What the Prophet Agabus in Acts Teaches Believers Today

Contributing Writer
What the Prophet Agabus in Acts Teaches Believers Today

Agabus is mentioned twice in the Book of Acts and foretold two coming events. One foretelling impacted the local church and Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The other warned the apostle Paul of things to come in his life and ministry.

But who was Agabus?

What Does It Mean that Agabus Was a Prophet?

When most people think of biblical prophets, they think of Old Testament figures like Samuel, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The latter half of the Old Testament is devoted to these individuals’ writings and prophetic ministry.

These prophets served as God’s mouthpieces. They delivered divine instructions, warnings, and encouragement to God’s people and often specific individuals such as kings or future leaders. In some instances, they also received visions of things to come—impending judgment or promises of the coming Messiah. However, the Old Testament prophets were not the only ones to hear from God or be called upon to deliver specific messages to God’s people.

In the New Testament, a handful of key figures were also given prophetic words and visions to instruct, edify, and encourage the early church.

So, what do we know about the prophet Agabus? What did he prophesy?

Who Was Agabus in the New Testament?

Unfortunately, we have limited details surrounding the prophet Agabus's life, conversion, and ministry. We don’t know much about his character, his background, or what he did after his encounters with the apostle Paul. His name only appears twice in Scripture (Acts 11:28; 21:10). However, what we learn of Agabus from Luke’s account of the Acts of the apostles, coupled with information from church history, gives us enough information to at least understand Agabus’ key role in helping shape the early church.

For one thing, Scripture mentions that Agabus had come to the city of Antioch along with some prophets from Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Though his name is not specifically mentioned in Luke’s gospels, church tradition and some historical writings point to Agabus being one of the seventy sent out in pairs by Jesus in Luke 10:1-24.

The chosen seventy were sent ahead to towns and villages that Jesus was going to visit (Luke 10:1). Given power, authority, and instructions from on high, the seventy proclaimed the kingdom of God, healed the sick, and cast out demons in Jesus' name. These seventy disciples gave joyous reports of all that had been accomplished in Christ’s name (Luke 10:17).

If Agabus was one of the seventy mentioned in Luke 10, it makes sense that he would have continued to prophesy and minister to the church with the authority Christ had given him.

However, even if Agabus was not one of the seventy commissioned and empowered by Christ during His earthly ministry, he was nonetheless respected as a key leader of the church in Jerusalem. Consequently, he provided encouragement and wisdom as the church grew to new locations (Acts 11:28).

What Did Agabus Prophetically Reveal to the Church at Antioch?

As mentioned, the first mention we get of Agabus is in Acts 11. Following Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:54-8:3), great persecution affected the church in Jerusalem, scattering many believers throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Many Christians traveled to places like Phoenicia, Cyrene, and the city of Antioch (located in present-day Syria), to minister to Jewish believers in those cities (Acts 11:19). In Antioch, many believers from Cyprus and Cyrene also came to preach the gospel to Greek-speaking Gentiles there. Accordingly, “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:21)

When word of the gospel’s triumph in Antioch reached the church in Jerusalem, the apostles and elders sent Barnabas to encourage the believers there (Acts 11:22-24). Shortly after, we read that Barnabas left for Tarsus to find Saul, whom he brought to Antioch to partner with him in building up the church.

“And for an entire year, they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26; emphasis added)

Ironically, Paul’s pre-conversion persecution against the church inspired many Christians to flee to Antioch. Years later, the converted Saul (also known as Paul) came to the city to partner in ministry with some people he once persecuted.

As the church in Antioch grew, we also read that “some of the prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.” (Acts 11:27). Agabus was among this group.

We then read that Agabus “stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world.” (Acts 11:27).

But did this happen? Given how few details we get about Agabus, do we know whether he was a false prophet or a genuine one?;

Do We Know Whether Agabus Was a True or False Prophet?

Old Testament law established a key test to determine a prophet’s authenticity (Deuteronomy 18:20-21). Does their prediction come to fruition? If what the so-called prophet predicted does not come to pass, that individual did not speak a word from the Lord. His words were to be dismissed, and his credibility was to be disregarded.

In Mosaic Law, the penalty for blatant false prophecy, presuming to speak for the Lord, or speaking in the name of another god, was severe: “That prophet was to die” (Deuteronomy 18:20).

Thankfully, Agabus did not suffer such a fate. According to Luke, the prophecy was fulfilled, and the famine “took place in the reign of Claudius” (Acts 11:29).

