Since we are talking about devils as evil spirits and discerning of spirits now is a good time to take a deeper look at the word spirit in scripture.
Spirit is one of those things like electricity. You can’t see it; you only know what it is by its effects. Oh, you can see lightning or the light of a light bulb, but those are just manifestations of electricity. And spirit is more hidden than electricity which we can define and measure in the natural whereas spirit (as in holy spirit or evil spirit) is not measurable in the natural at all. A google search of electricity revealed this definition, “a form of energy resulting from the existence of charged particles (such as electrons or protons), either statically as an accumulation of charge or dynamically as a current.” That is pretty precise and understandable to people that study those kinds of things. On the other hand, spirit cannot be ascertained in the natural world:
Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14 WEB)
The things of the spiritual world are not available to be reasoned out scientifically or philosophically, or any other way of the world. The spiritual world is revealed by Yahweh to us spiritually.
But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. (1Co 2:10-12 WEB)
What we truly know about the spiritual world is what has been revealed from God. There are all kinds of people all the time reasoning how God works, but they are just guessing because it is beyond our capacity to truly understand as the verses above declare. But people still do it, and bigger and bigger holes just keep being dug. That is part of how we have gotten the massive amount of division that we have in the church.
In reality, the more we both study the scriptures and act on them to experience the truth the more we understand spirit because we understand our father God, and the Lord Jesus Christ as we relate to them. Be we have to get away from all the philosophizing about the things of God because we really are incapable of figuring out anything about who God is and how God works other than what is revealed.
Now, when it comes to spirits, as great as it would be if the word spirit always referred to Holy Spirit or evil spirits, we need to acknowledge that the word spirit has different meanings in different contexts. Right off the bat here’s an example of spirit with some key distinctions.
That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (Joh 3:6b WEB)
The word spirit is in this verse twice with the word born between indicating there is a parent and child. A spirit is born of a spirit indicating two different spirits. And as this is talking about Holy Spirit that means it is talking about two holy spirits! We’re talking about Holy Spirit giving birth to holy spirit. Yep, that’s right. That’s what is revealed here.
Basically, the principle is that the Greek word pneuma with the article “the” refers to the Holy Spirit, the Giver. Without the article, pneuma refers to spirit, the gift believers receive when they are born again. This verse is saying that which is born of the Holy Spirit is a believer’s holy spirit. Notice that the first word is Spirit (capitalized) and the second is spirit (lower case). The Holy Spirit is capitalized. Lower case spirit, our spirit, is lower case. That is the convention in English although not in Koine Greek.
There is one Holy Spirit. If there are a billion born again believers then there are a billion holy spirits. That is what we are talking about. Here’s a verse that talks about individual spirits in believers, in this case, prophets.
The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, (1Co 14:32 WEB)
Look at this verse:
May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Th 5:23 WEB)
This verse breaks down a believer in the three components, spirit (pneuma), soul (psuche), and body (soma). Notice that the Greek word pneuma is not capitalized in that verse because it is talking about the believer’s holy spirit which is one part of three of the makeup of a believer.
Remember, part of the problem too is that there is no capitalization in the texts from which the books of the bible are translated. So, the translators decided, based on their theology, when to capitalize Holy Spirit and when not to, holy spirit. So, there is a problem going from translation to translation as to that translation’s rules for capitalizing or not capitalizing pneuma as spirit so it does get confusing at times.
There are more things to consider in the way spirit is used in scripture.
Next, look at this usage of the word pneuma. It does not have the article and it does refer to a person’s holy spirit, but only indirectly as it refers to the manifestations and uses of the spirit. So, it is a little awkward. The translators add the word gifts in the KJV to show the word is added by the translators.
Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. (1Co 14:12 KJV)
I chose to use the KJV version of that first to show that the word gifts is in italics, which, again, in the KJV shows that it is a word added by the translators. The literal translation is “for as much as you are zealous of spirit”. The ESV version translates that same phrase as “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit.” Neither is literal. The text says the word spirit but it is referring to the operation of the spirit. It goes to show you that you need to have some flexibility in that the use of the word pneuma just doesn’t mean a spirit entity, plain and simple.
Of course, so far, we have been talking about holy spirit, the good kind of spirit. But there are kinds of references to evil spirits, who are under the command of Satan. Devils or demons are angels who have turned against Yahweh and joined Satan’s cause.
Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; (Mat 25:41 WEB)
These bad angels are part of the kingdom of the devil which Jesus came to destroy.
He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed: that he might destroy the works of the devil. (1Jn 3:8 WEB)
In a later article, we will see in scripture that a number of these evil spirits are named like lying spirits, spirits of antichrist, familiar spirits, and so forth.
