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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am Svc, 2014-10-12

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

 

During the present exam season many students have to write answers to multiple-choice questions (MCQ). These questions are quite challenging because the student is faced with four or five options to choose from, and only one of them is correct. While some options are easily eliminated there will often be one option that is almost correct. A careless or undiscerning mind may easily mistake this for the correct answer. 

The ability to discern is not only useful for taking exams. It can be useful in everyday life as well, especially in decision-making. When buying something we sometimes need to choose between options are almost alike with only a slight difference between them. When traveling from one place to another, we need to decide which route is better – should we take the short one with more traffic or the longer one with less? Well, the consequences of making the wrong choice for matters like these are often not severe – we may just end up arriving at our destination a little later, or having to pay a little more for the purchased item. 

But there are some matters where a failure to discern can bring severe consequences. And this applies especially to matters where God holds us responsible to make the right distinctions. One of them is the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. This responsibility is given not only to those who teach and preach, but also to everyone who receives their teaching and preaching. The ability to discern should help us to avoid two extremes. The first extreme we must avoid is…

I. Making Distinctions that Should NOT Be Made (vv.19,20) 

This was a problem that existed in the Thessalonian church. Hence it was addressed by the injunctions given in verses 19 & 20 – “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings.” These two verses may seem to be talking about different things, but they actually express the same thing. They deal with the Holy Spirit’s ministry of the Word to God’s people. In fact this ministry had been mentioned earlier in this epistle. Look at what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 – “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance…” This refers to the time when the Thessalonians first heard the Gospel as it was preached to them by Paul. Their hearts burned within them as the Holy Spirit convicted them of their sins through His Word. Their eyes were opened to see their need to be saved through Christ alone, as the Holy Spirit enlightened them with His Word. How gloriously they were delivered from the cold darkness of sin to enjoy the bright warm light of salvation, and all through the preaching of God’s Word! This result is mentioned in the next verse –  “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.” (v.6) 

From this we learn that the Holy Spirit’s power is released not only in the preaching of His Word but also in the receiving of His Word. That power is even able to raise the dead to life! The prophet Ezekiel described a vision of this amazing phenomenon. In this vision which is found in Ezekiel 37, he was in a valley full of dry lifeless bones. As Ezekiel walked through this valley he realized how impossible it is for them to live. Then God told him, “Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live.” (vv.4,5) 

Ezekiel obeyed God, and then as he prophesied to the bones the Spirit of God worked in them. There was a rattling noise, the bones came together and began to form skeletons. As he continued speaking, the tendons and muscles appeared, the skin covered them. Further prophesying caused them to start breathing and moving until they all stood up on their feet – a huge living army! 

How did this impossible feat happen? It was by the power of God’s Word released through prophesying. The same thing happens when the Word of God is preached today: As it is faithfully communicated the Holy Spirit uses it to build up God’s people and to transform them into a mighty army. And God’s people must be ready to listen when He speaks. As each of the seven churches in Asia were told, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” (Revelation 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22) 

This helps us now to understand what Paul meant here in our text when he said, “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings.” The word “prophesyings” here is not about foretelling or predicting future events. It is about forth-telling the Word of God. Now, the Word has been completely written in the Bible, as we are told in 2 Timothy 3:16,17, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” 

This means that our passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 is to be applied now to the preaching and teaching ministry. God’s people are built up spiritually through solid exposition of the Scriptures. This is the great need of the church today. Our Lord Jesus Himself prayed, “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth.”(John 17:17) Unless all that is written in God’s Word is faithfully expounded through every sermon, every Sunday School lesson, and every Bible study every time we gather together as God’s people, we can never be built up spiritually. 

For this reason, God calls certain people to preach and teach His Word and He equips them with the spiritual gifts that enable them to fulfill their calling. These are the ones that are mentioned in vv.12-13, “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake.” The Holy Spirit uses their ministry to edify and equip His people so that they may grow into full spiritual maturity and accomplish His purposes on earth. 

With this understanding of the context of our passage, we can now see why the Thessalonians must stop quenching the Spirit and despising prophesyings. To ‘quench’ the Spirit is to stifle or suppress His ministry of the Word to God’s people. That’s what they were doing. The Christians at Thessalonica were quenching the Spirit and despising prophesies! This probably happened after the Apostle Paul could no longer stay to preach to the Christians of Thessalonica because of persecution. After Paul left, the Lord provided others to continue the preaching and teaching ministry in the church (the ones who are mentioned in vv.12-13). But although these brethren laboured among the Thessalonians and admonished them with the Word, they were perhaps not as eloquent in preaching or as skilled in teaching as Paul was. 

The result of this was that church members despised their preaching. Some members may have passed unhelpful remarks – “His sermons are definitely not like Paul’s sermons.” Other members may have fallen asleep during their preaching. This cool reception may in turn have discouraged those who labored among them from exercising their gift well. Perhaps some preachers did try their best to imitate Paul’s preaching, but became frustrated when they could not do it. This frustration would affect their preaching adversely, and would bring even more unhelpful remarks. A vicious cycle was developing and if nothing was done to stop it, the church would suffer. 

The overall impact of this was that the Holy Spirit’s ministry was quenched, just like a fire that is put out by a wet blanket. Thus it was very needful for Paul to tell them in his epistle, “Stop quenching the Spirit!”How? They must stop despising the preaching of those who laboured among them. 

This word to the Thessalonians has been permanently recorded in the Scriptures to instruct us. God’s Word to us here is this: The Spirit’s ministry of the Word should always be taken seriously regardless of whoHe uses to do it. Therefore we should not make distinctions in our reception of God’s Word based on the person who brings it to us. We may not like to listen to certain preachers because they are not as eloquent or as engaging as we would like them to be. But this should not stop us from receiving God’s Word through them. God can use anyone to minister His Word to us and build us up. 

Listen to what Martin Luther wrote on this:  “A poor speaker may speak the Word of God just as well as he who is endowed with eloquence. There is no difference between the Word when uttered by a schoolboy and when uttered by the angel Gabriel; they vary only in rhetorical ability. It matters not that dishes are made of different material … The same food may be prepared in silver as in dishes of tin. Venison, properly seasoned and prepared, tastes just as good in a wooden dish as in one of silver.” 

This does not mean that any Tom, Dick or Harry can then be asked to teach or preach God’s Word to His people. There are certain basic requirements they must meet first, such as spiritual maturity, sufficient understanding of the Scriptures and evidence of having the required spiritual gift. 

This also does not mean that those who preach and teach can make distinctions when exercising their gift. They ought to deliver God’s Word with the same fervour and diligence no matter who they give it to – whether it is to a large group of responsive enthusiastic believers, or to a small group of inattentive, lukewarm Christians. There should be no difference. The Spirit is quenched as much by good preachers who fail to preach well to some believers, as by believers who fail to listen well to some preachers. In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul exhorted a young preacher named Timothy to stir up the gift of God which was in him. This means that Timothy must fan his gift of preaching into a burning flame rather than quench it. 

In our church, we strive to maintain a high standard in ministering the Word of God to you. And I believe that all our preachers, SS teachers and Bible study leaders put in much effort into each sermon, Bible lesson and devotion that they prepare. But there is always room for improvement, and so we all humbly seek your forbearance if our preaching or teaching is not up to your expectations yet.  

But at the same time, you must also be diligent to meet God’s expectations. He expects you to prepare your heart to listen well no matter who brings His Word to you. To learn how to listen to a sermon well, please read the article in today’s church weekly. Dearly beloved, you must believe that God has something to say to you in every sermon. Make an effort to exercise discernment each time you receive the Word, so that you may hear His voice speaking to you above the preacher’s voice.

And here is one reason why we need to exercise discernment: Not everything that we hear in preaching or teaching may be from the Spirit. This is because of the human element in preaching that tends to embellish and adjust what is taught. This brings us now to the other extreme that we can avoid by our ability to discern: 

II. Not Making Distinctions that SHOULD Be Made (vv.21,22)

If we blindly accept everything that we hear from anyone without making any distinctions, we may end up having beliefs that have absolutely no Scriptural basis at all. Worse still, we may end up having beliefs that are contrary to what is taught in the Bible. Among the Thessalonians some would later propagate wrong ideas about the return of Christ, and Paul would have to write his second epistle to correct their teaching. 

Here in our passage, Paul gave the Thessalonians a command that would prevent such false ideas from taking root among them. In v.21 he said, “Prove all things.” The word ‘prove’ here refers to the process of testing for genuineness. This word was used for the testing of metals like gold and silver to see if they are genuine or fake before accepting them. When applied to any teaching given in church, proving all things means checking the teaching first against the Scriptures. 

This command to the Thessalonians may have arisen from Paul’s experience with the Berean Christians. You may remember that after Paul left Thessalonica he came to Berea, and there he did the same thing that he had done at Thessalonica – He preached at the local synagogue. The result was similar to what Paul experienced at Thessalonica: People were saved through believing the Gospel. But there was one noticeable difference about the Bereans that made them better than the Thessalonians. This is recorded in Acts 17:11 – “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” 

Unlike the Thessalonians, the Bereans did not simply accept everything that Paul preached. They checked everything he said first, just to make sure that it was really taught in the Scriptures. Was Paul unhappy about this? No. Did he feel insulted that they did not accept what he said until they had checked it up? Not at all. He probably wished that the Thessalonians had also searched the scriptures daily to see whether these things were so, when they heard him. This may be one reason why Paul commanded them to prove all things when he wrote the first epistle to them.

