- …He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit.… (1 Cor 12:10)1The term διάκρισις/diakrisis, G1253 refers to an ability to evaluate and decide, discernment, differentiation; and πνεῦμα refers to spirits, whether divine, human, or supernaturally evil: …discernment of spirits (NJB), distinguishing between spirits (ESV), i.e., to tell them apart. The NLT makes explicit what the context clearly implies, that this is for judging “whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit.”
Nature of the Gift
Paul is talking about a supernatural ability to evaluate the origin of extraordinary manifestations. This critical analysis of spirits would help determine whether the utterance were supernatural and holy, merely natural human activity that could be safely ignored, or even dangerous activity of evil spirits that should be resisted and anathematized. The first feeds the church, the second can be fairly harmless though inane, but the third is downright lethal.
As Paul said, “The Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons” (1 Tim 4:1). John even warned of “demonic spirits who work miracles” but battle against the Lord (Rev 16:14).
Any congregation where the speech gifts operate ought to pray that God will give some members the ability to tell the difference between spirits so they can know whether the messages they hear are from God; it’s only the Spirit himself who “searches out everything” (1 Cor 2:10).
Why not be just as aware of who regularly operates with the gift of discernment as congregations tend to be about who speaks in tongues, who interprets, who prophesies—or who the pastor is?
As biblical examples of people who displayed the gift of discerning spirits, we think of Paul and Silas at Philippi with the young demon-possessed slave girl, who was magnifying their reputation, but for dark purposes (Acts 16:16–18). She shouted out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved” (Acts 16:17).
An unspiritual recipient of such praise might have valued the publicity, and it was accurate; however, Paul got exasperated and cast out the public relations demon that had kept that announcement running day after day. It’s possible too that Paul saw this announcement about the “God most high” offering “salvation” as potentially confusing to his pagan audience. They could have thought the god mentioned was Zeus, and their world brimmed with claimants to the title sotēr, or savior.2John B. Polhill, Acts, NAC (Broadman, 1992), 351.
In the context of Paul’s gift list, distinguishing the spirits would especially denote the ability to determine the spiritual value of what was said by charismatic utterance. Regulating the prophecies, Paul says, “Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said” (1 Cor 14:29, see 1 Cor 2:6–16).
The basis of that evaluation would certainly be Scripture, but God gives insight that even the most careful exegete of Scripture could never unravel on his own. To the degree that people in a congregation exercise the speaking gifts, a healthy congregation should also seek for the gift of discernment.
Indeed, why not be just as aware of who regularly operates with the gift of discernment as congregations tend to be about who speaks in tongues, who interprets, who prophesies—or who the pastor and the deacons are?