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Discernment when Scripture doesn’t Answer our Questions

Posted by on Nov 11, 2011 in community, edification, gathering | 6 comments

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?


Series on Discernment

Prelude: Let the Others Weigh what is Said…
1. Test Everything: The role of discernment when the church gathers (Introduction)
2. Discernment: A gift of the Spirit and the work of all
3. Discernment: Part of the edifying process of the church gathering
4. Discernment, the Bereans, and Scripture
5. Discernment when Scripture doesn’t Answer our Questions


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 11-11-2011

    Thanks for sharing these examples in Scripture where Scripture was silent, yet discernment was used.

    I see 3 sources of guidance left for us:
    – Jesus left His Spirit for us to teach and guide us.
    – Christ left His living body – our brothers and sisters to teach, encourage, and give guidance
    – the Scriptures were left for us by the early church as a record and testimony

    When one of these sources is silent on a topic, it is OK to rely on another of these sources.

  2. 11-11-2011


    “Does it concern you that we must often discern (“weigh”) questions that are not answered by Scripture?

    No! Maybe I’ve been deficient in my understanding in these instances, but if one is a genuine believer, the Holy Spirit is involved in every aspect of life, even the normal weighing of issues not dealt with by Scripture. I have always called this “sanctified common sense”.

  3. 11-11-2011


    When Paul and his team tried to go to Asia then Bithynia (Acts 16:6-10), which of those three sources of guidance do you think they were using?

    Aussie John,

    Yep. And the Spirit is involved even when we follow our sanctified common sense in a wrong direction. If he loves us (and I think he does), then we can trust him to let us know when we’re going the wrong way.


  4. 11-11-2011

    Alan, I would think the first 2 I listed.

  5. 11-12-2011


    You and I seem to occasionally speak in unknown tongues:)

  6. 11-12-2011


    Do you find it as interesting as I do that Paul and his teams made at least two wrong turns?

    Aussie John,

    I think so.