This word to the Thessalonians is also meant to instruct us. God’s Word to us is this: We need to exercise discernment whenever we receive any teaching, regardless of who brings the Word to us. We cannot just assume that everything we hear from a particular preacher is always right. This is because no one is ever infallible or above correction. Even the best Bible expositors in the world make mistakes and need correction once in a while. I thank God for loving brethren who have corrected me when I made mistakes. May the Lord help me to remain teachable and never to think that I am infallible. So please do not assume that whatever you hear from me is always right. You need to have the habit of proving all things. But you may ask: How can I ever do that if I am not theologically trained? You don’t need to be theologically trained in order to prove all things, because you have God’s Word in your hands and the Holy Spirit in your heart. 

The Word of God must always be our touchstone for discernment. By studying it thoroughly and knowing it well, we will be able to detect anything that is amiss in the preaching or teaching we receive from others. An expert on money was once asked how he was able to recognise the false notes and coins so well. Did he spend a lot of time studying counterfeit notes and coins? “No,” he replied “I spend most of my time studying the genuine notes and coins.” Let us spend more personal time in reading and studying God’s Word so that we will develop the ability to discern and be able to prove all things. 

The command in v.21 to prove all things is accompanied by another command: “Hold fast that which is good.” This means that when we have tested a teaching with God’s Word and we have found it to be good sound teaching, we then should take the necessary step of believing it as the truth. We cannot keep on testing it without coming to a firm conclusion. That would make us just like those in 2 Timothy 3:7 who were“…ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

And it is often those truths that we have taken the time and trouble to test and examine thoroughly, that remain with us for the rest of our life. They become deeply cherished convictions that we never forget. They are like precious jewels stored up in our hearts which we would never sell or give away. 

Now, as we hold fast to that which is good in the teaching we receive, we must also reject whatever is found to be false and unsound in it. This is what v.22 is all about, as it tells us to “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” The phrase “all appearance of evil” actually means ‘every form of evil.’ This stands in contrast to what is good and true in v.21. Truth exists in only one form – there will always be only one valid truth of God. 

But falsehood may assume many different forms. Some of them are quite obvious but others are very subtle, requiring much discernment to detect because it is mixed with truth. It may start as something small, something that may be taken as one’s own personal conviction supported by deductive reasoning rather than Scripture, but then it develops into a new doctrine and is upheld dogmatically to the exclusion of all other views. Then it creates much strife and division within the church. 

What is frightening is that those who are not careful to prove all things and reject error, but allow it to take root in themselves and in the church may unwittingly be used by the Devil to oppose the Lord’s work on earth. That may be why the word ‘evil’ is used in v.22. Seeing the problems that can arise from this, we must be alert to any error that is mixed with the truth, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In Matthew 7:16-18 our Lord Jesus provided a very important criterion that we must use to discern whether some new teaching or person is truly of God or not. He said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” 

The fruits here refer to the works produced by them. If it leads to works of dishonesty, worldliness, hypocrisy, covetousness and sin in those who espouse it, then it is clearly not of God. If it promotes selfish ambitions rather than Christ’s kingdom, then it is not of God. You will notice that all these works contradict what God’s Word teaches as works that should characterize God’s people. Hence God’s Word is still the final acid test that must be used to prove all things. We must be careful to use only this test, and not things like large numbers of followers, or miraculous happenings or angelic appearances, to decide whether a new teaching is of God or not. 

This does not mean that we should become overly suspicious now of every new preacher or teacher of God’s Word. It means that we must simply be aware that not all preachers are what they claim to be. Christ Himself has already given advance warning to us in the 24th chapter of Matthew that shortly before He comes,“…there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” 

I think that there is probably no era of church history when God’s people had a greater need for spiritual discernment than this present one. With the great volume of teaching available in Christian books, messages, websites and seminars and talks available today through the media, we need much discernment. This morning we have seen that discernment will help us to avoid two extremes in the preaching and teaching ministry of the church: Making distinctions that should not be made, and Not making distinctions that shouldbe made. 

Here is one final word on discernment: It helps us to recognise issues that should not cause division among Christian brethren. These are issues where we as a church differ from other Christians, and yet they are not essential points that we must agree on. Here is a useful guideline provided by Peter Meiderlin, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity.” If there is no agreement on essential doctrines (e.g. the inspiration of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, salvation by faith alone without works), then there is no basis for fellowship or for doing the Lord’s work together. But if there is no agreement on non-essential doctrines (e.g. difference in church government, mode of baptism or views of Christ’s return) then we can exercise Christian liberty and charity. May the Lord help us to exercise discernment with love, and always for His glory alone.

 

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25