At the conclusion of Paul’s third “missionary Journey”, suspense builds with repeated omens regarding the apostle’s plan to return to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-23, 37-38, 21:4). This foreboding climaxes in Caesarea where the apostle stays with Philip and his four daughters who prophesy (Acts 21:7-8). Though the local prophets say nothing about Paul’s fate, the topic does not go unmentioned.
Agabus, a prophet from Jerusalem, appears from seemingly out of nowhere to address Paul (Acts 21:10-11). He delivers news that no one wants to hear, reiterating that tribulation awaits Paul in Jerusalem.
As we were staying there 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.’” (Acts 21:10-11 NASB)What had been merely a premonition of danger in Ephesus (Acts 20:22-23, 37-38) and Tyre (Acts 21:4) becomes prophecy in Caesarea (Acts 21:10-11).
Agabus’ name (which means “locust”) is unusual; perhaps not surprisingly, the prophet is the only Biblical character who bears the name (Acts 11:28, 21:10). Despite being based out of Jerusalem, Agabus is never seen there. Though he is introduced like a new character, the prophet appears ten chapters (approximately fifteen years) earlier, predicting a famine in Antioch (Acts 11:27-30). He is presented similarly in both passages (Acts 11:27-28, 21:10) and in both instances functions as a prophet of doom (Acts 11:28, 21:11). There is no word on how Agabus spent the intervening years.
Agabus’ significance is as an established prophet that has credibility within the Church. He is also an old friend of Paul as they had both participated in famine relief years earlier (Acts 11:27-30). Informing Paul of the pending danger seems to be the sole purpose of Agabus’ trip and the prophet makes a grand gesture by traveling to Caesarea to do so.
When Agabus arrives, he takes Paul’s “belt” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) or “girdle” (ASV, KJV, RSV) and uses it to bind his own hands and feet (Acts 21:11). (It would have been awkward had he enlisted audience participation for this presentation.) Neither translation of the fastener is fully accurate in the modern sense of the terms. This accessory is clearly not the modern short leather belt as Agabus would have needed to be a contortionist to bind himself. (The French skeptic Alfred Loisy [1857-1940] found the action so implausible as to believe it impossible.) Thankfully the belt’s function is not to hold Paul’s garments up. Instead, the belt/girdle is a long strip of cloth (unless stated to be leather, as in Mark 1:6) wound several times around the waist to carry money and other items.
Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) describes:
The prophecy is acted out, as he takes Paul’s waistband (ζώνη, zōnē). This was a long band, wrapped around the waist, in which money could be placed...The translation refers to a “belt,” which may well be a money belt. Paul may have well kept in it some of the Jerusalem collection money he was gathering. (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 638)Agabus’ demonstration enforces his point vividly and dramatically: Paul will be bound. Loveday Alexander relays, “The theme is binding—tying up hands and feet, taking away the power of independent action—surely a personal nightmare for the much-travelled and independent Paul (Alexander, Acts: Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer, 161).”
Agabus’ action is more than a mere object lesson and the ritual is not as antiquated as it may seem at first glance. N.T. Wright (b. 1948) explains:
It isn’t just a visual aid. It’s what happens when, under the spirit who inspires prophecy, part of God’s future comes forward into the present and becomes a visible, physical, albeit symbolic reality. This, actually, is how many Christians, drawing on deeply Jewish instincts, have understood the reality of the sacraments. (Wright, Acts for Everyone: Part Two, 141)Agabus is following in the tradition of the Old Testaments prophets who often accompanied prophecies with symbolic actions (I Kings 11:29-39; Isaiah 8:1-4, 20:2-6; Jeremiah 13:1-11, 16:1-4, 19:1-13, 27:1-7; Ezekiel 4:1-5:17; Hosea 1:2-11, 3:1-5). His words are also emblematic of his office, updating the traditional prophetic introductory formula “Thus says the Lord” to “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11).
