Two weeks ago, I posted an article discussing some of the dangers of defining New Testament prophecy as being fallible and non-authoritative. Today I’d like to continue that discussion by focusing on Agabus—a New Testament prophet at the center of the continuationist-cessationist controversy.
Did Agabus get the details of his prophecy in Acts 21:11 wrong?
Continuationist scholars (such as D. A. Carson and Wayne Grudem) claim that he did. Cessationists (like Richard Gaffin and Thomas Edgar) are not convinced.
But why is this issue so important to the continuationist-cessationist discussion?
Because without Agabus, continuationists do not have any examples of fallible prophecy in the New Testament. In terms of finding biblical illustrations to support their views on prophecy, the continuationist perspective stands or falls with Agabus.
In Acts 11:28, Agabus is affirmed as a true prophet, who accurately foretold the coming of a severe famine. But controversy surrounds Acts 21:10–11, when Agabus warns Paul of the coming persecution he will face if he returns to Jerusalem. Luke writes:
As we were staying there [in Caesarea Philippi] for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ”
According to continuationists, the overall gist of Agabus’s prophecy is accurate, but the details are wrong.
In particular, Agabus erred when he stated (1) that the Jews would bind Paul and (2) that the Jews would deliver Paul into the hands of the Romans. As Wayne Grudem explains, this is “a prophecy whose two elements—‘binding’ and ‘giving over’ by the Jews—are explicitly falsified by the subsequent narrative” (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 80). Elsewhere, Grudem adds that, for Agabus, “the prediction was not far off, but it had inaccuracies in detail that would have called into question the validity of any Old Testament prophet” (Bible Doctrine, 411).
So, how are we to think about Agabus? Are the details of his prophecy explicitly falsified by the biblical text? Did he err when he predicted that the Jews would bind Paul and hand him over to the Romans?
I certainly don’t think so. Rather, I believe Agabus got the details exactly right. Here are five reasons why:
1. Nothing in the text states that Agabus got his prophecy wrong. Neither Luke, nor Paul, nor anyone else in Scripture criticizes the accuracy of Agabus’s prediction or says that he erred. Thus, at best, the continuationist approach to Agabus is based on an argument from silence.
2. Luke’s description of what happened to Paul in Jerusalem implies that the Jews “bound” him in some way. Later in Acts 21, Luke explains what happened to the apostle shortly after he arrived in Jerusalem. The Jews “laid hands on” Paul (v. 27), “seized” him (v. 30), “dragged” him out of the temple (v. 30), “sought to kill” him (v. 31), and “were beating” him when the Roman soldiers finally arrived (v. 32). In Acts 26:21, Paul reiterates (before Agrippa) that the Jews “seized” him in the temple and “tried to kill” him. Since Paul did not willingly go with the Jewish mob (a point implied by verbs like “seized” and “dragged”), they would have had to restrain him in some way as they forcibly removed him from the temple—using whatever was immediately available to bind him. Luke did not need to repeat that detail, since Agabus had already told us that Paul would be bound with something like a belt. (The Greek verb deo [“to bind”] can mean to arrest or imprison, but it can also mean to tie up with ropes [Luke 19:30] or to wrap with rags [John 11:44].)
Not only does the text not state that Agabus’s prophecy was wrong, it gives us good reason to believe that his prediction that Paul would be “bound” by the Jews was exactly right. As Thomas Edgar explains:
There is no logical reason to assume that because the Romans bound Paul [in v. 33] this somehow means that the Jews could not have bound him previously. Certainly Paul did not voluntarily go along with the Jewish mob; he must have been bound in some sense. Since the Greek word deo, “bind,” can have several broader meanings, including the meaning “to take captive,” which the Jews obviously did to Paul, it is illogical to state that the Jews did not “bind” Paul as Agabus said. However, there is no reason to assume that the Jews did not actually bind Paul with some physical restraints. (Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, 81-82)
3. Paul’s later testimony confirms that the Jews “delivered him over” to the Romans. Continuationists claim that Agabus also erred when he predicted that the Jews would give Paul over to the Romans. But is such an error demanded by the text? In Acts 21:32, Paul is being beaten when the Roman cohort arrives. The Jews, upon seeing the soldiers, stop assaulting Paul (v. 32). The bloodied apostle is then arrested by the Romans (v. 33). The implication of the text is that the Jews backed away and willingly relinquished Paul into the hands of the Romans once the soldiers arrived. Such accords perfectly with Agabus’s prediction.
