Discernment of Spirits
Dr. Joe Temple


Open your Bibles, please, to I Corinthians, chapter 12. Let me remind you that we have been thinking along the line of a question: “What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?” We have found the information related to this subject in I Corinthians, chapters 12, 13, and 14. We have been examining the information contained in these chapters for all the weeks we have been on this subject, but we have come at the present time to a discussion of what we have called the practical gifts of the Holy Spirit. When we use the phrase, the practical gifts of the Holy Spirit , we are using a phrase to describe those divine enablements which are given to individual believers to help them in relation to their ministry with the Body of Christ.

We have asked you to open your Bibles to I Corinthians, chapter 12, because we are going to read a portion in the chapter in which the practical gifts are listed. Notice the paragraph which begins with verse 8, where we read:

I Corinthians 12:

8For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
9To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
10To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:

We will stop our reading there and ask you to look toward the close of the chapter at verse 28:

I Corinthians 12:

28And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

Turn now to Romans, chapter 12, and notice the paragraph which begins with verse 5:

Romans 12:

5So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
6Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;
7Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching;
8Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.

We will stop our reading there because these words form a substance of what we are saying to you during these sessions which we are discussing with you, the practical gifts of the Holy Spirit. We suggested to you that if you allow for repetition and if you allow for the inclusion of one gift with another, which seems apparent that it should be done, there is left for you a list of fifteen practical gifts of the Holy Spirit. To aid your memory in your meditation along this line, we have suggested to you that we might divide this list of gifts into three separate divisions. Bible scholars have divided them a number of different ways. We have been pleased to divide them in this fashion: Division number one we have referred to as spiritual gifts. We recognize that when the apostle began the discussions in I Corinthians, chapter 12, he called all of them spiritual gifts because they had their source in the Holy Spirit. We are calling some of them spiritual gifts because they are related to the spiritual ministry of the Body of Christ.

This second division we have referred to as service gifts. We said these gifts need not necessarily have a spiritual quality related to them, but they are related to the service of the Body of Christ, and they include such gifts as helps, government, giving, and showing mercy.

Then we said there was another division which we called sign or supernatural gifts. We said those titles might be accurate because these gifts do have a supernatural element about them that could not be duplicated by human effort, but they were also used in several instances as signs of the authenticity of the ministry of the people involved. Included in the sign or supernatural gifts are the gifts of faith, the gifts of healing, the gifts of miracles, the gifts of tongues, and the gifts of interpretation of tongues.

For the last several sessions we have been discussing with you this first division of this gift of lists—namely, spiritual gifts. We will not have time to review everything we said about them, but we would remind you that thus far we have discussed the word of wisdom, we have discussed the word of knowledge, and we have discussed the gift of prophecy. There are two more spiritual gifts remaining yet to be discussed, and we trust we will be able to get to them today whether we can get to them as thoroughly as we might like or not.

The Gift Of Discerning Spirits

One of the spiritual gifts that remains to be discussed is the gift of discerning of Spirits; the other is the gift of healing. We will discuss with you the gift of the discerning of spirits first. If you recall when we were reading I Corinthians, chapter 12, we found this particular gift mentioned in verse 10, where we read:

I Corinthians 12:

10To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:

Notice particularly the phrase, discerning of spirits , suggesting to you that the word discern comes from the Greek word beaukcreno , which is made up of two words. I think if we notice them separately, then together, we will be able to understand more fully the meaning of the word discern in the sense in which it is used in the immediate paragraph under discussion. The word beau , a preposition really, is a word which may be translated by the word “thoroughly.” It conveys the idea of something that is complete, not something that is done halfway, not something that is done in a minor manner, but something that is done thoroughly and completely.

The other word which forms the word beaukcreno would be the word creno . This word creno means “to decide.” It means “to distinguish.” It is even translated by the word “try.” So if we use the word beaukcreno as the source of the word discern when we are talking about the discerning of spirits, we are talking about that special ability which is given by the Holy Spirit to be able to distinguish thoroughly spirits.

