Alan Knox


Alan Knox

Alan Knox is a PhD student in biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a web developer. His interests include PHP and ecclesiology. His dissertation topic is the purpose of the gathering of the church in the New Testament. By God’s grace, he tries to live what he is learning about the church.

He writes about how our understanding of the church affects (or should affect) the way the we live our lives among other brothers and sisters in Christ. He's found that many aspects of our understanding of church (gathering, leading, teaching, etc.) are woven together such that it’s almost impossible to focus on only one aspect.

Find out more on his website, The Assembling of the Church.

How to Know if You're a Disciple

It sounds simple and obvious, doesn’t it? Disciples follow Jesus. Notice this passage in Matthew’s Gospel:

Now when Jesus saw a great crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. (>Matthew 8:18 ESV)

That’s a simple order, isn’t it? “Go to the other side of the sea.” That has to be the most simple and direct command that Jesus gave. What was the response of the crowd?

And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (>Matthew 8:19-20 ESV)

One man jumped up right away…. “Yes Sir, Jesus! I’ll go wherever you want me to go.” I think he probably started humming to himself, “Wherever he leads, I’ll go. Wherever he leads, I’ll go. I’ll follow my Christ….”

Jesus warned this enthusiastic fellow to count the cost before agreeing to follow. Discipleship is not something to be taken lightly. Following Jesus is hard work. Jesus says, “Are you sure you are ready to give up everything? Enthusiasm doesn’t count for much when the going gets tough.”

Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (>Matthew 8:21-22 ESV)

Another person jumped up and said, “Yeah, Jesus, I’ll follow you. I’ve thought about it, like you said, and I need to take care of some things first.”

Jesus didn’t cut this guy any slack either. He said, “Either follow me, or go home. All or nothing.”

I imagine there were other responses as well. “Jesus, I’ll follow you as soon as my job is more stable.” “Yes, Jesus, I’ll be right there as soon as I finish school. My education has to be a priority right now.” “Jesus, you know that I want to follow you, but let me raised the kids first. You might lead me to places where I wouldn’t want to take the kids.”

So many responses to Jesus. How will Jesus ever determine who is sincere and who is not? How will we ever recognize the true disciples?

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. (>Matthew 8:23 ESV)

Doesn’t that sound simple? Jesus issues a command, and those who are his disciples obey by following him. The ones who speak up first are not necessarily disciples. The ones who delay and are admonished by Jesus are not necessarily disciples, nor are they necessarily NOT disciples.

Are you a disciple? Are you following Jesus? That’s the simple test. Start with Jesus’ most important commandments: Are you following Jesus by loving God and loving other people?


Find out more about Alan Knox on his website, The Assembling of the Church.


Why Do We Often Respond Differently to Jesus?

One day, a friend of ours asked about dealing with a brother or sister in Christ who seemed completely apathetic to following Jesus. That led to a good discussion and some good advice from others, but it also led to a good discussion between my wife Margaret and myself.

As Margaret and I were talking about this subject, I remembered something that I had noticed earlier. When Jesus talked about dealing with a brother or sister who “sins against you,” those listening to him responded differently to the way that people today often respond to that same teaching.

What am I talking about? Well, start with this familiar passage:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (>Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)

Upon hearing or studying this passage, I’ve heard people respond with many questions, such as:

* Is this only for when a person sins directly again you, or is it also for someone who sins in general?

* Who should the one or two others be?

* What does it mean to “tell it to the church”? Who tells and when?

* What does it mean to treat the person “as a Gentile and a tax collector”?

* What does it mean to bind and loose?

* When Jesus says “where two or three are gathered,” is he only talking about “church discipline” or is he defining the church?

But, if we keep reading, we find that Jesus’ first audience responded quite differently:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (>Matthew 18:21-22 ESV)

Peter recognized something that we often miss: Jesus’ statements were about relationships. When faced with the potential of breaking a relationship, most people will ask for forgiveness (even if they don’t really mean it). Peter recognized this, and wondered how many times he would have to forgive this brother who continued to sin against him.

