Spiritual Discernment

The need for spiritual discernment in the Church is as great today as it ever has been. The apostle Paul reminded Timothy: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons" (1 Tim. 4:1) As the Lord’s return grows nearer, we are warned that spiritual deception will grow stronger as the deceiver of the nations intensifies his efforts to control the nations and keep the unsaved in darkness. But the devil also has in his agenda to hinder the Church—through deceiving spirits who "specialize" in false doctrine. Hence the need for spiritual discernment.

Writing to the believers at Philippi, the apostle Paul expressed his desire for them: "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment" (Phil. 1:9) Though not without problems, this young assembly clearly exhibited qualities that reflected their deep love for the Lord. They were the only assembly that ministered to the apostle financially. (4:15) They did not have the same doctrinal difficulties that the believers at Corinth or Colosse were experiencing. They were not "shaken" in their faith as were some of the Thessalonians—nor entangled in a yoke of bondage like the Galatians. And though there were personality clashes in the meeting (4:2), Paul could say with a clear conscience: "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you" (1:3). Yet despite their obvious commitment to the Lord, Paul prayed that their love would abound in knowledge and discernment—a discernment that emanated from their knowledge of God’s Word and love for Christ. He knew that they—like all Christians—needed to continue growing in their ability to distinguish truth from error.

Spiritual discernment was not only an important need for the Philippian believers, but it was important for the rest of the early Church as well. Coming from pagan backgrounds, many could easily have been susceptible to the influence of seducing spirits. The Corinthians were a prime example of spiritual deception both before and after their faith in Christ. (1 Cor. 12:1-3) Writing about this same issue, Paul reminded Timothy: "the Spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits" and that he should put "the brethren in remembrance of these things" (1 Tim. 4:1,6) The apostle John wrote to assure believers in his epistle that they had "an anointing from the Holy One, and that they knew "all things" (1 John 2:20), yet it did not excuse them from the responsibility to study the Scriptures carefully to avoid spiritual deception. Although it is only apostates—those who never knew the Lord—that depart from the faith, nevertheless, seducing spirits were and are capable of adversely affecting the lives of believers who do not exercise spiritual discernment. During the early days of the Church, the Lord provided for it’s spiritual protection by raising up certain individuals with the special ability for the discerning of spirits. (1 Cor 12:10) Once the NT canon was completed however this means of protection shifted completely to the individual who was now personally responsible to show himself approved unto God through the diligent study of the Scriptures. (2 Tim. 2:15) It is through this avenue that believers are equipped to discern the false doctrine that is so prevalent today. By exercising and applying our knowledge of the Word by reason of use, we grow stronger and more acute in our abilities to perceive false doctrine having our "senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14) But unless each Christian makes a committed effort to carefully study the Scriptures, spiritual shipwreck may not be far away. As with Israel, it could be said of many who know the Lord, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6)

There is an episode recorded from the life of Elisha that depicts the consequences of failing to exercise spiritual discernment—with powerful lessons for us. In a time of famine, both agriculturally and spiritually, there was an occasion in which one of Elijah’s servants was instructed to prepare a meal for the sons of the prophets. (2 Kings 4:38-41) Going out to a field, he picked a lapful of herbs from a wild vine and innocently put them into the stew without knowing that they were harmful. Not explaining where he had gotten them, the pottage was prepared and distributed to the sons of the prophets who were immediately affected. Elisha instructed that flour be put into the pot to miraculously negate the poisonous effects of the tainted stew. The poisonous herbs pointedly remind us of the false doctrine in this world—easily accessible and abundant in quantity while there is scarcity of "good food" to eat. The servant who gathered up the lapful of gourds reminds us of those believers who lack spiritual discernment and gather up false doctrine and innocently, and perhaps enthusiastically, introduce it into the assembly of God’s people—mixing it with what is good and endangering the welfare of God’s people. The acquiescence of the sons of the prophets (whether apathetic or naive) in accepting whatever was put before them is a clear message of the dangers of the lack of spiritual discernment. How important it is to cultivate a Berean mindset in our study of God’s Word!

In Leviticus 21, there is a very interesting picture that speaks to the issue of spiritual discernment. In verses 16-24, the Lord specifies to Moses those things which would disqualify any of Aaron’s descendants from the priesthood. "Speak unto Aaron, saying, Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose..." It is interesting that a "flat nose" is one of those things that if a priest possessed would disqualify him from serving the Lord. As with many items in the OT, they serve as a spiritual type. The nose is used to distinguish one smell from another. To have a flat nose—a nose unable to perform properly pictures in a spiritual sense the inability of a believer to distinguish false doctrine from true—a necessity to effectively serve the Lord, incumbent upon Christians who have been "born" priests by reason of the new birth. Priests could not have this or any of these conditions in their lives if they were to serve the Lord effectively. In this way it also prefigures the perfections and glory of the Person of Christ—the One in whom there was no sin or blemish at all. Who, as the Son of God, is the epitome of spiritual discernment as stated prophetically in Isaiah 7:15: "Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good."

In a day in which "wild gourds" abound and where there is a dearth in the land of the "hearing of the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11), let us make sure that we are diligent to study the Scriptures and to remind our brethren to do the same so that it could be said of us that we "abound in knowledge and in all judgment" and can be commended for our spiritual discernment.