What is the significance of Acts 21:10–12?
While Paul and Luke were making preparations to go and preach in Jerusalem, “a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.” The prophet approached Paul, took his belt, and announced, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” Luke then records that when Paul’s comrades heard this, they “urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.”
Several things are interesting about Agabus’ prophecy. First, it is clear from the response of Paul’s companions that they did not consider this prophetic message to be a declaration of what was certainly going to happen in the future, for they immediately tried to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem (vs. 12). Instead, they interpreted the prophecy as a warning about what would happen to Paul if he chose to go to Jerusalem. They assume that whether this would come to pass or not was up to Paul to decide.
Secondly, it is interesting to note that even after Paul decided to go to Jerusalem things did not transpire exactly as Agabus had prophesied. When Paul was discovered by some of his fellow Jews in the temple, a riot broke out and he was beaten by the crowd (vs. 27–30). They were about to kill him (vs. 31) when Roman guards arrived on the scene, arrested him, and thereby saved him from the hostile mob (vs. 32–33). Contrary to Agabus’ prophecy, the Jews never bound Paul and handed him over to the Romans. The Romans rather rescued Paul from the Jews.
Such a turn of events is troubling to the classical view of an exhaustively settled future and the understanding of divine prophecy which usually accompanies it. If God knows every detail about the future activity of free agents, there’s no explanation for the fact that things did not happen exactly as the Holy Spirit had prophesied through Agabus.
If the future is partly composed of possibilities and probabilities, however, then this prophecy is a perfect assessment of what would generally happen based on the Lord’s perfect knowledge of the present disposition of the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews were going to be hostile toward Paul and, given the political structure of the time, he would eventually end up in the hands of the Romans.
But precisely because a myriad of free agents were involved, there was an element of openness in exactly how things played out. At the time of Agabus’ prophecy, it was most probable that the Jews would seize Paul and hand him over to the Romans. The Holy Spirit, who knows all things perfectly, accurately reported this. As it turned out, however, the situation had worsened since the time of the prophecy and consequently Paul was nearly killed.
Though we can’t be certain of this, God’s providential hand may be discerned in the speed with which the riot was reported to the Romans and the speed with which the Romans dispatched a unit to break it up. If God’s sovereign purposes for history required Paul’s ministry to continue, God would certainly influence matters in creative ways as much as he needed to in order to prevent Paul’s untimely death. In other words, there’s no reason to conclude that it was simply good luck that saved Paul’s life and thus allowed him to become a foundational pillar and author in the New Testament Church. But neither is there any reason to conclude that everything surrounding this episode was pre-planned or foreknown by God.
In his wisdom and power, the “God of the possible” is prepared for and capable of responding to every possible contingency, however improbable, that might arise. He can ingeniously achieve his sovereign purposes while yet allowing for a significant element of free will (see Exod. 3:18–4:9 and comments above).
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