Though Agabus is obviously modeling Old Testament prophets, there are some differences. David E. Aune (b. 1939) critiques:
In form this oracle has little relationship to Old Testament prophetic speech forms, which nearly always provide a reason (Begründung) for the threat in terms of accusation. That form is clearly irrelevant here, where the fate of Paul cannot be construed as a divine threat. Yet since Old Testament predictions of future misfortunes are always viewed as punishment for misbehavior, the distance between Old Testament speech forms, in both form and content, and the oracle of Agabus appears even greater. The closest formal type of prophetic speech to the oracle of Agabus is the Greco-Roman revelatory speech form which we have labeled a predictive oracle. (Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, 264)Agabus accompanies his graphic symbolic act with a solemn interpretive word. This is the only verbatim prophecy of Agabus documented in the New Testament. He reveals little new information as the Spirit has repeatedly testified that Paul will experience heartache in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-23, 37-38, 21:4). Agabus confirms these predilections and adds two details: 1. Jews will do the binding; 2. Paul will then be given over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). The apostle now knows that his own people will be involved and that Jews and Gentiles will collude in his plight.
Problematically, Agabus’ prophecy is not explicitly fulfilled. While Paul is bound (Acts 21:33), it is a Roman commander, not a contingent of Jews, who ties him (Acts 21:27-33). Nor do the Jews extradite Paul to the Gentiles; the Romans had to forcefully remove the apostle from Jewish supervision as his captors were attempting to kill him (Acts 21:31). The prophecy is fulfilled inasmuch as Jewish leaders prove responsible for Paul’s Roman custody. Though Jews did not administer the binding, they provide the occasion for it and as such the prophet correctly pinpoints the party responsible for Paul’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment.
C. Peter Wagner (b. 1930) acknowledges:
How can we explain this prophecy? It would not seem to be sufficient to explain it by arguing that only the details might not have been accurate, while the essence of Agabus’s prophecy was accurate. Wayne Grudem (b. 1948) points out, “This explanation does not take full enough account of the fact that these are the only details Agabus mentions–they are, in terms of content, the heart of his prophecy.” (Wagner, The Book of Acts: A Commentary, 463)J. Bradley Chance (b. 1954) responds:
In ancient narrative precise fulfillment of prophecy or prognosticators within a narrative were not necessary. Prophecies or prognostications that foreshadowed events to come within the narrative offered readers a general sense of the direction that the narrative would take. (Chance, Acts (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 383)The wording of the prophecy also underscores that Acts is drawing a close parallel between Paul’s destiny in Jerusalem and Jesus’ fate in the same holy city. Agabus’ speech echoes Jesus’ prediction that he would be delivered into the hands of Gentiles (Matthew 20:18-19; Mark 9:31, 10:33; Luke 18:32). Paul would suffer the same indignities as his Lord.
Agabus, a seemingly incidental character, has found his way into discussions of the very nature of prophecy. His case has been thrown into the debate between continuationists and cessationists. Continuationists affirm that the gift of prophecy has continued to the present age while cessationists do not. If inaccurate, Agabus becomes significant as he provides the only example of fallible prophecy in the New Testament.
Others have posited that Agabus’ words are proof that prophecy is not as bound as Agabus himself. Gregory A. Boyd (b. 1957) writes:
Several things are interesting about Agabus’s prophecy. First, it is clear from the response of Paul’s comrades that they did not consider this prophetic message to be a declaration of what was certainly going to happen in the future, for they immediately tried to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:12). Instead they interpreted the prophecy as a warning about what would happen to Paul if he chose to go to Jerusalem...Second, it is interesting to note that even after Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, things did not transpire exactly as Agabus had prophesied...Contrary to Agabus’s prophecy, the Jews never bound Paul and handed him over to the Romans. Instead, the Romans rescued Paul from the Jews...Such a turn of events is troubling to the classical understanding of divine foreknowledge and the understanding of divine prophecy that usually accompanies it...If the future is partly composed of possibilities and probabilities, however, then this prophecy is a perfect assessment of what would generally happen based on the Lord’s perfect knowledge of the present disposition of the Jews in Jerusalem. (Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, 168-69)Despite the minor inconsistencies, Acts clearly intends for Agabus’ prophecy to be read as genuine and accurate. The text does not criticize Agabus, rather it consistently presents him as a prophet (Acts 11:27-28, 21:10). Nor does it note any discrepancy between prophecy and fulfillment. Perhaps most tellingly, Paul’s own words in recounting his demise echo Agabus’ (Acts 28:17). For Acts, Agabus is proven correct.
