A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 5:18a. d). Listen to the Word of God (continued).
Be that as it may, Paul’s injunction to us is to treat with respect and not with contempt any utterance which claims to come from God. Indeed, we are neither to reject it outright, nor accept it outright. We are rather to listen to it, and as we do so to *test everything* (21a), to sift it, to ‘weigh carefully what is said’ (1 Cor.14:29). How are we to evaluate it, however? Paul does not answer this question here, but we can do so from the teaching of Jesus and his apostles elsewhere. Although discernment is a spiritual gift (1 Cor.2:13-16; 12:10), we are nevertheless given certain tests to apply to teachers. The first test is the plain truth of Scripture. Like the inhabitants of Berea, we are to ‘examine the Scriptures’ to see if what any Christian teacher says is true (Acts 17:11; cf.Dt.13:1ff.). The second test is the divine-human person of Jesus. If we are to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world’, this is how we are to discern between the true and the false: ‘Every spirit [i.e. prophet claiming inspiration] that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist…’ (1 Jn.4:1-3; cf.1 Cor.12:3; 2 Jn.9-10. The third test is the gospel of God’s free and saving grace through Christ. Anybody who perverts this gospel (whether preacher, prophet, apostle or even angel) deserves to be ‘eternally condemned’ (Gal.1:6-9). The fourth test is the known character of the speaker. When Jesus told us ‘Watch out for false prophets’, warning us that they are wolves disguised as sheep, he added: ‘By their fruit you will recognise them’ (Mt.7:15ff.). Just as a tree may be identified by its fruit, so a teacher may be identified by his character and conduct. This is an argument against listening to strangers, for the congregation cannot apply this test to them. The fifth test is the degree to which what is said ‘edifies’, that is, builds up and benefits, the church. An authentic prophetic message will ‘strengthen, encourage and comfort’ the hearers, ‘edify the church’, bring a conviction of sin and an awareness of God, and be conducive to peace and order, and above all to love (1 Cor.14:3; 14:4, 31; 14:24-25; 14:33, 40; 1 Cor.13).
Once these tests have been applied to the words spoken, the Thessalonians would be in a position to *hold on to [katecho] the good* (21b) and to *avoid [apechomai] every kind of evil* (22). The verbs point the alternatives. And the word *kalos* (‘good’) was used of what was ‘*genuine* as opposed to *counterfeit* coin’. It is Paul’s apparent use of the imagery of testing coins which led many of the early Greek fathers to associate with this instruction Jesus’ otherwise unrecorded saying: ‘Become approved money changers’ (or ‘bankers’), that is, people who know how to distinguish true coinage from false.
Having considered Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians to test ‘prophecies’ (20-22), we are ready to consider the further instruction he gave them to have this letter of his read publicly to the whole congregation (27). It is illuminating to compare and contrast this appeal to them to listen to his letter with the previous injunction to listen to prophets. *I charge you*, he writes. The sudden change to the first-person singular may indicate that he now took the pen from his amanuensis, as he usually did near a letter’s conclusion (e.g. 2 Thess.3:17; 1 Cor,16:21; Gal.6:11), and/or that he felt the need to assert his apostolic authority in making this important demand. Whether he feared the neglect or even suppression of his letter by a particular group we do not know. But he certainly used extremely strong terms in order to ensure that everybody without exception would have the chance to hear it. ‘I put you on oath’, he wrote, and solemnly added a reference to the presence and/or authority of *the Lord, to have this letter read to all the brothers*. He was later to make the same charge to the Colossians, with the supplementary requirement that they and the Laodiceans (referring perhaps to *Ephesians*) exchange their letters. It is a quite extraordinary instruction. Already the Old Testament was read in the Christian assemblies, for the custom had been taken over from the synagogues. But now the apostles’ letters were also to be read aloud during the worship service, so that each local church would gradually make its own collection of their letters and memoirs. This was the origin of the tradition of having both an Old and a New Testament lesson in church. The clear implication is that these apostolic documents were to be regarded as being on a level with the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul saw nothing incongruous in this.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.