Men are prone to go to extremes. This has always been true. Paul seems to have been guarding against this tendency when he wrote, “Despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21). In his day, there were those who claimed to “prophesy” by the Spirit, and did; and there were those who claimed to “prophesy” by the Spirit and did not. The result was that, at least some “despised” all “prophesyings” by reason of the false claims of the pretenders. Such a wholesale rejection of all “prophesyings” was unreasonable and unsafe. It was wrong. It is not right either to reject the true because some is false or to accept the false become some is true. Paul indicated the safe course: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” If there had been no evil mixed with the good, the admonition to “prove all things” and to “hold fast that which is good” would not have been necessary.
What is the meaning of the word “prove”? It signifies to try, to put to the test. The word is employed elsewhere in the New Testament in this sense (Luke 14:19). It means that we should examine everything we hear before we receive it or reject it, as the case may be. At this point, Adam Clarke wrote: “Whatever ye hear in these ‘prophesyings’ or preaching, examine by the words of Christ, and by the doctrines which from time to time, we have delivered unto you in our preaching and writings. Try the spirits…the teachers…by the Word of God.”
In the words of the prophet, “To the law and to the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). The conduct of the Bereans was in keeping with the spirit of the command under consideration, for we read, “Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The people of Berea put what they heard to the test, using the Scriptures as their standard of examination. They acted rightly and wisely.
Why will people not do the same today? It is common for the message of a modern preacher to be accepted, without thought, testing, or investigation by those who are his friends religiously, and just as common for the same message to be rejected, without consideration, by his prejudiced religious enemies. These two unreasonable extremes are two of the most unmitigated curses of Christendom.
Let it be observed that this passage which allows the right also enjoins the duty of proving, testing, and investigating what is heard. It does not permit one to be an indifferent and passive listener. This some seem to prefer. They attend the services, not to be taught, not to bring into use any faculty or discernment or testing, but to be impressed, and that without effort on their part.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they be of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). All professed Christians should endeavor to be “full grown men, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14).