This may sound odd, but we can actually hear an authentic word of God and somehow misunderstand or misconstrue it. This is evidenced by an interesting story from Paul’s life towards the end of Acts.
On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist…. and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 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.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 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.” And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” (Ac 21:8-14)
What’s interesting here is that numerous people have received the same word, but they have all interpreted it differently. Agabus gives the word without bias and the Christian community at Caesarea perceive it one way while Paul perceives it another. The Christian community hears a word of warning and entreats Paul to run away, while Paul hears a word of confirmation for something the Holy Spirit had put on his heart while in Ephesus. If we rewind a chapter, we see that Paul knew persecution was coming, for he said, “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me” (Ac 20:22-23).
But just to make sure this prophetic word is extra confusing, the Christian community at Caesarea was not the only group of Christians to think Paul was supposed to avoid Jerusalem. In fact, between Paul’s time at Ephesus and Caesarea, he stopped by Tyre to see the Christian community there. According to Acts, “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Ac 21:4). Yes, Tyre is recorded as telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem, through the Spirit.
One authentic prophetic word with two opposing interpretations. The Christian community hears the Spirit talk about danger and wants Paul to run from it, while Paul hears the Spirit talk about danger and knows he’s being called into it. I’d suggest this prophetic confusion is not as uncommon as it seems. Who knows how many people have received an authentic word from the Holy Spirit and taken it the wrong way? Perhaps they truncated the fullness of the word and came to a heretical theological conclusion by not taking the word back to the Holy Spirit to help them understand it more clearly. Perhaps by not practicing discernment, they let the word lead them in the polar opposite direction of where it was intended to take them.
But fortunately for Paul, he had already been listening to the Holy Spirit before these prophetic words came. Therefore, Agabus’ word served as a powerful confirmation that he was on the right track. Just as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert (Mt 4:1) to suffer through fasting and to the cross to suffer through death, so Paul would join in the Holy Spirit’s call to embrace persecution.
Paul’s upcoming persecution would be intense. He would be dragged out of the Jerusalem temple and beaten by the Jews; arrested and imprisoned by the Roman authorities (partially to protect him from the Jewish mob); threatened by Jewish hitmen who swore off food and drink until they killed him; kept in jail (with some liberties) for two years while the governor waited for Paul to offer him a bribe; threatened by more Jewish hitmen; and then shipped off to Rome and shipwrecked. Yet, despite all that the Holy Spirit led him into, Paul maintained that in the backwards Kingdom of Heaven, this kind of suffering is the kind of greatness a Christian can boast about (2 Cor 11:16-33).
If we’re honest, some of us read about Paul’s suffering in Acts and wonder if the Christians at Tyre and Caesarea were right in their interpretation. But Paul was certain of his understanding—and the word was for him to interpret after all. And so to some extent, that’s the beauty of this confusing story. For it teaches us how to interpret a prophetic word not by rules and methods, but by story. It shows us that we can receive an authentic word and misunderstand it. It reveals how Christians who have the Holy Spirit can be confused about what the Holy Spirit is saying.
And it also reminds us of just how zealous we are for words of blessing and how opposed we are to being led into persecution for the gospel’s sake. My heart burned strongly for those who responded to a difficult call at an event one night. The stage had been opened to those who felt God was calling them to mission work in other countries—perhaps in dangerous areas where their very lives might be threatened. Many responded to the call with weeping, but they still were willing to go.
Agabus was wise to present the Holy Spirit’s prophetic word to Paul without bias, for it’s not hard to imagine that Agabus may have felt the same way as the other Christians. Had he offered the same interpretation everyone else did, Paul’s own interpretation would have had to contradict a prophet’s. Likewise, we need to pay attention to the way we give words. Sometimes we aren’t supposed to give interpretations—we are just supposed to pass along the word.
In the end, the truth is that God has decided to speak and work through broken humans rather than tear the skies asunder and speak for Himself. And because of that, a genuine and Godly prophetic word can sometimes be greatly misconstrued. And that is all the more reason that discernment is a must.
And a misconstrued prophet is just that: Misconstrued. It’s unfortunate how often we accuse misconstrued prophets of being false prophets; for to truly learn how to be a good prophet, you are probably going to misconstrue a few words along the way.