Acts 20:23: Ignoring Prophetic Warnings?

It is not easy to deal with prophetic words. When someone says, "Thus says the Lord," it puts the hearer in a difficult situation, especially since the meaning of the prophetic message may not be self-evident. How does one handle prophecy? That is the issue raised by the statement in Acts 20:23, which Paul made in Ephesus on the way to Jerusalem. Even earlier Paul had some concerns about his safety in Jerusalem, for in a letter written from Corinth he asked the Romans to pray for him (Rom 15:30-32). By the time he traveled around through Macedonia to Ephesus he could cite frequent warnings by "the Holy Spirit." Since they happened "in every city" they were probably prophetic oracles given to Paul by believers in each city. These warnings continued. When he arrived at Tyre on the Palestinian coast the believers "through the Spirit . . . urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem" (Acts 21:4). Again we must assume some type of prophetic word or divine insight.

While we may wonder what, if anything, Philip's prophesying daughters said in Caesarea (and if they said nothing, why did the author mention that they prophesied?), another event that happened there overshadows everything else. Agabus arrived. His accurate prophecy had previously guided Paul into timely famine relief in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Now he walks over to Paul's group, takes Paul's belt, ties himself up, and states, "The Holy Spirit says, `In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles' " (Acts 21:11). Paul's friends were sure that this prophecy meant that Paul ought not to go to Jerusalem. Paul, however, ignored the pleas of his companions, traveled on to Jerusalem and was in fact arrested, remaining a prisoner for at least the next three years.

How are we to evaluate this response to prophecy? Was Paul disobedient, receiving in his imprisonment the results of such disobedience? Were his companions, including the author of Acts (who includes himself among the "we" who wanted Paul to avoid Jerusalem), misinterpreting the prophecy? What does it all mean for both this passage and the interpretation of prophecy today?

We note first of all that the whole series of prophetic words, beginning with Paul's own inner "knowledge" in Romans, indicates trouble in Jerusalem. The messages appear to become increasingly clear the nearer he gets to Jerusalem. All warn Paul, but none contains a directive. A warning can be taken in one of two ways. It can point out a danger to avoid, or it can point out a danger to walk into with one's eyes open. In itself a warning does not tell a person what to do, unless one assumes that God's will is always to keep his people out of danger. One prophecy, however, gave something more than a warning. In Tyre Paul was urged "through the Spirit" not to continue his trip. He obviously chose to ignore this message.

Second, while all the prophecies are accurate in indicating danger, they are not unequivocally clear. Agabus's is the only detailed one, but it was not fulfilled in every particular. It is true that the result of Paul's visit to Jerusalem was that he was bound and ended up in the hands of the Gentiles, that is, the Romans. It is also true that this happened because of the Jews. But it certainly was not the Jewish plan to "bind" Paul and "hand him over to the Gentiles." In fact, they were trying to lynch Paul when the Romans arrived and bound him with chains (Acts 21:31-33). An exacting historian would be correct in saying that Agabus was at least in part wrong in his prophecy. At the same time, if we did not have the story in Acts, the prophecy would have given us an accurate impression, although not in detail. Prophecy by nature is "dark speech" (RSV) or "riddles" (Num 12:6-8) and partial (1 Cor 13:9, 12). Even Old Testament prophecies did not mean what they seemed to mean (Dan 9:2, 24), and both Jeremiah (Jer 17:14-15) and Jonah complained that their prophecies were not fulfilled. In what form did Agabus receive the prophecy? Was it a vision, perhaps of Paul bound, standing between Roman soldiers with Jewish accusers facing him (see Acts 21:40; 22:30)? Or did he receive words or impressions from God? Whatever he experienced, his expression of it shows some fuzziness.

Third, all prophecy needs discernment or testing. The church through the ages has already passed its judgment on the prophecies recorded in Scripture, but Paul himself taught that new prophecy has to be "weighed carefully" (1 Cor 14:29). This is not simply to determine whether it is true or false, but also to discover what it means. Paul also indicates that during this process a further revelation might clarify the meaning of the first one (1 Cor 14:30). This instructional passage explains Paul's response to the prophetic words he receives in Acts. He apparently understood the words to be a warning about what would happen, preparing him for the problems facing him, rather than telling him not to go to Jerusalem. In coming to this conclusion he obviously stood against the judgment of his companions. Furthermore, he must have believed that the speakers in Tyre had gone beyond the message God was trying to communicate and had added their own interpretation, for he certainly does not obey it. In other words, he shows that in responding to a prophetic word the responsibility for discernment and decision remained on his own shoulders. In the end he would answer to God for his actions.

Was Paul wrong in his interpretation? Different Christians may come to different conclusions on that matter. For some his three-year imprisonment indicates a failure to heed God's warnings. For others the prophecies are to be seen as preparation to endure just such a trial. God was bringing Paul to Rome in his own way. Apparently his companions concluded from their inability to persuade him that Paul had a strong inner conviction that what he was doing was right and that he ought to interpret the prophecy accordingly. They fall silent and say, "The Lord's will be done." The same principles of personal testing of a prophecy one receives, of personal decision as to its meaning and of personal responsibility for that decision hold true today. We cannot tell others what to do, although we may mediate to them messages from God or give them good advice. If we hold to these principles, we will clear up some of the confusion surrounding prophecy today.

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Several recent works discuss the gift of prophecy. The best and most practical is Clifford Hill, Prophecy Past and Present (Crowborough, U.K.: Highland Books, 1989). Also good are Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988) and Graham Houston, Prophecy: A Gift for Today? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1989).