matt. 4:4). Believers can quench this aspect of the Spirit’s work by failing to study Scripture or misinterpreting it (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15), by not receiving it with humility and applying it to their lives (cf. James 1:21–25), by failing to hide it in their hearts (cf. Ps. 119:11), by not searching it diligently (cf. John 5:39; 8:31–32), and by not letting it dwell richly within them (cf. Col. 3:16).
Second, the Holy Spirit brings believers into intimacy with God. “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15–16). The Spirit wants believers to have the joyful confidence that God loves them as His children (Abba means “Papa” or “Daddy,” a term of intimacy and endearment) and that they are secure in His salvation. Paul told the Galatians, “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Gal. 4:6). The Spirit prompts believers to pray for divine resources (cf. Ps. 116:2; Matt. 6:33; 1 Cor. 14:15; Phil. 4:6; Heb. 4:16). If believers are growing in sanctification, they will have an increasingly deeper and more intimate knowledge of God (cf. Pss. 9:10; 25:4; 1 Cor. 2:2; Eph. 3:19; Phil. 3:10; 1 John 2:3). Believers can, however, quench that Spirit-prompted, intimate knowledge by not accepting God’s purpose in life’s difficulties (cf. Rom. 5:3; James 1:2–3, 12), by not being prayerful and worshipful (cf. John 4:24; Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17), by not casting their cares upon God (cf. 1 Peter 5:7), by operating in their own flesh rather than trusting God’s strength (cf. Prov. 3:5–6), by not trusting God’s supply (2 Cor. 9:8; Phil. 4:19), and by not trusting God’s love (cf. Eph. 2:4–5; 1 John 3:1; 4:19).
Third, the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ to believers and makes them more like Him. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. John 16:14–15; Gal. 4:19). Under the New Covenant, the veil is removed and believers can look into the mirror of the Word and see the glory of Christ (cf. Isa. 40:5; John 5:39). Genuine Christians affirm Christ’s lordship and glorify His name (1 Cor. 12:3; cf. 1 John 2:6). But believers also can quench the Spirit’s efforts to make them more Christlike; for instance, by neglecting the reading and studying of Scripture (cf. Ps. 119:130; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 2:15), or by merely reading the Bible for information rather than allowing it to reveal Christ to them. Or they can proudly refuse to admit that they need to see His glory and become more like Him (cf. James 1:22–25).
Fourth, the Holy Spirit helps believers know God’s will (cf. Eph. 5:17; James 1:5; 1 John 5:14–15). He ensures, first, that they know and obey the scripturally revealed will of God. “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek. 36:27; cf. Isa. 28:29; Jer. 10:23; John 10:4). Second, the Spirit leads believers more subjectively into God’s will concerning issues that are not specifically revealed in Scripture. The Spirit provides believers with a level path of guidance (Ps. 143:10) as He operates through providence and helps them make decisions in accord with the Father’s will (cf. Ps. 37:5; Prov. 16:3; James 4:15). Believers can quench this element of the Spirit’s work in sanctification through self-will, stubbornness, pride, indifference, and insensitivity regarding God’s will (cf. Prov. 26:12; Dan. 5:20; Luke 18:11–12; Rom. 12:3; Rev. 2:4; 3:16–17).
Finally, the Holy Spirit grants believers inward strength to help them stay on the path of progressive sanctification. Paul prayed for the Ephesians “that [God] would grant [them], according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16; cf. Zech. 4:6; 2 Cor. 12:9). In no respect can Christians walk obediently with Christ unless they rely on the Holy Spirit’s strength by the indwelling Word (Gal. 5:16; cf. Eph. 5:8–10). Through the Spirit’s sealing, they can know the security of their salvation (Eph. 1:13–14). Without the Spirit’s strength, they could not have victory over sin and the flesh (Rom. 8:5, 13; Gal. 3:3; 6:8; cf. Matt. 26:41; Rom. 7:18). Unless they have the Spirit’s power, believers cannot witness effectively (Acts 1:8; cf. Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 8:26–29). The Spirit’s enabling and filling allows them to worship God from the heart and relate to everyone else in their lives in a God-honoring fashion. However, the empowering work of the Spirit can also be quenched through pride and overconfidence in human ability, both of which deny the believer’s need to rely on the Spirit.
Isaiah 11:2 aptly summarizes how the Holy Spirit would assist Christ during His earthly ministry and suggests the kinds of empowerment all Christians have available: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him [Christ], the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” But believers can utilize those resources only when they are filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25)—two expressions of what it means to be Spirit-controlled. (For a complete study of the Holy Spirit’s Person and work, see John MacArthur, The Silent Shepherd [Wheaton, Ill.: Scripture Press/Victor Books, 1996].)
19–22. The next little series of admonitions has to do with the Holy Spirit and his gifts:
The Spirit do not quench.
Prophetic utterances do not despise, but test all things: to the good hold on; from every form of evil hold off.
