Miraculous Spiritual Gift Of Distinguishing Between Spirits


Spoken gifts

Gifts which had to do with the spoken word.

a. Preaching and Teaching, Prophecy, ‘pro fetes’, to speak forth.

b. The ability to distinguish between spirits. Possibly relating to exorcism.

c. The ability to speak other languages. Languages which had not been learned. Acts 2:1-11.

d. The ability to interpret the languages used. 1 Corinthians 12:10.

I think we also saw that, at that time and in those circumstances, these were not merely extravagant demonstrations of miraculous power, but gifts which were eminently practical, the purpose being to edify, and build up the entire church. 1 Corinthians 14:12.

Since that was the Spirit’s purpose in bestowing the gifts, it wasn’t necessary that every member of the church should possess them, nor were members regarded as second-class Christians if they didn’t possess gifts.

The closing verses of 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 proves this, ‘Do all speak with tongues? Do all possess the gift of healing? Do all interpret?’

The implied answer to these questions is no!

b. The ability to distinguish between spirits. 1 Corinthians 12:10 ‘the discerning of Spirits’.

We must remember to try to understand these gifts in the context of the historical period during which they were exercised. This verse, which seems so strange to us, would be perfectly understood by the people alive at the time of the writing of Paul’s letter.

For example, his readers would understand that, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 14:37 about those whom he describes as ‘spiritual’, he was referring to those who were believed to be possessed by a spirit, because this was the name by which such people were known.

Also, Christians weren’t the only ones who believed in ‘spirit- possession’ i.e. individuals who were regarded as being under the influence of spirits which used them as their ‘instruments’. Both Jewish and Pagan religions also had their prophets, whom they believed were under spirit control. Paul hints at this in 1 Corinthians 12:1-2.

But, because men recognised the existence of both good and evil spirits, it was essential to determine by which spirit a person was being ‘possessed’ and ‘controlled’.

We know that during the ministry of the Lord Himself, there were times when He encountered and dealt with people who were possessed by evil spirits. The man at Gadara, and the spirit-controlled son of the man who came to Jesus because he said, the disciples couldn’t cure the lad. Matthew 17:14-20. Acts 16:16-19 records the experience of Paul at Philippi, in dealing with a spirit possessed girl.

With this in mind, Paul lays down two criteria that must be used in making this judgment.

1. ‘Sanity’

For centuries about 500 B.C., in fact, the Greeks had flocked to temples where priests or priestesses were believed to contact and be controlled by the gods, for who they acted as ‘mouthpieces’, as the gods spoke through them to deliver messages.

Whether it was real or fake, when these people were under the control of their gods they foamed at the mouth, their hair streaming out, and their limbs wildly flailing, as in an epileptic fit, all of which was taken to prove that they were being ‘moved’ by the spirit of the god whom they served.

‘Not so the prophets of the church’.

They did not scream or foam at the mouth, or roll on the ground! The Holy Spirit enlightened their minds and sharpened their vision. They didn’t claim that they were the mouthpiece of God, but the messengers of God.

2. The credit of honour to Christ

The well-used Christian confession of faith in New Testament times was ‘Jesus is Lord’, and as Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 12:3, this was the formula by which the prophets were to be judged either true or false. Bear in mind that, beginning with Caesar Augustus, Roman Emperors had begun to regard themselves as ‘gods’, and everyone in the Empire was required to recognize and acknowledge this!

Citizens had to declare their loyalty to Caesar as a god by saying the words, ‘Caesarea Kyrios’, ‘Caesar is Lord’. In fact, at the entrance to every Roman Camp there was an altar onto which the soldiers were expected to throw a pinch of incense in the worship of the Emperor, whilst saying those words, ‘Caesar is Lord’, and, woe betides any man who failed to do so!

But when the favour with which Rome had originally looked on Christians turned into persecution, this affirmation of loyalty to Caesar was something that the Christians also were required to make, and failure to make it usually meant death.

At the same time, there was a quite different affirmation that was being freely made by both Jewish and Pagan enemies of the church. They were saying, as Paul records in 1 Corinthians 12:3, ‘Jesus is accursed’, and obviously, only the enemies of Christ would utter those words!

Furthermore, when a Christian refused to speak those words which were taken as an acknowledgement of Caesar’s deity, their refusal was taken as a denial of his deity and that was treason which brought the death sentence.

Thus, the distinction between the prophet inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the false prophet was, in this way, easily made. The one was happy to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, whilst the other, because he was under the influence of an evil spirit said, ‘Jesus is accursed’.

John also writes about the importance of making this distinction in 1 John 4:1-3. One needs little imagination to understand that in a pagan world, there were many who pretended to be possessed and controlled by the gods so that they might claim to be speaking in their names.

The significant contrast between these frenzied fakers and the calmness of the Spirit-led Christian prophets is, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33, ‘The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’. In other words, there was no wild abandonment in the manner in which they delivered their message.

Everything was done in an orderly manner, because ‘God is not the author of confusion, but of peace’.

A final observation, the exercise of the ‘gift of discerning of spirits’ was to be used when several prophets spoke in the service. See 1 Corinthians 14:29.