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Enjoying God Blog


On several occasions in the film, reference is made to the incident recorded in Acts 21. Cessationists typically insist that Agabus was correct in his prophetic word about Paul. Let’s look at the text.

And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.

When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.

While we were staying for many 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, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 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 imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”

After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge. . . .

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even 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 stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and 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 were shouting 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. And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!” (Acts 21:1-16, 27-36).

Here Luke continues his narration of Paul’s third missionary journey that will eventually take him to Jerusalem. The two most important stops along the way are given some additional attention: the first in Tyre and then in Caesarea. In both instances, Paul is the recipient of prophetic words that, in effect, encourage him not to go to Jerusalem.

His visit to Tyre is recorded in vv. 1-6. His visit to Caesarea is described in vv. 7-16. His arrival and experience in Jerusalem is found in vv. 17-36. I’ll begin by simply narrating the events as they unfold without making too many theological statements. We’ll then return to the narrative to determine as best we can what it tells us about the gift of prophecy and its function in the life of the church.

Paul in Tyre (vv. 1-6)

Our primary concern is with v. 4 where we read that “through the Spirit they [“the disciples” of v. 4a] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” Although it is not explicitly stated here, it becomes clear from the remaining narrative that they had been made aware of what awaited Paul in Jerusalem. They were understandably concerned for his welfare and safety.

Paul in Caesarea (vv. 7-16)

There are five things to be noted here.

First, in v. 9 Luke mentions Philip the evangelist (cf. Acts 7-8), with whom Paul stayed. Philip had “four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (v. 9). Yes, women can prophesy (see Luke 2:36; Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor. 11:4ff.)! What did they prophesy? Did they have words for Paul? We don’t know, but given the fact that in the passages preceding and following the prophetic warning is their encouragement that Paul not go to Jerusalem, we can assume that Philip’s daughters spoke in similar terms.

Second, in vv. 10-11 we encounter Agabus and his prophetic word to Paul. Let’s note several things in his prophetic word.

We don’t know how the Spirit communicated this word to Agabus. In v. 11 we read, “Thus says the Holy Spirit.” This could refer to a verbal declaration by the Spirit, whether audible or inaudible we can’t know, or also to general communication via some vision or dream or impression.

Agabus doesn’t simply speak the word to Paul but acts it out in rather dramatic fashion (for similar prophetic demonstrations, see 1 Kings 11:29-31 [the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite tore his new robe into 12 pieces to show how Solomon’s kingdom would be disrupted]; Isa. 8:1-4; 20:2-4 [Isaiah went naked and barefoot to show how the Egyptians would be led into captivity by the Assyrians]; Jer. 13:1-11 [where God told Jeremiah to bury his new waste band until it was soiled and ruined to symbolize how God will destroy the pride of the Jews]; 19:1,13; 27:1-22; Ezek. 4:1-8 [Ezekiel mimicked the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem by laying siege himself to a replica of the city]; and Hosea 1:2).

He takes Paul’s belt (it may have been a money belt, typically wrapped around his waist) and binds his own feet and hands. There are two specific elements in his word: first, “the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt,” and second, they, the Jews, will “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (v. 11). Note well that Agabus doesn’t give Paul advice based on what he’s heard from the Spirit. He merely describes the revelatory word. The application, if we may call it that, comes from others.

Third, the response of Luke, Paul’s traveling companions, and the believers in Caesarea is uniform. They all “urged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (v. 12b). They didn’t receive the revelation but felt free to interpret its meaning and apply it to Paul’s life.

Fourth, Paul chooses not to heed their advice (v. 13). However, the phrase you are “breaking my heart” may indicate that their warning was undermining Paul’s resolute determination and at least momentarily caused him to pause and reconsider. Or perhaps his “heartbreak” was from his having to take a position opposed to people who he knew cared for him and loved him greatly. Perhaps we are to understand Paul’s response something along the lines of: “I don’t want to offend you or lead you to think that I don’t love and appreciate you simply because I’m going to make a decision contrary to the one you think I should make.” The simple fact is that they were making it difficult for Paul to obey what he knew to be God’s will for his life. In any case, Paul says No to their urging.