The word spirits is a very ordinary word. It comes from the Greek word knumah . The context determines what kind of spirits the individual writer had in mind. Sometimes the spirits can be angels or good spirits, or they can be demons or evil spirits. So if you are thinking today, and I trust that you are, you realize that the gift of the discerning of spirits is a special ability given by the Holy Spirit to certain individuals which enables them to distinguish very thoroughly whether the spirit who is speaking through a person is a good spirit or an evil spirit. The reason that I suggest to you that it is a matter of the spirit speaking through a person which needs to be discerned is that spirits are helpless without bodies through which they may work. Spirits are helpless without human instrumentality. Let me give you an illustration.

Illustration Of Discerning Of Spirits

You recall that Paul and Silas were in the city of Philippi. A little girl followed them about the streets, and she was a good advertiser for them, as first it seems, because as she followed them about, she would say, “These are the men who declare unto us the way of salvation.” If you went into a town to hold a meeting, that would be some good free advertising. The announcement was good, wasn't it? On the surface, you would say, “This is wonderful. Anybody that could make an announcement like that must be good.” You might even be inclined to say, “Why, this is a good little girl. Listen to what she is saying,” but what did the Apostle Paul do? He turned around to her one day and said—if you permit a paraphrase—“Demon, come out of her,” for he had the gift of discerning spirits. He knew that this was not of God. He knew that a demon within this little girl was using her lips to make this announcement. Of course, if you have read the story, you know that the men whose slave girl she was were exceedingly angry because the demon within her not only made the announcement to which I have referred, he was also able to foretell the future and tell fortunes and give her masters much gain by soothsaying.

I like the way several people have translated this particular phrase, I Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 10, which enables us to understand more thoroughly. For example, the translation Good News for Modern Man refers to it as “the ability to tell the difference between the gifts that come from the Spirit and those that do not.” I like that—the ability to tell the difference between the gifts that come from the Holy Spirit and those that do not.

We have mentioned to you before that it is possible for the devil to counterfeit the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When the devil counterfeits the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he can do such a good job that it is impossible for many people to know the difference between the real and the imitation. I am going to be bold and say that someone would need this gift of discerning spirits to be able to tell the difference in many instances.

A Word Of Exhortation

Let me issue a word of warning, a word of exhortation. Do not go about saying because certain gifts are exercised, apparently that couldn't be of God. You may not be able to tell without this gift of discerning. By the same principle, don't go about saying, “It has to be of God. Look at the good things that are related to it.” I have already given you an illustration of how some very good things can be said which are not necessarily related to the Lord. But don't be so sure that you know; remember, it may take this special ability of the Holy Spirit.

Williams translates this same phrase, “the power to discriminate between the true Spirit, [He capitalizes that word Spirit because it would mean it was a reference to the Holy Spirit.] and false spirits.” Phillips translates it as the ability to discriminate in spiritual matters. Here he makes a much greater generalization than may be warranted by the word. It does emphasize to you what I would like to leave with you—that this is a special ability of the Holy Spirit, and not everyone may have it.

If there is any significance in the order in which these gifts are listed, and I am not prepared to say that there is because I don't think that anybody knows for sure, it is interesting that this gift, the discerning of spirits, follows the gift of prophecy. The reason I say that is that the suggestion I made concerning one of the translations—the ability to discriminate between the utterances of the Holy Spirit and false spirits—would be significant. In the early church, you will remember that the gift of prophecy was manifested in a manner in which it would not likely be manifested today because we do not have as a rule the kind of services that the early Church had.

