Acts 21 is one of the most interesting chapters in the New Testament particularly with respect to our understanding of the gift of prophecy. As Luke is narrating Paul’s journey to Jerusalem he mentions this encounter in Caesarea:
On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 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.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 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.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” (Acts 21:8–14 ESV)
While you would want to consult several other texts in the New Testament in order to develop a comprehensive view of the gift of the prophecy, this text on its own and in its context serves to direct our attention to several significant considerations. Chief among them would be the following:
1. Women can be prophets
I’m not sure how or why anyone would attempt to deny this. There are four women prophets mentioned in this very text! There are several women prophets or prophetesses mentioned in the Old Testament. That women can be prophets is beyond all reasonable dispute.
I think the reason some might wish to downplay this reality stems from the tendency of egalitarian voices to equate the gift of prophecy with the office of the pastorate. The argument is often made that since Hulda was a prophetess in the Old Testament and Philip had four daughters who prophesied in the New Testament then clearly women can be elders and pastors in the church.
But the argument doesn’t follow.
A prophetess is not a pastor.
If the Bible is clear about anything it is clear about the fact that prophets operate outside the normal hierarchy of the covenant community. Their job is to speak the Word of God to the people of God with the help of the Holy Spirit of God – and sometimes it is helpful for that voice to come from outside the official structures and offices of the covenant community.
In the Old Testament prophets are often called upon to speak truth to power. God told Jeremiah:
“Go down to the house of the king of Judah and speak there this word, 2 and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O king of Judah, who sits on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 3 Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:1–3 ESV)
Nathan said to King David:
“You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. 8 And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’” (2 Samuel 12:7–10 ESV)
The job of a prophet is to speak truth to power and therefore it is generally helpful for prophets to operate outside the official structures of the covenant community. To say that Jeremiah was a prophet is not to say that he was the king. To say that Nathan was a prophet is not to say that he was a priest. To say that Philip had four daughters who prophesied is not to say that they were pastors.
The argument doesn’t follow.
The Apostle Paul stated very clearly that women were not to be admitted to the authoritative teaching office in the church:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12 ESV)
“If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:1–2 ESV)
It seems very clear that Paul did not admit women into the office of elder/pastor/overseer in the church; but that does not imply that he forbade them to prophesy. He seems to admit as much in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5:
“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Corinthians 11:4–5 ESV)
There Paul seems to be saying that when men and women participate in church they should give evidence that they are at peace with the created order – redemption is supposed to restore us to our original design and nature not further obscure or confuse who we are as men and women. However, in the course of saying that he clearly assumes that women will be praying and prophesying in the gathered church. Thus, unless we assume that Paul was schizophrenic and couldn’t keep his own doctrine straight from one letter to the next, we should understand that Paul did not equate exercising prophetic gifts with occupying the pastoral office.
They are not the same and therefore the fact that there were and have always been women prophets in the church should not enter into our current debate about the role and function of women with respect to church offices.
John Owen made a helpful distinction years ago in his manual for church members:
“There is a two-fold power provided for the preaching of the word: ability and authority. The first, the ability to preach, with its required qualifications (mentioned in 1 Tim. 3:2-7; Titus 1:6-9) needs to be present in those called to the office of minister; and may be also, in varying degrees, in those not set apart to the office but warranted by it to preach the Gospel when called upon to do so in God’s providence, Romans 10:14-15.”
Owen here distinguishes between ability and authority – a distinction that many progressive evangelicals fail to make. We ought to thank God that many women are gifted preachers. In the Providence of God they are often given incredibly strategic opportunities to proclaim the Gospel to people who may never darken the doors of a church or sit under the preaching ministry of a local congregation. Praise God for their gifts and for the way they work to develop those gifts! Some of those gifted preachers may also be gifted prophets. They will speak the Word of God to the people of God with the help of the Spirit of God – and may be called upon to speak truth to power in the church from outside of its official structures and offices.
But that doesn’t make them pastors. It doesn’t make them elders and nor should it.
We should celebrate women prophets – but we shouldn’t thereby allow the men in the church to shirk the responsibilities to which they are called.
No fair minded reading of Acts 21 – or of the Bible as a whole – could deny that Old Testament and New, the Lord has gifted his people with women prophets; thanks be to God!
