Nobodies of the Bible: Agabus, courageous New Testament prophet
The Bible mentions Agabus in only two brief passages. In Acts 11:27-30, we find him in Antioch, predicting a severe worldwide famine. In Acts 21:8-14, we find him in Philippi telling Paul that he would be imprisoned in Jerusalem. Luke says Agabus was from a prophet from Jerusalem (ch. 11--Judea in ch. 21), although we never see him ministering there. He evidently did not expect his readers to remember Agabus in the second passage and introduced him all over again.
What is a New Testament prophet? By Agabus' time, no prophet had been officially recognized by Jewish leadership for about 400 years. Nowadays, many teach that prophecy and other spiritual gifts passed away with the early church. That is simply unbiblical. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 lists manifestations of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit gives one of the nine gifts listed there, including prophecy, to an individual whenever he wants his presence to be known. Therefore, anyone at all can prophecy if the Holy Spirit so chooses. But in Ephesians 4:11, another listing of spiritual gifts, the prophet is one of five spiritual offices that are Christ's gifts to the church.
Anyone can prophecy, but not just anyone is a prophet. A prophet receives his or her office from Jesus and ministers in that capacity for the benefit of the whole church. That is, Jesus takes the initiative. In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul says that if anyone aspires to the office of bishop (overseer, or various other ways the word is translated into English), he desires a fine work. From this verse, we see that someone can aspire to the administrative leadership of the church as a career choice. While we should devoutly hope that everyone with that desire is a Christ-appointed spiritual leader as one of the five ministry gifts, spiritual leadership and administrative leadership are not at all the same. We have plenty of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers sitting in the pews and operating in their appointed ministries as lay people.
The Bible never shows Agabus ministering in his own church. We can have no idea what his ordinary role was, or whether he was part of the administrative ministry team at all. Yet the two times he appears in Scripture, he had a pivotal role in the narrative. We can trace the beginning of giving to missions to Agabus. His first prophecy resulted in the first time the Bible records a collection taken by one church for the sake of another. It was to deliver another such collection that found Paul on the way to Jerusalem when his avowed goal was to visit Rome.
On his way to Jerusalem, Paul stopped for the night at the home of Philip, one of the original deacons but here called the evangelist. Agabus showed up, removed Paul's belt from him, and ties up his own hands and feet with it. He said the owner of the belt would be tied up by the Jews in Jerusalem and handed over to the Gentiles.
People began to argue whether the Holy Spirit wanted to go on to Jerusalem or not. Anyone who has encountered teaching on this passage more than once or twice knows that the issue has been discussed from that day to this, with teachers on both sides persuaded that they have the correct answer. A close examination of the passage reveals that as soon as Agabus gave his prophesy, everyone started to discuss and no one prayed. I imagine he had a sinking feeling that any Old Testament prophet would have felt many times when their message was not received or received only in part.
Agabus is not the only prophet named in the book of Acts, but his role gives the most specific picture we have of the New Testament prophet. That is, we don't know enough about the office to describe it with any accuracy. As scant as the record is, however, Agabus serves as as role model for all of us today, prophets or not.
First, he is known for only two days out of his entire life. They were not typical days, and very likely not the days he would have considered his most satisfying or most important. We need to be obedient in small things in order to be usable in larger things--and then forget about what effect it may have on our reputation with other people. Second, we should know that people like Agabus, and the spiritual leadership that he embodies, still exist in the church. We also need to pray that our own congregation will be open to receiving ministry from whatever style of spiritual leadership Jesus might choose to send us. People acting weird may or may not be acting by impulse of the Holy Spirit, and the church needs to pray in order to discern the difference in each case.
Most important, though, the primary and overarching quality that characterized Agabus is his courage.
- It took courage to stand as a prophet at a time when the majority of people did not believe in prophets.
- It took courage to stand as a prophet as a visitor to churches that were not his own--especially since both messages were of the doom and gloom variety.
- It took courage to offer an apparently unsolicited word of prophecy to Paul and to take his belt off. Given Paul's worldwide fame and Agabus' obscurity in his own lifetime, that's sort of like a lieutenant calling a general on the carpet.
- It took courage to look and act strange when the Holy Spirit prompted him.
- It took courage to speak out, knowing that people often pay little attention to the prophetic word.