Today, I’m going to discuss how Christian Prophesy in modern era is distinct from prophesy and mysticism from other world traditions, time periods, and cultures. My goal is to explain how revelation from and relationship with the Holy Spirit differs from other forms of mysticism. Some of the historical information I will be referencing are from Prophets, Prophesy, and Oracles in the Roman Empire by Leslie Kelly.
Many Kinds of Prophesy
At the time of Jesus, the Greeks, Romans, and Jews all had their own methods of prophecy and divination. Within these cultures, a prophet or an oracle would use specific methods (divination) to seek the will of the gods. That means that each of these cultures had their own methods of “divinely inspired revelation or interpretation”, which they considered sacred. This fascination with the supernatural world should not surprise us, as humans have an intrinsic desire to seek the divine.
In nearly all world religions and cultures, there is some element of mysticism! The Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews were no different.
Here are just some forms of mysticism that parallel the practices of this time period (all links are from academic and non-religious sources):
- Mystics in Ancient Rome and Greece
- Mystics in Ancient Judaism (Pseudepigrapha)
- Mystics among the Early Christians (including information about the Montanists, Gnostics, and more.
- Mystics in Ancient Egypt
- Mystics among Contemporary Muslims (Sufism)
- Mystics among Contemporary Judaism (Kabbalah) Gershom Scholem is the founder of the academic study of Kabbalah.
- Mystics among Buddhism (Vajrayana)
- Ancient and Contemporary Japanese Mystics (Shinto)
- Mystics among Hinduism
- Iranian Mysticism (Zorastrianism)
- Celtic Mysticism (Druidism)
- New Age Movement Mysticism (1970s-1980s until today)
- Mysticism in Freemasonry
The Romans, Greeks, and Jews of this time period relied on various methods to seek the divine (all links are from academic and non-religious sources):
- Horoscopes (Astrology)
- Tattoos related to a deity
- Physiognomy (Studying facial features)
- Incubation (“Sleeping in a religious area with the hope of experiencing a divinely inspired dream or cure”)
- Chemistry (Alchemy)
- Numbers (Numerology)
- Augury (Events of Nature, especially the flight paths of birds)
- Inspecting the shoulder blades of animals (Scapulimancy)
- Consulting Entrails (Haruspicy; consulting livers is Hepatoscopy)
- Lightning and Thunder (Aeromancy)
- Cards, including Tarot Cards (Cartomancy)
- Casting Dice or Lots (Cleromancy)
- Dots or marks on paper (Geomancy)
- Fire and Smoke (Pyromancy)
- Hallucinogen induced dreams (Oneiromancy)
- Crystal and Mirror Gazing (Scrying)
- Omens (also called Portents, prodigies)
- Palm reading (Palmistry)
- Sieves and scissors (Coscinomancy)
- Dishes (Lecanomancy)
- *most hilarious of all* Cheese (Tiromancy)
These are just some methods of divination that were popular among Greeks, Romans, and Jews at the time of Jesus.
A more complete list of bizarre divination methods across time periods and world cultures can be found here.
In both the Old and New Testament, Yahweh explicitly forbids divination. In the Old Testament, Israel was against the Canaanite gods of their neighbors because they prompted the people to worship in evil ways. For this reason, Israel believed that neighboring religions were actually led by demons (fallen angels who had rebelled against God).
Here are some of the ethnic groups who lived in the land of Canaan prior to the Israelites (Numbers 34). Many of these tribes worshipped one or several deities under a pantheon (family structure of deities). While Baal was the deity at the top of the pantheon, you will notice that each tribe had their own specific dieties (some of which have been lost to historians, or overlap).
The methods of worship for many of these deities would shock most people’s modern sensibilities.
(Apart from Baal)
|Methods of Worship||Bible Verses|
Goddess of War / Sex
|Cultic Sex |
|1 Kings 11:1-9|
1 Kings 15:13
1 Samuel 7:3
|Moabites||Chemosh||Human sacrifice||1 Kings 11:7|
|Ammonites||Molek||Child sacrifice||Leviticus 18:21|
2 Kings 21:6
2 Kings 16:3
2 Kings 23:10
God of Harvest
1 Chronicles 10:10
1 Samuel 5:1-5
2 Samuel 11:3
|Canaanites||El, Asherah||Cultic Sex |
of both genders)
1 Kings 9:21
2 Samuel 5:6
You will notice that compared to gods like Molek, Ashtoreth, and Chemosh, Yahweh is different.
