Paul was the first Ghostbuster?: The Discernment of Spirits in First Corinthians 12

Continuing our discussion of the Gifts of the Spirit, we come to one that is probably the most misunderstood of all. Many people read “discernment” and stop there. Discernment is NOT a gift; it is a skill one develops as one matures spiritually. As you read the Bible and hear teachings about God and discuss Jesus with fellow followers, you will start to be able to discern things better. You may not know why something sounds wrong, but red flags and sirens will seemingly go off in your head when you hear or read something that is not quite right about God. That is discernment – an important skill to develop, but not a spiritual gift.

The “discernment of spirits” IS a gift and the subject of much discussion. What spirits? Good and evil spirits? Human spirits? Friendly spirits? Paul is not clear in this context. And so the speculation ensues.

The literal meaning of this Greek phrase is “judgment of the spirits.” While it could mean “determining whether something is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit,” (Thiselton, NIGTC, p.967) there is really no textual evidence to support such a definition. Paul does not mention “evil spirits” anywhere in any of his letters.

Most likely the discernment of spirits has to do with determining whether a gift or manifestation is really from the Holy Spirit or the spirit of the individual. For example, when someone “prophesies,” is it a message from God or just a nice encouragement from a well-intentioned Christian? Or when a miracle takes place, was it from God or from a magician?

Exodus 7:10-12 is a good example of this. When Moses and Aaron first appeared before Pharaoh, “Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” Anyone seeing this would have known instantly which miracle was from God so the discernment of spirits was unnecessary.

But what if Aaron’s snake was no different than any of the other snakes? The discernment of spirits would be crucial, wouldn’t it? One could easily be fooled and follow Pharaoh’s wise men and sorcerers rather than God’s prophets Moses and Aaron.

Unfortunately there is no description or criteria to judge manifestations as to whether they are from God or not. Certainly it must be consistent with Scriptural principles and point to Jesus instead of exalting the person operating in the gift. I have heard some say they could see a glow or a mist around a person that no one else saw that was a sign to them that God was using that person. Another person told me they could smell a pungent odor when they were around a certain person who turned out to have  evil intentions. Since I consider these people to be credible witnesses with no motive to lie and since I know these instances served as a confirmation of the move of God and helped all of us move closer to God, I think they might be examples of the discernment of spirits. I believe that God could use our senses to give us a kind of sixth sense to the supernatural, but it doesn’t have to be so spectacular. Perhaps it is only an instinct or a gut feeling. God will give us confirmation if we will only listen for it.

Many commentators group discernment of spirits with prophecy, but it appears it is meant to be a “gift of discerning in various cases (hence the plural) whether extraordinary manifestations were from above or not” (Robertson and Plummer, First Epistle, p.267). In other words, it is discernment for all of the gifts and not just prophecy. Thiselton agrees, defining it as “a critical capacity to discern the genuine transcendent activity of the Spirit from merely human attempts to replicate it” (NIGTC, p.967)

Don’t we do this? Even when we are trying to be genuine, sometimes we strive to relive a past encounter with God rather than allow God to move in a new or different way. “Discernment of spirits” sometimes helps us recognize that what is happening is not from God, but is our misguided attempt to experience God. I have been in churches where some of the people had just come from a spiritual retreat or a “revival” and tried to duplicate the experience in their own church. It felt forced and fake. I made the mistake of not discussing this with my leaders. Perhaps my concerns could have helped the church move closer to God. Or maybe my objections could have been laid to rest and brought me even closer to God. Learn from my mistakes; don’t let it fester or become divisive.

God wants to guide us on our journey closer to Him. May we be slow to speak and quick to listen to His voice and allow Him to help us discern where His Spirit wants us to go.


Which Bible should you read?

Time to check the mail…

 just received this in an email. I was wondering what your thoughts were on the NIV 2011 version.    

Every time a new version of the Bible comes out, people immediately want to condemn it – usually to sell more magazines or drive traffic to their websites and blogs. In this case, the point made is that the new NIV has “thousands of changes.” I have not seen a copy of the new NIV, but it sounds like the “thousands” of changes are really one change related to the gender of certain pronouns.

The problem translators have had for centuries is how to translate Greek and Hebrew pronouns into English pronouns (like he, she, him, her, you, it, they, and them) without losing their original meanings. The NIV apparently decided to try to be more inclusive this time around, replacing ambiguous terms like “he” with a more inclusive term “they” to show that men AND women are being addressed. This certainly reads better than if they replaced it with “he/she” or “s/he” and it is more politically correct, but I think changing the pronoun from singular to plural causes more problems than it solves.

That being said, the larger question is this: which version is the best? I can’t give a straight answer because every reader’s situation is different so I will list the situations and give you some suggestions.


If you are a new follower of Jesus, the New International Version (NIV) is good place to start. It tries to translate things so that it flows smoothly rather than give a word-for-word translation, which tends to be very choppy and difficult to read. Younger readers might benefit more from paraphrases like New Living Translation (NLT), which tries to give you the gist of things (like CliffsNotes for the Bible). It is very basic though and should not be used as a Study Bible.


If you yearn for more teaching than Sunday services can give you, then you are ready to move on to a Study Bible. There are dozens to choose from including Women’s, Teen, Men’s, and Martian’s (ok, maybe not the last one).  The more literal word-for-word translations are better for studying. New Revised Standard is pretty good and New American Standard is ok. I have been pleasantly surprised with NIV Life Application Bibles as well. New King James Version is outdated and tends to make everything sound like poetry or Shakespeare. Study Bibles are quite expensive so pick one you will actually read, but be sure to have access to three or more non-study Bible versions so you can compare what the “experts” think about specific words. YouVersion is a great app or you could use to make it easy to compare versions in the same passage.


If you do not feel called to go to seminary, don’t fret. You might not ever become an expert, but you can still learn from the experts even if you don’t know the original languages. Online resources are online for a reason – because they are not copyright-protected any longer. Generally, you get what you pay for. A Bible Dictionary is a must. Kittle’s Theological Dictionary is excellent even if it assumes some knowledge of Greek. Vine’s dictionary is ok, but beware of anything supposedly exhaustive that is only one volume.

A commentary set or two usually proves useful for the really difficult passages. They give you some background into the history of each book of the Bible including the author and the original audience. A good commentary will also tell you what other previous commentaries have said. Beware of commentaries on the whole Bible written by one person. I don’t care how great a guy or gal is, there is no way one person could know the whole Bible even if he/she lived to be 1000 years old. One person CAN devote their life’s work to one or two books though. When an editor brings these types of authors together, he forms a commentary set. Even though these are very expensive, they are worth every penny.

New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) is usually the first one I grab from my library. It is generally excellent and does not require any previous knowledge of Greek. Its Old Testament equivalent (NICOT) is very good as well. Word Biblical Commentary is also really good. It is less scholarly than most commentaries and more conservative than most, but one should read from various different views to get a better overall picture of the truth. Anchor Bible Commentary used to be the standard of the industry, but they have become outdated. They are useful for hearing the liberal side of things.