Did Agabus prophesy inaccurately in Acts 21:10-11?

Marko Joensuu         2 comments

 

When contemporary prophets get a prophecy wrong, as happened recently with the prophecies regarding Trump winning the second term, a common defence is that neither did Agabus get his prophecy to Paul entirely right in Acts 21:10-11. This is because Agabus prophesied that the Jews would bind Paul, and release him to the Gentiles, when it seems that, in fact, it was the Gentiles who put him in chains, rather than the Jews.

According to this defence, this proves that the requirements for the accuracy of prophetic words in the Church today are lower than in the Old Testament, hence getting a prophecy wrong doesn’t automatically mean that someone giving a false prophecy should be called a false prophet, and that we should continue to submit to the words by those who have given us a false prophecy.  

But it seems to me that Agabus’s word to Paul was 100% accurate, although it is often misunderstood today.


Repentance from false words

The Old Testament standard for prophecy can be found in Deuteronomy 18:20-22, which says, 

But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?”  If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

When a contemporary prophet gets a word wrong, the defence, based on the account of Agabus, is that Agabus was still recognised as a true prophet even when his word was inaccurate. According to this argument, a contemporary prophets should still be able to retain their office as a prophet, even if their prophesies turned out to be false.  

But is that what the Bible teaches? Does God give inaccurate words to us? I don’t think that is the case even in the case of Agabus.

Our reading in Deuteronomy acknowledges that a prophet can speak “presumptuously”. This means that they have not truly received a word from the Lord. This gives us some clarity. God never gives us inaccurate prophetic words. His words will always come to pass. But in the case of being “presumptuous”, someone we think is a prophet has spoken their own ideas.

So, the Old Testament standard is that anyone who gives a false prophecy should not be taken seriously as a prophet.

There is a way out of a prophetic failure, thankfully. It is called repentance. To certain extent, even the Old Testament prophets could repent.

In Jeremiah 15, the prophet has grown weary of the words that God had asked him to deliver. He complains in self-pity. God responds to him in verse 19: 

If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.

 But because of the excuse based on Agabus, the contemporary prophets never really feel the need to repent. For example, after the very public failure of hundreds of prophets with their Trump prophecies, only a handful of them have repented publicly of their very public false prophecies. In fact, some have even said that they should never apologise. 

But what if Agabus’s words were 100% accurate? Then this excuse based on Agabus’s failure would not be valid. And it seems to me that Agabus’s prophecy was 100% accurate, but many have misunderstood the purpose of his prophecy, as they don't place Agabus's prophecy in the proper context of the story in Acts. 

Paul knew that he would be imprisoned in Jerusalem even before Agabus’s prophecy.

When Paul was in Miletus, he invited the leaders of the Ephesian church there. He said to them in Acts 20:22-24: 

And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

In every city, Paul received a prophetic word regarding him being imprisoned. What we don't know is if Paul received these words only personally from the Holy Spirit, or if other prophets had already confirmed this internal witness of the Holy Spirit before Agabus.

The main purpose of Agabus’s prophetic word was not to describe the exact physical way Paul would be treated by the Jews, but that Paul would survive the maltreatment by the Jews he already anticipated. 

Paul’s reaction to Agabus’s prophecy was very different from his friends.

What we often forget is that even when Agabus’s prophecy was given publicly, it was still a personal prophecy given to Paul, and it was Paul who was supposed to interpret it.

In Acts 21:12-14, we see two very different reactions to Agabus’s prophecy: 

When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.”

Why was Paul’s reaction be so different from the others? 

The reason is simple. He was probably the only one in the group who had the Roman citizenship. And he knew that he was entitled to a fair trial with the Romans. He knew that he would be a lot safer in the hands of the Romans than in the hands of the Jews!

Agabus told Paul not to worry.  Paul would survive the anticipated maltreatment in the hands of the Jews, and he would be handed to the Romans, who would be obliged to give him a fair trial.

We can see that Paul was very aware of that in Acts 22:25 when he was about to be flogged by the Roman soldiers: 

Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?”

So, what Paul’s friends perceived to be a discouraging word was in fact a word of encouragement.

Those who conclude that Agabus prophesied inaccurately are looking at the wrong thing.

Acts 21:10-11 gives us the account of Agabus’s prophecy. 

While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”

Traveling from Judea to Caesarea where Paul was at the time would have been quite a lengthy journey. It might have taken Agabus two or three days to walk this distance. So, Agabus did put quite an effort in to release these words. He had plenty of time to ensure that he could get his words right.

The main reason why many perceive Agabus’s prophecy as inaccurate is the account of Paul’s arrest in Acts 21:27-36.

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came, arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; he inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. When Paul came to the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!”

The argument for Agabus’s prophecy being inaccurate is based on that there is no indication that the Jews would have bound Paul. They were trying to kill him. But it was the Romans who put Paul in chains. So, presumably, Agabus got his prophecy partially wrong.

But that is not the case, as Agabus was following the exact ministry model of the Old Testament prophets, and this was a highly symbolic act.

Let me ask one question: why did Agabus take Paul’s belt? Why didn’t he take just any belt and say that Paul would be bound this way? Was there no other way to identify Paul?

No. It had to be Paul’s belt.

As an outcome of this whole scenario, Paul would eventually appeal to the emperor, and he would be taken to Rome where he would write the letter to the Ephesians.

In Ephesians 6:14 he writes about standing firm with the “belt of truth” buckled firmly around the waist.  By the time of writing about the belt to the Ephesians, he has had plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of the word “belt”. 

Put simply, what Agabus’s prophecy meant is that it was Paul’s own words, his preaching of the truth to the Jews that would cause him to be handed over to the Gentiles. Rather than discouraging Paul, Agabus’s words gave him the confidence to enter Jerusalem and attend the temple, with the prophetic foreknowledge that he would not be killed, but that the Romans would save him.

So, what would have been a discouraging word for every non-citizen was an encouraging to a Roman citizen. Paul knew that at some point, he would be able to exercise his rights as a Roman citizen and find a way out from the very dangerous situation that he would be in.

So, Agabus's prophecy was 100% fulfilled. And Paul's letter to the Ephesians shows that at some point Paul understood the whole message.

So, it appears to me that there is no reason to lower the standard for prophetic accuracy in the church today because of Agabus. 

You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mpjoensuu/ or by visiting markojoensuu.com. 
Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the explanation. I think it possible, though it does not say, that the Jews bound Paul in order to beat him.

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    1. It is certainly possible. But I would think that Luke who wrote Acts would have probably mentioned it, especially as he recounts Agabus's prophecy in Acts 11:28 regarding a severe famine in the Roman world, and add that it was fulfilled during the reign of Claudius. For some reason, he feels the need to add this clarification, so I'd think that he would also mention that Paul was bound by the Jews if that happened, to ensure that everyone understood that this very specific prophecy has been fulfilled.

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