Receptive does not mean gullible … Careful does not mean critical!

JP: Dave Doran on listening.

Take heed how you listen

“Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 22abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).

This is a text that has significance for everyone who listens to preaching and teaching that claims to speak on behalf of God. Although it is common to treat each of these verses as separate units, it is better to see them as one unit addressing the congregation’s proper response to God’s messengers. I don’t want to get into the debate about the nature of the prophecy mentioned in verse 20, but I think most would agree that at the very least it means someone is standing up to speak on behalf of God. At the time that Paul is writing, it is clear that the Spirit was working in this way to strengthen and build up the church, so believers must not “quench” this ministry of the Spirit (v. 19). That would be one bad response, but it would also be unprofitable to accept whatever is said without exercising discernment, so verses 21-22 provide valuable instruction on what to do on that count.

Receptive does not mean gullible!

The “openness” of verses 19-20 is balanced by calling believers to “examine everything.” The neuter makes it clear that he is referring to the utterances themselves, not primarily those who have spoken them. The early church experienced obvious supernatural work by the Spirit of God, and with it came much counterfeiting and deception. The believers were urged to exercise great discernment. The comprehensiveness of Paul’s command should not be missed. When people stand up to speak on God’s behalf it is serious business! Because of the eternal significance of this activity no one gets free pass! Everything which claims to be a word from God must be examined. No exceptions.

Paul uses a word that includes a background of testing metals or of examining political candidates. It reflects the ideas of analysis and approval. We are to carefully evaluate and examine what is said to see if it is pure and acceptable. The present tense means that God expects this to be a continual or habitual practice.

Careful does not mean critical!

I know some people, and pastors, fear creating critical people, but I fear that we may have cast off biblical restraint in this area. Simple reflection on other passages of Scripture points out that this is God’s expectation for us. Jesus told the disciples to watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees (Matt 16:6). John told his readers to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). Paul warned the Galatians that even if an angel brought a different message not to accept it (Gal 1:6-9). He warned the Corinthians of the Satanic strategy to appear as angels of light (2 Cor 11:14). He warned the Ephesian elders about “wolves” from outside and also about men “from among your own selves” (Acts 20:29-30). God expects you to have your mind plugged in whenever someone claims to be speaking God’s Word.

The Apostle presents us with two possible outcomes that follow a careful examination whenever someone stands up to speak for God. Verse 21 tells us to “hold fast to that which is good” and verse 22 tells us to “abstain from every form of evil.” The simple way I’ve taught this to our congregation is that we must receive the good and reject the bad. The standard for determining good versus bad is the Scriptures themselves. If anybody stands up to speak on behalf of God and says things that contradict, distort, or misrepresent the Scriptures, then it is a “form of evil” from which we must abstain no matter who is doing the speaking (including even angels and apostles, cf. Gal 1:8). Whenever someone stands up to speak on behalf of God and what they say is accurate according to the Bible, then it is “good” and we must “hold fast” to it.

We should listen to God’s Word being preached, so to speak, with our hands open and extended toward the preacher—we want to be ready to hear what God has to say to us through His Word by His Spirit. When the message is delivered into our hands, if it accords with the Word, it is good so we should hold on to it tightly, but if it proves to be in disagreement with the Word, then we should drop it immediately. Leave it right there on the floor of the room in which you heard it.

No one stands above God’s Word, including the preacher. As preachers, we must substantiate what we are saying from the text of Scripture—what it clearly declares along with its necessary and legitimate implications for obedience to our God. When preachers go beyond the Scriptures, they have also gone beyond their authority. Let those who proclaim their love for the Word demonstrate it by exalting God’s Word, not our own.

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