Prophecy and the Will of God (Acts 21:8-14)
I. Built on the Foundation
In Ephesians 2:19–20, Paul reminded the disciples in Ephesus that “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the corner-stone”. Now, I think most of us know who the “apostles” were. But who were these “prophets” that Paul links with the apostles in verse 20? Some suggest that Paul's talking there about the Old Testament (OT) prophets. But only a few verses later, at the beginning of chapter 3, Paul goes back to this same pairing (3:4–5): “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” No. Paul is not referring to prophets “in other generations”, but to those serving “now”, at the time when Paul wrote this letter. But again, who were these prophets? And how should we think about their ministry in light of our own ministry today? Turn over to Acts 21, from Our Bible Reading Plan last week.
II. The Passage: “Let the Will of the Lord be Done” (21:8-14)
In Acts 21, after his third missionary journey throughout Asia Minor and Greece, we find the Apostle Paul (according to verse 3) in the coastal city of Tyre. Back in Acts 19:21, Luke told us that “after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem”. And that's exactly where he and his team are headed in this passage. Listen to what happens next, beginning in verse 8...
On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea [that's down the Mediterranean coast about 55 miles to the south of Tyre), 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.”
Talk about a fascinating and incredibly emotional scene. There's no doubt that the believers who knew Paul... loved Paul. That comes through loud and clear in this passage. But think for a moment about the interplay here between Agabus and his prophecy, Paul's friends and their appeals, and Paul and his resolve.
First, let me introduce you to Agabus and his prophecy. What's interesting is this isn't the first time we've met Agabus. He actually first appeared in chapter 11, where we read in verse 27-28:
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)[the Roman Emperor].
Now in the book of Acts, in addition to the prophets (plural) we just heard about in Acts 11:27, we discover three people specifically named as prophets: Agabus, Judas, and Silas (the same Silas who accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey). We also learned a couple weeks ago in 13:1 that “there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers”. In addition to those who held the office of a prophet, we discovered along with Paul in 19:6 that there were disciples of John the Baptist who had not yet received Christ or the Spirit, and when they did, Luke tells us they prophesied. Of course, we heard in our main text, in 21:6 that Philip the evangelist (who twenty years earlier had baptized the Ethiopian eunuch... that he by this time) had four daughters who also prophesied. And I think it's important to point out that the very first sermon in Acts, delivered by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, described as being fulfilled this word from the OT prophet Joel, “ And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy...” (2:17).
But Agabus is the clearest example we have in terms of a functioning New Testament prophet. It's only his prophecies (at least parts of them) that have been preserved. And in both chapter 11 and chapter 21 he announces two examples of predictive prophecy. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and before they actually happen, Agabus reveals two events that will take place in the near future: a famine (chp. 11), and the capture and imprisonment of Paul (chp. 22). In this way, Agabus is like an OT, Hebrew prophet. Even the way he provides a sign by binding himself using Paul's belt is a very OT, prophetic act. So these prophets really were serving as direct mouthpieces for the Holy Spirit. In fact, the only other possible prophetic word found in Acts is from 13:2, where it may have been one of the prophets in Antioch who delivered the message, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
So in some cases, God's guidance may have been crystal clear in a prophetic announcement. But at other times, declarations of what was to come were not necessarily connected to explicit instructions about doing this or that when the predicted event took place. In its most generic form, just like OT prophecy, NT prophecy simply built up the believers. We read in 15:32 that “Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words”. This lines up with 1 Corinthians 14:3, where Paul writes, “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
But second, think about Paul's friends and their appeals in light of that prophecy from Agabus. When they learn that Paul will be captured in Jerusalem, they urge him to stay as far away from Jerusalem as possible. Now this isn't the first time Paul had heard such warnings. In fact, verse 4 of this same chapter tells us that while he was staying with fellow believers in Tyre, “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” It seems they also had some kind of prophetic sense of what would happen, and like the group in Caesarea, they tried to change Paul's mind about going. And verse 13 indicates that Paul's companions weren't simply suggesting that Paul change his plans. Paul mentions they were “weeping” in light of the prophetic word. But think about that for a moment. They hear what will happen according to the word of God, but apparently, they want to understand it as some kind of warning. Consider that.
That leads us to a third point focused on Paul and his resolve. Did you hear Paul in verse 13? It's clear he's struggling in some way: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” He's hurting as they hurt for him. But in the same breath, he confirms his absolute commitment to what God has planned for him: “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Weeks before he revealed this same resolve to the elders of the church in Ephesus. He told them in Acts 20:22 (look back): “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.”
And to that, look at what Paul adds in the next verse, 20:23... “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” You see, Paul's friends wanted to understand the prophetic word as some kind of warning that provided Paul with an opportunity to avoid “imprisonment and afflictions”. But Paul heard the prophetic word as divine confirmation of the Spirit's ongoing testimony to him about completing his “course” and his “ministry”. Remember, Agabus was a known and confirmed prophet. And if we were to finish this chapter, we would read in verses 30-33 about the fulfillment of what he prophesied. Paul was captured by the Jews in Jerusalem, and then turned over to Roman forces.
III. The Word and Spirit
So what happened to these prophets? Well, remember how Paul linked them to the apostles and described both as the foundation of the church. I think we can say that just as the foundational office of apostle didn't continue beyond the early church, neither did the office of prophet. So that means we lack this kind of guidance today? No, and here's why: 1) God has preserved a faithful record of apostolic and prophetic guidance for us in the pages of Scripture (which was not completed and collected in those early years), and 2) we still possess the very same Spirit, who continues to work in and among us today.
That's why it's so important that we take away from this story two incredibly important lessons: number one, in light of God's word and/or the Spirit's promptings, we must be regularly asking, do I want my way or the Lord's will? It's tempting to hear a verse or a Bible story, or feel an inner impression, or interpret someone's words, or interpret a circumstance or a set of circumstances, then make it fit with what you wanted all along. “This must be what God wants, right?!” For Paul's companions, this thinking came from a good place: from their love for Paul. And sometimes love does motivate us. And sometimes it doesn't. In the end, we must arrive where these disciples arrived in verse 14... “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” Sincere surrender. Do you accept that the will of the Lord often involves pain and loss and uncertainty? Paul's friends struggled with those things in regard to their brother's future. So do we. And we will continue to struggle.
That's why, number two, we must be supremely committed to the call of Christ on our lives. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” How can we truly “test” the way a verse is stirring us, or the counsel of a brother or sister in Christ, or what seems to be a fortuitous 'open door' in front of us? We can ask, “Does this line up with what Scripture tells me about the call of Jesus Christ on my life?” Or, “Does this hinder me or lead me away from His call?” Paul could answer those questions. He had tested the Spirit's leading and the appeals of his friends against the revelation of Jesus in his life. He understood the incomparable worth and work of the gospel, and the genuine cost involved in following Christ. And the word of God through the prophet confirmed all this. His word-informed trajectory and resolve were powerful filters for testing between those two categories: 'my way' and the Lord's will.
Are you equipped in the same way? Do you understand the call of Christ on your life? Brothers and sisters, God still speaks and the Spirit still inspires. But at the same time, the human heart still struggles with having its own way. One thing that's perfectly clear from Paul here is that he was willing to lay down his life for Jesus, just as Jesus had laid down his life for Paul, and for all his flock. May God, through his Spirit, grant us that same heart, but especially in terms of dying daily; that is, daily surrender to God's will. Brothers and sisters, hear the word of the Lord.
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