But, as we shall see in this article, every time it says spirit in Scripture doesn’t mean a spiritual entity like a holy spirit or an evil spirit. Here is a place with the Greek word pneuma where it doesn’t mean spirit as in holy spirit or evil spirit. It refers to an element of character or an attitude:
What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness? (1Co 4:21 WEB)
Again, it is usages like this that can make it more difficult to understand spirits because every time it says spirit it doesn’t necessarily refer to a different entity. This is talking about being gentle or a “gentle spirit” if you will. For us believers, gentleness isn’t a separate spirit, but gentleness is a fruit of our (holy) spirit as it says in Galatians:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23 WEB)
To be gentle means to act tenderly, mildly, with a light touch. 1 Cor 4:21 above shows Paul making a choice whether to act gently, with a light touch, or harshly, with a rod. So, to come in a spirit of gentleness is to come with a light touch, mildly, tenderly.
Similarly, let’s look at some verses in Proverbs.
Pride goes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor, than to divide the plunder with the proud. (Pro 16:18-19 WEB)
The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach. It is the Hebrew equivalent for the Greek word pneuma. The arrogant spirit here is not talking about someone being possessed with a spirit of arrogance. It means being puffed up, all full of themselves. You don’t have to be possessed to fall down this rabbit hole. People that are not possessed get arrogant and wind up taking a fall all the time.
This arrogant attitude is contrasted with a humble attitude, a “lowly spirit” the text reads. Again, humility refers to attitude. Our holy spirit helps us to be humble. When we have a lowly or humble spirit it refers to our character at that time.
Arrogant spirit, lowly spirit, gentle spirit are all examples of times when the word spirit is used but it doesn’t mean a unique spiritual being, it refers to character and attitude.
The word spirit is used when talking about angels as they are good spirits under God’s direction.
But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise, and go toward the south to the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a desert.” He arose and went; and behold, there was a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to Jerusalem to worship. He was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go near, and join yourself to this chariot.” (Act 8:26-29 WEB)
This is one of the records of a wonderful angel delivering a message to someone. It illustrates that angels are spirits. Interestingly, if inspired by the Lord, you could discern with discerning of spirits the presence of an angel or angels. Food for thought!
Here is an example of the phrase “the spirit of the law” used in the epistles.
who also made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2Co 3:6 WEB)
In this usage, “spirit” refers to what the original author intended as opposed to the actual entity of a spirit. The opposite is “letter of the law” which means to construe what was said to be as harsh as possible.
Here is another usage of spirit:
This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. (Act 18:25 WEB)
You understand that this isn’t saying he had a spirit of fervor, fervent in spirit here means he was just eager! We all should be eager to walk in the spirit like this man, teaching accurately the things of God.
We would be remiss if we didn’t point these verses out:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father. You worship that which you don’t know. … God is spirit (Joh 4:21, 22a, 24a WEB)
Jesus is talking with a Samaritan woman who he points out doesn’t really know much about God. He tells her that the Father is Spirit. (Notice the translators didn’t capitalize this usage of spirit.) So, here pneuma refers to the Father. God is Spirit.
There is more to this study, but by now you should have an idea of what to look for when seeing the word spirit in scripture.
Summing up, we see these usages of the word spirit in this article. I have also included some additional examples where this usage applies:
- Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20; Luke 2:26; Acts 1:16)
- holy spirit (Luke 1:15; Acts 2:4 (first); Romans 5:5)
- Manifestations and/or gifts of the spirit (Rom 15:19; 1 Cor 14:2; 1 Thes 1:5,6)
- Evil spirits (Matt 8:16; Mark 1:23; Act 5:16)
- Character or attitude (Matt 5:3; Gal 6:1; 2Tim 1:7)
- Angels (Heb 1:7,14)
- As an adverb (1 Cor 5:3; Heb 4:12)
- God the Father
All of this shows that the word spirit is used in relating to spiritual matters in a number of ways. And it is important to understand that every time the word spirit is used it might not mean a separate spiritual entity. We’ve seen that in scriptures where prideful spirits, jealous spirits, gentle spirit, humble spirit, power spirit, sound mind spirit are referred to. Those terms refer more to the character of the person being exhibited at the time. On the other hand, holy spirit, the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit, is a spiritual entity as are the many references to unclean spirits who are part of the domain of Satan to influence and even possess people in scripture and in life.
There are online sources for the different usages of the word spirit, but I didn’t find that they agreed all the time and it is important to watch out for the theology of the writer to determine how the usages are determined The only publication that I know of that explores a word study of spirit is an old book by E W Bullinger, Word Studies on the Holy Spirit. Bullinger’s book is the most thorough discussion that I have found.
This is a worthy topic for each scripture student to study and the examples that I have given above are a good place to start.
 Spirit, https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/spirit/ has an interesting discussion from Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Encyclopedia.com has a discussion of spirit in both the Old and New Testaments at https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spirit-bible
 Word Studies on the Holy Spirit, E. W. Bullinger, 1985, originally published 1905, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids