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Quench or Extinguish: What are We Not Supposed to do to the Spirit?

“Quench or Extinguish: What are We Not Supposed to do to the Spirit?”
1 Thessalonians 5:19

One of my favorite moments is to sit around a crackling campfire on a cool evening, to warm my hands in its heat and to watch the sparks disappearing into the darkness. Once the embers have died down, I’ll roast some marshmallows and maybe even make a few sticky Smores with graham crackers and chocolate bars. Finally, before going to bed, I’ll douse the glowing coals with water to ensure that the fire is out.

to. pneu/ma mh. sbe,nnute
From Devotions on the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 2012), 104-106

The NIV translation of this verse favors the literal interpretation of sbe,nnumi in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.” To “extinguish” or “put out” is, in fact, the predominant meaning for the word in both the Septuagint and the New Testament. For example, Hezekiah faulted Judah because the priest had “put out the lamps” in the temple (2 Chron. 29:7). And Paul wrote that the purpose of the shield of faith is to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16).

This is the only verse in the Greek Old Testament or the New Testament where the Spirit is the direct object of sbe,nnumi. A literal understanding suggests that Paul is worried that the Thessalonians might extinguish or put out the Spirit in their lives. If that were the proper interpretation, the apostle must envision a group close to falling away from the faith. However, even a cursory reading of this pericope shows that the Thessalonians, while in need of some exhortation, are not in danger of putting out the Spirit. These exhortations in verses 16–22 consist of eight commands in the imperative mood: six are positive with verses 19 and 20 being the only two negative ones.

A majority of other translations translate sbe,nnumi figuratively using the gloss, “quench.” Again there is a precedent for this in the Septuagint. Song of Songs 8:7 opines that “Many waters cannot quench love.” A cognate verb katasbe,nnumi, used in 4 Maccabees 16:4, portrays a devout mother who had “quenched” her many great emotions. BDAG suggest “stifle” and “suppress” as alternate English translations that suggest this figurative meaning.

One challenge in using “quench” today is that the word typically brings to mind a commercial for some soft-drink. Some tanned surfer with his blonde girlfriend is totally refreshed by drinking a particular brand of thirst-quenching drink. In John 7:37–39 Jesus compares the Spirit to a stream of living water that will quench the spiritual thirst of all who drink. However, in 1 Thessalonians it is those who have already drunk of the Spirit who are warned not to “stifle” him.

The second negative command in the passage may provide a clue for how to interpret what stifling the Spirit might be. The Thessalonians are commanded not to despise prophecies in verse 20. Since the Holy Spirit is always viewed as the source of prophecy in the New Testament, to despise prophecy would be to hold in contempt the source of the prophecy. Indeed if prophecy were despised, it is natural that it would be suppressed in the public meetings. Thus the figurative meaning of sbe,nnumi seems better to suit the context of the passage.

But how is the Spirit quenched today? Certainly churches and denominations adopt policies and practices that sometimes suppress the Spirit’s activity. In our personal lives we can become so busy that living in the Spirit is stifled in our daily lives. Family and work responsibilities, answering email, keeping up with social networks like Facebook— all conspire to quench the presence of the Spirit. Thus Paul’s admonition is still appropriate for us: “Don’t to put a lid on the Spirit” (my paraphrase).

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