Thessalonians, examine, study, research, prove, ponder, compare, investigate
In I Thessalonians 5:21 Paul tells the congregation to prove all things. Is that really necessary? How does one do that?
Verse 21 needs to be considered in light of its context. To do this one needs to include verse 19 and 20 in the thought. The reason this needs to be done is because there is a conjunction connecting these verses with verse 21. Many translations to not include this conjunction, but it is highly likely to have been part of Paul’s original text. It is included in the highly respected Sinaiticus text as well as 6 of the 8 texts the Englishman’s Greek New Testament tracks.
The Sinaiticus web site has the following translation for these verses:
19 “quench not the Spirit; 20 despise not prophesyings. 21 But prove all things, hold fast the excellent;”
This text makes clear there is a connection in opposition to previous thoughts. In other words: instead of despising or dismissing offhand prophesying (preaching) one should examine it and retain anything that is good. If one does not examine it with care one is despising it.
Verse 19 is also included in this context, because the cadence of the wording links it with verse 20. Similar cadence in 19 & 20 is a form of grouping. One can conclude that when one does not examine everything (to one degree or another) one is quenching the spirit.
Is this indicated anywhere else in Scripture? I Cor 2:9 “But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him. 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.”
The Spirit of the Creator in believers wants to understand everything it can about the Creator. If they don’t exercise that desire by investigation they are squelching or quenching the Spirit.
This is also reinforced in Rom 12:2 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Believers believe that Christ taught and set the standard for acceptable conduct. He expects people to follow His standard. It is therefore a believers’ job to seek to do what is pleasing to the Master. However, Christ didn’t speak in detail on every matter of conduct. Peter didn’t understand that it was OK for him to be in the house of a gentile. (Acts 10:28).
Messiah expects us to ponder our steps, think about what we do in light of the Scriptures and Messiah’s teaching. Believers must search and prove what the Creator’s will is.
So, how do we ‘prove all things?’
Acts 17:11 “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
1). The Scriptures must be the basis for evaluation.
It is important to be familiar with as much of the Bible as possible. Today is the first opportunity to begin building on what you already know. There are also many tools available, especially through the Internet.
A major problem in this is what we have been taught about the Creator and the text. Consider that we are victims of our education. We have been taught that certain scriptures mean certain things. We have often been taught these things because one can’t just read the scripture and get the ‘approved meaning’ out of a surface reading of the text. When we have been taught what the scripture means by those we expect to know, it often doesn’t matter what the text actually says. We typically retain the meaning we were taught.
We must be aware of this problem and read the text for what it actually says. This is really more difficult than what one might think. There is the surface problem of misinterpretation of the text. That is not the foundation on which we should build. We must be willing to allow that our perspective is incomplete or flawed. It is harder to unlearn error than it is to learn new truth. Unfortunately, any English Bible is also a translation and therefore, to some degree an interpretation of the original text. Actually, even the various ancient texts don’t agree 100%. Fortunately, there are many sufficient translations by which we can understand what our Creator expects of us.
Respect what Scripture says. Is the Creator of language incapable of adequately communicating His instruction to us? Many think we need to fix His flawed communication. Assuming a reasonable translation of unaltered original text, words inserted into the text by a teacher often prevent correct understanding. They force the scripture into one’s perception rather than allowing the Scripture to challenge their perception.
Those translations that are more literal word for word translations are usually better for the serious student. Some things may not be clear. That is OK. Those unclear areas can be examined more carefully. A translation that ‘clarifies’ the ‘difficult’ text has likely included the translators doctrinal perspective in the clarification. Accepting that makes us again, potential victims of that translator.
2). Consider the whole context
There is context of the text, the context of the original language and the context of the culture in which the text was written. Again, most things are clear enough, but in some circumstances additional context needs to be considered.
