5:12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who labor among you and preside over you in the Lord and admonish you, 5:13 and to esteem them most highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 5:14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. 5:15 See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. 5:16 Always rejoice, 5:17 constantly pray, 5:18 in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 5:19 Do not extinguish the Spirit. 5:20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt. 5:21 But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. 5:22 Stay away from every form of evil. (NET Bible,emphasis added)In this set of instructions we are told not to extinguish or quench the Holy Spirit. As we read through the passage we should ask ourselves what does it mean to quench the Spirit so that we can properly avoid doing that. In order to try to figure out what quenching the Spirit is we must ask ourselves a key question. How does verse 19 fit in with the rest of the instructions in this passage? How we answer that question will drive our interpretation.
The passage has the following basic outline:
- Respect your Leaders (12-13)
- Help others (14-15)
- Rejoice, Pray, and be thankful (16-18)
- Don't quench the Spirit (19)
- Don't disregard prophecy (20-22)
In reviewing the context of the letter and the paragraph, it seems probable (the other views are certainly possible) that the quenching of the Holy Spirit is related to the attitude of a person/church towards prophecy (*). In coming to this conclusion we first observed that verses 5:20-22 all deal with the same subject (prophecy). We can draw the conclusion that the testing (5:21-22) is related to the statements regarding prophecy in verse 20 because of the "but". This word draws the contrast between the prior statements on contempt for prophecy and the following statements regarding accepting true prophecy after testing it. Furthermore the testing of prophecy is something that is advocated in both the OT and the NT (Deut 18:21; Jer 27:14-15, 29:8-9; 1 Cor 14:37; 1 John 4:1) and why there is a gift of distinguishing prophecies (1 Cor 12:10, 14:31-32). Therefore we have good reasons for handling verses 20-22 as meaning - don't disregard prophecy, but test it and accept what passes.
The case for tying verse 19 to the commands regarding prophecy (20-22) can be made when we infer that verse 18 seems to conclude ("for this") that the prior comments (joy, prayer, thanks) are the will of God. In addition the Spirit is the Giver of the gift of prophecy that is meant to educate, encourage, and equip the believers (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:10, 14:31; Eph 4:11-13). Certainly disregarding the gift and subsequent benefits is to douse the working of the Spirit.
As we read through letter it is helpful to remember that Paul was not there very long - maybe a little more than three weeks at best. The people that were there were particularly antagonistic toward the gospel (Acts 17:1-9,13). They caused a mob to chase Paul from both the city of Thessalonica and Berea. They are also the likely source of suffering that the church was going through at the time the letter was written (1 Thess 1:6, 2:14-15).
Since Paul was not there long enough to teach and establish all of the doctrine that he would have in churches like Corinth or Ephesus it is understandable that the body in Thessalonica would be lacking information regarding many things. Because they had much to learn the church was falling prey to doctrinal confusion and false teachings. In the case of the Thessalonians it seems to center around the persecution they are suffering (1 Thess 3:3-4) and the state of loved ones in Christ that have died (1 Thess 4:13-15, 5:9-10). There also seems to be some anxiety regarding the timing of the Lord's return given the number of times that is mentioned in the first letter. It is also the subject of another letter sent to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2:1-3). There also seems to be a disregard for prophecy in the church (1 Thess 5:20).
As they had not received as much training from Paul and his missionary crew, the church at Thessalonica may have had several people there with the gift of prophecy. They would have been able to build up the body and make up for what was missing because Paul had to leave so quickly (1 Thess 3:10). However the church also seemed to have several sources for misinformation - particularly regarding the timing of Christ's return (2 Thess 2:2). These included false prophecy (spirits), false teachers, and forged letters. These false teachings may be why the Thessalonians began to mistrust all prophetic information (1 Thess 5:20). This in turn led to Paul including the instructions - don't reject prophecy, just be sure to test it. Then keep what passes the test (good) and reject what fails the test (evil).
Therefore, it is fair within the context of chapter 5 and the letter to the Thessalonians that the command to not quench the Spirit is instructing the church to be willing to accept prophecy and test it.
What does that mean for us today? That depends in part on our theological view regarding the gift of prophecy and whether or not it exists today (which would need another post to explore in detail). However we do know that the same Holy Spirit that moved men to speak prophetically, also inspired men to record that truth in the Scriptures. The same Scriptures that are to encourage, exhort, and equip the body of Christ. The Scriptures and the prophetic gift have many overlapping purposes so we would do well to hold the Scripture in high regard and to study & meditate on it regularly insuring that we are growing in both the grace and knowledge of Christ so that we are not subject to false teachings and vain philosophies.
(*) The top three commentaries at bestcommentaries.com including those by Charles Wanamaker, Gene Green, and F.F. Bruce all propose the view that quenching the Holy Spirit is related to disregarding prophecy. The fourth on the list (John Stott) proposes that quenching relates both to the preceding verses on worship and the concluding verses on prophecy.