What Does it Mean to Test or Weigh Prophetic Words?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Have you ever wondered what how a prophetic word is deemed to be "legit"?  

With all the abuses and strange prophecies uttered as if they came directly from the mouth of God Himself, how is a believer, and the whole church for that matter, supposed to know what God wants us to hear and what He wants us to forget?

In 1 Thessalonians 5:29-22, Paul teaches,

"Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.  Abstain from every form of evil" (ESV).
Quenching the Spirit is directly connected with despising prophecy in this verse.  To look down on prophecy and to think less of it is actually putting out its fire.  Paul's desire instead is that believers test, weigh, and measure it with a view to accepting it as from the Lord and putting it to use.  

What Does it Mean to Despise Prophecy?

This last sentence is essentially the meaning behind the Greek word for despise.   Exoutheneo means, to make no account of, to despise or disdain utterly, count as nothing, esteem less, hold contemptible.  When compared to other usages of the word in the NT, we find that...
  • In Acts 4:11 the word is used to refer to the rejection of Jesus as the cornerstone.
  • In Luke 23:11 it is used to refer to Herod who, with his soldiers, treated Jesus with contempt and mocked Him.  Notice the coupling here of contempt with mocking.
  • In Luke 18:9, the word is used to introduce the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, specifically to capture the attention of those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt."
  • In Romans 14:3, Paul exhorts those who eat meat offered to idols not to, "despise the one who abstains."  Then, a synonym is used in the other half of the verse with reference to a converse situation.  "...and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him."  Thus, to despise is also to pass judgment, in a negative way, of course.  This same coupling of words and ideas is repeated again in verse 10.
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:28, Paul says it is the thing the world despises and considers low that God chose, as opposed to what the world considers truly wise.
  • In 1 Corinthians 6:4, the word is used to describe "those who have no standing in the church," referring to judges in human courts of law.  Thus, they are irrelevant and have no authority when dealing with matters inside a church family.  
  • In 1 Corinthians 16:11, Paul is sending Timothy to help in the Lord's work there.  "So let no one despise him.  Help him on his way in peace..."  Notice the contrast between despise and help.  One puts out the hand in rejection, the other extends the hand in assistance.
  • In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul is quoting the "super apostles" who have tried to demolish Paul's apostolic reputation in the Corinthian church.  They say, "His letters are weight and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account."
  • In Galatians 4:14, Paul encourages the Christians in Galatia that even though his condition was a trial to them, they "did not scorn or despise" him, but received him as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.

I Was Guilty of Despising Prophecy for Most of My Life

I have been so very guilty of treating prophecy like this for so many years.  Ridiculously, my defense was that the prophecy I was supposedly hearing or witnessing was supposedly not Biblical or from the Lord.  I summarily concluded, without any testing (and therefore without any obedience to the command itself), that prophecy was not for today, and that any proclamation to the contrary was not biblical.  

My attitude toward it most of my life was holding it in contempt, rejecting it, considering it of zero account, rejecting it, mocking and scorning it, and concluding that it is irrelevant to our walk with Jesus today.  Man, I was so, so wrong, not only in my theological view, but more than anything else, in my attitude.  In reality, I was actually guilty of doing the very opposite of what the passage said, simply because my theological box had told me that prophecy was no longer for today.  What an arrogant position!

So here's the question I had to ask myself one day.  And it is one I now put to cessationists today.  (Cessationism is the theological viewpoint that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit that we see in the New Testament are no longer for the church today.)  

What if a cessationist were to simply obey what the verse in 1 Thessalonians explicitly said?  

Suppose they already had what they believed to be a biblically and theologically justifiable position that prophecy is not for today.  Do you think that this would exclude them from at least obeying or attempting to do what the passage explicitly says?  

That is probably what is one of the most amazing things about my former position of cessationism.  I believed that I had the theological authority to conclude that if a verse didn't apply today, then I didn't have to obey the commands about it.  Yet they are commands of God! As a point of fact, if this were true, then perhaps it would be one of the only commands in the NT which the NT church does not have to obey today!