Of course, considering verses before and after a particular verse is very important. Probably the most ignored context beyond that, involves quirks of language. Hebrew writers of Scripture in particular did not use language in exactly the same way that English speakers do. Probably the most pervasive quirk was their proclivity to be somewhat redundant. This is often not recognized as different perspectives on the same thing. Many of these quirks are examined on our Bible Keys page.
Even though the New Testament came to us in the Greek language, the original authors were raised in a Hebrew culture. Even though they may have spoken Aramaic they communicated in ways that are similar to the ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament. Hebrew thought patterns are visible even in the Greek text.
All context is not necessarily available in the immediate vicinity of a particular verse. The use of the same wording or phrase elsewhere in Scripture should be considered to improve understanding. For instance: Hebrews 3:10 bemoans the fact that ancient Israel didn’t understand ‘my ways’. Considering all the occasions when ‘my way(s)’ or ‘his way(s)’ are used will go a long way toward understanding Israel’s problem.
Isa 28:10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little."
Relevant details about important subjects are seldom all found in a single place. Certain scriptures may indicate a particular conclusion, but don’t jump to conclusions. All Scripture needs to fit together. Until you can see how it does, keep looking for pieces of the puzzle.
3). Consider alternative perspectives.
Pr 18:17 “The first one to plead his cause seems right, Until his neighbor comes and examines him.”
Does this neighbor agree with the first to plead his cause? The implication is certainly not. This neighbor has a different perspective. Because of that different perspective a more just decision can be made. We don’t really understand a subject unless we understand it from all perspectives.
There is safety in many counselors. (Prov 24:6, 11:14) If all these counselors see things the same way we are getting only one opinion, not many. This is what happens when we only consider information that springs from a single source. One Haruki Murakami is quoted as saying: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
James D. Tabor in his book Paul and Jesus mentions a problem we all have. “So much depends on one’s assumptions as to what is seen or unseen, what is noted or simply overlooked.” (Intro. pg. 2). This is the reason point 1 above is point 1. Scripture is the basis, not opinion, but we are victims of our education. Our perspective limits us and how we read Scripture. If we can see from a different perspective we can understand a subject better. That doesn’t assume we are wrong, but that we probably haven’t been taught complete understanding. We’ve been shown enough to make the teaching seems valid.
We can carefully go through Scripture looking for everything that relates to a given subject. Perhaps we will find everything we need to draw a proper conclusion. Perhaps we will miss something. However, we can shortcut this process by taking advantage of the work others, our neighbors, have done. People with different perspectives will emphasize different scriptures. The more different perspectives we examine the more likely we are to find additional scriptures that have relevance to our subject. We don’t understand a subject unless we understand why others see it differently.
We must still do our own scriptural examination and look for things that relate to our subject, but often others will highlight some we might have simply overlooked. Always remember, the scriptures are the basis for truth. The logic applied must be considered with a critical eye.
Many churches discourage their congregations from reading material published by other churches or religious groups. The reasoning is often that this other material will ‘confuse’. In reality, it will only ‘confuse’ if it makes more sense than the material we have been reading. Why would we want to avoid material that makes sense? The truth will always prevail unless we quit collecting evidence.
4). Set priorities
Careful study of a significant subject takes time. There are many subjects to consider. It seems apparent that the most important thing for humans is to make our Creator and Savior happy with us. They made us. Certainly, we don’t want them to regret that.
Unfortunately, most of us have limited resources and time. In fact, we can’t investigate everything that we hear. Most of it is not of much importance or doesn’t really affect whether or not we are pleasing to our Creator. Scripture gives us a basis for setting priorities.
Mat 19:16 “Now behold, one came and said to Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" 17 So He said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments."
The context goes on to show Messiah is talking of the Ten Commandments. Certainly, if we like life, understanding the Ten Commandments ought to be the highest priority.
Heb 11:6 “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
Diligently seeking certainly must involve setting priorities. Understanding and living according to His ways must be on the top of our list. This must indicate more than just attendance at the right lectures.
