Agabus was a noted prophet of the early church, often forgotten about in New Testament lists of “who’s who.” He is mentioned only twice in the New Testament; in Acts 11 and 21. His name means either “a locust, or the father’s joy/feast.”[i] In eastern cultures, the meaning of a name is actually important. In our culture we likely miss a lot by neglecting the meanings of our names, which once (aside from being chosen based on familiarity or uniqueness) were meant to convey character and even destiny. It is ironic that Agabus’ name can mean locust because he predicted one of the most severe famines in the Roman Empire. Famines are often caused by locust swarms that can clean out entire fields in minutes. Locusts form from regular grasshoppers that are born during a time of drought and grow up fighting for food to become super aggressive. This particular famine was noted by the Jewish historian Josephus[ii], and probably had a crippling effect on the Roman Empire for nearly 3 years. It is believed that this famine was caused by a drought in the Nile River Basin, which was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. [iii]
Galatians was one of the earliest books of the New Testament and was written during a time when a famine ravaged the land. It was the poor that suffered the most during this difficult time. This is probably why Galatians 2:10 contains these words from Paul, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Josephus records that the price of grain jumped to double that of any recorded price up until that time. [iv] The church responded to this famine by taking up a freewill collection to meet the needs of those who were hit the hardest (Acts 11:29). In a time of famine, the church members who gave probably did so despite their own needs and state of poverty. This is very reflective of Acts chapter 2, in which the believers took care of one another with remarkable acts of generosity (even biblical communism), having all things in common they claimed nothing as their own.
The other mention of Agabus in Acts is his dire warning to Paul about Paul’s dangerous journey to Jerusalem, and his fate to come there. Speaking of Paul’s future imprisonment, it says in Acts 21:11, “he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” To which Paul said, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And later, “The Lord’s will be done.”
What I take away from the story of Agabus is that he used his gift of prophecy to guide and prepare the church for its future struggles. He truly did live into his name as an intersection between locusts and his Heavenly Father’s joy at feasting, a unique calling I am sure he too found great irony in. He helped the church to acknowledge a huge problem of its day, and made it aware of its need to organize to meet that need. He also tried to protect Paul from a journey that would lead to his imprisonment and death. Though Paul followed God’s plan of “suffering for Christ’s name,” Agabus followed the Spirit in faithfully proclaiming to Paul the pain that was to come. Though Agabus may not have understood the plan of God for Paul, he genuinely cared about what would happen to Paul and tried to prevent it.
The church today could use more Agabuses, more prophetic voices that listen to the Spirit and are not afraid to deliver His message faithfully, even when the news is bad. Awareness is the first step toward action, and Agabus shared with the Church what was revealed to him by God. There are many great needs in our world today, many captives who need to be set free, many hungry who need to be fed, and many sleeping Christians that need to be woken up to a world that needs the hands and feet of Jesus. Will the Spirit’s words in your ear be amplified, so that God may be glorified? Will your voice ring with truth, or be silent as so many other voices are? While we may not have the gift of prophecy, we all have a voice that may be used by God. Is yours free to serve if called upon? We need not be chicken littles foolishly scaring people to be effective for God. Perhaps God might be wanting to use your voice to draw attention to something new He wants to do around you, or even through you. Like Agabus, we are called to be attentive and faithful. To open our mouths when our friends are in danger and when the world is in need of God’s touch. Lift your voice high!
[i] Hitchcock’s Dictionary of Bible Names – Agabus
[ii] Dictionaries – Easton’s Bible Dictionary – Famine
[iii] The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, © 1998 by Wm. B. Eerdmans