2. Prophecy must be discerned
Agabus spoke a word of prophecy to the Apostle Paul that Paul evidently discerned and largely disregarded.
That is a most remarkable feature of this chapter!
We saw it first in verses 3-5. There we are told:
“When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey” (Acts 21:3–5 ESV)
Apparently, in Tyre there were a number of disciples who were prophets in some sense and who spoke to Paul through the Spirit and told him not to go to Jerusalem.
Paul heard them.
And went to Jerusalem anyway.
That is most remarkable!
And that is not a sentence that you would likely find anywhere in the Old Testament. Wayne Grudem is helpful here, he says:
“It is significant because Paul simply disobeyed their words, something he would not have done if he had thought that they were speaking the very words of God”.
It appears as if Paul heard these dear folks talking to him as they perceived the Holy Spirit directing them and he took what was good and discarded the rest.
He tested it.
He discerned it.
He did not despise the prophecy, but neither did he treat it as authoritative. It sounds like the Apostle was taking his own advice; he said in 1 Thessalonians 5:
“Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–21 ESV)
In the New Testament, it appears as though prophecy has in some sense been generalized. The Apostle Peter in his Pentecost address explained the gift of the Holy Spirit in terms of an Old Testament prophecy found in the Book of Joel. He said:
“this is what was uttered through the 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, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’” (Acts 2:16–18 ESV)
In the Old Testament prophesy was relatively rare and when it came from God it was to be received invariably as “the Word of the Lord” – but here in the New Testament prophecy is now to be common and even to some extent universalized. Old people will do it. Young people will do it. Men will do it. Women will do it. Every truly born again person, filled with the Holy Spirit of God, will be able to do it – though not authoritatively and not all with equal facility.
Some people will be more gifted than others.
In this sense, the gift of prophecy may be compared to the gift of evangelism. All Christian people are required to evangelize, but some are more gifted than others. Some are gifted enough that we might even refer to them as “evangelists”. Philip apparently was such a person. In this chapter, he is referred to as:
“Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8 ESV)
To call Philip an “evangelist” is not to let you and me off the hook when it comes to sharing the Gospel with our friends and loved ones. We all must evangelize – but some are more gifted than others.
So it is with prophets.
Every true believer can speak the Word of God with the help of the Spirit of God – but some are more gifted than others. Given this spectrum of giftedness, obviously we cannot and should not treat all words of prophecy equally. They should be tested. They should not be despised but they should be discerned.
3. Prophecy is not ultimate
The Apostle Paul felt free to disregard the counsel of the prophet Agabus. Agabus spoke as he believed the Spirit was leading him but the Apostle Paul had a clearer and more authoritative understanding. This is the order of things in the Christian church.
Paul makes that order very clear in 1 Corinthians 14:
“If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” (1 Corinthians 14:37–38 ESV)
The prophets in Corinth were required to acknowledge Paul’s superior authority in the church as an Apostle. If they did not acknowledge this then they were not permitted to speak.
Paul’s words were “the Word of the Lord”. The Apostle Paul could say “Thus saith the Lord”. Prophets could not. Prophets must not. If they do they are not to be recognized.
Practically speaking this simple consideration could solve a great many of the concerns and hostilities around this issue in the wider evangelical community. Any person who expects their words to be treated as the Word of God should not be recognized as any kind of leader and should not be given a platform within the church. I imagine that if people in more “charismatic” congregations used their gifts according to this consideration and introduced their messages by saying: “I feel like the Spirit is prompting me to suggest to you that you might want to do so and so” as opposed to saying “Thus saith the Lord!!!” – a great deal of anxiety around the use of this gift would disappear.
Agabus clearly had a prompting from the Holy Spirit. He just as clearly misunderstood the implications and as a result he gave the Apostle Paul poor counsel – counsel that the Apostle Paul felt comfortable disregarding.
Again, as I said earlier, if you intend on developing a comprehensive doctrine of the gift of prophecy there are other chapters you will want to consult, but you will eventually have to wrestle with what you see in Acts 21. This is a chapter that assumes the existence and operation of prophets – male and female – within the church. It assumes that they are subject to the authority of the Apostles and that their words will be valued, scrutinized and discerned.
Lord, make it so again in our day, in accordance with the Scriptures.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.