I had a strange encounter with a false prophetic spirit while preaching my first "revival" meeting at the Assembly of God in Kiowa, Oklahoma in 1972. It happened one afternoon as two friends and I were going door to door, witnessing and inviting people to the meetings.
We knocked on the door of a small wood frame house and a strange but very "spiritual" little man invited us into his home. We immediately noticed that his walls were papered with pictures and letters from well-known preachers and healing evangelists with whom he obviously corresponded and listened to on the radio.
Almost immediately he began telling us about his sensational, spiritual experiences. He had experienced, he said, visions and out-of-the-body experiences. He told us that he had been to both heaven and hell. He also said he saw Jesus in hell, whom he said was still there suffering for our sins.
At this point my friend, Ruel, interrupted and said, “Jesus is not in hell; He is in heaven.” This individual angrily retorted, “Don’t you call me a liar; I will kill you. I was there. I saw him.”
From the beginning, our spirits did not witness with the spirit that was in this man. But what clinched it for us was when he said that he saw Jesus in hell suffering for our sins. This was so contradictory to what the New Testament says about Jesus ascending on high and sitting at the right hand of the Father that we immediately knew it was a lie and that he was possessed with a deceiving spirit.
We offered to pray for him and he accepted our offer. He was now seated in a chair and as we laid our hands on him he bowed his head and began jabbering, as if in tongues. Suddenly, he lifted his head and began making strange motions with his hands toward us as if he were casting a spell.
When my friend, Charles, asked what the hand gestures were all about, he replied, “When I put that on someone, they usually die within three days.”
We had no fear, for we knew the truth of I John 4:4, Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world. We departed realizing he did not really want deliverance and was taken captive by the deceiving spirit to which he had yielded himself.
These same deceiving spirits were at work in Biblical times. During his time of ministry in Philippi, Paul encountered a young woman who prophesied through a false prophetic spirit known in the ancient world as the "spirit of python."
Paul Encounters the Spirit of Python
During their time of ministry in the city of Philippi of Macedonia, Paul and Silas encountered a young woman who prophesied through what Luke calls a spirit of divination (Acts 16:16). However, the Greek word from which “divination” is translated is python, a word associated with prophecy amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans. Because it was so well known in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the original readers of Acts would have made an immediate association when they read the words “spirit of python.”
Prophecy in the Ancient Pagan World
Prophecy was common among the ancient Greeks and Romans. In fact, the noted historian, F.C. Grant, has said that the consultation of prophetic oracles was probably the most universal cult practice in the Greco-Roman world (Hyatt, Angels of Light, 15).
“Oracle” was a word used by the ancients for a message from the gods, i.e., a prophecy. It was also used of the location where the oracles were given. Many regions had their own divinely inspired prophets or prophetesses who gave their oracles (prophecies) to a constant stream of seekers.
Prophecy was also common in the ancient pagan and mystery religions. This is borne out by the Roman historian, Livy (59 b.c. – a.d. 17), who describes followers of the pagan deity, Bacchus, who “as if insane, with fanatical tossings of their bodies, would utter prophecies.” He also describes devotees of the goddess Cybele as “prophesying in their frenzied chants” (Hyatt, Angels of Light, 15).
So pronounced was the public’s fascination with the supernatural that Petronius, a first century Roman official and novelist, declared, “It is easier to meet a god than a man.”
That prophecy and the supernatural were so common in the ancient, pagan world is why there are so many admonitions in the New Testament to not be deceived; and is why Paul, every time he mentions prophecy, includes an admonition to judge, test and prove the genuineness of prophecy.
How the “Python Spirit” Got its Name
The most famous ancient, pagan oracle (prophetic center) was at the city of Delphi in Greece and was known as the “Oracle at Delphi.” According to legend, the Greek god, Apollo, had slain a large female serpent--a python--at that site and the spirit of the python had remained. According to the legend, it now possessed the prophets and prophetesses who functioned there, “taking possession of their organs of speech moving and compelling them to give prophetic utterances” (Hyatt, Angels of Light, 16).
This was commonly known as the “pythian spirit” or the “spirit of python.” At the height of its popularity, the oracle at Delphi maintained three prophetesses who offered advice and counsel through the pythian spirit to a continual stream of visitors including generals and government officials.
“Spirit of python” thus became a general designation for pagan prophecy in the ancient Greco-Roman world. This is the association the first readers of Acts would have made to Luke’s mention of a “spirit of python.”
The Spirit of Python is Different from Christian Prophecy
One characteristic of the Oracle at Delphi—and all pagan prophecy—is that it was self-induced. Preceding their prophetic functions, the priestesses would go through ritual baths, sprinklings and animal sacrifices leading to a hyped and frenzied prophetic state.
One ancient drawing pictured the prophetess in a disheveled, frenzied state as she gave forth her oracle. Other pagan religions used music, dance, contortions and sex orgies to work themselves into a prophetic frenzy. (Do we charismatics have our own rituals by which we work ourselves into a “prophetic” state?)
