THE SPIRIT OF PYTHON: Recognizing the False Spirit of Prophecy in the Church Today

Now it happened as we went to prayer, that a slave girl
possessed with a spirit of divination (Gk. python) met us . . . 

Acts 16:16

In Acts 16:16, Paul and Silas encountered a young woman who prophesied to them through what Luke calls a “spirit of divination.” However, the Greek word from which “divination” is translated is python. “Python” was 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.” Here is how they would have understood it.

Prophecy Was Common Among Ancient Pagans

Prophecy was common among the ancient Greeks and Romans. One historian has said that the consultation of prophetic oracles was probably the most universal cult practice in the Greco-Roman world. “Oracle” was a word used by the ancients for a message from the gods, i.e., a prophecy. Many regions had their own divinely inspired prophets or prophetesses who gave their oracles (prophecies) to a constant stream of seekers (see Hyatt, Prophets and Prophecy, 21).
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,” and also describes devotees of the goddess Cybele as “prophesying in their frenzied chants” (Hyatt, Prophets and Prophecy, 20-21)
That prophecy and the supernatural were so common in the ancient 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.

The Oracle at Delphi

The most famous ancient 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.” This was commonly known as the “pythian spirit” or the “spirit of python” (Hyatt, Prophets and Prophecy, 21).
At the height of its popularity, the prophetic oracle at Delphi maintained three priestesses/prophetesses who offered advice and counsel through the pythian spirit to a continual stream of visitors including generals and government officials. This is the association the first readers of Acts would have made to Luke’s mention of a “spirit of python.”
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?)
How We Open Ourselves to a Spirit of Python
In contrast, New Testament prophecy is not self-induced, i.e., it does not come forth at the initiative of the person prophesying. 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 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, that we open ourselves to false spirits such as the spirit of python that possessed this young woman in Philippi.
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. Scripture is very clear that the Holy Spirit is in the earth to draw attention to Jesus, as Jesus Himself said of the Holy Spirit in John 16:14, He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.
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 often a monetary motive involved.
This young slave girl was raking in a lot of money for her masters. I am afraid this same motive is at work in the charismatic/prophetic movement today, usually in very subtle ways. I once saw a man, who probably had a genuine gift of prophecy, express his desire to pray for everyone who would bring a certain offering for his ministry to the front. As he prayed and then prophesied over each one, 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.

Taking A Stand For Truth

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. 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 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 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. As Jesus said in John 8:31-32, If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
This article led to the development and publication of the book, Prophets and Prophecy, by Dr. Eddie Hyatt and is available from Amazon and his website bookstore at www.eddiehyatt.com.



The word “apostolic” is not found in the Bible. Neither Jesus, or Paul or any New Testament writer ever used the word. No one’s ministry in the New Testament is described as being “apostolic.” The adjective “apostolic” is, therefore, a part of the Church’s history, not its origins.
Early Uses of “Apostolic”
“Apostolic” was first used in the 2nd century to refer to leaders in the Church, such as Polycarp of Philippi and Clement of Rome, who had been directly associated with the original apostles. They were “apostolic” in the sense of having a direct connection with those first apostles of the Lord. In the same century the church father, Irenaeus, began using the word to refer to certain churches, such as those at Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus, that had been founded by Paul or one of the Twelve. According to Irenaeus, these were “apostolic” churches and deserving of special honor because of their unique origins.
“Apostolic” thus took on the meaning of that which is “connected to” or “pertains to” the apostles of the New Testament. Out of this desire to be connected to the apostles there developed the idea of an “official” connection through a succession of bishops who, it was claimed, could trace their authority back to the original apostles. This idea of an official apostolic succession is the position today of the older churches such as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican.
Later Uses of “Apostolic”
In the 3rd and 4th centuries “apostolic” began to be used in a pietistic sense to refer to individuals who seemed to exhibit a remarkable degree of holiness or spiritual power. They were “apostolic” in that their lives were considered to be “like” the apostles of old. With the advent of Monasticism and with many retreating to the deserts to live isolated lives of prayer and meditation, some gained great fame for their sanctity and power in prayer. As a result, they were often referred to as being apostolic, i.e., like the apostles.
Interestingly, the New Testament apostles never held themselves up as examples or models for others to follow. One only has to look at Peter after the healing of the cripple man in Acts 3. As the wide-eyed crowd looked on in amazement, ready to pay homage to him and John because of the miracle, Peter responded, Why are you looking at us as though by our own power of holiness we had made this man to walk . . .. He then proceeded to direct the people’s attention away from himself and John to Jesus. One could thus say that to be “apostolic,” i.e. “like the apostles,” is to be always looking away from self to Christ.
The Reformers’ View of the “Apostolic”
The 16th century Reformers rejected the idea that to be “apostolic” one had to be in communion with a church founded by one of the original apostles, which, by this time, meant communion with Rome. Martin Luther showed little interest in official church structure and order, focusing his energies, rather, on the defense of the gospel of God’s saving grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He and other reformers believed they were “apostolic” because they were preaching the same gospel as those first apostles of the Lord. As one writer put it, “The Reformers rejected the teaching of apostolic authority through the Church office and stressed instead that the apostolic nature of the Church is actualized through the preaching of gospel.[i] The famous Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, expressed this concept when he wrote,
The apostolic community means concretely the community which hears the apostolic witness of the New Testament and recognizes and puts this witness into effect as the source and norm of its existence. The Church is apostolic . . . when it exists on the basis of Scripture and in conformity with it.[ii]
Early Pentecostals
Considered Themselves “Apostolic”
Early Pentecostals used the word “apostolic” to describe their movement. Charles Parham and William Seymour, the two most prominent early leaders, called their ministries and their publications “The Apostolic Faith” because they believed that through their ministries God was restoring the faith of the New Testament Church, particularly in regards to the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Other Pentecostals, such as Gordon Lindsay, sometimes referred to individuals who exhibited Spiritual gifts of power and healing as being “apostolic” because their ministries were like the apostles of old. “Apostolic” was also used in the Latter Rain movement of the 1950s and is used today by some Oneness Pentecostal groups who claim that their unique form of baptism (in the name of Jesus only) is the way the apostles in the New Testament baptized.
The Contemporary Shift
in the Use of “Apostolic”
In all the above usages the word “apostolic” refers, in one way or another, to the apostles of the New Testament. But in charismatic circles today it seems that “apostolic” is being used to refer to that which pertains, not to the apostles of the New Testament, but to modern apostles. This is where the danger lies—in tying the “apostolic” to modern apostles and their teachings rather than to Jesus, His apostles and the New Testament. Because of this new and innovative approach, there exists the real danger that the modern “apostolic” is becoming another sectarian movement built upon the teachings, not of Scripture, but of its own new apostles. This is not to deny the existence of present day apostles, but to deny that they define what it means to be “apostolic.”
We are never told in Scripture to be “apostolic.” Our ultimate destiny is not to be like Peter, John or Paul, but to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). We follow the apostles of the New Testament only as their example leads us and points us to Jesus Christ, as Paul stated in I Corinthians 11:1, Follow me as I follow Christ. It is in this sense that we may consider ourselves “apostolic” in that we follow those earliest apostles in their absolute devotion and commitment to Jesus, not because we have aligned ourselves with a particular church or adopted a certain church order.

Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian, Bible teacher and ordained minister. His latest book, PURSUING POWER: How the Historic Quest for Apostolic Authority & Control Has Divided and Damaged the Church, is available from Amazon and at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.

[i] Charles J. Conniry, Jr., “Identifying Apostolic Christianity: A Synthesis of Viewpoints,” JETS 37/2 (June 1994): 252.
[ii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1962), 722.



Cutting Through Tradition, Culture & Ego
to Find the Genuine Move of God

This article is derived from chapter 11 of Eddie’s latest book, REVIVAL FIRE: Discerning Between the True & the False, available on Amazon and at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.

Revival is nothing more or less than a return to the Christianity of the New Testament. I once did a computer search of the word “revival” in John Wesley’s Journal. I only found four places where Wesley had used the word and he used it only in reference to the “revival” of the faith of certain individuals and the “revival” of Biblical Christianity in a certain community. Wesley did not call the powerful move of God that was occurring in his day a “revival,” but considered the movement he was leading to be a return to “primitive Christianity.”

Indeed, prior to the 19th Century, the word “revival” was rarely used, and when it was used, it normally referred, as in Wesley’s Journal, to the revitalization of one’s personal faith in Jesus or the revitalization of the faith of a church or a community. These “revivals,” as we call them, were usually led by ministers, such as Wesley, Edwards, and Whitefield, who, from their diligent search of Scripture, saw that the church of their day had veered from the Biblical pattern. To remedy the situation, they did not seek or pursue something called “revival.” Instead, they sought to recover the faith and dynamism of New Testament Christianity. They did not consider themselves “revivalists,” but merely ministers of the gospel seeking to preach and practice New Testament Christianity.

A Shift Begins with Charles Finney

A shift began with Charles Finney, who faced the deadening tenets of the hyper-Calvinism permeating the 19th Century American church. Hyper-Calvinism is a theological system that emphasizes the sovereignty of God to the extreme, purporting that God has already determined from all eternity who will be saved and who will be damned. Finney tells how pastors of his day would tell concerned inquirers to go home and pray and read their Bible, and if they were one of the elect they would be saved, but if they were not one of the elect, there was nothing anyone could do. In this system of thought, revival was seen as a sovereign work of God totally separate from any human means or instrumentality.

Finney responded by rightfully emphasizing human responsibility in salvation and in all relations with God. He denied that humanity was unable to respond to the demands of the Gospel, as the hyper-Calvinists taught, and he provoked much opposition and controversy when he began calling on those to stand who were ready to submit their lives to the claims of Christ. Trained as a lawyer, he considered himself called to argue God’s case before an unbelieving world. His messages, very logical and backed by much prayer, powerfully impacted his audiences.

In reaction to the Calvinistic notion that a revival is entirely a sovereign work of God, Finney, in the early days of his ministry, declared that a revival was no more a miracle than a crop of wheat. He pointed out that if a farmer used the proper means, including plowing, planting, and watering, then his desire for a harvest would be realized. For a farmer to pray for a harvest without using the proper means would be foolish. In the same way, argued Finney, revival will always occur when the proper means are employed. He thus made revival an objective and goal to be sought and obtained by using the proper means.

