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1 Thessalonians 5:21,22: Discernment

1 Thessalonians 5:21,22: Discernment

Verse 21: “Test all things; hold fast what is good.”

Some of the material for this message comes from John MacArthur's book, "Reckless Faith."

There is a great bewilderment in the world today about all of the religions. One of the most frequently asked questions of Christian leaders is, “Why are there so many religions and How do we know which one is right?” They are receiving mixed signals from the religious community, for example, “There are many roads to heaven, it doesn't matter which one you choose.” “Just follow the golden rule.” “Keep the Ten Commandments.” ”You have to keep an open mind about religion.” “It doesn't really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” “As long as you do the best you can you're okay.”

Even within Evangelical Christianity there are differences in doctrine or at least in the application of doctrine.

“Our generation is exposed to more religious ideas than any other people of history. Religious broadcasting and the print media bombard people with all kinds of deviant teaching that claim to be truth. In the area where I live (Southern California), for example, we are assaulted with everything from a vulgar, cigar chomping television preacher whose messages are peppered with profanity, to huge billboards declaring, ‘Islam is truth.’ The undiscerning person has no means of determining what is truth, and many are baffled by the variety.” –John MacArthur

In today's world, it's not politically correct to put more value on your religious beliefs than on others and to claim that yours is the true religion, and others are false. We believe the Bible is God's final, inerrant, authoritative word, and the only message that can save a lost, dying world. If we don't tell people that someone’s teaching is wrong, who is going to tell them?

“The church can't stand behind multiple points of view and be legitimate. If the Gospel is true, everything else is a lie. If Christ alone saves, those who do not believe in Him are doomed. The church can't lead sinners to salvation if it presents one road as being as good as another. Yet we hear this inclusivism all the time from so-called Christians…the Gospel is exclusive. Jesus is the only way. The gate is that narrow.” (John MacArthur).

Christian pollster, George Barna reveals that two-thirds of American people believe there is no such thing as absolute truth. Even more shocking is that another poll revealed fifty-three percent of those claiming to be Bible-believing, conservative Christians said, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.” The very ones who claim to follow the one who is “The Truth,” profess there is no absolute truth! What's wrong with that picture? Just look at the schizophrenic nature of Americans, when seventy percent of all Americans believe it is important to do what the Bible teaches, but more than two-thirds of this same group reject its moral absolutes.

We live in a world where people see truth as relative. But Jesus said, “I am the Way, (so there is no other way), the Truth, (so there is no other truth), and the Life (so there is no other life). No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6) (Author’s emphasis). Some people have a hard time accepting absolute truth. Jesus says, “Sanctify them by Your Truth, Your Word is Truth” [John 17:17]. And in John 8:32: “And you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.” Free from having never known the truth.

Verse 21a: “Test all things…” (Examine very carefully)

“Test (examine) all things” in context refers primarily to the “prophetic utterances” just mentioned in verse 20. On the other hand, this command clearly has a general application, extending in principle to all things that impact our spiritual life!

“Test” in Greek is dokimazo, to make a trial of, to verify, to discern to approve. It means to test in order to verify the character of something. Dokimazo involves not only testing but determining the genuineness or value of an event or object. That which has been tested is demonstrated to be genuine and trustworthy. John uses the same verb to inform his readers that they should put the content of prophetic speech to the test. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:1-3).

Spiritual discernment is the ability to distinguish divine truth from error and half-truth, right from wrong, good from bad, an ability which is vital to assure a healthy Christian life. Test everything to see if it is the real thing, to see if it is authentic Christianity.

It is significant that Paul puts this testing/discernment in the context of basic commands for the church.

Discernment is the power to see what is not evident to the average mind. Discernment stresses the power to distinguish and select what is true and appropriate, to make a critical examination of something to determine its genuineness. It implies a searching mind that goes beyond what is obvious or superficial. It is the depth of insight that goes beyond the obvious with keen practical judgment.

True discernment has suffered a terrible setback in the last few decades because reason itself has been under attack within the church. Francis Schaeffer warned us years ago in his book, The God who is there, “The church is following the traditionality of secular philosophy. Consequently, reckless faith has overrun the Evangelical community.”

Many are discarding doctrine in favor of personal experience. Others say they are willing to disregard biblical distinctives in order to achieve external unity among all professing Christians. True Christianity, marked by intelligent, biblical faith seems to be declining even among the most conservative Evangelicals.

