Three Obscure Gifts

Chapter 16

Word of Knowledge, Word of Wisdom, & Discerning of Spirits

The study of these three gifts begins with a problem -- the problem of identity or definitions. Like some of the other gifts, these are nowhere defined in the New Testament, but unlike most other gifts, neither does the New Testament definitely specify how they functioned or for what purpose. Being mentioned only in I Corinthians 12-14 (12:4-11, 13:8-10, and 14:6), and perhaps referred to indirectly once or twice, these gifts are relatively obscure. For definitions, then, the interpreter is left only to the simple meanings of the words themselves, inferences and deductions drawn from them, and the contexts in which they appear.

With this data considered, it seems easiest to understand these gifts as temporary, revelatory gifts; that is, they are gifts which involved direct revelation from God and were given to the early church only.


Word of Knowledge

This gift is mentioned only in I Corinthians 12:8, 13:2(?), 8-10, and 14:6. To "know" something, of course, means to grasp certain information. The identification "word of knowledge" reveals this to be a speaking gift, the speaking forth of that knowledge to others. As explained above, it is revelatory knowledge that is in view, knowledge received directly from God, not attained by normal methods of research and learning. In those days before the availability of Scripture, the church relied upon men to deliver Divine Truth directly from God; a man gifted with the word of knowledge was such a man. This gift is similar to the gift of prophecy, differing perhaps in that this gift lacked the ability to foretell the future as could the prophets. More than likely, as the name of the gift suggests, to the one with the word of knowledge God also gave great insight and understanding of truth that had already been revealed. This knowledge would have been revelatory as well.

The men with the gift of knowledge simply delivered and explained God's truth to the church. God gave them the knowledge, and they relayed it to the church. Paul's frequent references to receiving and delivering a divine "mystery" (secret) serve as good examples of this gift (e.g., Ephesians 3:1-5 and I Corinthians 15:51). God simply informed him of the otherwise unknowable truth which he was to deliver to the church.

Many people today are given a great capacity for understanding Divine Truth, but this understanding is attained only by effort in the normal processes of learning. This gift of knowledge needed no such effort: the truth was simply revealed by God.

Word of Wisdom

The difference between the gifts of knowledge and wisdom is slight, with much overlap. "Knowledge" assumes a certain degree of understanding of certain information; "wisdom" assumes that plus a little more -- the use or applying of that information to achieve certain ends. It is not knowledge merely, but knowledge put to practical use. This gifted person not only understood the Truth of God but could also insightfully apply that truth to the Christian life. Most Christians have been blessed to know some wise, discerning Christian who always seems able to take some great truth of Scripture and relate it to a particular dilemma, thus making the issue clear. Evidently, God enabled men to do that even before Scripture was finally given. He gave them knowledge and with it the ability to use it to the help of his own life and that of others. God still gives wisdom today and that in varying degrees, but this gift of wisdom was different by virtue of its revelatory nature. Again, the apostles' frequent exhortations based on Divine Principles illustrate this gift well.

Discerning of Spirits

Discernment is the ability to evaluate something. The Greek term here literally means "to judge through." The gift of the discernment of spirits was the ability to "judge through" or evaluate prophecies, teachings, and/or people, distinguishing the false from the true. In that day, you remember, God spoke to the church through men such as the prophets. This gift (as noted in the previous chapter) served as a check on those who would abuse that and give words and teachings which were not God-sent (e.g., I Corinthians 12:3, where someone evidently taught that Jesus was accursed). This person with the gift of the discernment of spirits could declare the true nature of such a prophecy and affirm the truth of the genuine.

Peter's insight into the hidden deeds and motives of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and Paul's evaluation of the demon-possessed girl (Acts 16:16-18) illustrate this well. Perhaps the clearest example is found in I Corinthians 14:29 which commands someone other than the prophets to evaluate the prophecy given. This check was needed when the church had no Standard, no canon of Scripture, by which to measure the teachings.

As with the previous two gifts, there is a similarity today: God still gives discernment, but today's discernment is not based on direct revelation but rather on a comparison with the truths and principles revealed to the apostles and prophets and now inscripturated.

Their Demise

At least three considerations point to the fact that these gifts are no longer in the church.

1) Revelation is complete and has ceased.

2) The need for these gifts has passed. No more knowledge or wisdom and no other standard for the evaluation of teachings is needed than what is given in Scripture. Furthermore, if prophets are absent from the church (see chapter 15), then there is no need for the discerners to evaluate them.


These gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and discernment of spirits were temporary, revelatory gifts to the church, given to fill a unique and temporary need. Today the church has the greater gift, the complete Revelation of Scripture; that and that alone is the all sufficient guide for faith and practice.