Deception and Discernment

Deception and Discernment

One of the most frequently used analogies for a leader in the Bible is that of a shepherd. It is used not only of pastors and elders in the New Testament, but also of political leaders in the Old Testament. See also Jer. 3:15. Now a shepherd in Bible times not only had to lead the sheep to pastures new but also to defend them. 1 Sam. 17:34-36; cf. Acts 20:28-31.
So the shepherd always had to be on the look-out for predators. Sometimes a prophet was called a watchman for much the same reason. Ezekiel 3:17; 33:7.
Pastors, therefore, have to be on the look-out for the enemy’s attacks but, unfortunately, the devil does not usually attack in an open or obvious way. He almost invariably comes under cover, in disguise. He seeks to deceive us. And this is a very real danger. It is a striking fact that in the Bible, the NT especially, there are very many warnings about deception.
So we need to consider the danger of deception and the duty of discernment.


a. The warnings were given first by our Lord.
Jesus warned about false prophets & false sheep in Matthew 7:15ff. They have the appearance of sheep, but inwardly they are wolves. Also they actually prophesy and perform remarkable deeds. But they are workers of iniquity, literally, lawless. Jesus also warned about deceivers in Matthew 24:4,5,11,24. It is surely significant that the Lord should repeat this warning so frequently in this prophecy about the end times.

b. Then Warnings were also given by the Apostle Paul.
Paul warned about false apostles in 2 Cor. 11:13 15, and he warned about deceiving spirits in 1 Tim 4:1. He also predicted that there would be heretical teachers who would turn some Christians away from the truth in 2 Tim 4:3 4.

c. The Apostle Peter issued warnings also.
Peter warned about false teachers in 2 Pet 2:1 3.

d. And so did the Apostle John.
He spoke of false prophets in I Jn 4:1.

Surely we must take these things seriously since all the major writers warned about deception.

Richard Owen Roberts, one of the world’s greatest experts on the history of revivals, in his excellent book, Revival, discusses in one of the chapters some of the dangers of revival. One of them he names as ‘Lack of discernment.’ This is what he says about it.

It must not be supposed even a single moment that all that occurs in the name of revival is automatically of God. At no time in its history is the church more subject to error than in the midst of great revival blessing. One of the greatest dangers facing revival is the failure of revival leaders and subjects to discern between the work of God upon the souls of men and the work of the devil in the counter-revival.
[Richard Owen Roberts, Revival, Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1982, pp.120,121].

The fact that there are so many warnings about deception in Scripture clearly indicates that there is a very real danger of being deceived. And being deceived obviously means that you think something is perfectly valid, biblical, correct, above-board, but it is not and you are taken in, deceived, misled. No wonder that Paul, in Ephesians 6 speaks of the ‘wiles’ of the devil.

A striking fact about the warning of deception in the New Testament is the variety of words used. There are no less than ten different words used to warn against deception. Clearly this is an important subject and represents a very real danger.


a. planao – to go astray, to wander, to deceive by leading into error. Matthew 24:4,5,11,24.

b. ‘apate – deceit or deceitfulness. 2 Thess. 2:10.

c. exapateo – to beguile thoroughly, to deceive wholly. 2 Cor 11:3; Rom 16:17 18.

d. phrenapatao – to deceive in one’s mind. Titus 1:10.

e. dolos – primarily a bait or snare, hence, craft, deceit, guile. 2 Cor 11:13

f. methodeias – craft, deceit, a wile. Eph 4:14; Eph 6:11.

g. goetes – primarily a wailer, hence, from chanting spells – a wizard, sorcerer, enchanter, cheat, imposter. 2 Tim 3:13

h. paralogizomai – to reckon wrongly, hence to reason falsely, or to deceive by false reasoning, to delude. Col 2:4

i. deleazo – to catch by a bait, hence to beguile, to entice. 2 Peter 2:14,18

j. panourgia – ‘all working’, hence, unscrupulous conduct, craftiness, cunning.
2 Cor 4:2; 2 Cor 11:3.


The fact that discernment is needed is underlined not only by the many references to deception, but also by the clear commands to judge, weigh or consider.
E.g. 1 John 4:1ff.; 1 Thess. 5:21.

