A guest speaker at your church service is giving the message, but something doesn’t seem quite right. You can’t identify the problem, but you’re concerned.
Then, he says as an aside, “Remember the verse, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’” You know that’s not in the Bible, and you’ve just had the Holy Spirit confirm your discernment.
In the Apostle Paul’s list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:10, between prophecy and speaking in tongues, he slips in “discerning of spirits.”
That’s how the New King James Version renders the Koine Greek’s “diakriseis pneumatōn,” literally, “decisions on which spiritual entity is at work.”
The sense in the original language is of making a thorough inquiry leading to a conclusion; the verb form, “diakrinetōsan,” is the last word in 1 Corinthians 14:29, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.”
“This is perhaps the most misunderstood and most neglected of the gifts,” says Tim Mengler, senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Crystal Lake, Illinois. “The enemy doesn’t want to be discovered, so he will push against this gift more than any other. But the church desperately needs this gift operating.”
Old Testament Evidence for Discernment
Discerning of spirits predates Paul. In 2 Chronicles 18, Israel’s King Ahab is angry with Aramea’s leader for failing to turn over cities as promised in a treaty.
Pagan Ahab assembles 400 prophets, asking them, “Shall we go against Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?” (v. 5).
To a man, they say he should fight, but the more spiritually sensitive Judean King Jehoshaphat isn’t convinced. He asks if there is anyone else who might hear from the Lord.
Ahab grudgingly concedes there is one more prophet. He says, “I hate him” for “he never prophesies good concerning me but always evil” (v. 7). “Hate him” is the Hebrew “śə·nê·ṯî·hū,” a strong term that surprises Jehoshaphat, who remarks, “Let not the king say so.”
A servant fetches Micaiah, the seer in question, and implores him to speak positively. Before Ahab, he states sarcastically that Israel will prevail. The king recognizes the prophet’s ruse and rebukes him. Micaiah then gives his real prophecy (vv. 18-21).
One of Ahab’s seers then strikes Micaiah, and the monarch tosses him in prison for his difficult prophecy. However, Micaiah is proven right when the corrupt leader perishes in battle.
The Gift of Discerning Spirits in the New Testament
Some Christians argue discerning of spirits passed away with all other “sign gifts” (those most overtly supernatural), insisting since the New Testament is now complete, we decide solely by whether what someone says is in line with Scripture. That sounds good, but the enemy is craftier than that.
As an example, go to Acts 16:17-18 to see how a servant girl followed Paul and Luke, crying out, “‘These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.’ And this she did for many days.”
One might think from her words she was a Christian. However, verse 16 says she was “possessed by a spirit of divination,” in Koine Greek, “spirit of Python,” the mythological snake that once guarded the Oracle of Delphi, then indwelt people after Apollo killed the serpent.
The Python cult’s priests often predicted the future through uncontrolled mutterings from mostly closed mouths. They became known as ventriloquists, appearing to speak for themselves but with their words supplied by a demonic spirit.
The rest of verse 18 plus verse 19 reveal the apostle accurately discerning the girl’s seemingly harmless message that originated from an evil source.
The Word Guides Us
The gift of discerning of spirits must be built upon both understanding the Bible and intimacy with the Lord.
These follow the Apostle John’s admonition, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
False prophets or disciples frequently gain trust by using some Scripture correctly. They then mix in extrabiblical teaching or half-truths or use sinful methods in the name of the ends justifying the means.
They may go behind the back of a church leader, excusing their behavior with something like, “No one can reason with him.”
This directly contradicts Matthew 18:15-17, which says the first step in dealing with the possible sin of a fellow Christian is to go privately and directly to the offender.
Satan often uses such secretively defiant behavior to cast aspersion on those winning people to Christ, exercising proper ecclesiastical authority, or otherwise hurting the devil’s dark kingdom. Such practices may result in division, false accusations, hatred, and distrust within a congregation.
The person with the gift of discerning of spirits takes note when others take unbiblical positions, undercut believers, excuse misbehavior, or misuse the Bible.
A one-time mistake does not necessarily mean a person claiming to be a Christian is with the enemy, but one unrepentantly continuing to sin in such a way surely is under untoward influence.
“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” Paul explains in Ephesians 6:12.
God confirms the gifted’s discernment through their seeing additional examples of wrongdoing or another person’s affirmation of trouble.
As Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.”
Rooted in Relationship with Jesus
Intimacy with Christ brings spiritual sensitivity to the discerner of spirits to detect an early warning about an individual.
In exercising this gift, I sometimes first observe unscriptural behavior from those purporting to be believers, but the Lord may give me a sense of caution about them before that.
I do not say anything until I have confirmation, but I find this concern is usually aroused when they speak something later shown to be a lie.
An example of this is in Acts 5:3-4 when God gave Peter the understanding that Ananias and Sapphira had misrepresented their donation of money from selling land:
Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself?... You have not lied to men but to God.
Ananias immediately died, and after his wife came to Peter later and confirmed the apostle’s discernment, she breathed her last as well.
A Vital Gift in Today’s Spiritual Warfare
“The gift of discerning the spirits will become increasingly important as we approach the end of this age because deception will be the hallmark of these extremely dangerous times,” predicts Bible college professor David F. Maas.
Indeed, society has become riddled with those deceiving and being deceived.
The Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron (1 Timothy 4:1-2).
If you have the gift of discerning of spirits, then talk about it with your senior pastor or another appropriate official of your congregation.
Should you have confirmation of a problem or problematic person, go back to your church leadership. And if you have this gift, then thank God for this valuable spiritual ability, and use it biblically and honorably.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/grinvalds
Kyle Huckins has three careers of over 20 years: journalism, higher education, and ministry. He’s won 25 awards for his professional media work and three honors for his scholarly research. Huckins is also an ordained pastor whose evangelism outreach, Eternity Now, has reached over 1 million for Christ in its first two years. See more at EternityNow.
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