How did Jesus respond? Keep on going to them, and keep on forgiving them.

I think there are other examples, too. But, to me, this is an obvious example of Jesus’ listeners responding to him differently than we often respond to him. Perhaps their focus (and Jesus’ focus) was different than our focus as well.


How to Be an Example to Others

In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul reminds the Christians in Thessalonika about the time that he spent with them. Paul probably only spent a few weeks with the Thessalonian believers. However, it seems that he made the most of that time.

This is what Paul says:

For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed--God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved--so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last! But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you--I, Paul, again and again--but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. (>1 Thessalonians 2 ESV)

What can we learn from Paul’s example:

1: Continue making disciples in spite of difficulties.

2: Seek to please God, not people.

3: Do not try to persuade people by your rhetoric or your method of teaching or your arguments.

4: Do not make demands on people, even if you think you may have the right.

5: Gently care for people.

6: Share your life with people, not just your words.

7: Work hard serving people and serving with people.

8: Continually encourage people to walk with Christ.

9: Give God all the glory when people grow in maturity.

I don’t know about you, but I think I still have a long way to go before I am following Paul’s example. While I can see where my life and discipleship has matured in some of these areas over the last few years, I can also see where I have much more need for growth.

Primarily, I think the first item is one of the toughest for me. Paul suffered greatly at Philippi – he was imprisoned. Yet, he continued to make disciples. He did not let the difficulties distract him from his purpose.

I tend to be distracted much more easily. If something goes wrong or if life gets difficult, I tend to withdraw and forget or ignore the fact that I am supposed to be making disciples. Sometimes, I let my circumstances dictate my level of obedience. I can learn from Paul here. I can learn to trust God and follow the Spirit in spite of my circumstances, allowing him to strengthen me.

What about you? Have you seen growth as a disciple-maker in your life? In what area or areas do you still need to grow?


Test Everything: The Role of Discernment When the Church Gathers

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul begins a long (3 chapters) section of the letter addressing spiritual gifts. In the first part (chapter 12), Paul focuses mainly on the variety types of gifts and the importance of all the gifts working together for the benefit of the whole church. In the next part (chapter 13), he tells his readers that demonstrating love is more important than exercising any kind of gift. (In a rhetorical exclamation, he announced that even exercising great faith is nothing if the person is not showing the love of God to others.)

Finally, in the last section of this teaching about spiritual gifts, Paul turns more toward the use and exercise of the various gifts when the church gathers together. Since he primarily discusses the gifts of prophecy and tongues, some believe that the Corinthian church struggled with those two gifts. This is possible, perhaps probable.

But while correcting the way that the Corinthians were practicing or emphasizing spiritual gifts, Paul gives them (and us) a key principle: everything that is said or done when we are gathered with other Christians should edify those others. In fact, the only reason (according to Paul) that prophecy is preferred to tongues (uninterpreted) when the church is gathered together is that prophecy directly edifies the church while speaking in tongues does not.

When Paul comes around to laying down some general guidelines for speaking when gathered with other believers (1 Corinthians 14:26-40), he again divides his instructions into two parts: one set of instructions for speaking in tongues and another set of instructions for prophesying. Among the instructions for prophesying, Paul adds the importance of “discernment”: Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (>1 Corinthians 14:29 ESV)

So, while Paul believes that prophesy directly edifies the church, he also says that prophesy should be weighed. He says something similar when writing to the church in Thessalonica: “Do not despise(AD) prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (>1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 ESV)

This discernment (or judging/weighing) becomes even more important when we think about other forms of speaking when the church gathers together. For example, I would think that teaching is directly edifying also (like prophesying). Thus, teaching would fall under the same guidelines as prophecy, and any type of instruction should be judged also. The same would be true of other types of speaking such as encouragement or even admonishment.

But what does it mean to “weigh” what someone says? What is discernment? Who should judge what is said and for what reason? What examples of discernment do we find in Scripture? I hope to examine each of these questions in the next few posts.

