complete verse (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Following are a number of back-translations of 1 Thessalonians 5:19:

  • Uma: “Don’t obstruct the work of the Holy Spirit.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “Don’t oppose what God’s Spirit says to you.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Do not say no to the commands which the Holy Spirit gives you.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Don’t be-blocking what the Holy Spirit wants to have-you say.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “Don’t like extinguish the Espiritu Santo.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Do not oppose what the Holy Spirit wants to do.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

Translation commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:19 – 5:22

A good part of the meaning of these five imperatives is lost if we do not first understand the relations between them. The first clear distinction is between the two negative commands of verses 19-20 and the positive commands of verses 21-22. In Greek the two groups are separated by an adversative “but” (omitted in many manuscripts, probably accidentally incorporated into the next word). Within each group, Paul moves from the generic to the specific; despising inspired messages is a special case of restraining the Holy Spirit. Keeping what is good and avoiding every kind of evil are the two consequences of putting all things to the test.

The question then arises: Does the second group of commands, like the first, refer to “inspired” activities, or does it have a wider meaning? When Paul says put all things to the test, does he mean “everything which claims to be an inspired message,” or is he advising his readers in general terms not to take anything at its face value? New English Bible makes the first possibility explicit in its text: “Do not despise prophetic utterances, but put them all to the test and then keep what is good in them and avoid the bad of whatever kind,” and the second possibility in a footnote: “… Put everything to the test: keep hold of what is good and avoid every kind of evil.” The first alternative makes stronger sense of the context, though New English Bible‘s text is perhaps too emphatic.

Do not restrain the Holy Spirit. Good News Translation and Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch make explicit the word “Holy” in this context. The word is implicit in the original Greek, but for the reader of a common language translation it is better to make it explicit.

Restrain is a nonmetaphorical translation of a text which contains the metaphor of putting out a fire (cf. Revised Standard Version “do not quench the Spirit”). The Holy Spirit was sometimes described as a flame or fire (see Acts 2.3). Translators deal with this metaphor in four different ways. (1) King James Version Revised Standard Version Luther 1984 Zürcher Bibel La Sainte Bible: Nouvelle version Segond révisée Le Nouveau Testament. Version Synodale Bible de Jérusalem Traduction œcuménique de la Bible keep the metaphor as it stands, leaving the image of the comparison implicit. (2) Others make the image of comparison explicit; “never damp the fire of the Spirit” Phillips (cf. Moffatt Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch Biblia Dios Habla Hoy). (3) New English Bible Knox Translator’s New Testament Bible en français courant replace the original metaphor by a different one: “stifle” or “put an obstacle in the way of.” (4) Good News Translation Bible de Jérusalem Barclay Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch replace the metaphor by a literal expression or, in the case of Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, by a dead metaphor. The first choice is the least likely to be clear, outside the original setting of the primitive church. The choice between the three other possibilities depends on the resources of the receptor language. Generally speaking, a nonmetaphorical translation should be chosen only if (2) and (3) prove to be difficult or misleading.

Something of the metaphorical significance of the phrase “do not quench the Spirit” may be reflected in other types of metaphors, for example, “do not hold back the Spirit,” “do not tie the Spirit down,” “do no make the Spirit shut up,” or “do not tell the Spirit, That is enough.”

Inspired messages are literally “prophecies,” but Good News Translation avoids this term, since it has narrowed its meaning to that of “prediction,” foretelling the future. Good News Bible restores the full meaning of the original, which meant an inspired and intelligible message, as distinct from speaking with tongues, which for Paul is inspired but not normally intelligible. Despise includes the ideas of treating something as of no account and of rejecting it with contempt.

There are some difficulties involved in translating inspired messages. If one calls them “messages that come from God,” then obviously there is no special point of putting them to the test and keeping what is good while rejecting the rest. The same would be true if one called them “messages which come from the Holy Spirit,” for such a phrase would indicate that all such message are valid. The only way in which these problems may be avoided in some languages is to say “messages given by those who claim to speak on behalf of God.” Such an expression defines the role of “the prophet,” in its New Testament sense, and provides at least a basis for the warning in verse 21.

Put … to the test is quite a common word in both New Testament and secular Greek. It is used, for example, in speaking of a moneychanger testing the genuineness of a coin. Inspired messages are to be tested in a similar way, to see whether their inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit or from the powers of evil (cf. 1 Corinthians 14 and especially 1 Corinthians 12.3). All things probably means “all inspired messages” (cf. the general notes on vv. 19-22). On what is good, see the notes on verse 16.

Put all things to the test must often be translated in this type of context as “try out all of these messages,” or “test all of these messages to see if they are right.” No particular way is indicated as to how the messages can be tested, and therefore perhaps a general expression must be used, for example, “decide whether these messages are true,” or “decide whether these messages really do come from God.”

Keep what is good should not be understood in the sense of “keeping hold of” and “treasuring up.” The implication is rather that the believers should obey the good admonitions or instructions. Accordingly, a rendering such as “do that which is good,” “follow that which is good,” or “put into practice that which is good” may be appropriate.

Avoid must not be understood as “getting out the way of,” but rather as “refusing to do” or “having nothing to do with.”

Every kind of evil is the way in which almost all translations understand the text which King James Version renders “all appearance of evil.” In Greek the word evil may be either masculine or neuter, and so in some contexts it may also mean “an evil man,” but the contrast with good in verse 21 excludes that possibility here. The meaning every kind is found only here in the New Testament. In Luke 3.22 and 9.29 it means “appearance,” and this is the meaning given to it by an early 2nd century writing, the Didache (3.1), which expands this text into “flee from all evil and from all that is like it.” If King James Version‘s interpretation is chosen (and it is not impossible), the translator should guard against the misunderstanding that Paul is warning only against apparent, and not against real, evil. “Keep away from even the appearance of evil, in any form” would avoid this danger. However, Good News Translation gives the simplest and the most probable meaning.

It is often difficult to speak of every kind of evil, because some languages have classifications of objects, but not classifications of qualities such as may be implied by the term “evil.” In this context, however, evil refers, not so much to an abstract quality as to evil action or behavior; therefore one may render this admonition as “refuse to do anything which is evil,” or “refuse to act in any way which even seems bad.”

Quoted with permission from Ellingworth, Paul and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1976. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .