One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the discerning of spirits. 1 Corinthians 12:10. Why would God give this gift? Apparently, because not all spirits are good. Jesus warns in Matthew 24:24 that false Christs and false prophets will perform miracles with the goal of deceiving Christians. This means that we are to be alert to those who falsely claim the power of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Jesus warns us of the extreme danger of attributing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 12:32. Let's dive into our study of what the Bible teaches about how discernment can safeguard rival in the church!
"Discernment: The Safeguard of Revival"
August 24, 2013
John 17:3; 1 John 2:3-6; Matthew 23:27, 28; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7
Last week a giant international counterfeit goods conspiracy was uncovered by FBI agents in Newark, New Jersey. Three men from the People's Republic of China and two men from New York City pleaded guilty to charges of trafficking counterfeit goods and money laundering. Over 26 in all have been indicted in a ring that tried to smuggle $325 million in counterfeit goods.
"From August 2008 through February 2012, the defendants ran an international counterfeit goods smuggling and distribution conspiracy. The defendants and others imported more than 35 containers of counterfeit goods-primarily cigarettes, handbags, and sneakers-into the United States from China in furtherance of the conspiracy. These goods, if legitimate, would have had a retail value of more than $300 million."1
Law enforcement agents actually set up a front company acting as an importer to snag the illegal ring. The conspirators filled out fraudulent customs paperwork, controlled the importation of counterfeit goods, worked with connections to distribute the goods and, unknown to them, paid undercover law enforcement agents more than $900,000 to do all this work ... until they were caught.
Dozens of phone calls were recorded and many in-person meetings were held with undercover special agents. These cops pretended to have "connections" at the port so that containers of goods could bypass regular channels and avoid import fees. The front worked and the criminals were trapped. Some of the guilty men may receive up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $2 million each.
In this week's Sabbath school lesson we are studying the counterfeit revivals that Satan is seeking to "import" into the church as "genuine goods." He presents what appears to be a real spiritual awakening, but is fraudulent. Like FBI agents, we must be discerning in order to determine the difference between true and false revival. Signs and wonders stamped on the outside containers of these trends do not guarantee the real deal inside.
There are some simple tests to check out fake religious experiences. One is by spotting an emphasis on an emotional experience that underplays obedience to God. We can recognize movements which sidetrack us from Scripture when they avoid self-denial and commitment to follow the Lord. Feelings can lead us to believe our worship and spiritual conclusions are truth-based, but when the Bible shines light into the deeper layers of our practices, we might find ourselves convicted that what we thought was genuine is really counterfeit.
Discernment: The Safeguard of Revival
Commentary for the August 24, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Matthew 16:6, NIV
Discernment is sometimes interpreted in different ways depending on the agenda of the one who claims to be exercising it. The discerner may simply be guiding their life by the understanding provided by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, they may be claiming discernment as a basis for telling others how to live. Most who have walked the Christian pathway for any length of time have encountered both of these as well as a fair spectrum of those who fall between these two extremes. The viewpoint we have of discernment can dramatically impact how we understand revival.
If we see discernment as a tool for examining the lives of others, we may tend to see others and their behavior as obstacles to revival. This can result in calls to clean up the church and return it to some imagined earlier pristine faith. Never mind that the Bible teaches that all are sinners.[i] These individuals dwell in this imaginary idyllic past and believe that if they could persuade everyone to return to that time then Jesus would come. They do not seem to understand if that were true, He would have come then. But He didn’t, so perhaps that past was not so perfect either.
Sadly, this approach not only is based on a fantasy, it also prevents that desired vision of perfection from being realized in the present as well. Once we begin to blame the sins of others for delaying the Parousia, we entertain a spirit of criticism and judgmentalism that may be more destructive to peace and harmony than some of the sins we feel the need to rebuke. For example, perhaps the one who rebukes his brother or sister in Christ for drinking a cup of coffee is in more danger than the one criticized of falling for grieving the Holy Spirit with his hard-heartedness and his eagerness to wound another soul in a misguided attempt to purify the church.
How can this be? Shouldn’t we have standards in the church? Don’t we have a responsibility to maintain those standards? Initially, many would agree with the need for standards. However, standards based on man’s understanding of what God requires are not always the same as what God actually requires.[ii] If we consider the coffee drinker, although the Bible says nothing about coffee, some feel that their spiritual well-being is jeopardized by even one sip of this dangerous beverage. They have taken the Bible and applied a human derived interpretation of an unrelated passage and created a rule to govern the behavior of themselves and others within the body of Christ. It was these derived interpretations that also prevented the Jews from recognizing Jesus as the Messiah.[iii] They had the accepted interpretations that had been preserved for generations. Unfortunately, Jesus did not match their expectations for a savior.