Fifth, they all resigned themselves to “the will of the Lord” (v. 14). This is unusual, since the “will” of the Lord seemed already to have been discerned in v. 4 when the disciples at Tyre told Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem.

Paul in Jerusalem (vv. 17-36)

The distance from Caesarea to Jerusalem was about 65 miles, more than one day’s trip. Paul’s primary reason for going to Jerusalem was to deliver the money he had collected for the poverty-stricken believers there (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-27). The false rumor soon spread that Paul was telling Jewish Christians to abandon their ancestral customs and the traditions of Moses. James and the elders ask Paul to join four other men in purifying themselves in accordance with Mosaic Law. Paul agrees and does so. If a custom was a condition for salvation or acceptance with God, then Paul always resisted (see Gal. 5:2-4). But otherwise he viewed the matter as of secondary importance and adjusted his practice to those to whom he ministered as was the case in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22.

Whereas Paul’s action proved successful with the Jews in Jerusalem, others had come from Ephesus and used the occasion to renew their opposition to the apostle. Their minds were so poisoned against Paul that nothing he did would satisfy them until he was dead. They falsely accused him of taking Trophimus, a Gentile, into the temple.

Northwest of the temple area stood the Antonia fortress which housed a cohort of Roman troops (1,000 men). The fortress was connected with the outer court by two flights of steps, making their access both quick and easy. When word reached them of the assault on Paul, the tribune took “soldiers and centurions” (approx. 200 total) to the rescue. The tribune’s name was Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26; 24:22). He arrests Paul and binds him with two chains (v. 33), probably to a soldier on each side.

Note carefully: It was the Romans, not the Jews, who bound Paul. And the Jews did not deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles but rather the Gentile Romans rescued Paul from the Jews who were trying to kill him. Such is the narrative of events as they unfolded and as described by Luke.

This entire narrative, together with Acts 11:28, tells us much about how prophecy functioned in the early NT church and the degree of authority it carried. Two observations will bear this out.

First, Paul clearly did not receive the warning of the disciples in Tyre as the word or will of God to him. Some have been more explicit and said that Paul simply disobeyed the prophetic word. Observe closely that in v. 4 they merely “said” to Paul or “told” Paul not to go. But in v. 12 they were repeatedly (imperfect tense) urging or pleading with them not to go. There is considerable energy and concern in their efforts to convince him that God is saying that he should not make this journey.

Paul’s response is found in vv. 13-14. Why did the apostle resist their warnings? The primary reason is because of Paul’s own personal experience with the Holy Spirit recorded earlier in the Acts narrative. According to Acts 19:21, “Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” Note well that Paul’s resolute determination to go to Jerusalem and from there on to Rome was “in the [Holy] Spirit.” That we are understanding this correctly is confirmed by what we read in Acts 20:22-24. Paul declares that he “did not shrink from declaring” to those in Ephesus “anything that was profitable,” teaching them from house to house, “testifying both Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). Then he makes this crucial declaration:

“And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Acts 20:22).

Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem was the result of the Holy Spirit’s constraint. The Spirit somehow put in his heart that it was the will of God that he go to Jerusalem. This was not something Paul concocted on his own. This was not the result of human counsel or encouragement. The Spirit “constrained” Paul to be certain that he made it to Jerusalem. This is truly remarkable in view of what we read in Acts 21:4 where, “through the Spirit,” the disciples in Tyre “were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” Later, after Agabus issued the warning of what would happen if Paul were to go to Jerusalem, Luke and others “urged him [Paul] not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12).

This calls for some explanation. It seems to me that there are four possible explanations for what we read.

(1) As noted, some suggest that Paul was deliberately disobedient to the will of God. They spoke “the word of the Lord” to him and he said No. This is highly unlikely. That isn’t to say that an apostle was by virtue of his calling and office beyond the capacity to sin. But there is nothing in Luke’s narrative that would lead us to think that Paul was being defiant or resistant to what he knew to be the will of God.

