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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Various Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Part Two)

Don Stewart :: What Is the Gift of Discernment, or Distinguishing, of Spirits?

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What Is the Gift of Discernment, or Distinguishing, of Spirits?

The Various Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Part Two) – Question 18

The Bible speaks of the gift of discernment, or distinguishing, of spirits. Paul wrote the following to the church at Corinth.

He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and to another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to know whether it is really the Spirit of God or another spirit that is speaking. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, and another is given the ability to interpret what is being said (1 Corinthians 12:10 NLT).

The gift was given to the church of Jesus Christ as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

What Is This Gift?

To begin with, we find that the gift of the discernment or distinguishing of spirits is only mentioned once in the New Testament. The nature of the gift is not explained or defined. Consequently there are different ways in which the gift is understood by Bible-believing Christians. They include the following.

  1. It was a special gift to discern whether those who prophesied were actually speaking from God.
  2. The gift was given to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and the working of evil spirits.
  3. There is also the view that the gift incorporated both of these abilities as well as many others.

Option 1: The Gift of Discernment of Spirits Has to Do with Evaluating Prophecies

One perspective sees the gift of the distinguishing of spirits as a temporary gift that was used only by the first generation of Christians. The purpose was to know if a prophetic message was divine or from some other source. Since discernment of spirits is mentioned after the gift of prophecy, it provides an immediate clue as to its function. It is the ability to determine between what was genuine revelation from God and that which is false.

As the New Testament was being completed the great majority of the revelation which believers had about Jesus Christ was in oral form. It was, therefore, necessary for Christians to be able to discern between the true and the false. With the Old Testament as the only complete written revelation, there needed to be some way the early church could distinguish the true from the false doctrine about Jesus. Since there many stories about Jesus that were circulating, the believers needed this divine ability to discern truth from error.

When someone uttered a prophecy, it was necessary to determine whether or not that prophet was speaking from God. The Lord supernaturally gifted some individuals to determine whether the message was from Him, from that person’s own imagination, or a false message from Satan.

The Bible warns believers about Satan’s deceptions.

And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14 NRSV).

One of ways in which he would deceive people was to falsely speak as a prophet of God. His false prophets could give counterfeit messages to the church.

Jesus had earlier warned of false prophets who would deceive people. Matthew records the Lord saying.

Then if anyone tells you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah,’ or ‘There he is,’ don’t pay any attention. For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform great miraculous signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones (Matthew 24:23, 24 NLT).

Therefore, believers needed to be aware that such false prophets do indeed exist.

The Church Was Urged to Practice This Gift

The Apostle Paul urged the church at Thessalonica to practice this gift. Indeed, he gave them the following command.

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 NKJV).

Prophecies were to be tested, not despised.

The Gift Is No Longer Necessary

From this understanding of the gift, it would have ceased to exist once that divine revelation ceased and the New Testament was completed. Today believers depend solely on the written Word of God guided by the Holy Spirit to discern truth from error. In other words, they do not rely on this unique gift. The indwelling work of the Holy Spirit now helps every Christian make this distinction. John wrote.

The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you don’t need anyone to teach you. Instead, His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie; just as it has taught you, remain in Him (1 John 2:27 HCSB).

Therefore, since we have a completed New Testament, and each believer has the indwelling Holy Spirit to help them discern truth from error, the spiritual gift of discernment, or distinguishing of spirits, is not necessary for today.

Option 2: The Gift Was Discerning between the Holy Spirit and Evil Spirits

There is the also view that this gift was given to distinguish between the work of the Holy Spirit and various evil spirits – specifically demonic activity. The Bible makes it clear that the devil is a real person as are his demonic followers. Therefore a gift is needed to distinguish between God’s work and the work of demons.

Consequently this gift would have more to do with spiritual warfare than discerning prophetic messages. The Bible is clear that Christians are fighting a spiritual battle.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12 NRSV).

We are indeed locked in a spiritual battle.

There Seems to Be Various Types of Evil Spirits

John wrote about the need to tests the spirits. He said the following words to the believers.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1 NASB).

This seems to indicate that there are a number of different types of evil spirits that can lead us astray. Indeed, the Bible mentions a number of different types of evil spirits.

There Was a Mute and Deaf Spirit

Jesus cast a demon out of a man who had a “mute and deaf spirit.” Mark writes.

When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” (Mark 9:25 NKJV).

This particular type of spirit was named by Jesus.

There Was a Spirit of Infirmity

Jesus also healed someone who had the “spirit of infirmity.” Luke records the following episode.

And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up (Luke 13:11 NKJV).

This seems to indicate another type of evil spirit.

There Was a Spirit of Divination

The Apostle Paul cast a demon out of someone who had a “spirit of divination”. We read in the Book of Acts.

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling (Acts 16:16 ESV).

Again, we seem to have another type of evil spirit which existed.

There Was a Spirit of Truth and Error

John wrote of the “spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” He explained it in this manner.

We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:6 NKJV).

Consequently, there is what is known as a “spirit of error.” Those with the gift of distinguishing between the spirits are able to discern what type of spirit may be at work or in some cases, actually possessing someone. Consequently the gift is still very useful today.

