Agabus, Round One
Agabus was apparently a well-known prophet in the early Church. While we don’t know very much about him today, two of his prophecies are mentioned in the book of Acts. Those two prophecies are at the very center of an old debate about whether or not prophetic ministry differs between the Old Covenant and the New. Specifically, the question is raised as to whether or not there is room for mistakes in prophetic ministry in the New Covenant.
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30 ESV)
The passage tells us that this prophecy was fulfilled, and when. What it doesn’t talk about is where it was fulfilled. According to historians, it did affect some areas of the world around that time, but especially Judea between 46-48 AD. Judea seems to be the only area of the world that the early Church was concerned for in response to this prophecy.
There are only two logical possibilities concerning this prophecy. Either Agabus partially missed it as a New Covenant prophet, or the phrase all the world doesn’t consistently mean the entire planet throughout the New Testament (e.g., Luk 2:1; Rom 1:8). If the former is true, we have a clear case of error in prophecy. If the latter is true, then it may require a need to re-evaluate the book of Revelation and other passages which concern all the world.
Agabus, Round Two
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. ’” (Acts 21:10-11 ESV)
Before Agabus prophesied this, Paul said, “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” (Acts 20:23). So we see that Agabus confirmed what Paul already knew and added details of how it would happen.
Agabus proclaimed, “Thus says the Holy Spirit,” and then proceeded to say that the Jews will bind his hands and feet and then the Jews will turn him over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). What actually happened is that the Jews persecuted Paul, and as a result, the Gentiles took him and then the Gentiles bound him by his hands and feet (Acts 21:32-33).
Agabus knew that Paul would be bound by his hand and feet and that he would end up in the custody of the Gentiles. But he presumed that the Jews would be the ones binding him and handing him over. It is impossible to logically dispute the fact that Agabus missed it. Agabus got the basics of the word right, but he got the details wrong.
Meanwhile, In Tyre
On a side note, “…through the Spirit [the disciples in Tyre] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). In contrast to that, Paul had already “resolved in the Spirit” (Acts 19:21) and was “constrained by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22-23) to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome. Also, he later states that an angel told him he must appear before Caesar (Acts 27:22-26).
Someone was wrong—because they couldn’t both be right. Perhaps God was testing Paul by giving him choices through the believers in Tyre. Any way you look at it, not everybody can be accurate in this situation. It seems that this is a case of error, or at the very least, real contradiction, in Biblical New Covenant prophetic ministry.
Paul Changed His Prophecy
In his voyage to Rome as a prisoner, the apostle Paul first prophesied that there would be injury, and much loss of cargo and even their lives (Acts 27:9-11). However, an angel later came and corrected him, inspiring him to then prophesy that there was to be no loss of life (Acts 27:22-26).
It is possible for a situation to change which facilitates a change in the prophetic word, but the Bible simply doesn’t say that happened in this case. Paul’s first prophecy did not come to pass, and his second prophecy contradicted his first one.
Keep The Good
Is it Biblical to allow room for mistakes, errors, or adjustments it New Covenant prophetic ministry? Yes. I believe this is why the apostle Paul taught about our approach to prophecy:
Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 ESV)
With this statement, Paul makes it clear that there is the possibility of error in New Covenant prophesy because he implies that some of it may not be good. Why would you have to test something that is infallible?
He also makes it clear that there is the potential that prophesy could be despised. The main reason I’ve seen people despise prophesy is the fact that they have seen errors in prophetic ministry in the past. The second is that when prophetic ministry challenges a person to face the truth of their lives, it’s easier to despise the prophecy or find a reason to disapprove of the person ministering.
The goal is not to be satisfied with mistakes in prophetic ministry, but to take comfort in knowing that it’s okay to stumble as we learn and grow in our ability to cooperate with God as new creatures in Christ.
Jeremy Caris is the founder and president of Caris Ministries. Since he is called as a prophet and gifted as a teacher, much of his focus involves equipping believers to hear, know, and follow God in their own daily experience. He teaches the foundational truth of the Word with simple clarity, while revealing deep things of the spirit in practical ways. He has the unique ability to demystify the supernatural side of real relationship with a living God and make it an embraceable and accessible reality for all believers. Jeremy has been married to his best friend, Mandy Caris, for eighteen years, and is the proud father of two boys.