Upon the early church the Holy Spirit had bestowed certain special gifts or charismata. Among them were: ability to perform miracles of healing, speaking in tongues, and prophesying.
Although according to some interpreters there was nothing miraculous about the latter, we do not share this opinion? The Church in its infancy had no complete Bible (Old and New Testament). It had no extensive body of Christian literature, such as we have today. Christian hymnology, too, was still in its infancy. Numerically also, the Church was rather insignificant. It was, moreover, the object of scorn and derision from every side. In that situation God graciously provided special supports or endowments, until the time would arrive when these were no longer needed. One of these gifts was that of prophesying.
As the term—and its derivatives—implies (for in this case the etymological sense continues to cling to it), a prophet (προφήτης from πρό forth, and φημί to speak) is “a person who speaks forth.” And what he speaks forth or openly declares is the will and mind of God. He is a “forth-teller,” and not necessarily (though sometimes also) a “fore-teller.”
Now, although this particular gift of prophesying was one of the greatest of the charismata, ranking even above that of the ability to speak in tongues—for, the prophet’s message as contrasted with the utterance of the man who spoke in a tongue, was readily understandable (1 Cor. 14:1, 2, 4, 5, 6)—, yet it was held in low esteem by some of the members of the Thessalonian church. This was deplorable in view of the fact that by making light of prophetic utterances these members missed the “edification, encouragement, and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3) brought by the prophet. Moreover, by means of despising the prophetic utterances, their Giver, the Holy Spirit, was being dishonored. In the early Church the gift of prophesying was like a brightly burning flame. It must not be quenched or extinguished! (for the verb cf. Matt. 12:20; 25:8; Mark 9:48; Eph. 6:16; Heb. 11:34). Hence, we read, “The Spirit do not quench. Prophetic utterances do not despise.” The objects are placed first for the sake of emphasis. It is as if Paul were saying, “By making light of the utterances of the prophets among you, you are belittling the work of no One less than the Holy Spirit.”
The reason for this disparagement of prophetical utterances can readily be surmised. Wherever God plants wheat, Satan sows his tares. Wherever God establishes a church, the devil erects a chapel. And so, too, wherever the Holy Spirit enables certain men to perform miracles of healing, the evil one distributes his “lying wonders.” And wherever the Paraclete brings a true prophet upon the scene, the deceiver presents his false prophet. The easiest—but not the wisest—reaction to this state of affairs is to despise all prophesying. Add to this the fact that the fanatics, the meddlers, and the loafers at Thessalonica may not have appreciated some of the utterances of the true prophets, and it is readily understood why by some in the congregation prophetic utterances had fallen into disfavor.
Paul, therefore, states what course of action the congregation should take: “Prophetic utterances do not despise, but test (on the verb see 1 Thess. 2:4) all things.” The standard by which the true prophet can be distinguished from the false is that the former will declare nothing that is contrary to what God has made known previously, in his special revelation. Cf. Deut. 13:1–5; Rom. 12:6. In the new dispensation the criterion would be the revelation of God through the testimony of Christ and of the apostles. Besides, in the early Church some men seem to have been gifted with rare proficiency in separating genuine from false prophesying (see 1 Cor. 12:10: “and to another the ability to distinguish between spirits”).
Once a true verdict has been reached, the practical rule must apply: “to the good hold on (κατέχετε); from every form (or kind, not appearance here) of evil hold off (ἀπέχεσθε). Note: every form, whether the wicked and uninspired utterance concerns doctrine or life. It is probable that this every is even broader, to be taken absolutely.
When verses 19–22 are studied together, as a unit, it becomes apparent immediately that the rule “Test all things” cannot mean “Try everything once,” or “Enter every place of wickedness and find out for yourselves what it is.” In the given context it simply means that, instead of despising each and every prophetical utterance, one should test whatever presents itself as such. The good should be accepted; every kind of evil (without any exception; hence, whether it be evil advice—given by a false prophet—or any other form of evil) must be avoided.
What follows is a concluding wish and a few urgent requests, such as one expects to find at the close of this letter; then the benediction.
Responsibilities to Public Worship (5:19–22)
19 At this point Paul shifts from the personal life to communal worship. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” alludes to the Holy Spirit as a burning presence (cf. 2 Ti 1:6). In particular, this is the Spirit’s impartation of specialized capabilities for ministry to others in the body of Christ. In his discussions of spiritual gifts elsewhere (Ro 12:6–8; 1 Co 12:8–10, 28–30; Eph 4:11), Paul distinguishes eighteen such special abilities. Only nine of them, however, involve speaking publicly (apostleship, prophecy, discerning of spirits, kinds of tongues, interpretation of tongues, evangelism, teaching, pastor-teaching, and exhorting). Since apostleship in the narrower sense is not present in Thessalonica, it along with the nonspeaking gifts cannot have been the ones in question here.