Now wait just a moment. I am not suggesting to you that the early Church did not have a preaching service such as we are having today. They did. Most of their services were at night because the majority of the congregations were slaves, and that was the only time they could come to church. They did have preaching services; they had the Lord's Supper as we do; they had some singing. They had different kinds of sermons from a number of different standpoints. I will be humble enough to say that their sermons were sermons of real power, which we sometimes wonder about in the day in which we live. I will say that our sermons are different in that I don't think that I have ever preached so long that anybody fell asleep and fell out of the place where they were sitting except one time, but the Apostle Paul did in the service in which he conducted. There were preaching services of the kind that we are having today, but there were also other kinds of services which it might be well if the Church of today emulated at least some of the time.

An Order Of Worship

Turn in your Bibles with me, please, to the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, and notice the passage of Scripture which is not often related to the service program, but it actually is that. In Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 18, we have the words:

Ephesians 5:

18And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;
19Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
20Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;

These verses are compared to other verses, and it can be seen that these are describing the order of worship—the voluntary song service, so to speak, mingled with exhortation, which was a blessing to the people concerned.

Turn to Colossians, chapter 3, and notice verse 15:

Colossians 3:

15And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.
16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

And then will you notice with me, please, a portion found in I Corinthians, chapter 14. This chapter deals with the order which had arisen in the worship services of the early Church. Nevertheless, it does describe the kind of services which were held. In I Corinthians, chapter 14, the paragraph which begins with verse 29, we read:

I Corinthians 14:

29Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

These are the individuals who had the gift of prophecy, which we talked about in our last lesson. “Let the prophets speak two or three and let the other judge.” Let them discern. Let them discriminate.

I Corinthians 14:

30If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.
31For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.
32And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.
33For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

We will stop our reading there for the purposes of this discussion, reminding you that there are two things suggested in this paragraph. One of them is that when the prophet speaks, the people should listen. They should discern the idea of learning, but also there would be a need for those who had the ability to discern spirits to be able to discern whether the prophets were speaking of themselves, as is quite often the case when men stand behind the pulpit, or whether the individuals were speaking of Satan, as can be the case quite often when men stand behind the sacred desk, or whether or not these individuals were speaking of the Lord. In view of the warning which is given in the Scripture which I touched on just a second ago—namely, that individuals can speak from the pulpit the words of Satan instead of the words of God, there is a need for this gift for which we speak.

Doctrines Of Demons

If you don't believe that is possible, turn with me, please, to II Corinthians, chapter 11. The Apostle Paul emphasizes to the the believers in question that the devil is able in a very definite way to speak to hearts in such a fashion that they will not be able to recognize what is said.

II Corinthians 11:

13For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
14And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.
15Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.

You understand when I say to you that it is possible for a preacher to stand behind the pulpit as a minister of Satan, that he is not going to dress himself up in a red uniform with horns on his head and a tail on his rear because he is transformed into a minister of righteousness. He may have all of the appearances of a godly man, and his words may have all of the appearances unto the ear and framed as things that are good. Satan, when he tries to fool people, doesn't wave a great big, red flag and say, “Look, I am the devil. Now let me fool you.” If he counterfeits something, he counterfeits it in such a way that it is difficult to tell the difference. I am going to be bold to say that I believe in our day in many of our churches there are ministers of righteousness, but instruments of the devil, accomplishing his purpose and clothing himself as an angel of light.

We have been warned in the Scripture that this condition would increase in intensity as the end of the age approaches. Turn with me in your Bibles, please, to I Timothy, chapter 4, and notice verse 1:

I Timothy 4:

1Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;

Did you notice, “…some are going to depart from the faith,” in the days just before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ? Why are they going to do that? Because they are going to give heed to seducing spirits. How are these spirits going to seduce them? Do you suppose they are going to camp on the shoulder of the individual and say, “Look, I am a demon. I want to lead you away from the truth.” You will find that answer right here: “Doctrines of demons”—that is, doctrines taught on issues are manifested and made available by demons. So there is no question that in the latter days man will stand in the pulpit as ministers of righteousness and will lead many away from the faith because demons will use their lips to declare that which is untrue as far as the truth of God's Word is concerned. I am not being very kind, am I? I'm not saying, “Oh, he is a good man; he just doesn't teach the Bible.” I am saying that he is a man whom the demons are using to declare falsehood. That's not very nice of me, but that is exactly what the Word of God has to say.