Finney Opens to Door to Professional Revivalism

The means Finney emphasized for a revival were private and public prayer, protracted meetings, pointed preaching, and personal witnessing. He was probably the first to use the word “revival” on a regular basis and as an objective that Christians should pursue. In this sense, Finney became the first professional evangelist or revivalist. Producing revival was his vocation. Other revivalists, lacking his gifts and commitment to truth, soon followed suit.

Finney’s emphasis on human responsibility opened the door for revival to be seen as a human enterprise. As others picked up his concepts and ran with them, God’s sovereign grace and choice in pouring out His Spirit was diminished, and human responsibility and ability to create “revival” were highlighted.

This opened the door for all sorts of questionable means being employed to produce revival. Since the success of the professional revivalist hinged on human ability to create an emotional and exciting religious event, revivals became increasingly shallow. Instead of being the result of the Holy Spirit’s working through the Word of God to convict and to change lives, “revivals” often were simply the creation of individuals who were adept at stirring and manipulating people’s emotions. In other words, “strange fire” was brought into the sanctuary of God in the name of “revival.”

R. A. Torrey, (1856-1928), an associate of D. L. Moody (1837-1899) and a successful revivalist himself, came on the scene a generation after Finney. He lamented,

We frequently have religious excitements and enthusiasms gotten up by the cunning methods and hypnotic influence of the mere professional evangelist or “revivalist,” but these are not Revivals, and are not needed: they are a curse and not a blessing; they are the devil’s imitations of a Revival.[i]

“Revival” Must Never Become an End or Goal

Biblical revival is a co-operation between the human and the Divine. In his later years, Finney acknowledged that he had put too much emphasis on human ability to produce revival. This had led to the erroneous notion that by employing certain means, one could produce a revival at the time and place of his choosing. Finney, in fact, saw so many people “backslide from a revival state,” that he began to question if there was not something higher and more stable that Christians should pursue.[ii]

The “backsliding,” Finney observed, was the bad fruit of making “revival” an end or goal to be obtained. The only legitimate end or goal for every Christian is Jesus Christ and conformity to His will. Romans 8:29 says, For whom He did foreknow, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. Genuine, heaven-sent revival will always have Jesus Christ as its end or goal. If revival itself becomes the end, then bad fruit, as Finney discovered, will be the result.

Professional Revivalism in the 21st Century

Professional revivalism may be a greater problem in our century than it was in previous times. This is because the hyper-Arminian mindset (overemphasizing human ability) that emerged out of Finney’s theology has been coupled with the influences of an entertainment-driven culture and a personal success orientation. As a result, little value is placed on repentance, prayer, and waiting on God for a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Instead, attention is given to what can be done on a human level to draw crowds and stir excitement. Challenging us regarding this, Duncan Campbell (1898-1972), the Welsh preacher whom God used in the mighty revival on the Hebrides Islands (1949-1952), writes,

We have seen crowded churches. We have seen many professions. We have seen hundreds, yes, and thousands responding to what you speak of here as the altar call. But, I want to say this, dear people, and I say it without fear of contradiction, that you can have all that . . . without God! Now, that may startle you, but I say again, you can have all that . . . on mere human levels.[iii]

In the sort of egocentric milieu that has emerged in American Christianity, revival too often is the product of a charismatic leader who knows how to control a crowd and generate excitement. Exciting promo, exaggerated claims, manipulative sermons, and flamboyant antics are used to stir the emotions of the masses and create a “revival.” In such an event, the Word of God is preempted by Christian entertainment or by testimonies of exciting “spiritual” experiences.

This approach, coupled with the neglect of Scripture, has dire consequences. “Strange fire” inevitably becomes a part of the mix. Individual casualties and tragedy are commonly the result. Such revivals tend either to drag on in pursuit of increasingly bizarre practices or to collapse under the weight of their own sin and neglect of Biblical truth.

This Generation Needs to See
a Heaven-Sent Revival

What, then, is the safeguard? In our day, we must reclaim the Word of God as central in all we say and do. This generation desperately needs to see the power and purity of a Biblical Revival. Torrey’s comment about the state of revivalism in his day rings true for the 21st century Church.

The most fundamental trouble with most of our present-day, so called revivals is, that they are man-made and not God sent. They are worked up (I almost said faked up) by man’s cunningly devised machinery—not prayed down.[iv]

Our God is the sovereign Lord, not only of this universe, but also of revival. If the Church in Finney’s day was guilty of not taking their responsibility for revival, the modern charismatic church has gone to the other extreme and made revival a mere human enterprise. It is time for the North American church to repent of this sin and be converted that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19). It is time for genuine Revival Fire.

[i] R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1924), 228.

[ii] Charles Finney, An Autobiography, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1908), 340.

[iii] Duncan Campbell, The Nature of A God Sent Revival (Euless, TX: Successful Christian Living Ministries, n.d.) 11-12.

[iv][iv] Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power, 62.