Now, just as there are ten words that are translated deceive, so there are ten words that are translated discern, but this time five are in the Old Testament, and five are in the NT.

a. Words in the Old Testament.

i. bin – to understand, to consider, to discern. 1 Kings 3:9.

ii. yada – to know, to be acquainted with. Eccles. 8:5.

iii. nakar – to discern, to acknowledge. Gen. 27:23.

iv. raah – to see, discern. Malachi 3:18.

v. Shama – to hear, discern. 2 Sam. 14:17; 1 Kings 3:11.

b. Words in the New Testament.

i. anakrino – to distinguish, scrutinize, question, judge closely, investigate, examine. Acts 17:11; 1 Cor. 2:14.

ii. diakrino – to discriminate, to judge thoroughly, to discern. 1 Cor. 6:5; Matt. 16:3.

iii. diakrisis – a thorough judging, the noun version of the above. Heb. 5:14.

iv. dokimazo – to test, prove, scrutinize so as to decide, to make proof. 1 John 4:1.

v. kritikos – critic or judge, one fit for or skilled in judging. Heb. 4:12.

The variety and frequency of these words for discerning, especially in the New Testament is impressive. How important it is that we do weigh, judge, discern. So many things happen that appear to be good or legitimate, but as Os Guinness says, in his book, The Dust of Death, ‘Reality is not to be taken for legitimacy. In a day of contentless religious experiences, the appeal of powerful spiritual phenomena is far wider than their legitimacy.’ [p.311].


a. We are to judge everything by the Word of God.
Obviously that means you must know the Scriptures in order to test everything by the Word. Isaiah 8:20; Acts 17:11; Heb. 4:12; 2 Tim. 3:16f.; 2 Tim. 2:15.

A friend of mine used to say, ‘We are saved by grace through faith not by works, but knowledge of the Scriptures comes by works.’ Someone may say, ‘But can’t we rely on the Holy Spirit to keep us from error’. Yes, if you do as He says and keep close to Christ. But He will not do for you what you can do for yourself. (cf. Acts 12. When the angel released Peter from prison he only did for him what he could not do for himself ).

We must know the content of the Bible, that is, the content and the main message of each book. Only by continual reading and study can we get to know this.

We must know the principles of the Word of God. For example, it is a principle of the Word of God that obedience is essential in order to receive further light. Also, God looks for character before gift.

We must know how to interpret the Word of God.

We must know the doctrines of the Word of God. Acts 2:42. Knowing doctrine gives us a sure foundation. It helps to clarify our thinking about what and why we believe. 1 Tim. 4:13,16. This should be obvious, but let us remind ourselves why we must be familiar with the main doctrines of Scripture. We must know doctrine:
(1) To avoid sin and to promote godliness. 1 Tim. 1:10; Titus 2:1, 7,10.
(2) To be able to discern error. 1 Tim. 4:1.
(3) To be adequate teachers. 1 Tim. 4:6 and 2 Tim. 3:10, 16.
(4) To know God better. 1 Tim. 6:1, 3.
(5) To counteract heresy. 2 Tim. 4:3; Tit. 1:9.
(6) To be able to defend the faith. Jude v. 3

b. We must pray earnestly for the ability to discern and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. E.g. Psalm 119:27, 33-40,108,133,169,175.

c. We grow in discernment by exercising our powers of judgment. Heb. 5:11-14. We must evaluate, we must assess, we must weight and consider. We must expose evil and error. Eph. 5:11-13. 1 Tim. 5:20.

d. We judge by observing the fruits of the people or teaching you are assessing. Matthew 7:15-20; Gal. 5:22, 23.

e. We must make sure that we are fully surrendered to God and obedient to Him ourselves, because rebellion leads to deception. 1 Sam. 15: 22, 23; John 7:17; Rom. 12:1,2.
f. There are different levels of discernment. The gift of discerning spirits is an extra level of sensitivity. We should ask God to give us that sensitivity. 1 Cor. 12:10; 1 John 2:13-20, 27.

g. We are not to judge by outward appearances. 1 Sam. 16:7.

The late Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote this:
Do not base your judgment on the people who are speaking to you and making their report to you. The tendency is to say, “Well now, I know this man to be a good Christian man, an honest soul, and a most devout person – therefore anything he says must be right.” He may be wrong! He is not perfect. The devil has brought down greater and stronger men than he. So the mere fact that the report brought to you by good people who may say to you, “My whole experience has been transformed by this”, is not enough. It may be right, it may be wrong.
[Prove all things: D. M. Lloyd-Jones: Kingsway, p.68f.]


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