We live in a world where postmodernism has gradually moved to replace modernism in its emphasis on human reason. Neopaganism (a group of new religious movements influenced by or claiming to be derived from the various historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe) has become the major contender with Christianity for the heart of Western civilization, its characteristics include:

•A denial of the personal attributes of God and of Christ.

•Claiming a legitimacy to worship the created order (Pantheism, Romans 1).

•Laying claim to dogmatic tolerance. (We are to be tolerant of them, but they refuse to tolerate us).

•Seeking to intensify the life of a person rather than transform it. (You can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps).

•Offering no definite, well-grounded hope for the future.

•Seeking to reestablish the place of Eros in the life. (Hedonism).

•Militant opposition to Christianity or anyone claiming to know absolute truth.

•Denial of a personal salvation.

We categorically reject any and all teaching that teaches there ware many ways to reach God and heaven. Are we that narrow? I heard about a preacher once who was so narrow that a gnat could sit on the bridge of his nose and kick him in both eyes. Yes, we are that narrow, but not any more narrow than God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit or the word of God.

Lack of discernment on the part of believers goes to two extremes:

1. At one end of the spectrum this lack of discernment looks within, relying on feelings, inner voices, fantasy or subjective sensations. New Age Mysticism fits this category. It's kind of a Christian existentialism: “If I have experienced it, it has to be truth.” People are interpreting Scripture according to their feelings. “This verse speaks to me, therefore it is God's Word to me.” What does God say? “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (God breathed) and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-18).

2. The other extreme fixes it's hope on some human tradition, magisterial dogma, or some other arbitrary canon. After hearing a message from a man who was reported to be a prophet, I asked if he had been sick, because he sounded confused and incoherent. The response was too sad to be humorous, “You must understand, he's a prophet. Every word he speaks comes directly from God so sometimes its confusing.” Note that both extremes seek spiritual truth apart from the Scriptures. God holds us accountable for what we believe as well as knowing why we believe it. He expects us to defend the faith. Jude writes, “Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to ‘defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people’” (Jude 3 NLT).

Steps to Discernment:

1. Desire wisdom. Proverbs 2:1-5, “My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.”

2. Pray for discernment. Solomon prayed for wisdom 1 Kings 3:9, “Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil…” James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all men liberally.”

3. Obey the truth. Even with all of Solomon's wisdom he became a dismal failure at the end of his life, 1 Kings 11:4, “For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God…” What good is it to know the truth if we do not act according to the truth? James 1:5, “Be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

4. Follow discerning leaders. Do not follow those who are guided by the latest book they have read, or the last conference they attended. Follow those who try their best to interpret the Word of God, line upon line, precept upon precept, book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, and word by word. Be careful of those who are “Carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4;14). Listen to leaders who are able to discern, analyze, and refute error. Leaders who are not afraid to call sin, “sin,” and error, “error.” Paul said to the Ephesian believers, “I kept back nothing that was helpful…I ceased not to warn you day and night with tears” (Acts 20:21). Read books by authors who have proven themselves to be careful handlers of truth. Three things with which you never trifle, A little poison, a little sin, and a little false doctrine.

5. Depend on the Holy Spirit. As important as human teachers are, the Spirit of God is our ultimate teacher. Jesus is “The Truth.” (John14:6). “We are of God! He who knows the things of God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). “No one knows the things if God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God…But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things…we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:11-15).

6. Study the Scriptures. This cannot be overemphasized. True discernment requires a diligent study of God's Word. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

“A group of scholars met recently to determine the authenticity of Christ's Gospel statements. They distributed among themselves colored strips of paper; a red slip meant the statement under consideration was authentic, pink for probably authentic, gray for probably not authentic, and black for not authentic. One by one Jesus' statements were considered; debate concluded with the solemn raising of colored cards…The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount took a beating in the balloting. “Blessed are the peacemakers” was swiftly voted down. “Blessed are the meek” got only six timid red and pink votes out of thirty cast. In the final count, only three of the twelve assorted blessings and woes from Matthew and Luke were seemed authentic.”

–From an essay, Giving God the Pink Slip, Chuck Colson, The God of Stones and Spiders.

Maybe they need to get an honest job. I wonder what they tell a grieving family standing by the grave of a departed loved-one? “I will read the resurrection story, then you hold up a colored card?” No! Our responsibility as ministers of the Word of God is to give them truth! What is that truth? You will see your believing loved-one again because God's Word says, Jesus rose and guaranteed a future with Him in Heaven. John 14:1-3, “I go to prepare a place for you…”


Proverbs 2:2-6, “So that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes if you cry out for discernment, and lift your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

Proverbs 4:7, “Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom. And with all your getting, get understanding.”