But let’s be honest. For the majority of Christians who gather together (at least in the Western world), discernment is not and cannot be part of their gatherings. Usually, only one person speaks. If someone else speaks, that person must first be given permission to speak. Then, if someone has a question about what is said, or if someone disagrees, there are few avenues of asking questions, much less discernment. (Yes, I understand that some “preachers” or teachers allow for questions and disagreements. But for most Christians in America and the West, this is not allowed or encouraged.)

In spite of this, discernment was important to Paul. Plus, this is a topic that I have not studied much. So, I’m looking forward to looking at various passages of Scripture that I think are related to this topic.

What passages would you study in order to understand discernment? Do you think everything said among the church should be “judged”? Why or why not? When something is spoken, what about that should be “weighed” by others?


Who Chose Bishops/Elders/Pastors in the Early Church?

Before you jump on me for my title, I’m using the traditional nomenclature. I’d prefer to simply use the term elders, which is the normal term in Scripture. However, for many among the church today, “elders” are different than “bishops,” and both of those are different than “pastors.” So, if you feel they are different, then you can assume that I’m talking about all three in this post.

In Scripture, there are only two passages related to “choosing/appointing” bishops/elders/pastors:

When they [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:21-23 ESV)

This is why I [Paul] left you [Titus] in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you… (Titus 1:5 ESV)

On the surface, it looks like Paul and Barnabas personally chose “elders” among the churches of Galatia (in Acts 14:23) and that Paul instructed Titus to personally choose “elders” among the churches (in each town) in Crete. And, that would definitely be a valid interpretation.

When we turn to later Christian writings, the interpretations become muddled:

Therefore, choose for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord… (Didache 15:1)

Those [elders] therefore who were appointed by them [apostles], or afterward by other men of repute with the consent of the whole church… (1 Clement 44:3)

In the Didache, the author(s) definitely expected the church to choose “bishops” for themselves. There is no mention of bishops, elders, or deacons being appointed by others for the church.

Clement, meanwhile, seems to say that apostles and then later others appointed “elders.” However, he adds that little phrase “with the consent of the whole church,” which again muddles the answer. Was this just the apostles who chose “elders”? Was it later just “other men of repute” who chose elders? What does it mean that the whole church consented?

(Interestingly, while Ignatius has a lot to say about “the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons,” he does not mention who appointed or chose them. Likewise, Polycarp mentions “elders,” but he does not say who chose them.)

Of the four texts above (Acts, Titus, Didache, and 1 Clement) written by four different authors, is there any way that all four authors related the same way of choosing “bishops” and “elders” (or “pastors” if you prefer, although that term wasn’t used until much later).

If Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 indicate that ONLY Paul and Barnabas and ONLY Titus picked people to be “elders,” then we have to conclude that the Didache strays from that position.

Is it possible, though, that Luke did not intend to indicate that ONLY Paul and Barnabas were involved in appointing elders for the churches of Galatia? Is it possible that Paul did not intend to indicate that ONLY Titus was to appoint elders for the churches of Crete?

(By the way, within about 100 years of the texts listed here, the standard practice was for ONLY bishops to appoint bishops and elders, a practice which became known as successionism. But, as you can see, it was not that clear in the earliest Christian texts.)


The Disciples, the Apostles, and the Twelve

When I was growing up, I thought that the terms “disciples,” “apostles,” and “the Twelve” all referred to the same group of twelve men who followed Jesus around between his baptism and his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. In fact, I often heard the terms combined as in “the twelve disciples” or “the twelve apostles,” and I rarely heard the terms “disciples” or “apostles” used to refer to anyone other than “the Twelve.”

Now, I understand that “the Twelve” were “apostles,” but other people were apostles as well. I also understand that “the Twelve” and the “apostles” were “disciples,” but other people were disciples as well.

Believe it or not, Matthew only uses the term “apostle” once. He uses the term “twelve” eight times. But he uses the term “disciple” over 30 times. A few times, Matthew combines the terms: “twelve apostles” or “twelve disciples.” That clarification (i.e., the fact that Matthew occasionally says “the twelve disciples”) indicates that at times Matthew is using the term “disciple” to refer to a group that does not include ONLY the Twelve.