Option 3: The Gift Has Many Uses

There is also the perspective that this particular gift was not limited to discerning prophetic messages, nor was it only to distinguish between evil spirits and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it can accomplish each of these functions as well as many more.

We Are to Discern the Good from the Evil

The gift of discernment of spirits enables the believer to discern good as well as evil. For example, Jesus saw something good in the man Nathanael. We read of this in the gospel of John.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47 NRSV).

Jesus recognized his true character.

Barnabas saw good things in John Mark. In the Book of Acts, we have the following episode given to us.

After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord, and see how they’re doing.” Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work. There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-39 HCSB).

Barnabas believed that John Mark could be profitable for the ministry. Although Paul had a falling out with Barnabas over John Mark, Barnabas’ assessment proved to be correct. Paul would later write to Timothy and say that John Mark was useful in the ministry.

Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you, for he is useful to me in the ministry (2 Timothy 4:11 HCSB).

Therefore, Barnabas was able to discern that John Mark could be useful in the Lord’s work.

The Gift of Discernment of Spirits Can Be Exercised by Individual Believers

Individual believers, when confronted with those bringing false doctrine, can also exercise the gift of discernment. John wrote about the necessity of doing this.

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:22, 23 ESV).

The gift can be exercised by all believers.

Paul Provides an Example of Discernment of Spirits

The Apostle Paul provides an example of the proper exercise of the gift. When confronted with a man named Elymas Paul discerned that he was a false prophet. The Book of Acts records the incident as follows.

But Bar-Jesus, whose other name was Elymas, was against them. He even tried to keep the governor from having faith in the Lord. Then Saul, better known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit. He looked straight at Elymas and said, “You son of the devil! You are a liar, a crook, and an enemy of everything that is right. When will you stop speaking against the true ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:8-10 CEV).

Here is an historical example of the gift being exercised.

The Church Needs to Exercise the Gift

The churches in the first century were directed to exercise the gift of discernment. The church at Ephesus is applauded for practicing the gift.

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false (Revelation 2:2 ESV).

Here Jesus tells them that they could discern between the true and false apostles.

The church at Thyatira was slack in the practice of the gift. We also read about this through Jesus’ words the Book of Revelation.

But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:20 ESV).

Their spiritual discernment was lacking.

The believers were specifically told not allowed to associate with those who had accepted false doctrine.

Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching (2 John 10 NRSV).

There is no association between light and darkness.

We need to be like Solomon who asked the Lord for discernment. His prayer to the Lord went as follows.

Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” (1 Kings 3:9 NKJV).
This Is a Good Prayer for Each of Us to Pray! Deceit Will Increase toward the End of This Age

We are told that deceitful spirits will always try to infiltrate the church especially toward the end of the age. Paul wrote.

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons (1 Timothy 4:1 NIV).

Therefore, the church needs to be on constant guard against false teaching. It is possibly the greatest enemy that the church faces.

Is the Gift Still Available Today?

As with some of the other spiritual gifts, the gift of discernment of spirits is believed by some to have been necessary only until the Bible was complete. Thus, once the New Testament was finished, the gift was no longer needed because revelation from God became complete. Those who hold this view understand the gift to be the capacity to know whether a prophet or teacher was actually speaking by means of the Holy Spirit or whether they were actually speaking by some evil spirit and thus teaching false doctrine.

It is argued that this gift was absolutely essential in the early church when there was no written New Testament by which to judge any teaching. At that time God was giving direct revelation through His prophets. The believers needed to be able to discern the true prophets from the false. Hence the gift of discerning, or distinguishing of spirits, was given.

Others Believe the Gift Is Still Necessary

Many others believe that it seems more accurate to assume that God could give the same gift today to Christian leaders, to help them determine whether certain messages or teachings are from the Lord. It is also used to distinguish between various evil spirits and the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the gift of discerning spirits is even necessary for the church today–to test the spirits to determine if they are from God to make sure the messages are consistent with New Testament revelation. As is the case with many of the gifts of the Spirit, Christians are divided over the meaning as well as the usage of this particular gift.

Summary – Question 18
What Is the Gift of Discernment, or Distinguishing, of Spirits?

The gift of discernment of spirits is the ability between spirits that are divine, demonic, or human. This gift helps prevent confusion in the church for it guards against false teaching. Discernment of spirit should be done on an individual basis as well as being done by the entire church. There are a number of views as to the exact nature of the gift.

There is the belief that this gift was limited in its purpose; it was used to determine if a prophetic message given in the church was actually divine revelation. This was the main, if not the only purpose, for the gift. Once God ceased giving divine revelation to humanity there was no longer a need for this gift.

Others see the gift as having reference to good and evil spirits. The gift was used to determine the source of a certain spirit. Since the Scripture speaks of a number of different types of spirits, such as the spirit of divination, and the spirit of truth and error, the gift of discernment was used to correctly identify these spirits.

There is also the view that the gift consisted of the above two abilities as well as many more. According to this position, this spiritual gift is still functioning in the church. Indeed, it is much needed. Whatever the case may be, the church certainly needs to be able to discern between right and wrong, good and evil. Like Solomon of old, we need to ask God for such discernment in these spiritual matters.

What Is the Gift of Healing? ← Prior Section
What Is the Gift of the Word of Knowledge? Next Section →
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