In fact, with the Holy Spirit’s arrival, the apostle Paul instructed the church how to balance skepticism with enthusiasm about prophecy. They were not to “quench the Spirit” or “utterly reject prophesies,” but rather to “examine everything” and “hold firmly to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20).

Were there false prophets at work during the first century? Absolutely. This is why it was (and is) imperative for the church to “test every spirit” (1 John 4:1-6) and “examine everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) to make sure that every “spoken word” glorifies and affirms Jesus as Christ, Savior, and King, aligns with sound doctrine and the teaching of the apostles, bears good fruit, and edifies the church.

Agabus, however, was no false prophet.

Luke affirms this by specifically referencing when the words were spoken: “in the reign of Claudius” (Acts 11:29). This detail allows us to examine Agabus’ prediction against the historical record.

And what do we find? We know that Claudius reigned as emperor of Rome from A.D. 41-54. Several ancient writers, including Tacitus, Josephus, and Suetonius, documented several great famines affecting Judea and the surrounding regions around A.D. 45-46.

Therefore, all evidence suggests that Agabus had, in fact, given a true and accurate prophetic warning of what was to come.

Like the dreams given to the Pharoah, which Joseph interpreted in Genesis 41, the prophecy given to Agabus served as a warning to help prepare people for coming hardship. The church of Antioch responded accordingly: “And to the extent that any of the disciples had means, each determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brothers and sisters living in Judea. And they did this, sending it with Barnabas and Saul to the elders” (Acts 11:29-30).

What Prophetic Warning Did Agabus Give to the Apostle Paul?

Agabus’s prophecy to the church in Antioch may have been his first recorded prophecy in the Book of Acts. However, it was not his last.

In Acts 21, Agabus again enters the scene with a prophetic message, specifically for the apostle Paul.

While in Caesarea, Paul and his companions met with Agabus, who had come from Judea. He had a stark message:

“. . . coming to us, [Agabus] took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, ‘this is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way, the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” (Acts 21:11)

This was not the first time a prophet of God used props to act out his prophecy (see 1 Kings 11:29-39; Isaiah 20:2-6; Jeremiah 13:1-11; Ezekiel 4; 5).

While the Old Testament prophets usually had words that affected nations, Agabus’ words affected one person: he predicted Paul’s eventual imprisonment when the Jews arrested and hand him over to the Romans (Acts 21:27-28, 31-33). As renowned commentator Matthew Henry notes, “Paul had express warning of his troubles, that when they came, they might be no surprise or terror to him.”

While in Roman custody, Paul appealed his case to the highest authority, leading him to Rome. His legal journey probably ended without him ever being tried before Caesar for the crimes he was accused of, but he spent his time in Rome building up the local church (Acts 27-28). Most historians believe he stayed in Rome until Nero’s reign led to new persecution, and he was beheaded for his faith.

How Did Paul Respond to Agabus’ Prophecy?

Despite its dire prediction, Agabus’ prophecy did not surprise or catch Paul off guard.

He knew that he had been given a task that involved suffering. Shortly after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, God told the disciple Ananias what Paul would do as a new believer: “. . . he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)

After hearing Agabus’ warning, Paul’s traveling companions and the local believers in Caesarea tried to dissuade him from traveling to Jerusalem. Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

His companions eventually responded, “The will of the Lord be done!” (Acts 21:14).

Agabus’ prophecy did not dissuade Paul; instead, his words strengthened Paul’s faith and bolstered his commitment to his mission. As Matthew Henry writes, “the general notice given us, that through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God, should be of the same use to us.”

In His grace, God had chosen to warn Paul of what was to come, not to terrify or discourage him but to prepare him for the days ahead. If God knew what was to come, Paul could be at peace, knowing that God would ultimately be with him wherever he went.

Therefore, in both prophecies, Agabus was called upon to encourage those entering hard seasons. Agabus’ words to the believers in Antioch prepared them to minister to fellow believers in a time of need. Agabus’ words to Paul prepared the apostle for a rocky road ahead. So, we see a key element of biblical prophetic ministry: it encourages, enlightens, empowers, and equips the body of Christ. Even when the prophetic mission is intimidating, God uses prophets to accomplish these purposes.

To God alone, may we give all glory, honor, and praise, and thanks be to God for sending and speaking through His prophets to edify His church.

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Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.

This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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