(2) I don’t know anyone who would actually argue for this second option, but we have to wrestle with the possibility that the Holy Spirit made a mistake or perhaps changed his mind. Earlier in Acts 19:21 and 20:22-24 the Spirit had told Paul to go (in 20:22a Paul says he is “constrained” or “bound” by the Spirit to go) but now, for whatever reason, the Spirit speaks through these disciples and prophets and says “No, don’t go.” However, in v. 14 we read that when they realized they couldn’t persuade Paul not to go they entrusted him to “the will of the Lord.” It seems that they initially believed it was the will of God for him not to go but later were at least willing to entertain the possibility that it was God’s will for him to go. Had they misheard God the first time (in v. 4)? I don’t think so.

(3) Some would contend that what we have here is simply not a prophecy at all but little more than advice or wise counsel from concerned friends. But in Acts 21:4 they spoke to Paul “through the Spirit” which is the same phrase used in Acts 11:28 where Agabus prophesied the coming famine. Even if one ends up saying this isn’t a prophecy, we still have to reckon with the reality of people hearing the Spirit’s voice, communicating this to Paul, and Paul in turn choosing not to believe it was the absolute and infallible word of the Lord for him, resulting in his rejection of their advice.

(4) It seems to me there is only one legitimate option. Through some supernatural means that is not specified, the Holy Spirit communicated to the believers at Tyre that if Paul went to Jerusalem he would be persecuted, perhaps even killed. On the basis of this revelation, they in turn interpreted this to be God’s warning for him not to go. They then applied this to Paul by issuing a stringent warning and urged him to change his plans.

Let’s consider again these three elements in every prophecy: revelation [the actual vision of Paul being beaten], interpretation [this means that if you go to Jerusalem you will suffer greatly], and application [it isn’t God’s will for you to go to Jerusalem].

On this scenario, the disciples at Tyre, and later at Caesarea, all received the same revelation. They either had a distinct impression in their hearts or heard the Spirit speak audibly or more likely had a vision of Paul being threatened and beaten and perhaps in prison as a result. This revelation was unmistakable. Because this revelation was from God, it was infallible and altogether true.

But they then interpreted the revelation as meaning that extremely perilous times awaited Paul. He was subject to severe persecution, perhaps even martyrdom. This in turn led to the application. They concluded that it was not God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem. It simply didn’t register with them that going to Jerusalem could be a good thing. Why would anyone venture into a territory where he knew persecution was certain to occur? And why would God lead him there? Combined with their love for him and their desire for his safety, they told and even urged him not to go. In other words, they got the revelation right, as well as the interpretation, but misapplied it in terms of how Paul should react.

What should they have done? Once they received the revelation, they should have prayed about it, discussed it among themselves, and then sat down with Paul and shared it with him without interpreting it and applying it. I can only conclude that whereas Paul didn’t question the validity of the revelation they received, neither did he believe that they were speaking to him the very words of God such that disobedience would constitute a sin. In other words, based on previous and oft-repeated guidance from the Spirit, Paul knew that whereas they had heard God correctly, they had to some extent misinterpreted and assuredly misapplied what he said.

This understanding of the nature of prophecy and how it is generally a mixture of infallible divine revelation and fallible human interpretation and application is seen in the word delivered by Agabus. As earlier noted, there are two specific elements in his word: First, “the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt,” and second, they, the Jews, will “deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (v. 11). In both cases, Agabus was wrong!

[How does the film handle this? They contend that the “natural implication” is that what Agabus said occurred, but Luke simply didn’t feel the need to describe the details. I don’t find anything “natural” in such an “implication.” Nor do I find Luke not feeling the need to describe the details in the least convincing.]

Let’s look at each part of Agabus’s prophecy in turn. First, Luke tells us twice that it wasn’t the Jews who bound Paul but rather the Romans. Note again: Agabus didn’t prophesy that “Paul will be bound” but rather “the Jews at Jerusalem will bind” him. Yet we read in Acts 21:33 that “the [Roman] tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.” Again, in Acts 22:29 the tribune was afraid for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that “he [the Roman tribune] had bound him.”

Then, second, Agabus said that the Jews “will deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles”. Wayne Grudem has correctly pointed out that in the 119 other instances of this word “deliver” in the NT, every one of them describes an act that is conscious and intentional and willing. In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock writes: “The reference to Jewish involvement in the binding here is ‘causative’ in force: the Jews will not physically bind Paul but will be responsible for his being arrested (21:27,30,33). The prophecy is accurate in this sense and is not to be pressed too literally” (Acts, 638). O. Palmer Robertson echoes Bock and contends that the interpretation I’ve placed on the story is an example of “precisionism” (The Final Word, 114). Once more, Bock argued that “As predicted in general terms in 21:11, a Jewish reaction has led to Paul being bound” (653).