So let's assume for the sake of argument that a cessationist is right, that prophecy is no longer for the church today.  But let's also assume that such a person is also still held accountable to this command of God.  What would such a person have to do?  Three things come to mind.

First, we would have to acknowledge that we are quenching the Holy Spirit of God when we treat prophecy this way.  

I mean, think about it for a moment.  Just because you may not believe prophecy is no longer in operation today doesn't mean that it's okay to disobey the verse when other Christians believe that God has communicated with them prophetically.  After all, isn't this the very first step in handling prophecy accurately?  A proper attitude begins with a confession that the Holy Spirit is always afire, attempting to inflame God's people with God's love.  Jesus taught is in John 14-16, among other places, what some of the roles of the Holy Spirit were.  One of them is to guide us into all truth, to teach us all things, to remind us of the things Jesus taught.  The Spirit's function is to lead us to a relationship with Jesus!

Second, we would have to acknowledge that the Spirit moves in prophecy and that such movements should not be treated as irrelevant, of no value, or with contempt.  

It is a wonder that the Spirit moves at all in places where His miraculous revelatory work of prophecy is consistently and sometimes so vehemently disavowed, disdained, and despised.  Yet this was certainly the story in Jesus' day, was it not?  Any person who claims to be a follower of God must have his ear toward God and his heart in a place of humility, listening to whatever God desires to say, through His other followers. One of the most interesting ways I've seen prophecy despised before has been to take the testing Paul requires in this verse and apply it to prophecy before a person has even had a chance to say it!  But the order of the verse is pretty clear, is it not?  Don't despise it means listen to it and then follow the instructions, and not the other way around.

Third, we would have to test all things 

Undoubtedly, the "all things" refers to the prophecies just mentioned.  These are not a collection of commands randomly sewn together as a haphazard conclusion to an inspired epistle.  Rather, they are inseparably connected to each other in a particular order.  The Spirit moves.  We prophesy.  Then we test.  So what is the testing?

The Greek word for testing is dokimazete.  There are several important features about this word to take note of.  First, it's in the second person plural form.  That means Paul is talking to the church family as a whole.  Second, as a verb it is in the imperative form.  This means it's required whenever we hear someone prophesy.  Third, the verb tense is present.  In Greek, a present verb generally means that we are always to be to in the habit of performing the action.  In this case, believers should always be in the habit of testing prophecies.  

So then, if the whole church is to be in the habit of constantly testing prophecies, what exactly does that testing entail?  The Greek word itself means to examine something or subject it a test of some sort.  Of course, the text doesn't say what that test actually is.  It merely assumes the community of faith would do it, and then follow the testing by holding fast to what was good and staying away from what was evil.  

However, there is a slight nuance to the word in other places where Paul uses the word.  Reviewing those helps  shed light on what the testing looked like.  And contrary to the modern mind, it is not so rigidly intellectual as we might presuppose.  I say this for the benefit of my academically-inclined brothers and sisters who, perhaps in a religious education institution, have been educated with a Western-minded, rational, intellectual view toward the things of an early Eastern church.

In 1 Corinthians 11...

Paul is discussing the problem of how the Corinthians were observing the Lord's Supper.  They were being divisive and factious so that when they came together for this amazing meal, "each one goes ahead with his own meal.  One goes hungry, another gets drunk" (v. 21).  In addition, the poor were being left out.  The wealthier believers were humiliating "those who have nothing" (v. 22).  It is in this way that partaking of the Lord's Supper is "unworthy," in verse 27.  In fact, partaking in this way is actually "profaning the body and blood of the Lord."  What each believer is to do first and foremost then, is to examine themselves.  

Here is the usage of dokimazo.  Examining themselves meant making sure or confirming that their attitude and actions toward other people in their group were headed in the right direction before they partook of the Lord's Supper.  Were they waiting on the poor?  Were they giving preferential treatment to the wealthy?  Were they celebrating a meal which emphasizes unity in Jesus Christ while also harboring bitterness and resentment?  Had they resolved conflicts with one another?  It was after these heart attitudes and relationships were healed and headed in the right direction that they were to partake.  Thus the examination process in this text is the heart checking to confirm that it is about to partake in a worthy manner.

In Galatians 6...

