One of the gifts on Paul’s list is prophecy. According to the Greek lexicon the Greek word refers to a discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving and admonishing the wicked, or by comforting the afflicted, or by revealing things hidden, and especially by foretelling future events. The difficulty with the idea of prophecy is that people have a pagan, superstitious, crystal ball understanding of the word and of the process. So, to get at the biblical meaning of the word we need to disabuse ourselves of this common error.
In the Old Testament, prophets were preachers who foretold God’s plan and the coming of Christ. Part of that foretelling was a forth-telling, a telling forth, a bringing out into public view, and a clarification of the things of God. With the advent of Christ, New Testament prophets are preachers who clarify that God’s Old Testament promises have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ by setting Christ in public view as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and who foretell of the return of Christ in judgment in the fullness of time.
These New Testament prophets are not always the commonly accepted church leaders, just as the Old Testament prophets were not always the commonly accepted elders, Levites, or priests. The biblical ideal is that church leaders be fluent in the prophecies of God that church leaders teach and preach God’s prophecies correctly, but that doesn’t always happen. Leaders are susceptible to sin and error, and so God sometimes brings correction to His people, to His church, by reestablishing prophetic truth outside the ordinary channels of church authority and its leadership. Most of the Old Testament minor prophets provided such correction in the face of a corrupt priesthood. And Paul was dealing with just this kind of situation in Corinth, where church leaders had fallen into sin and were teaching error.
This kind of reestablishment of God’s truth from outside of the normal structures of His church is not something to be desired, nor is it to be treated lightly. Rather, it is always a prelude to God’s judgment and correction. Yes, the gift of prophecy, of full-orbed preaching, produces a time of revival and rebirth for God’s people, but it must be noted that birth, while a great blessing and joy, is also a painful and bloody process. In the same way, revival is a joy, but it is also traumatic — painful. Think of the guy in a hospital emergency room whose heart has stopped and the trauma inflicted upon him by the emergency room staff to restart it. They are pounding on his chest and shocking him with just enough current not to kill him. That’s revival.
We have a Romantic understanding of revival, as if it is a sweet and glorious time — like a family reunion or picnic. But real revival, real reformation is traumatic. It divides as well as unites families. It involves struggle and condemnation as well as reunion and affirmation. It always involves stripping people of their treasured illusions, stripping people of false beliefs that they have come to trust. People don’t easily change their minds about their most fundamental beliefs and values. But that is exactly what revival and reformation are about.
Suffice it to say that the gift of prophecy that Paul enumerated was nothing more nor anything less than the full-orbed biblical preaching of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. It is an explanation of Scripture that brings light to the dark recesses of our hearts and minds. “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Lord, have mercy.
Next on Paul’s list of gifts is discernment, a kind of distinguishing, judging and/or disputing. The root meaning of the Greek word is to separate, make a distinction, and discriminate, to prefer one thing over another. Discernment requires learning by discrimination, judgment and disputation. It involves the separation of truth from error, and sometimes requires a physical and organizational separation from those who teach or promote sin and error. Such separation can appear to be contentious because it requires a contending for God’s truth in the face of sin and denial.
The English Standard Version translates Paul’s phrase as the “ability to distinguish between spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10). The distinction is not blood related or genetic. It is not ethnic or national. It is not a matter of intelligence or personal abilities. Rather, the distinction to be made is spiritual. The Greek lexicon defines the word Paul used (pneuma — Spirits) as the third person of the triune God, the Holy Spirit. Christians are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christians are to know the difference between the presence of the Holy Spirit and the absence of the Holy Spirit. And the power to do this is a gift of God — it is the gift of the Spirit because only the Holy Spirit Himself can discern the Holy Spirit in others.
The gift of discernment is a matter of knowing right from wrong, good from evil. It is a matter of knowing what to do and what not to do. It’s about perception, aesthetics and values. It’s about morality, duty and obligation as well as grace, love and freedom. Discernment is a matter of seeing where God is leading and having the wisdom and courage to actually follow where God leads. Discernment is a gift of leadership.