The verse 1 Thessalonians 5:21 states “but test everything; hold fast what is good”. This verse encourages believers to carefully examine and discern what is truly good and wholesome, and cling firmly to those beliefs, teachings, and practices. Let’s explore the meaning and application of this important verse.
The Context of 1 Thessalonians 5:21
1 Thessalonians 5:21 comes in the context of Paul’s exhortations to the Thessalonian church concerning living in holiness and godliness while also being watchful for Christ’s return. Beginning in verse 12, Paul urges the believers to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” and to “esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Leaders in the church should be respected and valued for their sacrificial service in shepherding God’s people. In verse 14, Paul instructs the church to also care for those who are struggling or weak, urging them to “be patient with them all.”
As Paul continues, he encourages the Thessalonian believers to always seek after good for one another and for all people. Specifically, he writes in verses 15-18:
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.
Paul calls these Christians to not only avoid evil and retaliation, but to actively pursue what is good and pleasing to God. They are to rejoice, pray, and give thanks in all situations, while being sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Verse 19-20 then transitions to addressing prophetic utterances in the church, instructing them to not despise prophecies but to “test everything” and “hold fast what is good.” False prophecies must berejected and only what is true and edifying should be embraced. After these admonitions, Paul closes this passage with a benediction praying for the Thessalonians’ sanctification and preservation as they await Christ’s coming (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
Examining the broader context makes it clear that 1 Thessalonians 5:21 establishes an important principle for believers in Jesus Christ. As we navigate this fallen world, we must be discerning about every teaching, doctrine, practice, and influence that we encounter – both within the church and in the culture around us. Clinging to what is good and true glorifies God and leads to greater Christlikeness. While this verse directly addresses the evaluation of prophecies in the early church, its wisdom can be applied to every area of the Christian life.
The Meaning of “Test Everything”
Paul’s exhortation to “test everything” calls believers to carefully and objectively examine, prove, and discern whatever they hear or encounter. The Greek word translated “test” is dokimazō, meaning to try, prove, scrutinize, or discern something in order to approve what is excellent. The call to test everything requires that Christians have a discerning mindset that questions, investigates, and evaluates rather than blindly accepting everything without scrutiny.
This does not mean that Christians should have a cynical, critical or skeptical attitude towards everything. Rather, it means that believers should exercise wisdom, discretion and discernment. As the Apostle John wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). We are to test teachings, prophecies, and principles against the absolute truth of God’s Word (Acts 17:11).
In fact, Scripture frequently commends those who exercise discernment and discretion. The Bereans were considered “more noble” than others because they carefully examined Paul’s teaching in light of the Old Testament scriptures (Acts 17:11). Hebrews 5:14 describes maturity as having powers of discernment trained through practice to distinguish good and evil. Testing everything requires humility, patience, knowledge of scripture, prayer, and godly wisdom.
The Meaning of “Hold Fast What is Good”
After testing and examining all things, Paul says believers should “hold fast what is good.” The Greek word translated “hold fast” is katechō, meaning to strongly cling to, to keep secure possession of, or to continue having something. It evokes the picture of clinging tightly to something valuable that you do not want to lose. Christians are to tenaciously hold on to, guard, and cherish what is good and true.
But what exactly constitutes what is “good” that we are to cling to? In light of the broader context of 1 Thessalonians, good refers to what is pleasing to God, edifying to others, and leads to greater Christlikeness. Some specific examples of what is good based on the passage include:
- Respecting and valuing church leaders who faithfully shepherd and serve (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
- Being patient and caring for those who are weak or struggling (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
- Seeking after what is good for others, not revenge (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
- Rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks to God always (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
- Desiring prophetic words that edify and build up others (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20)
- God’s truth revealed in Scripture (Acts 17:11)
In broader biblical context, things that are good include God’s attributes (Psalm 119:68), His commands (Romans 7:12), love (1 Corinthians 13:4), the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and the gospel (Colossians 1:3-6). Believers must hold fast to these truths and practices, clinging firmly to them rather than allowing them to “slip through our fingers.”
Applying This Verse: Practical Ways to Test Everything and Hold Fast to Good
While 1 Thessalonians 5:21 provides crucial instruction, putting it into practice requires wisdom and intentionality. Christians must maintain a balanced mindset of being discerning yet humble, cautious yet trusting in God’s Spirit to guide us into truth. We should have a healthy skepticism that questions ideas and practices in light of Scripture, while avoiding an overly critical spirit towards others. What are some practical ways we can test everything and hold fast to what is good?
1. Measure everything against the standard of God’s Word
As the absolute truth with power to discern thoughts and intentions (Hebrews 4:12), God’s revelation in Scripture is the ultimate standard for testing everything we hear, see, and experience. Asking questions like “Is this consistent with biblical principles?” “Does this contradict any clear teaching of Scripture?” and “What does the Bible say about this?” are vital. We must develop deep knowledge of and devotion to God’s Word in order to use it effectively to assess other ideas or movements. While not explicitly stated, the assumption behind “test everything” is that the testing is done in light of Scripture.
2. Examine the fruit and implications of ideas
Jesus taught that we can discern false prophets “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20). Therefore, considering the implications and fruit of any teaching or idea can help us discern if it is good or not. For example, Colossians 2:8 warns believers to watch out for hollow philosophies that are according to human tradition rather than Christ. We can ask questions like “How does this idea impact people’s view of God, the gospel, human dignity, etc?” “Does this lead people towards greater holiness or licentiousness?” “Does this promote human flourishing or harm?” Examining how ideas play out in the real world is an important test.
