The Gift of Distinguishing Between Spirits
Sunday, May 28, 2006 -
THE PERSON AND WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (continued) - The Gift Of Distinguishing Between Spirits - 1 Corinthians 12:10 - “....to another the ability to distinguish between spirits....”
1) THIS GIFT IS DIFFERENT FROM GENERAL SCRIPTURAL DISCERNMENT - This is very important to grasp. Actually, there is no such thing as the "gift of discernment." There is discernment and there is the gift of discerning of spirits. Scriptural discernment is given to all believers through the guidance of the Word of God. Much instruction is given on how Christians can learn to recognize error and false teachers, determine right from wrong, etc. We will look at these passages further on in today's lesson. Scriptural discernment isn’t a spiritual gift. It is an acquired skill through prayerful, disciplined study and application of God’s Word to the tests of life. All Christians are to grow in discernment - Hebrews 5:12-14 - “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,  for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
2) THE GIFT OF DISCERNING OF SPIRITS IS SPECIFICALLY GIVEN AND USED TO DISTINGUISH THE SOURCE OF SUPERNATURAL UTTERANCES AND WORKINGS - As the name implies, it is the gift of "distinguishing between spirits". This is not the same as reading people's minds or knowing their secret thoughts. It is also not a gift given to bring to light the secret sins or faults of fellow Christians or leaders. The gift deals with spirits, not character. The Scriptural discernment we examined in Hebrews 5 and the identifying signs of false teachers given by our Lord are the tools for judging character and doctrine. This gift is different from both.
3) THIS GIFT IS GIVEN TO BOTH PROTECT AND ENCOURAGE THE EXERCISE OF THE MANIFESTATIONS OF THE SPIRIT IN SPITE OF RISKS - How frequently we hear something like this said: "Well, we'd better not have those gifts of the Spirit in our churches today. There's so much that can go wrong!"
This may, at times, be true, but only when some of the gifts of the Spirit are left out, such as this one. I believe we are meant to notice the large-hearted emphasis in this passage. The gift of discerning of spirits is given to encourage us with the understanding that God doesn't just sit back and leave us to sort out all of the potential messes that could arise. All ministry can go awry. But God has already made abundant provision so that Christians can wisely trust the Spirit to gift the body to help regulate and correct abuses in the area of supernatural manifestations when they drift on to dangerous courses. In short, gifts shouldn't be abandoned because of abuses. They should be Scripturally corrected through the means God has supplied.
4) THIS GIFT IS OVER AND ABOVE SCRIPTURAL TESTINGS OF SPIRITS - There are several important guidelines for judging or discerning the activity of true and false spirits in the church and none of them requires the gift of discerning of spirits:
a) Matthew 7:15-20 - “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
This is the simple test of the character of the prophet. It deals with quality of life (rather than just the content of the message). He must live out the life of Jesus in his dealings with people. If not, he disqualifies himself for a following.
Incredibly, when the church tries to maintain these standards today, people usually scream it is being too harsh, divisive and unforgiving. But Jesus teaches differently and His words must be taken seriously.
b) 1 John 4:1-6 - “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.  Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.  They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.  We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
Here the content of the teaching is the test. False spirits can usually be judged by false teaching, most specifically about Jesus Christ. That’s why the test in this passage seems to be the utterance of the spirit itself (notice the reference to the actual speech of the spirit all through the passage). Wicked spirits will either detract from the glory of Jesus Christ, or use accurate statements to hinder His working on His terms (as in Mark 1:21-28, Acts 16:16-17).
But the main point with both of these tests is that no miracle of revelation is required to discern the error. This discernment is open to all believers who know Jesus and love the truth. The gift of distinguishing between spirits goes beyond this. Truth is revealed by the Spirit that could not have been discerned by normal means.
5) THE PURPOSE OF THE GIFT OF DISCERNING OF SPIRITS IN THE BODY OF CHRIST - It is tricky to become too dogmatic, but several things can be observed in the Scriptures:
a) To help in delivering the sick and oppressed - In other words, the gift is offensive as well as defensive. Jesus didn't treat all illnesses in exactly the same manner. In ways we can’t fully grasp He recognized different sources of illness and suffering. Of course, we don’t have the abilities Jesus had in our own nature. But perhaps this gift of discerning of spirits can aid in healing ministry. See the distinctions in Mark 7:32-35 and Mark 9:25-27:
Mark 7:32-35 - “And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.  And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."  And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
Mark 9:25-27 - “And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."  And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, "He is dead."  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”
b) To determine the source of supernatural miracles - Not all that is miraculous is of God. See the important words in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 - “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders,  and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.  Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false,  in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”
c) To expose utterances and messages which, even though they sound good, are from evil sources - It's interesting to see this happening over and over again in the book of Acts - Acts 16:16-18 - “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.  She followed Paul and us, crying out, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation."  And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.”
6) THE IMPORTANCE OF WISDOM IN USING THIS GIFT - Like all the gifts of the Spirit, there is a difference between receiving the gift and exercising it properly. The believer must always function in the spiritual love of 1 Corinthians 13. There is never room for pride, meanness or a hard judging heart.
If there is a false or wicked spirit to be confronted it is the spirit that must be dealt with. That doesn't mean being cruel to the individual. Jesus could see the devil working in the shallow, self-centered words of Peter (Matthew 16:22-23). Yet He could deal firmly with the enemy without writing off Peter. We need that example.