It’s clear from reading the Gospels and Acts that many people – not just the Twelve – followed Jesus as his disciples. In fact, we learn in Acts 1, that at least 2 people – but probably more – followed Jesus from the time of his baptism by John and were still with the 120 when they were gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension. (See Acts 1:21-23.)

Here’s a passage from Matthew, for example, that indicates that the term “disicples” was used to refer to more than just the Twelve:

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:47-50 ESV)

Why is this important? Well, think about these questions:

Who was in the boat with Jesus when he calmed the storm? (“And when he [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him…” Matthew 8:23 ESV)

Who did Jesus teach privately? (“Then he [Jesus] left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’” Matthew 13:36 ESV)

Who did Jesus eat ‘the Last Supper’ with? (“He [Jesus] said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, “The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.”‘” Matthew 26:18 ESV)

In the same way, we know that other people (besides the Twelve) were referred to as “apostles,” especially in Acts and Paul’s epistles. Therefore, when we read that apostles said or did something, we cannot assume that the author was referring to the Twelve. (However, as an interesting aside, perhaps Matthais was chosen to replace Judas as one of “the Twelve” in Acts 1:15-26.)

This passage by Paul specifically points out this difference:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 ESV)

Did you notice that Paul makes a distinction between “the Twelve” and “the apostles”? Notice that we see that Jesus also appears to “more than five hundred brothers (and sisters).”

So, we should be careful when we read these terms in Scripture. Otherwise, we might limit the scope and reference more narrowly than the authors intended.


Do Elders Manage or Care for the Church?

When Paul left Timothy in Ephesus, he either left a letter with him or sent a letter to him in order to help his young apostolic coworker (1 Timothy). In part of that letter, Paul wrote to help his friend understand who should be recognized (or appointed) as elders among the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

In this section, Paul describes what kind of person should be an elder. There are many different descriptions within this short passage. But, for this post, I want to focus on one sentence (in two verses):

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:4-5 ESV)

This passage is often presented as an indication that elders are “managers” over the church. However, the verbs used indicate something different.

To begin with, there are two important verbs used in this passage: “manage” (in vs. 4 & 5) and “care for” (in vs. 5).

First, the verb translated “manage” comes from the Greek verb προΐστημι (prohistemi). This verb has a wide range of meanings, including “be over,” “superintend,” and “managed” and also “aid,” “care for,” and “give attention to.” So, as the ESV translates it above, this verb can definitely mean “manage.”

In the passage above, the verb προΐστημι (prohistemi – “manage”) demonstrates the relationship between the elders and their families, especially their children. Again, in that context, “manage” would work.

Next, the verb translated “care for” comes from the Greek verb ἐπιμελέομαι (epimeleomai). Unlike the verb above, this verb has a much more narrow range of meaning: “to take care of a person or thing.” This verb cannot mean “manage.”

The verb ἐπιμελέομαι (epimeleomai – “take care of”) is only used in one other passage in the New Testament – in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan:

He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10:34-35 ESV)

It’s clear from the context above what “take care of” means. It means “to render aid” or “offer support”… it does not mean “manage.”

Now, remember, Paul is making a comparison. He’s comparing a person’s relationship to their family and suggesting that the familiar relationship will be an indication of their relationship with the church. Paul describes the familial relationship with a verb that could mean either “manage” or “care for.” But, he describes the church relationship with a verb that could only mean “care for.”

Regardless of what Paul is saying about the elders’ relationship with their family, he is definitely not saying that the elders are to “manage” the church. Instead, he is saying that elders are to “care for” the church, much like the “good samaritan” took care of the wounded traveler.

By the way, there is another Greek verb that falls within the same semantic domain (meaning) as the verb “care for” (ἐπιμελέομαιepimeleomai). Which verb is that? The verb that is usually translated “shepherd,” which is also often used to describe elders.

[I wrote a similar post about 3 1/2 years ago called "Manage his own household?" However, the Greek fonts became corrupted during a database upgrade, so I decided to rewrite the post here.]