The wording in Hebrews above is very different from Matthew 19:17. However, they are in fact talking of the same thing.
Deu 8:6 "Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him.”
Keeping the commandments is mimicking the conduct of the Creator. They summarize the way He interacts with the universe. When we seek to keep His commandments, we seek Him. How He thinks is most important, not how He looks. Seeking Him involves seeking to learn His thinking and what is important to Him.
Don’t feel obligated to examine oral arguments from conversations. Deal with documented perspectives. If someone advocates a different or challenging perspective ask if they have their perspective explained in writing. Having something in writing provides a basis for verification, clarification and negotiation. When getting clarification or negotiating with individuals, do it in writing if at all possible.
A written document gives the author to opportunity to accurately present their case. It also gives you the opportunity to consider it carefully. Does it accurately reflect Scripture or not? Does it take all scripture into account or does it ignore some?
5). Don’t be in a hurry
The exercise of seeking is as important as finding. We saw in Hebrews 11:6 the reward was to those who diligently seek, not to those who fully find. Seeking to improve should be a way of life. Being content that we have found will likely put us in the congregation of Laodicea (Rev 3:16-17). They thought they were in need of nothing, when in fact they were metaphorically blind and naked. It is worth taking whatever time is necessary to gather pertinent information and draw the best conclusion possible.
Not everything having to do with a particular subject is easily available through a simple Bible scan. As you find yourself looking at other subjects keep your eye open to other matters of interest. Similar concepts can be expressed in many different ways.
Special caution should be exercised by anyone that is just beginning to get serious about walking in the ways of their Creator. Many will want to coach you to see things as they do. Sometimes this can be helpful. However, ultimately you can’t take anyone’s word for anything. They may be sincere and well meaning. The Scripture must be the ultimate source. One can prove almost anything from Scripture if one carefully picks only certain scriptures. They must all fit together.
6). Never close a subject.
As you read, consider how verses fit with other issues. If it deals with your subject don’t discount it just because it doesn’t fit with your perspective. We seek to understand our Creator not to defend our perspective. One must have a whole-hearted desire to understand the instruction the Creator left us. It was not written to experts so they must interpret it for us.
Believers don’t own the truth they seek it. If an alternative perspective has any credibility perhaps we can improve our own perspective. If we just dismiss an alternative perspective we cannot learn anything from it.
After an extensive investigation we can become confident in our conclusions. Perhaps we will find others with a similar perspective. This can be encouraging, but it has pitfalls as well. The problem is that we can come to ignore reality (truth), in order to fit in with those around us. A psychological study published in 2014 showed that about two-thirds of people will endorse the group perspective over reality if they see that the group in which they happen to be universally holds some other perspective. (See Wall Street Journal, Apr 22, 2017, Pg. C2, The Brain Science of Conformity, also @ https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-brain-science-of-conformity-1492722013 ).
We must determine to hold fast to what is good. This can often be done quietly. However, sometimes people will be contentious. It may be necessary to leave the group if they cannot allow you a different perspective.
Heb 12:28 “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” In any case, don’t be disagreeable.
7). Allow that there is no clear resolution.
Important issues are typically clear. However, sometimes we can’t tell with certainty. If an issue is not clear, saying “I don’t know” is better than being wrong, or thinking the problem is resolved so it can therefore be ignored.
Heb 5:14 “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
When we are in the habit of investigating and considering alternatives, we improve our ability to resolve issues. This goes hand in hand with being able to judge wisely.
An article in the Wall Street Journal June 6, 2017 bemoaned the inability of many institutions of higher learning to teach students how to think critically and logically. So much in educational systems is geared toward remembering facts. Memorizing facts does not teach us how to weigh evidence and judge wisely. Effort put into resolving Scriptural issues can also enable us to make good judgments in daily life.
Those who would be judges with Messiah in His kingdom would do well to practice weighing the evidence of Scripture now.