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Spiritual Discernment – True or False

Spiritual Discernment – True or False


Matthew 24:1-25


A Warning and a Command from our Lord


 


Part 1


 


Introduction


In December of every year we celebrate the birth of THE Christ, the anointed one of God. We must always be mindful, and all the more as the day approaches, of what Jesus warned us about in Matthew 24:1-25. In this passage our Lord gives us both a warning and a command. Please review Matthew chapter 24 for yourself before reading on.


 


As a test Naval Flight Officer in the Navy and graduate of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, I've flown over 30 types of fighter jets, propeller driven aircraft, helicopters, and gliders. One experience stands out as particularly useful and informative. When I was in flight training for the F-14 we went through a phase of training called Low Altitude Awareness Training and Low Altitude Tactics Training. This training taught us how to fly a high performance jet tactically at 500 feet above ground level and over 300 knots airspeed (around 350 mph). At this altitude and airspeed it takes less than a second to go from level flight to a trend of descending and hitting the ground. It requires unfailing attention and discernment to notice this trend very quickly and to correct it immediately! The slightest trend of what we call a nose slice, where the nose of the aircraft dips below the horizon, would change the flight path from a level turn at low altitude to a dive into the ground at high speed. The slightest deviation would be devastating and tragic. This fact is no less true when applied to the church and allowing error to creep into its teaching. You quickly change your flight path from maintaining truth and worshipping God to diving into lies and worshipping the father of lies. A true convert and teacher will do the former and never the latter. This fact makes discernment so vitally important and why our Lord commands it of every believer.


 


In Matthew 24, verse 24 we read: "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect." (emphasis added)


 


Wow! What is Jesus telling us? He even said in verse 25 that He has told us "in advance." There is coming a day of deception so powerful that those who truly appear to be the elect, or true Christians, will be deceived and turn after false Christs! How is this possible? Simple, though they really appear to be true converts, they are not and as such they will not possess true spiritual discernment. We read of this in 1 Corinthians 2:12-15:


12Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. 13Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. ("appraised" in NASB) 15But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. (KJV)


These days, these "perilous times" that Jesus warned about in advance are already upon us! We are witnessing the fulfillment of His Words and we must know that deception will be great. We must be alert and we must carefully exercise Biblical or spiritual discernment. We must exercise this discernment as if our very lives depend on it, as if we were flying at low altitude and high velocity!


 


If you don't already know what biblical discernment is and that it is commanded in Scripture for all believers, then my desire for you is to gain a better understanding of this vital discipline in this increasingly dangerous world. I desire to convince you that the practice of discernment is NOT judgmental and is not pharisaical, rather necessary by command of Scripture for your own safety as well as the safety and purity of the church.


 


It is rare today that discernment is celebrated when it is practiced. It is often met with the oft quoted and misused Matthew 7:1 "Judge not lest ye be judged," or when naming false teachers some may quote1 Chronicles 16:22 which says, "Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm." Both of these verses when used in such instances are ripped out of context and applied in ways that are far from their true meaning and void of any hermeneutic principles (or principles of interpretation). Ironically it requires discernment to understand this fact. Another example: consider crossing the street at a busy intersection… Do you look both ways? Why? Aren't you being judgmental? Unfair? Or is it wise to stop and look for signs of danger before moving ahead, before stepping into dangerous territory?


 


Remember, 2 Timothy 2:15 warns us to "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (KJV)


 


Handling the Word of God in a careless manner is shameful. We must study His Word and learn to correctly handle it, understand it, live it, and teach it. This ability of "rightly dividing the word of truth," comes from study and discernment. It is the word of truth not of error or lies and we must be able to distinguish between them. This ability to distinguish is what discernment is all about. Speaking of handling the Word of God, I will quote from the NASB translation unless otherwise noted.


 


In the following paragraphs of this first installment of three on this topic we will consider what spiritual discernment is, what the source of spiritual discernment is and that it is largely neglected and ignored.


 


In Part 2 on this topic we will apply good hermeneutic principles by looking at some of the original Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture to convey the concept of discernment. We will then take special note of the fact that while discernment is a spiritual gift it is also commanded in the Scriptures for every believer, not just the uniquely gifted.


 


Finally, in Part 3, we will look at the principles given in the Bible that direct us in how to be obedient to those commands and we will apply these principles of discerning truth from error as we look at a few current examples of false teaching and false teachers.


 


 


Discernment, What is it and where does it come from?