Service to Others as Thanksgiving to God

Recently, I saw a verse of Scripture that left me scratching my head. First, I’ll give the context and the entire passage.

In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth to make plans to pick up the money that they have been collecting to help the church in Judea during a time of famine. Paul has heard that the Corinthians have collected a large sum of money, and he is praising the church for their generosity. (It is during this praise that Paul writes the famous line, “God loves a cheerful giver.”)

At the end of this passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God will bless them for their generosity, and that, also, God will be praised because of their generosity. Paul writes:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Corinthians 9:10-15 ESV)

The verse that left me scratching my head (when I read it in another source by itself) was 2 Corinthians 9:12:

For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. (2 Corinthians 9:12 ESV)

Why did this verse leave me confused? Because I know that the same Greek work is translated both “ministry” and “service.” (That would be the term diakonia.) So, why would Paul write the same noun twice in this sentence?

The answer was simple, once I looked up the verse in my Greek NT. Paul didn’t write the same noun twice. The first term (the one translated “ministry” above) is diakonia. But, the second term (the one translated “service” above) is from a completely different word: leitourgia.

Now, leitourgia is an interesting term. Typically, especially in the OT, it pointed to the work of a priest. The term is used (in the LXX – the Greek translation of the OT) in Numbers 4 to describe the “service” of priests. In the NT, we see something similar. For example, see how Luke used the term to refer to Zechariah in Luke 1:23.

So, in 2 Corinthians 9:12, Paul is saying that the Corinthian’s monetary offering (collected in order to help God’s people in Judea) is a priestly work which meets the needs of the saints. But this service to others, which is actually priestly service to God, doesn’t only meet the needs of God’s people, it also results in thanksgiving to God. In fact, Paul says their service (giving money, in this case) is abundant with many thanksgivings (plural) to God.

If we continue reading to the end of chapter 9, we see that the Corinthians’ service results in thanksgiving to God, the reception by the believers in Judea results in thanksgiving to God, and Paul himself offers thanks to God.

The clear (and abundant) principle here is that our service to others results in thanksgiving to God (the abundance of many thanksgivings to God) on many different levels and by many different people.

Something to think about as we approach Thanksgiving Day.


Discernment, the Bereans, and Scripture

As I said in a previous post, I’m working my way through a series on the role of discernment when the church gathers together. (See the “Introduction” post here.) I’ve also stated already that I believe that discernment is the work of those who are gifted at “distinguishing between spirits,” but it is also the work of those who are not gifted in that way. Similarly, I pointed out that discernment is part of the edifying process that occurs while the church gathers together.

For the last two posts in this series, I want to highlight a couple of examples of discernment that we find in Scripture. The first example is found in Acts 17:

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10-12 ESV)

In this case, the Bereans were not judging “prophecy” in the sense that we read about in 1 Corinthians 14. Instead, they were discerning the good news that Paul and Silas was proclaiming in the synagogue. The “received” the message that Paul and Silas spoke, then checked it against what they read in Scripture. Some of those who weighed this message “believed,” while, apparently, some did not believe.

If we remember that at this time the Jews in Berea would not have owned a personal copy of the Scriptures, we can get a better idea what was happening. Obviously, they would have had to gather together in order to “examine” Scripture and compare that to the message proclaimed by Paul and Silas.

Similarly, we should not forget that Luke tells us that this examination happened “daily.” This was not a once-per-week synagogue service, but a daily gathering in order to check the verity of the good news concerning Jesus Christ. (By the way, this kind of daily gathering is more in line with other historical accounts that shows the synagogue as more of a gathering for community and social activities.)

In a similar incident, when believers gathered together in Jerusalem and discussed whether or not it was valid to teach that Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law in order to be saved (Acts 15:6-21), Luke lists several methods of discernment. James, for example, turns to Scripture, like the Bereans mentioned above. Luke writes:

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I will return,and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God… (Acts 15:13-19 ESV)

James remarks that Simeon’s (Peter’s) experience matches up with what he had read in “the Prophets” (part of the Hebrew Scriptures).