The problem with Bock’s and Robertson’s interpretation is that it is not what Agabus said. He did not speak in generalities but in very specific language! He said the Jews themselves will consciously and deliberately “deliver” over Paul to the Gentiles. The fact is, they did no such thing. They first tried to kill him (v. 31), making it necessary for the Romans, i.e., the Gentiles, to rescue him from their clutches. Luke says in v. 35 that the Romans had to “carry” Paul to safety.

Would it not make much better sense if we understand Agabus to have received a revelation, perhaps a vision, of Paul surrounded by an angry Jewish mob, bound hand and foot, and then in Gentile custody, which he interpreted as meaning that the Jews would bind him and deliver him to the Gentiles? Of course, it is true that Agabus is never said to have told Paul, based on this revelation, that he should not go to Jerusalem, but Luke and his other traveling companions and most if not all at Caesarea did.

And what of Agabus prefacing his word with: “Thus says the Holy Spirit”? There is no easy answer to this. I’m inclined to believe that Agabus himself collapsed his own interpretation into the divine revelation and failed to differentiate between the two, and then spoke as if God had revealed both to him. In other words, he believed that what he saw meant that the Jews would do these two things and spoke it forth as the word of the Spirit. Luke simply records what Agabus said without necessarily endorsing the interpretation that Agabus had placed upon the details.

Those who take issue with my understanding of this story invariably point to Acts 28:17 (which is precisely what Nathan Busenitz does in the film). There we read:

“After three days he [Paul] called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, ‘Brothers, 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.’”

The argument that this passage refers to the literal fulfillment of Agabus’s prophecy fails to note that Paul is describing his transfer “out of” (ek) Jerusalem into the Roman judicial system at Caesarea (23:12-35) and not the events associated with the mob scene in Acts 21:27-36. In the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, one of the contributors, Robert Saucy, insists that “it will not do to argue . . . that Paul was actually describing the time when he was secretly escorted out of Jerusalem by the Romans to Caesarea (23:12-35), for Paul was already ‘handed over to the Romans’ before he left Jerusalem” (231). But as I note in my response to Saucy, “Paul’s point in 28:17 is simply that he was transferred from Roman custody in Jerusalem into Roman custody in Caesarea. The fact that Paul was already, in some sense, in ‘the hands of the Romans’ in Jerusalem does not preclude his using the same terminology in referring to his transfer to Caesarea and the jurisdiction of Felix” (322).

One final point should be made. I find it remarkably ironic that cessationists insist on arguing that we are pressing the details of Agabus’ word and that we should not expect such precision in the fulfillment of a prophecy, only then to constantly criticize and eventually reject the legitimacy of charismatic prophetic ministry today on the basis of what they see as the frequent failure to get all the details exactly right! Why do they grant Agabus leeway that they deny to us? In other words, they allow Agabus to make small errors but not contemporary continuationists! I find that oddly, and sadly, inconsistent.

What, then, may we conclude about the nature and operation of the spiritual gift of prophecy in the NT?

First, there is no indication the people in Tyre or Philip’s daughters or Agabus or Luke were determined to control Paul’s life. They were clearly motivated by love for the Apostle and concern for his physical welfare. Note again Acts 21:13-14 (“weeping”) which indicates that they were not trying to manipulate Paul’s ministry: they wanted God’s will to be done. The proper exercise of all revelatory gifts will be aimed at the edification, not the control, of other believers.

Second, Paul took very seriously their counsel even though he believed it to be misguided. He did not casually dismiss their prophetic urging and was willing to process the word with others. In other words, he listened carefully to their interpretation of the vision and was grieved that he found himself in a position where he had to disagree with them and disobey their advice (again, see 21:13-14).

