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