To this point, the passages studied in our series on discernment have been pretty straight-forward. Whether Philippians 1:9-11, Romans 12:1-2, or Colossians 1:9-10, each passage has clearly taught the importance of discerning the will of God. In each context, knowing the will of God (which I define to be discerning God’s will as to how he wants [or wills] us to live) is tied to holy or righteous living. It is true that in other passages (like Eph 1:9) Paul stresses the importance of the believers knowing God’s will as to his plan in providing salvation richly through Jesus Christ. But I believe a strong “exegetical” case can be made from the above passages that God’s will (especially in the last two passages) refers to God’s will as to our living. We are to be filled with the Word by the Spirit and thereby we can with discernment prove what is excellent (Phil 1:9-11), discern the will of God (Rom 12:2), or be filled with the knowledge of his will (Col 1:9).
I believe 1 Thessalonians 5:19-24 is a different story. Here the meaning is far from clear. Indeed, while I believe that this passage is parallel with the ideas of the others we have already studied, that fact is by no means indisputable. Paul writes,
 Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies,  but test everything; hold fast what is good.  Abstain from every form of evil.
 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
I am citing the broader passage to help illustrate the context. The first first four verses (19-22) have five imperatives, and serve as a part of the memorable list of quick commands at the close of 1 Thessalonians. The primary question is the interrelation of the imperatives, especially the phrase in 21a, “Test everything.” Does “test everything” (as the ESV, TNIV, HCSB translates it) go with “don’t despise prophecies” (v 20) or “hold fast what is good” (v 21b)? Similarly, if “test everything” elaborates on verse 20, does 21b and 22 further clarify the meaning of “test everything” in connection to prophecies? Or, should the first two imperatives be taken together and are the last three a unit? Or, to pose yet another option, should “test everything” link with both vv 19-20 and vv 21b-22?1
There are good reasons to take “test everything” as further clarifying the command in v 20, “do not despise prophecies.” As F. F. Bruce points out, the Old and New Testaments in several places stresses the importance of judging the validity of prophets that they were indeed speaking revelation from God.2
But I think a better case can be made that Paul means this phrase “test all things” to tie the five commands together. Where there are parallels for testing prophecy, there are also parallels in Paul for testing everything (as has been already proved by this series). Whereas verses 19-20 seem to go together, and verses 21b and 22 seem to go together, I think “test everything” ties the two ideas together. This is what Leon Morris argues:
So [Paul] makes it clear that he expects his readers to use their common sense in [discerning true prophets] and to apply the necessary tests. At the same time the words he uses are quite general, and they must be held to apply to all kinds of things and not simply to claimants to spiritual gifts.3
Morris is right. Paul wants the Thessalonians to test prophecies, but he at the same time interjects the more general πάντα to pivot onto the following imperatives.4 Notice again the general nature of his command in verse 22: “Abstain from every form [or every kind] of evil.” Paul did not want only prophecies tested, but all things tested. Interestingly, here Paul uses the same word for “test” here that he did in Romans 12:2 when he instructed those believers to “discern (δοκιμάζειν) the will of God.” He wanted the Thessalonians to evaluate or have discernment concerning all things, and when things were good and right for them, they were to hold fast to those things (cf. Phil 4:13). When they concluded that some practices were evil, the believers were to shun or abstain from them. “If a thing is evil, then the believer must have no truck with it whatever.”5
It is fitting that this command to test all things falls on the heels of Paul’s command to listen to the divine prophetic utterances in the church, for the Word of God is absolutely essential to our testing things. Testing things well requires that we know the holy God who has revealed himself in the Old Testament. We must also know the holy Jesus Christ–both his character and life-giving work as Mediator–to make carefully discerning conclusions about what is good and evil. We must know the word from his apostles and apply it carefully in our situation. Indeed, the Spirit works to further us in our sanctification through the Word of God (John 17:17). And I would dare say that the majority of errors made in application and discernment today (whether with respect to ordinary ethical and moral decisions, or with respect to matters of reverence germane to this website) is a direct result of not taking seriously enough what the Word of God explicitly says. The problem is not in going beyond the Word of God, but not understanding just how far the Word of God goes in touching our daily lives.
The following two verses flow directly out of Paul’s command to test activities, words, thoughts, and doctrines: “ Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Again, this is strikingly similar to Paul’s instruction concerning discernment in Romans, Philippians, and Colossians. When we are using discernment as God desires us to, our Spirit-born knowledge of Jesus Christ through the proclaimed Word of God guides us into knowing and doing the will of God daily. This results in progressive sanctification and Spirit-wrought fruit as we take the divine blueprint and put it into discerned practice each day. In other words, as a result of our regeneration and the on-going work of the Spirit of God, our discernment results in further sanctification by the grace of the God of peace.
Paul’s call in these verses is to test rigorously all things. This is not a command for the faint of heart! He asks us to go beyond mere consideration to commitment, of reaching a sound conclusion and acting upon it. And the results of our test is to cling to what is good and abhor what is evil. He is asking us to be mature judges of what is right and wrong. Here is yet another call to discernment. And while the command is daunting, the promise in verses 23 and 24 is that the God of peace is seeking himself to sanctify us completely. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” So may God graciously give us both the discernment to judge right and wrong, and the will to choose the good.
- Charles Wanamaker takes verses 19-22 as a whole speaking of charismatic gifts. So “good” and “evil” refers specifically to charismatic gifts, not general activities, though Wanamaker concedes that Paul’s readers would have understood these words to have “general relevance to every aspect of Christian thought and behavior.” Charles Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 203-4. Also see Robert Thomas, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (EBC 11; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 292-3. [↩]
- F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC 45; Waco: Word Books, 1982), 125-7. It might be worth noting that the word that most often appears in 1 Corinthians for testing prophets is (or is in the word group) διακρίσις, where the word in v 21 is δοκιμάζετε. [↩]
- The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 178. [↩]
- The best reason for understanding verse 21a as connected to verse 20 is the δὲ in 21a, and, though disputed in some important texts, the conjunction appears to be original. [↩]
- Morris, Thessalonians, 179. [↩]