- Unlike Molek, Yahweh wants to bless generations and offspring
- Unlike Ashtoreth, Yahweh creates covenant marriage and requires sexual purity
- Unlike Chemosh, Yahweh requires the people to do animal sacrifice instead of dying themselves (to come to a deeper understanding of the consequences of sin). Later, he sends his own son to die in the place of all people so that they can freely receive atonement for their sins through grace.
Yahweh hates the evil that the surrounding nations do in the names of their Gods.
” ‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.”Leviticus 19:31
For this reason, he outlaws divination and introduces a higher standard for his people.
Instead of practicing divination, God invites the people to know his character through the prophets. By sharing specific truths with his prophets to guide and support the people, they are able to continue to walk closely with God throughout the Old Testament. In the New Testament, every person can directly know God through his perfect prophet, Jesus Christ.
While God gives the people guidance, they must choose for themselves if they will obey it.
Sadly, various leaders of Israel practiced divination through copying the surrounding cultures. For example, Manassah, one of the Kings of Judah, relied heavily on witchcraft.
“He sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, arousing his anger.”2 Chronicles 33:6 (About the sins of Manasseh, King of Judah)
Earlier in Israel’s history, Saul is condemned to die because of his involvement with witchcraft.
“Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance.”1 Chronicles 10:13
God so hates witchcraft that he considers it spiritual prostitution, breaking the exclusive covenant between him and his people.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”Exodus 20:3
“I will set my face against anyone who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute themselves by following them, and I will cut them off from their people.”Leviticus 20:6
Ultimately, God proves his strength over other gods and spirits many times in the Old Testament, through the surpassing quality of the revelation he gives his people. This revelation enables them to win wars, financially prosper, and continue to walk closely with him. One of the greatest examples of God’s power to prove himself most powerful over other God’s is in the story of Daniel.
Another is the story of the the Exodus from Israel, and how Israel triumphed over the God’s of Egypt through the revelation and power God gives to Moses.
“The Egyptians will lose heart, and I will bring their plans to nothing; they will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead, the mediums and the spiritists.”Isaiah 19:3
Overall, Christians believe that the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit) is most accurate, has the most power, and is the most holy of all Spirits. We know the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity that enables Christian prophets to prophesy in detail and accuracy. We believe that God gives people discernment to see the surpassing excellence of revelation that comes from the Holy Spirit, in comparison to other gods or mystical traditions. We believe that when tested, God will demonstrate his surpassing greatness through his prophets today.
At the same time, modern Christians believe that practicing divination (witchcraft) is a stumbling block that will ultimately keep people from salvation. God will forgive all people who come to him through Jesus, even if they have participated in witchcraft. However, because of the demonic influence that underlies divination of all kinds, people will struggle to find Jesus more than if they do not participate in it.
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”Revelation 21:8
Check out this young woman’s testimony of being saved by Jesus after having practice witchcraft.
When people experience the surpassing beauty of Jesus, the appropriate response is to throw away every stumbling block of divination and choose him with every aspect of yourself and lifestyle.
“When this [the gospel] became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.”Acts 19:17-20
Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, Christians can come into a purified relationship with the Holy Trinity.
Knowing the Holy Spirit
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches his followers to rely on the Holy Spirit to commune with the Holy Trinity. As I will describe below, the methods that the Holy Spirit uses are very different than divination. Christians believe that when individuals are led into the spirit realm by other spirits that are NOT the Holy Spirit, they are actually being led by demons. For this reason, God prohibits his people from engaging with witchcraft as practitioners or consumers.
As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God. We believe this Spirit reveals Jesus and is completely in sync with the Father heart of God. The Holy Spirit is the excellent spirit that rested on Jesus:
- The Holy Spirit comes only by faith in Jesus Christ, it cannot be bought
- The Holy Spirit empowers us to do God’s work, not establish our own agenda (that is witchcraft)
- The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus and convicts people of their sin so they can come into wholeness and uprightness before God through Jesus Christ
Unlike unholy (demonic) spirits, the Holy Spirit changes people’s characters and empowers them with “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”
Demonic spirits oppose the Holy Spirit and promote all forms of evil (Galatians 5:19-36).
When people come to faith in Jesus, one of the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives them is the capacity to judge whether a spirit comes from God or is demonic. This is called the gift of discerning of spirits (or “discernment”). Instead of writing off all forms of supernatural experience, Christians are encouraged in 1 John to simply “test [discern] the spirits” to determine their source.
Part of the reason Christians are meant to test the spirits is because we as humans can be deceived.
