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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.