HOW DO WE DISTINGUISH THE WORD OF GOD IN THE WORDS OF OTHERS?
Adding God's name to a word of guidance can make it difficult to assess unless we have the tools and the confidence to do so
Sifting advice can be the hardest thing. We are prone to listen to the things which reinforce our instincts and are often surrounded by friends who are unable or unwilling to challenge us. The most awkward advice of all is that which appears to come with divine imprimatur; by royal appointment to the king.
Many of us have had the experience of another person bringing a word from God directly to us and it can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes it is just the word of encouragement we are longing for, a sense that God is looking out for us in such a personal way that the words are transformative. Occasionally it can be hard to discern God in it. Perhaps too much of the other person’s ego is involved or there is a hint of manipulation there. Adding God’s name to a word of guidance can make it difficult to counter unless we have the tools and the confidence to do so. One story from the Acts of the Apostles shows what is at stake.
The prophet Agabus is first spoken of in Acts 11: 27-30 where his prophecy of an impending famine in the region allows the churches to provide humanitarian aid to the Judean Christians, saving lives. His personal credibility would have been high as a result. Later, in Acts 21: 10-12, he arrives at the house of Philip in Caesarea, where Paul is staying. Taking Paul’s belt, he binds his hands and feet and says this is what the Jews in Jerusalem will do before handing him over to the Gentiles.
As a prophecy it has authentic form and substance. Jewish prophets from Ezekiel down used dramatic visual aids to reinforce their words. Agabus seemed to be in this line. Furthermore, the phrase ‘hand him over to the Gentiles’ has a disturbing echo of Jesus’ end. We tend to interpret the future by what we have experienced in the past; sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t. The message from Agabus was clear: this is your destiny Paul, and God has told me it. This was enough to spook anyone and it caused great anguish to those around Paul. He, however, ignores the words of prophecy.
Paul tested this prophecy against the sure conviction he had from the point of conversion that he would bring the Gospel to the Gentiles and suffer for the sake of Christ. This knowledge was the compass by which he would plot his life. Any words which tempted him to take another path would be resisted. Paul knew what he had to do; the consequences could be remaindered.
Agabus was wrong in any case. Rather than speaking the word of God, he acted like someone who has heard a rumour and passed it on in distorted and misleading form. Paul did cause a riot in Jerusalem – it didn’t take a prophet to see that coming – but rather than being handed over by the mob to the Gentiles, Paul’s life is saved from lynching by the Romans themselves, who intervene to protect him and thereby set in motion a process by which he would fulfil God’s words in Acts 9:15 that Paul would ‘bring my name before Gentiles and kings’.
Paul did not see any guidance in Agabus’ dramatic words and actions, only a warning that might cause him fear and anxiety, neither of which helped spiritually.
It is not easy to test someone else’s words of knowledge or prophecy, but they should be assessed and not credulously followed. Even Agabus, a previously unimpeachable pillar of the early Church, proved wrong in his. Words which encourage and build up the body of Christ are a good indication of the presence of God. Statements which lack purpose and that tend to undermine our resilience in Christ or probe our strength to do what we believe we are called to might be interrogated more closely. At least this is what the story of Agabus implies.
Agabus may have felt he had a ministry of warning, and others may too; it would be imprudent to ignore such calls at face value. But in the end, the prior call of God should override the consequences of action.
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