3. Value input from wise, discerning Christians
Proverbs instructs that “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). Seeking input from Christians who have spiritual maturity, biblical knowledge, and discernment can help test teachings and ideas we encounter. Some key questions when seeking input from others: “Do they have insight from Scripture on this issue?” “What concerns or cautions do they raise about this?” “How does this fit with historic Christian orthodoxy?” We need humility to accept reproof or correction from wise brothers and sisters in Christ.
4. Listen to the Spirit’s prompting in your conscience
As the divine Counselor and Revealer of truth (John 14:17, 16:13), the Holy Spirit guides believers into truth and convicts of sin and righteousness (John 16:8). Part of testing everything involves taking time to pray, listen to, and heed the promptings of the Spirit in our conscience. Is He affirming or raising caution about an idea? Does He give a sense of peace and alignment with Scripture, or unease? While subjective, listening prayerfully to the Spirit’s voice is an important part of testing.
5. Consider whether it promotes Christlikeness
As mentioned earlier, a key aspect of “good” is that which promotes Christlikeness and godly maturity. As we test various teachings and practices, considering questions like “Does this help me love God and love others better?” “Does this promote greater obedience to God’s commands?” “Does this lead me to deny ungodliness and worldly passions?” (Titus 2:11-14) can help discern if it is spiritually good. That which bears good fruit of godliness is far more trustworthy than ideas that indulge the flesh.
6. Recognize that time and community provide perspective
Testing truth claims rarely happens all at once, but over time as we observe the fruit and impact. Likewise, getting perspective from others in the church community over extended time gives insight. So patience and avoiding hasty conclusions on a teaching is often wise. The Ethiopian eunuch reflected this practice, saying to Philip in Acts 8:34 “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” He was cautious in his evaluation.
Once ideas or practices have been tested thoroughly against these types of standards and prove to be good and profitable, we can then hold fast to them with clear conscience and confidence. Falsehood often has a short shelf-life when tested under the light of Scripture.
Why Holding Fast to What Is Good Matters
Clinging firmly to what is true and good is vital for living uprightly in this deceptive age. Holding fast guards our minds and hearts against destructive ideas, compromise, and spiritual apathy. But why does it really matter whether we hold fast or not? Consider several reasons:
1. It keeps us from falling away
The book of Hebrews repeatedly warns of the danger of “drifting away” from right doctrine and practice and the need to hold fast: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1); “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Clinging tightly to the truth of the gospel helps prevent us from falling into unbelief and condemnation.
2. It helps us resist cultural deception and pressure
As this age becomes more opposed to biblical truth, believers who do not cling tenaciously to God’s Word will easily compromise or fall into deception. Persecution, boycotts, government coercion and cultural trends away from biblical morality will only increase pressure against the church. But, taking our stand on the Word and holding fast helps us stay rooted in times of shifting sand.
3. It protects the doctrinal purity and unity of the church
Failure to hold fast to biblical truth opens the door to false teaching, division, and confusion in the church. Paul commended the Corinthians for holding firmly to the truths passed down by the Apostles and urged them to continue to agree in doctrine and judgment for the sake of unity (1 Corinthians 1:10, 15:2). Healthy church community requires vigilance to keep out what is erroneous.
4. It gives us stability amidst suffering and turmoil
Clinging to God’s good promises steadies us emotionally when we face various trials. The Psalms repeatedly speak of holding fast to God’s Word for guidance, comfort, and direction during difficult times when human resources fails. God’s testified works and proven faithfulness anchor us in storms of life.
5. It enables us to remain faithful witnesses
Those solidly grounded in the truth of Christ have boldness to be witnesses to the lost, convince those in error, and spread the gospel far and wide. Paul repeatedly urged Timothy to continue in the truths he had learned from scripture because it made him competent and equipped him for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-15). Holding fast is essential for faithful Christian ministry.
Guarding Against Potential Dangers or Excesses
Seeking to test everything and hold fast to what is good is a vital discipline – but also one prone to excess or misapplication. Some potential dangers include:
Christians can easily become arrogant in their quest for discernment, viewing themselves as superior to those they critique. Developing a proud “discernment ministry” attitude that feels justified in condemning others is not Christlike (Matthew 7:1-5). We must test teachings with humility and patience.
Being overly critical can breed cynicism, distrust, and negativity towards too many things. It can quench our ability to experience joy, wonder, gratitude. Testing everything does not mean assuming everything is bad. With childlike faith, we can still appreciate truth from imperfect people.
Being dogmatic on disputable matters or “majoring on the minors” can divide Christians. We must hold firm on essential doctrines but allow room for disagreement on secondary issues not explicitly taught in scripture. Fighting and dividing over adiaphora does not glorify God.
4. Rejecting correction
If we are overly confident in our own judgment, we may reject spiritual correction and input that identifies our blind spots on an issue. We must remember that no believer has perfect knowledge and discernment. We need humility to accept challenges to our understanding.
The faithful church must avoid these extremes as we seek to accurately handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Exercising discernment with love honors God.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 provides very important instruction for how Christians should navigate the influences they encounter in this world. With so many teachings, ideas, and voices competing for our allegiance, believers must be committed to carefully testing everything against the truth of God’s Word. We should tenaciously cling to and obey what is good – that which cultivates godly character, brings glory to Christ, and aligns with biblical principles. This requires intentionally developing discernment, being anchored in Scripture, and relying on the Spirit’s wisdom each day. While not always easy, living as biblically discerning people will help us stand firm to the end.