Thus, in these two examples, we see people turning to Scripture to help them in discernment. (Of course, in both of those examples, the people were turning to the Old Testament Scriptures.) This does not mean, however, that Scripture always has all of the answers that we need in discernment. In the next post, we look at other examples where believers do not rely on Scripture to help them discern what God is telling them.

What are some of the benefits of using Scripture to help us discern what God is communicating with us? What are some dangers of using Scripture?


Discernment: Part of the Edifying Process of the Church Gathering

As I said in a previous post, I’m working my way through a series on the role of discernment when the church gathers together. (See the “Introduction” post here.) I’ve also stated already that I believe that discernment is the work of those who are gifted at “distinguishing between spirits,” but it is also the work of those who are not gifted in that way.

In this post I want to point out something that I’ve assumed several times already: discernment is part of the edifying process that occurs while the church gathers together. That would also mean that discernment is a mutual process, meaning that the whole church is involved in the work.

As I said in the previous post, Paul includes “discernment” (“the ability to distinguish spirits”) among the examples of the many ways that the Holy Spirit manifests himself in his children for the benefit of all. (See 1 Corinthians 12:10.) However, it is important to note that Paul also includes “discernment” (“weigh what is said”) specifically in the principles that he lays out for meeting together in a way that allows the church to work together to build up one another:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up…. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Corinthians 14:26-29 ESV)

So, the context of this passage is coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and Paul begins by stating (emphatically) that everything done should build up others (not only the one speaking). He also specifies that several should be allowed to exercise each type of speaking (one at a time, of course).

In the midst of these instructions about meeting together, Paul includes discernment, saying, “[L]et the others weigh what is said,” referring specifically to what prophets say, in this case. For Paul, these instructions about discernment fall within the realm of the church gathering and fall within the process of building up one another.

Don’t miss the significance of this: discernment is both part of gathering together as the church and also part of mutual edification.

In another letter to the church in another city, Paul again included discernment within the context of the work of edification by the whole church:

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:11-22 ESV)

While this passage from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians is not limited to times when the church gathers together, it does seem to include those times as well. Again, the focus is on encouraging and building up one another, and both listening to prophecies as well as discernment (“test everything”) is part of that edification.

This last passage will lead us to the final two passage in this series. In 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, Paul wrote in stoccato fashion: Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every kind of evil. In many ways, this helps us understand what the work and role of discernment is when we gather together.

Have you ever gathered together with other Christians in a way that included the work of discernment? Would you share something about that with us?


Discernment: A Gift of the Spirit and the Work of All

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m working my way through a series on the role of discernment when the church gathers together. (See the “Introduction” post here.)

I struggled with how to being this series… or, actually, I guess I should say that I struggled with how to continue this series. I’m going to study several passages, and I could have begun with any of those passages. However, I decided to continue where I started in the introduction: from Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts in his letter to the Corinthians.

In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul lists several types of ways that the Holy Spirit gifts individuals to help the church:

For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 ESV)

As you can tell, Paul is focusing on the fact that the same Spirit is giving these different gifts. The variety in the giftings does not detract from the singularity of the source (i.e., the Holy Spirit). And, if you started reading a little earlier, you would have found that there is also a singularity of purpose: for the common benefit (or, as Paul would say later, for building up the church). (1 Corinthians 12:7)

In this list, “discernment” is called “the ability to distinguish between spirits,” or, literally, “the differentiation of spirits.” Paul uses the verb form of “differentiation” (“discernment” or “ability to distinguish between”) in 1 Corinthians 14:29 in the context of prophecy and “weighing” what prophets said. (I mentioned that passage briefly in the introduction post.)

Thus, “discernment” is a gift of the Spirit, along with prophecy, teaching, apostle, etc. As Paul insinuates later, all are not gifted with “discernment,” just as all are not gifted as apostles, teachers, prophets, etc. So, some are divinely empowered to do whatever it is that I am calling “discernment.”