The ominous implication of Agabus’ binding is obvious and the added word is likely unnecessary: While Agabus does not go so far as to mention death, trouble awaits Paul in Jerusalem. Paul who had set out to bind believers is to be a bound believer himself (Acts 9:2).
Why does Agabus reenforce his prophecy with both words and signs? Would one or the other not have been sufficient? Why does Agabus bind himself and not Paul? Have you ever been bound? Is there a place to accompany words with acting/skits in modern worship? Does prophecy need be filled exactly? Is Agabus’ prophecy correct?
All who hear Agabus’ prophecy take heed, including Paul (Acts 21:12-14). They do, however, interpret it differently. Using human deduction, Paul’s friends understand the prophecy as a warning and plead that he alter his course (Acts 21:12). Conversely, Paul views Agabus’ words as confirmation of his calling (Acts 21:13). To Paul, his hands are tied: He is bound to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:13-14).
Lloyd J. Ogilvie (b. 1930) clarifies:
The Spirit had not given different guidance; Paul and his friends interpreted the guidance differently. It is what the friends and Paul added to the guidance that made the difference. Paul added the resoluteness of previous clarity; his friends added the reserve of tender affection for the apostle. (Ogilvie, Acts (Mastering the New Testament), 297)While his prophecy is certainly not an encouraging word, Agabus only foretells what will happen; he does not endorse a particular course of action. Unlike a previous revelation, Agabus’ prophecy does not forbid Paul to go to Jerusalem (Acts 16:7-8), it merely prepares him for the trials that loom there. As Paul is the person whom the prophecy concerns, his opinion matters most. And the determined apostle will not be dissuaded from traveling to Jerusalem (Acts 21:13).
The prophecy prepares his friends for the blow and gives Paul the opportunity to declare his willingness to suffer, and even die, for the faith (Acts 21:13). Paul realizes that finding suffering along life’s path does not necessarily indicate that one has made a wrong turn.
Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) comments:
The paragraph shows that for Luke what will happen in Jerusalem is a part of the divine plan. That Paul and his friends know ahead of time what to expect allows them the opportunity to submit to the divine will, as Jesus did. This is the Pauline Gethsemane. It shows that suffering may be part of the divine will for his servants, even though they be Spirit-empowered (Luke 3:21-22, 4:16-19; Acts 9:17). It shows, moreover, the Spirit-filled person’s submission to the divine will, whatever that may be. If it is to return to Ephesus (Acts 18:21), that is fine; if it is to be imprisoned and die in Jerusalem, that must be done (Acts 21:13). (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles,185)The Christian is often called to suffer and, in some cases die, for her faith. William H. Willimon (b. 1946) interprets:
Even as Jesus was warned (Luke 9:44, 18:32), so is Paul. The servants of God may be empowered and gifted with the Spirit, but this in no way exempts them from suffering for the cause of truth (Acts 9:17; Luke 3:21-22, 4:16-19). In Luke’s gospel Jesus accepts suffering and death as part of the way he must walk (Luke 9-23). Paul’s journey towards Jerusalem parallels Jesus’ passion, for Jesus is the “leader” or “pioneer” who goes before the disciple in every way, including the way of pain (Acts 5:31). Whatever prayer “in Jesus’ name” may mean, whatever it means to be “in the Spirit,” it does not mean exemption from pain. (Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) 160)
Have you ever wished that you were wrong about something? Is Agabus’ intention to reroute Paul? If not to dissuade Paul, what is the point of this prophecy? Why is it so important that Paul sees his trials coming? Is Paul correct in continuing on course to Jerusalem or should he have diverted his path? Have you ever suffered for your faith? Are you willing?
“We do not choose suffering simply because we are told to, but because the One who tells us to describes it as the path to everlasting joy.” - John Piper (b. 1946), Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Revised Edition, p. 287