And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:28)There is no question that there were prophets in the early church. It would appear, in fact, that there were many, and that from time to time these prophets would rise at church meetings and make divine pronouncements about the future. It would also appear, from the scripture quoted above and other passages, that the offices of apostle and prophet were distinct.
One of these prophets, a man by the name of Agabus, may be the most important person inthe recurring debate over cessationism. That is: does the position of prophet continue, or did it cease with the formation of the canon of scripture?
In his magnificent church history book, The Spreading Flame, F. F. Bruce wrote:
One of these prophets, a visitor from Jerusalem, Agabus by name, suddenly declared in a meeting of the church at Antioch that famine conditions were to prevail in all lands. (See Acts 11:28.) We know, in fact, from the Roman historian Suetonius that the reign of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) was marked by a succession of bad harvests1; and so far as Palestine is concerned, Josephus wrote that it was beset by famine about AD 46, and that the Jewish queen-mother of the kingdom of Adiabene on the Tigris bought corn in Egypt and figs in Cyprus to relieve the wants of the Jews in Palestine.2So why is Agabus such an important figure?
The answer may be counterintuitive. If Agabus was a true prophet, able, through divine power and revelation, to predict the future, just as the Old Testament prophets did, then it strengthens the cessationist argument and weakens the position of those who believe that prophecy continues today. Conversely, an Agabus who is not in the same league as the Old Testament prophets lends support to the anti-cessationists.
Here is the reasoning: Cessationists argue that a prophet is a prophet is a prophet—the office as described in the New Testament is the same as the office described in the Old Testament. At they same time, they claim the position of apostle is an entirely new and short-lived office of a higher rank than that of prophet, and reserved for those who met Christ face-to-face.
So the cessationist position is: Apostles were different from prophets, and New Testament prophets were of the same caliber as their Old Testament counterparts. Of course, they then argue that there has been no such person since the reception of the canon, but that question is for a later time. The main point here is: if anyone is a prophet today, then he should not be a watered-down version of the prophets of old, but comparable in his ability, through God’s power, to foretell the future.
The anti-cessationist viewpoint is quite different. They would argue that the office of apostle is in fact the true continuation of the line of Old Testament prophets. After all, Old Testament prophets had the charge and authority to write divinely inspired scripture, as did the apostles. The New Testament prophet, they would argue, is an altogether new animal; a much weaker (though potentially more ubiquitous) version of the Old Testament prophet. His utterings do not, they readily admit, carry the imprimatur "Thus saith the Lord."
So we come back to the question of Agabus. We have to look at this seemingly incidental character more closely—especially his second recorded prophecy, found in Acts 21:10-11.
Was Agabus a true prophet, in the Old Testament sense? A great deal rides on the answer to that question.
(Aside--is there a term preferred over anti-cessationist? It seems so clumsy.)
1 Suetonius, Life of Claudius, XVIII, 2.
2 Josephus, Antiquities, XX 2:5.