Derived interpretations of scripture may or may not be correct. Based on the fallibility of humanity, maybe we should expect some to be incorrect. It is in that potential for error that we find the greatest danger for such derivations. How tragic if we succeed in driving an erring person from the fold only to discover one day that the interpretation we based our judgment on was in error. Even if it was possible, and with God all things are,[iv] the work of reclaiming that lost soul may be very difficult. How frustrating it must be to our heavenly Father to ever have to go in search of sheep that we have driven from His fold. These are sheep Jesus died for, sheep that were called to Him and responded to that call. These are sheep that expected safety, compassion and understanding in the fold but instead found judgment, condemnation and exclusion by those who felt they themselves occupied a higher position of favor with the Shepherd. These unkind sheep fail to understand that God is about saving people, not condemning them.[v]
Some might feel that I have this perspective because I drink coffee and am defensive about it. However, those who know me know that I cannot stand the taste or the smell of coffee. A spiritual justification for coffee drinking would mean nothing to me. But by the same token, a rule against coffee drinking would mean nothing to me either. Therefore, if I am to be saved, it must be by some other means than by coffee abstention as coffee is neither yea nor nay to me spiritually. It is irrelevant. Perhaps, similar rules are the same for everyone – irrelevant to their salvation. We have certainly, as a denomination, acknowledged the foolishness of such rules in the past.
When I pastored in the Midwest several decades ago, I assisted an evangelist with a series of meetings. When we reached the end of the series, several made decisions to join the church. However, at that time, the evangelist could not baptize anyone who continued to wear a wedding ring. In fact, to do so could result in loss of pastoral credentials in some conferences. Some who wished to join the church struggled mightily with this issue. It seemed they were being forced to choose between loyalty to their spouse or to Jesus. Some were unable to make the transition and “went away sorrowful.” Sadly, at their departure, some pastors would even say, “I guess they didn’t love Jesus.” Only God knows how many souls were thus driven from fellowship.
Now, several decades later, this is not an issue. Several pastors and many members now wear wedding rings. They do not see it as challenging their relationship to Jesus. While there has been no official statement from the denomination regarding the earlier position being erroneous, the change in behavior and lack of official opposition to that change is perhaps a de facto admission of the same. But one cannot help but wonder how we can go down such rabbit trails with our faith and wound so many who are seeking Jesus in the process. Maybe it says something about the quality of our spiritual experience both individually and as a denomination.
At Pentecost, Peter the Apostle proclaimed a very simple message to the people. He told them to “repent, and be baptized...” and if you do, you will receive the Holy Ghost.[vi] The Bible tells us that thousands responded to that message by uniting with the church.[vii] When they did, if we believe Peter, they received the Holy Spirit. To what end was that Spirit given? Jesus said that the Spirit’s work is to lead us into all truth.[viii]
Sadly, too many Christians want to take on this work of the Holy Spirit. They feel that it is their job to lead other believers into every truth. Never mind they are not God and so by definition cannot possibly know all truth themselves. Without fear they usurp the role of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. By doing so they admit that they do not believe in the power of God, for they demonstrate a belief that God cannot accomplish a complete work in someone else’s life without their controlling the direction of that work. Perhaps they are farther from God than the one they are trying to correct.[ix]
Just as with so many other things in nature, no two sheep in God’s fold are identical. For this reason the work of the Holy Spirit is tailored uniquely to each individual. Since only God can see and understand our hearts, only He, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has the ability to meet each individual need. We do not. We tread on dangerous ground when we take what the Holy Spirit is speaking into our hearts and imply that it is the voice of God speaking to others as well. This is a danger we all must ask God to help us to avoid. Even Peter struggled with this issue when he became overly concerned about John’s spiritual path.[x] But Jesus gently rebuked him by saying, “What is that to you?”
It is important that we recognize that God gives the Holy Spirit to all who come to Him. If we do not believe this then we may be positioning ourselves in opposition to Peter. If we force God to choose between who is right in this matter, us or Peter, we may not like the answer. Perhaps it is better to trust the Holy Spirit to work in other’s lives as well as our own. If we cannot understand that, is it possibly because we are no longer seeing it in our own lives? If that is the case, we need only to listen to Peter’s call to repentance.
No amount of abstention from coffee, dairy, meat, music or any other perceived vice can restore the Holy Spirit to us. He comes to us not from works, but faith that He will accomplish a complete work in us.[xi] Can we trust Him to do so? It is not our work, but His to perform, “For we are God’s handiwork…”[xii] What might happen if we went to God and said, “I give up trying to make everything and everyone right. I’m giving it all to you God. You take it. I trust you to do it all in myself and everyone else without me worrying about how you are going to do it or when. I know that you will and that is enough.”
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:20, NIV
[i] Romans 3:23
[ii] Mark 7:7
[iii] John 5:39-40
[iv] Matthew 19:26
[v] John 3:17
[vi] Acts 2:38
[vii] Acts 2:41
[viii] John 16:13
[ix] Cf., “Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings,” Ellen G White, pgs. 125-129
[x] John 21:20-22
[xi] Titus 3:5
[xii] Ephesians 2:10a, NIV
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