Try The Spirits

Turn with me in your Bibles to the first epistle of John, chapter 4, as I say to you that perhaps this gift—now notice what I am saying—is given more freely than any other gift. The Bible says that every individual has some gift of the Holy Spirit, one gift at least. That is one of the reasons we are giving you these messages on what the gifts of the Holy Spirit are. You need to know what gift you have. It may be that you have some gift of the Holy Spirit that has been lying dormant many years. You didn't even realize it was there. You need to recognize it. You need to use it, and as you use it and develop it, you become more conscious of it. There isn't any question that you will be a greater blessing to the Body of Christ. But in I John, chapter 4, there is an injunction given to every believer which causes me to wonder perhaps if any believer may not have this particular gift, that of which I speak, if he desires it.

I John 4:

1Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
2Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
3And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of Antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

What does it say, Friend? It says that you as a believer, a child of God, should try the spirits. At least, put them to the test. You should discern whether they are of God or not. You should discern whether their pronouncements are coming from God, from themselves or from Satan.

There is one sure way that you can tell, and that is by asking the speaker in question, because we are talking about speakers, what he believes—now listen carefully to what I am saying—what he believes about the unique deity of Christ. Be sure and use the word unique . There was a time when we could ask men what they believed about the deity of Christ, and you would get an immediate answer. The immediate answer was, “I don't believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I don't believe He was any different from anybody else.” Or you would get an immediate answer, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God.” That settles the matter. Years ago the difference of opinions lay along such lines as if you have it, can you lose it; if you have it, can you use it? Folk argued back and forth whether or not you could keep your salvation or lose your salvation; but they both believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the living God, and they would hold hands and fight anybody who said that He wasn't. Years ago, the issues used to be whether you should put the water on top of the head or the head under the water; but they both believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the living God, and they would join hands and fight anybody who said differently.

That is not the issue today. The issue today is whether or not the Lord Jesus Christ is the unique Son of the living God. You might say, “Why do you say to use the word unique?” Because there is a theology, if I may use that word very generally, a God in our day that is known as orthodoxy. You see, if you get anybody in that rope, they will hang themselves. The liberalists, the modernists, hang themselves. They have got too much rope, so they have decided that what they have been saying all these years just wasn't going to lay hold. They decided to reverse, and they came back to orthodoxy, but they couldn't believe what they had always denied, so they formed a new school of thought called neo orthodoxy. The word neo simply means “new”—a new orthodoxy. So they said, “Yes, we believe in the deity of Christ.” But if you pursued the matter with them a little bit further, they would say, “But we also believe in the deity of man.” They put the Lord Jesus Christ on the same level as man—Jesus Christ is the Son of God, so you are the Son of God. That's the reason you need to be specific in your questions.

I don't know how familiar you are with the writings of Paul Barth. He now has left this earth. I don't know where he is (I mean he has died.), and the reason I don't know where he is, is because of an answer that he gave for this very question that was asked him. One day in New York a reporter asked, in so many words, without direct quote, “Do you believe in the deity of Jesus Christ?” He said, “If you want an immediate answer, it will have to be in the negative. If we had time to discuss it, I might could answer it in the affirmative.”


This is what I mean. Beloved, ministers of righteousness don't always speak the truth, and God has given this gift of discerning of spirits so the the Body of Christ could be protected from error. You as a believer need to recognize whether you have this gift or not. If you yourself do not have it, then you need to lean heavily upon someone who does have it because these are days when Satan is clothing himself as an angel of light—demons as ministers of righteousness to seduce those who are putting their trust in Christ. These are days when there is a need for the doctrine of the Word as the foundation of every step we take.

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