We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way. All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray… When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:4-5,12-14 NIV)
We know the rest of the story, how Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem, how he traveled to Rome, how he wrote many letters to churches from prison, how he was able to give a witness to the royalty and to evangelize the Roman soldiers who guarded him, how he was later released and was able again to move about, etc. But here is a section where Luke raises a question in our mind: Should Paul have gone to Jerusalem in the first place?
As I have spoken to believers about this passage, people answer different ways. Some say, “Of course God wanted Paul to go to Jerusalem. After all he was an apostle and surely he knew better than anyone else the will of God.” Yet we do read of situations in scripture where the apostles had disagreements with each other. For example, Paul and Barnabas (also an apostle, Acts 14:14) disagreed over John Mark (Acts 15:36-41), and Paul also once rebuked Peter (also an apostle) publicly for his behavior (Gal. 2:11-15). So who was right? In fact, later in his life Paul wrote, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). Most of us seem to side with Barnabas on the matter of John Mark, so if Paul was wrong on John Mark, why would we insist that he was right about going to Jerusalem?
Paul did say that he was “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22). But we read also that “through the Spirit” the church pleaded with Paul not to go (Acts 21:4). There is no easy way to resolve this issue.
The New Testament instructs us that what the apostles taught was correct, “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), and not that everything they did was always perfect – especially in light of the fact that we see them disagreeing with one another over matters of application of the truth. Even so, we still are better off to follow the general example of the apostles in how they organized the churches, how they conducted their ministry and evangelism, etc., as found in the book of Acts, than to strike out on our own. Roland Allen an early missiologist, wrote a very helpful book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, urging us to follow the biblical examples of the apostles.
But let’s examine this matter of Paul going to Jerusalem. First, we would have to acknowledge that the entire passage reveals the passion and love of the church for Paul and for the Lord Jesus. We are impressed with their compassion for one another and with their complete submission to the will of God. At the end of the matter they said, “The Lord’s will be done” and this is always the response of a believing heart. Whatever God wills should be our passion and our concern. Love for God and others and surrender to His will are always the attitudes that should be in the heart.
Second, I would have to say that this is an issue that the scripture does not resolve for us. And one of the lessons we can learn from this passage is that the only safe and secure source of the will of God is His Word. Here we have a spirit-filled church, a prophet, and an apostle who seem to be on different sides of an important matter – not a doctrinal matter but an important matter.
Third, their method of sorting out these matter was to share their impressions and to pray through it all. At the end of the matter they committed to support one another and submitted to the will of God. There is a large picture in this passage of their confidence in the providential power and redemptive grace of God. Once a brother or sister in the Lord has prayed through an issue, has received the advice offered by other believers in Christ, and given a clear answer, then the community has little right to prevent the person from doing what he says the Lord has led him to do – assuming that it is not harmful, divisive, or entirely unchristian in nature.
Why Paul should not have gone to Jerusalem: So, in the case above, however, Luke clearly says that the church pleaded with Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem. Reading the passage, Luke seems to be on the side of the people, that the Spirit was saying to the church that Paul should not go to Jerusalem. It was not just one or two random people, but a large group – almost every believer – urging him that God had told them to tell him not to go to Jerusalem.
And in the same chapter a prophet named Agabus urged him also not to go. This was still early in Paul’s ministry and God needed Paul to live a bit longer because He planned for Paul to be a major contributor to the New Testament. Paul, however, at this stage of his life, was ready to die for Christ. The church knew that Paul could easily be killed in Jerusalem. So all along his way to Jerusalem, Christians “through the Spirit” pleaded with him not to go.
There is no clear answer to this matter of who was right – the people or Paul – but at least on the surface, though in chapter twenty Paul says that the Spirit compelled him to go to Jerusalem, in chapter twenty-one, it appears that Luke was saying that the Spirit had a message for Paul that Paul was not listening to.
