Let me give you an example of what I mean by testing the spirits. Let’s pretend that one day the world was at war again. Someone had released a pathogen that was killing off hundreds of thousands of people a week. It looked like mankind was really going to destroy themselves this time.
In the midst of all this strife some scientist noticed on his telescope that an object, very small, was coming towards earth at an incredible speed, faster than any comet. The militaries of the earth were alerted. Talk shows had experts tell us of the devastation that a small object could do if it struck the earth. This object was coming straight for earth. They calculated that it would hit the earth in two days. The people of the earth wondered if it was judgment from God.
Just hours before the object was to hit, radio messages were received all over the earth that were purported as coming from the object. “Stop the war! I am coming! Stop the war! I am coming!” This was repeated over and over.
The object turned out to be some kind of spacecraft. It landed in the Middle East, in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. It landed with such force that a small earthquake resulted, cracking the mount in two. The spacecraft was so hot that it glowed.
It took only a few hours for the craft to cool. As it did, camera crews, the curious, military people, and politicians gathered to it. After it was cool, a door opened, and a man walked out. He was bearded, wore blue jeans, and smiled a lot.
He said he was Jesus.
People who were dying from the plague were brought to him, and he healed them. Many miraculous signs were done. An uneasy peace began to pervade among the warring nations.
What would you do? Everyone seemed to be amazed. The question you would ask yourself is, does what this person say square with what is written? If it did not, even if you could not explain how these miracles were done, you would not accept this person as Jesus. Yet you would review all you had previously understood. You would make sure.
Then came the announcement. “All nations are to worship me, or judgment will follow!” The Islamic nations that would not bend had fire come upon them from what seemed like outer space. All governments were abolished. The control of all the world's money was unified under his command. Allegiance had to be sworn in order to participate in any way in society. Now your life and the lives of your children depended upon your decision. Would your decision hold? Could you be swayed?
This may be an extreme example. But every day we have to make similar decisions, yet on a much smaller scale. Jesus taught us that if we’d be faithful with little we’d also be faithful with much. I’ve noticed that this works in all areas of responsibility. In discernment there are just a few elements that need to be balanced.
Is what I see consistent with the scripture or not? If what I see challenges my understanding of scripture, after further review do I find it consistent or not? Who gets the glory? Is it consistent with the God I know? What is or would be the fruit? Do I have peace? What is the Spirit saying inside me? What do others, whom I regard as spiritually mature, say? What are the immature saying? In essence, is this activity consistent with the Spirit and the Book?
Unless you are convinced that the Spirit stopped doing the things we see throughout the Bible, there will still be, from time to time, miraculous signs and wonders done by God’s people today. The gifts of the Spirit are manifested still.
Let’s look at a test case. Take the stuff that went on at the Toronto Airport Vineyard (now Toronto Airport Church). I went to see it for myself. I was negatively predisposed. At first I was bored, yet after observing those around me have experiences from which they would come away with the praise of God on their lips and with a fervor to serve Him, I wondered. At one point there was a general call for those with lower back pain to come forward to be prayed for. I laughed to myself saying maybe everyone is going to go forward for this one. Since I had back pain, and had for years, I went forward, pressured by my wife, despite my skepticism. I stood in a circle around the platform with many others. As someone came near me to pray for me, and as that person lifted their hand to lay upon me for prayer, yet before I was touched, I found myself ejected backwards in a ‘graceful’ arc, landing on my lower back.
My back pain was gone, and stayed gone. I had other encounters with the Holy Spirit throughout the week, yet none of them were particularly emotional.
I remember one afternoon, while standing on a balcony at the back, being asked by the Holy Spirit if I would want this fruit in my ministry. Would I want people to more willing to serve God and make positive strides in their confession of faith? I said that yes, I would. But what if it came with all these different reactions, I was asked? Then I saw what was going on. The things that people did, the falling, laughing, groaning, etc., were their reactions to the Holy Spirit, not manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of these encounters with the Spirit was not the reactions, but the strides people made in their faith.
The fruit of these encounters with the Holy Spirit in my life gave me faith to believe God for the time and money for short term missions. This is with 5 kids still at home. Sometimes my wife or one of my children would accompany me. Beautiful fruit for me and my family. I can trace this fruit back to my encounters with the Holy Spirit at the Toronto Airport Church. Does this mean that I endorse all that went on? Of course not. Few do. But after testing I can keep the good and avoid the evil.
This is what Paul was steering us towards with these words in his letter to the Thessalonians. Paul wanted us to discern the intent of God in what is happening around us. This will take a familiarity with God has said and done in the past coupled with a openness to the Spirit. Even if we are not 100% correct in all our judgments we can at least move ourselves out of the place of debilitating deception into the range of non-dangerous differences of opinion.