The accuracy of Agabus’s statement is further strengthened by the testimony of Paul himself. Acts 28:16–17, describing Paul’s arrival in Rome, says this:
When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. After three days Paul called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they came together, he began saying to them, “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.” (emphasis added)
Significantly, Paul uses the same word for “delivered” that Agabus used in Acts 21:11 (paradidomi). Commenting on this verse, Thomas Edgar explains:
Paul describes this event in the same way as Agabus, and Paul, more than anyone else, should know what happened and be able to state it correctly and accurately. Therefore, Agabus made no errors. Rather the errors are being made by those accusing Agabus of mistakes. (Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, 83)
4. Agabus is quoting the Holy Spirit. In Acts 21:11, Agabus begins his prophecy by stating, “Thus says the Holy Spirit,” and nothing in the text indicates that he was wrong to do so. (In fact, the Holy Spirit Himself inspired Luke to record Agabus’s prophecy in just that way, with no qualifications or caveats.) Those who wish to accuse Agabus of error ought to be very careful, since Agabus himself is quoting the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, by claiming to speak the very words of the Holy Spirit, Agabus was aligning himself with other biblical prophets. As David Farnell explains:
He introduced his prophecy with the formula, “This is what the Holy Spirit says” (Acts 21:11), which closely parallels the Old Testament prophetic formula of “thus says the Lord” so frequently proclaimed by Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isa. 7:7; Ezek. 5:5; Amos 1:3, 6, 11, 13; Obad. 1; Mic. 2:3; Nah. 1:12; Zech. 1:3-4). This same introductory phrase introduces the words of the Lord Jesus to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). (“Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?” Online Source)
Based on such parallels, in which God was the direct Source of the message proclaimed, extreme caution ought to be exercised before alleging that Agabus erred in his prophecy.
5. No one in church history accused Agabus of errant prophecy until modern times. The church fathers don’t talk about Agabus much. But when they do, they equate him (in accuracy and authority) with the Old Testament prophets. There is no hint of “fallible prophecy” in their description of Agabus or his prediction in Acts 21:11. By way of illustration, here are five patristic passages that mention Agabus:
(A) John Chrysostom compares Agabus to the OT prophet Ezekiel, and assumes the accuracy of his prediction:
John Chrysostom, Homilies on Acts, Homily 65: He [Agabus] who formerly had declared about the famine [in Acts 11:28], the same says, This “man, who owns this girdle, thus shall they bind.” The same that the prophets used to do, representing events to the sight, when they spoke about the captivity—as did Ezekiel—the same did this (Agabus). “And,” what is the grievous part of the business, “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.” (v. 12.)
(B) Cyril argues that OT prophets (like Isaiah) were taken away from the Jews and given to the church. These NT prophets (like Agabus) are thus parallel to their OT counterparts.
Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, 13.29: Rightly did the Prophet Isaiah aforetime bewail you, saying, My well-beloved had a vineyard in a hill in a fruitful place; and (not to recite the whole) I waited, he says, that it should bring forth grapes; I thirsted that it should give wine; but it brought forth thorns; for thou seest the crown, wherewith I am adorned. What then shall I now decree? I will command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it . For the clouds which are the Prophets were removed from them, and are for the future in the Church; as Paul says, Let the Prophets speak two or three, and let the others judge; and again, God gave in the Church, some, Apostles, and some, Prophets. Agabus, who bound his own feet and hands, was a prophet.
(C) Ambrose, in an effort to defend the full deity and equality of the Holy Spirit, argues that in the same way the Father spoke through the Old Testament prophets, so the Holy Spirit spoke through Agabus:
Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, 2.13.145: For as Paul heard the voice saying to him, “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting,” so, too, the Spirit forbade Paul and Silas to go into Bithynia. And as the Father spoke through the prophets, so, too, Agabus says concerning the Spirit: “Thus says the Holy Spirit, Thus shall the Jews in Jerusalem bind the man, whose is this girdle.”
(D) John Cassian (in a section suggesting that monks ought to wear belts, just like Paul did) implies that Agabus’s prophecy was accurate:
John Cassian, Twelve Books on the Institutes of the Coenobia, 1.1: Paul also, going up to Jerusalem and soon to be put in chains by the Jews, was met at Caesarea by the prophet Agabus, who took his girdle and bound his hands and feet to show by his bodily actions the injuries which he was to suffer, and said: “So shall the Jews in Jerusalem bind the man whose girdle this is, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.” And surely the prophet would never have brought this forward, or have said “the man whose girdle this is,” unless Paul had always been accustomed to fasten it round his loins.
(E) Augustine, commenting on the reaction of Paul’s companions (who tried to convince the apostle not to go to Jerusalem in Acts 21:12), never suggests any doubt as to the accuracy of Agabus’s prediction:
Augustine, The Enchiridion, 101: How good seemed the intentions of the pious believers who were unwilling that Paul should go up to Jerusalem lest the evils which Agabus had foretold should there befall him! And yet it was God’s purpose that he should suffer these evils for preaching the faith of Christ, and thereby become a witness for Christ.
To play off of my title, I think it’s time to stop throwing Agabus and his prophecy under the bus.
The reality is that there is no inductive reason (either from the text or from church history) to accuse Agabus of fallible prophecy. His supposed errors are being forced upon the text by those seeking to defend a continuationist position. When such presuppositions are set aside, an honest reading of the text (as exhibited by the church fathers) finds no fault with the details of his prediction in Acts 21:11.
And that brings our discussion full circle, because if Agabus did not err in his prophecy, then there are no examples of fallible prophecy in the New Testament.