Prophecy and Distinguishing of Spirits

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How does the gift of prophecy function? And what about the gift of the distinguishing of spirits? I am not talking about the purpose of prophecy, but how it actually works. In other words, how does a prophet actually get or receive revelation? And what does the distinguishing of spirits have to do with it?

The gifts of prophecy and the distinguishing of spirits appear coupled together in Paul’s famous spiritual gifts list, just as are the gifts of tongues and the interpretation of tongues:

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 NASB)

The gifts of the distinguishing of spirits and the interpretation of tongues are really subordinate, piggyback gifts in that they aid and support their superordinate gifts. They also function as a kind of safeguard. If there are no tongues, there is no need for interpretation. If there is no prophecy, there is no need for distinguishing of spirits.

In each case, the subordinate gifts inform our understanding of the superordinate gifts. For example, we know that the gift of tongues is multifaceted and very important because it has the potential to carry a message from God not just for the one speaking but for the entire church. The gift of interpretation can reveal just what kind of message is coming through the tongue.

Similarly, the gift of prophecy by its nature is a claim of direct revelation from God. The gift of the distinguishing of spirits can reveal the source of the prophecy—what kind of spirit is giving the prophetic words or vision. Is the spirit giving the revelation really from God? Or is it a false spirit? This precisely reveals the functional nature of the gift of prophecy.

What does Paul mean when he says, “the same God who works all things in all persons” (1 Cor 12:6), and “But one and the same Spirit works all these things,” (1 Cor 12:11)? At first glance, this seems to contradict the idea that the distinguishing of spirits would even be a gift. Why?—isn’t the Holy Spirit the one giving the revelation directly to the believer who has the gift of prophecy? There should be no need for such a gift of distinguishing spirits because the Holy Spirit does not lie. But this is not always the nature of how prophecy functions. At times in the Bible, it appears the Spirit himself gives a direct revelation to a prophet. Other biblical data show that other spirits are involved in directly giving the revelation, yet under God’s authority.

The Spirit does not always directly give the revelation to the prophet. The spirit empowers the believer with the gift of prophecy, which is an empowering and an enabling of the believer to have access to the spiritual realm in order to receive messages. From here, I will show that it is mainly individual spirits who are doing the work of relaying direct revelation from God to prophets.

Individual spirits are mainly the direct communication line to the gifted prophet. Paul shows this concerning the spirits of the prophets when he addresses orderly prophecy in the church:

Have two or three prophets speak, and have the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, then the first one is to keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:29-33 NASB)

The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. Paul shows that a spirit giving a message to a prophet will not take over the prophet and cause disorder. Most importantly for our discussion, Paul shows that prophets are in relation with spirits who are giving them the revelation.

Further, scripture proclaims that it is the Lord who is God over the spirits of the prophets:

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” (Revelation 22:6)

God is of course the fountainhead of all true revelation. God controls the flow of revelation and sends spirits to accomplish his will in giving revelation to those who are so gifted to receive it. And in this sense all true revelation given by prophecy can be said to be spoken by the Holy Spirit, even though the means of delivery may not be the Spirit Himself directly giving the revelation, but other spirits doing God’s will and serving this function.

But not all spirits are under authority of the Holy Spirit. And the one who is prophetically gifted is also able to hear and access them. This is why John instructs the believers to test the spirits of the prophets:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1-3 NASB)

John instructs the believers to test the spirits to see which are under the authority of the Holy Spirit. Their messages reflect the authority they are under. And the one who has the gift of the distinguishing of spirits also can tell which are from God and which are not. This is why there is even a gift of distinguishing of spirits.

Paul also warns the church not to let a deceiving spirit alarm them if it teaches something false, which would come through the gift of prophecy:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. (2 Thes 2:1-3)

Paul was well aware that spirits have the ability to give false prophetic revelation. In fact, this is so dangerous that Paul warns, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim 4:1).

Scripture further shows that God sends individual spirits to give messages to those who are prophetically gifted:

And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ (1 Kings 22:19-22)

God tasked the spirit in the above passage to give Ahab’s prophets lies, functioning as a lying spirit to them.

Because of the uncertainty of the nature of prophecy, Paul instructs the believers to examine all prophecies:

Do not quench the Spirit, 20 do not utterly reject prophecies, 21 but examine everything; hold firmly to that which is good, 22 abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thes 5:19-22)

Note that Paul encourages believers not to stop prophecy, but to examine everything. Test everything.

Scripture also shows that individual spirits give messages to those who are prophetically gifted, even outside the Spirit’s specific gifting; and that it can be from a spirit not under the Holy Spirit’s authority. See Acts 16:16-18 for the story of “a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.”

In summary, the Spirit empowers someone with the gift of prophecy to be able to receive messages from spirits in the spirit realm for the purpose of the common good of the church in building it up in multiple ways. Individual spirits are the main means by which God gives prophets revelation. And the one with the gift of the distinguishing of spirits plays an important role in examining and testing the spirits of the prophets as a safeguard for the church.


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