Understanding the leadership of God in our lives: It is important to grasp that the Lord leads us in different ways. There are times and situations where the Lord commands us clearly not to do certain things – not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to tell falsehoods, not to disrespect our parents, not to take the name of the Lord in vain, etc. There are other situations where the Lord commands us to do certain things – to bear witness to His grace, to love one another, to forgive, to walk in the fullness of the Spirit, etc. But there is this large neutral area where God simply is silent in our lives.
For example, I had a friend in my youth who as a teenager growing in the Lord used to pray each morning over what clothes God wanted him to wear. He took a matter that was not really very important and made it terrifically important. Now, I fully agree that God may command us in different areas of our lives to do something. I have personally felt impressed by the Lord many times to do something specific and the Lord led me – just like He led Philip the deacon to meet the Ethiopian Eunuch in the desert. God may interject a very clear thing in our lives at any time seeking to lead us one way or another.
But, we would also acknowledge that usually that is not what God stresses in our lives. God usually does not care exactly what color of shirt we wear, or precisely which road we go down, or what we eat for lunch, etc. These are the minor decisions of life and if we major on the minors, we will minor on the majors. The Christian should keep his mind on the major things and not obsess over the minor things. So long as we stay in touch with Him, God can tell us if some minor thing in our life is very important, but otherwise we do not need to worry about such things.
God’s redemptive hand: So with this matter of Paul going to Jerusalem, God has the capacity to redeem circumstances when we do not follow His will. Even if it was clearly sinful actions we took, God still often redeems such circumstances. For example, it was never God’s will that David should have an affair with Bathsheba. Remember he lusted after her and had sex with her and then had her husband Uriah killed when she became pregnant. That child died, but from Bathsheba came Solomon who was God’s choice to rule after David. God redeemed what was even clearly evil.
With Paul going to Jerusalem it could be argued that it was not God’s will for him to go, but even after he went God protected him and redeemed his circumstances, prolonging his life and still empowering Paul to fulfill His calling.
Paul’s faith: Now, it is clear from the passage above that Paul was completely surrendered to Christ, even willing to die for Him. His attitude was commendable. He also, perhaps, thought that even if he did go to Jerusalem that God would still get him out of any problem he might get himself into. But is this not also putting the Lord to the test? (Matt. 4:7 and Deut. 6:16) A tough question to answer.
What is clear is that God is greater than we are and He often redeems circumstances. In His grace He saves and redeems us from even poor decisions. That is not to say that they carry no results, often we do have to face the consequences of poor decisions, but that at the end of the day the Lord is still greater. He receives the glory because He deserves the glory.
A Case from Martin Luther’s History: Now, let’s move the argument up a few hundred years in church history. When Martin Luther was writing his pamphlets and taking biblical positions in opposition to the teachings of the Pope, he was summoned to appear in Rome. He could have gone, and said that the Lord would protect him. Yet other reformers had been tried on the home turf of the Catholic Church and they had not received fair trials. Luther’s friends and protectors advised him not to go to Rome, for there his arguments would not be heard and he would be tortured and eventually executed.
Luther listened to them, and instead his protector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, managed to get the Diet moved to Worms, on German soil, where Luther was able to give a defense of himself. Had Luther not listened and proceeded to Rome, God could have, of course, just as He did for Paul, still protected him, but that would have been against the best advice of those around Luther. What history does bear witness to is that Luther followed the advice of his advisors and he not only survived the Diet but went on immediately afterward to translate the Bible into German.
Application: Let me give us some practical applications here:
- Our safety in knowing and following the will of God is to first know the Bible. The Bible is the clear teachings of principles of how to live for God.
- Our safety in knowing the will of God is also found in daily prayer and openness to the leadership of the Spirit. This means to walk daily in humility of heart.
- Our safety in knowing and following the will of God is to also major on the majors, and not to focus on details that are insignificant. If the Lord ever decides that some minor thing is important He can always bring this to our attention.
- Our safety in knowing and following the will of God is also to be in good relationship with mature Christians who can advise us. Many situations we face in life need the wisdom of godly people to guide us through them. When we are in doubt, we should humble ourselves and seek good advice from wise people. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22).
- Finally we should live each day in faith – open to God’s leadership but not consumed with fear about it. We should be able to relax in the assurance of His love and power – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).