However, as we see with the other spiritual gifts, the activities described by the “spiritual giftings” are not limited to those with the gifts themselves. Thus, while only some are “gifted” as teachers, all believers are instructed to teach each other. Similarly, while only some are “gifted” as exhorters, all believers are instructed to encourage one another. (I think we also see that all believers have the ability to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 14:31.)

So, I would say the same thing applies to discernment. Some are divinely gifted to discern “between spirits.” However, all are to do this work. (By the way, if Ephesians 4:11-12 is not limited to the gifted individuals there, then those gifted at discernment should be equipping others to do the work of discernment as they all serve the church.)

Putting this all together, we see that both those gifted at discernment and those who are not gifted as discernment are to do the work of “distinguishing between spirits.” I think that every follower of Jesus Christ would be included in one of those two groups. So, when we are gathered together, we should all seek to discern what is said.

[This is a side note - although related. It really shouldn't have to be said, but it does. There is nothing in this passage (1 Corinthians 12-14) or any other passage to limit the work of discernment when the church gathers to only those who view themselves as leaders or are viewed by others as leaders (pastors, elders, bishops, deacons, etc.). Of course, there is also nothing in this passage or any other passage to limit any type of speaking when the church gathers to leaders.]

But what does it mean to discern what is said? And what type of speech should be discerned? Is discernment only for prophecy? Should teaching/preaching be discerned?

In the next couple of posts, I’ll examine some passages that will help us answer those questions.


Discernment When Scripture Doesn’t Answer Our Questions

As I said in a previous post, I’m working my way through a series on the role of discernment when the church gathers together. (See the “Introduction” post here.) I’ve also stated already that I believe that discernment is the work of those who are gifted at “distinguishing between spirits,” but it is also the work of those who are not gifted in that way. Similarly, I pointed out that discernment is part of the edifying process that occurs while the church gathers together. I pointed out a couple of examples in which people used Scripture to help them weigh what was being said.

While it’s popular to state that Scripture answers all questions, Scripture itself never makes that claim. In fact, there are a few examples of people discerning what God wants them to do when Scripture does not answer the question. I’ll cover two of those examples in this post.

The first example is found in Acts 16 during Paul’s travels with his team on what is typically called his second missionary journey:

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:6-10 ESV)

Previously, Paul had decided to visit the believers in the cities where he and Barnabas had traveled. Once he got to Antioch of Pisidia, he decided to continue. He first tried to go into the region of Asia, then they attempted to go to Bithynia. Finally, they went Troas. There, they not only met Luke (apparently), but Paul had a dream of someone from Macedonia asking for help. Luke tells us that the group concluded that God wanted them to go to Macedonia to proclaim the gospel.

So, when Paul and his team was trying to decide where to go next, they could not turn to Scripture. There was no passage in the Old Testament that would tell them what city or region to travel to. Instead, they apparently used their own reason or desires until God stopped their progress or directly communicated with them. Even when he directly communicated with Paul through a dream, it appears that Paul shared the dream with the group so that they could all weigh their response. (Note: The participle “concluding” does not necessarily point to a long, drawn out debate, but it does point to the potential for deciding one way or the other.)

The next example is even more intriguing (at least to me). Later in Paul’s journeys, he decides that God wants him to go to Jerusalem. In fact, he feels that the Holy Spirit has him in chains and is pulling him to Jerusalem. (See Acts 20:22.) When his team sails across the Mediterranean and reaches Caesarea, the are approached by a prophet:

While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:10-15 ESV)

This passage is intriguing to me because the prophet Agabus accurately communicated what eventually happens to Paul. (So, this was not only an instance of prophecy, but also of foretelling the future.) However, there was disagreement concerning what they should do with this information. Paul knew that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem. The people with him thought the prophecy meant that Paul should not go to Jerusalem. Again, this is not a question that is answered in Scripture.

In these cases we get a better view of what is included in “discernment.” Discernment not only refers to determining what something means, but it also refers to determining how it may or may not apply. Something could apply to no one, to an individual, to a sub-group, or to the entire group. This is all part of discernment.

Does it concern you that we must often discern (“weigh”) questions that are not answered by Scripture? What other means do we have to discern different types of questions or speech or activities?