(1 Thess. 5:19-22 ESV) 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.
In v. 19, the word translated “quench” means to extinguish. If I quench a thirst, it goes away but comes back. If I extinguish a fire, it goes out and stays out. Therefore, implicit in Paul’s instruction is the risk that we not only resist the Spirit but so resist the Spirit that we lose the Spirit — and so our salvation.
(Rom. 8:9-11 ESV) 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Paul teaches that those who possess the Spirit are saved and those who do not are lost.
Compare Paul’s use of fire as a metaphor in 5:19 to —
(2 Tim. 1:6-7 ESV) 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
The Christian may encourage the Spirit to be of greater effect (compare Eph 5:18-19) or may resist the Spirit and reduce his effectiveness — even to the point of losing the Spirit.
Now, many commentators believe Paul is speaking of miraculous gifts of the Spirit rather than the Spirit himself — but Paul does not refer to gifts of the Spirit as “the Spirit.”
Most commentators take the injunction to refer to the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit (such as speaking in tongues), and see a contrast with the situation in Corinth. … This is possible, but the evidence is not strong and the words are very general. ‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God’ (Eph. 4:30) is a similar general statement, and most agree that there is no reference in that passage to the ecstatic gifts. It is possible to ‘quench’ the Spirit (or to ‘grieve’ him) by such matters as those mentioned earlier in the epistle – despondency, idleness, immorality and the like – and it is best to take the word in such a general sense. Masson acutely points out that the words refer to the Spirit, not the inspired!
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale NTC 13; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 105.
The Spirit himself can be resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Isa 63:10; Eph 4:30), and finally extinguished (1 Thess 5:19). The work of the Spirit in the individual Christian is obviously not irresistible.
So how do we resist or grieve the Spirit? Well, that requires knowing what the Spirit seeks to accomplish in the Christian. Let me offer a short answer, although a much more thorough explanation is possible. I find the following passage to be extremely helpful in understanding the Spirit’s work —
(2 Cor. 3:18 ESV) 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Although the church in Corinth was filled with spectacular, often-miraculous gifts of the Spirit, in this passage, Paul chooses to emphasize the Spirit’s work to transform Christians, seen both individually and corporately (“we all”), into the “image” of the Lord Jesus. This happens incrementally (“from one degree of glory to another”), not all at once.
“Transform” translates the Greek word from which we get “metamorphosis.” It is also the word used of Jesus’ Transfiguration — which was a revelation of the glory hidden within him.
“Image” hearkens back to Gen 1:26-28, where God creates mankind in his own image. Paul says that Jesus is also the image of God. When we are transformed into the image of Jesus, we are being restored to the original manufacturer’s specs. We are becoming truly human as God meant for us to be human.
We aren’t free to define this concept as we wish. It’s defined by the person of Jesus as God’s self-revelation of his own image. And as explained by John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, the scriptures never hold up Jesus as an example of prayer, of commitment to personal evangelism, of being single in God, or the like. Rather, every time Jesus is held up as example for believers to emulate, it’s in terms of his sacrifice, his submission, his service, or his suffering.
How do we resist the Spirit? By resisting the Spirit’s work in us to make us people who sacrifice, submit, serve, and suffer for the sake of Jesus.
Paul says not to despise prophecies. Commentators generally agree that, in the NT, “prophecy” refers to revelations given by God through a Christian with the gift of prophecy. It’s not mere preaching or teaching.
On the other hand, it is also not the same as being a doctrinal oracle. If Corinth and Thessalonica had prophets, and if the prophets knew all the doctrinal answers, why did Paul need to write his epistles? Obviously, the gift of prophecy as experienced in the early church was not as authoritative or as comprehensive as the gift of apostleship. (Compare 1 Cor 12:28.)
Moreover, we know from 1 Cor 14:24-25 that the gift of prophecy sometimes laid bare the secrets of a person’s heart. I imagine that this is something like Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. We assume that prophecy is all about doctrine or predicting the future, but it seems that prophecy also included knowing the heart of a stranger. And it’s easy to imagine despising someone who can read your heart and share his knowledge with the church. I mean, this really could be terrifying.
I would imagine that the Spirit gifted the prophets with the wisdom to know when to do this and when to be quiet, but even so, given the early church’s willingness to admonish and rebuke sin and error, any member could fear the prophets.
Paul’s response is that we should not despise “prophecies.” It’s not about prophets themselves but prophets’ prophesying. Paul clearly wants the gift of prophecy exercised and not resisted.
Now, you could argue that this demonstrates that Paul, in v. 19, was discussing gifts of the Spirit rather than the Spirit. But I would argue that one means by which the Spirit formed the church into the image of Jesus was by laying bare the hearts of members, when needed. Spiritual gifts were given, in part, to equip the church for spiritual formation.
Paul tells the church to “test everything.” In context, Paul could have spiritual gifts or prophecies in mind, or he could intend to include literally everything. I analogize the verse to —
(Rom. 12:2 ESV) Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
We can’t test what is good and acceptable and perfect until our minds are transformed by the Spirit.
Some would question whether Paul has the Spirit in mind and prefer more of a self-help interpretation. But Paul speaks in the passive voice: “be transformed.” It’s not “transform yourself.” If not yourself, who does the work of transformation?
Well, Paul just spent the better part of chapter 8 laying out a theology of the Spirit working in each Christian. There’s no reason to suppose that he’s forgotten those lessons.
Also, “transform” is the same unusual word we found in 2 Cor 3:18 for transformation accomplished by the Spirit.
but let God transform you into a new person. Lit., “be [continually] transformed” (metamorphousthe [3339A, 3565])—ultimately into the likeness of Christ (8:29). Cf. 2 Cor 3:18: “All of us … are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from … the Spirit” (NRSV). As Paul thinks of it, this transformation is not a single, once-for-all event but an ongoing process, the result of being continually filled with and directed by the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18; Col 3:10).
Roger Mohrlang, Gerald L. Borchert, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 14: Romans and Galatians, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007), 185–186.