Third, we should always be open to the possibility that no matter how clearly we think we have heard from the Spirit, we may be wrong. We must cultivate prophetic humility! Some are simply unwilling to entertain the possibility that they made a mistake in some aspect of the revelatory experience and arrogantly seek to impose their will on others in order to preserve their reputation as uniquely gifted and anointed. This sinful and self-serving attitude will only serve to undermine the otherwise powerful and Christ-exalting exercise of prophecy in the local church.

Fourth, Paul judged the validity of the word based on his own prior encounter with the Spirit. One of the more challenging responsibilities of all Christians is to judge or weigh or assess or analyze the legitimacy of any claim to prophetic revelation (see 1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:19-22).

Fifth, be very, very careful before you move from the revelation to its interpretation and application. Don’t think that you have fallen short of your responsibility to God or to others or that your prophetic gift is inadequate or incomplete if you don’t get the interpretation or application. Simply because you have great clarity in the revelation does not mean God intends to enlighten you as to its application.

Sixth, simply because these prophets got the interpretation and application wrong does not mean they are false prophets. They are not disciplined or rebuked or set out of ministry. False prophets, technically speaking, are unregenerate people who deny that Jesus is God incarnate. Christians who on occasion (or even often) prophesy falsely should not be labelled false prophets.

Seventh, why did God give this revelation to them? If it was not to dissuade Paul from going to Jerusalem, what was the point of it all? What did God expect them to do with it? Could this have been one more example of the Spirit doing what Paul described in Acts 20:23, only this time he did it indirectly through others rather than directly? Thus, the purpose would have been to reinforce in Paul’s heart what awaited him and thus help prepare him for the hardships ahead. In addition, this sort of revelatory experience was undoubtedly designed to stir them to intercede on Paul’s behalf.

Eighth, there’s no indication that those who spoke this word or those that joined them in urging Paul not to go ever changed their mind about the accuracy of their application! In other words, Paul was unable to convince them they were wrong (see 21:14). They agreed to disagree and to entrust themselves, especially Paul, to the will of God. There was no gridlock as a result of this incident. Paul’s missionary journeys were not stalled or paralyzed. We should never think that perfect unanimity is required before we can respond to a word that purports to be from God.

Ninth, and finally, and of supreme importance for our pursuit and practice of prophecy today, note that Luke didn’t see their mistake as being fatal or a threat to the validity of prophetic ministry. At no time after Acts 21:36 does he say: “Oops,” or “We repent” or “Prophecy is dangerous and to be avoided.” In other words, contrary to what many suggest, errors like this do not disqualify people as prophetically gifted nor does it render prophecy unimportant for the church.

This will likely be the greatest temptation you face when learning how to implement the prophetic in the life of your church. As evangelical, Bible-believing Christians who rightly prize theological precision, we are not the sort who respond well to even the slightest inaccuracies. We often conclude that in the absence of rock-solid, empirically verifiable confirmation of the absolute truthfulness of a “word” that purports to come from God, nothing of spiritual benefit can be gained by tolerating this “gift” in our midst, much less by promoting it. But revelatory gifts are inescapably subjective and the people through whom they operate are unavoidably prone to error. We mustn’t be alarmed by this. But we should remain alert. The apostle Paul, his close companion Luke, Agabus, and the many disciples who were involved in this story certainly learned and lived by this truth, and so must we.


This was a very helpful article! Thank you for posting it and for taking the time to write this whole series of blogs. It is a much-needed pushback!

Your last paragraph really resonated with me, especially this sentence who's point I have often noticed in our Western culture that is obsessed with scientific verification on everything -

"As evangelical, Bible-believing Christians who rightly prize theological precision, we are not the sort who respond well to even the slightest inaccuracies. We often conclude that in the absence of rock-solid, empirically verifiable confirmation of the absolute truthfulness of a “word” that purports to come from God, nothing of spiritual benefit can be gained by tolerating this “gift” in our midst, much less by promoting it."
I have enjoyed your books and other material, this whole thing about Cessationist is hard to watch. I bought two other documentaries by the same people and watching them brought up questions of why they ever made them, while I agree with some of what they said there were a lot of questions that they never answered for me. This latest one on Cessationist I did not buy because it just didn't sit right with me after watching the trailer,

I do not speak in tongues' but have other gifts of the Sprit and continue to use them for His Glory,,,


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