In contrast, New Testament prophecy is not self-induced, i.e., it does not come forth at the initiative of the person prophesying. We do not work ourselves into a prophetic frenzy like the pagans. Paul is very clear in I Cor. 12:11 that the gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy, are given as He [the Holy Spirit] wills. Although we can learn about how prophecy and Spiritual gifts function, it is dangerous to think that we can learn “how to” prophesy of our own initiative.
This is, perhaps, why Paul allowed this situation with the young woman to go on for “many days” before dealing with it and casting out the spirit. He did not have a “how to” list for dealing with such situations but was dependent on the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I am convinced that when we begin to push ourselves into prophesying out of our own hearts, apart from the Holy Spirit, we open ourselves to false spirits such as the spirit of python that possessed this young woman in Philippi.
We Must Recognize the Counterfeit
Some today would have told this young woman that her fortunetelling ability was a gift from God and that she merely needed to submit it to Him. That was not Paul’s approach. He discerned that her gift was demonically inspired and he cast out the spirit that gave her that ability. When the demon went out, her fortunetelling powers were gone.
David Brainerd (1718-1747) ministered to Native Americans with great success. He tells of a medicine man among the Delaware who was feared and held in high esteem by the people because of his psychic and miracle working abilities. Brainerd said that when he preached about the miracles of Jesus being evidence of His divinity, the people were not impressed and proceeded to tell him about this man and his supernatural powers.
The medicine man eventually came to hear Brainerd preach and was powerfully convicted by the Holy Spirit and eventually accepted Christ as His Lord and Savior. Like the young woman, when she was delivered of the python spirit, he immediately lost all his supernatural powers. His testimony was, “When the word of God came into my heart, the power I had known went out.” His conversion and testimony had a powerful impact on the Delaware and other tribes in the region.
A person born into a family that practices palm reading, tarot card readings, ouija boards and other occultic practices may develop natural or soulish psychic abilities. They may also pick up demons, or what the Old Testament calls “familiar spirits.” It is a grave mistake to think that these are God-given gifts that will hopefully be submitted to God. They are demonic counterfeits of the true workings of the Holy Spirit and must be renounced and cast out.
Characteristics of a Spirit of Python
Luke uses “spirit of python” in regards to this slave girl probably because the spirit operating in her was like the one at Delphi. There is, of course, the possibility that she had actually been to Delphi and that is where she picked up this false spirit.
It is important to note that what she said was true. Satan and demons have some knowledge and will reveal their “secrets” in order to impress and draw people into their destructive web. Only our God, however, is omniscient, i.e., all knowing.
Here are some of the traits of a spirit of python that are obvious in this narrative.
· It loves to flatter. The prophecy of this young woman was not given to encourage or affirm, but to flatter. We all need to give and receive affirmation and encouragement, but flattery is insincere and self-serving. So many today, including leaders, are so starved for affirmation and approval that they are vulnerable to the flatteries of a deceiving, python spirit. We must be so settled in God’s acceptance and approval that we are no longer susceptible to the flatteries of a false prophetic spirit. Beware of those who use prophecy to flatter and, thereby, gain advantage.
· It demands attention. This is indicated by the fact that she followed Paul and the others for “many days” continually giving forth her prophecy. Beware of those who use prophecy to thrust themselves into the limelight.
· It loves to be seen and heard. This is indicated by the fact that she kept putting herself at the center of attention. Note those who use prophecy to make themselves the center of attention.
· It wants to be important. This is indicated by the fact that she directed her prophesying to the leaders of this new movement. Beware of those who use prophecy to gain status with pastors and leaders.
· There is a monetary motive. This young slave girl was raking in a lot of money for her masters. I am afraid this same motive is present in the charismatic/prophetic movement today. Some brashly offer a personal prophecy in return for a financial gift. Others are more subtle like a "prophet" I once saw who expressed his desire to pray for everyone who would bring a certain designated offering to the front for his ministry. As he prayed and then prophesied over each one that came with their money, I saw women looking in their purses for money so they could go forward and “get a word.” I believe this man was opening himself to a false spirit—a spirit of python—by his devious actions.
There is so little discernment today that many churches in the modern charismatic/prophetic movement would probably have put this young woman on their prophetic team, for what she prophesied was accurate and positive.
Discernment is lacking because, in this post-modern world, the lines between true and false are being blurred and even erased. Reason and common sense are being replaced by a me-centered philosophy that creates its own reality.
Some in the charismatic movement are tapping into New Age writings with the excuse that “all truth is God’s truth.” If this had been Paul’s approach he would never have confronted the python spirit and cast it out, for what was being said was true.
Taking a stand for truth is not always the most popular thing to do. Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten and thrown in jail because they distinguished between the true and the false and cast out the python spirit. Nonetheless, they refused to compromise truth and God sent an earthquake, physically and spiritually, and turned the situation completely around.
God is looking for people who will stand for truth in this hour. Truth is vital for it is our ultimate weapon against the “father of lies.” This is why Jesus said,
If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:31-32).
This article is derived from Dr. Eddie Hyatt's latest book, Angels of Light, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com.