Paul is closing out his letter to the church who was suffering greatly with a memory loss about the message and power of the gospel.  The concluding message included a reminder of "the law of Christ" which is fulfilled when we "bear one another's burdens" (v. 2).  No man is greater than his neighbor, and therefore he should not think of himself as somehow higher or greater than his neighbor (v. 3).  Then Paul tells them to "let each one test his own work," which highlights our word again, dokimazo.  

This is followed by a foregone conclusion which Paul understand that every man will reach when he tests himself properly: "and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor" (v. 4).  In effect, Paul is saying that the neighbor who is bearing our burden is the one to boast in, and not in himself.  And no one is to think themselves so high and mighty as to conclude that they are too important to waste time bearing someone else's burden who is somehow considered a little lower on the totem pole.  The summary of this word comparison reveals then that dokimazo in this context is testing toward a foregone conclusion which simply confirms what we already assume to be true.

In 1 Timothy 3:10...

Paul is instructing Timothy how to choose deacons for the local church there in Ephesus.  Paul commands, "let them be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless."   As with our text in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, so here too the word dokimazo is a present tense imperative.  Paul means for the testing of deacons to be a continual, ongoing process, not for probationary purposes, but probably "so that when deacons are later needed they may come from the available worthy group" (Lea and Griffin, NAC: 1, 2 Timothy and Titus, p. 117).  

The testing of deacons was for the purpose of determining who was blameless so that those could be chosen to serve. What is more, this is not testing in the sense of mentors or teachers sitting back with pen and paper in hand, grading him, as it were, on his behavior and life and marriage.  Rather, this is testing in the sense of putting him to a season of testing by presumably working with him on basic life responsibilities (like his speech, drinking, and financial life, in verse 8; sound doctrine and clear conscience, in verse 9).  It is not giving something to a man and taking a hands off approach while watching him to see whether or not he screws up or passes.  Instead, it is presumably the pastor or elders working with men in basic life responsibilities, essentially discipling them, in order to ensure that they are ready to be deacons when needed.  Here again then, we see that the process of testing was toward a confirmation of something in particular.  In church leadership it is testing toward a confirmation of one being able to serve as a deacon.

Testing is Positive, not Negative

In conclusion, the stress of this Greek word, dokimazo, "falls on a positive result in which that which is tested passes and is recognized as genuine" (H. Haarbeck, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3:809).  It also "carries the positive nuance that the object will pass the test and be shown to be true.  Its other sense is of 'approving' something that has already been shown to be true" (Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles, p. 292).

Yet in all of these usages there is the assumed possibility that the result of this testing or examination might not turn out well.  While our every attempt is to be aimed at ensuring our hearts are in the right place toward one another before partaking of the Lord's Supper, it is possible that we find ourselves not in the right mind.  And if we test ourselves properly with reference to how God truly views us as compared to our neighbors, it is possible that pride may be so rooted in us that we actually have the audacity to conclude that we are right in how we view ourselves.  Finally, if one is undergoing testing to serve as a deacon, it is possible that they are not found blameless and therefore not able to serve.

But despite this possibility, the word still points in a positive direction.  We are presumably working with something good and godly.  And we are presumably aiming for something good, something beneficial, worthy, honorable, and excellent in the process of testing.  The word assumes that the standard and the objective of the testing is that which is good, which God desires for us.  He wants us to celebrate the Lord's Supper worthily.  He wants us to think of ourselves as equals with our neighbors so that we will fulfill Christ's law of love and bear their burdens.  He wants men who are being tested as deacons to turn out blameless so they can serve the church of God.

All of this applies to the usage of our word in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 by assuming that the standard and objective of our testing of prophecy is that which is from the Holy Spirit, whom we are not to quench by despising prophecy in the first place.  In other words, it is simply assumed that a church would use something good and godly as the standard for testing prophecy since the aim of prophecy itself is assumed to be good and godly.  So much of this lies in an implicit, child-like faith and trust in the Holy Spirit Who is largely unpredictable and uncontrollable.  Perhaps the root of it all in cessationism is more fear than anything else.  I know that was my personal story if I transparent with naked honesty.  What or who are you afraid of?

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