When Paul commands to “stop putting out the Spirit’s fire” (as this verse can be rendered), he advocates the cessation of something already being practiced. It is possible that other gifts in addition to prophecy (cf. v. 20) have been abused, with the result that the more sober-minded leaders have overreacted and prohibited Spirit manifestations altogether. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul dealt with the wrong use of tongues. But the need in Thessalonica is apparently different. Rather than allowing the error to continue, as the Corinthians had done, the leaders in Thessalonica are completely repressing some gifts, with a resulting loss of spiritual benefit. Paul forbids such repression. The proper course is to allow gifted ones to share in a decent and orderly fashion what the Spirit can do through them for the edification of the body of Christ (1 Co 14:12, 26, 40). Control is necessary, but overcontrol is detrimental. So it is the responsibility of leadership and the whole community to find the right balance.
20 Paul’s next prohibition, “do not treat prophecies with contempt,” makes it apparent that the Christians at Thessalonica, like those at Corinth (1 Co 14:1), have underrated the gift of prophecy. The directive may be translated literally, “Stop treating prophecies with contempt.” Prophecies are separate utterances of those who in their prophetic office proclaim the will and command of God as well as predict the future (Ac 11:28). Benefits from such utterances can build up a local church (1 Co 14:3).
Apparently, however, certain “idle” brothers (v. 14; cf. 4:11–12) have misused this gift by falsifying data regarding the Lord’s return. They have soured the remainder of the flock against prophecy in general. Their tendency now is not to listen to any more prophetic messages but to discount them because of counterfeit utterances they have heard. Once again, Paul warns against overreaction and urges the church to give prophecies their proper place in edifying the members (cf. v. 11).
21 To balance the two prohibitions, Paul stipulates that all charismatic manifestations be tested with a view to accepting what is valid and disallowing what is not (vv. 21–22). “Everything” is subject to the limitation of vv. 19–20, i.e., the exercise of spiritual gifts. The mere claim to inspiration is not a sufficient guarantee of genuineness, because inspirations are known at times to come from below (1 Co 12:2) as well as from above (cf. Lightfoot, 84).
The nature of the test is unspecified, but suggestions are forthcoming from related passages. In 1 John 4:1–3 (as well as probably 1 Co 12:3), the test is theological in nature, having to do with a proper view of Jesus as the Christ and Lord. In 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 14:29, discernment is a specific spiritual function in combination with the gift of prophecy. It consists of an ability to discern whether another prophetic spokesman has given a genuinely inspired utterance. But perhaps these two tests are too specialized for the present context, and preference should be given to a more general criterion of whether the alleged gift has made a positive contribution to the body’s edification and mutual love.
Testing like this will identify some spiritual activities as attractive and conducive to a growing love and to Christian power (5:11; 1 Co 13; 14:3–5, 12, 26; so Frame, 207). Such are genuine gifts that should be clung to tenaciously. In a similar discussion about five years later for “hold on to [katechō, GK 2988] the good,” Paul substituted “cling to [kollaō, GK 3140] what is good” (Ro 12:9). Both speak of determined tenacity to retain what is beneficial; in this, this church has been remiss (vv. 19–20). “Good” in Thessalonians describes what is outwardly attractive and therefore beneficial (to kalon) and in Romans what is inherently good and therefore bound to be beneficial (tō agathō) also.
22 Allowance is also necessary for professed spiritual manifestations that do not contribute but rather detract from the development of the local body. Paul designates this category by pantos eidous ponērou (“every kind of evil”). The expression lends itself to varying interpretations. Eidous (“kind,” GK 1626), in keeping with its predominant NT meaning (Lk 3:22; 9:29; Jn 5:37; 2 Co 5:7), may denote “appearance.” Or in accord with the obvious antithesis between this and v. 21, it may mean “kind” or “species.” The latter meaning is preferable because spiritual gifts can hardly with any credibility assume the “appearance of evil,” but they can be a “species of evil” falsely attributed to the Holy Spirit.
Ponērou (“of evil,” GK 4505) likewise presents two options: if taken as an adjective qualifying eidous, the phrase is “evil kind”; if taken as a substantive, a practical equivalent of the noun ponēria, the phrase is “kind [or form] of evil.” Though the anarthrous adjective in Paul is more frequently adjectival in force, the nature of the present contrast with to kalon (“the good,” GK 2819; v. 21) resolves this issue in favor of the substantival use adopted by the NIV.
Paul clearly intends an antithesis with v. 21 here. “Hold on to” (katechō) the good, but “hold yourselves free from” (apechō, GK 600; NIV, “avoid”; NASB, “abstain from,” v. 22) every kind of evil that tries to parade as a genuine representation of the Spirit (cf. Hiebert, 249). Only then can maximum benefit for the body of Christ in local worship be achieved.
 Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2002). 1 & 2 Thessalonians (pp. 193–196). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of I-II Thessalonians (Vol. 3, pp. 139–141). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 1 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 432–434). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.