Colossians 1:9, “For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with all wisdom and spiritual understanding.”

Colossians 2:3, “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

1 John 5:20, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true, and we are in Him who is true…”

Verse 21b: “…hold fast what is good.”

“Hold fast,” means to hold firmly, to hold down, to suppress. The Greek word katecho means to hold so as to avoid relinquishing something. The tense denotes that the holding fast Paul commands is not an isolated action, but is rather to be the believer's settled rule and continuing practice. Keep clinging to what is good! Embrace it wholeheartedly. Take possession of it! And keep doing this all of your Christian life.

“Good” in Greek is kalos refers to what is genuinely and inherently good, righteous, noble, and excellent. It describes that which is inherently excellent or intrinsically good, providing some special or superior benefit. It is “good” with emphasis on that which is beautiful, handsome, excellent, surpassing, precious, commendable, admirable. “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Verse 22: “Abstain from every form of evil.”

The Greek word for “abstain” is apechomai, meaning, away from, it conveys the idea of putting some distance between, it means to be away or be at a distance and here means to keep oneself from. Paul is saying in context, that after the testing is made, any and every aspect of evil must be rejected. And this rejection is not the result of a spirit of legalism.

Webster's Dictionary, defines “abstain” as to refrain deliberately and often with an effort of self-denial from an action or practice.

“Form” in Greek is eidos meaning, that which is seen or what is visible, the external appearance, the shape and structure of something.

The King James translators chose to use the word “appearance,” which has spawned a whole theology of excessive legalism of “…do you subject yourselves to regulations—‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men” (Colossians 2:20-22).

Many translations do not use the KJV “appearance,” for example:

•“Abstain from every form of evil” (New King James Version, Weymouth, New English Translation, New American Standard Bible and The Amplified Bible).

•“Avoid every kind of evil” (Good News Translation, Living Bible, The International Version and New Living Translation).

•“Stay away from everything that is evil” (New Century Version).

•“Throw out anything tainted with evil’ (The Message).

•“Steer clear of evil in any form” (J.B. Phillips New Testament).

Anyone with roots in conservative evangelicalism, and particularly fundamentalism, will have heard this verse used as a justification for all sorts of personal standards. Going to movies, playing cards, facial hair (for men) or wearing pants or short skirts (for women). One church provided paper skirts for teenage girls whose dress was too short (in their opinion), and gave haircuts to boys whose hair touched their ears. This is more generally known as “legalism.” All of these activities and more are condemned with the King James Version of this verse, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

These words are used as a club to keep people in line with the group’s expectations, or more usually, that of their leader. What appears as evil to one is not necessarily going to appear as evil to another; and so, taken to an extreme, the careful Christian could hardly do anything for fear of it somehow being misconstrued as evil. Their favorite chorus is: “We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with the girls that do.” JJ

“In some denominations, the ‘appearance of evil’ moved into excessive legalism. To some this verse was used as a standard by which to judge the actions of others, as well as to set personal ethics in terms of external appearance or personal opinion. The idea was that if something could in some way be associated with something else that was evil, then that thing or action itself was evil because it had the ‘appearance of evil.’ It was evil by association!

In this sense, the ‘appearance of evil’ talks about evil that has not happened or is not really evil at all but only seems evil in someone’s eyes! It feeds suspicion. It feeds all the darkness inside us that loves to judge people. It accuses brothers and sisters in the Lord that have done nothing wrong but create an appearance of evil in someone else's eyes! It destroys fellowship and trust. It fosters gossip and talking behind someone's back. It serves to create discord in community and undermines the love that should mark Christians fellowship, the very things that Paul was trying to avoid in his exhortations in 1 Thessalonians!

The appeal to the Thessalonians is not to avoid or abstain from that which might appear to be evil, but to avoid those things that are clearly evil, such as illicit sexual activity or responding to evil actions with evil action in return. Paul calls the Thessalonians to a holy lifestyle that would avoid things that were clearly evil.

Jesus Himself spent time with tax-collectors and prostitutes, He would not have passed the test of the ‘appearance of evil!’ In fact, the self-righteous Pharisees of his day took him to task at this very point. They constantly accused him of guilt by association, that he was sinning because the associated with sinners and did not take pains to avoid the appearance of impropriety by avoiding sinners and disreputable places and events. Yet Jesus certainly passed the test of avoiding ‘every kind of evil,’ at the same time that he met sinners in their own world in order to call them to transformation.” –Adapted from Dennis R. Bratcher, the Christian Resource Institute. Copyright 2013 CRI/Voice, Institute

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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