So, what exactly is spiritual discernment and where does it come from? I will use both terms "spiritual discernment" and "Biblical discernment" interchangeably. Very simply put spiritual or Biblical discernment or even discernment in general is recognizing truth from error. Because God is truth and His Word is the written revelation of truth, therefore discernment can only come from God and His Word as they are the final authority on truth. We're done! It is no more complicated than that. But let's get into the details a little more. First, we must recognize and acknowledge as fact the statement I made above; that God's Word is TRUTH.  Jesus says in John 17:14-20:


14I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. 18As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. 20Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; (KJV)


Also, Psalms 25:5 says, "Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; For You I wait all the day."


From John chapter 1 verse 1 we read that "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God." And we should recall that Jesus rightly claimed of Himself that He is the way, the truth, and the life. And in John 8:31-32:


31Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;32And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (KJV)


Now remember that from the very beginning that God's Word has been under attack from the devil as we read in Genesis 3 that Satan does nothing more than to question, "did God really say?" This is how error starts and is also the starting point for discernment! Recall too, during the temptation of Jesus by the devil that in the first two of the three temptations that Scripture was quoted (or misquoted) by the father of lies. All of this shows clearly that it isn't just a flat out bold face lie that is error but the mishandling and the simple careless or selfish use of God's Word. As Tim Challies writes in his book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, that: "Satan seeks to lead us astray, to deceive us, by offering us a counterfeit version of the truth. Satan offers something that resembles the truth but is actually error. He is crafty and subtle, offering something that seems so close yet is still so far away."[1]  This is the foundational need for each one of us to exercise discernment.


 


Largely neglected and ignored in churches today!


As we are looking at this subject and perhaps growing in our understanding, I would encourage you to even begin exercising it now as I am teaching you on the subject. Be as the Bereans in Acts 17:10-11 who were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians as they examined (anakrino, one of the Greek words used to communicate discernment) everything according to the scriptures! The Bereans are called noble-minded because they were discerning!


 


In a November 2002 address to the students at the Master's Seminary, Dr. MacArthur stated that, "The biggest problem in the church today is the absence of discernment. It's a lack of discernment. It's the biggest problem with Christian people, they make bad choices. They accept the wrong thing. They accept the wrong theology. They are prone to the wrong teaching. They're unwise in who they follow, what they listen to and what they read."[2]


 


The Bereans practiced spiritual discernment; in fact we can substitute in another word as a synonym: discrimination. We live in a day when discrimination of any kind is looked down on and ridiculed. The mere concept of discrimination is routinely reduced to racial discrimination. This kind of discrimination is sinful and wrong and equally sinful and wrong is the race-baiting that is used to justify the removal of any and all discrimination from the land.  Nonetheless, parents, wouldn't you want your children to be discriminating when it comes to selecting a spouse? Or will just anyone do? There used to be a time when being someone with discriminating tastes was a good thing. Today it has become some kind of social pariah.


 


But why is it neglected and ignored so much? Because doctrine divides! Jesus said in Matthew 10:34-37:


34Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. 37He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.


Discernment will bring division. When you make a hard stand on the truth and veracity of Scripture without compromise there will be division; particularly when there is a refusal to reason from the Scriptures. It is not easy and it definitely is not popular. Discernment will separate believer from unbeliever, discerning believer from undiscerning, mature from immature and naïve from prudent.


 


It is primarily for this reason, a desire to never be divisive, that discernment has been and continues to be neglected in the church. Additionally, it is through this complete lack of discernment that the Devil and the anti-Christ will gain entrance and acceptance in the "church," that is really the false church. We see widespread evidence of this fact around us today. There are numerous articles documenting this fact on Worldview times that prove this fact out. If you are unfamiliar please take some time to browse a few articles on communitarianism, Rick Warren, or Glenn Beck for starters. In Part 3 we will look at more names and concepts to be aware of as well as tools for identifying these dangerous enemies of the Gospel.


 


Dr. MacArthur makes this serious statement regarding the lack of discernment in the church today: "This is really what is the death knell to biblical Christianity, bad decisions, faulty reasoning, superficial understanding, shallow knowledge, ignorance are contributing and always have contributed more anguish to the church than any persecution. I would rather the church be persecuted. I would rather Christians shed their blood than abandon their theology. I would rather see Christians crucified upside down than to have them let go of the truth of God in a constant environment of compromise. In fact, there's no question historically that the lack of discernment, discrimination, precision regarding the truth has cost the church far more than all the persecutions of the church combined."[3]


 


In the next installment on this subject we will look at some of the original Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture to convey the concept of discernment; then we will take special note of the fact that while discernment is a spiritual gift it is also commanded in the Scriptures for every believer, not just the uniquely gifted.


 


 


Endnotes


[1] Tim Challies, The Discipline of Biblical Discernment, Crossway Books, 2007.


[2] Dr. John MacArthur, Principles for Discernment, Part 1, TMC209, November 8, 2002,.


[3] ibid.