All spirits (holy angels, members of God’s heavenly council, etc) who are confess Jesus as Lord and that Jesus came in the flesh are safe. This is why so many Christian heresies attack Jesus’s incarnation. Nevertheless, the only spirit that Christians rely on to guide their supernatural experiences is the Holy Spirit.
“Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”2 Corinthians 11:14
To write off the entire realm of Christian mysticism is to disobey and only partially worship God, as:
“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”John 4:24
The Holy Spirit brings power, purity, healing, joy, and liberation! Check out this link to learn more about the titles the Holy Spirit is given in scripture.
Christian Prophesy vs. Divination
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, there were significant differences in Christian prophesy and their pagan counterparts. These standards still reflect God’s heart for Christian prophesy today. Again, most of the following information comes from Prophets, Prophesy, and Oracles in the Roman Empire by Leslie Kelly.
Prophets in the Community
One document that guided the principles for early Christian prophesy was a second century document called the Didache. According to the Didache (pg 31):
- “Christians believed that prophesy was a spiritual gift present in the community” (1 Corinthians 12:28)
- A church may or may not have a prophet
- Prophets traveled and were maintained by each congregation as they pass through
- Prophets should be tested (in motive and doctrine)”
Kelly also describes the history of several Christian prophets in the early Church, including:
- Phillip and his daughters (Acts 21:9) (For more on female prophets in the bible, check out this post)
- Agabus (Acts 11:27–28)
“Heretics think that the scriptures are ambiguous and that one needs to use outside information to interpret them”. (pg 38)Iraneus
Defining Christian Prophesy
By comparing pagan, Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian methods of prophecy, Kelly shows that some hallmarks of early Christian prophecy are that it is:
- Initiated by God’s initiative, without hallucinogens or divination (p 38)
- Unconditionally connected to the person of Jesus of Nazareth (pg 36)
- Completely against all forms of divination (pg 30)
- Interpreted and confirmed by scripture (pg 38)
- Generally more specific and accurate the divination of surrounding cultures (pg 34)
Interacting with Surrounding Cultures
In the Early church, Christians used prophesy to engage their neighbors through prophesy. They would often take a concilliary approach by appealing to their audience’s background in pagan prophecies to show how even these prophecies pointed to Jesus.
Paul takes this approach in relating to the Athenians at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-34:
Other times, Early Christians took a polemic approach, specifically condemning divination and contrasted it with Holy Spirit led prophecy and methods.
In reading Prophets, Prophesy, and Oracles in the Roman Empire, it’s easy to understand how many pagan, Jewish, Greek, or Roman individuals would have understood Jesus to be a prophet based on their traditions, but would have needed the revelation of the Holy Spirit to know him as Messiah. It puts new context on verses like Matt 16: 13-20, John 1, 2 Timothy 4:3, Acts 16:16, Leviticus 19:26, Leviticus 20:6, Revelation 22:15, Revelation 21:8.
Story from a Friend
Recently, a friend from London told me a story that has become one of my favorite stories about how the Holy Spirit being greater than other spirits. She was with a group of Christians prophesying at a Psychic Fair, offering free spiritual readings to the attendees. A man approached her to talk, and after greeting him warmly, it became clear through his behavior and confessions that he was used to relying on a “spirit guide” to guide his mystical encounters. My friend explained a little bit about how as Christians, she and the other prophets with her relied on the Holy Spirit to be their guide. The man listened intently, then backed away for several minutes. When he returned, he explained that his “spirit guide” had told him to stay away from them, because “their spirit guide was too powerful.”
I sincerely hope the man had an encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit after he left. However, this story exemplifies that the Holy Spirit is more powerful than all other entities and demons people rely on for mystical encounters.
You Must Choose
Just like the Ancient Israelites, you must ultimately choose who you worship. We as human beings have freedom to make our own decisions, but we will be held accountable for them.
Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father and eternal life. We believe putting your trust in Jesus is the only safe and holy way to enter into the supernatural realm.
Dangerously, some people deny the power of the Holy Spirit. They equate the Holy Spirit to demonic spirits and fail to honor the authority and purity of the third member of the Trinity. They fail to discern the Spirit of God and fail to receive Jesus.
“And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”Matthew 12:31-32
The consequences for equating the Holy Spirit to demons are severe.
A Prayer to Know Only the Holy Spirit
Lord Jesus, you are the way, the truth, and the life. Give us faith in you and teach us how to recognize your Holy Spirit.
Holy Spirit, empower us to know Jesus, be internally transformed. Help us know the Trinity closely, worshipping you in Spirit and in truth and walking in miracles, signs, and wonders.
Father, deliver us from evil so that we can see you with unveiled faces and know you as our only Lord.
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