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.