Always rejoice, constantly pray, in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil. (1 Thes. 5:16-22 NET)
In the closing words of 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives seven short commands about seven very important spiritual matters.
The issues of the Christian life always come back to the conflict within our hearts - the old nature vs the new nature of God. This is also the root of the conflicts in churches as well. There have been times when even blessed Christian leaders decided to go their own separate ways, such as Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39), and though it was done with dignity and mutual respect, there is behind it still the problem with the old nature and the new nature in each Christian life. We read in scripture:
You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image – in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth. (Eph. 4:22-24)
This is the conflict in our hearts and even in our churches - the old sinful nature in each of us is still a very present reality in our lives and will be until we are with the Lord in heaven. Wemust daily put on the new man who has been created in God’s image, and take off the old man. Someone wrote this little poem that depicts our spiritual reality: “Two natures beat within my breast, The one is foul, the one is blessed, The one I love, the one I hate, The one I feed will dominate.”
Why don’t we just have the teachings of the Spirit in our life? Why do we need to have rules and specific applications? There are at least two reasons why we need specific written teachings from God’s Word. First, is so that we from our earliest days of living the Christian life might know which direction we should go, what specific things we should do. So God tells us to love our neighbor, to avoid sin, to put aside falsehood, to forgive, etc. The Spirit is whispering all of these things in our hearts in His love which is described as that which “passes knowledge” (Eph. 3:19), but we need specific instructions in order to establish for ourselves the direction we should go.
The second reason is so that we will know what things, and what teachings and what people, to identify as false. The scripture about says, “Examine all things.” Having clear written rules, specific things to do and not do, to believe and not believe, make it clearer for our minds so that we might know when someone or something is false.
So here are seven things we are to do. The first three are constant repetitive actions for each individual believer, as well as the church: rejoice, pray, and give thanks. The next three are more for the church, but also apply to the individual: do not quench the Spirit, despise prophecies, or naively accept everything. The final command summed it all up: stay away from evil.
First, always rejoice: The Christian has a reason to rejoice constantly. The Lord is with us, and He has promised us heaven. No earthly circumstances, no matter how dismal or frustrating, can deter God’s purpose. We ought to carry in our hearts constantly the hope and joy of God. Though we go through periods of grief and do experience the world’s rejection - sometimes very painful rejection - we never despair nor lose our joy entirely because of God’s promises.
Second, constantly pray: The King James said, “pray without ceasing.” It does not mean that we never come to an end to our prayer, for even of Christ it was said, “and when he had finished praying” (Luke 11:1 and John 18:1). Rather it means that we can pray about every thing in life and in every circumstance of life. Some use this verse wrongly as an excuse not to pray at all, and say, “Well, I just maintain an attitude of prayer.” But to pray without ceasing is different from praying without starting. There should be regular times in our days that we settle our hearts to pray to God - go into our closets alone, as Christ taught (Matt. 6:6) and pray to the Father in secret. But then when we get off our knees and go about our work for the day, we can speak to God throughout the day.
Third, give thanks constantly: This verse does not mean that everything that happens to us is good, or according to the will of God, but that in every circumstance it is the will of God for us to be grateful for the good things He has done for us. The Christian is marked by constant gratitude because God is constantly faithful. No circumstance is so dismal that we cannot thank God for His grace to us in the midst of it. My father-in-law, a devout Christian, said to me in his final months of life as he was fighting a terrible cancer, “I am grateful that the pain medications work as well as they do.” In the last weeks of his life he was able to win one of his colleagues to faith in Christ.
Fourth, do not quench the Spirit: Though this also applies to us as individuals, it has more direct application to the church. We should be open to the leadership of the Spirit and especially desirous that He speaks a fresh word to our hearts. It is not new information from the Spirit that is to be desired so much as His burning in our hearts and lives His message from the Scripture. “Quench” has the meaning of putting out fire, so the Spirit is to constantly burn in our hearts.
In the Temple there were three items that were never to be extinguished: the Menorah or “candlesticks,” the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering. The Menorah was to burn all though the night to teach us that God is always with us. The altar of incense symbolized prayer and it burned constantly to teach that Christ is interceding for us before the Father (Heb. 7:25). The altar of burnt offering symbolized the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins. Albert Barnes wrote:
This fire may have been regarded as emblematic of devotion, and as denoting that that devotion was never to become extinct. The Holy Spirit is the source of true devotion, and hence the enkindlings of piety in the heart, by the Spirit, are never to be quenched. Fire may be put out by pouring on water; or by covering it with any incombustible substance; or by neglecting to supply fuel. If it is to be made to burn, it must be nourished with proper care and attention. The Holy Spirit, in his influences on the soul, is here compared with fire that might be made to burn more intensely, or that might be extinguished. (Albert Barnes, New Testament Notes)
We must constantly watch that we do not let the fire of the Spirit in our hearts or in our churches die out. The fault is never with the Spirit Himself, that He might weaken, for Christ said that He will be with us till the end of the age. The fault lies in us that we compromise His teachings, in doctrine and in ethics, and He becomes silent. It is telling that the last church mentioned in Revelation 2-3, the church at Laodicea, had shut Christ Himself out of the church due to their pride and spiritual blindness.
Fifth, do not despise prophecies: This command has given rise to many interpretations. It is wisest, I believe, to interpret this as referring to the teaching gifts of the New Testament church. In its history churches have often gone astray by over emphasizing other gifts, such as healing and tongues, and under emphasized the gifts of proclamation and prophetic utterances. Prophecy was always more about “forth-telling” than “fore-telling.” Prophecy means teaching the Word of God in a way that is relevant for every life. In the history of the Catholic Church, the role of the preaching elder was exchanged for the role of the priest - the sermon was exchanged for the ceremony and an era of spiritual darkness descended upon the Church for centuries.
Matthew Henry wrote:
By prophesyings here we are to understand the preaching of the word, the interpreting and applying of the scriptures; and this we must not despise, but should prize and value, because it is the ordinance of God, appointed of him for our furtherance and increase in knowledge and grace, in holiness and comfort. We must not despise preaching, though it be plain, and not with enticing words of men’s wisdom, and though we be told no more than what we knew before. It is useful, and many times needful, to have our minds stirred up, our affections and resolutions excited, to those things that we knew before to be our interest and our duty. (Matthew Henry, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians)
Some have misinterpreted this command, I believe, to emphasize all sort of strange “new” teachings that are said to have come from the Spirit. And in so doing they have directly neglected the meaning of this verse. They have chosen abstract meaningless utterances over the clear and precious teaching of God’s Word.
Sixth, test all things: Do not be naive, but test things according to the Word of God. John wrote, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). There is no excuse for being naive and foolish.
In Matthew 7:1 Christ said, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” and many have taken this verse to mean that we should accept all and not use any discretion whatsoever. But this could not have been Christ’s meaning for in the same chapter he warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (7:15). He said, “You will know them by their fruits” (7:16). We should be gracious, fair, biblical, calm, but not foolish.
Seventh, avoid all appearance of evil: The people of God should be holy and seen to be holy. We should not naively underestimate the power of sin and temptation. We should avoid it all as best as we can. Christ prayed, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them safe from the evil one” (John 17:15). While we are free in Christ, we should also be careful about Christ’s reputation, so we should avoid those things that appear as evil. We need the wisdom of God in so doing. Paul wrote, “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another” (Rom. 14:19).
This command is also meant for the person who thinks that perhaps he should “learn something” about evil. Paul wrote about the actions of unbelievers, “For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention” (Eph. 5:12).
These seven commands have sometimes been wrongly interpreted, but they are precious commands of God, that are for our spiritual health as individual Christians and as churches.